by Dr. Jim Roché, Southern Europe Orality Project director
My doctoral research project was about conceptual change, or how one changes another’s worldview. Even so, with all I’ve learned, the thing that terrifies me about questions is the potential of asking questions from the perspective of my concerns and vocabulary, possibly quite foreign to the person I’m asking.
Asking questions is a universal practice and need, but how to ask questions is heavily influenced by culture. Asking questions begins with determining if the world we live in is a friend or an enemy. It starts with observing things that happen to me and to others I know. We instinctively try to organize similar thoughts into categories so we can form a comprehensive and coherent picture of what will help us, give us pleasure, warn us about danger and help us succeed. In other words, we try from our earliest days to understand cause and effect in an effort to remain safe and successful.
WorldviewWe determine our categories and how to prioritize them from observing cause and effect in our families and communities (church, school, friends). Anthropologists call the result of this organization of thought “worldview.” Worldview describes people’s collective values. Educational psychologists call this “conceptual formation.” Conceptual formation describes how these concepts form and change.
When we shift concepts to better fit with new information, our expectations are disrupted and we must look for different answers to keep our worldview intact and coherent. That’s what happens when presenting a biblical worldview to a person holding a non-biblical worldview. When crossing into different communities and cultures, we’re tempted to pass along information as if it is sufficient to cause a person to move into another worldview. We offer questions to probe their reasoning and prompt a positive response to our message of a biblical worldview. But what if we form and express our questions from our own worldview, with values and issues uncommon to theirs? We face the danger of asking and answering our own questions, questions no one is asking!
Pitfalls and strategiesIn some cultures, where honor is a predominant value, how a question is asked of an older person may be seen as disrespectful. Another pitfall to be aware of is that a person may respond to a question with an answer reflecting what he expects the questioner wants to hear, not what he personally believes, so as not to appear disrespectful to the questioner.
A preferable strategy would be to tell a story or describe an event, then ask the other person to respond to that story according to his community’s perspective.Actively listening to responses and taking the position of a learner is also very effective. Listening leads to discoveries about values, priorities and concerns and drives the conversation to places in which a person’s worldview may be vulnerable or questionable to him. Further questions can prompt conscious consideration of those vulnerabilities. Eventually, by building trust and removing any sense of threat, curiosity may overcome the listener and she might begin to ask questions, granting you permission to introduce your values and belief system.
Discussion is always preferable to telling. Questions are helpful in eliciting discussion, not to put the other person on the spot, but rather to learn from him.
Another idea is to read gospel stories, focusing on how Jesus asked questions which disrupted people’s worldviews. Try to discover what part of their worldview Jesus recognized as a misconception and how subtly he presented a question or parable to reveal an inconsistency in their understanding, causing them to re-evaluate their easy and familiar answer. Then, notice how Jesus presented a different perspective.
For example, Jesus knew the people’s view of the law was inconsistent with his understanding of the kingdom. So, four times in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5), he asked them what the law said about murder, adultery, vows and retribution. He then presented the implications of each and left them to question their confidence in their self-righteousness.
Take the posture of a learnerSo, when encountering others, determine what their worldview is — what values and behaviors are linked together for them. With that awareness, consider what stories would present a challenge to or perhaps reinforce those values. Ask for the person’s interpretation about the story or issue. Use questions to discover their perspectives and ask questions for clarity. With the trust that comes from discussion, prayerfully wait for them to ask you how you would answer the issue.
That way, you’ll avoid the cultural pitfalls of questioning in another culture and take the posture of a learner who has a biblical perspective ready to share.
This article appears in the spring 2017 edition of Engage.