Towards an Ecology of Spiritual Traditions
Experimental articulation through a dynamic system of metaphors
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Part of an experimental
collection of documents on collective identity
Towards an image-based language: the current socio-political function
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
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
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".
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.
Importance of keystones
It is not that concepts 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
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
How to proceed in the choice of metaphor?
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 are invested
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
(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 taken individually.
(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 is based 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 the negative 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 agriculture.
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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