Monday, 4 April 2011

The crisis of national identity

Such a heading might be suitable in many countries. Every country seems to be going through a crisis of national identity, though perhaps for different reasons in each case. On a visit to Madrid recently I was told that Spain had never quite rediscovered itself since losing the great empire of Philip II, which he ruled from the Escorial, his monastic palace in the granite mountains, modelled some say on the Temple of Solomon. Britain, or the “United Kingdom”, lost hers as the Empire dissolved into the Commonwealth and the spirit of the Blitz was replaced by the spirit of consumerism and the dictatorship of relativism. As we struggle to integrate an influx of immigrants, we wonder what it means to be a British citizen and how it can be taught.

So where does a national identity come from? It does not come from navel-gazing or looking in the mirror. Identity comes from the relationships that define us. The identity of a nation is an aspect of the common good of its people – what they know, will, feel, and love writ large; what they won’t do, and what they will. It is the past (memory) and the future (imagination). It is the stories it tells about itself, the ideals it aspires to.

Deeper than all this it is a mission. As in the case of my personal identity, I am what I am given to do. I am unfinished; I must become what I am. Thus we find our identity when we hear a call, the summons to be a self. This is why a nation has a patron saint. Often, that saint expresses the particular character and mission of the nation, at least in some symbolic way. England should be asking St George, what dragon must we conquer?

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