Learnings for the Future of Inter-Faith Dialogue
Part II: Insights evoked by intractable international differences
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A. Scope of 'faith'
Although Part I of this article, focused on the Parliament of the World's Religions (Chicago, 1993) as a major inter-faith event, 'faith' can usefully be understood in a broader sense than in relation to religion. Dialogue is a challenge in many arenas where the entrenched 'beliefs', 'faiths' or 'religions' may correspond to political or ideological factions, philosophies, management styles, cultural biases, or even aesthetic preferences. During the Global Forum, on the occasion of the Earth Summit (Rio de Janeiro, 1992), this challenge was explored in an Inter-Sectoral Dialogue bringing together sectors such as science, religion, labour, industry, environment, and the like (1). Representatives of particular sectors may hold to their ideological faith as strongly as adherents of a particular religion. Dialogue in an inter-religious context may therefore have learnings for other arenas, as is true of the reverse. The point is best reinforced by Kinhide Mushakoji's study of Global Issues and Interparadigmatic Dialogue; essays on multipolar politics (2).
B. Exploring the future of 'inter-faith dialogue
Faced with the apparent success of the Parliament of the World's Religions (Chicago, 1993), and from the upbeat reporting in its Sourcebook (3) on the many past and present inter-faith initiatives, it might well be asked whether there are any doubts as to the appropriateness of inter-faith strategies and visions. What is to be made of the plethora of well-meaning declarations with no institutional consequences? There is a danger of these pious efforts becoming a dubious characteristic of the inter-faith movement. Is there not a severe danger of self-satisfaction and complacency -- reinforced by somewhat desperate attempts at celebration of mutuality and consensus? Is there not a danger, characteristic of religious movements, of wallowing in hope in order to avoid addressing the knotty issues of their own relationships in new ways? This tendency can be manipulated by those who are basically content with the status quo and have no real vision for new patterns of relationship.
The organizers in Chicago were strangely lax in failing to produce any concept papers to aid discussion of the future of such events, including the envisaged institutionalization of the Parliament. The only efforts made in this direction were those collected for the Sourcebook (3). Typically these would be high on inspiration and low on the modalities through which reality could be given to such enthusiasm other than in the simplest sense.
The intent in the following paragraphs is to endeavour to reframe the challenge of dialogue by distinguishing forms which are essentially tokenistic or minimalistic from those which should be able to open up new possibilities. The difficulty is that the latter are easily obscured by the enthusiasms, low expectations and self-congratulatory nature of the former. Only though such distinctions does it seem possible to identify the genuinely new frontiers where pioneering work is called for and to envision the future possibilities and challenges in that context.
C. Attitudes towards dialogue
It is perhaps useful to cluster types of dialogue in terms of the following attitudes:
The Chicago event, as with many inter-faith, inter-sectoral and inter-cultural initiatives, seems to have responded primarily to those of Type (d), although (c) and (b) would necessarily have participated. Thus the advice on inter-faith dialogue in the Sourcebook responds to the needs of those in (d). The Bangalore meeting, which immediately preceded it, is more likely to have emphasized Type (e). It is ways of envisioning Type (e) forms of dialogue which are called for in order to move beyond enthusiastic celebration of underachievement.
D. Models of dialogue
The exploration of dialogue is becoming of increasing interest -- indeed there is already a need for dialogue between the competing approaches to dialogue. The Quakers have long established the importance of 'gathered meetings', although even they have critics concerned at a certain complacency. David Bohm (4, 5) and Patrick de Maré each initiated experiments in dialogue which have recently become a basis for a Dialogue Project at MIT. This project is concerned with 'generative dialogue as collective creation'. Its director, William Isaacs, usefully distinguishes this emphasis from those associated with other models of dialogue (6):
However what remains unclear (even for Type (e) above), is how different levels or qualities of dialogue might usefully be distinguished. Leonard Swidler and others, in their dialogue on dialogue conclude that 'The differences among us are partly because we each have a very different 'feel' for the words involved, but probably even more because we were speaking of different stages in the dialogue and at times had different dialogue participants in mind.' (10, p. 148).
E. Levels of dialogue
What does it mean when a dialogue becomes 'deeper', more profound or more significant? This can perhaps best be explored through a metaphor that clarifies possible steps in the evolution of dialogue. There may be a case, taking an Eastern martial art like aikido as a metaphor, for distinguishing different levels of proficiency in dialogue -- up to a 'black belt' -- and bearing in mind the progression of philosophical and attitudinal subtleties in responding to an 'opponent'! Shifting metaphors, perhaps there is a case for a dialogue equivalent to a 'golf handicap' to constrain the undisciplined and to provide a 'level table' (to use a phrase vital to a stage in the Middle East peace process).
Alternatively, a musical metaphor could be used in different ways. One way is to take the stages in the historical development of musical harmony as representing stages in the complexification and enrichment of dialogue as an exercise in social harmony (11). This could give rise to a sequence of levels such as the following:
Is it possible that the Chicago efforts towards a global ethic were trapped in an understanding of harmony that dates back to Ancient Greece?
A related approach would be to consider a metaphor based on:
The focus is here on the Western concept of music. That of the East opens the ways to seeking parallels with developments in modes of awareness which can allow the presence of elements of an apparently higher degree of incompatibility.
In both cases levels are not 'superseded' through such development. Each always has its value. But at the 'deeper' or 'higher' levels there is greater richness. The context for any item included from a 'lower' level then becomes of greater significance. At the higher levels, it is how lower level contributions to the dialogue are combined with others that is more significant than the specific quality of that contribution. As with music, the power and genius of a piece of dialogue comes from the overall pattern of combinations. At the higher levels this may appear increasingly chaotic, but is increasingly capable of holding the degree of order found in nature. Lower levels of dialogue tend to be mechanistic, where the higher levels depend on aesthetic significant patterns of associations. Of course, from a lower level, any pattern connecting elements of significance at a higher level would necessarily be a challenge to comprehension.
There is learning too in the way people cluster themselves in their appreciation of music. There are subtleties to which music enthusiasts respond, even to the point of being fanatically snobbish about them. There are varieties of popular music which arouse deep enthusiasm, however much they horrify others. The varieties of dialogue will cluster groups in this way also. 'Classical' dialogue will have its place as a complement to 'Popular' dialogue -- and what of 'Hard Rock' dialogue or 'Country and Western' ? It is no coincidence, in terms of this metaphor, that the values to which the young are exposed tend currently to be most effectively articulated through musical lyrics -- and this includes the notions of peace and love so emphasized in the Chicago Parliament.
F. Mapping the inter-faith space
In some respects the richness of the Chicago Sourcebook (3) makes for depressing reading. How is it that so many laudable groups have undertaken so many valuable initiatives with so little consequence -- especially for such inter-religious conflicts as Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kashmir and the Sudan?
Each initiative seems to be undertaken without accounting for earlier or parallel initiatives. Granted this can all be seen as a case of many species in an evolving ecosystem of initiatives. But is there really no interest in mapping out that ecosystem a little more systematically? Where does each initiative 'fit' on the inter-faith map? What ensures the coherence of the relationships amongst certain initiatives and the isolation of others?
In music there is a case for discovering the range of notes and how they may be organizedinto octaves, chords and the like. The range of instruments and the kinds of sound they make can also be distributed onto a map. Is there not a case for doing the same with the range of religions and spiritual disciplines -- however challenging the task may be, and however crude the first maps might be?
Such maps would make apparent the other 'continents' and regions of spiritual experience of which each was relatively unaware. Distances and intervening 'oceans' would mark the greater challenges to inter-faith dialogue -- just as the length of trade routes has always marked the more challenging forms of trade. If the Chicago vision is for a United Nations of Religions, then a prerequisite is such a map of the world of spirituality to show the territories to be represented in such a global body.
There is much information from which to build maps of this kind. The editors of Hinduism Today, represented in the Assembly, devoted three years to work in this direction (see pages ***) -- and are adapting their work to sophisticated computer displays. As mentioned above, the database of the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential (12) has extended the coverage to every possible spiritual and psychological discipline associated with human development. As with the history of maps, it is the art of putting together meaningful maps which needs to be explored.
It is with such maps that better 'music' can be designed to articulate the patterns of inter-faith insights. With such maps, and a more humble attitude to the unexplored levels of dialogue, the challenges of facilitating more fruitful dynamics for a body like the Assembly can be explored -- in order to ensure the integration of insights at a higher order of consensus.
G. Levels of dialogue
Efforts towards constructing such maps seem to have got stuck in distinguishing 'levels', and in responding to the twin challenges of 'syncretism' and 'exclusivism', vital not only from a Christian perspective but also wherever an established school of thought is concerned at the dilution or adulteration of its hard-earned truths. There is also fascination with the nature of any 'underlying unity' or of some 'common ground' (10, 13). Thus David Lochhead (13), in considering the stages of inter-faith encounter, distinguishes the following progression:
He sees these levels as continued through a series of progressively more refined approaches to dialogue:
It can be readily assumed that better dialogue would occur between those of greater matruity in their respective faiths. And indeed the above sequence bears comparison with Michael Jacobs (14) very useful review of the stages of faith as explored in a major research project by James Fowler (15), that drew upon the cognitive development work of Jean Piaget, the psycho-social development model of Erik Erikson (16), and the moral development scheme proposed by L Kohlberg (17). Fowler's scheme gives seven levels: primal faith, intuitive-projective faith, mythic-literal faith, synthetic-conventional faith, individuative-reflective faith, conjunctive faith, and universalizing faith.
Erikson's work, and those of his interpreters such as David Capps (18), see such stages as related to chronological age, although they are not necessarily age specific. It has been suggested that the ages of individual development are related to factors which can be applied more universally to the development of a mature society. To each of his ages corresponds a developmental challenge or dilemma which can be seen as related to some of the issues of dialogue noted above:
Jacobs' own stages of belief is a reinterpretation of the above into: trust and dependency, authority and autonomy, cooperation and competition, complexity and simplicity.
H. Levels as traps: beyond linearity
The level approach has been criticized by feminist scholars, notably Carol Gilligan (19, 20), for being gender biased in its uni-directionality. It is argued that women are less concerned with rules and more with relationships, with where actions might lead and with the history behind moral dilemmas. Emphasis on levels de-emphasizes the degree of connectedness experienced by women. Cognitively, levels may thus be seen as a metaphorical trap.
The need to see different 'levels' as each providing its own valid framework, between which it is important to be able to shift flexibly, is stressed by another female scholar J Hemenway (21) in her description of four complementary faith frameworks. Jacobs endorses this principle although pointing to resemblances between such frameworks and the kinds of stage distinguished above. He stresses that her approach is not developmental in nature. There is no sense in which someone moves 'back' or 'forward' between stages that would imply a value judgement that one framework is more 'healthy' than another. He also points to theefforts of Don Cupitt (22) to produce a kind of non-linear 'metro-map' interrelating 16 religious approaches.
For Jacobs, 'if the wish for order draws us toward linear models, it is important to emphasize that at whatever stage a person is, especially in terms of their psychology of belief, none is any 'better' or 'worse' than another. The only qualification to this is that within each stage some forms of belief appear to be more positive for psychological health than others.' (p. 52)
I. Mapping forms and opportunities for dialogue
There is the clear implication that dialogues of different quality and consequence could be associated with distinct conditions, whether considered as stages or frameworks. But the dangers of focusing on 'higher level' dialogue, at the expense of others forms, derive from the failure to recognize the functions of each kind of dialogue and how they complement each other within society.
Jacobs points to the wide acceptance achieved by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (23), designed by two women based on the work of Carl Jung. This effectively provides a 4x4 square of 16 places denoting different categories of temperament (24). No developmental linear progression is suggested. Also arousing much interest is the framework of 9 conditions provided by the distinctly non-linear enneagram (25). Users are encouraged to work with the challenges of their own condition in relation to those of others they encounter, and to broaden their range of responses. A rich system was developed by the Institute of Cultural Affairs as an international community in which the idea of a never-ending journey between 16 conditions was emphasized (26). It is also appropriate to mention the remarkable significance attached to the Chinese Book of Changes (27) as perhaps the most sophisticated mapping of relationships between a variety of human conditions and dilemmas.
Clearly one of the most conveniently comprehensible forms of map, as a step beyond linearity, is a tabular presentation like that of Myers-Briggs. It is therefore worth speculating on the possibilities of representing the variety of opportunities for dialogue on a surface resembling the classical board game common to many cultures. Clues to the organization of such a mapping might be:
J. Dialogue as flow and transition
To facilitate dialogue, there may be a very strong case for avoiding the trap of imposing a pattern of definitively labelled conditions. Part of the process of dialogue is working with the stereotyped labels that one side needs to attempt to impose on the other. Indeed much of the manouevering for advantage in dialogue lies in the effort to 'corner' the other in some pattern of labels through which he or she may be conveniently handled. One can speculate on the nature of a board game reflecting this. Those struggling with each other in the dialogue might for example 'freeze' temporarily the significance of some board positions by consensus. More intriguingly in the absence of such consensus, other positions might be given double labels, reflecting both the positive connotations of the occupier as well as the negative connotations of the adversary experiencing that position as challenging his own.
Allusions have been made to the possible nature of such rule-shifting games in novels such as Herman Hesse's Glass Bead Game, or M A Foster's The Game Players of Zan. From such a perspective, each of the efforts to distinguish levels could be seen by dialogue partners as conceptual resources that could potentially be imposed on the board during the course of the dialogue. Such a dialogue then has the potential for being continually transformed between different kinds of game. The dialogue is refreshingly defined in terms of a set of transitional objects (32). Different 'light' filters or logics can be used to view the game or communication space, just as different keys (or even scales) can be used for musical expression (33).
Other clues to representing the forms and challenges of dialogue are suggested by frameworks like the periodic table of chemical elements. This is organized into columnar 'groups' and row 'levels' which effectively identify cellular 'elements' with particular qualities. It thus highlights the possibility of development from 'lighter' to 'heavier' elements, as well as the emergence of the electrochemically 'positive' and 'negative'. Such terms are of course used to distinguish different kinds of dialogue. Of special interest is the implication that suitably distant positions might 'strongly' or 'weakly' interact to form more or less stable configurations based on strong or weak 'bonds'. Physicists and chemists have long pursued the possibilities of very heavy elements, whilst appreciating the role of the lighterst in the sustenance of life. Some of the social implications of such an ordering have been explored by Ed Haskell (34). A framework based on this approach is used for the functional interrelationship of international organizations (35).
Such clues point to forms of dialogue that would not be dependent for their dynamic on any convergence towards consensus (or away from it). As suggested by the computer game of life, stable configurations could emerge for a time, but they might also slowly migrate and develop across a framework of significance. As in many inter-personal relationships, they would be significant for a duration. Some of the above pointers suggest possibilities of'collaborative' games through which richer and more complex patterns get built through the dialogue process. Research on team building, and the variety of skills required (36, 37), suggest that these could be fruitfully associated with columns or rows of the table. Much remains to be discoveredfrom the transition from a 2-dimensional table to a 3-dimensional map, as explored elsewhere (38, 39) and as suggested by the recent explosion of interest in fullerenes (40). The implications for management processes crossing cultural divides are especially relevant (41).
Many inter-personal relationships founder on obsession with togetherness, and its claustrophobic consequences for one or other partner. The challenge of relationships between kibbutz children is one example. It may well be that dialogue needs to free itself from the obsession with consensus as the holy grail of dialogue. Conflict is now being creatively explored by major corporations (42). In terms of Zen-style challenging paradoxes (43), it may well be that the art of fruitful dialogue lies in avoiding the stultifying consequences of agreement. The challenge of sustainable dialogue (as opposed to 'cash cropping' through consensual dialogue) may require understandings analogous to those for sustainable development as exemplified by permaculture (44). What does it take to sustain dialogue? Like the grail, pehraps sustainable consensus is far more mysterious than is naively assumed. Why does dialogue stop when it does? Are there more profound meanings to 'flow' in dialogue (45). Reframing dialogue as suggested above might also counter the tendency for certain dialogues to meander endlessly without constraint, as has been apparent in David Bohm's experiments.
K. Towards higher orders of consensus: freeing the voices
The above framework might be used to examine what was attempted in the Chicago Assembly process in endeavouring to manoeuvre participants into signature of the Global Ethic. As a parenthetical note, it is interesting that portions of that declaration were read to the Assembly using alternate male and female voices. The written declaration could however be compared to a plainsong chant from which any form of polyphony was absent. The organizers did however want the participants to furnish a chorus line ('Peace, Peace -- We agree, We agree'!). As such, the design of the declaration is clearly relatively simple, if not simplistic, in terms of the musical metaphor outlined above. Leaders, and especially spiritual leaders, do not like to sing in chorus lines or to be part of backing vocals. That is not why they are leaders.
A more interesting form of declaration, in terms of the musical metaphor, would not have sought immediate concord between the 'voices' represented by the different factions at the Assembly. Rather the declaration would have been designed to allow the different voices to challenge each other, exploring various possibilities of harmony and discord between them -- using new discords to force the articulation of more profound harmonies (33, 46). Any group of composers or musicians could articulate a wealth of interesting possibilities (47). The declaration would then have taken the form of a shared journey in which each voice could be allowed a measure of 'dominance' for a time. The 'ethic' is then given form as a dynamic process rather than as a static end state, as a dynamic pattern of relationships rather than a static set of rules.
The theory of musical harmony suggests many possibilities for resolving the differences between voices through the text as a whole. The strength of this approach is that the identities of the different factional perspectives are not lost in a univocal 'consensus' document. The discipline of designing a declaration, that could be 'sung' in polyphony or'played' by a variety of instruments, would ensure its far wider dissemination than as a legalistic text or press communique. (Al Huang was so frustrated with the poetic inadequacies of the Global Ethic text in the Assembly, that he said he could dance it better!) Adherents of each religion could then follow through the explorations of 'their voice' and the challenges to it by the other partners in the ethical ecosystem -- adding their own chorus lines if they so wished.
If different styles of music and musical values tend to be favoured by different cultures, is it any surprise that the same might be true of ethical values? If each religion or ideological faction is perceived as a musical instrument, with certain musical strengths and weaknesses, how can the most valued music be created from a group of such instruments? It would be a foolish loss of richness for them all to do the same thing. As an instrument, there are dimensions that 'Christianity' can best explore, just as there are others best explored by 'Buddhism' or 'Islam'. Management is coming to this realization (41). Chicago gathered some 40 main religions with a further 200 variants -- the resources for a truly magnificent choral symphony, if ways could but be found to evoke the music from them (or through them). The challenge is to bring out the points of resonance and dissonance so as to enrich their interplay, rather than to seek simplistically to eliminate all dissonance. The music provides coherence through which the pattern of differences is 'held'. As noted by Leonard Swidler, as for Arnold Toynbee, 'if the distinct melodies of each religion of the world could be played together, they would make for more harmony than cacophony' (10, p. 86). Why not explore this metaphor more seriously?
It is worth remembering that religions have in the past severely condemned particular styles of music, and even particular chords (diabolus in musica), because they did not reflect some simplistic notion of harmony. Is the Global Ethic, as currently conceived, not an effort to do just that? Surely what is required is an ethical presentation that honours the differences and justifies them within a larger context. It is the articulation of that context that constitutes the much-sought new paradigm. It can only be effectively articulated by using both what makes religions different and what makes them appeal differently to different cultures, rather than by simply building on commonalities. How dull and alienating music would be if it only used what was common to all cultures!
Recent years have dramatically highlighted the ineffectual nature of policies and structures based on consensus -- especially when confronted with fundamental dilemmas and radically opposed alternatives as in Bosnia. Just as significant dialogue cannot effectively be sustained without significant differences, there is a case for exploring ways of configuring and using differences regarding sustainable policies. The comprehension of more challenging approaches to dialogue, as suggested above, provides a way of evoking the new styles of comprehension required in policy-making and coalition design where differences are intractable and likely to remain so.
L. No doubt? No dialogue!
At an event such as the Parliament, it is useful to be sensitive to four modes, which everyone can get into, although some may be primarily characterized by only one of them:
'Doubt sharing' is exemplified by a parable offered by a member of the Parliament Board of Trustees: A man is lost deep in the woods. In his futile search for a way out, he comes upon another man and seeks his assistance. The other man replies: 'Do not take the way I have for it will surely lead you astray. Now, let us seek to find the right way together.'
Unfortunately the Parliament proved to be an exercise in presenting certainties (Mode a) and learning of them (Mode b). Information exchange (Mode c) was suppressed. And no process was developed to work collectively with uncertainty to uncover new routes forward (Mode d). It is from the combination of this Mode (d) with dialogue Type (e), at 'higher' levels of dialogue, that the real opportunities for the future will emerge.
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