APPORTS OF HAWAI`I TO WESTERN CULTURE[1]

Jean Charlot

 

As worded, the theme “Apports of Hawai`i to Western Culture” imbues Western culture with a monolithic quality that in truth it lacks.  Victorian visitors to the islands proffered as a cure-all for savagery whalebone corsets and crinolines.  Today’s tourists sing the praise of the bikini.

As a Catholic, I side in matters of faith with the missionary but hesitate to cast him as a herald of Western culture.  Circa 1880, Robert Louis Stevenson noted that to switch Polynesians from loincloth to trousers would prove in time as lethal as loaded broadsides from rapacious warships.

Vatican II, changing public worship from Latin to vernacular, marks a turning point.  Each tongue carries deeply racial idiosyncrasies, and in practice the ruling became a pledge to respect the diversity of world cultures.  In apostolic times, Paul had already underlined the dilemma: “The Greeks demand reasons, the Jews expect signs!”  Had Paul reached Hawai`i, still another sort of hurdle would have had to have been met.

Hawai`i’s classical past––smugly dismissed by the West as its stone age––bred sages equal to those of Greece and Rome.  Unacquainted with the printed book, they learned wisdom from the Book of Creation, its flora, its fauna, its volcanoes and oceans.  A fit tool for this `imi loa, or search in depth, was and still is the na`au.  Timorous gents translate na`au as “from the heart.”  “Gut feeling” would come closer to the truth.

Back to Paul attempting to disengage his stand from that of the Greek and the Jew: “A man could learn to move mountains and be naught, should he lack charity.  A man could speak the language of angels and be naught, should he lack charity.”  To express new thoughts, Paul perforce warps the everyday meaning of pagan words.  Thus with caritas.  Had he known about it, the apostle would have gladly used the Hawaiian keyword aloha that enriches the latest editions of Western dictionaries.

 



[1] Summary of a talk given on April 3, 1977, to the Workshop on Hawaiian Religion, The Kamehameha Schools.  Edited by John Charlot.