DIALOGUE DIMENSIONS, DIRECTIONS & DEGREES

Amen: A Prayer for the World


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.


Lecture, University of Sulemani, Iraqi Kurdistan, Sept. 2021

I. Presuppositions

Dialogue—is at the very heart of the Universe, of which we humans are the highest expression: From the macro level—the interaction of Matter and Energy; to the micro—the interaction of Protons & Electrons in every atom (Einstein’s deathless formula: E=MC2 (Energy equals Mass times the Speed of Light [186,000/second]) to the human level—the symbiosis of Body and Spirit in each human; to the interpersonal level—the dialogue between Woman & Man; to the communal level—the “person-creating” relationship between Individual & Community. Thus, the very essence of the entire Universe, peaking in our humanity, is dialogical: Hence, a fulfilled Dialogic Human Life is the highest expression of the Cosmic Dance of Dialogue.

II. Dialogue Dimensions

There are four major Dialogue Dimensions: Dialogue of the Head, Hands, Heart, Holy. In the “Dialogue of the Head,” we together seek the Truth. In the “Dialogue of the Hands,” we together seek the Good, that is, to heal the world around us—tikkut olam. In the “Dialogue of the Heart,” we experience and embrace the Other in their expressions of Beauty, in art, architecture, music, poetry, dance …. Finally, in the “Dialogue of the Holy,” we share each other’s interior spirituality in our striving for integrated Wholeness—Greek holos, whence our English Holy

III. Dialogue Directions

The natural direction of the newborn is to reach from Ego, Self, to “The Other,” to move outward, in order to draw inward, to bring the mother’s breast to mouth. The infant naturally reaches out for the Good to draw it to its Self, its Ego. As the infant learns to recognize other Egos—mother, father, siblings, friends, neighbors…. a natural Expansive Energy comes into play, expanding its Ego to include ever-more Alter (Latin, “other”) Egos. At the same time, a Restrictive Energy arises to keep the maturing Ego safe from destructive forces. As the infant grows, the danger grows, either from painful experiences and/or distorted information that will lead to seeing the ever-increasing number of Egos less as potential Alter Egos, but more as “Other,” Alien. Good parents and communities foster the continuous expansion of the Ego to embrace the ever-increasing number of Alter Egos, while encouraging the “Restrictive Energy needed—but no more!—for wellbeing.

What the right balance is between the expansive and restrictive energies is not always obvious. It is the responsibility of the parents, family, and community to discern and teach this balance. Some, or many, may be faulty, and hence misleading. But even the best can be mistaken at times so that imbalances result. However, a healthy child, family, and community make these experiences into means of learning the right more surely in the future. Thus, the child will grow to maturity, to adulthood, having formed for her/himself in dialogue a confidently balanced dialogic self-understanding, and the corresponding pattern of behavior.

Growth, expansion does not cease, however, with adulthood. The Person can now with greater surety launch out into the deep in search of the ultimate goal of Wholeness, Holiness.   Millennia ago Confucius pointed out the path, the Way (Dao):

“At Fifteen my heart was set on learning;
At Thirty I stood firm;
At Forty I had no more doubts;
At Fifty I knew the Mandate of Heaven;
At Sixty my ear was obedient;
At Seventy I could follow my heart’s desire without transgressing the norm.” (Analects, 2:4).

St. Augustine compressed the process even more:
Ama, et fac quod vis! “Love, and do what you will!”

More modern spiritual theology writers, following St. John of the Cross and St. Theresa of Avila (both 17th century Spain), layout a triad of development:
The Purgative Way,
The Illuminative Way,
The Unitive Way ultimately to embrace the Transcendent, however, understood. (Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Three Ages of the Interior Life, tr. M. Timothea Doyle (Rockford, IL: Tan Books, 1991; originally 1938).

IV. Dialogue Degrees

As this maturing dialogic balance is reached the Person notices that others also attained this balance—but on a different set of principles and assumptions! A healthy curiosity arises and the Person wishes to know how that is possible. Then begins a new life adventure. (The following is a “general description” of the Degrees of Dialogue a person will pass through on her/his way to Wholeness, Holiness. The path in each Person’s life, however, will vary, will be unique.)

Degree 1. Encountering the Alien

We constantly encounter other persons on relatively superficial levels. However, as we sort out for ourselves the meaning of life, and how to live according to that maturing understanding, we will eventually encounter another mature person not just superficially, but in her/his inner reality—who, however, bases his/her understanding of life and how to live accordingly on sources and images radically different from ours. This Other might be of a different religion, a different culture…. S/he will suddenly appear to us as deeply Other, Alien. Because this is not a superficial encounter, but one which goes to the heart of another Person, to her/his values that determine his/her life’s choices and actions, this comes to us—who have only recently worked out for ourselves our own basic values and consequent rules for actions—as a profound shock! How can this be!? How can it be that this Other mature person does not understand the foundational meaning of life and its consequent rules for action the same way I have figured it out? Intriguing. Unsettling. Investigate? Turn away?

Degree 2. Passing Over

If each time such an opportunity arises we follow our Restrictive Energy and turn away from the Other, we will necessarily remain truncated, especially in the Third Millennium where-in humanity has entered the Age of Global Dialogue. If, however, we decide to follow our inborn “Expansive Energy,” our life will irrevocably change in an increasingly open direction. John Dunne described this reaching out to the Other as “Passing Over.” (John S. Dunne, The Way of All the Earth (New York: Macmillan, 1972). As we come to know our new Dialogue Partner’s inner spirit, all at first looks strange, alien—but because we see it lived with integrity, we find that it appeals to us as somehow, at first oddly, making up an integrated Whole, a strange, new-to-us Whole-ness, that is, “Holi-ness.” We see our Dialogue Partner being at home in his/her integrated inner/outer world and has begun to pass over to it, we too begin to feel the strangeness slowly fall away.

Degree 3. Encountering Similarity

In learning increasingly more about our Dialogue Partner’s “Brave new world that has such people in’,t” (William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act V, Scene I, ll. 203–206) we are pleased to discover “old friends” in many of its principles and images. Even more pleasing, and at times surprising, we come across these principles and images in totally unsuspected guises, in places we never thought to look before, e.g., I may have learned the Golden Rule from Jesus (Rabbi Yeshua) in the Gospels, and now learn that he was anticipated by his Teacher Rabbi Hillel, and he in turn, by the ancient Torah, which also matched the dates of Confucius and Zarathustra (5th-century BCE). At times I may even learn in the encounter with prominent traits of my Partner’s tradition that those principles and practices in fact were/are also part of my tradition, but for one reason or another atrophied, or even disappeared—and maybe it will be helpful to bring them back, perhaps in a renovated form. For example, the Muslim practice of praying five times a day was/is matched by the Christian practices of Morning /Evening Prayers plus the Angelus at 6—Noon—6. How best to utilize these spiritual customs developed for the fundamentally agriculture-based societies of 12,000 BCE–1850 CE awaits further contemporary experimentation and dialogue.

Degree 4. Adopting/Adapting New Insights.

While inhabiting my new spiritual/cultural home I may discover new insights so valuable that I want to bring them back to my primary home. For example, some Asian Buddhists have in their encounter with Christianity found decided the deep efforts toward social justice, as, e.g., various “Liberation Theologies,” are values that they wish to bring back to their Buddhist home (this in fact is happening); some Jews have found meditation practices experienced in Buddhism of such value that they wish to bring them back into their Jewish tradition. Some “Dialogue Visitors” may speak of adopting such practices for their own; others will speak of adapting them from their new encounters to fit more suitably into their home tradition.

Degree 5. Discerning Differences

Though we feel increasingly more welcome in our newly found “Visitor’s Home,” most often we also increasingly realize that this is not our “Home.” Hardly ever can we replace our “Home Town”—although a few persons may make the spiritual journey hither, never again to fully return home. Along with the exciting commonalities we find in our Visitor’s Home, we also re-learn that there are in fact differences between our Home and our Visitor’s Home—although almost always those differences are located at dramatically different places than we imagined beforehand. These differences might be

a) Nominal, that is, real commonalities, but hidden under different names;

b) Complementary, that is, completing each other, as. for example. alongside the Catholic custom of imitating Jesus, also that of looking to “saints” as models could be seen as not competing but completing the Muslim custom of looking to Mohammad and/or Sufi Saints as a life-models;

 c) Contrary, that is, two positions can be different without being mutually exclusive, as for example, Muslim “Paradise” and Buddhist “Nirvana” as the goal of life; or

 d) Contradictory, that is, one excludes the other, as, for example, the Christian teaching of “Eternal Life” is opposed to the Atheist position that the human person ceases at the grave.

Degree 6. Passing Back

It is wonderful to visit new places, but it is even more wonderful to return Home! As John Dunne urges to us to “pass over” to experience “from within” our Dialogue Partner’s home, we are on a “dialogic” journey that, after having “passed over” to our Visitor’s Home, we then also need to “pass back” to our Home. But we come back profoundly transformed. We can no longer think and live as if we were the center of the universe as if our understanding of the meaning of life was the only and complete understanding. We now realize that ours is one view of the world and its meaning, that there are numberless views, each, including mine, being—perceived through my, or your, or your…. cognitive faculties. We now realize that Nobody knows Everything about Anything! From our experience of other worldviews, ways of being in the world, we find that we must engage in intense Dialogue with members of our “Home Tradition,” sharing with them the fruits of our encounter with our “Dialogue Partner(s).” We must serve as a Bridge, learning anew that the nature of bridges is to be stepped on.

Degree 7. Discerning and Embracing Wholeness/Holiness

As our dialogic experiences continue in life, we find ourselves increasingly “at home” in more and more traditions, although our “Hometown” most often remains our most “at ease” Home. However, our Home is utterly transformed from a rigid, self-contented, closed place to a Home for All, that is nevertheless still anchored in its Traditions, but they are “growing” Traditions that embrace and adapt the New, the Other into a “Transformed-Transforming- Integrated-Whole” that wondrously constantly re-creates itself into a Holiness that is like the Horizon, which we constantly reach for, and in fact do move toward

*An expanded explanation of this material can be found at Leonard Swidler, Dialogue for Interreligious Understanding (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014).

Featured Image: “Amen: A Prayer for the World” courtesy of David McSpadden, Flickr Commons. https://www.flickr.com/photos/familyclan/15484793270/  The exhibition features 48 fiberglass sculptures in prayer painted by 30 Muslim and Christian Egyptian artists and 18 Christian and Jewish western artists…

If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy these books from iPub Global Connection:
Building Bridges: Understanding the Religion of Others by Antony Fernando
The Power of Dialogue: Jewish – Christian – Muslim Agreement and Collaboration by Reuven Firestone, Khalid Duran, and Leonard Swidler
Authentic Humanity: The Human Quest for Reality and Truth (Big Little Books) by Leonard Swidler

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