Towards an Ecology of Spiritual Traditions
Articulated by a dynamic system of metaphors
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of Towards Transformative Conferencing and Dialogue: Collection of papers and notes, problems and possibilities on the new frontier of high-risk gatherings concerning social development
Towards an image-based language: the current socio-political function of metaphors
The implications of a pattern of spiritual traditions are more and more a challenge to
comprehension. In order to clarify understanding of such complexity, use is made of
notions which are both simple and symbolic. "The House of Europe" and
"European Space" are examples of this approach in the political arena. Such
metaphors serve as vehicles to suggest approaches with many strategic implications. They
fulfil the function of codes to communicate among cognoscenti and as key phrases in the
interaction with public opinion.
The fundamental problems of spiritual concord raise the question of the extent to which
metaphors currently used are of adequate richness to articulate strategic options which
are both useful and viable. The dilemma remains the necessity, on the one hand, to reflect
the richness of the complexity of which any spiritual concord must take account, and, on
the other, to make available an integrative image capable of "enchanting" people
seeking some sense in the development of their personal and professional lives. This
dilemma is made all the more problematic by the multiplicity of spiritual traditions and
schools of thought, as well as the diverse marginal groups.
Media communicability has become increasingly important to the life of political and
social initiatives. It is the ultimate constraint in social and political transformation.
It is therefore useful to note the developing role of metaphor in articulating or opposing
social transformation. Boris Yeltsin chose to describe Mikhael Gorbachev's compromise
reforms as a "marriage between a hedgehog and a snake". Such imagery, of which
there are many examples, easily undermines the best of initiatives.
It would seem that the struggle has shifted from the world of ideas to the world of
images. Commentators everywhere remark on the sterility of proposals in the eyes of the
general population, and especially of voters. Instead of the "power of
imagination", there is a bankruptcy of imagination.
Cognitive function of metaphors
Recent research has demonstrated the cognitive function and influence of metaphors in
the most disciplined and rigorous thinking. Examples in the natural sciences, and even in
fundamental physics, are cited. The same is true in the social sciences and notably in
understanding of organizations and their management. It appears that metaphors, whether
explicit or implicit, are essential to the ordering of cognitive elements. Furthermore it
is now almost impossible to extricate them from the language of many disciplines. As
examples the following may be noted: a "field" of study, the
"direction" of research, a "line" of argument, a "target"
audience, "mobilization" of resources. It has been shown that, beyond its
rhetoric functions, the choice of a metaphor may be crucial to the kinds of communication
which become possible or impossible. A recent study of the metaphors underlying the Gulf
War even suggests that "metaphors can kill".
A new inspiration: the spiritual function of metaphors
All the religions use metaphors to render comprehensible the most complex and subtle
notions. It is with the help of metaphors that people are most profoundly touched in
relation to those hopeful factors which give meaning to personal and social life. And it
is with the assistance of certain metaphors that new inspiration has been given to
spiritual traditions fatigued by old formulas and received ideas.
The importance of keystones
It is not that conceptual are ineffective or inadequate. The difficulty is rather in
the incompatibility of such frameworks, however useful in different specialized domains,
and in the weaknesses which emerge as a result in any supposedly integrated strategy.
Suspicion concerning integrative frameworks has become a wise precaution.
Beyond any structural modifications, the key to the success of future strategies
appears to lie in the imaginative manner in which valid, but incompatible, initiatives are
woven together. The challenge is highlighted by the absence of frameworks adequate to the
reconciliation of "centralized" and "market" economic strategies in
the countries of Eastern Europe. There are no available frameworks because the challenge
to the imagination transcends the world of model builders by which strategies have been so
influenced. It could be concluded that new and richer possibilities for spiritual concord
are to be found beyond the incompatibilities between frameworks in which visions of its
future tend to become entangled.
It is metaphors which provide the imagination with "keystones" to balance the
tensions between tendencies which, without such integrative elements, would appear
incompatible. World governance in this sense is a question of "imagination
building" rather than "institution building". Collective spiritual
development at the highest level should therefore focus attention on the emergence and
movement of appropriate metaphors -- that are capable of rendering comprehensible the way
forward through complex windows of opportunity. The challenge lies in marrying new
metaphors to existing frameworks to ensure the embodiment of new levels of insight in
appropriate organizational form.
A transcendental spiritual identity
The nature of spiritual concord is thus closely associated with the "gene
pool" of metaphors. From this the spiritual community may draw fruitful metaphors in
the formulation of responses to new opportunities and crises. Culture may be understood in
terms of this gene pool.
This vision of spiritual concord does not call for radical transformation of religious
traditions and institutions. Rather it calls for a shift in the way of thinking about what
is circulated through society's information systems as the triggering force for any
action. At present spirituality in the international community is haunted by a form of
collective schizophrenia -- a left-brain preoccupation with established religious
frameworks and traditional procedures and a right-brain preoccupation with the
proclivities of people avid for "meaningful" spirituality (even if
"sensational"). This quarrel between frameworks and metaphors could be
transformed by focusing more effectively on the metaphoric dimensions already so vital to
any sustainable motivation of public opinion.
Spiritual concord should not be so closely linked to the seemingly impossible task of
maintaining a consensus on particular responses to dilemmas as appropriate, and therefore
"correct". The collective insight to cultivate could well be detached from this
level of short and medium term preoccupation. This focus favours tokenism and
unimplemented resolutions which in turn reinforce cynicism, alienation and loss of
credibility. In these times all simple solutions eventually become problems, just all
problems are in effect unpleasant solutions. The creative opportunity is to cultivate
instead an understanding of how incompatible solutions can be woven together as phases
over time in a cycle of policies. It is metaphors -- such as crop rotation -- which make
comprehensible and credible such a complex approach. It is at this level of conservation
and generation of metaphors that may be found a dynamic spiritual identity appropriate to
a sustainable development.
How to proceed ?
What approach should be taken to the possibility of choosing a metaphor to better
articulate the diverse elements of spiritual concord in such circumstances? Five criteria
should be considered:
- (a) Adequate to capture the variety of options: Clearly a metaphor must be rich
enough so that each may find in it the dimensions to which he or she is sensitive. There
is therefore advantage in highlighting those which reflect the most advanced thinking of
our civilization -- those touching the frontiers of aspiration to explore our potential
and articulating our comprehension of the most complex domains. But, although of necessary
complexity, these metaphors must allow for simple comprehension, preferably permitting
clarification by rich and evocative imagery.
- (b) Opening options: A useful metaphor must avoid the problem of
over-deterministic drameworks which leave no "free space" for the imagination to
explore and make discoveries. Better than static metaphors, those which embody a dynamic
reality open more possibilities to the imagination. They lessen the impression of
exhaustiveness and determinism -- having less of a function of a conceptual straitjacket.
Such metaphors "seduce" and enchant the spirit. Their meaning can be
"mined" according to people's degree of need and curiosity.
- (c) Recognition of limitations: As with every framework, a metaphor can only give
a partial image of a complex reality. And like a model, a given metaphor may not be to the
taste of everyone. A metaphor has a limited audience (or a "market") which may
be a function of culture, education or age. Consequently any effort to impose a single
metaphor is therefore destined to failure (even though this may be disguised to the extent
that there may be resistance to the meaning carried by the metaphor, which is then seen as
a sterile dogma).
- (d) Dynamic system of complementary metaphors: The limitations of any given
metaphor may be compensated, provided that it is seen as forming part of a set of
complementary metaphors. Then the weaknesses of one are compensated by the strengths of
others, and the dominating points any one metaphor is constrained or checked by the
insights brought by others. In such a system of metaphors, each has more chance of finding
an appropriate, and even seductive, perspective than through any single metaphor.
- (e) Recursive nature of metaphors selected: A complex belief system is always a
challenge to comprehension. This is also true in the case of a system of metaphors. Such
metaphors should therefore be chosen on the basis of their individual capacity to provide
some comprehension of the system of which they are part. This criterion guarantees, to
some degree at least, the integrity and the coherence of the system.
In search of an adequate system of metaphors
In the advertising and media worlds, considerable sums areinvested in research on the
image of for a corporation or a brand. The choice of political or strategic metaphors is
usually done with much less effort and without any "market research". What
follows can only be considered a first selection of possible metaphors, with all the
reservations that implies:
- (a) Spiritual concord as an ecology of options: An ecological metaphor implies a
dynamic interplay of species, some in symbiosis others in competition for available
resources. The "species" in this case may be understood as the political
tendencies, factions, pressure groups, or strategic options --from the most conventional
to the most marginal. There may be thousands of species, from the largest to the smallest.
It is up to each person to understand the nature of this ecology and its cycles of energy,
to find in it the niches which can be occupied, and the appropriate dynamics with respect
to partners and competitors. Of course an ecosystem can be enriched or impoverished by
dynamic effects resulting from disequilibria in the shorter or longer term. The system of
metaphors, or ways of thinking, may itself be understood as an ecology. This metaphor is
better understood by those sensitive to the environment and to the management of its many
- (b) Spiritual concord as a physiology of interdependent organs: Reliogious
institutuions have often been compared to the human body. This metaphor may be applied to
spiritual insights in their entirety. What are its component organs -- the different
spiritual traditions, cultural or religious institutions? Should the notion of an organ
not be extended to belief systems? It is clear that what makes them interdependent is the
circulation between them of different forms of energy and resources (notably information).
The study of the physiology of this body, its respiration, its digestion, the elimination
of its waste products, and even its development, may all be explored in terms of its
regulatory systems (nervous system, hormonal system, etc). The system of metaphors, or
ways of thinking, may itself be understood as a body of knowledge with its organs and
physiology. This metaphor would be most fruitful for those sensitive to the notion of
health, and especially to the health of the body as a whole rather than of its organs
- (c) Spiritual concord as a nuclear fusion reactor: The great challenge for the
technology of the future is to master the energy resulting from nuclear fusion. For many
years all efforts have been focused on the way in which to constrain the energies released
in order to create the most propitious conditions for the processes of nuclear fusion and
the extraction of the excess energy engendered. The challenge lies in the appropriate
configuration of elements which act as a container for the plasma -- a special form of
energy facilitating the fusion process. As for the configuration of spiritual and cultural
structures and processes, the difficulty lies in the fact that if the new form of energy
makes contact momentarily with the elements constituting the container, it is denatured
and completely loses its force in an unuseful discharge. The spiritual identity, sought as
a generator of new social energy, suffers from similar constraints. It can only emerge in
all its force to the extent that it is not subject to this or that national or Latin
american structure -- structures which are, paradoxically, designed to create the
conditions propitious for its generation. The system of metaphors, or of ways of thinking,
may itself be understood as a configuration of elements, of which each is necessary but is
also capable of completely denaturing (or "quenching") that form of
comprehension which can only be based on the whole.
- (d) Spiritual concord as an organic molecule of variable geometry: The notion of
variable geometry is part of the cultural discourse as a way of reconciling acceptance of
different institutional structures. There are some organic molecules, notably benzene (key
to organic life), whose stability derives principally from continuous alternation between
a limited number (two to five) distinct geometrical forms. This phenomenon of resonance
permits the existence of molecules in situations where the component structures are
impossible, or require a level of constituting energy which makes their creation
improbable. Such hybrid molecules, based on distinct geometries in resonance, require less
energy to ensure their stability than their component elements. Is it not possible to
envisage for Europe and identity, or its structuring, based on an analogous form of
resonance between component structures which would otherwise be completely incompatible?
After all, the spiritual movement isbased on the notion a structure appropriate to the
whole would be more stable and more "economic" that the disorderly interactions
between totally independent States. But such a structuring could only emerge through the
dynamic between more limited structures. The system of metaphors, or ways of thinking, can
itself be understood as based on a dynamic resonance between more limited metaphors. This
metaphor is more readily understood by those sensitive to the apparently improbable
structures recognized by the natural sciences.
- (e) Spiritual concord as a pattern of circulating traffic: It is perhaps the
network of roads and railways which represents the spiritual and cultural identity of any
region in the most concrete and experiential manner. Most of the population has acquired
familiarity with traffic. Each is obliged to integrate, even at a neuro-muscular level,
certain rules and behaviours necessary to survival in this network and in order to benefit
from it. The movement of meaning throughout the cultural community may be understood as a
movement of vehicles in a complex network linking both central points, known to all, and
positions known only to specialists. From this perspective the main spiritual schools of
thought and action take the form of major motorways with provision for traffic in both
directions, not to mention the so-called national or secondary roads. Each road thus
represents a "preoccupation vector" or a form of collective action. But it is
clear, in the light of the number of "accidents" and "collisions",
that people are far from having achieved the insight appropriate to intersections and a
"highway code" for the psycho-cultural equivalent. This is despite the rich
range of possible models, experienced on a daily and habitual basis: red lights, stop
signs, traffic circles, priority systems, tunnels, etc). The system of metaphors, or ways
of thinking, may also be understood as a configuration of distinct comprehension pathways.
This metaphor offers insight to any user of the road.
- (f) Spiritual concord as a crop rotation cycle: Every peasant farmer understands
the necessity of crop rotation in a field in order to avoid the accumulation of the
negative consequences resulting from planting of an one species. The farmer knows that, to
ensure the sustainable development of his field, he can grow one crop in that field for a
period but must then replace it by a different crop to remedy the defects to the soil
caused by the first. He may have to grow a third and a fourth species before finally
returning to the first in his crop rotation cycle. It is the cycle which guarantees
sustainability, not any particular crop.
This well-tested approach suggests the possibility that no one spiritual approach in a
given domain can be maintained beyond a certain period without accumulating negative
side-effects. And it is therefore with a distinct and complementary approach that these
effects may be partially counter-acted. Thus to guarantee any form of sustainable
spiritual concord, a cycle of distinct spiritual approaches is necessary in which each
compensates for the action of others. This is of course the implicit message of democracy
-- but what political party would publicly recognize the need for the policies of others
to compensate for thenegative side-effects of its own? Any sense of spiritual and cultural
identity must necessarily emerge beyond the concepts and positions of factions which each
contribute to its definition. It is at the level of the appropriately balanced cycle that
the nature of such an identity may usefully be understood. The system of metaphors, or of
ways of thinking, may itself be understood as a cycle of metaphors, each with its strong
and weak points. It is clear that this metaphor will appeal most to those with
agricultural concerns -- and especially those concerned with so-called organic
How many complementary metaphors are necessary to sustain insight into the rich
subtleties of spiritual and cultural concord? Would it not be natural for a major metaphor
to be associated with each domain with which a major spiritual tradition is associated --
or with each "general directorate" of cultural or religious institutions? It
would of course also be possible to understand spiritual and cultural concord: as a system
of navigation; as a collection of temples or ministries; as an interplay of cultural
spaces; as a system of learning and development environments; as an olympiad of
competitions; and as a building (as a way of exploring the positive implications of the
notion of a "European fortress").
The challenge may involve not so much the use of one or more such metaphors but rather
that of recognizing an appropriate set of metaphors such that each offers necessary and
appropriate insights that the others may be unable to carry. It is designing such a set of
metaphors, rendering it widely comprehensible and ensuring the appropriate checks and
balances between the insights they imply, which is the concern. This "design"
problem is itself an inter-cultural challenge.
Our verbal articulations of the situation we face are failing us. There is a need to
draw more deeply on our cultural insights to reframe our windows of opportunity. In effect
we need to design a new language that is more sensitive to appropriateness -- a language
that more clearly protects diversity and facilitates fusion, as and when each is called
for. There is a need to enable people to play more freely with the images of the world to
which they are exposed, empowering them to reinvent their environments in ways which allow
new forms of development. The clash, symbiosis and fusion of spiritual insights can
usefully be understood in terms of the possibilities of the emergence of new forms of
order through cultural self-organization. A richer metaphoric language would enable all to
participate in this process to the fullest.
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