The Spirit of Dialogue

Taking time to listen to and reflect on each other’s learnings and insights is a valuable part of practicing science. Sharing thoughts and reflections helps to think outside of your own field of science, to critically reflect on your work, and it is a generally energising exercise.

On the 12th of March, a group of colleagues from IHE Delft came together to discuss the recently published book ‘The Spirit of Dialogue: Lessons from Faith Traditions in Transforming Conflict’, by Aaron Wolf, professor of Geography at Oregon State University. Aaron is one of the leading scientists in conflict prevention and resolution, and has over twenty years of experience as facilitator. He joined the IHE Delft Water Governance group for six months as visiting professor on water cooperation and diplomacy. As a farewell to Aaron, Emanuele Fantini, Margreet Zwarteveen, and Cristobál Bonelli reacted on ‘The Spirit of Dialogue’ in a book reviewing session with other colleagues and MSc students.

Below, we share a summary of The Spirit of Dialogue as well as the reflections from Emanuele, Margreet and Cristobál. The book inspired discussions connecting rational with spiritual conceptual repertoires and experiences.  Emanuele reflects on the connection between the rational and spiritual as described in ‘the Spirit of Dialogue’ and recalls that religion is a plastic phenomenon to be understood in its mutual interaction with cultural, political, social, economical factors. Margreet discusses from a feminist perspective the binary distinction between science/reason and emotion, and how this is both challenged and embraced in the Spirit of Dialogue. Cristobál challenges the attempt to find universal elements in religions, and shows his appreciation for opening up to knowledges from religious scholars.

We hope the discussions will inspire and energise you in the same way we were inspired and energised!


The Spirit of Dialogue
Aaron’s long experience in the field led him, in his own words, to “come to appreciate both the limitations of the rational models on which we in the West base our understandings of conflict and cooperation and the wisdom, constructs, and practical tools of the world’s faith traditions in working toward deep and healthy interactions around contentious issues”. In ‘The Spirit of Dialogue’ he shares lessons and insights from discussions with ‘practitioners from a variety of the world’s faith traditions and with those who have negotiated conflicts in a breadth of settings’. With this book, he steps outside of the scientific world to share his insights with a broader audience.

Aaron presents insights in tools for conflict transformation, from lessons on how to address everyday conflicts and vulnerabilities between people, and especially conflicts and vulnerabilities within yourself. Aaron states: ‘I focus on the understanding and tools that have some universal application, precisely because of the need to resonate with those in conflict, regardless of their backgrounds and belief’. The majority of the book covers a reflection on how the major world religions are connected through four worlds, the physical, emotional, perceptual and spiritual, and how this can connect people beyond a conflict.

Emanuele Fantini: the shape of religion

I welcome the publication of this book because of the perspective it offers on the role of religion and spirituality in conflicts. In the last thirty years, starting with the conflict in former Yugoslavia and the thesis of the “clash of civilisations”, later reinforced by the global war on terrorism, when it comes to international conflicts religion has been mostly considered as part of the problem. Here the perspective is the opposite: rather than bringing people to clash, religions and faith traditions share repertoires of notions and tools that can facilitate conflicts resolution. I found this idea much needed and highly inspiring.

While reading the book, I got the impression that sometimes it divides the world into two: on the one side a world based on rationality, reason, and science (the western, US and Europe) and on the other side a world where spirituality, faith, religions, and alternative dispute resolution mechanisms enjoy greater legitimacy and space in shaping daily life and its understanding (the East and the South of the world, indigenous people). Other parts of the book challenge this dichotomy, for instance when Aaron refers to the Regensburg Lecture by the former Pope Benedict XVI affirming that reason and faith are not in contradiction. I also wonder if our western societies are really that “rational” as we tend to portray it…From my research on the role of Catholics in the Italian mobilisation against the privatisation of water services I learn that religion is a plastic phenomenon: it can take many different shapes – like water – and allow different trajectories, depending on the interaction with cultural, political, social, economic factors. I believe that the plasticity of religion and its mutual interaction with class, ethnic, gender identities and roles, should be taken into account when assessing the usefulness of different faith traditions’ tools and concepts for conflict transformation.

Painting from a temple depicting the Buddha stopping a war over the waters of the Rohini river (photo courtesy of Ven. Dr. Rangama Chandawimala Thero)


Margreet Zwarteveen: a feminist eye looking at The Spirit of Dialogue

I have read the book with fascination and with admiration: it provides an eloquent and rich description of an intellectual journey by a scientist who is also a deeply concerned and committed human being.  The book is a wonderful, passionate and also a very modest and friendly plea for a better and more peaceful world, for more respectful and harmonious modes of being, relating and coexisting. Rather than disagreements or criticisms, my observations and questions are musings and reflections provoked by how the book resonates with my own intellectual and societal quests. They contain both an invitation to extend the insights of the book beyond processes of conflict resolution into reflection on (processes of doing) science, and a word of caution about how the search for universals may lead to unwarranted exclusions and the eradication of pluralism.

I deeply sympathise with the book’s passionate plea for bringing the scientist and the human being more closely together: Aaron argues that if attempts to make this world into a more peaceful and harmonious place are to succeed, the enlightenment rift – or the separations between rationality and spirituality and between humans and nature – needs to be healed. For me (a feminist water scholar), this argument is familiar, as it echoes the critiques of science articulated by many feminist scholars: they have also persistently questioned (and proposed alternatives for) the binary distinctions – such as those between emotion and reason, between nature and culture – that provide the foundations of scientific thought. In another way, too, Aaron’s book seems to follow a good principle of feminist scholarship: rather than the old-fashioned kind of scientific objectivity that stipulates that the author should not be visible in the scientific text (or in the results of experiments), Aaron clearly anchors his writings and reflections in his own personality, life trajectory and beliefs. The person Aaron is clearly visible in the text. I like this, not just because I like this person Aaron, but also because it means that the author Aaron assumes responsibility for what he writes and is accountable for it. Here Aaron – probably unknowingly – seems to follow Donna Haraway’s proposal for re-defining scientific objectivity. In her famous essay “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective” (1988), Haraway denounces the positivist (enlightenment) idea(l) of objectivity as a “god-trick” in its pretension of being able to see from no-where and everywhere. As an alternative, she uses the metaphor of vision to offer an image of the embodied, complicated, actively seeing eye. She reinscribes this eye with biological and technological meaning: “all eyes, including our own organic ones, are active perceptual systems, building on translations and specific ways of seeing, that is, ways of life” (p. 583).

“The Spirit of Dialogue”, thus positively resonates with feminist critiques of science, which perhaps explains why I felt encouraged to read it as a critique of science. However, the book clearly is not that, nor does it intend or pretend to be. First and foremost it aspires to provide a “practical guide for anyone who is involved in leading or participating in difficult conversations” (xi). While the book starts with a disappointment in science’s ability to provide guidance on how to live harmoniously and peacefully with others, it does not aim to critique or repair science or scientists. Instead, it is concerned with improving processes of dialogue, especially those that are difficult and conflictual. While acknowledging this as an important goal which I think the book has achieved, I am a bit disappointed by how in pursuing this goal science itself remains untouched and indeed seemingly outside of society (and thus separate from hearts, bodies and spirits) or of difficult societal conversations. By keeping science in the realm of reason, the book seems to (want to) maintain a belief in the possibility to meaningfully separate reason from emotion (and spirituality, bodies).

Stakeholders workshop in the Mekong River Basin (credits: Aaron Wolf)

The book’s starting point is that processes of decision making or conflict resolution cannot just be (re)solved by scientifically establishing what-who is right (and what is the truth), as people’s behaviours and decisions are not just based on reason. Not just minds are involved, but also bodies, hearts and spirits. The book then goes on to search for alternative ways of organizing decision making processes and resolving conflicts. Here, the book displays an interesting paradox. On the one hand it maintains that important inspirations for resolving conflicts can be found in faith traditions that, at least by the definitional conventions of enlightenment, are and should not be part of science. Hence, it makes a plea for complementing reason (science?) with other ingredients or sources of knowing. On the other hand, it importantly relies on scientific methods to establish the effectiveness of the proposed mediation and conflict resolution techniques, many of which originate from faith-based traditions. Or: to convince the reader that there is wisdom in these techniques, the book often (although not just) refers to science, and also uses forms of reasoning that resemble those used by science. How can the very science founded on the enlightenment rift be used legitimate non-scientific wisdoms, or contribute to healing the rift? Does accepting the truth and effectiveness of these wisdoms not itself also poses an interesting challenge to scientific rationality, or to the possibility of separating reason from emotion (etc.)?

One important line of argumentation of the book is to show how important religious belief systems similarly distinguish between four different states of being (perceptual states), which are also called dimensions of knowing, levels of reality, or worlds. The book uses the existence of these similarities to suggest that there exists some essential human core or a more universal truth. Highlighting what different people share, across religions, national boundaries and many other differences, is of course useful and logical given the book’s purpose: it establishes the common ground from which it becomes possible to have a fruitful dialogue. Feminism and other emancipatory movements have often based their pleas for equal treatment and rights on a very similar rhetorical move: by emphatically showing that women (or indigenous people, etc.) are human beings, too – or share the same essential humanist core as those already recognized as human, namely (some) white men – they proved that they deserved to be treated as these white men. Emancipatory struggles have nevertheless also shown that there is a danger in too much emphasis on sameness: where does the original model or ideal for humanity come from, and for whom and under which conditions is this model or ideal attainable? Who can speak as and for the universal human being? When looking at the faith traditions discussed in the book, there seems to be ground for feminist suspicion here, as religious authority in those traditions seems to be predominantly reserved to (some) men. Is it possible that the very gender-specific ways in which faith traditions have distributed and defined religious authority have also coloured their models of humanity?


Cristóbal Bonelli: bridging spiritual and scientific traditions

Unaware of the isomorphic character of my decision, I read part of the book at the meditation (let’s say spiritual) room available at our IHE Institute, a room that, I dare to say, is not very known among colleagues; a spiritual room that tends to remain separated from the rest of the IHE scientific building. Aaron’s book, at least isomorphically, is an attempt to overcome this rift between (scientific and spiritual) rooms. In a way, Aaron’s book is an attempt to bring together the meditation-spiritual room at IHE with other knowledge rooms (perhaps more rational and scientific) where water conflict resolution is thought and taught.

As an experiment of creating bridges between spiritual and scientific traditions, the book reminded me of other books and projects that had strongly influenced the world I live in, and that I had not -till the moment of my encounter with Aaron’s book- connected with my current work as researcher on water conflicts at the Water Governance group. The conversations I am referring to are those that took place in Dharamasala, India, between Tibetan Buddhist scholars with Western scientists. There, one of the main topics of discussion were indeed ‘destructive emotions’ such as anger and hatred, emotions that very often encourage the escalation of conflicts rather than the emergence of empathy, compassion and peace. Aaron’s book resonates with these previous attempts to learn from different traditions, this time by focusing on transforming conflict within water worlds.

In his search for learning about spiritual traditions, Aaron also engages with a zen master and peace activist I have been reading during the last year, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn, known by his attempts of applying the insights from meditation practice and dharma teachings to situations of social, political, and environmental suffering and injustice.

In Thich’s words, from his book Anger (2002):

“If your house is on fire, the most urgent thing to do is to go back and try to put out the fire, not to run after the person you believe to be the arsonist. If you run after the person you suspect has burned your house, your house will burn down while you are chasing him or her. That is not wise. You must go back and put out the fire. So when you are angry, if you continue to interact with or argue with the other person, if you try to punish her, you are acting exactly like someone who runs after the arsonist while everything goes up in flames.”Aaron’s book brings together these, among many others, presences as a way to carry out his own ‘universal project’ concerning the integration of rationality and spirituality in water conflict resolution.

In Aaron’s words:

“I focus on the understanding and tools that have some universal application, precisely because of the need to resonate with those in conflict, regardless of their backgrounds and belief.” (p. 31)

“Understanding these constructs and their universality leads to tremendous possibilities in the design and implementation of processes, training, collaborative learning and international management”. (p. 68)

Perhaps implicitly, the book makes a plea for the commensurability of different religions and spiritual traditions (here I only mention Buddhist ones), and by doing so, it challenges those who, like me, have tried to demonstrate that every conflict is connected the so called cultural backgrounds and cultural beliefs.

Thus, and at the same time of bringing into presence the wisdom of various spiritual masters, Aaron’s book also reminded of other scholars that have deeply influenced the world I live in, scholars that have explicitly problematized (for more than two decades now) the very possibility of universal projects.

The first one, Bruno Latour (in The Pasteurization of France, followed by Irreductions):

‘When someone talks to me about a universal, I always ask what size it is, and who is projecting onto what screen. I also ask how many people maintain it and how much it costs to pay them. I know this is in bad taste, but the king is naked and seems to be clothed only because we believe in the universal’.

The second one, Dona Haraway (in Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective)

‘The only position from which objectivity could not possibly be practiced and honoured is the standpoint of the master, the Man, the One God, whose Eye produces, appropriates, and orders all difference. No one ever accused the God of monotheism of objectivity, only of indifference. The god-trick is self-identical, and we have mistaken that for creativity and knowledge, omniscience even’.

As an experiment of creating bridges between spiritual and scientific traditions, and by implicitly inviting the reader to experience the book as a tool for meditation, Aaron’s work reminded me of different presences and knowledges existing in ongoing tension: on the one hand, those presences that invite us to imagine an universal human nature in tension with, on the other hand, those presences and knowledges that continuously problematize this sort of ‘god-trick’.

Personally, I do not feel the need of solving this tension, as I feel more comfortable observing these tendencies of thought as one would do while meditating. The book thus leaves me with the following open concern: how to overcome the risk of objectivity, understood as, following Humberto Maturana, an argument aimed at compelling someone to do something against his or her will, without necessarily jumping into universal claims about human nature and religion?

Cite this blog post
Rozemarijn ter Horst (2018, April 23). The Spirit of Dialogue. FLOWs. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from

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