Religious Leaders

On Wednesday Adama Dieng, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide, visited Interfaith Scotland for a dialogue event. He presented the UN’s “Plan of Action for the Prevention of Genocide”.

In the dialogue he realised that a lot of good practise that he encourages people all over the world to do is actually already happening in Scotland. The plan of action addresses mainly (but not only) Religious Leaders and Actors. For me this gives me an opportunity to reflect a bit on the role of religious leaders for interfaith dialogue and genocide prevention.

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Impression from the “Prevention of Genocide” discussion

The connection of interfaith dialogue and genocide prevention

For me the prevention of genocides and religious violence is one of the most important motivations for interfaith dialogue. Good interfaith relationships are probably the best way to prevent religious motivated hate crimes (and the genocide is the worst form of a hate crimes). In the Holocaust, as well as in the persecution of Baha’i in Iran or Rohinga Muslims in Myanmar religion was/is one of the motivations for the committed crimes.

The important role of religious leaders for interfaith dialogue

Faith communities are structured in very different ways. They can be very hierarchical or with a very flat hierarchy. They can be structured top-down or bottom-up. Nearly all faith communities have some kind of persons that are responsible for representing them at different occasions.

It is very different how much “power” the different religious leaders have in speaking for their community, but what they are doing as representatives is usually highly symbolic. When religious leaders for example meet people from other religions this usually has an impact on how the public and people from their own religion see the relationship to people of other religions. Depending on the structure of their faith community religious leaders are also able to “set themes” for the discussion inside their community.

One difficulty with religious leaders can be that not everyone in their faith community might be excited about a larger interfaith engagement. Because of that it is possible that certain religious leaders can’t go as far forward with their actions as they might wish to do, because they have to respect and also represent those members of their community that are not interested in interfaith. Another difficulty for an interfaith dialogue between faith leaders can be that in case a leader is not very much interested in interfaith themselves it can handicap the initiatives of those members of their faith communities who want to drive interfaith forward.

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The religious leaders of Scotland at their meeting in the beginning of May 2018.

How I experienced the religious leaders in Scotland

The religious leaders of Scotland meet twice a year together and a third time for a joint summit with the first minister. Interfaith Scotland is functioning as secretary for those meetings. I personally had the opportunity to participate in those meetings as a note taker. The actual content of the meetings should not be shared here but it is possible, to give some of my impressions.

1) The religious leaders seem to appreciate the cooperation with each other. The meet each other very open and respectful and a lot of faith communities large ones and small ones were represented.

2) The religious leaders are talking open with each other. At the meetings they tell openly about what is going on in their communities. As far as I could witness it there seems to be a true base of trust between them.

3) The religious leaders cooperate with each other. At points that concern all/some of the faith communities they work together. For example were most of the face communities and their representatives involved in an event about the risks of climate change at the Scottish Parliament some weeks ago or they show solidarity if one faith communities suffers from certain problems.

That the  leaders of the faith communities are working so good and smoothly together is not usual, especially on a world wide perspective and Scotland can be proud about the process of cooperation which has been made in the last years.

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The Feminine in God

This blog article is based on a talk I was giving last Sunday during a Faith-to-Faith event at St Mungo’s Museum last Sunday. The event had the theme “The Feminine in God” and I was asked to give a personal approach from a Christian perspective. Before me a Hindu woman was given her approach and afterwards there was time for dialogue between the 27 attendees from different religious backgrounds.

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I’m not an expert in feminist theology, but I’ve had some lectures about it, especially in the beginning of my studying at the “augustana university” in Neuendettelsau in Bavaria. I will start with some examples of the traditional Christian way of talking about god in mainly Christian terms. Afterwards I will give some examples from the bible and the Christian tradition where feminine aspects in god are stressed. In the end I’m finishing with some personal thoughts.

The bible and the Christian tradition is dominated by a terminology that seems to support a male interpretation of god. Jesus talks about god as his father – not his mother. In the Lord’s (not the Lady’s…) Prayer god is called “our father”. At least two of the three persons in the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit are described by masculine terminology – and in some languages, as for example German, even “Spirit” is a grammatical masculine word. Christians believe that Jesus is the incarnation of God in human flesh – so god choose to become a man and not a woman, when he (!) decided to become a human being. Some traditional attributes and activities of God are traditional connotated as rather “male”, for example gods anger or god leading his people to a military victory. Furthermore the whole Christian art tradition, as so far as pictures of god are shown, shows god often as an old man.

All this is probably not very surprising, because biblical times as well as the last 2000 years of church history happened in mainly patriarchal dominated societies and the religious institutions were dominated by men. That those men were teaching a male god, should not be a big surprise.

Fortunately there are examples in the bible and in the tradition that also support talking of god in feminine terminology and it is interesting that those examples come usually from the Old Testament (the Jewish Tanach) and not the New Testament.

It starts with the second verse of the bible. In Gen 1:2 the text talks about “Gods spirit hovering above the water”. The Hebrew word for “spirit” is “ruach” and other than in German or other languages it is a feminine word.

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Also in the story of the creation in Gen 1:27 it is said that mankind was created in gods own image as male and female. So god includes male and female aspects and both aspects are represented in mankind.

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The prophet Isaiah writes in Is 66:13 that “as one whom a mother comforts, so will I (God) comfort you”. In the protestant church in Germany this text was the official motto (“Jahreslosung”) for 2016.

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Archaeological findings show us that there were times when the people living in Israel prayed to JHWH their god not alone, but JHWH also had a female companion (Ashera). Of course those times were long finished before most of the biblical scriptures were written, but it shows that for Judaism before the Babylonian exile the female aspects in god were so important that people prayed to their own goddess. After becoming more (and later completely) monotheistic those female aspects of god became part of JHWH and the biblical texts mentioned here are one result of it.

Also in the Christian tradition the female aspects of god were stressed from time to time, mainly in the Mystical traditions. One example are the texts and visions of “Mechthild of Magdeburg” and other powerful women in the medieval church.

For me personally the question of the feminine aspects in god is connected with the larger question of our human ability of talking and knowing about god. I’m convinced that no human talking about god – may it between highly educated theologians or just “normal” people – can describe god in any complete way. Our language and our thinking about god is therefor always incomplete and we are only able to use the language and vocabulary we have. Therefore neither “masculine” or “feminine” terminology describes god in any “better” way than the other does.

This position has also a tradition in the Christian tradition. In the ten commandments god prohibits to make images of god and to pray to them. In my opinion everyone who declares their own description of god as the only right one, does exactly this. They claim to know more about god than they are able to and this is one form of idolatry.

In the fifth century Christian theologians tried to resolve a huge argument about Jesus’ nature. Some were arguing that Jesus was “completely” human and some that he was “completely” divine. Recognizing that from a Christian point of view Jesus is god incarnated they decided in the Chalcedonian Creed to use paradoxical formulations (Jesus’ two natures are “unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably”). What is important in this for the question of the Feminine/Masculine in God is that they recognized the incompleteness and inability of human language in speaking about and describing god.

So human language and thinking can always just reach a part of gods being (like the A in the B in the picture).

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This means the question of talking about god in feminine or masculine terms is not a question about truth, but about stressing different aspects of god. Because our tradition has overstressed the masculine aspects much more than the feminine ones (because of the causes mentioned above), I find it very important to stress the feminine aspects more than we used to be. One possibility for this is using feminine terminology. When I was in church at St Mary’s Cathedral in Glasgow last Sunday Jesus was for example addressed as “our mother” during the intercessions prayer. Such small moments of irritation can help us, to realize that god is not a man in meaning than a human being can be a man, god is much more. God has male and female aspects.

To recognize those aspects Christianity can probably learn something from other religions. I find it very interesting to see how Hinduism can see all the different gods and goddesses as appearances of the one divine being and so make the people much more aware of the different aspects of god.

The Feminine in God

The value of travelling

“The train now leaving platform four is the 10.45 service to Edinburgh.” This and similar announcements have I heard very often since I came to Glasgow last July. Travelling is a large part of my work with Interfaith Scotland. I travel, when I visit the different local interfaith groups all over Scotland, between Dumfries and Shetland and between Skye and Fife. I travel also when I attend meetings of the youth engagement advisory group in London and I travel when I attend dialogue events or networking meeting with other charities or institutions. I had to travel to come to Scotland in the first place as well. Travelling is nice, because it gives me the opportunity to see a lot of different places and meet interesting people. Today we have very easy travel opportunities and even if a train is delayed or a flight cancelled, we (at least the privileged people with a passport, which opens most countries for us) can be pretty sure, that we can reach nearly every place in the world in relatively short time.

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Most of the people I work with at Interfaith Scotland and Interfaith Glasgow have been travelling a lot. Frances grew up in Northern Ireland and has spend time in India, Else has a Malaysian-Chinese background, Maureen is from the Highlands, but has lived in Samoa and the USA and is exploring interfaith connections in New Zealand the next weeks. At Interfaith Glasgow Rose is from England, Magdalen from Northern Ireland and Lynnda from South Africa. In a lot of the local interfaith groups there are people who are not born in Scotland or have lived in another country for some time of their life.

On the one hand this mixture of travel experienced people in interfaith context is a result of our modern globalized world, but on the other hand it also shows that travelling has a value in increasing interfaith and intercultural awareness. If I never had met people from other cultural or faith backgrounds than my own I probably would not be that interested in interfaith dialogue. I probably would never have thought about the question what my faith and believe means for the relationship to people of other faith. And I’m sure a lot of people involved in interfaith work and activities share this opinion.

Of course there are different kind of travelling and journeys where people of different backgrounds directly meet each other might be more fruitful for raising interfaith awareness than holidays where people spend there whole time at the beach and the only “strangers” they meet are those, who clean the dishes at the hotel buffet. But the first step is anyway to start moving being open to meeting others.

For some people it is easier to travel than for others. Therefore Interfaith Scotland offers schools the opportunity to bring volunteers from different faith backgrounds to them, so that students, especially outside the large and diverse cities can meet people of different faith backgrounds. Two weeks ago I joined a group of volunteers and delivered a day of school workshops in Oban, where it is not that easy for the students to meet Muslims, Hindus or Baha’i. It was really interesting to hear the interested questions the young people asked and I wish more schools would organise days like this (even if it were difficult for Interfaith Scotland, because of the small staff team we have…).

One idea, which has been discussed in the last years, that I really liked was to provide every young person in the European Union with a free Interrail ticket. It’s really a pity that in case this project comes into reality the young people in Scotland and the other parts of the UK can’t benefit of this! I think this would be a great opportunity especially for young people to meet people from different backgrounds and raise their awareness of the value of diversity. Maybe the Scottish government or the UK government should think about supporting/founding similar projects or at least organise/support more projects where people can travel in Scotland to meet people of different backgrounds (be it from the Southside of Glasgow to the East End of Glasgow, or from the rural areas of the country to the more diverse ones), like Interfaith Scotland does with it’s school workshops. Hopefully more people can have similar interesting travel experiences, as I do at the moment!

“Hine mah tov…”

When you are studying protestant theology in Germany you have to learn Latin, Ancient Greek and Hebrew. Fortunately for me I had learned Latin and Ancient Greek in school, so I had to learn “only” Hebrew when I started my studies. It was definitely not very easy to learn the language of the Hebrew Bible but in the second attempt I managed to pass the exam. When we learned the language, we not only learned how to read the alphabet and from the right to the left and not only vocabulary and grammar, but we also learned some traditional Hebrew songs. One of those songs has the text

“Hine mah tov uMah-Nayim shevet achim gam yachad“ and it quotes the beginning of Psalm 133. The verse means “Behold how good and how pleasing if brothers (people) could sit together in unity“. The song was also sung at the National Holocaust Memorial Day event, which I reflected about last week.

But it came much more to my mind after I visited a Shabbat service at Glasgow Reform Synagogue last Saturday. To be guest in this service was a very special experience for me. Not only because it was a remembrance service for Holocaust Memorial Day and not only because of the difficult history between Christians and Jews – especially in Germany. The experience was special because I felt welcomed and in a way “at home” that is unusual for visits in places of worship of other faith tradition than my own. Of course it helped a lot, that I was able to follow the Hebrew texts of the liturgy but also the texts itself and the setting of the service felt very familiar. That was of course because Christians and Jews share not only a lot of history, but also a large part of their Holy Scriptures. Probably because of that I had the feeling, that I could truly participate in the prayers say “Amen” to what was said in the service. The differences to my own tradition, which I definitely experienced as well, did not feel larger than when visiting a service in a different Christian denomination. Of course that does not mean that Jews should be seen as just another Christian denomination – that would be wrong and dangerous, but it shows the brother- and sisterhood between Christians and Jews.

Up till now I had the feeling that people stressing the “Christian-Jewish heritage of the Western World” do this mainly to support Anti-Muslim tunes in society, and I think very often this is the case. But during this service, listening together the story how god saved the Israelites on their way through the dessert, singing psalms, praying and remembering the Holocaust I really had the feeling: “Yes we are brothers and sisters. And there is a deep understanding between us. And besides all the differences that should not be denied, we share much more than we ourselves might think.”

If I could have a wish, I would wish that this deep understanding I experienced in this Shabbat Service is possible between believers of all the different religions. I would wish that Jews can pray with Muslims and Muslims with Christians and Buddhists with Hindus and Hindus with Sikhs and Skihs with Baha’I and Baha’I with Jews and so on. That would really be “good and pleasing”!

“Hine mah tov uMah-Nayim shevet achim gam yachad“

Holocaust Memorial Day 2018

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Tomorrow is Holocaust Memorial Day. Because of that a lot of HMD events are organized these days all over the world. The National Scottish Memorial event was organized by Interfaith Scotland on Wednesday. It was a successful, moving and dignified event. In the centre of the evening we heard two stories about the Russian city Rostov-on-Don. We heard about how the Nazis massacred the Jewish population with mobile gas chambers. We heard also how Feodor Michalichenko a young man, saved and protected a young boy (7 years old), who later became the chief-rabbi of Israel, in the Concentration Camp of Buchenwald. We saw a drama and listened to music performed by Glaswegian school children. We heard from young people about their trips to Auschwitz and Rwanda. The First Minister of Scotland, the Lord Provost of Glasgow, the chair of the national Holocaust Memorial Day Trust were involved in the programme as well as Holocaust survivers, guests from Rostov-on-Don, representatives of the different victim groups in the Holocaust and representatives of Scottish Jewish communities and other faith communities.

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I have to admit before the event, especially in the beginning of the planning from September onwards, I was a bit sceptical, if it was possible to have this kind of event with so many involved groups in a dignified way. My fear was that I, as someone who was raised in a country where remembering the Holocaust is very present in the political and social discussions, might have different expectations about a Holocaust Memorial Day event, than people outside of Germany. About some of my thoughts I wrote in this blog in my article from 8th September 2017. In the end I was satisfied with the way how the event went.

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There is only one question I have very ambivalent feeling about: Is it right to remember “subsequent” genocides together with the Holocaust?

On the one hand I totally agree that every genocide is horrible and worth remembering. For the person who is shot to death I might not make a huge difference if they were killed by a German, a Cambodian or a Serbian soldier or if they were killed by their neighbour in Germany, Dafur or Rwanda. Everyone in the world should know about this genocides and everyone should work hard so that this list doesn’t become longer and longer. So again it is definitely worth and important to remember all the different genocides and maybe it is an mistake (but even understandable) that German remembering culture is so concentrated on remembering the Holocaust.

But there are three questions that make me doubt about combining the remembering of the Holocaust with the remembering of the “subsequent genocides”.

  1. Isn’t the Holocaust a singularity?

From my point of view this question must be answered yes. Not only is the total number of victims higher than in the other remembered genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Dafur. From everything I know the other genocides (and that might be much to little in the end) the highly industrialised way of organising and conduction of the killing in Nazi Germany is a significant difference to the other genocides. Where else did such a bureaucratical way of killing millions of people exist?

  1. Does remembering the Holocaust together with other genocides relativize the Holocaust (and the other genocides)?

In Germany the persons who say “Well there were horrible genocides in other places in the world as well” have usually a right wing (extremist)/neo nazi background. Those voices come often together with appeals to change the remembering culture away from a focus on the German guilt towards a more patriotic/nationalist view onto German history. This relativistic attitude is very dangerous and even, when I don’t believe anyone at the official Holocaust Memorial Day event in Scotland or somewhere else in the UK has this attitude, there is the danger of seeing the Holocaust as “just one of many bad events in history”. And even if the remembering is done in a way that doesn’t relativize the Holocaust I see the danger of relativizing the other genocides. The Holocaust with it’s millions of deaths and the different groups of victims (besides the genocide of the Jewish population, there were persons with disabilities, LGBT, Roma and political opponents of the regime killed) looks always larger than the other genocides and it could make people think about Bosnia, Cambodia, Dafur or Rwanda: “Well at least it was not as worse as the Holcoaust”.

  1. When remembering genocides why only “subsequent” genocides?

Of course not every killing of people fits the official criteria of a genocide and not always is it easy to draw the exact line between a genocide and other crimes of mass murder. But there other, at least “genocide-like”, events which happened before the Holocaust. One example are the crimes of the Germans against the Ovaherero and Nama in Namibia between 1904-1908 – already with Concentration Camps and the death of half of the population of those two people. Another example would be the crimes against the Armenian population in the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1918. Other examples could be the killing of large parts of native populations in the Americas and other parts of the world during the age of colonization.

Because of those three questions I still have my doubts whether it is good or not to combine the remembrance of the Holocaust with the remembering of the different genocides. But in the end it might be much more important that those events are remembered than the question if they should be remembered separately or all together.

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List of wishes

December is a month when many people are thinking about wishes. Children might write letters to Santa Claus with their wishes for Christmas and adults might think about what they wish for the new year.

The following is my personal list of seven wishes for the interfaith work in 2018.

  1. No religious violence anymore.

No person should suffer from violence and religions should in no way support people suffering. Politics, society, religious leaders and every believer all over the world should do everything possible to support the peaceful streams in the different religions.

  1. More dialogue

The dialogue that is happening here in Scotland is very good, but there can always be more. And in other places in the world there is less or no dialogue between different religions.

  1. More young people in dialogue

When I visit local interfaith groups this is the wish I hear most often. 2018 will be the official “year of young people” in Scotland. For Interfaith Scotland the work with young people will be one of the most important parts of its work this year, for example by organising a national youth conference in St Andrews in April. Even the UK Interfaith Network is putting much effort in the work with young people (I can tell you more about this another time).

  1. More funding for interfaith work

As everything successful interfaith work depends on funding. Not everything can be done by volunteers and staff needs to be paid, as well as travel expanses and food at events. So hopefully governments as well as private funders and donators will increase the amount of money they give for interfaith work.

  1. More publicity for successful interfaith dialogue

The media seems to talk about religion mainly if there are things going wrong. I would like to see a greater awareness of the benefits of interfaith work in local, national and international media.

  1. More “professional” interfaith work

In Scotland I can experience the benefits of a very good organised interfaith work, run by special interfaith charities like Interfaith Scotland, Interfaith Glasgow, Edinburgh Interfaith Association and the UK Interfaith Network. I wish that many more countries would organize (and fund!) interfaith work in a similar way – not least my homecountry Germany.

  1. More “theological” dialogue

Something popping up in my blog articles from time to time. From my point of view an interfaith dialogue is only complete, if the theological questions are included. That doesn’t mean every single dialogue event needs to deal with those questions. There is definitely a huge benefit in “just” bringing people together and letting them learn more about each other – but from my personal theological point of view the different religions can (and must) also learn from each other in theological questions, but there seem to be very little opportunities for this kind of dialogue.

Faith identities

Last Tuesday Interfaith Scotland run a dialogue event together with Faith in Older People, Marie Curie, Stonewall and Edinburgh Interfaith Chaplaincy about “Identity and Belonging”. There was a very good atmosphere during the event and people of different age groups, different faith and believe, different sex and gender and different nationality shared their thoughts and had intensive discussions about Identity.

In the following I will share some of my thoughts about this theme.

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I would say that a lot of the conflicts we have in our modern world are conflicts between different group identities and individual identities.  From outside point of view the conflict in Catalonia in Spain seems to be amongst other things (economic reasons…) between people with a Catalan identity and people with a Spanish identity and a lot of people in between with maybe both identities or other identities such as a European identity. Also the conflicts in the USA between supporters and opponents of Donald Trump seems for me (mainly) to be about the question “what does it mean to be American?” or “What is the “true” American identity?”. These kind of conflicts seem to be typical for our time. Other examples (always with different focus) could be Germany after the refugee crisis, post-Brexit Britain, the question of Scottish independence and discussions about whether to widen or to diminish the European Union.

All of my examples have something in common: They are about national identity/state identities, but this is only because these kind of conflicts seem to be very strong at the moment because of their high media presence. These conflicts are also an important question in the area of Interfaith Dialogue.

 

On Tuesday evening I held speech at the German Speaking Church in Glasgow about Interfaith dialogue and the work of Interfaith Scotland. One of the question asked during the following discussion was very typical “Isn’t interfaith dialogue about giving up things and producing a kind of “wishi-washi” religion?”. This question is not a bad question, because it refers to the identity of religions involved in interfaith dialogue. People asking this kind of question  would probably say, that there is such as a core identity of their religion, which can’t be giving up and I would assume that a very large majority of believers in all religion would share this opinion. So for a Muslim majority there are things which can’t be giving up without becoming a Non-Muslim in the same way as there are things which can’t be giving up for a Christian majority, a Jewish majority, a Hindu majority, a Buddhist majority and so on. The interesting point here is, that it would be very difficult for all Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, … in their own faith to agree about the things which are building this Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, … identity.

I give an example from my own tradition. If you would randomly ask Christians from all over the world about the core of what it means being a Christian they might answer: “Being a member of the church”, “Being baptized”, “Refer to Jesus as the Lord”, “The trinitarian faith of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit”, “The command to love your neighbour”, “The belief in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus”, “to belief Jesus is the son of god”, “to go to church”, “to pray the Lord’s Prayer”, “to help others”, “to recognize the pope”, “to read the bible”, “to believe in 7 sacraments”, “to believe in 2 sacraments”, “to live in a Christian country”, “to celebrate Christian festivals”, …

It would be really hard to find one of these answers that all Christians in the world can agree on and in my opinion it is impossible to make them agree on what they mean when they say “referring to Jesus as the son of god” is the core of the Christian identity.

And I would assume it is the same in the other faith traditions.

From my point of view that shows, that it is only possible to build a so called religious identity as long as the core of this identity stays vague enough, so that a certain group of people can agree on it. If the core of a certain faith tradition is this vague the risk of loosing the identity is very little, because there is no single core for the identity. For every individual believer slightly different parts of the faith are important for their faith identity and all large faith identities (“the Christian/Muslim/Jewish/Buddhist/Hindu/… identity”) are in a way theoretical constructs.

For a single individual his or her personal faith identity might change a couple of time during his or her lifetime, but that should normally be not a big problem, because it is a personal decision to agree or disagree to a certain point of view. Identity problems only start, if other people prohibit others to change their point of view, because they consider it as Non-Christian/Muslim/Jewish/Hindu/Buddhist/….

That means identity conflicts become only urgent or dangerous if people feel they have the right to judge about the identity of others.

If you agree or disagree with my thoughts feel free to let me know your opinion – that’s what dialogue is about!