The Christian Scholars’ Review just published a series of two blog articles about our doctoral program. Three current global students and I wrote these blogs, “The Image of God is Our Identity,” reflecting on our learning experience in the program (Kevin is from Canada, Ruhama is from Ethiopia, and Shaiju is from India). This is Part 2:
In our previous blog, we discussed how the image of God is our identity and how it helps to answer questions about who we are and how we organize ourselves as members of learning communities. Drawing insights from our doctoral seminar on philosophic issues in education, we provided an overview of some specific texts that guided our learning journey and how they motivated us to actively engage in theological conversations that our respective communities have been exploring.
We now reflect on how global learning communities can embrace cultural backgrounds to shed light on our identity as image-bearers. The backdrop is an intensive doctoral studies course that encouraged interactions among learners, each bringing their unique cultural heritage to the table. The course dialogue highlighted the importance of bridging cultural gaps and creating a shared sense of identity as part of the global church. Our reflections examine how we developed greater cultural engagement, openness to communal learning, and awareness of ourselves as being made in the image of God. We encourage practices around cultural self-reflection and seeing the image of Christ in people of different cultural experiences and perspectives.
Perspectives from Shaiju (Banglore, India)
The perspectives brought to the table during our intensive weeks of learning from my classmates’ cultural experiences required me to develop awareness and appreciation of being a part of the body of Christ; it was both a drawing out and a leading into the community. I discovered that truth is in the believing community (body of Christ) rather than in any individual, single culture, or normative tradition. I became aware of how our cultural experiences inform the Biblical Christian worldviews we hold.
I realized that we need to employ a critical mind and a sensitivity toward the different cultures at the table. When we sit across the table from other image-bearers, we open ourselves to a cultural vulnerability and exposure to other traditions and cultures. I had to reflect on how others demonstrate integrity in their efforts toward Biblical interpretation. As my classmates and professor showed how they have looked at themselves as the people of God beyond the framework I had created, it also required me to be vulnerable. The experience encouraged me to face my fears by lowering my guard with my theological positions and allowing others in their cultural perspectives to contribute to my worldview. This process was particularly challenging as someone from an honor and shame culture, where I am inclined to derive value from what I produce. I became aware of the need to derive my value first from Christ and his redemptive work, which also meant that others might speak into the locality of my worldview. At the same time and for the same purpose, it awakened a desire to share in a more global and catholic representation of faith.
Additionally, I realized the need to go beyond self-dependent and individual learning to a more integrative, community-informed understanding of the learning process to shape my worldview. For example, I hold the value that it is best not to disturb others, especially those who lead the educational discourse, even when I need clarification. My natural inclination is to resolve theological ideas, gaps in my own learning process, and even primary procedural considerations by myself instead of going to others to make sense of the issues. The time with my classmates involved working through the fear that others with a completely different worldview might critique me and expose my vulnerability. I realized that image-bearers need to move from a guru shishya philosophy (the teacher is the authority) and instead consider the possibility of viewing our teachers and peers as guides, coaches, mentors, and those we look to to see Christ more clearly through our learning.
I also recognized that we need to grow in our critical thinking and cultural sensitivity to make ourselves and our beliefs, values, and perspectives available to others. We derive knowledge and wisdom from the body and not from self-sufficient sources. The body of Christ needs to assume a shared responsibility of being a coach and mentor and simultaneously a mentee and learner to make oneself led and influenced by others. I understood what it meant theologically to be the body of Christ; however, sitting across the table from other image-bearers in a practical sense brought an awareness of how everyone has a formative role in my success and development. When Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 3:16 that we are the temples of the Holy Spirit, he collectively addresses the body of Christ with the temple imagery of bearing his image.
My perspective shifted to understand others as potential builders of who we are and how critical a global community of learners is to my growth, learning, and potential. For example, I needed to find my voice and bring my perspectives, experiences, and cultural background to the table, collaborate, and contribute so the learning might help others in their formation. It required me to get to a place emotionally to celebrate the successes of others in their efforts with their communities of faith and allow myself and my cultural identity to be reflected on by people of different perspectives. The empathic thinking my classmates practiced required me to share in the joys and laments of cultures through the experiences that my classmates brought to the class.
Perspectives from Ruhama (Ethiopia)
Learning philosophical issues has always permeated all subjects, but philosophical discussions in higher education lack African content and methodology, affecting the way of thinking about self and others as Africans. Exploring identity and purpose through Platonian pigeonholes dichotomizes understanding one’s self and lived experience within other non-western communities. Discussing the different worldviews of people who identify with this class’s ideologies allowed for a multicultural view of knowledge and philosophy to be raised. As a result, I could articulate and engage in conversation that worked actively to develop a view of non-western understanding of knowledge formation at all levels. Dialogue about identity approached from different perspectives served as a tool to allow for all forms of thinking to preside in the discussion rather than merely using one form of understanding humanity. The kingdom of God is a diverse collection of people from all races, cultures, and languages. Diversity of identity results from the diverse questions, interactions, and environments people come from. The quest for self-understanding, followed by forming a communal understanding, is enhanced through constructive dialogue among diverse groups of the Kingdom. Different views and discussions were entertained, with an underlying principle of one is better than the other, instead as mere tools within different communities to answer similar residing questions, who and why am I; whereby the image of God, all humanities most ascertained identity, shone as a champion answer.
The idea of looking at philosophical and theological foundations to understand God through our unique and distinct cultural lenses was an essential lesson for me. Multicultural conversations and dialogues do not negate the absolute truth of God or his revelation; instead, they illuminate truth in different manners, through different views, and with varied expressions. The image that comes to mind is how a mosaic, despite the assortment—can come together to provide more clarity. I learned that education should not be purposed to create a homogenous community but to help learners grow in their understanding of God through their expressed heterogeneity. The class reflected the church, where people from all walks of life and cultures come to reside as one body of Christ, under his headship, called to edify each other. I learned that every voice, including mine, must be considered as contributing towards learning and growing in the image of God. The quest was not a representation but a proper appreciation of the Body of Christ. Each classmate in this course was the image of God coming from every nook of the world with our own sense of identity and culture. This is the kingdom of God, which our educational endeavors must strive to imitate.
Perspectives from Kevin (Canada)
I came to our intensive seminar bearing the burden from my experiences that these sorts of conversations around culture, race, diversity, gender, sexuality, power, abuse, and trauma, while fascinating and necessary in the learning life of the church, are also the gravesites of the most divisive educational conversations. However, what I experienced in the community of learners with my classmates goes much further than Christian unity, universality, and consensus. I learned a practiced spirit of diversity in the body of Christ. I saw Revelation 7:9 more clearly as an expression of people from different cultural backgrounds praising God in their different languages and expressions. As I reflected on my experiences throughout the course and looked back at our learning following the intensive week together, I could not help but share with others that something in me had changed. It might have been an encounter with practices that promote shalom in our communities of difference or that I saw how bearing with one another (Col. 3:13) is not only an act in interpersonal conflict but also in culture, worldview, experience, and theological perspective.
One of our classmates, George from Zambia, raised a question I have found quite compelling: How much is the Western worldview answering questions that people of other cultural backgrounds are asking existentially? The problem is not that the worldview of the West is presented as objective science, but that single-paradigm answers do not necessarily explain entirely the cultural experiences of people created in the image of God. It is incomplete and thus misses a fuller view of being human. It was a moment where God’s spirit of reconciliation and truth gently nudged me to consider that I might have mistakenly believed that my cultural heritage was not of value in my discipleship to Christ and mattered very little to being God’s image. I assumed that when I accepted Christ, I gained a new identity, making my cultural self-irrelevant. I encountered learners who had a fuller and more holistic view that Christ’s redemption and salvation are not about letting go of one’s culture but entering into covenantal relationality to understand our identity more fully.
This class was a formative experience of learning in community. It gets harder over the years to impact one’s own core beliefs. Still, when we are attentive to our ways of being an intercultural, intergenerational, and interdenominational Christian community with one another, and when our differences in the body of Christ (Romans 12:4-8) are met with vulnerability, openness, and engagement, we find a communal availability to the work of the Spirit to encourage learning, readiness, and transformation.
Our shared expression of writing these posts virtually, across different time zones, cultural conventions of shared distribution of work, and perspectives was an attempt to clarify that we had learned something significant outside the scope of the course and our continued commitment to membership in this learning community and desire to share with others. The Spanish term sobremesa describes what happens when sitting with others at the table without rush or agenda. We urgently need space and acceptance for all to have their voices heard and valued. When we stay at the table with people long enough, we start to open up new conversations and find ways to relate to one another better in their differences and, thus, see the image of Christ in people who are, in many ways, nothing like us, and in every way bearing Christ to us.