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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
If the gathering is structured so that the value of a verbal or written contribution is judged by its length or by its origin, then reference should be made to the many gatherings that have gone this route. The weighty tomes gathering dust on library shelves suggest the need for another approach.
Could the challenge of the gathering not be reformulated in terms of discovery of the set of metaphors or images which best embody a higher understanding of spiritual concord at this time? What is needed is an imaginative response to producing a kind of spiritual "Rosetta stone", or spiritual "keystone". It is the spiritual traditions which have made most effective use of metaphors in the past to convey the subtlest of insights.
Can the contemporary spiritual challenge not be reformulated in terms of the development of images, metaphors or parables to embody the harmonies and discords between different spiritual insights? Culture is the principal resource in any such undertaking -- given the wealth of metaphor from the many arts.
Embodying insights by circumscription
Focus on such metaphors to carry subtle insight avoids the need for lengthy verbal presentations using the specialized jargon of a particular tradition. The need is to share insight and an "image is worth a thousand words".
The concern is with the subtlest insights into integrative experience. There is merit in using metaphors which circumscribe such insights, alluding indirectly to the nature of the experience. In contrast, efforts to describe or label such insights directly run the risk of caricaturing them in the eyes of others. This severely inhibits concord based on mutual respect.
If participants are called upon to offer suitable metaphors to capture the collective dilemma of spiritual concord, a new way forward may be explored. This is not an imposition on those of spiritual background, since they regularly use such devices to communicate understandings within their own tradition.
The request is to extend this skill to articulation of the relationship between the seemingly incommensurable spiritual traditions assembled at the gathering. The challenge is to discover "healing insights", namely to clarify in metaphoric form the wholeness which articulates the relationship between different spiritual insights.
For a Buddhist, for example, what are the metaphors or images which best clarify the relationship between non-Buddhist groups holding different perspectives -- a mandala perhaps? Can that image be usefully contrasted with that furnished by a Christian to clarify the relationship between non-Christian groups -- a rose window perhaps? And can this be challenged by an Islamic perception of a similar nature? etc.
Note how this approach avoids confrontation on points of difference. It calls for setting the differences between others within an integrative framework which can be understood as a whole -- preferably with a centre that is empty and open. Filling or occupying the centre precludes others from comprehending the subtlest insights through other possible frameworks, whether now or in the future. It is an assertion that the integrative experience can only be engaged in through a single framework. It makes the framework of greater importance than the fundamental integrative experience. This would then be a form of "spiritual colonialism" that is repressive of alternative insights.
This metaphoric approach recognizes that the challenge:
Another metaphoric interaction could, for example, be based on the collaborative design of a shared place of worship. As a collective "thought experiment", the challenge for each tradition in making proposals is then to :
The collective art is to negotiate the design of the space, so that the aesthetic creativity and compromises both reflects the sense of integration between the different traditions and allows them to identify their own particular contribution to the overall design. The design process is then a metaphor for the process of achieving spiritual concord.
There are of course traps to be avoided. Metaphors and images that are helpful to some are experienced as constraining and simplistic to others. More challenging is that, as with cultural artefacts, people may appreciate or regret the quality of harmony or discord emphasized in a particular metaphor. There are some whose need for harmony is considered unrealistic and unmeaningful by others.
However, since the subtlety of the concord that is sought must necessarily transcend any articulation in a single metaphor, the challenge is to discover a set of complementary metaphors which together better embody that overarching insight. Perhaps the spiritual art to be discovered is that of dancing between the insights offered by such metaphors.
A metaphoric example: an ecology of spiritual insights
Using the ecological metaphor, for example, one may ask how each spiritual tradition fits into the spiritual ecosystem. What vital role does each spiritual tradition perform within that ecosystem?
Note that this is not an exercise in syncretism. Rather it is a recognition that there are people who, for whatever cultural or psycho-social reason, derive benefit from one pattern of spiritual insights rather than from another. However, there are other people who derive benefit from other patterns of insights.
And just as the artefacts of different cultures may be appreciated by some, under certain conditions an individual may articulate his or her spiritual understanding from different patterns of spiritual insights. For the integrity of the person, there must be some insight into ways of articulating the relationship between apparently conflicting spiritual insights.
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