This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Loving your neighbour as yourself is harder than it sounds. But, I would argue, it is also much more interesting than it seems. For example, it assumes that we might need to get to know our neighbour, and, at least, try to look through their eyes.

If travel does broaden the mind, then holidays such as this weekend when many Brits are enjoying a break abroad, surely open up the opportunity to look, listen and learn differently. And this is where we hit the problem: language.

Almost all Brits abroad will expect the natives to understand and speak English. And, to our embarrassment, they probably will. And they will pride themselves on their polyglottal skills.

Language learning in Britain continues to decline. According to statistics reported in newspapers last week, the numbers studying languages at school and university are falling fast. Some voices claim that this really doesn’t matter – that we can pick up a bit of German or Spanish later in life … if and when we need it.

Except that a language is not a commodity that can be simply picked off the shelf when convenient or expedient. To learn a language is more than to wield a tool; rather, it is to inhabit the world that language shapes.

At the age of 91 the former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt wrote that we can’t understand our own culture unless we look at it through the eyes of another culture … and to do this we need to know language. In fact, he suggested learning two. For most Europeans this isn’t a problem; they constantly cross borders and entertain foreigners. Communication matters beyond mere functionality.

Not so here. It seems to me that political language in the UK has been coloured by the assumption that anything has value only in so far as it fulfils an economic end. Accordingly, we too easily regard language learning as a waste of time unless it leads to high-earning job in the future. But, I remember a German businessman in a hotel explaining to a monoglot British counterpart that although their negotiations were done in English the English couldn’t understand what was being said behind their backs – and that this put the Brits at a disadvantage. No response.

And this is why it is vital that children and young people learn other languages – at least in order to open their minds to different ways of seeing, thinking and interpreting the world. If loving your neighbour assumes knowing your neighbour, then learning the odd language opens up a world of wonders.

And let it be said at times of international insecurity, stress and fear: there is never a more important time to listen through the ears and look through the eyes of my neighbour – if only to see ourselves as we are seen.

Advertisements

This is the text of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme:

In the middle of last week I got back from a ten-day visit to Tanzania. Not only are my feet still moving to the rhythms of the music and the energy of the dancing – in schools as well as churches – but I have come home looking differently at what had previously been familiar.

My experience reminded me of 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 – and to do that you have to know something of (or, better, 'inhabit') the language. After all, language goes deep and some things can't be translated; they have to be intuited.

Well, I don't speak Swahili, but this is partly what was going on for me in Tanzania: not everyone sees the world as I do. For example, how are we to understand the significance of the first meeting in a thousand years between the Pope and the Patriarch of Moscow last week? Seen through an English lens, it might look merely odd. Seen through the eyes of a people whose religious memory goes deeper into centuries of division, and it will resonate more profoundly.

Or, politically, where the resurgence of Putin's Russia appears threatening in the West, but has a different complexion when seen by Russians whose recent history of collapse has been crying out for re-empowerment. Tensions over Syria, for example, have to be seen through Russian eyes, not just our own, if we are to see more clearly what is going on there.

None of this is new. Listening to Tanzanians describing their experience of life and loss, I could not help but look through their eyes at my own. And this exposes the limitations of my own imagination and understanding of the world – even my world. My mind was being changed.

This is what is referred to in the Bible as 'repentance' – the freedom to change one's mind – or, to put it more visually, to re-grind the lens behind the eyes that shapes the way we see God, the world and us.

It is no surprise, then, that for Christians this period of Lent is intended partly to clear away the stuff that stops us repenting. It creates the space in which we can once again, in humility, submit our perceptions, our convictions and our prejudices to the searching eye of love and justice and mercy and generosity. Or, for Christians like me, to have the courage not just to give up chocolate for a few weeks, but to dare to look and see differently that with which we had become comfortable or familiar.

 

Another giant has died. Former West German Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt died today at the age of 96.

I got interested in Schmidt when I was studying German politics at university. Back in 2009 I posted on his latest book Ausser Dienst and then added references frequently.

Acres will be written and spoken about him, so I will just point to a selection of observations I have made here, here, here and here.

 

A day off (apart from a meeting from 10am to 2pm regarding the process for appointing a new Dean of Bradford, followed by a trip to the best physiotherapist in the world ever…) and a moment to note the arty highlights of the last couple of weeks amid all the work stuff.

German friends sent me the new CD by a band called Silbermond. For English ears German rock is an acquired taste. Apart from Herbert Grönemeyer, who I once saw perform in Linz, Austria, not much gets me listening frequently. In a week I have listened to Silbermond's Himmel Auf a dozen times. A great female lead vocal is backed by a tight band and some effective guitar work. And the lyrics (which I have just read through) are sensitive, searching, sometimes poignant expressions of longing for depth in a superficial world. Try 'Wofür', for example. I love it.

I caught Kristina Train on the telly and loved her voice. Her new album is called Dark Black and deserves a wide hearing. Much of it seems to me to be stripped back in order to allow her voice to fill the space. Again, there is a poignant beauty to songs which are deceptively simple. And it brightens up after the opening track cheerfully declares: “Dark black is the colour of my life since you've been gone.” Lovely stuff.

Swiss friends staying with us recently left us a French DVD of a 2010 film called Little White Lies (Les petits mouchoirs). It is all about a group of friends who, when another friend is badly hurt in a road accident, discover how shallow their relationships actually are. What appears to be strong only conceals the realities each one is afraid to reveal, thereby putting a question mark over the reality of love, trust and friendship. It is funny, sad, entertaining… and features the excellent Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose, Inception) and Jean Dujardin (The Artist).

Books? Still reading Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies alongside Verstehen Sie das, Herr Schmidt? – a book of informal interviews with former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. Loving both.

The great thing about spending a week in Southwestern Virginia before the annual Council is that we got to meet a shed load of people and arrived at the Council already knowing many new friends. It also means that people trust me enough not to be perturbed when they come across something that surprises them.

Someone who heard me preach last Sunday morning at St Peter, Altavista, subsequently took a look at this blog. Down at the bottom were attachments – usually just the pictures I had embedded in the post. However, this one also seemed to have two (and I quote) “compromising pictures” attached. I have no idea what this means or where they came from. Furthermore, I can’t see them – but, clearly, others have. Funny old world… and now I am curious.

Anyway, the day began with a meeting with clergy and spouses from the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia. Four of us formed a panel: a retired bishop from Tanzania, exiled Bishop Andudu from Kadugli in Sudan, Angela Ifill who works with the office of the Presiding Bishop in New York City, and me. We each introduced ourselves, said a bit about our ministry, then were open to question.

Most of the questions focused on the situation in Sudan and Andudu was excellent. However, towards the end of the session someone asked about tribalism in Sudan and which elements of the conflict there have to do with race or religion. This led into a fascinating conversation about ‘tribalism’, during which I rehearsed the perceptive Helmut Schmidt encouragement to German politicians: don’t go into politics unless you speak at least two foreign languages to a competent level. Why not? Because in order to understand your own culture you need to look through the lens of another culture… and to do that you need to know something of that other culture’s language.

And how was that relevant to questions of tribalism in Sudan? Well, simply because, as I pointed out, tribalism is a human phenomenon and not an African one. A week in the USA (and Virginia in particular) makes it blindingly obvious to an outsider that even Americans are tribal. Mention the ‘recent unpleasantness’ (the Civil War to you and me) and you quickly see who is in which ‘tribe’. Loyal identification with one’s state also tells its own story. I also added that, as a good Brit, I know all about tribalism in the UK, in England and in any institution. (Although it was both undiplomatic and unnecessary for someone to ask if Liverpool fan’s attitude to Manchester United was another example…)

The point (which was followed up by a number of people afterwards) was that we easily identify the weaknesses, factionalisms and myopic loyalties of others whilst being unaware of our own. Something reminds me here of what someone once said about ‘planks and motes’…

But, being enabled to look at oneself through the lens of another is a complete gift and privilege. Being here in Roanoke offers not only an experience of another culture and another church, but also compels me to look though the eyes of interlocutors here at myself and my own culture. It isn’t always comfortable.

As Bishop Gerrard from Tanzania put it: “We don’t necessarily agree with each other on a host of issues, but we are friends… and that is why we are here.” That is maturity. We recognise our tribalisms, but our unity (as Christians and as human beings) transcends the identified and owned differences and prejudices.

And if this post is accompanied by ‘compromising pictures’, it has nothing to do with me.

 

The Meissen Commission finished its five-year work period on Monday and our report will now be completed and published in due course. The new Commission will begin work in the new year, completing its work in 2016 – leading into Germany’s Reformation Year, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.


In a podcast recorded at the German Embassy last Thursday evening I referred to the deplorable state of language teaching and learning in England. This was picked up by several newspapers and has gained some wider comment.

In fact, I wasn’t criticising teachers. Language teaching in our schools is heroic. But, many teachers feel they are fighting a losing battle against cultural and political forces that are rooted in an island mentality. We might understand the emphasis on science and technology in schools, but the relegation of language learning to a not-very-enthusiastically-encouraged poor option says much about the British understanding of identity, communication and business.

First, language learning is essential to a good and broad education. Simply to be able to read or listen in one’s own language is severely limiting to potential. As Helmut Schmidt wrote in his marvellous book Ausser Dienst, no politician should think of entering the Bundestag (Parliament) unless they speak at least two foreign languages to a competent degree. Why? Because, says Schmidt, you can’t understand your own culture unless you have looked at it through the eyes of another culture. And, to do that, you have to know something of the other language.

I said this to Ken Livingstone in a television studio last year and he laughed and said that we wouldn’t have any politicians in the UK. I thought that spoke volumes.

Second, we are disadvantaged in the business world with which we seem in this country to be obsessed. As I said in the podcast, business isn’t all done in English over the table; the real stuff goes on behind your back and if you can’t understand what they’re saying privately, you’re stuffed. It is appalling that we produce so few professional linguists, but – more seriously – we don’t produce ordinary business people who can cope with a foreign language.

Third, we Brits seem to find language learning too hard. Yet, we have Asian kids in our schools who move easily and unselfconsciously between two, three or four languages.

Fourth, we have a political class that is narrowly focused on an economic prejudice that concentrates on technique and technology as if they could stand independently of wider linguistic, communication or cultural factors. Language learning is being presented as less important than other studies, ignoring the importance not only of ‘knowing stuff’, but also ‘being able to communicate it’.

This isn’t special pleading by a one-time linguist. It stands for itself as an important cultural deficit in England. And, not only are we depriving our own children and young people of a vital dimension of human living, but also we are shrinking the cohort of potential language teachers for future generations.

It is serious and needs some intelligent attention.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Bradford

One of the reasons time has been too short for decent blogging (or, for that matter, indecent blogging) is my having taken on too many speaking engagements which required proper preparation. One of them was a contribution to a multidisciplinary conference on The Rhetorics of Moderation at the University of Huddersfield last night. I had been invited to deliver a keynote address at the final conference of a three-year project initiated by the Universities of Nottingham, Edinburgh and Huddersfield.

The draft text (not quite as delivered) is available on the Bradford diocesan website. But I will try to sum up the key bits here and see what sort (if any) of response it gets.

When I (finally) agreed to do this gig I wasn’t sure what the title of the series really meant: ‘The Rhetorics of Moderation’. I initially wondered if it might be an academic conference on how to talk about exam invigilation – clearly misunderstanding both ‘rhetoric’ and ‘moderation’. But, I eventually offered the title The Moderation of Rhetoric, so I could bang on about ‘language’ again. As a non-academic it is always a little intimidating going into such a context, but everyone was kind and the conversation was, I thought, quite stimulating.

My basic point – developing Helmut Schmidt’s argument (in Außer Dienst) that in order to understand your own culture you have to look at it through the lens of a different culture… and you can only do that if you understand something of the other language – was simple: language shapes both thought and behaviour. Therefore, language (or rhetoric) is not neutral. As  put it in my introduction:

So, my simple contention here is that language matters – that before reflecting on the ‘rhetorics of moderation’, we need to pay attention to the moderation of rhetoric and the ways in which we use language in our common human discourses in a complicated globalised world.

It is essential for good public discourse that interlocutors learn the language of ‘the other’ in order (a) to understand, (b) to know how to respond, (c) to see how this response will be heard and understood by ‘the other’, and (d) to keep the conversation going. This point is helpfully addressed by Rowan Williams in his brilliant book on Dostoyevsky where he writes about the corruption of language. Here are a couple of quotes from the Introduction to the book:

The novels [of Dostoyevsky] ask us, in effect, whether we can imagine a human community of language and feeling in which, even if we were incapable of fully realizing it, we knew what was due to each other; whether we could imagine living in the consciousness of a solidity or depth in each other which no amount of failure, suffering or desolation could eradicate.

[Dostoyevsky as narrator] sees language itself as the indisputable marker of freedom: confronted with what seeks to close down exchange or conflict, we discover that we can always say more… When we have nothing with which to engage, we stop speaking and stop developing.

Williams goes on to tie language and freedom to a responsive experience of ‘otherness’ and he challenges the Hegelian ‘freedom of the void’ – that is, as Williams puts it:

…the dream of a liberty completely without constraint from any other, human, subhuman or divine; because it has no “other”, it can also have no content. But this means that the hunger for such freedom can only manifest itself in destruction, flinging itself against existing limits… …the Dostoevskian novel is… an exercise in resisting the demonic and rescuing language.

So, Williams takes from Dostoyevsky the notion that language is not neutral, that human beings use language to close down or open up relationship, that language is the key to and fundamental expression of freedom… and that when we reach the end of ‘having something more to say’, we have constrained genuine freedom and closed down the possibility of development or coexistence. (Perhaps this also explains his approach to those contentious issues in the Anglican Communion where people want to close down conversation and force a conclusion that saves them from the pain of engaging with ‘the other’.)

I took from this that “we might derive the imperative (for human flourishing in a good society) of human beings and human communities learning the languages of ‘the other’, not as a virtuous end in itself, or even an altruistic means of keeping a relationship going, (or even for knowing which beer to order on holiday), but as a non-negotiable and essential feature of human freedom and dignity. We have to be multilingual (in the sense of paying attention to and learning to understand what is both being said and what is being heard) in order to survive, but also in order to thrive and enable ‘the other’ to thrive in a way that guarantees mutual flourishing. In other words, language at the very least provides the space in which relationship and responsibility can grow.”

I went on to illustrate (from personal experience of media, social media and interfaith dialogue) the importance of getting the language right. It won’t come as any surprise to readers of this blog that my unease with some of our media language got a run-around again. Not only do I think a strong democracy demands a strong, informed, intelligent and independent press, but I also think that those who hold the rest of us to account should themselves be held to account for the professionalism (or lack of it) with which they operate.

Finding people who have learned how to think about how to think – or how we know that we know what we know (epistemology, if you want the posh word) – is clearly becoming more rare. It is trivial engagement in creating conflict that drives the media agenda. Of course there are exceptions to this, but it is hard to pretend that democracy is served by what we are currently served up. The point is, however, that those who use language to persuade, influence and inform also need to be held to account for how they manipulate the powerful tool at their disposal.

My fear here is that the crass diminution of encouragement of and support for arts, humanities and social sciences in both school and university means that not only are we creating a culture that values mechanics, but doesn’t do ‘deep’ thinking. Not only are we in danger of depriving the current generation, but we are cutting off the expertise and enthusiasms we need for a future generation of teachers. We can lose in one generation what will take several generations (at least) to recover. To see the arts and humanities as ‘unproductive’ in terms of balance sheet bottom lines is more than myopic; it is dangerously and narrowly stupid.

My conclusion was not very startling:

If we take social cohesion seriously, we must pay attention to the language we use. Our rhetoric needs to be moderated, challenged, thought through. This is not pedantry or a form of distraction therapy; language shapes behaviour and shapes the lens through which different people see differently the different worlds within which we live. The diminution of attention to language – now seen in the paucity of language teaching and learning, the demotion of arts and humanities, does not augur well for having good public moderators of rhetoric in the decades to come. But the task will not go away.

It is worth considering that I delivered this address (and discussed questions arising from it in a stimulating Q & A session afterwards) immediately after visiting a Church of England primary school. The school serves one of the most challenging and deprived communities in Bradford and is outstanding in all respects. Contrary to the sloppy reporting in the media about ‘faith schools’ – either ignorant of or deliberately disregarding of the distinction between ‘faith schools’ and ‘church schools’ – this school works wonders for families, local communities and commands the determined loyalty of staff and governors. The headteacher told me she didn’t want moderately interested or interesting teachers or visitors to the school; she wants people who are passionate about what they do, how they think and what they believe. This school would be an inconvenient embarrassement to those who wish to pretend that church schools are divisive, privileged, sectarian or damaging.

Here again, the language is crucial.