While visiting the fair looking for chickens to buy, I struck up a conversation with a guy doing business there. He was standing next to his mother at a small table, and they were both excited to visit with me. We greeted each other and talked a little bit about where we each were from, than he told me, "you know what, you and I share the same Baba, both of our peoples where created by God.” "That’s right," I agreed, "God is the creator of all of us." He agreed, and said, “that’s the reason why our people get along so well with yours.” That comment caught my attention a little more, so I prodded a little deeper, “what about all the other peoples?" I asked. “Oh, I don’t know about them, they certainly weren’t created by God like we were." He said. This short exchange reminded me how easy it is to assume that everyone sees the world the same way I do, while in actuality without questioning further, we’re likely to leave the conversation each thinking something completely different from what the other was thinking, like ships passing in the night.
Like bubbles bouncing back and forth on a screensaver, we are constantly coming in contact with other people, other ideas, and new information. What we do with these encounters, how we interpret them and how we process them, is directly dependent on the encounters we’ve already had, the things we already “know” starting from way back when we were infants.
These things we already know comprise a fluid structure inside of our brains, and we miraculously access this information when we need it. We are continually adding to this structure, tacking on new meanings, ideas, and concepts to the words we already know. An example of how this works is the word rainbow. In our culture, this word can bring up many different things in our minds. On a basic level, a rainbow is a group of colors appearing in the sky, often after a rain. But the word rainbow can convey a whole lot more meaning than just some colors in the sky. Depending on the context, it can remind us of the story of Noah and the promise of God to never again judge the earth with water, or it can remind us of parades and a huge movement going on in many western countries. Our encounters with this word shape the images which come into our minds when we hear it. For someone new to western culture, they might think they understand when they hear the word, but chances are there is a whole lot of information that they’re still missing, or that they’re filling in from their own culture. The same thing happens to us when we try to learn another culture. Our past experiences shape how we understand words and how we view the world in the future.
Due to the sheer amount of information we come in contact with every day, there is no way we can hold on to all of it, so our brains sort it out for us by connecting what we can understand to what we already know, and what we don’t understand either gets set aside and discarded, gets loosely placed in a sort of “holding area”, or gets improperly connected to something we already know. The latter of these is what often leads to misunderstanding and frustration, especially in a cross-cultural setting.
For many of us who come from the West, we have access to an unlimited number of books in our language, and we have a vast knowledge of the world around us. We’ve been educated, we see possibility, and we want to make the world a better place for everyone. However, there is a danger that all of this knowledge will make us arrogant, that at the best we’ll be well intentioned but at the least we’ll be lazy, and we’ll unknowingly fall into the trap of making assumptions about others who are different than us. Two assumptions we can make are assuming that the same ideas come into a person’s mind for a word we use, and assuming that the same ideas come into our mind for a word that others use. In reality however, while there will be commonalities, the structures we’ve built in our minds will also have significant differences, due to different experiences, especially when speaking to those raised in a different culture than our own. If we want to really get to know those who are different than us, we have to work at it, learn how to ask good questions, and not rely on assumptions. This is especially true when discussing more abstract ideas, such as God, sin, and salvation.
Finite, limited, Pour on the humility.
Life is complex, much too big for me.
Add another culture, when I don’t understand my own,
I used to think I could, till I was all grown.
I’m seeing a correlation,
Between knowledge and the unknown,
It’s an interesting relation,
And no, it’s not my own.
Think of your understanding like a bubble,
And as it starts to grow,
It will meet a larger area of things it doesn’t know.
Based on this projection,
The ones who truly know the most,
Should be among the humblest and most gracious of all folks.
Infinite, Unlimited, awesome Sovereignty,
Life is complex, but it’s all designed by you.
You created all the cultures, you know everything about me,
There never was a time, when you didn’t have a clue.
For you there’s no equation
You’ve nothing left to know
God in your position,
High upon your throne.
If you’re understanding were a bubble,
It wouldn’t have any edges,
And nothing could exist,
Where your bubble didn’t persist.
Yet despite your high exalted place,
You came into our human race,
You showed us humility
and brought us truth and grace.