Written by: Jacky Manuputty
The very basic question of doing dialogue is what dialogue is or, more specifically, what interreligious dialogue is? For many scholars of interreligious dialogue, dialogue refers to communication between two or more individuals. Swidler, for example, articulates the meaning of dialogue as a “two-way communication between persons who hold significantly differing views on a subject, with the purpose of learning more truth about the subject from the other” (Swidler, “Understanding Dialogue,” 11). Another interreligious scholar, John B. Cobb, Jr, stresses that dialogue is an act of communication during which “two sides listen to each other and explain themselves to each other” (Leonard Swidler, John B cobb Jr, Paul F Knitter, Monica K Hellwig, Death or Dialogue: From the Age of Monologue to the Age of Dialogue, 1990, 1).These perspectives represent the dominant thinking: communication is a process in which we demonstrate our independence and express our individuality. In such a process, individuals are considered independent in a certain place and time, while dialogue is the transference of messages between individuals. Consequently, human relationship in this model of communication exists only after the communication process is completed.
Quite different from the meaning of dialogue outlined above, the Malukan structure of group communication more practically corresponds to the ideal of communication as a reminder and confirmer of the dialectical relationship of non-separateness between individuals. As in many Asian cultures, Malukan cosmology believes in the universe as a great entity in which everyone or everything is interrelated across space and time. Thus, dialogue is a non-linear, two way communication process. Communication’s aim is communion and mutual understanding. The Malukan “bacarita” (informal communication/story telling) style, for example, allows group members not only to exchange ideas but also to increase their sense of interdependence and interrelatedness. While the character of communication, as defined by Swidler and Cobb, refers to the emotional independence of the individual, communication in the Malukan community manifests the interpenetrated nature of self and other, the binary relationship of all cosmic elements. The awareness of unity and the mutual interpenetrated relation of all things and events serve as a basis of each encounter, including religious encounters. When it comes to dialogue, the distinction among individual, group, or even religion is not a substantial aspect for measuring. Individuals may differ in beliefs, but what an individual believes is essentially irrelevant. Dialogue is an action for sharing common concerns and responsibilities in every aspect of living space. This interaction covers all positive and constructive relations among communities of various faiths. The concern of dialogue thus encompasses a holistic encounter of religion in the public space. Drawing from the Indonesia context, Achmad Munjid draws a parallel between public space and home, saying that “all religions are sharing public space as a home where each family member can have privacy in the common space, sharing freely and fully about any common problem- and thus cooperate in making the space a safe and comfortable home for everyone” (Achmad Munjid, “Building Shared Home for Everyone: Interreligious Dialogue at the Grass Roots in Indonesia,” in Interfaith Dialogue at the Grass Roots, ed. Rebecca Kratz Mays, 2008, 118). Throughout such dialogue, each group helps others to establish themselves. By helping others to complete themselves, we complete ourselves. This means an individual is valued when the person entwines his/her own personal interests with the interests or values of the collectivity.
Relationship and mutual responsibility, are the key points in the entire process of dialogue. This requires investing the energy in a closer relationship, before and after the official dialogue is conducted. However, the term ‘official dialogue,’ is not helpful, because it implies that initial and follow-up dialogues are less meaningful than the official dialogue. Rather, it is better to designate the pattern of dialogue as “siblinghood interreligious dialogue,” or, in the local narrative, it is often called “dialog orang basudara.” This term indicates the urgency of revitalizing the dialectical concept of relationship as a mental layer of religious encounter in Maluku society.
The next issue involves the nature of dialogue in Malukan custom. Within that, verbal and official communication is not the anchor of interreligious dialogue. In this author’s years of experience engaging people from different religions and civic levels, many participants cannot or will not articulate what they really feel through the use of words in dialogue. In many instances, they express their emotional sensitivity only through different symbols of physical communication, like a broad smile, touch, salute, gesture, or other bodily movements. Other participants turn to prefer music, dance, or theatre as a creative expression to communicate their strong message, while others use symbols to build self esteem or to communicate personal status, such as clothing and religious accessories. It is crucial to heed such gestures and symbols in dialog events, especially as a community expresses its intentions, meanings or emotions predominantly through nonverbal communication. Marc Gopin clearly observes that the tendency to exaggerate the power of the word over the deed is deeply embedded in Western cultures and, in parallel form, Abrahamic religions of the West (Marc Gopin, “The Use of the Word and Its Limits: A Critical Evaluation of Religious Dialogue and Peace Making,” in Interfaith Dialogue and Peace Building, ed. David R. Smock, Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2002, 33). For the Malukan community, in contrast, communication encompasses both emotional sensitivity and instrumental rationality. The former typically manifests itself through a production of gestures and symbols, while the latter comes out in verbal language. In a dialogue event, both expressions mix thoroughly and require participants to engage in dialogue by feeling through sensitivity as well as by analyzing through rationality. This is what Yoshitaka Miike named “the habits of the heart” in Asian communication (Yoshitaka Miike, “Harmony Without Uniformity: An Asiacentric worldview and its Communicative Implication,” in Intercultural communication: A reader, twelfth edition, ed. Larry A. Samovar and Richard E.Porter, 42).
The official communication model of interreligious dialogue is flawed because it is (mostly) an intellectual endeavor, with verbal communication as its basis for dialogue process. This linear form of dialogue uses direct communication in words to keep the misunderstanding as low as possible. However, this approach can become static and monolithic. It has less space for sentient expression with non-verbal or symbolic communication. Malukan culture, as part of a mainly Asian tradition, richly embodies many symbols and signs beyond official language. A Sign meaning “a stimulus designating or indicting some other condition” and a symbol “designating a complex sign with many meanings, including highly personal ones” (Stephen W. Littlejohn and Karen A. Foss, Theories of Human Communication, Ninth Edition, 35). Signs, more so, are connected to an object in reality and symbols having more of a subjective realization. The semiotic tradition is then necessary because interreligious dialogue in Malukan society is governed not only by verbal, intellectual endeavor, but also by icons, signs, and nonverbal forms of communication. This means, that although Malukan people pursue dialogue as an instrumental rationality, they do so with great humility and elasticity. And, moreover, it should equally combine with emotional sensitivity, in which the Asian worldview occupies a central place in being and becoming fully human.