Can we understand one another?

  • Details
  • Transcript
  • Audio
  • Downloads
  • Extra Reading

Whether in academic writing or broadsheet journalism, we tend to see two different stances taken on the question of multicultural or multifaith understanding. One is the universalist tendency, that says that people are the same all over the world, and differences between cultures are no barrier to understanding. Such people often want to universalise on important ethical issues, such as human rights which are alleged to be universal. The other tendency is to say that culture differences are absolute; that even such a benign concept as human rights cannot be universal; and that there are insuperable barriers to understanding or indeed, as Mary Douglas put it when describing this view, that I have more hope of understanding my dog than a human being from a different culture.
Which of these views is right? Is there a way around falling into either of these two conflicting views?

Download Transcript



Professor Gwen Griffith-Dickson


The following passage was written by a Native American scholar, Vine Deloria, in 1969, in his text Custer Died for your Sins: ‘Never has America lost a war. When engaged in warfare the United States has always applied the principle of overkill and mercilessly stamped its opposition into the dust… But name, if you can, the last peace the United States won. Victory yes, but this country has never made a successful peace because peace requires exchanging ideas, concepts, thoughts, and recognizing the fact that two distinct systems of life can exist together without conflict. Consider how quickly America seems to be facing its allies of one war as new enemies.’

These words are, sadly, even more topical today. People speak about the failure of the coalition forces in Iraq in ‘winning the peace’. And in analysing this failure, it is not simply a question of ramshackle logistical planning, or intelligence before the war that now looks a little dodgy. It is that it now looks like the governments of the United States and Great Britain ‘didn’t understand’ the Iraqis, and fondly imagined their path would be strewn by flower petals instead of the increasing number of attacks and coalition fatalities we now see, even after the capture of Saddam Hussein.

Whether in academic writing or broadsheet journalism, we tend to see two different stances taken on the question of multicultural or multifaith understanding. One is the universalist tendency, that says that people are the same all over the world, and differences between cultures are no barrier to understanding. Such people often want to universalise on important ethical issues, such as human rights which are alleged to be universal. The other tendency is to say that culture differences are absolute; that even such a benign concept as human rights cannot be universal; and that there are insuperable barriers to understanding or indeed, as Mary Douglas put it when describing this view, that I have more hope of understanding my dog than a human being from a different culture.

Let us look at this question first with a little historical example.

Captain James Cook, with his two ships HMS Resolution and HMS Discovery, found the Hawaiian islands quite by accident—the Europeans had no idea of the existence of these islands or their people.

As we can see from journals written at the time by Lt. King and by the sailor Samwell, some of their encounters were friendly, courteous, and generous:

The Hawaiian questions about the British departure had made [Lieutenant] King curious to know ‘what opinion this people had formed of us.’ He took some pains to find out, but all he could learn was they thought the British had come from some country where provisions had failed and they came to Hawaii to fill their bellies. Stroking the sides and stomachs of the now-fattened sailors, the Hawaiians told them ‘partly by signs, and partly by words, that it was time for them to go; but if they would come again next breadfruit season, they should be better able to supply their wants.’

Sometimes they were not:

A Canoe came to the Resolution… in which were three men, they came almost within pistol shot of the Ship, then one of them stood up with Captn Cook’s Hat on his head, he threw Stones at us, smacked his backside in Contempt of us, shewed us the Hat & in an insulting manner waved it over his head; we fired several muskets at him but they all got ashore unhurt.

Sometimes the kindly intent was correctly interpreted, even if the symbolism was not. This is Lt. King’s description of a religious ceremony in which he and Captn. Cook found themselves playing a liturgical role which was clearly major but totally inexplicable to the two Englishmen, as they couldn’t understand a word of the ritual that went on for about four hours:

These two now insist’d upon Cramming us with hog, but not till after the Kava; I had no objection to have the hog handled by Pareea, but the Captn recollecting what offices Koah had officiated when he handled the Putrid hog could not get a Morsel down, not even when the old fellow very Politely chew’d it for him.

Sometimes, despite the barriers of language and world-view, the conversation reached an impressive level of mutual openness and respect. Lt. King had long conversations with Kae’o, the husband of the queen of Kauai. Despite not initially knowing a word of each other’s language, these conversations seemed to have attained a surprising depth. From Lt. King’s journal:

He very inquisitive about our Manners & Customs; the Questions that he ask’d would alone be proof that these people have a great Variety of Ideas, he ask’d after our King, our Numbers, how our Shipping was built, & our houses, the Produce of the Country, if we ever fought, Who was our God, & such like.

Eitherwhat is human is universal to all humans. We’re all the same under the skin and we all worship the same God, though we call him by many names. Or we are so radically different that our worlds are incommensurable and even though anthropologists or missionaries can learn the language of an alien tribe, they can never see the world as the members of the tribe do.

Must we accept this Either/Or? One of the things that is so intriguing about the British sailors’ interactions with the Hawaiians is how the pendulum swings back and forth between understanding and incomprehension, between affection and intent to kill. There are moments of empathy and moments of perplexity and episodes of outright hostility.

The opposition of universalism and relativism itself creates problems in practice when you want to do something in the world. Forgive me for quoting my own first Gresham lecture, in October 2001 as the United States and the United Kingdom summoned their response to the attacks of 9/11 and prepared for war:

“What we have seen in Western politicians’ responses to the attacks in America is a desperate but chaotic struggle to speak about these ‘Western’ values in relation to the rest of the world. In these sometimes clumsy attempts, we see a fundamental confusion: are these values, such as freedom and democracy, unique to the West, as Huntington insists; or are they actually universal? We’d better say they are universal, because we won’t be able to persuade Pakistan or Saudi Arabia to support these attacks on behalf of Western values. But many voices are raised disputing these values ... So maybe we had better go back to saying it is just the American Way or Western Way to defend these values. But what do we say if we say to the rest of the world, that the West uniquely values the sanctity of human life…?

“The impossibility of speaking about Western values in a coherent way stems not least from this binary opposition: they must either be ‘unique’, or they must be ‘universal’. Not only are these extremes, they are mutually contradictory. And yet, strangely, I think it is quite clear that the speakers believe both to be simultaneously true. Here is how this contradiction can be united in a single utterance: ‘We discovered these values, we continually defend them, and in that sense they are uniquely Western: unique in our ownership of them. But these values are right, and the rest of the world ought to believe in them, and in that sense they are universal: universal in their validity.” And of course that justifies the imposition of these values, in bringing democracy for example to the rest of the world, even using force.

There are two dangers in this Either/Or about understanding other cultures. The first is to assume, in a well-meaning and liberal way, that ‘we’re all alike underneath’; that we are all trying to say ‘the same thing’ in our different ways about the ‘same’ Ultimate or Divine Reality, and that similar arguments, statements or claims are the same and serve the same function in their religion or system as they do in ours. This disregards the importance of ‘otherness’.

Let’s take the incident described by Samwell which I read out a moment ago, when the Hawaiians row up to HMS Resolution and smack their backsides at the sailors. Suppose I now inform you that–contrary to the Samwell’s assumptions that this meant Contempt–the gestures of the three Hawaiians in the canoe were in fact signals of hospitality. To assume the clothing, like the Hat, of another and wave it, beckoning, is a symbolic way of ‘taking them on yourself’, participating in their identity. It is a gesture of great warmth. For the Hawaiian, moreover, to pat one’s buttocks is not a gesture of Contempt, as Samwell the Briton assumed, but a symbolic invitation: ‘everything I have and am, I offer you’, expressing in a most striking form the extraordinary breadth and depth of the famous Hawaiian hospitality: a generosity that the more reserved Englishman could not even begin to fathom. (Especially not in that form.) —If I explained this to you, you would see how easy it is to completely misread a person from another culture, if one interprets them from the basis of the symbols and customs of one’s own.

However, if did I tell you this, I would be lying.

Samwell interpreted the backside-smacking all too accurately. So there is another mistaken view, then: that these cultural and religious differences are so vast and intractable that we can never really understand people of other faiths or cultures—that what an Englishman thinks of his backside and what a Hawaiian associates with his okole might be so completely at variance that they have no hope of mutual comprehension.—This, in my view, leads in the end not to respect for others and their cultural difference, but rather to an ultimate rejection of solidarity. Then I might well feel more empathy and identification with a dog from my own culture than with a human from a very different one. But I would be wrong to do that. There are indeed several different things one can do with one’s bottom and therefore there are different symbolic meanings people give it; but the anatomical possibilities are finite (I can think of four) and are relatively stable around the planet. So too, then, are the symbolic possibilities. Of course there is always a danger that we might assume we understand someone of a different faith and culture when we in fact we have misunderstood them. But this is something that happens all the time between husband and wife or two colleagues at work. It is a human problem, and not uniquely a cultural orreligious problem. Cultural and religious differences add a different layer of potential for lack of understanding; but also contribute a new dimension for theological and philosophical insight and creativity.

Nevertheless, this cross-cultural understanding is not a state of affairs that arises of itself, without courage, trust, openness and praxis. Captain Cook and his officers found themselves drawn into religious rituals which they could not fathom, and whose theological and sociological import are still disputed today. Cook found himself conducted to a temple, pushed and prodded to assume certain postures, wrapped in special garments, chanted at and sung over, fed with food previously chew’d for him; all without a clue as to whether in their eyes he was a man, a mighty chief, indeed a god, or just the next sacrificial victim—or whether the Hawaiians’ theology might be so unlike his, that it was possible that in the their eyes, he be all of these at once. The end of Captain Cook’s story is a bloody one; he attempted to arrest the king, and was killed by the king’s men. Four British and I think a hundred Hawaiians were killed in the ensuing fight.

How should we respond to the problem of multicultural or multifaith understanding and living together? Many of the proposed solutions do tend to fall into one of those two camps. Certainly there are religious and cultural separatists. This maybe for reasons of militancy, but it can also be the product of despair and disillusionment. The Native American Deloria writes in God is Red: ‘The world… is not a global village so much as a series of non-homogenous pockets of identity that must eventually come into conflict because they represent different historical arrangements of emotional energy.’ [64] From the perspective of America, in particular after the differing results for black people and Native American people in the wake of the struggle for human rights, he says: ‘The brotherhood of man may be a noble ideal, but can it be achieved in any society that is not homogenous? Probably not, we discovered. At a certain point in the struggle for realization, it became apparent that goals of the Civil Rights movement could not be achieved because people did not subscribe to them and because the goals were, after all, abstract projections of an ideal world, not descriptions of a real world.’ [51]

The other response is not separatism but a kind of universalism; to attempt to create, or even impose, a sort of unity on this messy pluralism. One can do this in different ways. I will be cheeky and give them national labels, at the risk of crude stereotype.

One is what I will call the ‘French Solution’. That is to claim that there is an overarching cultural identity that all inhabitants of the society owe their allegiance too. Religious differences can be displayed at home but not in the public sphere -not in school, where hijabs and yarmulkas are to be prohibited.

This is not the characteristic British Solution, which is to let Sikh bus drivers wear their turbans, as long as they are navy blue. In Britain, for most people, you can display your ethnic and religious identity so long as it fits the colour scheme. ¾  However, in Britain the French Solution is winning support from some public intellectuals and commentators. There is a British humanist position that is, like the French, anxious to defend ‘secular values’. This view sees the public discourse as one that should be protected from the overt expression or defence of anything ‘religious’. They see themselves as defending a neutral, secular public space that we all have in common. Thus this Sunday in the Independent Joan Smith wrote about the French hijab controversy. She sees Chirac as defending ‘the principle, supported by most of the population, that religion should be kept out of public life.’ ‘It is a debate Britain cannot afford to be complacent about. We will struggle to defend secularism for as long as the Government refuses to dismantle the established church, blasphemy laws and state-funded Christian (and now Muslim) schools.’ ‘…secularism has to be defended because the alternative is so dire.’ She worries that if people are allowed to express their religious identity in public, radical ‘Islamists’ and fundamentalist Christians will see to it that ‘the Enlightenment principle of universal human rights is abandoned’ with the likely result being ‘a struggle between militant forms of different religions over the final say on sexual relationships, crime and punishment, education and foreign policy.’ The philosopher A. C. Grayling often writes in a similar tone.

The stereotypical US style of universalism is different yet again. The US solution encourages people to show their allegiance to a shared identity and set of values that are described in ways that are national and political, rather than cultural or ‘secular’. We hear about freedom and democracy, and the flag. Or even the President. Symbols and ideological values are used to unite a culture that (until recent decades) has been more multiracial and multicultural than France and other European countries, but perhaps politically or ideologically less diverse. Here is interesting take on from the Native American perspective. In  this passage from God is Red Deloria has been contrasting the ‘real’ Americans, that is the indigenous Native peoples, to the dominant white society, who are not, after all, indigenous or native Americans. ‘The patriotism of the American conservative may be said to be an expression of the effort to become indigenous. …But their allegiance is to democracy, a powerful idea, but it has no relationship to the earth upon which we walk,and the plants and animals that give us sustenance.’ [59] The Americans, the British, the French may all talk about this nation, this country, this ‘land’ in the sense of a nation-state. But it is striking how the idea of the place itself, the land, does not serve to give roots and identity or feature among the shared values, in comparison to the perspective of an indigenous culture whose traditions and spirituality strongly cherishes the earth, as we see in Native American and Hawaiian cultures.

The Chief Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks, in a book which (interestingly) turned out to be very controversial, reacts negatively to attempts to impose some kind of unity. He uses the biblical story of the Tower of Babel: ‘it is the supreme act of hubris, committed time and again in history… It is the attempt to impose a man-made unity on divinely created diversity. That is what is wrong with universalism.’ [52]

French sociologist Alain Touraine does not fit my tidy stereotype of the French Solution. In his view, imposing universalism ¾one based on reason, the Enlightenment fantasy ¾does not work to create social integration. He describes it as ‘a principle of domination and exclusion, rather than of integration’. Nor, however, does he go for the other extreme. Absolute differences of ethnicity etc don’t work either to make for intercultural understanding. Nor does ‘tolerance’: ‘Tolerance does not offer a way out of this double impasse…Tolerance does not guarantee communication; nor does it allow the minority to become a majority and to decide in its turn what is tolerable and what must not be tolerated.’[152-3] He has his own solution:

 ‘Interpersonal and inter-cultural communication are possible only if we cease to define ourselves in terms of our possession of a particular identity, or by referring to a reason that is so abstract as to make it inseparable from a ruling class made up of property-owners or citizens. They presuppose that the contradiction between a domineering universalism and an intolerant particularism can be transcended by having recourse to something that is neither general nor particular, but unique: the individuation of every personal and collective existence.’ [153]

Instead of claiming an ethnic or community identity, we must cultivate our own individual, free self-hood and become what he calls a Subject. Indeed, ‘Inter-cultural communication is possible only if the Subject has already succeeded in escaping from its community.’ [168] ‘…only the idea of the Subject can create not only a field of personal action but, above all, a space for public freedom. … We can live together only if the primary objective of our laws, institutions and forms of social organization is to safeguard our demand to live as the Subjects of our own experience.’ [158]

We can reconcile equality and diversity only by a combination of political democracy and cultural diversity; ‘Both are based upon the freedom of the Subject.’ [167]

‘No multi-cultural society is possible unless we can turn to a universalist principle that allows socially and culturally different individuals and groups to communicate with one another. But neither is a multi-cultural society possible if that universalist principle defines one conception of social organization and personal life that is judged to be both normal and better than others. The call for the freedom to build a personal life is the only universalist principle that does not impose one form of social organization and cultural practices… it demands respect for the freedom of all individuals and therefore a rejection of exclusion, and secondly because it demands that any reference to a cultural identity be legitimized in terms of the freedom and equality of all, and not by an appeal to a social order, a tradition or the requirements of public order.’ [167]

Unfortunately for Touraine, from where I am standing his notion of the free, independent Subject who is cut loose from their community identity is far from a universal principle; it is one of the most ‘Western’ notions there is, and indeed one most firmly repudiated by other cultures ¾not least the Native American and the Native Hawaiian. Indeed it is not merely Western but identifiably French; it owes a lot to Sartre, while the notion of the subject (which he spells with a capital S) owes a lot to Jacques Lacan.

The Native American Deloria, comments that the notion of self-development and change, and for example the idea that religion involves a radical change of the person, is something strikingly Western. It certainly isn’t Indian. In fact, he writes: ‘Is there such an individual? Does the individual exist apart from his or her nation, language, family, culture, wealth, knowledge of the world, secular beliefs, and immediate situation?’ [193] Indeed, ‘The concept of an individual alone in a tribal religious sense is ridiculous. The very complexity of tribal life and the interdependence of people on one another makes this concept improbable at best, a terrifying loss of identity at worst.’ [195]

You can opt for which vision you prefer ¾but it is, I think, clear that the notion of the personal development of the subject as indispensable, and the transcendence of one’s culture as what makes for unity, is not a universal value common to all cultures.

Deloria also comments -in words strikingly similar to how Sacks describes Judaism -that in his religious tradition, ‘Religion is not conceived as a personal relationship between the deity and each individual. It is rather a covenant between a particular god and a particular community.’ [194] He goes on to observe, ‘Theology is part of communal experiences needing no elaboration, abstraction, or articulation of principles. Every factor of human experience is seen in a religious light as part of the meaning of life.’ ‘Religion dominates the tribal culture, and distinctions existing in Western civilization no longer present themselves. Political activity and religious activity are barely distinguishable. History is not divided into categories. It is simultaneously religious, political, economic, social and intellectual.’ [194]

Now if that is how some cultures see themselves, it has implications for the British secular liberal ideal articulated by the Smiths and Graylings and Dawkinses: not merely the separation of church and state, but policing the neutral public space which is, to use a phrase of Grayling’s, religion-free. Some cultures cannot divide their identity into ‘secular’ and ‘religious’; the very distinction itself is not culturally ‘neutral’; it is Western. Such people therefore have the choice of being excluded from public discourse; or else forcing themselves into a white British world-view which is alien to them.

The notion that one should ‘rise above’ one’s community identity, as Touraine explicitly argues and the British secularists implicitly require, is one that is not just unfamiliar to other cultures, but is positively distasteful, even harmful. Not only is it seen as destructive of the community in the long term, it leads to unhappy consequences, psychological and spiritual, for the individual person.

Deloria argues that ‘A community that is uncertain about itself must act in self-defence against any outsider to prevent any conceivable threat to its existence, whereas a community that has a stable identity accords to other communities the dignity of the distinct existence that it wishes to receive itself.’ [210-11] This view is one with which Jonathan Sacks would sympathise. The central response of his book, The Dignity of Difference, to the question of religious pluralism is to assert that difference and diversity if positively willed by God. ‘God, the creator of humanity, having made a covenant with all humanity, then turns to one people and commands it to be different in order to teach humanity the dignity of difference. Biblical monotheism is not the idea that there is one God and therefore one truth, one faith, one way of life. On the contrary, it is the idea that unity creates diversity. That is the non-Platonic miracle of creation.’ [53]

That means that, although God is universal, religions and communities are particular, individual and unique. ‘We are particular and universal, the same and different, human beings as such,but also members of this family, that community, this history, that heritage. Our particularity is our window on to universality, just as our language is the only way we have of understanding the world we share with speakers of other languages. God no more wants all faiths and cultures to be the same than a loving parent wants his or her children to be the same. That is the conceptual link between love, creation and difference. We serve God, author of diversity, by respecting diversity.’ [56]

Both Sacks and Deloria, then, emphasise the value of maintaining cultures’ individuality and particularity, and resist excessive assimilation. Both take the view that this particularity of culture, far from being a threat, is the ground from which an ethical life grows. Sacks asserts, ‘The universality of moral concern is not something we learn by being universal but by being particular. Because we know what it is to be a parent, loving our children, not children in general, we understand what it is for someone else, somewhere else, to be a parent, loving his or her children, not ours. There is no road to human solidarity that does not begin with moral particularity¾by coming to know what it means to be a child, a parent, a neighbour, a friend. We learn to love humanity by loving specific human beings.’ For Sacks, not the abstract language of rights but the particularities of a culture are ‘the very substance of how most people learn what it is to be human.’  [58] Deloria describes ethical development in a non-individualistic culture, where community solidarity is highly valued: ‘Rearrangement of individual behavioural patterns is incidental to the communal involvement in ceremonies and the continual renewal of community relationships with the holy places of revelation. Ethics flow from the ongoing life of the community and are virtually indistinguishable from the tribal or communal customs.’ [67] Interestingly, another feature is shared between these two thinkers and indeed Hawaiian traditional ethics: the preciousness of the stranger. The treatment of the stranger is the central test.

The Qur’an also unites these insights: God’s positive willing of religious diversity, and the ethical test that this represents. This is from sura 5: It says that God sent the Torah, which contains guidance and light, along with the prophets, rabbis and priests to give instructions to the Jews. Then God sent Jesus and the Gospel. Then God sent the Qur’an, confirming and preserving the earlier revelations. ‘To each of you We have given a law and a way and a pattern of life. If God had pleased He could surely have made you one people. But He wished to try and test you by that which He gave you. So try to excel one another in good deeds. To Him will you all return in the end’ (Q. 5:48)

So what is the ‘Hawaiian solution’? The Hawaiian solution starts with the principle of Lokāhī -a dynamic unity of many contrasting, even conflicting elements. They not merely co-exist, but co-create the future, or the earth. I was astonished to walk into a room where my children were watching television, and discover that this principle had even made it into the Hawaiian-located Disney cartoon Lilo and Stitch.

This approach says ‘Neither!’ to the Either/Or of universalism and relativism. It does not advocate separatism but encourages relish in diversity and particular identities. These aren’t seen as a threat to unity but as a positive contribution to the richness of the whole. As Tennyson wrote, ‘And God fulfils Himself in many ways, Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.’

At the same time, while avoiding universalism it advocates a solidarity based on several things.

The first is the most profound and the most obvious: our shared humanness. Perhaps we cannot say without cultural arrogance whether French individualism or Indian communitarianism is ‘better’. But we know, from our increasing understanding of the ‘givens’ of the human species, the conditions that lead to mental illness. Lack of social connection is one of them; but so is lack of personhood. Slapping your backside may or may not have different symbolic implications in different cultures; but as long as the human body and the human psyche is what it is, rape is destructive and traumatic in any culture. What harms a human being, what diet prevents this or that cancer, is true of all the species and provides an initial basis for the question of how one treats another.

We also can discover a solidarity based on a shared place. We are all here, wherever ‘here’ might be. Again, this seems banal. But the Native American and Native Hawaiian experiences have much to teach us in discovering what it means to give ‘place’, rather than ‘history’, a prominent spot in one’s values and culture. Deloria explores the impact on a religion’s  ethics and theology when you view it in the overall context of ‘place’ rather than ‘time’ or ‘history’, which he sees as the Christian perspective and interpretative framework. Perhaps this is worth exploring as a basis for multicultural solidarity. For it does unite us; and the place in which we live, and what we as a community decide to do with it, is increasingly becoming a serious ethical matter. What if the test case for asylum seekers to become British was whether or not they revered this part of the earth and were willing to look after it?

Shared time-we are all here now-can also form the ground for what we have in common. But what perhaps we should not try to do is to work for unity based on a shared identity or on shared values. We may in fact discover shared values when we are focusing on something else. Recently someone described to me how in East London a Pentecostal Christian Church and the local Mosque got together with other members of the community to improve their environment.

Perhaps you saw in the newspapers reports of a joint Israeli-Palestinian expedition to the South Pole. The four Israeli and four Palestinian adventurers were not exactly members of the peace movement or interfaith groups. ‘The night before their departure, the expedition members argued vocally about the name they would give to the unclimbed peak that is their final destination -- a name meant to symbolize their desire for peace. As usual, Avihu Shoshani, the Israeli attorney and Nasser Quass, the Palestinian political activist, were in the thick of the debate, disagreeing over every nuance of every name suggested by the others. It fell to Breaking the Ice initiator, Israeli businessman Hezkel Nathaniel and Ziad Darwish, the Palestinian journalist, to restore calm. Though the tempers finally cooled, the meeting ended without a decision.’ ¾‘The extraordinary thing about this extraordinary peace mission is that, on the very next day, Shoshani and Quass were roped together in the same trekking group, helping one another to shoulder their load up the glacier. Time and again, the team members have demonstrated their ability to work together on a pesonal level despite their political differences.’

But they are out to prove a point. The expedition is called ‘Breaking the Ice’. ‘In a gesture that was only coincidentally symbolic, they were roped together in mixed groups of four: these Israelis and Palestinians would literally be taking responsibility for one another’s lives.’ []

They reached the summit of a previously unclimbed mountain.*

Now here is the part I like best. This is how they celebrated: the three Palestinians knelt down in Muslim prayer. The Israelis broke open a bottle of champagne. Not exactly culturally sensitive and inclusive on either side, being something the other religious group couldn’t take part in! But did the Muslims claim that they were being insulted and pack up their crampons and storm off? Did the Israelis claim that the act of Muslim prayer was divisive and exclusive? Not at all. This shows the kind of laid-back intercultural maturity that we need to cultivate. Trying to agree words and symbolism leads to endless squabbling, and no decision. On the life-and-death issues, the shared time and place and human needs, they were absolutely solid. And what divides them on absolute matters of practice can still be done in each other’s company and enjoyed vicariously.

 My own answer to the question of ‘can we understand each other’ is a resounding and forthright ‘it all depends.’ I am convinced it is not a question that can truly be dealt with adequately on a theoretical basis: as if it is there will be some theory of knowledge and culture that makes it possible. There are two reasons why the question cannot be answered on a level of theory. One is that it is practice that makes it possible. That is the lesson of the Antarctic expedition, just as it was the lesson of Captain Cook’s voyage, which the Captain did not survive and Lt. King did. We don’t come to accept one another by forming a cognitive solution, by gaining facts about one another, or by forging or fabricating some other identity we can all buy into. We achieve it by doing things together, for survival or for fun.

The other reason is that our capacity for understanding is personal. If you asked me, ‘can I understand someone from a radically different culture?’, I would have to answer by asking, ‘how good are you at understanding other members of your own family?’ We have varying capacities for listening and re-creating someone else’s experience, or ‘finding ourselves in someone else’ [sich in einem anderen finden], for imagining someone else’s world. Interpersonal and intercultural understanding is a human activity, and these variations in human ability are what settle the matter, not theories of relativism. After all, cultural and religious differences are only one kind of difference. Environmentalists from very different cultures experience fewer culture clashes with each other than they do with the despoilers and robber barons in their own societies.

Dialogue is important. Sacks emphasises dialogue above all as his solution. ‘how do we live with moral difference and yet sustain an overarching community? The answer…. Is conversation¾not mere debate but the disciplined act of communicating … and listening…. Each is a genuine form of respect, of paying attention to the other, of conferring value on his or her opinions even though they are not mine.’ [83.] But ‘talking about it’ is not every cultures’ way of maintaining harmony. Doing together, being together without ‘sorting things out’ verbally can be a powerful way of resolving tensions. That’s another lesson from the Antarctic expedition.

What is clear to me is that it is self-deceiving to demand that if someone wants a voice, only one set of eighteenth-century European and American values can be articulated in the public space. You could say that the right to be part of your community and act accordingly is a fundamental human and community right.

Far from compromising harmony between different groups, respect for each other’s way is what makes true harmony possible. The Hawaiian way to get this across is with a story. This one is a true story.

Hawaii’s greatest King was King Kamehameha, who lived in the early nineteenth century. His best friend was John Vancouver, an Englishman. Despite their very different cultures, they had an extraordinary mutual understanding. But every so often something would come over Vancouver, and he would feel obliged to convert Kamehameha to Christianity. Kamehameha was generally tolerant of this affront, but one time he decided he had had enough. He did not pick up his spear, or claim to be insulted. Instead, he invited Vancouver to join him for a hike to a spot where they would have a marvellous view.

Their hike took them to the edge of a sheer, vertical cliff. Kamehameha said, ‘You would like me to believe in your God. We are close friends, so we should do this in a fair way. I’ll jump off this cliff, and if my God saves me, you will become a worshipper of Ku-ka-ili-moku. You jump off the cliff too, and if your God saves you, I’ll become a Christian. ¾You first.’


*Here is their summit statement: “We, the members of Breaking the Ice, the Israeli-Palestinian expedition to Antarctica, having reached the conclusion of a long journey by land and sea from our homes in the Middle East to the southernmost reaches of the earth, now stand atop this unnamed mountain. By reaching its summit we have proven that Palestinians and Israelis can cooperate with one another with mutual respect and trust. Despite the deep differences that exist between us, we have shown that we can carry on a sincere and meaningful dialogue. We join together in rejecting the use of violence in the solution of our problems and hereby declare that our peoples can and deserve to live together in peace and friendship. In expression of these beliefs and desires we hereby name this mountain “The Mountain of Israeli-Palestinian Friendship”. [Ibid.]



Vine Deloria Jr., God is Red (Fulcrum, 1973/2003)
Gwen Griffith-Dickson, Human and Divine (Duckworth, 2000).
Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference (Continuum, 2002 [first edition])
Marshall Sahlins, How “Natives” Think. About Captain Cook, For Example (University of Chicago Press, 1995).
Alain Touraine, Can We Live Together?
Alfred Lord Tennyson, ‘The Passing of King Arthur’.


(c) Professor Gwen Griffith Diockson, 2004

This event was on Wed, 28 Jan 2004

professor gwen griffith-dickson

Professor Gwen Griffith-Dickson

Professor of Divinity

Professor Griffith-Dickson specialises in the philosophy and theology of different faiths. She has done groundbreaking work in bringing an interfaith approach to theology and the...

Find out more

Support Gresham

Gresham College has offered an outstanding education to the public free of charge for over 400 years. Today, Gresham plays an important role in fostering a love of learning and a greater understanding of ourselves and the world around us. Your donation will help to widen our reach and to broaden our audience, allowing more people to benefit from a high-quality education from some of the brightest minds.