Reflections on Dialogue Theories

This review was first presented by Dr Boyce-Tillman as part of the Dialogue Theories book launch at the Dialogue Society London office on July 2nd, 2013.

The music for the chants is available from

CHANT: Sing of a place, a flowering field where divisions end I’ll meet you there.

The design of this book is excellent. The combination of biographies, dialogue thought, theory and practice, questions for discussions is very useful and accessible. This gives the philosophers welcome contextualisation such as situating Habermas in the German context. It is seldom that you get this all together. I will certainly recommend the book to my students.

As a feminist I enjoyed Maura O’Neill, particularly with her concentration on the absence of women from interfaith dialogue. I have been saying and experiencing this for a long time – ever since I started my own interfaith dialogue group in Tooting in 1986. This was to be the spiritual component of a neighbourhood festival and I realised that the neighbourhood was so diverse that even an ecumenical Christian celebration would not represent it faithfully. As a mother I started it with mothers who I stood alongside in the school playground and this has always given it a different feel from contexts in which the leaders of the faith meet. There is a greater use of story as Maura indicates. We also started often by discussing food which we all brought and shared. ‘How do you make samosa? What do you put in a birthday cake?’ From these we moved to the faith and belief systems and the act of celebration that we were preparing. Because most of the faiths are patriarchal, in the highest positions of leadership women are not represented. This undoubtedly skews the dialogue. I am fascinated that she calls for a dialogue with the conservatives within each faith. This is like the chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks in The Dignity of Difference (2002), who pleads with liberals not to leave their faiths and join the ranks of the ‘spiritual but not religious’, as this would leave the faiths to the conservative and fundamentalist groups in each faith. However, I wish she would help us with some strategies as, although I know it is necessary, it is, in my experience, very difficult.

CHANT: As the water with the rock and the air with sun, May we be drawing nearer with love and respect.

I have drawn a great deal on Martin Buber in the development of the Space for Peace event, which pulls together singing groups from various faiths who decide in advance what they will sing, and then are scattered around a building and sing when they think it is right. It is a way of establishing a relationship with the Other, without making them the same as ourselves. I believe music has a special power in this area because of its mysterious quality.

CHANT: At the heart of the cosmos there lies deepest mystery, We can know and not know.

I found in the other woman in the collection – Karen Armstrong – the place of ignorance – of not-knowing in dialogue. Her stress is on compassion which can lie in this humility (which should be the root of all religion).

I know little of Gülen and was drawn into the relationship between spirituality and science. As an Alister Hardy trustee, I am aware of other scientists that have tried to explore the area of spirituality as in Chris Clarke’s Living in Connection (2002). Alister – a professor of zoology – wrote a letter to the Times asking if people had had a religious experience. The bringing together of human-centred and the God-centred is a moving part of our celebration. Towards the end we move around saying: “I am a human being with a desire for hope and happiness and being a Muslim (Christian, Buddhist, Sikh, pagan and so on) helps me.” This ritual concentrates our attention on our shared humanity. It concentrates on the area of the open heart which we shall explore at a conference on Peace in the heart of the city organised by interfaith vision tomorrow.

I also enjoyed David Bohm but wondered why Turner’s notion of liminality was not explored in relation to his participatory thought, and literal thought. I enjoyed the reference to free flowing conversation being like jazz –and the ability to think together as the equivalent of the unison. The notion of a common consciousness has always been part of the strands around perennial philosophy, and I like the way he challenges those people who see withdrawing from the world as the answer rather than deciding to act within it.

The notion of perennial philosophy is around in some of the offerings and I would like more discussion of the one and the many (as in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity). The presence of some polytheisms as discussed above would have enriched this debate. Certain virtues like trust, empathy, humility and respect are shared by many contributions; but the role of emotions varies as in Bohm’s notion of the impersonal.

A variety of religious and political traditions including Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, and Jewish tradition are represented. Atheism is there; but there is no polytheism like paganism represented by a thinker in the book. I found the non-inclusive language in places – such as in the chapter on Buber – difficult at times. I found interesting and challenging juxtapositions such as Habermas, Adorno, and Foucault. I would like to see the relationship between communicative action and power relations explored more deeply. I enjoyed the return to Socrates and notions of the True, Sincere and Right, but who decides what these are needs further exploration.

The presence of paganism would have given readers a greater sense of the role of Nature in interfaith dialogue and the need for dialogue with Gaia. My own thinking has been heavily influenced by the medieval mystic, Hildegard of Bingen who saw the interconnectedness of the whole cosmos as the basis for dialogue:

CHANT: Come flowing air serving all the parts of earth, Bind us together in a unity.

Revd Prof June Boyce-Tillman

Revd Prof June Boyce-Tillman

Professor of Applied Music, The University of Winchester

Dr June Boyce-Tillman MBE read music at Oxford University and is Professor of Applied Music at the University of Winchester. She has published widely in the area of education, most recently on spirituality/liminality.

Reader Interactions

Have Your Say