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Dialogue permeates the cosmos and humanity.

1. Dialogue at the Foundation of All

Dialogue is not just the latest fad about which many people and organizations, even countries, are enthusiastic for now, only to drop it in a few years or sooner, in favor of the next fad. No, dialogue is the very structure of the cosmos and its highest manifestation, humanity.

Etymologically, the word "dialogue" comes from the two Greek terms, dia, which means variously "across," "between," "together," and logos, which means primarily "thought," as in "logic," and only then the sharing of our thought in "word." Thus, dialogue literally means "thinking/talking together." In recent decades, however, dialogue has increasingly been used to mean "I want to talk with you who think differently from me so I can learn," which is a radical shift in how we have approached--and far too often still approach today--the Other.

After many decades of being deeply involved in many different dialogues, formal and informal, and research into and reflecting about, dialogue (starting in 1957!), I have come to realize that it is something much, much deeper, much more constitutive of both our humanity and even the very structure of the whole cosmos. Let me start with the latter.

Think of dialogue in the broadest possible terms, as the mutually beneficial interaction of differing parts. On the macro level, we start with the cosmos's "Big Bang 13,800,000,000 years ago (what the cosmos was like before it "banged," why it "banged," why it followed the incredible rules that it did, why the cosmos existed, why "anything" existed--these and many intriguing, and most probably unanswerable, questions we have to leave for another time). This incredible expanding cosmos, of which we humans are an infinitesimal part, is fundamentally a dialogue between matter and energy. Think of Albert Einstein's "elegant" formula, e=[mc.sup.2], "energy equals mass times the speed of light." Were either matter or energy to swallow the other completely, we would not have the universe we have, swarming with billions of stars and galaxies. But we do, because matter and energy are in a fundamental dialogue with each other.

On the micro level we find fundamentally the same dialogic situation: Every atom is composed of positive and negative elements, the positive nucleus and the negative electrons; only the "dialogue" between the two produces the more than 100 chemical elements that exist in the entire universe. Were one to swallow the other, the result would be some sort of "black hole." But, we have the universe we all experience precisely because there is the constant dialogue between positive and negative energy on the sub-atomic level.

When we move "up" the ladder of being to self-conscious matter, homo sapiens, we find another profound dialogue, this time between body and spirit. A human being is not just matter, a slab of dead meat. It is also not even just living meat, as in a dog, bird, or fish. Rather, a human is fundamentally a dialogue between body and spirit. Were we humans just living bodies, we would be no different from my pet cat, but were we only spirits, we would be angels, not humans. If our spirit, for example, does break off the dialogue, if it does leave our body, our body indeed is then just a slab of dead meat, not a human being.

Let us look further at homo sapiens. Besides the fundamental body-spirit dialogue, we humans are also profoundly a dialogue of man and woman. Even on just the bare physical level, if there were no "dialogue" between man and woman, there would be no more homo sapiens. But, the male-female dialogue is vastly more profound in the shaping of homo sapiens; one does not have to be a Freudian to recognize that the erotic permeates every aspect of our humanness, whether we are conscious of it or not--indeed, perhaps especially when we are not aware of it. Moreover, now in the twenty-first century we humans are just beginning to become aware of this profound constitutive female-male dialogue, which for so long has been askew, and hence far too often constrictive rather than constructive in its misapprehension and oppression of women.

There is yet another fundamental dialogue that foundationally shapes our humanness, that between the individual and the community. Were a human being, per impossibilem, able to survive on its own after birth and never had any meaningful contact with other humans, with community, it would never develop into homo sapiens but would remain some sort of beast. It would never, for example, learn to speak--for it would have no one to speak to, nor anyone to speak to it.

It should also be noted that there has been profound progress over the millennia since the first appearance of homo sapiens, perhaps 100,000 years ago in central Africa. For their first 90,000 years, humans sustained themselves as hunters-gatherers, inventing agriculture only 10,000 years ago, around 8000 B.C.E. (first in Iraqi Kurdistan). This allowed humans to begin forming cities (hence, civilizations--from the Latin civis, city, therefore meaning cityzation), leading to huge human progress because of the division of labor. Then only 5,000 years ago, around 2000 B.C.E., writing was invented, and then 3,500 years ago, around 1500 B.C.E. the first sacred scriptures (the Vedas) were recorded. This led to the so-called "Axial Age," 800-200 B.C.E., where the shift from holding the community supreme to focusing on the individual person as being the raison d'etre of the community occurred (think of the Hebrew prophets, Socrates/Plato/Aristotle, Siddharta Gautama, Confucius).This increasing focus on the individual person continued gradually, reaching another breakthrough with the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. An aggressive reaction exploded in the first half of the twentieth century with the bloody rise of fascism and communism, but communitarianisms of various sorts since then are increasingly on the decline--though not without many violent counterattacks.

Thus, today, humankind is more and more moving toward restructuring the world as a dialogue between the person and the community, with the ultimate goal being fostering the full humanization of the person. Indeed, one cannot become a full human person except in community, but the whole purpose of the community is to produce the person.

Thus, the whole of the universe is, through and through at every level, dialogue--a "cosmic dance of dialogue"--and homo sapiens is its highest expression. Hence, to be in synchronization with the universe, we humans need to join in that "cosmic dance."

II. What Is Religion?

We are gathered to engage in dialogue, but, before we can even reflect on what we understand by dialogue, it is vital for us to recognize where and under whose auspices we are brought together. We are in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, whose very structure is based on religion, namely, the religion of Islam. Hence, it is vital that we reflect together on what we understand by religion. Then, we will be able to turn to reflecting on and begin to practice dialogue and, specifically, interreligious dialogue.

Let me offer what I think is a succinct but basically comprehensive definition of religion: Religion is an explanation of the ultimate meaning of life, based on a notion and experience of the transcendent, and how to live accordingly. (2) Every religion normally contains the four "c's": creed, code, cult, community structure.

"Creed" refers to the cognitive aspect of a religion; it is everything that goes into the "explanation" of the ultimate meaning of life.

"Code" of behavior or ethics includes all the rules and customs of action that somehow follow from one aspect or another of the Creed.

"Cult" means all the ritual activities that relate the believer to one aspect or other of the transcendent, either directly or indirectly, prayer being an example of the former and certain formal behavior toward representatives of the transcendent, such as priests, of the latter.

"Community structure" refers to the relationships among believers; this can vary widely, from a very egalitarian relationship, as among Quakers, through a "republican" structure such as Presbyterians have, to a monarchical one as with some Hasidic Jews vis-a-vis their Rebbe.

Transcendent, as the roots of the word indicate, means "that which goes beyond" the everyday, the ordinary, the surface experience of reality. It can mean spirits, gods, a Personal God, an Impersonal God, Emptiness, etc.

Especially in modern times there have developed "explanations of the ultimate meaning of life and how to live accordingly" that are not based on a notion of the transcendent, such as Marxism or atheistic humanism. Although in every respect these "explanations" function as religions traditionally have in human life--because the idea of the transcendent, however it is understood, plays such a central role in religion, but not in these "explanations," as was discussed above--for the sake of accuracy it is best to give these "explanations" not based on a notion of the transcendent a separate name. The name often used is "ideology." Much, though not all, of the following discussion will, mutatis mutandis (Latin: "changing what needs to be changed"), also apply to ideology, even when the term is not used.

III. The Dialogues of Humanity

For us humans there are three main dimensions to dialogue, corresponding to the structure of our humanness: dialogue of the head, hands, and heart, in holistic harmony of the holy human (seven "h's").

A. The Cognitive or Intellectual: Seeking the Truth

In the "dialogue of the head" we reach out to those who think differently from us to understand how they see the world and why they act as they do. Different from almost all human encounters of the past, in the dialogue of the head we seek first not to teach, but to learn. Of course, the only way I can learn to understand what you think, and why, is for you to teach me--and vice versa. However, it is absolutely critical that each of us come first to learn; if we come first to teach, as we have done for millennia, resulting only in bloody heads, we will always meet rejection; consequently, when we came first to teach, there was only rejection, no learning--and therefore no teaching. But, reverse that perennial process by dialogue--that is, by coming first to learn--and "magically" there are teaching and learning on both sides. Why did we humans take so long to learn this now-obvious truth? Clearly, the world is too complicated for anyone to grasp alone; we can understand reality increasingly only with the help of the other, in dialogue.

We can locate the fundamental causes (underlying the more obvious "external" causes, such as global communication, transportation, trade, etc.) that brought about this radical shift "from diatribe to dialogue" in a fundamental shift in our human epistemology, that is, in our "understanding of how we humans understand." This epistemological shift can be summarized very simply: "Nobody knows everything about anything." No chemist would get up in the morning and say, "I will never have to go to the lab anymore; I now know everything about chemistry." No sociologist would ever get up in the morning and say, "I will never need to do further search on how humans behave in society; I know all about it already." No physicist, no psychologist, no biologist--and, good heavens, no economist!--would ever get up in the morning and say, "I don't need to study and learn any further." However, paradoxically, and perversely, billions of people think that they know all there is to know about the most complicated of all disciplines, religion. Rather, precisely because religion is the most complicated of all disciplines, religious people and institutions need to be especially humble and modest in their claims to know. In other words, religions and religious people most of all need to engage in dialogue: That is, they/we need to come to those who think differently from us in religious matters first not to teach, but first to learn. To repeat: Religions and religious people need most of all to engage in dialogue.

Moreover, this seeking, and finding, religious truth through dialogue also has ethical, practical consequences because how we understand the world determines how we act in the world.

B. The Illative or Ethical: Seeking the Good

In the "dialogue of the hands," we join together with others to work to make the world a better place in which we all must live together. Since we can no longer live separately in this "one world," we must work jointly to make it not just a house but a home for all of us. In other words, we join hands with the other to heal the world--Tikkun olam, in the Hebrew tradition. The world within us and all around us is always in need of healing, and our deepest wounds can be healed only together with the other, only in dialogue.

It would be silly, for example, for the Hindus, Muslims, and Christians in a country each to build separate transportation or electrical systems or to work separately to solve local security or air pollution problems. In the 1960's civil rights demonstrations in the United States, Jews, Christians, and atheists at times found themselves in jail together--as did also Protestants and Catholics in Nazi concentration camps. These dialogues of the hands then led to a dialogue of the head as the prisoners began to ask each other why they had joined hands together. A further variation on that theme occurred when early in the twentieth century one group of Christians decided to work together to overcome the divisions of Christianity and launched the "Faith and Order Movement" (a dialogue of the head) in 1910. However, a number of other Christians were impatient about the work of the theologians to resolve the divisions, and, in 1912, they launched the "Life and Work Movement," arguing they did not need to wait to solve the intellectual differences before working together (dialogue of the hands).

C. The Affective, Aesthetic/Spiritual: Seeking the Beautiful/Spiritual

In the "dialogue of the heart" we open ourselves to receive the beauty of the Other. Because we humans are body and spirit--or, rather, body-spirit--we give bodily-spiritual expression in all the arts to our multifarious responses to life: joy, sorrow, gratitude, anger, and, most of all, love. We try to express our inner feelings, which grasp reality in far deeper and higher ways than we are able to put into rational concepts and words. Hence, we create poetry, music, dance, painting, architecture--the expressions of the heart. Here, too, is where the depth, the spiritual and mystical dimension, of the human spirit is given full rein. As seventeenth-century mathematician/philosopher Blaise Pascal said, "Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait point" (The heart has its reasons, which reason knows not.). All the world delights in beauty, so it is here that we find the easiest encounter with the Other, the simplest door to dialogue.

Once we together individually enter into our own interiors, into our own hearts, we find them beating in sympathetic vibration with other interior souls. Although all mystical experience and expression is religiously/culturally shaped--whether Jewish (Merkabah, Kabbalah), Christian (John the Evangelist, Augustine, John of the Cross, Theresa of Avila), Greek (Neo-Platonism), Muslim (Sufism), Hindu (Vivekananda)--there is at bottom a meeting together in the One, concerning whom all descriptions and images stutter.

D. Holiness: Seeking the One

We humans cannot live a divided life. If we are even to survive, let alone flourish, as we 1960's children used to say: We must "get it all together." We must not only dance the dialogues of the head, hands, and heart, but we must also bring our various parts together in harmony to live a holistic life, which is what religions mean when they say that we should be holy. Hence, we are authentically human only when our manifold elements are in dialogue within each other, and we are in dialogue with the others around us. We must dance together the cosmic dance of dialogue of the head, hands, and heart, holistically, (3) in harmony within the holy human.

IV. Conclusion

We who are privileged to be gathered here in Riyadh, in the heartland of Islam and Muhammad (pbh), to engage in dialogue cannot do so with the dialogue of the hands, although--one would hope--our meeting in an atmosphere of dialogue may lead some of us to plan future dialogues of the hands. However, we are being exposed to something of the beauty of what Islam has produced, and hopefully we will either for the first time, or further, engage in the dialogue of the heart by experiencing "Islam the Beautiful." Even more, let us all open our interior selves to each other, and to our own selves, as we see our deeper selves reflected in the mirror of our dialogue partners.

Most of all, of course, because we are brought together by a great university, Imam Mohammad Ibn Saud Islamic University, it is incumbent upon all of us to engage deeply in the dialogue of the head, the most demanding of the dialogues. However, it is precisely for this dialogue that we intellectuals and scholars have been trained and schooled. This will not be easy, but even small success promises great reward, for how we perceive the world determines how we act in the world.

Let us, then, open our minds, our hands, our hearts, and our spirits to each other--and, indeed, to our deepest selves in the mirror of our dialogue partners--in dialogue, thereby joining in the "cosmic dance of dialogue."

Leonard Swidler

Temple University

Philadelphia, PA

(1) This address was prepared for an interreligious dialogue conference sponsored by the King Abdullah Center for the Study of Islam and the Dialogue with Civilizations of Imam University, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, December 7-10, 2013. Only some parts of it were delivered from the floor.

(2) See Leonard Swidler and Paul Mojzes, The Study of Religion in an Age of Global Dialogue (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000).

(3) Those who know Western medieval philosophy will recognize that these are the "metaphysicals," the four aspects of Being Itself, perceived from different perspectives: the One, the True, the Good, the Beautiful.
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Author:Swidler, Leonard
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Article Type:Editorial
Geographic Code:7SAUD
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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