Envisioning the Dynamics of a World Parliament of Religions
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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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
(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
This could be done in working groups, or by the confrontation
of alternative visions of what may prove possible.