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Guidelines towards Dialogue through Metaphor

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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


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 intractable.

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.

Acknowledging differences

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 communication.

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 committees".

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.

Metaphoric discourse

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 and metaphor.

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 of insights.

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 whole.

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 challenge.

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 challenge.

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 those differences.

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 understanding.

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 collective exploration.

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 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 could be considered:

Next steps

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 possible.

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