All of us have encountered the caricature of an Englishman abroad who believes that everyone should understand his language. All he has to do to communicate with foreigners is to shout a bit louder. Behind this satirical image is the revealing of a condescending attitude towards others sometimes displayed by our countrymen. Some English people apparently do take on their travels the assumption that everybody is or should be just like them, able to speak English as well as think within a similar cultural framework. In the first place we would note that such an attitude is based on a failure of understanding. Ignorance of this nature goes back to a failure ever to engage properly with history or geography. But such gaps in knowledge will be compounded and made worse by a lack of imagination. It is through a lack of imagination that we sometimes cannot appreciate that there are people in the world who do not think and speak as we do. Without this capacity to imagine that things elsewhere in the world are sometimes radically different from what we know, we can find the rest of the world to be a place of darkness or even threat.
The Englishman abroad caricature might well remind us of an ardent Christian evangelist trying to make converts. Just as the failure to communicate sometimes causes expatriates to shout a bit louder, so some evangelists engage in a more intensive repetition of their well-worn slogans when they are unsuccessfully seeking converts. Two particular things stood out as being absent in the hypothetical conversation between the imaginary Englishman and the uncomprehending foreigner, both of which are also missing in the street evangelist’s encounter with its hyped up rhetoric. The words are knowledge and imagination. A lack of knowledge of where a person is coming from will always make communication between people difficult. It may be a failure to speak the same language. It also may also include an ignorance of the culture, philosophy and religious background of the other person. It goes without saying that it is important to know something of where another person is coming from in any attempt to communicate with them. Expecting them always to understand our words and our point of view because we are shouting a bit louder, is demeaning and insulting.
The second word I brought forward as being always needed in any attempt at communication is the word imagination. The ability to use the imagination effectively is sadly something not always encouraged in the schooling process. It does however develop as a by-product of certain disciplines within the curriculum which are labelled under the title of creative arts. These are not always the ones most valued in a system that places science, maths and verifiable information at the top of the educational tree. While imagination is hard to teach, it is nevertheless naturally built into every growing child and parents and teachers can do much to encourage it. I am reminded of an advertisement on television for a make of packaged cheese. Two men dressed as knights in armour are portrayed on top of a hill discussing how they are feeling peckish. They are then seen eating the advertised cheese before setting off down the hill to do some heroic act. We then discover that these same two knights are in fact two small boys on bicycles. They had imagined themselves into the personae of two mediaeval men-of-war. Such a fantasy life is both healthy and normal. Indeed, it is part of the child’s growing up and learning about the world through imaginative play.
Why is imagination so important for all us? It is because it is the part of ourselves that enables us, among other things, to understand what another person might be feeling at any particular point. To put it another way, imagination enables us to enter the subjectivity of someone else’s experience. All of us know that the world is a better place when ordinary people have no difficulty in feeling what other people are experiencing, whether their joy, grief or pain. Imagination also crosses boundaries, not only involving feeling, but also of those of understanding. Our imagination can help us to see and at least partly understand what another person might be thinking. Even if this knowledge is not complete, at least we have enough information to grasp that there are differences between us. That differences of thinking and feeling exist between individuals is not something to be deplored. We need to learn to accept and respect it. Jonathan Sacks summed up this point in the title of his book, The Dignity of Difference.
Those of us who claim to be Christian realise, on reflection, that our faith is a complex combination of thinking, feeling and knowledge as well as experience. In a subtle way faith binds together all these elements of personal experience with a body of knowledge which we call the Christian Tradition. If someone tried to persuade me to express my Christian hope in a few sentences, I would probably try to refuse. My position would be that any verbal expression of the totality of the Christian faith as I understand it, would do violence to its integrity. The few words that I might eventually use to explain my faith would be words that never tried to enclose or define anything. They would always be words that pointed beyond themselves to hint at a deeper, wider and broader reality than I could possibly convey only through the use of words. It is because of this that I instinctively shudder at the sight of the street evangelist with his uncompromising message of repentance or destruction. His words are a kind of desecration of holiness and divine depth by what I see as a shallow use of words and slogans. The ‘turn or burn’ message of Christian popular evangelism is an example, for me, of how not to share divine realities. This is comparable to the way that the picture of the Englishman shouting ever louder and louder to the uncomprehending foreigner is an example of how not to communicate to people who do not speak your language. This blog post leaves unanswered the question of how we do communicate God to people with whom we do not share a common culture and language. That has to be a question that I leave for another day.