Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Leonard Swidler


I. “Nobody Knows Everything about Anything!”*

In the dawning Age of Global Dialogue we humans are increasingly aware that we cannot know everything about anything. This is true for the physical sciences: No one would claim that she or he knows everything about biology, physics, or chemistry. Likewise, no one would claim that we know everything about the human sciences, sociology, or anthropology, or—good heavens, economics—and each of these disciplines is endlessly complicated. To repeat—as a mantra: “Nobody knows everything about anything!”

However, when it comes to the most comprehensive, the most complicated, discipline of all—theology or religion—billions of us still claim that we know all there is to know and whoever thinks differently is simply mistaken. But, if it is true that we always can only know partially in any limited study of reality, as in the physical or human sciences, surely it is all the more true of religion, which is an “explanation of the ultimate meaning of life, and how to live accordingly, based on some notion and experience of the Transcendent.”[1] We must then be even more modest in our claims of knowing better in this most comprehensive field of knowledge, religion, “the ultimate meaning of life.”

Because of the work of great thinkers like the late Hans-Georg Gadamer and the late Paul Ricoeur, we now also realize that no knowledge can ever be completely objective, for we the knower are an integral part of the process of knowing. In brief, all knowledge is interpreted knowledge. Even in its simplest form, whether I claim that the Bible is God’s truth, or the Qur’ān, or the Gita, or, indeed, the interpretation of the pope, or John Knox, it is I who affirm that it is so. But, if neither I nor anyone else can know everything about anything, including most of all the most complicated claims to truth, religion, how do I proceed to search for an ever fuller grasp of reality, of truth?

The clear answer is dialogue. In dialogue I talk with you primarily so that I can learn what I cannot perceive from my place in the world, with my personal lenses of knowing. Through your eyes I see what I cannot see from my side of the globe, and vice versa. Hence, dialogue is not just a way to gain more information. Dialogue is a whole new way of thinking. We are painfully leaving behind the Age of Monologue and are, with squinting eyes, entering into the Age of Global Dialogue.

II. The Universe Is a Cosmic Dance of Dialogue

Dialogue—the mutually beneficial interaction of differing components—is at the very heart of the Universe, of which we humans are the highest expression: from the basic interaction of matter and energy (in Einstein’s unforgettable formula, E=MC2; energy equals mass times the square of the speed of light) to the creative interaction of protons and electrons in every atom to the vital symbiosis of body and spirit in every human, through the creative dialogue between woman and man to the dynamic relationship between individual and society. Thus, the very essence of our humanity is dialogical, and a fulfilled human life is the highest expression of the Cosmic Dance of Dialogue.

In the early millennia of the history of humanity, as we spread outward from our starting point in central Africa, the forces of divergence were dominant. However, because we live on a globe, in our frenetic divergence we eventually began to encounter each other more and more frequently. Now the forces of stunning convergence are becoming increasingly dominant.

In the past, during the Age of Divergence, we could live in isolation from each other; we could ignore each other. Now, in the Age of Convergence, we are forced to live in one world. We increasingly live in a global village. We cannot ignore the other, the different. Too often in the past we have tried to make over the other into a likeness of ourselves, often by violence, but this is the very opposite of dialogue. This egocentric arrogance is in fundamental opposition to the Cosmic Dance of Dialogue. It is not creative; it is destructive.

Hence, we humans today have a stark choice: dialogue, or death![2]

III. Dialogues of the Head, Hands, Heart in

Holistic Harmony of the Holy Human

For us humans there are three main dimensions to dialogue, corresponding to the structure of our humanness: Dialogue of the Head, Hands, Heart, in Holistic Harmony of the Holy Human.

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. The world is too complicated for anyone to grasp alone; increasingly, we can understand reality only with the help of the other, in dialogue. This is important, 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 to live in. In other words, we join hands with the other to heal the worldTikun olam, in the Jewish 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.

C. The Affective or Aesthetic: Seeking the Beautiful

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, spiritual, mystical dimension of the human spirit is given full rein.) All the world delights in beauty, and so it is here that we find the easiest encounter with the other, the simplest door to dialogue.

D. Holiness: Seeking the One

We humans cannot live a divided life. If we are even to survive, let alone flourish, we must “get it all together.” We must not only dance the dialogues of the head, hands, and heart but also bring our various parts together in harmony (a fourth “h”) to live a holistic (a fifth “h”), life, which is what religions mean when they say that we should be holy (a sixth “h”). Hence, we are authentically human (a seventh “h”) 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.

*Reflections delivered by Leonard Swidler before the Scottish Parliament on March 19, 2009. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nu4ssQHRLP0.

[1]Leonard Swidler and Paul Mojzes, The Study of Religion in an Age of Global Dialogue (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000), p. 17.

[2]See Leonard Swidler, with John Cobb, Monika Hellwig, and Paul Knitter, Death or Dialogue: From the Age of Monologue to the Age of Dialogue (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990).

[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.

Leonard Swidler

Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 45:2, Spring 2010

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