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Cutting Edges: Intercultural Competency and Discipleship

By Dr. Hendrik Pieterse, Associate Professor of Global Christianity and World Religions

The demand for interculturally competent graduates has long been a concern for business and government, where knowledge of cultural values, mores, and practices are vital for effective trade and successful diplomacy, respectively. As global travel, communication, and immigration and migration have turned societies more diverse, the need for more widespread intercultural literacy has become clear. To flourish, it turns out, today’s pluralistic societies require not only interculturally competent elites but also interculturally literate citizens.

In response, higher education institutions and scholars have produced a raft of innovations—from fresh areas of research, such as globalization and higher education and global citizenship education; to programs and initiatives that expand the institution’s international exposure and impact, such as dual-degree arrangements and branch campuses; to systematic efforts to integrate attention to intercultural competency into all aspects of the institution’s teaching-learning environment (an initiative that ha come to be known as “internationalization at home”1). Theological education, too, has sought to engage these challenges over the past three decades. In the United States, the Association of Theological Schools has provided important leadership, as evident, for example, in continual updating of accrediting standards to reflect changing racial, ethnic, and cultural realities. And the landmark Handbook of Theological Education in World Christianity unpacks in detail these challenges and achievements on a global scale.2

The commitment to educating interculturally skilled leaders and citizens is both welcome and urgent, as our own stressful times would attest. As Christian leaders take up this commitment, however, we would do well to remember that our efforts at intercultural competency need a firm theological base. If not nourished by the sources of faith, training in intercultural competency will remain a technology, untethered to the practice of discipleship. This would  be deeply unfortunate, since the stress on intercultural competency in fact activates impulses at the heart of the Christian faith. I mention three. First, the claim that all people deserve to hear the gospel makes Christian mission inherently an intercultural activity. To be in mission is to cross boundaries. Faithful witness and cultural discernment, Christians discovered early on, go hand in hand. Second, intercultural engagement is a theological imperative before it is a social desideratum. Its source is the Incarnation. In taking on creaturely form, God chose to dwell with us in and through our cultural particularity and not despite it. The one Word dwells with us only in and by means of the many words of our cultures.3 For Christians, then, the Incarnation provides the deepest motive for intercultural competency. Third, God’s decision to share our cultural
life reveals something about divine power. God wishes our company by invitation, not coercion. Invitation signals a curiosity to learn and a willingness to receive. This invitational posture characterizes the quest for intercultural competency at its best. Far from a desire to control, “competency” denotes the disposition and skills needed for intercultural encounters that transform. In this sense, intercultural competency is the antidote to cultural tourism.

The need for intercultural competency, therefore, should come as no surprise to Christians. That it does is testimony to our repeated, often shameful, failure to embrace the radical implications of an incarnational faith. Perhaps, then, the primary challenge in the growing demand for interculturally educated graduates  is not pedagogical but theological. It is nothing short of a call to recover intercultural engagement as a defining feature of Christian discipleship. I, for one, am thankful to be part of a seminary community committed to taking up that call. I am particularly grateful for our determination to make it concrete throughout our life, most recently in our revised curriculum.

1 See John K. Hudzik, Comprehensive Internationalization: From Concept to Action (Washington, DC: NAFSA : Association of International Educators, 2011).
2 Dietrich Werner, David Esterline, Namsoon Kang, and Joshva Raja, eds., Handbook of Theological Education In World Christianity: Theological Perspectives,Ecumenical Trends, Regional Surveys (Regnum Books International, 2010).
3 See Andrew F. Walls, The Missionary Movement In Christian History: Studies In the Transmission of Faith (Orbis, 1996), 26-42.