Professor Leonard Swidler is a global theologian who has pioneered and contributed to the field of interfaith dialogue for more than 50 years. He has been a professor of religion at Temple University since 1966. He is currently the Editor-in-Chief of the ecumenical research journal and the founder and director of the Dialogue Institute.
Introduction: A Little History About the Development of Humanity
- Two hundred thousand years ago, in central Africa, humanity, homo sapiens, first appeared.
- For the next 199,700 years, 99+% of us lived within a day’s walk from where we were born.
- Writing was invented 4,500 years ago in Sumer, but until
- Only 250 years ago merely 01% of us could read.
- Now billions can read, and
- Millions of us travel all around the world, and
- The entire world comes to us instantaneously via our TVs and smart phones.
- In the past, 99+% of us basically knew only people who thought and acted like us, whereas today *All the strangers of the whole world come into our classrooms, our living rooms—our hands!
- Our old wisdom when we lived on a tiny plot of the vast Earth is no longer adequate to deal with *The tsunami of experiences and deluge of knowledge that is flooding over us today!
- We are increasingly aware that our understanding of the world is not limited and static….
When Sir Isaac Newton, in the latter part of the 17th century, produced his stunning description of all the physical laws, seemly embracing the totality of nature and the cosmos—Principia Mathematica—we presumed that we knew 99+% of what there was to know about the world and the cosmos. But then, in 1905, Albert Einstein published his theory of relativity. Soon thereafter, Max Planck developed Quantum Mechanics. All of which turned our knowledge of both the macro and micro worlds topsy-turvy and showed us that the more we learned, the more we learned what we did not know. As Socrates, millennia ago, when asked who is the wise person, said: “The wise person is the one who knows that he does not know.”
Hence, I have tried to distill something of this wisdom in the following two mantras. I would ask you, Dear Reader, to memorize these mantras and repeat them at least once a day! Well, at least repeat them whenever you are about to have a serious conversation. Remember, “Repetitio est mater studiorum!” which means, “Repetition Is the Mother of Studies!”
- A) Nobody knows Everything about Anything—Therefore Dialogue!
- B) All Knowledge is Interpreted Knowledge—Therefore Dialogue!
Mantra A: Nobody knows Everything about Anything—therefore Dialogue!
What chemist, for example, would get up in the morning and say, “I don’t need to go to the laboratory anymore. I know everything about chemistry!” Or, what physicist would say she knows everything about physics? Or what sociologist, or anthropologist, or, or, or….?
And yet, when it comes to the most comprehensive and complex of all the disciplines, theology, religion (remember, the very definition of Religion is:
“An explanation of the ultimate, total, meaning of life, and how to live accordingly”) billions of us claim that we know everything about “the ultimate meaning of life,” and if someone thinks differently, he is simply wrong! But, if we cannot know everything about any single part of life, then, how in the world can we make the vastly greater claim to know everything about all the parts together—Religion!? The ringingly loud and clear answer is that, since we cannot know everything about any of the parts of life, we cannot know everything about the whole, Religion! Consequently, because
Nobody knows Everything about Anything—therefore Dialogue!
Mantra B: All Knowledge is Interpreted Knowledge—therefore Dialogue!
Let me suggest that knowledge, information, is like liquid Jello or liquid concrete. You don’t just pour Jello on a plate, or liquid concrete out on the ground. You pour each into a container. Then, of course, the Jello or concrete takes the shape of the container!—“round,” “square,” “smooth,” “rough”….
Think back five hundred years or so. Everyone woke up in the morning and saw the sunrise in the east, move overhead, and then go down in the west. Where did the sun go? Everyone thought that the sun went under the Earth—that is, it appeared as if, obviously, the Earth was steady, the center of the heavens, and clearly the sun, went around it. Thus, we all had the “knowledge” of seeing the Sun come “up” in the east and go “down” in the west. Then we thought, or interpreted, that that was because the Earth was the center and we assumed that the Sun went around the Earth.
That Assumption that the Sun went under the Earth was not Knowledge, for nobody actually saw the Sun go under the Earth. Rather, that was our Interpretation of what we saw. Today we still have the same visual Knowledge—the Sun is seen to change its relationship to the Earth. That is, we interpreted our seeing the daily changing of the relationship of the Sun to the Earth to be a rising of the Sun in the east and its going down in the west—but today we have a different interpretation!
This is the case with all knowledge. People still get sick today, for example, but we have different interpretations as to why. We no longer say to ourselves that we are sick because, for example, “someone one put a curse on us.” But, per the example, we learned that if we dump our sewage upstream and take our drinking water downstream, we are pouring pathogens into our bodies, and thus, are making ourselves sick. In this example we have the same knowledge—we are sick—but a different interpretation! In fact,
All Knowledge Is Interpreted Knowledge!
Now, if it is true that each of the bits of earthly information, or knowledge, we gain is always poured into the forms that we received from others, and perhaps reshaped—as, for instance, about the sun or sickness—then all the more is it true of the claimed total, ultimate knowledge of life—religion. That knowledge, like all other knowledge, is interpreted knowledge: Therefore, Dialogue!
What precisely, then, is this all-important Dialogue? The term Dialogue comes from the Greek Dialogos, It has two parts: dia and logos. Logos, first of all, means “thought,” or “thinking,” as in our English word “logic,” systematic thought. But, how can we can we express our thought or transfer it from my head to yours? We have to put our thinking, our logic, our logos, into words. Hence, secondarily, logos means “words.” The other part of the term “dialogue,” dia, means “across” or “together.” Hence, dialogos, dialogue, fundamentally linguistically means thinking and talking together!
Today, when we use the term Dialogue—as, for example, in our two newly-learned mantras, we mean to say that “I want to talk with you who thinks differently from me so I can learn.” For the past 199,000+ years, we humans have mainly talked with those who differed from us—especially concerning the ultimate meaning of life, religion—in order to tell them the total truth which we already had. And, if they differed from us, they simply were wrong! Increasingly now, however, as we gradually learn that “nobody knows everything about anything”—and especially about that most complex discipline of all, “an explanation of the ultimate meaning of life, and how to live accordingly,” religion—we must try to learn from those who experience and interpret dimensions of life differently from us: Hence, Dialogue!
We are increasingly learning that our knowledge is like the famous story of the blind men each feeling a different part of an elephant and describing what this an elephant is. The one feeling the leg said that it is like a tree. The one feeling the tail said that it is like a rope. The third, feeling the tusk, said that it is like a plow, and so on, for the other various parts of the elephant.
All Knowledge is Interpreted Knowledge—therefore Dialogue!
Nobody knows Everything about Anything—therefore Dialogue!
Now, learn to dialogue—and live accordingly!
If you enjoyed this article and want to read more, check out The Power of Dialogue: Jewish – Christian – Muslim Agreement and Collaboration by Leonard Swidler.
 See Leonard Swidler and Paul Mojzes, The Study of Religion in an Age of Global Dialogue (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990).
 See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blind_men_and_an_elephant
Those mantras are good but not enough. Knowledge is important but not sufficient. Beyond knowledge, we need wisdom, the ability to apply knowledge to enhance the human experience. Wisdom grows through dialogue. This is where inter-religious dialogue becomes essential. Wisdom begins with humility as the Book of Proverbs reminds us that the beginning of wisdom is the being in awe of the divine.
My personal experience from dialogue is that the ultimate meaning of life is understood and lived by different individuals, not only from different religious traditions and ideologies, but from the same one. differently.
If our aim is to arrive at one conclusion that is acceptable to all it can cause wrong understanding of each other and conflict. It is not only the case that one gets hurt felling but by getting shaken up from that stance that nurtured the individual or even a whole nation, into lack of self esteem.