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Reframing Inter-Faith Relationships

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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. Prepared in anticipation of the European Regional Conference of the United Religions Initiative (Oxford 1997)


Group dynamics: The very process of discussion calls for recognition of the manner in which each contributes both insight and obscurity. (see Participant Contract)

Metaphoric guidelines: Whilst there are many group process techniques, use of metaphor is common to all religious traditions. Dialogue through metaphor, as a means of communicating the concerns of dogma and doctrine, may prove the most fruitful. (see Guidelines for Dialogue through Metaphor)

Imagining potential concord: How might inter-faith relationships be understood in several thousand years, or by the most wise? What of that future approach is unappreciated now, and why?

Geometry of symbolism: The core symbol of any religion, frequently based on integrative symmetry, may be understood as a particular window on the ineffable. The inter-faith challenge is therefore also partly one of reconciling the geometries of such symbolism. (see Configuration of Symbols)

Beyond words and mundane understanding: Each religion separates an understanding of the transcendent from the mundane, and then indicates how one may be linked to the other. Using words to provide understanding of the transcendent leads to differences in interpretation. Communicating insight into the paradox of that which "passeth understanding" is the ultimate challenge.

Configuring differences: Differences result from a diversity of insights -- each perceived as "right" or "wrong" by some. How might it be possible to configure these differences to understand when each is appropriate and inappropriate within a larger framework? What form might that framework then take?(see Living Differences as a basis for Sustainable Community)

Values -- shared and unshared: Many religions have sets of key values enshrined in verbal formulations. Efforts have been made to elicit underlying universal values, also presented in words. For any religion, how is the understanding conveyed by the formulation of any given universal value different from that conveyed by its own formulation? For a major religion, if no difference is perceptible, might it not be asked whether it's perspective has not dominated the formulation of the "universal" value? Should universal understandings necessarily be a challenge to the particular?

Common ground: This is now a key phrase in the process of inter-faith dialogue and in the elaboration of any global ethic. Where such "ground" is sought based on an implicit metaphor such as a "town square" or "village common", this objective needs to be challenged in terms of the inadequacy of its complexity. Jerusalem is characteritic of a situation in which claimants claim the totality of the common ground -- in contrast to the many simpler negoitating situations in which some sharing may be envisaged. It is precisely what makes the ground "sacred" to a given faith that undermines simpler approaches to "common ground" -- in a special sense it is an psycho-social "homeland". These dimensions take "common ground" out of its metaphoric two-dimensions, so easily enshrined in legalese, and call for other levels of understanding -- for which metaphoric clues may be sought in the conceptual riches of mathematics and the fundamental sciences.( see the Quest for Uncommon Ground)

Stakeholders: This term is a feature of the widepread "common ground" approach to negotiating differences. Here however the implicit metaphor is that of the stake used to establish territorial or mining rights. Little thought is given to building on this metaphor to suggest notions of links between stakes as in fencing an enclosure -- fencing the commons? Nor is thought given to the ways in which stakes may be used to ensure the erection and stability of a tent within which all can shelter and interact -- a three-dimensional space. Strangely stakeholders implies that people will continue to cling to their stake, presumably preventing them from engaging in other forms of activity -- as implied by the tent-erection extension. It might even be asked whether the term is better understood as "steakholders", where each grabs a piece of "meat" from an ill-defined whole -- which might otherwise have been able to live.

Vision: The "vision" metaphor, so characteristic of future strategy making, implicitly excludes insights which might be suggested by other senses such as: "listening" (to those in need, to peer groups, to other faiths?), "touching" (those providing resources, those in need of resources, the hearts of the people?), etc. What are vision's blindspots? Does vision imply that there may be a need for corrective lenses? Who are the blind? What "looks" great but "sounds" or "smells" awful? What "sounds" awful, but "looks" great? Why does traffic in some countries rely so much on sound? Would having the right "touch", be appreciated more than having the right "vision" and "looking good"? Animals in the environment survive by using a combination of senses and exploiting the sensorial weaknesses of their prey. Strategies effectively based on a single sense condemn societies to relearn the evolutionary lessons of nature.

Formulating declarations and charters: Traditionally such documents have taken the form of checklists. Usually absent is any sense of the functional co-dependency of the items, namely how they form a comprehensible pattern of checks and balances. Their legalese lacks the mnemonic coherence and resonance provided in poems or songs -- and as such they are essentially unmemorable and lacking in motivating significance. Is there not a case for exploring more appropriate forms, especially when religions have traditionally supported multi-media vehicles? (see Formulation of Declarations)

Comprehending "United" "Religions" "Initiative": Each of these terms may be usefully understood at various levels of significance. Perhaps most challenging and fruitful is the level at which: "United" embodies insights into emergent organization beyond that of "inter-" and "multi-"; "Religions" challenge the integrative capacity of the perceiver, for whom each religion then becomes a window (one of which may offer a preferred view); and "Initiative" implies both a mysterious catalyst and a new dynamic. (see exercise with regard to name of Union of International Associations)

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