The Spirit of Dialogue

Lessons from Faith Traditions in Transforming Conflict

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Aaron T. Wolf
  • Washington, DC: 
    Island Press
    , September
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Spirit of Dialogue is a thoughtful reflection by Aaron T. Wolf on his experiences as a consultant in water resource management. Transcending national boundaries, Wolf has served as a mediator for groups who see themselves as divided by local and global distinctions. For Wolf, humans are products of systems, and different systems produce different perceptions of material reality. Divergent perceptions often produce conflict, something The Spirit of Dialogue centralizes in its detailed accounts of various negotiations over water resources—whether in the Nile Delta or Mekong River Basin.

According to Wolf, groups involved in these conflicts are constantly being acted upon simultaneously by what he characterizes as their “rational” and “ideological” perceptions of reality. To demonstrate the role of these influences, which he frames as being dichotomous, Wolf includes hypothetical maps that show significant disparities between the division of water resources based on whose view is being privileged in the boundaries represented in the map. For example, legislative bodies and local communities may be aware of the same political boundaries, but view their role differently in how such a boundary should affect resource management. Wolf routinely separates logic from faith-based belief throughout the book, which seems to be a tactic for representing the traditions featured in The Spirit of Dialogue in a way that distinguishes them from Western traditions.

Engaging with “faith traditions” that embody the “spirit” of debates surrounding limited resources, Wolf seeks to identify a core function of religious belief. Documenting his interactions with various religious groups, in addition to groups defined by their nationality or location within a greater institution, Wolf seeks to reveal the common religiosity drawn upon in moments of tension. In his work, religion provides a model for possible conflict resolution and allows negotiations to move forward in the face of extreme heterogeneity. For when dispute arises over water, a dialogue must occur where each group makes their case, and Wolf assumes that every faith tradition has a level of commonality in their interpretation of dispute resolution that represents a fusion of the group’s rational thinking and their spiritual beliefs derived from what he terms their “faith traditions.”

Documenting Catholic rituals at the Vatican, zikr (a tradition in Sufi Islam involving the repetition of sacred concepts/words), and Mormon mantras, to name a few, Wolf’s work is not lacking in the diversity of examples it draws upon. By meticulously documenting phenomena he sees as embodying a variation of the “path to transcendence,” Wolf maintains the path as the common feature of all religious traditions around the world. Sensibly, given his interests and experiences, The Spirit of Dialogue captures moments where religion plays a critical role for followers in conflict over resources. These moments, according to Wolf, demonstrate how the “path to transcendence” can be achieved by each religious group in their settling of disputes over water access.

Wolf’s pluralist and, some might argue ahistoric approach to religion forces him to demonstrate the validity of his claims by presupposing a religious constant in cultures across time and space. Although, as previously addressed, Wolf engages with many religious traditions, it becomes difficult to discern whether or not his objective is accomplished, as the book does not provide a concrete theory or explicit definition of religion. In the preface, Wolf includes a “note on limitations”: the limitations of his work are located in the expectations of the reader, Wolf asserts, stating that “serious scholars or practitioners of religion may be disappointed or appalled at the generalizations and mischaracterizations I make here” (xii). In acknowledging his use of what could be seen as a problematic essentialist approach to “faith traditions,” Wolf seems somewhat aware of the challenges his claims pose as they attempt to represent entire religious groups despite being based on limited interactions with specific subgroups of such religions.

Although Wolf makes a convincing argument for the advent of close listening in current efforts to mediate intrapersonal conflict, his argument is undermined by sweeping claims about the beliefs and behaviors of particular religions based on highly limited interactions. It is not uncommon for scholars in other disciplines to treat religion in very much the same way Wolf does in this text, as though it is something ostensibly different than other aspects of human social life. It therefore seems that Wolf is entirely correct in asserting that this text is somewhat disappointing for “serious scholars of religion” as it embodies generalizations and assumptions many scholars have critiqued as highly problematic. The deconstruction of such approaches to the religious traditions of the world has been increasingly of interest for scholars in the twenty-first century.  

For undergraduate students seeking a text that highlights the role of religion in the geosciences, particularly when public policy is involved, The Spirit of Dialogue could be a useful resource (especially for readers in theological schools). Despite my concerns about Wolf’s framing of religion, his work is detailed and maintains fluid engagement between his interests in political science and resource management.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sierra Lynn Lawson is a graduate student in Religious Studies at the University of Alabama.

Date of Review: 
February 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Aaron T. Wolf is a professor of geography in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University. His research and teaching focus is on the interaction between water science and water policy, particularly as related to conflict prevention and resolution. He has acted as a consultant to the World Bank and several international government agencies on various aspects of transboundary water resources and dispute resolution. Wolf is a trained mediator/facilitator, and directs the Program in Water Conflict Management and Transformation, through which he has offered workshops, facilitations, and mediation in basins throughout the world. He coordinates the Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database, and is a co-director of the Universities Partnership on Transboundary Waters. He has been an author/editor for seven books, as well as almost 50 journal articles, book chapters, and professional reports on various aspects of transboundary waters.

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