Guidelines towards Dialogue through Metaphor
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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
. Prepared in the process of envisaging the group dynamics of the World
Parliament of Relgions
The Parliament of the World's Religions will be held in Chicago in August 1993 as part
of the centennial celebrations of a similar event in 1893. This provides a real challenge
to current capacity to envisage dynamics appropriate to such an event -- especially if, as
some hope, it comes to take a more permanent form of relevance to the 21st century.
This note is therefore one exercise in envisioning how such a gathering might function.
The main interest here lies in the nature of the dialogue process, and how it may
transcend the difficulties usually encountered in international gatherings that bring
together very different perspectives --reflecting differences that may be considered quite
Envisaging as a continuing process
An early trap it is useful to avoid is any desire to produce a definitive vision
designed to condition the future image of the Parliament in some particular way. More
fruitful would be to focus to a greater degree on how the envisaging process can continue
to evolve and nourish any current images of the nature of such a Parliament.
From such perspective, the Parliament may be envisaged in several distinct and
seemingly incompatible ways -- provided that such differences are seen as complementary in
a larger sense.
A second trap that it is important to avoid is the expectation that the history and
pattern of inter-faith discourse can be forgotten. There have been many difficulties along
the way. Many difficulties remain. Failing a miracle, a pragmatic approach would suggest
that conventional approaches will continue to give rise to conventional results.
If doctrinal positions are not about to change to any significant degree, then there is
a case for adopting a more imaginative approach to dialogue between religions. Such an
approach needs to be able to reframe the dialogue so that intractable differences are
expressed more creatively without endeavouring to subsume them within an unsustainable
consensus -- however attractive.
Communication by parable
One of the principal features of religious discourse is the extensive use made of
stories, parables and metaphors. The use of metaphor in religious discourse has been
extensively studied. One of the merits of this form of discourse is to articulate subtle
insights in a form which can be readily interpreted across many common barriers to
Whilst much good work may be undertaken to clarify doctrinal differences using the
technical language of theologians and scholars, this work will continue at its own pace.
Such technical issues require their own context which is not that of plenary gatherings
such as a Parliament -- whether or not they are dealt with in its "parliamentary
It may be asked whether there is not merit in developing a style of metaphoric
discourse for use in the plenary gatherings of the Parliament. This would take advantage
of the unique communications skills of those whose lives are committed to religious
discourse in one form or another.
What form might metaphoric discourse take? What would be the guidelines for such
discourse? Are there examples of cultures in which this mode of discourse is favoured
relative to more technical forms?
Consider the implications of parliamentary guidelines such as the following:
Guideline 1: Doctrinal positions should only be expressed through parable
The intention here is to free plenary discourse from dependence on well-developed
patterns of statements. Whereas the insights conveyed by such statements may well be
widely appreciated, the form through which they are conveyed may constitute a significant
barrier to communication.
Set statements evoke set responses and inhibit the evolution of a dialogue.
Presentation of insights through metaphor and parable involves the audience in a story
which can evoke a variety of insights that can nourish and sustain a dialogue.
Guideline 2: Parables and metaphors in inter-faith discourse should be
developed using common experience and everyday roles rather than be structured around
symbolic figures with complex connotations.
Is inter-faith discourse about the primacy of particular symbols or about the insights
and understandings to which they point? Can the two be separated?
To the extent that religious insights are universal they should lend themselves to
articulation through a variety of symbols especially those common to different cultures.
Guideline 3: Differences should be expressed by questioning the aesthetic
design of a metaphor or by the use of counter-metaphors.
There are deep differences between many religions. Blunt statements of disagreement and
opposition do not necessarily help the dialogue to move forward. However, an understanding
articulated through a metaphor can be encountered by suggesting preferred alternatives to
the structure of that metaphor or to the evolution of the story told by any parable.
Alternatively, a counter-metaphor may be introduced which reflects a different pattern
Questions may be asked as to why a metaphor has particular features and not others
which may be put forward as richer, more pertinent, or less restrictive. Efforts in this
direction have been explored in metaphorical theology.
Guideline 4: The pattern of discourse is of greater significance than any
particular feature of it -- although each such feature contributes to the pattern of the
It is not usually helpful to expect that an audience's attention will be captured by a
single perspective. The many dimensions of spiritual discourse constitute a greater
Differences can usefully be treated as challenges calling for reconciliation at higher
levels of understanding. But these too have to be articulated. Such articulation should
also be done through metaphor -- indeed this may be all that is possible.
The real challenges of a Parliament may therefore lie in using metaphor
to hold many differences and provide subtle constructs to contain or bridge
between them. But such metaphorical "containers" and "bridges" become
increasingly subtle as the dialogue evolves. In effect they become temples
of the spirit. The work of the Parliament could then be seen in terms of
the construction of such temples of insight. Metaphors of this kind can be
the most valuable product of the work of the Parliament.
Guideline 5: The interplay between perspectives should allow for
It is the encounter with seemingly incompatible perspectives that can often evoke
deeper levels of insight. A Parliament can usefully be seen as a place of challenge
through which more subtle levels of insight are brought into play -- levels which may be
concealed or implicit in more conventional religious discourse.
The opportunities for the development of such interplay is best seen in music where
instruments and musical themes challenge each other and are driven to creative responses
which move the collective work of the whole to a higher level of significance. In this
sense the parliament may perhaps be better understood as a symphony orchestra.
Guideline 6: The intention of parlimentary discourse should include the
generation of a product significant to wider society.
Whilst much may be accomplished between parliamentarians alone, and through them in the
inspiration offered to their constituencies, the world is both weary and impatient. Care
should be taken to avoid the production of wordy declarations that many will perceive as
empty of significance for their lives.
In a media-oriented world, there is much to be said for a Parliament whose product is
in the form of images rather than words -- even if the images are verbal images.
Can the pressures of parliamentary discourse engender powerful new metaphors that can
empower new forms of action or that can reframe relationships across religious divides? It
is such metaphors which will travel most effectively through the media around the world.
Guideline 7: Intractable differences cannot usually be reconciled through
a single insight. Rather they call for a pattern of complementary insights that respect
Intractable differences emerge as a result of profound differences in understanding --
differences which may be reinforced by cultural, linguistic and historical factors. The
diversity and reflected in such differences is vital to the richness of human
Such complexity in approaching a profound experience, acknowledged to be of the utmost
simplicity, is a challenge to the form through which it is represented. A pattern of
complementary forms may prove to be more appropriate to holding together the diversity of
insights honoured by religious traditions in their diversity.
It is through the exploration of such patterns that an appropriate measure of
reconciliation may be progressively achieved. Metaphor provides a flexible tool for this
A transcendental spiritual identity
The nature of spiritual concord may thus be 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
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
could 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.
Texts such as the above need to be worked and reworked to refine and extend the
guidelines and to enrich the image of the dynamics of such a Parliament. This could be
done in working groups, or by the confrontation of alternative visions of what may prove