Alienation, nervous excitement, homesick melancholy, wonder, anxiety, isolation—the experience of culture shock is nothing if not complex. The lone tourist, the exchange student, the refugee, and the immigrant are the most susceptible, but perhaps you feel a tinge of it yourself right now. Are you home?
Culture shock has the paradoxical power to be at once jarring and invigorating, alienating and wonder-inducing. The world is reborn before the eyes of the foreigner. Surrounded by unintelligible signs, words, and customs which conceal their meaning, the man treading unfamiliar soil faces a peculiar sort of alienation. The narrative by which he interprets and understands his experience expands to include a mysterious and unexplored setting. Perhaps for the first time he encounters people who understand themselves according to a completely different narrative of world history, personal destiny, and social goods. The narrative of his own existence—his language, customs, and perhaps even his religious faith—no longer serve as links which bind him to the men around him, but links which seem to cordon him off apart.
While the experience of the international student, tourist, or traveling businessman may be prototypical, the dislocating and alienating experience of culture shock may strike closer to our everyday experience then we would often admit. While it’s not every day that you find yourself hurriedly scanning an Italian phrase book or nervously and discretely referencing a Japanese etiquette guide, the reality of our American pluralism places us in close proximity with people of very different moral, religious, political, ethnic, and professional worlds. The Catholic Christian narrative of world history, personal destiny, and religious truth which shapes our self-understanding consistently encounters opposing narratives—secular humanist, scientific materialist, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Protestant, or otherwise.
What happens when diverse narrative world-views bump up against each other with the consistency and frequency of daily life in the melting pot of America? How long can peoples withstand the mild and persistent culture shock of pluralism before seeking a common secular narrative, a worldview which effectively ignores conflicts of meaning and purpose by relegating questions of value to a purely subjective and safely relativistic realm of social life? Is an homogenous, mass-media mixed, social network stirred, secular soup the inevitable result of our great American melting pot?
It doesn’t have to be, but the process of secularization in the face of pluralism is certainly fast a pace even among the faithful. How we face the fear and excitement of pluralism’s culture shock and remedy its effect of alienation will largely determine how successfully we resist this secularization. How we respond may determine whether our own faith informed world-view retains its integrity or is reduced to secular soup. How then should we respond?
It seems to me that we can choose among three different responses. First, we could adopt relativism entirely, concede points of conflict and contradiction, and in effect abandon the universal import of our faith for the sake of peace and unity in a pluralistic society. This is perhaps the most attractive option, for peace and unity are great goods upon which the goods of commerce, political process, and national fraternity depend. But this is also the bland, lukewarm soup option. Lest we be spewed out of Christ’s mouth like the poor Laodiceans, we should forgo this easy way out.
Second, we could fearfully withdraw from interactions which place us in contact with others of rival faith traditions. We could recoil at any occasion of conflicting truth claims and choose, not to ignore differences, but to flee from them as something troubling and inexplicable. This option is born of the fear that our own faith tradition cannot explain the pluralism which we encounter, and so it is pushed out of sight and out of mind.
Third, we could stand firm and engage. We could courageously acknowledge the truths inherent in rival traditions and reject what is false in them, all the while certain that we are heirs to an infallibly revealed narrative of salvation history which sheds light upon all other world-views. This response to pluralism does not ignore differences or flee from them, nor does it shy away from the full import of our universal faith claims: to claim that Christ is God is to claim that Muhammad is a false prophet and Hindu murtis are idols which represent false deities. But at the same time, this response acknowledges the reality of the truth and goodness possessed by the Muslim and the Hindu and indeed all men, seeing every human soul as made by God and for God, recognizing that no one is unaffected or excluded from the operation of the grace of Jesus Christ.
Our God is not a culturally confined national deity or a private household idol, but the Lord of all that is. Knowing that His providence orders all, even the diverse expressions of man’s natural religious impulse, we can be immune to the alienation which arises from the culture shock of pluralism. However foreign we may seem to the world, we belong to its maker. And however alien we may appear to our neighbors, we belong to them because we belong to the God who sustains them in being with his creative love. We may feel out of place in a foreign land or in our own increasingly secular backyard, but let us remember that, in God, we are always home.
Image: Mmxx, Photomontage