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Aesthetic Challenge of Interfaith Dialogue as Exemplified by Meditation


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Much has been written about interfaith dialogue. However little attention seems to have been given to what might be called the aesthetics of the 'space' in which such an encounter takes place. The focus in what follows is on the space in which participants share whatever is to be understood as spiritual experience, namely beyond the verbal dialogue which occupies most time and attention on the occasion of the encounters.

The reason for focusing on the aesthetics of dialogue is that in many ways it can be usefully seen to symbolize the core of the interfaith challenge -- possibly even to a greater degree than the doctrinal differences which may be evoked in dialogue. In this sense, ability to respond creatively to this challenge may prove as productive in advancing the cause of interfaith dialogue as any concern with verbal content and the quality of interpersonal interaction. What follows does not presume to provide an answer to this challenge, it endeavours to clarify the question.

The point of departure here is the assumption that there is no universal aesthetic in spiritual practice. Different aesthetic manifestations are characteristic of different faiths. In a very real sense people may even be attracted to, or alienated by, the aesthetics of a particular faith -- as with the doctrine of that faith. The interfaith movement aspires to some common understanding between faiths. The question is how this is catalyzed or undermined by the aesthetic challenge of any representation of this shared expression. The concern in what follows goes beyond the willingness to briefly experience the spiritual practice and expression of other faiths in a spirit of tolerance. It endeavours to address the issue of how people of different faiths can engage in ongoing spiritual work together -- as might become necessary in any attempt to design a World Parliament of Religions.

The space in which the most profound expression of shared aspiration takes place is variously understood as one of 'prayer' or 'meditation' -- whether or not this is a period of time in the physical space in which verbal dialogue takes place. It is important to be aware of the following challenges, whether or not they can be addressed in any way. It is unhelpful to assume that they can be ignored or denied.

ey can be addressed in any way. It is unhelpful to assume that they can be ignored or denied.