Archived Voice Articles

Principles Across the Cultures

By Dr. Carl E. Zylstra

When you try to communicate cross culturally, it sometimes helps to use self-deprecating humor. Humor helps defuse two of the leading barriers to delivering an effective cross-cultural lecture. A joke told at your own expense can help eliminate a spirit of presumptuousness, the tendency to lecture folks from a different culture as to why your culture is better. A humorous look at yourself can also get the audience past a disinterest bred by the all-too-common feeling that nothing in your own cultural experience could possibly apply to their culture.

Dr. Carl E. Zylstra

Dr. Carl E. Zylstra

This fall I had several opportunities to put this into practice. I was invited to lecture at three Reformed universities in Korea; I attended an international conference on Christian Higher Education in Nicaragua with delegates from thirty-three other countries; and our campus hosted a delegation from the Reformed University of Zwolle in the Netherlands. Our initiative toward a “College without Borders,” about which I wrote in an earlier Voice, is well underway.

In these various cultural settings, I told one story several times, and it seems to have communicated across the cultures. It’s the observation that author James T. Burtchaell makes about Dordt College in his book, The Dying of the Light. Reverend Burtchaell observes that Reformed Christians tend to think that writing a long document about orthodoxy is really the same thing as practicing good biblically-based behavior. He notes that Dordt College had written a mission statement for KDCR “that is several times longer than the Athanasian Creed.” In other words, the whole of Christian orthodoxy can be summed up in fewer words than Dordt College uses to describe one small Christian radio station.

I think the reason this story resonated in so many different cultures is that Reformed Christians everywhere have the same tendency: when faced with a problem, our instinct is to write a position statement; when deciding a course of action, we commission a study. In itself, that’s not bad. In fact, in lectures I give on preserving the biblical character of a university, I always emphasize the importance of writing insightful statements of principle by which we can measure our behavior and performance. The problem, however, comes when we write the statement but don’t take the next step and actually do it.

To be sure, unreflective activity won’t keep us faithful. Without reflection and measurement by previously articulated principles, our colleges and universities are likely to drift with whatever cultural tide seems to be flowing. And unless that tide happens to be Christian---—and sometimes even if it is Christian—we’re bound to lose our biblical principles. Historians of the decline of Christian higher education often point out that selling the soul of the college to gain fame, notoriety, or popularity may bring organizational prosperity but that college likely will no longer embody the principles on which it was founded.

So how do we avoid these extremes: just talking about our principles, on the one hand, or just following the contemporary practices around us, on the other.

This is exactly why cross-cultural conversation is critical. I can go to Korea, Dutch educators can come to America, or we can all meet in Nicaragua. We can talk about the way in which all of us with Reformed biblical convictions are seeking to work out those principles in higher education in vastly different cultural settings. We don’t have to start by debating esoteric position papers. Instead we can begin by talking about the various practices among us and about their similarities or differences. If they are similar, we can ask what common principles underlie those similarities. If they are different, we can ask whether we are working out of similar principles that just happen to be practiced differently in different cultures. We might also ask whether some of us may have missed an important biblical principle altogether.

Mutual growth in biblical understanding comes only when we are all willing to consider the possibility that others may be doing things better than are we, when we start not by locking horns in abstract debate but by examining our practices in the light of cross-cultural biblical reflection. Only then can we reform our own work in our own culture in the light of what we have learned from others.

I am convinced that the “College without Borders” concept is helpful—perhaps even essential—in enabling academic leaders like me to do a biblically faithful job in our respective cultural settings, including Sioux Center, Iowa. I’m also convinced it will enrich the educational experience of our students. After all, truly biblically-based education needs to express the reality that our entire world belongs to the God to whose glory and honor alone our studies are dedicated.