Some Thoughts on Cultural Orientation

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2005 »Volume 42 2005 Number 3 »Some Thoughts On Cultural Orientation

By John Füllenbach, S.V.D.

John Füllenbach, S.V.D. holds a PhD in Theology from the Catholic University of America, Washington D.C. He has been professor of Fundamental Theology at the Gregorian University, Regina Mundi Institute and the Beda College in Rome, and served as director of the Renewal Center of the S.V.D. in Nemi, near Rome. As a guest lecturer at the EAPI, Manila, he has recently published Church: Community for the Kingdom, published by Logos Publications, Manila.


Immersion into a culture is an art which one learns by trial and error. The aim is not to become a local person but rather a stranger who has succeeded to appreciate the behavior of the host culture by having made friends. The end result of the process should be that he/she will be able to appreciate and to critique his/her own culture as well as the host culture. He/she knows that he/she not only can learn from as well as give to the host culture something that will enrich both.

The issues of inculturation, enculturation, or contextualization or, in more dynamic terms cultural adjustment,cultural integration, or cultural orientation, have become so common that once in a while we wonder what more can be said about them. Numerous books have been written about the topic and workshops are being conducted constantly all over the world. The phenomenon is a much studied and increasingly better understood concept today. Most in-depth studies are not done by Church agencies but rather by those who are dealing with migration and immigration on international levels. Since the United Nation (UN) declared the year 2001 as the International Year of Dialogue Among Civilization, a wealth of material has appeared dealing with this issue.

In this short article I want to say something about the issue in the context of inculturation and formation which I understand to mean: What formation should be given to those who enter into another’s culture and aim to remain there for a longer period or even permanently? More concretely, we are talking about those who want to insert themselves into a culture other than their own with the explicit aim to work in the pastoral ministry in that culture.

The persons I am mainly thinking of are religious who take up their basic (undergraduate) training for ministry in and for another culture. Although what I have to offer may be of equal value for those pursuing post-graduate studies, I am thinking primarily of those who will receive their basic theological and pastoral education and training in a foreign culture.

What these young students share with the people into whose culture they try to insert themselves is a common faith in Christ, a faith that has found its expression in a particular culture.

What Do We Mean by Culture?

The first and more general question is: How does one integrate oneself into a culture so that one feels at home and interacts effectively without losing one’s own cultural identity? This process has rightly been calledThe Art of Crossing Cultures (Storti 1990 and 1997. For those directly involved see Kohls and Knight 1994). It is an aptitude which must be learnt and which does not come easily. Having lived most of my life in cultures other than my own, I would like to make the point that entering into a culture does not make me a "native" no matter how hard I try. If I want to retain my true self, all I can achieve is to become a "good foreigner." Any true inculturation should have this aim: to master the art of becoming a good stranger in another culture. There is an African saying which expresses this well: A branch that falls into the river does not become a crocodile!

Before embarking on our discussion, it is worth to elucidate briefly the meaning of culture. At a more profound level, culture is the stable psychology of a society, its basic presuppositions and values which move us to action; it is the point of departure for ways of thinking, reacting, and self-motivation. Culture enables us to succeed in life and to face its manifold challenges. Every individual carries it as something that is a permanent part of his or her person. Moreover, it is a reality which is more felt than conceived and it operates in all the dimensions of our lives (John Paul II 2001:4-5).

A person brings his/her culture into the encounter with a new society and culture and it plays a very important role in the process of integration. In short, culture refers to people and their behaviour. Our focus is therefore more on the how to adapt to another culture. All people are the same, Confucius said. It’s only their habits that are different. People’s habits and how to get used to them is the real subject... We speak of cultural adjustment, but in fact it is not to culture that we adjust but to behavior.

Culture, a system of beliefs and values shared by a particular group of people, is an abstraction which can be appreciated intellectually, but it is behavior, the principal manifestation and most significant consequence of culture, that we actually experience. To put it another way: it is culture as encountered in behaviors that we must learn to live with (Storti 1990:14).

Yet the common elements underlying all cultures should never be overlooked. Particularly our common faith in Christ binds us into a solidarity with each other that exceeds purely human relationships. In the words of John Paul II:

When cultures are carefully and rigorously studied, they very often reveal beneath their outward variationssignificant common elements. This can also be seen in the historical sequence of cultures and civilizations. The Church, looking to Christ, who reveals man to himself, and drawing upon her experience of two thousand years of history, is convinced that "beneath all that changes, there is much that is unchanging." This continuity is based upon the essential and universal character of God’s plan for humanity. Cultural diversity should therefore be understoodwithin the broader horizon of the unity of the human race (7).

Models of Integration

To understand integration, it is useful to describe briefly some models of encounter among the different cultures. Integration is always a question of the relation between the dominant culture of the country to which one arrives and that of the person who enters this culture. The latter comes from the minority culture and thus is the "weaker" one. There are basically three models to be considered.

The First Model: Integration as Assimilation (Complete)

Integration, for many representatives of a dominant culture, means assimilation, i.e., a way of absorbing the migrant so that the migrant becomes "like us," i.e., almost invisible in our society, in which he/she practically disappears. This is often then expressed in phrases like: he/she has become one of us. There is no longer any difference between him/her and us in his/her behavior. He/she has truly become a native.

We should not forget that the representatives of the dominant culture often maintain a static idea of culture, an ignorance of the fact that every culture is always the result of a never ending historical evolution. Culture is dynamic. It changes with the contribution of an individual and of groups, including those who come from outside.

From a theological point of view, we should add that original sin also enters this process and negatively conditions our attitudes and judgements as well as our personal and communal relationships with people of other cultures.

In this case the superiority of the dominant or dominating culture is seen as self-evident and it is consequently not challenged or discussed. Nobody thinks that a different culture could make a significant contribution to the dominant culture. The stranger is supposed to throw himself/herself into the new culture and as a consequence, loses in some way his/her identity which has been formed for many years through experiences in the country of origin. This process resembles a cultural "black hole" which swallows or engulfs other cultures, transforming them into itself. In particular, Western culture seems to entice people from other cultures into applying this pattern of integration.

The radicalization of identity which makes cultures resistant to any beneficial influence from outside is worrying enough; but no less perilous is the slavish conformity of cultures, or at least of key aspects of them, to cultural models deriving from the Western world. Detached from their Christian origins, these models are often inspired by an approach to life marked by secularism and practical atheism and by patterns of radical individualism. This is a phenomenon of vast proportions, sustained by powerful media campaigns and designed to propagate lifestyles, social and economic programs and, in the last analysis, a comprehensive world-view which erodes from within other estimable cultures and civilizations. Western cultural models are enticing and alluring because of their remarkable scientific and technical cast, but regrettably there is growing evidence of their deepening human, spiritual and moral impoverishment. The culture which produces such models is marked by the fatal attempt to secure the good of humanity by eliminating God, the Supreme Good. Yet, as the Second Vatican Council warned, "without the Creator the creature comes to nothing!" A culture which no longer has a point of reference in God loses its soul and loses its way, becoming a culture of death. This was amply demonstrated by the tragic events of the twentieth century and is now apparent in the nihilism present in some prominent circles in the Western world (John Paul II, 9).

This attitude of total assimilation is often expected from those who enter into another culture and their integration is measured by the extent to which they have progressed in this way. Here the need for education and formation becomes extremely important. In the case of priests, seminarians, and religious who come from other cultures for the purpose of studying in Western countries and who intend to remain there for pastoral reasons a critical attitude towards the western culture in its secularized version and materialistic outlook on life as described in the Pope’s message is crucial. The Western lifestyle is accepted too easily and almost total "assimilation" in this sector to the host culture is achieved without even questioning how it affects one’s own spiritual outlook and culture.

Since this is a real danger today, the question has to be asked or at least raised if it is wise to plunge young people of other cultures into our Western formation programs which are geared towards a culture that is experiencing a deep faith crisis at the moment and witnesses a massive exodus of people from the mainstream churches. Should the young person not first of all have a deep understanding of the Christian faith as it is expressed in his/her own culture before plunging himself/herself into another culture especially when it is undergoing a deep faith crisis? Cultural identity must be presupposed also in one’s faith commitment and needs further growth and support.

The need to accept one’s own culture as a structuring element of one’s personality, especially in the initial stages of life, is a fact of universal experience whose importance can hardly be overestimated. Without a firm rooting in a specific "soil," individuals risk being subjected at a still vulnerable age to an excess of conflicting stimuli which could impair their serene and balanced development. It is on the basis of this essential relationship with one's own "origins"—on the level of the family, but also of territory, society and culture—that people acquire a sense of their nationality (John Paul II, 6).

From experience I know many will not agree with such an evaluation concerning the faith crisis in our Western culture to the degree that we should not expose young religious or seminarians to this situation. The counter argument often goes this way: this crisis of faith will affect all cultures of the world. On the contrary, the exposure in our culture to this crisis will help them all the more to cope with it when it occurs in their own culture. But the question is: can we rightfully assume that this crisis has to occur in other cultures without unconsciously taking our dominant culture as the measuring stick of what will happen to other cultures as well?

If we take these young people into our western formation programs, their theological and pastoral training should not aim at "assimilation" but rather should deal at length with that culturally conditioned faith crisis. We should not assume that their culture will undergo this crisis as well. It is at this point that other cultures could show us how to encounter the crisis in a way the host culture is unable to do.

Another problem is that very often the group of seminarians or religious who are entering the new culture are made up of many sub-cultures or distinct cultures. This fact complicates matters in many ways. The individual not only needs to integrate himself/herself into one culture but is faced with a multicultural environment. This is aggravated by the fact that often hardly anyone or at most one or two from the host culture participate in the formation program. How can real insertion happen in such a situation if significant numbers of persons from the host culture are missing in the process?

While such situations are facts today and cannot be changed at the moment, it is all the more imperative to look for ways to involve these young people in personal contacts with the host culture and to enable them to learn how to orient themselves according to the behavior pattern of that culture. But at the same time we should help them to be seriously critical towards the elements in the culture that are at the root of the faith crisis.

The Second Model: Ghetto

Another model of cultural encounter refuses to have contact with the dominant culture. The "Ghetto Model" is the result. The Ghetto Model views the dominant culture as hostile or as a threat which demands too much effort in the process of orientation. The person’s reaction is withdrawal: he/she isolates himself/herself from others by seeking the company of his/her compatriots, at least in most situations. Particularly in a multicultural environment, one tends to give up and communicates only with those of one’s own culture.

The foreign language is learnt with great effort and determination in the beginning, but does not improve with the years; academic performances and active participation in ongoing formation gradually abate. This is certainly not true for everyone, since there are always those who really do well; but this is not true for the majority. In this model, the individual concerned refuses to accept that the dominant culture has something to offer. Both cultures remain impoverished.

This approach has something to do with a static way of conceiving or understanding one’s culture. It is always a temptation for the dominant culture to force integration. From a practical standpoint, a ghetto approach is unrealistic because contact with the dominant culture cannot be avoided. But since the ghetto mentality is often a subtle temptation, any formation program must face it and help those who try to opt for it.

The Third Model: Dialogue

Dialogue is a model which is very rich in positive fruits, but it is very difficult to achieve. It demands more attention and aims at an encounter between different cultures. The dominant and the minority cultures consider themselves as incomplete and in need of growth and development through their very differences but in respectful dialogue. Neither tries to dominate the other. It is very difficult to realize this attitude, for it requires particular pastoral attention. If we want to have a society and a Church based on the model of Pentecost, the beginning of a new creation, we need to take this path.

What is at stake here is the challenge for the host culture to realize that those who enter the dominant culture have something to offer as well. If integration is simply letting oneself be absorbed or assimilated by the dominant culture, the dominating culture will also be impoverished and not benefit from other human experiences which could enrich it. This holds true for our pastoral ministry as well. It is obvious that cultural orientation must take off from here and there is no need to elaborate the obvious.

Some Concrete Steps for the Beginning of Cultural Orientation

Given the fact that we have such multicultural communities of young seminarians and religious, how should formation proceed? First, let us not talk about enculturation but rather about cultural orientation. The aim should be to become a good foreigner in the host culture remaining different rather than striving to become like a "native," something we will never achieve. Anyone who has lived in a different culture will agree to this, even if he/she has lived in that culture for his/her whole life. Without claiming to be exhaustive, I offer the following practical steps:

  1. Learn to Appreciate Your Own Culture

    It is important to know one’s own identity and self-worth. To be able to appreciate one’s own family, culture, and nationality; to know the beauty and the value of each; and to be proud of one’s own heritage, tradition, and behaviors, are presuppositions for entrance into another culture. The more secure one’s identity, the better he/she will be able to learn and to give.

  2. Learn to Appreciate a Foreign Culture

    In order to feel at home in a new culture, one has to respect and appreciate it: that involves an acceptance of the different ways of life and patterns of behavior—no matter how strange they may appear. As I said earlier: Culture, a system of beliefs and values shared by a particular group of people, is an abstraction which can be appreciated intellectually, but it is the behavior, the principal manifestation and most significant consequence of culture, that we actually experience. The appreciation of the behavior of the people I live with is the measuring stick of how good stranger I am.

  3. Learn to Criticize Your Own Culture

    Not everything in a culture is good. To be able to criticize one’s own culture frankly and correctly presupposes maturity and a deep love for it. In the words of John Paul II:

    Love for one’s country is thus a value to be fostered, without narrow-mindedness but with love for the whole human family and with an effort to avoid those pathological manifestations which occur when the sense of belonging turns into self-exaltation, the rejection of diversity, and forms of nationalism, racism and xenophobia.

    Consequently, while it is certainly important to be able to appreciate the values of one’s own culture, there is also a need to recognize that every culture, as a typically human and historically conditioned reality, necessarily has its limitations. In order to prevent the sense of belonging to one particular culture from turning into isolation, an effective antidote is a serene and unprejudiced knowledge of other cultures (John Paul II, 6-7).

  4. Learn to Hear Others Criticize Your Own Culture

    While criticizing one’s own culture might not be easy, hearing others criticize it needs maturity and humility. Such an attitude indicates that I love and know my culture, its flaws and needs for change. But it does not hurt me to hear it being criticized when and where it needs to be done.

  5. Learn to Hear Others Praise Your Culture

    Every culture has its own beauty and values. Some of them are expressed much better than their equivalent values in other cultures. If others see that and express their appreciation I should accept this and be proud of it.

  6. Learn to Criticize Someone Else’s Culture

    This requires a deep knowledge and understanding of the host culture. But it is exactly what one’s own culture can offer the host: one sees the weaknesses and offers a different way of dealing with it. Enculturation is not a one-way street; it presents something to the host culture as well. It is precisely in this interchange that the foreigner can offer something valuable to the host culture. This leads ultimately to true dialogue between cultures.

    Individuals come to maturity through receptive openness to others and through generous self-giving to them; so too do cultures. Created by people and at the service of people, they have to be perfected through dialogue and communion, on the basis of the original and fundamental unity of the human family as it came from the hands of God who "made from one stock every nation of mankind" (Acts 17:26).

    In this perspective, dialogue between cultures—the theme of this World Day of Peace Message—emerges as an intrinsic demand of human nature itself, as well as of culture. It is dialogue which protects the distinctiveness of cultures as historical and creative expressions of the underlying unity of the human family, and which sustains understanding and communion between them. The notion of communion, which has its source in Christian revelation and finds its sublime prototype in the Triune God (cf. Jn 17:11, 21), never implies a dull uniformity or enforced homogenization or assimilation; rather it expresses the convergence of a multiform variety, and is therefore a sign of richness and a promise of growth.

    Dialogue leads to a recognition of diversity and opens the mind to the mutual acceptance and genuine collaboration demanded by the human family’s basic vocation to unity. As such, dialogue is a privileged means for building the civilization of love and peace that the revered predecessor Pope Paul VI indicated as the ideal to inspire cultural, social, political, and economic life in our time. At the beginning of the third millennium, it is urgent that the path of dialogue be proposed once again to a world marked by excessive conflict and violence, a world at times discouraged and incapable of seeing signs of hope and peace.

    The best way to come to understand and appreciate a foreign culture is through friendship. As the old saying goes: if you really want to learn a foreign language well, fall in love with a person of that culture. Cultural orientation would therefore contain the following:

    1. Help the person to open him/herself to friendships with the people of the new culture. An inter-cultural friendship is an unusual friendship because it is not normal. This is the best way to come to understand and appreciate the culture of the other person, but it has to be mutual. In this way one comes to see the beauty and richness of the other culture. From my own experience of having lived most of my life in cultures other than my own I can say that it was the friendships I entered into with the people of these cultures that enabled me to appreciate and come to understand their behavior.
    2. A formation program in cultural orientation should provide opportunities and ways for establishing possibilities for friendships.
    3. In centers of formation the outside students of the host culture are the first persons with whom one can establish friendship. This creates opportunities of meeting them not just in the classrooms but also in the dining room, in recreation facilities and other places and situations. The constant danger is clannishness which leads to avoiding close contact with the people of the host culture. One excellent remedy is the cultivation of particular talents in these students which will help them to establish and nourish cross-cultural friendships.
    4. Learn to come home. Having made friends in the foreign culture will enable the person to bring that culture home into his/her own culture. The encounter through a friend from another culture helps to develop a more critical attitude towards one’s own culture. To have made friends in other cultures and to have gone out to others can upset our own personality and cause genuine mourning because I have made friends whom I have to leave. But it is exactly this experience which helps us grow beyond our own often so narrow horizon.

      It might be one of the most painful experiences that we never will become like a person native to that culture. That should not upset us. The aim is, as I said before, to become a good foreigner in the host culture. This is an art which one has to learn through trial and error. It also has to be said that many arrived but never landed.


To end on a somewhat lighter note, I would like to add here a story I heard somewhere. An African diplomat had trained his children to behave and especially dress in a way acceptable to the Western world. The great day arrived when he took the three boys on their first trip to Europe. Done up in Bermuda shorts, white shirts, and little bow ties they embarked on their journey. As they left the plane in the huge European airport the father proudly walked ahead of his sons. What he could not work out were the smiles on the faces of those walking towards him. Finally he turned around and saw his offspring marching down the gangway in their flawless European outfit with their little suitcases balanced on their heads—true African fashion. Cultural habits go deeper than external signs.


* Talk given to the Divine Word Missionaries and published in Verbum SVD 43:2.


Storti, Craig

1997 The Art of Coming Home (Yarmouth, Maine: Intercultural Press, Inc).

1990 The Art of Crossing Cultures (Yarmouth, Maine: Intercultural Press, Inc).

Kohls, Robert L. and Knight, John M.

1994 Developing International Awareness: A Cross-Cultural Training Handbook (Yarmouth, Maine: Intercultural Press, Inc. Second edition).

Pope John Paul II

2001 His Holiness Pope John Paul For the Celebration of the World Day of Peace, 1 January,Dialogue Between Cultures for a Civilization of Love and Peace.