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Towards an Ecology of Spiritual Traditions

Articulated by a dynamic system of metaphors

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Part 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 (1991). Prepared in the process of envisaging the group dynamics of the World Parliament of Relgions

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:

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:


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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