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8.2 Levels of dialogue

1. Scope of "faith" in inter-faith dialogue

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 (Judge, 1992). 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 (1988).

2. 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 (Joel Beversluis, 1993) 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. 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.

3. Attitudes towards dialogue

It is perhaps useful to cluster types of dialogue in terms of the following attitudes:

  • (a) those groups who simply do not favour dialogue. In the case of spiritual or religious groups, this may follow directly from the sense that once one holds the truth, or is following the most appropriate path, interaction with those in error, or going in the wrong direction, can only be counter-productive.
  • (b) those groups who favour minimalistic dialogue, possibly only to avoid being labelled as isolationists. This position is clearly important to groups concerned to leave some possibilities open, as well as to those anxious to position themselves in the best light in relation to perspectives which might otherwise appear more attractive.
  • (c) those groups who favour and initiate dialogue on their own terms in order better to demonstrate the prime role of their own belief system. Dialogue is then envisaged in two stages:establishment of a pattern of communication apparently characterized by symmetry and equality; then use of that pattern unilaterally to communicate the essential truths. This form of dialogue is favoured by Christian ecumenical movements and in Muslim invitations to dialogue.
  • (d) those groups who are content to engage in any dialogue process, but without any expectation that it should be especially challenging or that it should progress beyond peer bonding and celebrations of mutuality.
  • (e) those groups who believe that progress in the quality and challenges of inter-faith dialogue can lead to the emergence of new patterns of understanding and organization of relevance to society at large.

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.

4. 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 (1985, 1991) 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 (1992):

  • "therapeutic" models using the group as the vehicle through which individuals may develop (David Bohm and Patrick de Maré)
  • "community building" models designed to foster a sense of shared community and mutual understanding (as advocated by Carl Rogers (1983) and Scott Peck (1987),
  • "negotiation" models in which efforts are made to produce mutual understanding among people holding radically different perspectives (Chasin (1992))
  • "hermeneutic" models of social constructionists that focus on the ability to create reality through shared meaning construction through generative metaphor.

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." (Swidler, 1990, p. 148).

5. 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 constrainthe 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 (Judge, 1980). This could give rise to a sequence of levels such as the following:

  • Level 1: Singing in unison, based on scales (Ancient Greece)
  • Level 2: Use of any of 12 scale patterns of tones with characteristic functions (6th to 9th century)
  • Level 3: Acceptance of only simplest "perfect" harmonic ratios, allowing the addition of one or two exactly parallel voices, that later acquired melodic independence (9th century)
  • Level 4: Acceptance of other intervals and the development beyond 3-part scoring (12th to 15th century)
  • Level 5: Breakdown of the distinction between the 12 classical modes, foreshadowing the major/minor system (15th century)
  • Level 6: Focus on the keynote as the point of departure and arrival in a composition (16th century)
  • Level 7: Emphasis on expressive melodic line harmonically underpinned by a base line generating forces upon which harmonies were built (17th century)
  • Level 8: Deliberate use of unresolved harmonies and of ambiguous chords (19th century)
  • Level 9: ...

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:

  • Level 1: Monotone (enunciation of single pattern of values, drowning out or ignoring all others)
  • Level 2: Competing monotones (recognition of discordant patterns of values)
  • Level 3: Responding tones (contrasting volumes responding to each other in some measure)
  • Level 4: Runs of tones...simple melodies (highlighting of sequences of values in resonance one with another)
  • Level 5: Isolated chords (harmonious value complexes and combinations)
  • Level 6: Sequences of chords (sequences of value complexes, providing a context for those of a more discordant nature)
  • Level 7: ...

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 ofassociations. 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.

6. 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 organized into 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 and are adapting their work to sophisticated computer displays. As mentioned above, the database of this Encyclopedia 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.

7. "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" (Swidler, 1990; Lochhead, 1988). Thus David Lochhead, in considering the stages of inter-faith encounter, distinguishes the following progression:

  • a condition of isolation (in which no alternative perspective is encountered)
  • a condition of hostility (in which other perspectives are demonized)
  • a condition of competition (in which the differences from other perspectives are stressed in order to establish their inferiority)
  • a condition of partnership (in which differences are perceived as secondary to similarities, stressing underlying unity)

He sees these levels as continued through a series of progressively more refined approaches to dialogue:

  • dialogue as a means of conversion (of the other, necessarily perceived as in need of converting), in which each essentially competes with the other
  • dialogue as a negotiation, in which the aim is agreement, and the search for "common ground" (which may be reduced to a lowest common denominator, and is vulnerable to the accusation of syncretism)
  • dialogue as the search for mutual understanding, without necessarily seeking agreement
  • dialogue as integration, through which perspective is obtained on the weak points of one's own views and the strengths of the other's, with acquisition of facility in the categories of the other's framework leading to a more profound way of experiencing one's own
  • dialogue as activity, in which those involved together discover forms of understanding which none had known before, namely a movement "beyond dialogue" in which there is mutual transformation.

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 (1993) 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 (1968), and the moral development scheme proposed by L Kohlberg (1981). 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 (1987), 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:

  • oral-sensory age: trust vs. mistrust
  • anal-muscular age: autonomy vs. shame
  • locomotor-genital age: initiative vs. guilt
  • latency age: industry vs. inferiority
  • adolescence: identity vs. role confusion
  • young adulthood: intimacy vs isolation
  • adulthood: generativity vs. stagnation
  • maturity: ego integrity vs. despair

Jacobs' own stages of belief is a reinterpretation of the above into: trust and dependency, authority and autonomy, cooperation and competition, complexity and simplicity.

8. "Levels" as traps: beyond linearity

The level approach has been criticized by feminist scholars, notably Carol Gilligan (1982, 1990), 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 bywomen. 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 (1984) 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 the efforts of Don Cupitt (1986) 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)