One of the deep struggles with cross-cultural work is the amount of ambiguity we enter into and have to be comfortable with. In her book, Disunity in Christ (which I highly recommend), Christena Cleveland talks about Arie Kruglanski, a social psychologist who has studied the idea of cognitive closure.
Cognitive closure is the “need for a firm answer to a question, any firm answer as opposed to confusion and/or ambiguity” (page 127). What this means is, if we find an idea that helps us make sense of the world, we often gravitate toward it, even if the idea is incomplete. Cognitive closure helps us feel safe, because it doesn’t leave room for differences of opinion.
The challenge is that once we exit our home culture (whether by traveling across the world or encountering someone that is culturally different who lives across the street), our tendency is to maintain cognitive closure so that our world is comfortable and predictable. Cleveland writes, “In our brazen attempts to make sense of the world, we prefer to settle for an answer even if it’s not the answer. When we encounter different cultural perspectives, the number of possible ‘answers’ is increased and so is ambiguity. Naturally, we want to squelch those pesky different perspectives” (page 127).
Why does this matter? It matters a lot for those of us who spend our lives crossing cultures. Cross-cultural interactions challenge us in almost every aspect of how we think about our world: socially, relationally, politically, spiritually. Things that seemed obvious and settled in our minds are suddenly open to question. But this can be a great benefit as we are opened up to new ways of thinking and seeing the world. We must be willing to hold these competing things in tension, not moving too quickly toward cognitive closure. We must be willing to be comfortable with a lack of clarity.
This is where I am grateful for the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and why we need to be continually attuned to the Spirit’s voice. There are big issues in the world, challenges that seem insurmountable. And many of those challenges are insurmountable on our own. We need each other, sisters and brothers around the world, to help us see things differently so we can find common ground, so we can find the answer, not just an answer. The cost of being open minded may be high, but if we are to truly understand someone who is different from us and work toward a better future together, we have to be willing to stand firmly in the ambiguity of our world.