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The Dialogue of Cultures

Our political imaginations and the international arena are preoccupied with the inevitability of a clash of civilisations. While it is true that cultural and religious differences have precipitated violence, we have also witnessed a real dialogue of cultures. If conflicting economic interests and political concerns are taken to mean irreconcilable religious world views, ethnic cleansing and genocide will become the norm. We need a dialogue of culture as a prelude to a dialogue of religions, thus freeing us from the distrust of the Other.

The Dialogue of Cultures

From Paranoia to Metanoia

Our political imaginations and the international arena are preoccupied with the inevitability of a clash of civilisations. While it is true that cultural and religious differences have precipitated violence, we have also witnessed a real dialogue of cultures. If conflicting economic interests and political concerns are taken to mean irreconcilable religious world views, ethnic cleansing and genocide will become the norm. We need a dialogue of culture as a prelude to a dialogue of religions, thus freeing us from the distrust of the Other.


he inevitability of a clash of civilisations, popularised by Samuel Huntington (1993) now claims to have been prophetic. The politics of exclusion has now precipitated a politics of hate that is tearing apart the social fabric, compelling us to ask if this is not becoming rather a “clash of barbarisms” now. Huntington’s thesis is a replay of the temptation to essentialise culture in an oversimplification that premises human culture on inherent characteristics, and makes religion a matter of innate status, both of which are seen as givens that can at most be adapted but not subject to any real change. This only plays up, or rather plays into our paranoia of the “other”.

There is no denying the historic violence precipitated by cultural and religious differences. But there have also been exemplary harmony and creative synergies between different peoples as well, a real dialogue of cultures. When we realise that cultures are constructed, and we accept that religious affiliation must be a matter of conscience, then the human element of decision and choice can be brought back to centre stage in our social and political life to reverse the spiralling violence, to heal old wounds, to create a new future. However, we cannot avoid the grim reality of divisions that mark our societies. For if common human concerns bring us together, different social interests set us apart, just as faith in god unites, whereas differing beliefs divide. We cannot of course wish away such differences, nor can we impose uniformity or enforce consensus on them. Today in a globalising world, conflicting economic interests and political concerns are being interpreted as the “clash of civilisations” with irreconcilable religious world views. Ethnic cleansing and genocide await us at the end of this road.

Plurality and Pluralism

In our world today plurality is an inescapable given, whether cultural or political, ideological or religious, or otherwise. The complexity of our modern world cannot be contained in any single world view, weltanschauung [Rahner 1969: 26], nor can a dominant one be imposed in a free and open society. Hence “pluralism” as an ideological response that addresses this plurality with democratic equality and freedom of conscience must be a necessary concomitant of our coping with this diversity.

Structural plurality implies a set of distinguishable and diverse interrelated social institutions incorporated into an integrated social system. Cultural plurality refers to distinct cultures or subcultures with distinctive individual and collective identities within an overarching civilisational unity. Structurally, the market and the state, the economic and the political system integrate diverse groups in a common social order. Culturally, a common religion, language or historical tradition becomes the basis for a more inclusive civilisational unity. Thus Indic civilisation has served as a common meeting ground for the diverse historical or religious traditions, the different regional caste and language groups of the Indian subcontinent. It is the basis for the union of India, the state which now provides a common economic and political order for the country. So too is European culture the basis for the European Union today.

Hence we are coming to value diversity as something potentially enriching and even uniting at a higher level of union. Such an enriching “communion” must inspire us not just to a unity in diversity, that accepts and respects differences, but rather to a diversity in unity, that appreciates and celebrates them [Kothari 1989: 20]. For the reality of pluralism today is not to be isolated as an unnecessary evil to be repressed, before it engulfs us further; or tolerated as a necessary one to be distanced, since it cannot be dismissed. Rather it is a challenge, which will not go away. It must be constructively and creatively met or it will exhaust, if not destroy us. But for this we must have a positive and proactive understanding of tolerance and dialogue.

‘Self’ and ‘Other’

All pluralism in society is eventually founded on the polarity between the “self” and the “other” among different persons and diverse groups. The “other” cannot simply be wished away, but always poses a question to the “self”, one that will not just go away, and when the other is different the question can be threatening. Moreover, it is important that this encounter between groups, between the self and the other, ego and alter, be mediated by a third entity; hence the need to extend the dyad to a triad. Whether this third party be a more specific agency, like “the nation state, or simply the government” [Gupta 1996: 11] or a more general frame of reference, like “Chomsky’s grammar, LeviStrauss’s ‘structure’, Marx’s ‘mode of production’, and Lacan’s ‘Other’ (the big ‘O’)” (ibid 183) it is this triadic approach that makes for “contextualising human agency and culture in a dynamic holistic framework” (ibid: 139).

In the Indian scenario the most significant third in the triad is of course the state, for the Constitution of India recognises “the principle of equality between groups qua group” [Sheth 1989: 8]. This is the foundation for collective rights with special consideration for the more vulnerable sections of our society, such as linguistic and religious minorities and socially and economically backward classes. At the international level we would require a consensus on a viable global ethic. But today this is a far cry even for the UN. On the other hand there are powerful movements for homogenisation within national states and ethnic societies.

Inclusive and Exclusive Identities

Identities that are defined negatively against others in terms of “what one is not”, will tend to be exclusive and more dismissive of others. This creates in-groups and out-groups, stereotypes and scapegoats. Those affirmed positively, prescinding from others in defining “who one is”, will tend to be inclusive and not so disregarding of others. This allows for openness and receptivity. Exclusive identities emphasise differences and set up oppositions and polarities with the “other”. Inclusive identities are inclined to affirm similarities and complementarities with the “other”. These make for tolerance and flexibility. Thus, identifying with one’s linguistic or religious community need not mean hostility to other languages and religions. Yet when used thus, language and religion have been among the most effective markers to divide a society into “them” and “us”.

Identity and Dignity

Identity and dignity are intimately connected. Identity answers to, “who am I?”; dignity to, “what respect am I due?”. The affirmation or the negation of one carries over to the other. The right to identity must include the right to dignity. One’s identity is never developed in isolation but in interaction with significant others. However, this is never an entirely passive process. I discover myself, my horizon of meaning and value, with and through others. “Who I am” is always reflected off, and refracted through others. “What I am due” is always in a social context mediated by them. The denial of recognition and affirmation amounts to a negation of my human identity.

As with individuals so with groups. The individual is affirmed, or negated in the group, as the group is in society. At the individual level, this mediation is essentially through interpersonal interaction; at the social level it is also through myth and symbol, values and norms, collective memories and popular history [Kakar 1993: 50].

Modern development brings rapid and radical change. In a world increasingly characterised by anxiety, uncertainty and disorder, there is an urgent need for the reassurance of security, trust and a sense of solidarity in a collective identity. Such identities become “vehicles for redressing narcissistic injuries, for righting of what are perceived as contemporary or historical wrongs” [Kakar 1993: 52].

Collective action is resorted to in order to redress individual insecurities. The group solidarity then becomes a substitute for lost attachments, a support to heal old injuries. Such collective remedies to individual trauma easily become totalising and aggressive. Confirmed in their self-righteousness, leaders manipulate and mobilise groups, disregarding the collective dignity of other groups as well as the individual dignity of their members. Thus in any social breakdown, it is easy to see why extremist responses come into prominence.

This construction of the sense of self in the context of a hostile other is necessarily a function of the needs of the insecure individual and the group. Sudhir Kakar (1992), the psychoanalyst, explains how this exclusive identity helps increase the sense of narcissistic well-being and attribute to the other the disavowed aspects of one’s own self. What is unconsciously disowned and rejected in ourselves, is projected on and demonised in the other. What is desirable in the other is denied and attributed to oneself.

Individual and Collective Rights

An individual’s identity is never formed in a walled-in consciousness. Such solipsism can only be dangerously pathological and asocial. So too a group’s identity is never constructed entirely from within the group but always in an engagement with its environment, both natural and social. Thus the importance of dialogue with other groups and communities that makes group identity a dynamic rather than a static process. Indeed, because group identity is always in process, it can be reinvented, reshaped, reconstructed anew by each generation [Fischer 1990: 195]. Yet there is always the possibility, and depending on the power relationship involved, the probability of a group being engulfed and assimilated into its social environment to the point that it loses its distinctiveness, its identity. Only when difference becomes a positive value in a society is there a defence against such encompassment, especially for the weaker, more vulnerable groups. Only a sustained commitment to tolerance guarantees equal treatment and dignity for such groups, very much as it does for similarly vulnerable individuals.

And as individual rights protect individuals so too must cultural rights protect and promote group identity and dignity. “Cultural rights”, argues Veena Das (1994), “express the concern of groups to be given a sign of their radical acceptance in the world”. This is why they are contested with such political passion. The basic foundation for all this must be a radical acceptance of plurality in all the multi-faceted dimensions of a plural society’s religious culture and of its political economy.

For acceptance cannot be creative or constructive if it is merely uncritical and passive. In the final analysis, the trajectory of our response of pluralism must begin with rejecting social inequalities and accepting cultural differences, respecting other identities, and celebrating their diversity as parts of a larger social and cultural organic whole. Thus our pluralism is not so much to promote our unity over and above the reality of our diversity, but rather to protect our diversity in our quest for unity.

Ethnic Identity and Social Dignity

Given a plurality of discourses, ethnicity is best problematised as a dialectic process in which a group produces and reproduces itself in the context of its material history. A political economy approach does well in identifying the necessary conditions in this, but it must be extended to integrate a socio-cultural one to deal with the sufficient conditions of its development. Moreover, it is important to distinguish between a hegemonic and a counter-hegemonic ethnicity by locating ethnic divisions within the class structure of a society.

In describing ethnicity three dimensions must be considered: objective, subjective and contextual, as critical to understanding the construction of its identity and the recognition of its dignit. An individual’s identity is formed in the intimate encounter with significant others. An ethnic identity, however, is socialised in a more public space. There is of course a relationship between the two in any ethnie, or ethnic community, but the first is never a straightforward projection of the latter. Inevitably there are those who can dominate such social spaces to their own advantage. Hence the importance of “the politics of recognition” in shaping our identity, especially in a multi-cultural context [Taylor 1992: 25]. Moreover, “nonrecognition or misrecognition can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being” (ibid) i e, a negative identity, a negated dignity.

The intimate relationship between identity and dignity must be considered in the context of the politics of universalism that founds equal dignity, and the politics of difference on which unique identities are premised. The first leads to similarity and homogeneity which is the quest of the nation state. The second accepts particularity and heterogeneity which is the aspiration of a multi-cultural society. It is possible for one to contradict and displace the other.

There is then a dilemma here, but if we concede a priority to the universally human over the culturally specific, then a constructive reconciliation is possible. This would mean that a homogenising universalism cannot be allowed to be so absolute as to negate cultural and ethnic diversities, but rather made to respect and even celebrate them within the limits set by cultural rights. However, “the right to culture” cannot be unconditional either. For cultural rights cannot contradict more fundamental human rights; rather they can only be legitimate in the context of “a culture of rights” [Bhargava 1991].

Class Contradictions and Ethnic Conflicts

A viable analysis of the multiple inter- and intra- ethnic and elite conflicts and contradictions, must consider the class factor if it is to do justice, or indeed have any relevance to the complexities involved. Thus where a big ethnic community is stratified by class, or a large social class is segmented in diverse ethnic groups, contradictions between ethnic identities and class interests can develop, that allow group consciousness to be manipulated in favour of vested interests. Thus a dominant class can divide and rule subordinate ones by playing up its diverse ethnic identities just as an elite within an ethnic community can co-opt its people to alien interests by appealing to their common identity.

Hence ethnicity can be both mobilising and divisive. We must be sensitive to the delicate distinction between ethnicity as a uniting “myth” and ethnicity as a dividing “ideology”. Hopefully such an analysis will help to reconstruct a more positive ethnicity, one that is neither exclusivist nor defensive, but respectful of and open to the other, as parts of a whole, in which each group contributes and receives to the mutual enrichment of every other group, and the overall advantage of society.

Nationalist Ideology and Ethnic Myth

How do we ensure the necessary tolerance in order to promote a dialogue between the plurality of the “self”, the “other” and the “state” (the Other with the capitalised ‘O’)? Nationalism has certainly been one of the five most powerful ideologies for mobilising people in the modern world [Ward 1959]. Yet the very ideology that has been used to unite people in a common cause, has also been imposed on subordinate groups by dominant ones to assimilate them into their vested interests.

Here too as with ethnicity we must make a decisive distinction between the dual characteristics of nationalism. For “nationalism” signifies both an “ideological doctrine and a wider symbolic universe and fund of sentiments” [Smith 1994: 725]. The ideology claims the sole source of political power for the nation and the ultimate loyalty of its citizens, preferably in their own sovereign nation state. The wider “culture of nationalism” is concerned with transcending narrower group loyalties for the “ideals of autonomy, unity and identity” (ibid) in a larger more free, egalitarian and fraternal whole.

There is an inherent conflict here between an assimilating national ideology and a resistant ethnic consciousness. But in a wider weltanschauung of nationalism there need be no contradiction between the national mythology and the ethnic “‘mythomoteur’, the constitutive political myth of an ethnie” (ibid: 716). They both can be reconciled in a larger whole, constituting a unity in diversity. Such a pluralist culture of nationalism will allow for a multi-ethnic nation in a multi-nation state.

Patriotism and Nationalism

For Gandhi “over time, the Indian freedom movement ceased to be an expression of only nationalist consolidation; it came to acquire a new stature as a symbol of the universal struggle for political justice and cultural dignity” [Nandy 1994: 2-3]. Hence in Gandhi’s patriotism, “there was a built-in critique of nationalism and refusal to recognise the nation state as the organising principle of the Indian civilisation and as the last word in the country’s political life” [Nandy 1994: 3]. Indeed, for Gandhi, as with Tagore, this was the ultimate civilisational ambition of India: “to be the cultural epitome of the world and convert all passionate self-other debates into self-self debates” (ibid: 82). In other words, to convert divisive debates into integrating dialogues, to transform exclusive identities into inclusive ones, to change hostile controversy into empathetic consensus.

For only a civil society, that can incorporate the state within a larger civilisational matrix of coexistence and cooperation among interlocking groups, will be able to defuse the conflict and contradiction between exclusive ethnicity and homogenising nationalism, and reconstruct them in the richer diversity of civilisation, and a deeper unity of civic humanism. Only then will the aggressive political nation state have withered away! Only then will a multi-nation state constrained in a multicultural society be feasible, i e: “the state not as an instrument of an ethnically defined nation, but a political entity functioning under the control of a civil society. It will be a state for and on the behalf of civil society: in brief a civil state and not a nation state” [Sheth 1989: 626].

The reality of pluralism faces us with the question of tolerance. For as a philosophical problem tolerance concerns the reconciliation of truth with freedom, i e, the claims of truth versus the legitimacy of diverse opinions [Post 1970]. The implications of this for a society today are as painful as they were for Socrates in ancient Athens, which was not a very heterogeneous city! In the Roman empire the problem reached acute proportions in the persecution of Christians. With the Edict’ of Milan in 313 AD these ended not so much in religious tolerance, as in eventual Christian dominance. The post-Reformation religious wars left a divided and exhausted Christendom, which now began the pragmatic separation of church and state. However, this did not always guarantee real tolerance, as the limitations in the “Act of Toleration”, 1689, in England evidenced. In France the strongly anti-clerical Encyclopaedists “paved the way for the republican and democratic notions of the state” (ibid: 266) though its narrow rationalism provided “a very doubtful basis for the tolerance which was always in demand” (ibid: 265). Thus in the modern west the social origins of tolerance are to be found less in its monotheistic dogmatic religious beliefs than in the pragmatic resolution of intractable religious and political conflicts.

But tolerance is more than a matter of conflict resolution and emancipation. It is as multifaceted as the dimensions of the pluralism underpinning it: from intellectual world views to ethical values, from religious beliefs to cultural patterns, from political ideologies to economic systems, from linguistic divisions to geographic regions. In fact “there is no generally acknowledged definition of tolerance in the concrete” (ibid: 262).

The South Asian Scene

In Sanskrit and Arabic there is no exact equivalent for “tolerance” [Khwaja 1992: 95, 101]. But again the notion itself is not unknown or unacknowledged. For the basis for pluralism was well established in the orthodoxy of ancient Indian traditions: Jaina non-violence, Buddhist compassion, Upanishadic universalism, sufi-bhakti mysticism. Indian orthopraxis, however, was less tolerant and could be quite violent.

But there were significant landmarks that have stamped south Asian history. Thus Ashoka issued the first recorded edict for tolerance [Thapar 1961: 255]. In medieval times, so Humayun Kabir (1955) argues convincingly, Akbar’s was “the first conscious attempt to formulate the conception of a secular state” in the country, but this was not followed through by his grandson Aurangzeb. In this century Gandhi’s satyagraha for swarajya was a valiant attempt at a non-violent reconstruction of our society, but it could not succeed in preventing the violent partition of the country. Today, we seem to have all but abandoned Gandhi as our society gets increasingly mired in violence of all kinds and at all levels.

Thus in India the intellectual acceptance of pluralism has not always gone along with the existential practice of tolerance. Indeed, we seem to have reached a flash point in our continuing crisis, when even the acceptance of religious-cultural pluralism is being contested by an aggressive “cultural nationalism”.

Levels of Tolerance

We can distinguish levels of tolerance from reluctant forbearance to joyful acceptance. Here we are not considering the ethical constraints on tolerance in a negative sense, i e, the boundaries beyond which tolerance would be unethical. This would require another discussion. Rather we focus more positively on the limits to which tolerance can be constructively extended.

Following Raimundo Panikkar (1983), we can distinguish four levels of tolerance. The first is tolerance as a practical necessity, i e, bearing with a lesser evil for the sake of a greater good. This amounts to passively accepting necessary evils, and is little more than political pragmatism. The second level is based on the realisation that the human grasp of any truth is always partial and never complete. From such philosophically founded tolerance will come respect. At the third level, ethical or religious tolerance derives from the moral imperative to love others, especially those different from us, even our enemies. Yet the different “other” here is still the “object” of one’s love; it can celebrate our differences, but cannot overcome and transcend them completely in a higher unity.

Overcoming this objectification of the other is “a mystical experience of tolerance”. It is “the way one being exists in another and expresses the radical interdependence of all that exists” (ibid: 23). Only this kind of mystical tolerance can overcome and transcend the contradictions and conflicts between religious traditions, bringing them into a higher communion.

Dimensions of Understanding

At each of these levels, we can distinguish two dimensions of understanding, or rather pre-understanding (ibid: 25-34). Thus our comprehension can be in terms of a more or less explicit meaning that is conceptually grasped; or in the context of our pre-understanding, of implicit pre-judgments and presumptions, in terms of a meaningfulness that can be only symbolically represented. These are the dimensions of “ideology” and “myth”, respectively.

Myth as defined by Panikkar, is “the horizon of intelligibility” for us, “over against which any hermeneutic is possible” (ibid 101). It is taken for granted, unquestioned, a part of our preunderstanding, something we accept in “faith”. Once it is rationally articulated, myth is demythicised and so is our faith, in a “passage from mythos to logos”, from myth to reason, as the articulated conscious word. This then develops into an “ideology”, which in this context Panikkar describes as: “the more or less coherent ensemble of ideas that make up critical awareness, i e, the doctrinal system that enables you to locate yourself rationally...a spacio-temporal system constructed by the logos as a function of its concrete historical moment” (ibid 21).

Now the more coherent and cogent the articulation of an ideology is, the more likely it is to reduce other understandings to its own terms, or reject them, if they cannot be fitted into its own horizons. We do of course, need ideologies for we need to articulate and rationalise our understanding in the various dimensions of human experience. But ideologies must be able to accept such alternative understandings, and open themselves out into broader and deeper perspectives. This will depend on the myth, the pre-understanding, from which it derives. For the more extensive and intensive the meaningfulness of the myth, the richer and denser its symbolism, the more open and accommodating the ideology that can be built on it.

Hence we can conclude with Panikkar: “the tolerance you have is directly proportional to the myth you live and inversely proportional to the ideology you follow” (ibid: 20 emphasis in original text). What we need, then, is a metanoia of our myths to escape and be liberated from the paranoia of our ideologies, whether religious, political or otherwise. Both myth and ideology are found in all the dimensions of tolerance indicated earlier, though there is obviously a greater affinity for ideology in political and philosophical tolerance, as there is for “myth” in the religious and mystical one.

Difference and Indifference

In Asia, plurality is so deeply and intricately woven into our society that any attempt to homogenise it can only be suicidal. But ways of coping with it range from indifference and nonengagement, all the way to affirmation and celebration. Given the intricacies of our social interdependence, the first approach can only end with a nihilistic relativism if it does not collapse in annihilating chaos. The second must open into ever broader dimensions and deeper levels of tolerance. Indeed, the constructive and creative practice of tolerance is the only viable way to cope with the bewildering diversity and difference that both challenges and confounds us, it is both a precious treasure and dangerous legacy!

Now there is always a danger of celebrating difference in seclusion and not in dialogical encounter with the other. The assertion of such “isolated alterity”, as in fact with some postmodernists, easily “shades over into the celebration of indifference, non-engagement and indecision” [Dallmayr 1989: 90]. Such incommunicable uniqueness cannot but collapse into a nihilistic relativism, which is very far from the radical relativity on which a creative pluralism and a respectful tolerance must be premised.

Dialogue and Dialectics

For Panikkar (1983) “dialogue” is a most fundamental condition of existence. It is our way of being. “Dialogue is, fundamentally, opening myself to another so that he might speak and reveal my myth.... Dialogue is a way of knowing myself and of disentangling my own point of view from other viewpoints and from me”. Thus we can speak of a “dialectical dialogue” which would pertain to the encounter of ideologies, while a “dialogical dialogue” would be more pertinent to the meeting of myths.

“Difference”, then, as Gadamer (1989) insists “stands at the beginning of a conversation, not its end”, awaiting the moment of coherence, of fulfilment, of a “fusion of horizon” that will complete the hermeneutic circle and set it off again for us – “we who are a conversation” (ibid: 110). For we are constructed and deconstructed in dialogue with ourselves and others. Indeed, “the conversation that we are is one that never ends” [Gadamer 1989: 95]. For dialogue and conversation are intrinsic to the human condition, the very language of our existence, the essential hermeneutic of all our experience.

Gadamer explains how “to be in conversation, however, means to be beyond oneself as if to another”. For, as he insisted in 1960 all genuine dialogue must be premised on an authentic hermeneutic: “to recognise oneself (or one’s own) in the other and find a home abroad – this is the basic movement of spirit whose being consists in this return to itself from otherness” [Gadamer 1975: 15]. But we would emphasise a further implication of such dialogical hermeneutics: “the challenge to recognise otherness or the alien in oneself (or one’s own)” [Dallmayr 1989: 92].

Domains in Dialogue

In such an understanding of dialogue, we can then distinguish various dimensions of this involvement with one another, following the fourfold dialogue urged by the Catholic Church recently in the context of inter-religious dialogue, but certainly relevant to an inter-cultural one as well: [Dialogue and Proclamation 1991, no 42].

  • (1) “the dialogue of life, where people strive to live in an open and neighbourly spirit, ....”
  • (2) “the dialogue of action”, in which we “collaborate for the integral development and liberation of people”.
  • (3) “the dialogue of religious experience, where persons, rooted in their own religious traditions, share their spiritual riches, ....”
  • (4) “the dialogue of theological exchange, where specialists seek to deepen their understanding of their respective religious heritages, ....”
  • The dialogue of life is at the level of sharing and encounter of our “myths”, which then is deepened in the dialogue of religious and cultural experiences. This can be an even deeper level of not just mythic communication but mystical experience as well. Collaborative action requires some level of ideological and political consensus, which can then be intensified and sharpened in a theoretically articulated exchange. Thus life and experience are at the level of “myth” and mysticism; action and theory at that of “ideology” and politics.

    Cultural Hermeneutics

    Hermeneutics, as Paul Ricoeur (1976) and Hans Gadamer (1977) have argued, is a matter not just of interpretation, but rather of seeing and seeing “through” to the “surplus of meaning” contained in the “circle of the unexpressed”. Now

    the hermeneutical phenomenon is at work in the history of cultures as well as in individuals, for it is in times of intense contact with other cultures (Greece with Persia or Latin Europe with Islam) that a people becomes most acutely aware of the limits and questionableness of its deepest assumptions. Collision with the other’s horizons makes us aware of assumptions so deep-seated that they would otherwise remain unnoticed [Linge 1977: xxi].

    The new and creative dialogue of cultures we are proposing must enable us to do this and, we might add, to see “beyond” as well, beyond our exclusive and enclosed worldviews, beyond our truncated and limited levels of tolerance, beyond our comforting myths and tautological ideologies, so that cultures can truly encounter each other in a dialogue at the levels of life and experience, of action and articulation. It is precisely what is called a “fusion of horizons”, a breakthrough to higher more inclusive comprehension.

    Moreover, here we see the critical importance of culture in all its many forms. For culture is creative and innovative, dynamic and transformative. It reveals and challenges in all its symbolic expressions, in whatever form these may take in a verbal, auditory, visual, or plastic medium. For culture as the social heritage of a society is a system of meanings and motivations that must be both preserved and transmitted as well as enriched and transformed. All communication with human beings must be in their cultural medium. Otherwise it could turn out to be not just noncommunication, but miscommunication and misunderstanding. Hence all cross-cultural communication must be inculturated, it must be interpreted, indigenised and rooted. It cannot be translated, transported, or transplanted. That would be an evitable alienation. A true inculturation transcends cultural divides. It universalises and it unites.

    Cross-cultural communication is particularly problematic, especially with art and the humanities, less so science and technology. Because science communicates in concepts, with precise symbols, which can be expressed in accurate formulae, it is more easily translated and transplanted. Science is univocal and more readily universalised. Technological gadgets themselves are little affected by changing cultural climes, though they may have unintended consequences. However, wherever communication has to be open-ended, symbolic, metaphoric, where it is multivocal, multivalent, as in fact life itself is, then we need the rich significance of symbol and metaphor, of art rather than science. Otherwise we do not really connect in a creative dialogue both within a culture and much more so across them.

    An Authentic Dialogue

    The colonial world is a transported, transplanted alien world. It was an age of controversy and conquest not pluralism and dialogue. Moreover, an authentic dialogue is really possible only between equals, otherwise it just becomes unequal exchange and manipulation. Now in a post-colonial world we have the possibility and must assume the responsibility for such a multicultural and inter-religious dialogue.

    A crucial issue for religions grounded in history and for faiths based on revelation, like Judeo-Christain-Islamic ones, is the one of dialogue as equals. Such traditions find it very problematic to concede that those outside their religious revelation and belief have an equal access to the truth. They feel themselves privileged in this regard, and compromise in this matter is tantamount to being disloyal to their faith. However, precisely in such a perspective there is even greater need of an adequate hermeneutic that will make for dialogue, for it becomes imperative to distinguish between emic and etic perspectives, the insider’s and the outsider’s standpoint.

    From an emic or insider’s perspective differing truths cannot lay claim to equal validity, unless they all are relativised, or brought into harmony at a higher level of unity. But this harmony may require an etic or outsider’s perspective if the emic one is not inclusive enough. However, any perspective must, without compromising itself, grant the right to hold, and the duty to respect different opinions, even when one is incompatible with one’s own, for in civil society the other’s legitimate right to freedom, and claim to respect must not be compromised by imposing one’s own dogmatic beliefs or ritual practice. This makes dialogue possible even between believers and atheists, in what we might call an “extra-religious” dialogue.

    Thus an equal dialogue is less a matter of ‘equal truth’ than of “equal freedom”. This demands that no standpoint is privileged above others, much less imposed, but all empathetically critiqued and challenged. For this a common ground must be sought and the only common currency viable, given the variety and variations prevailing among our pluri-religious traditions today, is a basic humanism. It is at this level that any apparent controversy between truth and right, between tolerance and justice must be resolved. This in turn will require an intra-religious dialogue to set the stage so all can engage as equals in a deeper inter-religious discourse.

    Religions not based on an historical revelation are not constrained by exclusive beliefs. However, inclusiveness too must go with its own cautions, its own intra-religious dialogue. On the one hand, it must not fall into relativism or degenerate into permissiveness; on the other, it must neither become a process of appropriation and absorption into a higher unity, wherein the distinctiveness of each tradition is lost, not just subsumed. The all inclusiveness of some universalists sometimes seems to imply just this. A valid inclusiveness would demand the integration of diversities into an enriching and higher unity so that we have a “diversity in unity” rather than a “unity in diversity”.

    White light includes the wave lengths of all the seven colours, yet the rainbow has its own special beauty. Hence the necessity for a relevant hermeneutic will demands a more liberal and humanist approach within each tradition, which is precisely what an equal dialogue challenges each one to do. Raimundo Panikkar (1978) rightly insists:

    if inter-religious dialogue is to be real dialogue, an intra-religious dialogue must accompany it, i e, it must begin with my questioning myself and the relativity of my beliefs (which does not mean relativism), accepting the challenge of a change, a conversion and the risk of upsetting my traditional patterns.

    Indeed, an intra-religious dialogue is a necessary condition for an inter-religious one, otherwise we will have a debate not a dialogue, controversy not complementarity. Indeed, such transparency among believers and non-believers would make even an ‘extra-religious’ dialogue challenging and fruitful for both.

    A Global Ethic

    Hans Kung, one of the key drafters of the “Declaration Towards a Global Ethic”, for “The Parliament of World Religions” in 1993 in New York [Kung 1998: 11-40] indicates three contemporary global challenges to which he proposes three corresponding responses. First: there is no survival of democracy without a coalition of believers and non-believers in mutual respect. This will demand consensus as the foundation of our solidarity. Second: there will be no peace between civilisations without a peace between religions; and there will be no peace between religions without a dialogue between them. In other words, interreligious dialogue becomes imperative. Third: as globalisation sharpens differences in a diverse but imploding world, we need a new world order to contain such differences and resolve them, but there will be no new world order without a new global ethic. Hence a dialogue of cultures is a necessary prelude to a dialogue of religions, just as a coalition of believers and non-believers will require an ethic premised on a egalitarian democracy.

    This must be premised on universally accepted values and norms, for which a growing common ground is beginning to emerge, at least at the level of articulation. Giddens (1994) rightly remarks:

    this is probably the first time in history that we can speak of the emergence of universal values – values shared by almost everyone, and which are in no sense the enemy of cosmopolitanism. …values of the sanctity of human life, universal human rights, the preservation of species and care for future as well as present generations of children may perhaps be arrived at defensively, but they are certainly not negative values. They imply ethics of individual and collective responsibility, which (as value claims) are able to override divisions of interest.

    This must be the starting point of a global ethic which is as yet an incomplete, but not a directionless search, an ongoing, perhaps even a never ending process, but one whose evolution leaves open the possibilities for progress as well as regress.

    Eventually, these norms need to be worked out into concrete rights and duties, operationalised in an internationally recognised charter, like the UN declaration, but more importantly made effective by suitable structures and strictures at various levels, legitimated and empowered to protect these values and implement the respective norms, to hold agencies to account and remedy violations. In other words, we need an ethic that is founded on values, which are culturally operationalised in norms that are structurally enforced.

    A Holistic Praxis

    All this makes for a greater complexity and challenge in our praxis, as an action-reflection-action process. The constructive potential of such a dialectic between theory and practice can be fully realised only in a creative dialogue between myth and ideology. For it is only in the mutual encounter of myths that they are deepened and enriched, and in the reciprocal exchange among ideologies that these become more open and refined. The complexity of the issues involved in this whole discourse on tolerance and dialogue should now be apparent. But a viable praxis must go beyond reflection to action, beyond interpretation to implementation. For this we will need a holistic approach that can transcend polarities in an integral whole.

    Thus we must find ways in which faith and reason critique each other, so that premised on a genuine humanism, faith is always reasonable and meaningful, and reason always faithful to an authentic humanism. In our involvement in such religious controversies, we need to be both renouncers and sadhus, as well as activists and karmayogis. In our understanding of the complexities involved we need to be both contemplatives and mystics, as well as theologians and philosophers. And in our response to the issues we need to be both creative artists and poets as well as constructive critics and academicians.

    Today more than ever before, for our threatened humanity, the only way of being human is to be in constructive and creative interrelationships with others, not in isolation from them, if indeed that were possible any more in our increasingly interdependent world. So also for our threatened religions in an unbelieving world, the only way of being religious is in solidarity with other believers not in confrontation with them. For if to be a human person I must be inter-personal, as the psychologists have convinced us; to be really cultured we must be inter-cultural, as the anthropologists would teach us, and to be truly religious must mean to be inter-religious, as theologians are learning today. In other words, to be human and religious we must be tolerant and in dialogue. Only thus can we genuinely be our authentic selves, true believers and truly human.

    In the final analysis, indifference and non-engagement are hardly adequate or constructive ways of coping with our ever increasing interdependencies in our globalising world. This certainly cannot make us good neighbours, partners in dialogue. It can at best lead to a co-existence, which can at best only be very precariously peaceful, and certainly not very creatively progressive. Most often it only brings alienation and chaos, in our situation of scarcity and competition.

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    Metanoia and Paranoia References

    In a globalising world neighbours are no longer so much defined by geography, as by interaction and interdependence. Multicultural exchange and inter-religious sharing can bring about shared interests and common concerns that make good and lasting neighbours. Certainly it is a better place to begin than our political geography which divides and rules us all. Indeed, such neighbourliness may make the difference between a “clash of civilisations”, which eventually becomes a clash of barbarisms, and a harmony of culture that opens into a “dialogue of religions”. This realisation can deepen our shared concerns. Thus both faith in the divine and concern for the human are the foundation of our neighbourliness. These are not opposed but complementary dimensions.

    An adequate response in a pluralist world is not mere coexistence or mutual seclusion but a constructive dialogue engaging both the “myths” we seem to live by, and the ideologies we chose to act from. For this we must dare beyond the constraints of dialectical reason, which no doubt has its uses – and limitations. This must be the basis of a dialogue in which my “self” and the “other” are both discovered and enriched, the cultural “other” and especially the “counter-cultural other”, within my own culture and across cultures too. For as we unveil our “self” in the “other”, and the “other” in our “self”, we will find that our deepest identity and bonding transcends all differences in an immanent I-thou communion.

    At all the four levels of tolerance and the four dimensions of dialogue we have sketched earlier, Gandhiji is an example and an inspiration. It took a Martin Luther King Jr, and a Nelson Mandela to demonstrate that he had relevance for the whole world today. Gandhi effectively based his praxis of ahimsa and satyagraha on an ethics of tolerance and dialogue. Indeed, for him: “If we want to cultivate a true spirit of democracy, we cannot afford to be intolerant. Intolerance betrays want of faith in one’s own cause” (Young India, Feb 1921). Gandhi himself is a remarkable example of such an open yet rooted person: “I do not want my house to be walled on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any of them.”

    For Panikkar (1983) “dialectics is the optimism of reason. Dialogue is the optimism of the heart”. Pascal wisely counselled: the heart has reasons that reason knows not of. Indeed, a genuine dialogue pertains less to the dialectical mind than to the compassionate heart. Religion is fraught with a huge potential for explosive conflict. We are still coming to terms with the implications of religious freedom and cultural rights for different groups within a single society. We are beginning to realise that uniformity is not the only or the most creative response to difference. Nor is mere co-existence a viable answer in an ever shrinking world. We need a dialogue of culture as a prelude to a dialogue of religions. Only then can we experience a metanoia in ourselves that will free us from the paranoia we have of each other.



    [This paper is based on a presentation made at the Workshop on Minorities in Asia: Integration or Segregation, Asian Muslims Action Network, AMAN, on November 16, 2006, in Jakarta.]

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