Language, Culture and Repentance

Reproduced from the April issue of Roqueta, Menorca’s English-language magazine. 

Kurt HahnThe Duke of Edinburgh’s Award has been in existence for 60 years.  Initiated by Prince Philip as a “sort of self-help scheme for growing up,” the Award is offered in more than 140 countries and territories.  It owes its inception to Kurt Hahn, a German Jew who opposed and fled the Nazis and mentored the Duke of Edinburgh.  His influence on education has been far-reaching, even if his name is not well-known.  Exiled from Germany during the 1930s for his active opposition to Hitler’s regime, he established Gordounstoun, the Scottish private school, and inspired the creation of dozens more, similar schools around the world.  He co-founded the Outward Bound Trust, whose courses have been taken by more than one million people.

One aspect of the Award is the idea, which Prince Philip derived from Kurt Hahn’s thinking, that young people should be compassionate and engaging with people with whom they would not otherwise come into contact, including those from other countries.  Internationalism was a hallmark of Kurt Hahn’s thinking: “Nothing but goodwill between nations and classes can save this generation from wars and revolutions,” he said in a speech in 1936. “And education can help to build this bedrock of goodwill as a foundation of the society to be.”

The idea that exposure to one another’s lives and cultures helps to build bridges between people is at the heart of other organisations.  For example, Rotary International sponsors reciprocal visits between Rotarians in other countries as a way of fostering mutual understanding and peace.  This strikes at the heart of human nature: we tend to fear what we do not know and what is different.  So developing knowledge and familiarity reduces this fear of the unknown.

Living in a country not one’s own, one that is not one’s origin, tends to foster in a subliminal way a process of coming to terms with differences in customs and language that can easily be seen as threatening.  Nevertheless, I suppose that those who like to live in another country must have a certain predisposition to engage with a different culture.

Having lived outside the UK for more than 35 years, I have tried to develop a certain amount of respect for the countries in which I have been fortunate to live.  When I first moved to Canada, a wise friend took me aside and warned me against trying to impose “the way in which we used to do it” on my new co-workers.  “It doesn’t go over well,” he said, without actually using the term “neo-colonialism!”  I touched upon this in Menorca’s English-language magazine, Roqueta, last July.  One of the responsibilities of those who are members of the Christian faith is to respect the dignity of every human being.  We can accomplish this by trying to put ourselves in the place of those who are different to attempt to understand their perceptions and practices.  Living in a country with a different language helps to engender an extra degree of respect.

Language does matter.  John Bell, of the Iona Community in Scotland, recently spoke about the way in which language can affect our relationships with the people whom we encounter.  He said, in the context of trying to speak the language of countries that he has visited, “I am always amazed at how native speakers become more open and encouraging when they feel their nation, language and culture are being taken seriously.”

He broadened this to explain that the experience of faith in an unfamiliar tongue can be broadening: “The God who seems so much at home in English is revealed to have no favoured mother tongue.”  In other words, by allowing ourselves to experience the presence of the divine, and the incarnation of Jesus, as Christ, through the eyes and ears of others, we may find our own spirituality enriched.

The Rt. Rev. Nick Baines, the Bishop of Leeds, expounded upon this point after a recent visit to Tanzania.  He quoted the late German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who wrote a book several years ago in which he kindly offered his advice to anyone thinking of standing for election to the German Bundestag: “Don’t even think about it unless you speak at least two foreign languages to a competent degree.”

Why? Well, because, he says, “You can’t understand your own culture unless you look through the lens of another culture.”

To do that you have to know something of (or, better, “inhabit”) the language.  After all, language goes deep and some things cannot be translated.  I seem repeatedly to stress my Spanish teacher by trying to express things that come very naturally in colloquial English, but do not migrate well into Castilian.

Those of us who are privileged to live on this small, Mediterranean island, with its own version and adaptation of Spanish civilisation and language that distinguishes it and gives it its unique identity, have an opportunity to allow our view of the world and ourselves to be reshaped and reformed.  This is not an event, it is a process.  We have been offered the opportunity to experience not only the traditions of this island, but also a different way to look at our own background and culture.  When we look at the world through the eyes of another, we may well find that our view is changed – and that as our view alters, so do we, internally.

This is what is referred to in the biblical terms as “repentance,” or the freedom to change one’s mind; to adjust the vision that shapes the way we see God, the world and ourselves.  So it is in life: we can allow ourselves to be reshaped and reformed emotionally, mentally, or spiritually, to take what we are and allow it to be reborn: a process, not an event; a life-long journey, not a single, or simple destination.

For this to happen, we have to be willing to submit ourselves to be reshaped and reformed.  Then – who knows? – new life may be born in us.  This is what Easter is about in the church, coinciding with the arrival of spring: out of the dead and dying parts of living, we are offered the opportunity to receive new life.  The vision of Kurt Hahn, reframed in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, would be to hope that the new life within us would allow us to build bridges of greater mutual understanding between ourselves and our neighbours – those who are similar to us, and those who are different from us.

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