From Catherine Cornille, ed. Many Mansions? Multiple Religious Belonging and Christian Identity (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2002), pp. 29-43.
My models of "double belonging" are the late Winston and Jocelyn King. They meditated together every morning, he as a Buddhist Christian, she as a Christian Buddhist. Here was a marriage of traditions that left all theological cavilling far behind, demonstrating that there is no fundamental contradiction between the Gospel and the Buddha's path. One might try to maintain that each spouse had a primary and total commitment to one tradition and only an auxiliary commitment to the other one. Yet in the lived symbiosis of traditions it may be doubted whether such questions of priority were of any great moment. Jocelyn liked to quote Hakuin's slogan: "Great faith, great doubt, great effort." Great faith is practiced both in the initial total commitment to one's own tradition and in the subsequent generous embrace of the other tradition. Great doubt arises in the mutual testing and purification of the traditions. Great effort is called forth by the horizon of spiritual searching and questioning which the meeting of traditions opens up.
The immense mutual enrichment that religious pluralism brings was noted with joy by Pope John Paul II during his recent visit to Israel. A contrasting note is struck in the recent Declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dominus Iesus: "The Church's constant missionary proclamation is endangered today by relativistic theories which seek to justify religious pluralism, not only de facto but also de iure" (par. 4). This document has the merit of pointing to real dangers of the interreligious encounter. Theologians should ponder its warnings about "the difficulty in understanding and accepting the presence of definitive and eschatological events in history; the metaphysical emptying of the historical incarnation of the Eternal Logos, reduced to a mere appearing of God in history; the eclecticism of those who, in theological research, uncritically absorb ideas from a variety of philosophical and theological contexts without regard for consistency, systematic connection, or compatibility with Christian truth; finally, the tendency to read and to interpret Sacred Scripture outside the Tradition and Magisterium of the Church" (ib.). Religious relativism is popular today, partly because of the repulsion and fear excited by its polar opposite, fundamentalism. There is also a strong pressure on theologians to abandon the high claims made for Christ not only at Nicea and Chalcedon but in the New Testament.
However, dangers are sometimes unavoidable, even salutary. The encounter of Christianity and Buddhism of its very nature puts a question mark against definitive eschatological events, demands a less substantialist ontology of the Incarnation, sets up a play of ideas which cannot be reduced to systematic connections, and uncovers meanings in Scripture which are thinly represented in traditional church teaching. Theologians dealing with these pressures will usually try to maintain the definitive character of what God has done in Christ, including a view of the Incarnation that can claim fidelity to the truth of Nicea and Chalcedon. But their striving for orthodoxy will inevitably seem insufficient to those who refuse to take Buddhist questions and insights seriously. As to "uncritical" syncretism, one is tempted to ask to what degree it is in the eye of the beholder. The alternative to it, in any case, is not a purism that would refuse to use any non-Christian or non-Western concepts, but rather a discerning "syncretism" of the kind practiced by the Fathers when they took on board the riches of Greek philosophical theology. The Vatican document offers little positive advice on how to proceed here, and in the context of the discouragement of study of Asian religions in Asian seminaries one suspects that it is fomenting panic about relativism in a rather obstructionist way.
Vatican documents of this kind, ever since Pascendi (1907), tend to erect theological questions or problems -- problems usually posed by the realities of the cultural context or by the results of historical research -- into fixed "presuppositions" forming a system of errors to be overthrown. These errors are then dismissed by citation of the Creeds or of other Vatican documents, citation which can be highly selective (witness the fate of Paul VI's left-leaning texts, Populorum Progressio, Octagesima Adveniens, Evangelium Nuntiandi in contrast with the use of his Creed of the People of God as a litmus test of orthodoxy). The hermeneutics implied in this procedure is one of circular transparency between modern questions and ancient texts. There is no recognition that the ancient texts, unless sensitively interpreted for the modern context, have an abrupt and rather scandalous character, due not to the truth they contain but to the inadequacy of its archaic expression. The same unresolved question of the need for translation of ancient creeds into modern categories underlies the skirmishes between the Vatican and hermeneutically alert theologians such as Rahner and Schillebeeckx. Of course it is very frustrating and discouraging for theologians to have to explain the elements of hermeneutics to uncomprehending church authorities again and again, especially when their patient clarifications are rewarded with contumely. Doctrinaire impatience with hermeneutics also plays into the hands of those who would dissolve the Christian tradition, for instance by labelling two millennia of Christian thought as anti-Semitic, anti-woman, or 'metaphysical'.
The encounter with Buddhist thought enhances the hermeneutical task of theology, by opening up the possibility that Christian truth today can be more luminously presented in a discourse influenced by Buddhist analytical methods and ontological insights than in the old frameworks formed in dialogue with Greek ontology. In order to dissolve the theoretical objections to a Christian-Buddhist symbiosis, without trivializing them, one needs to trace the points of contention to their historical roots. This is a vast and unending hermeneutical task. In our non-Eurocentric culture it is unconvincing to dismiss the ontological analyses of Buddhism as simply erroneous while conferring on those of Thomas Aquinas a perennial validity. A thoroughgoing philosophical dialogue between the traditions of western and eastern metaphysics is called for, with on both sides a constant attempt to rejoin the phenomena themselves, the Sachen selbst, from which no philosophical or theological discourse can stray with impunity. Buddhists, like Christians, have always sought to understand the nature of reality itself, both in metaphysical analysis and in meditative contemplation of the "suchness" of things. When they share their quests they are unlikely to find a systematic connection between the two ontological traditions, nor is it likely that one tradition will simply refute the other. Currently, Buddhist philosophy seems to reinforce the deconstruction of substance-ontology that has been going on in the West since Kant and Hegel, with some help form quantum physics. Yet Buddhism can also provide a deep underpinning to the modern philosophies of subjectivity, language, and phenomena, revealing ultimacy at the heart of the realms they open up and preserving them from nihilistic forms of reduction. Buddhist ontology could also perhaps repristinate insights of classical metaphysics; but we do not yet have serious Buddhist readings of Plato, Aristotle, or Aquinas. Conversely, western philosophical analysis may be necessary to give Buddhism an articulate modern voice, for the great debates of the Madhyamika or T'ien-t'ai schools, so fascinating to scholars, seem tangential to contemporary questions unless this hybridization is allowed. The exchange between Buddhism and western philosophy is far more vibrant, at least intellectually, than the Buddhist-Christian dialogue, and it is flourishing unchecked by any supervising agency such as the Vatican. "Double belonging" in the realm of philosophy has its tensions, to be sure, but they are of a purely intellectual order. In the realm of religion we seem happy to confine ourselves to a dialogue of contemplation or praxis, which eschews the clash of ideas and the opening up of questions. The all-importance claimed for spirituality or for politically correct causes produces a discourse in which Christianity and Buddhism taste exactly the same, a bland spiritual chewing gum.
The first questions raised in Buddhist-Christian encounter may seem like tired chestnuts, not worth fretting about. The question of God, for example, is already so blurred and confused after centuries of discussion in the West that one can scarcely summon hope that Buddhism could renew it. With its stress on universal impermanence, Buddhism is uneasy with the idea of an eternal God, or rather it is positively hostile to the idea. Even when Buddhists teach that Buddhahood is a constantly abiding reality, identical with the very suchness of things, this Buddhahood, as Dogen stresses, is not a substance but the event of becoming Buddha, an event constantly renewed. Thus if "impermanence itself is Buddha-nature" and thus "constantly abiding" (a difficult paradox), conversely, Buddhahood itself is impermanent in its fabric. Buddhism begins by dismantling the Brahmanist idea of a securely substantial God, whereas Christianity is firmly rooted in Jewish monotheism and even reinforces it by Platonic structures of transcendence wherein God is located as supreme eternal being. Here we seem confronted with an irresoluble contradiction that makes "double belonging" impossible.
But this may be tackled as a challenging koan, pointing to a subtler conception of the meaning of monotheistic language. The doctrines of non-self and emptiness do not annihilate human personhood, but free it for a more authentic existence. Similarly, an empty God, who is non-self, is closer to the dynamic Johannine and Pauline conception of God as an event of Spirit, light, agape than to the God of classical metaphysical theology. Even within metaphysical theology, when God is spoken of as "being itself" or as "beyond being" we are asked to think of God as an empty space attained when we put speech aside (apophasis) and suspend our desire to grasp conceptually (akatalepsis). When God is spoken of in this way, Buddhists may sense an affinity with their own positive conceptions of ultimacy, the notion of dharmakaya for example. In Buddhism and Vedanta apophatic thinking serves to bring us into the presence of ultimacy here and now, an immanent ultimate, rather than to transcend the present world in a Platonic ascent to a world beyond. But in Christianity, for instance in Meister Eckhart, and even in Plotinus, apophasis can be a means of awakening to present reality, finding oneself where one already is. Buddhism encourages the overcoming of Platonic dualism through a more thoroughly phenomenological and contemplative method of thinking. Just as Buddhist conceptions of Buddhahood or the dharmakaya are supposed to be quarried from the experience of realizing Buddhahood in meditation, a new concept of God could be discerned by sifting our inherited God-language through a thinking that hews to the phenomena. (The peculiar clumsiness of process theology derives from its lack of a secure grounding in the phenomenology of how God is encountered; the same may be said of the bloated trinitarian speculation so popular of late.) Eternity can be translated into phenomenological terms as the discovery that God is "always to hand" -- pantote in the sense of "the poor you have pantote with you" (John 12:8). To be sure, the inherent quality of that which is encountered undoes the application of temporal categories; love, grace, spirit are not subject to temporal categories, just as Buddhahood in its nirvanic ultimacy and emptiness cannot be tracked by them, though each of these noumenal realities are always being realized in a lived here and now. Perhaps the nearest analogue to Buddhahood in Christianity is the Holy Spirit. When we call the Spirit an "eternal being" we feel we are missing the phenomenon of the Spirit, ever active in the here and now.
As even the title of Dominus Iesus indicates, the most persistent objections to Christian acceptance of Buddhist thought stem from Christology. The accents of Buddhist ontology can have a refreshing impact here. The language of substance, nature, and hypostasis as applied to Jesus has tended to shield the humanity of Jesus from contingency and impermanence (Buddhist anitya) in a docetistic fashion. Buddhism allows a more thorough appreciation of the kenotic character of Christ's humanity, its full participation in the dependently co-arising texture of samsaric existence. Even apart from Buddhism, theologians are constrained to envision the definitive eschatological role of Jesus Christ in light of the radically contingent texture of human evolution and history. The singular meaning emergent in the life, death and ongoing life of Jesus needs to be credibly placed within the general perspectives of history as we currently discern them and particularly within the history of religions. The metaphysics of the incarnation need not be an inexplicable amalgamation of two substances, human and divine; a step back to the perspectives of Origen or the quasi-adoptionist language of the New Testament (Acts 2:36; Romans 1:3-4, etc.) can suggest that the divine Word is manifested, becomes historical, in a unique and full way in and across the entire history of Jesus in his connections with Israel and the entire human community. Never to be forgotten is the fact that Logos is God and that Jesus is a man. The "hypostatic union" of the Logos and the man as one and the same Lord Jesus Christ has always been seen as an unfathomable mystery. Yet if we approach it "from below," along the pathways of the history in which the figure of Jesus emerges as the divine Word spoken into the heart of that history, and of all human history, then the dogma acquires a certain phenomenological profile; the mystery comes into focus without ceasing to be mystery. The contingent, dependently arising events of the Christian "history of salvation" (embracing Israel, the fleshly Jesus in his various interconnections with others, and the history of the Church) reveal ultimate reality in a distinctive way, summed up in the phrase "the Word became flesh" (Jn 1.14). Phenomenologically, the claim that Jesus is savior and divine is grounded in the way that in the story of Jesus divine ultimacy and human historical struggle click together in a cogent and potent way, unknown elsewhere.
A metaphysics of emptiness can greatly enhance these efforts to rethink Christology in a phenomenologically accessible style. To see Jesus as a man empty of own-being, and therefore manifesting in his dependently co-arising existence the ultimate reality of divine emptiness, is a vision that chimes well with many aspects of the Gospel. John P. Keenan shows this in his remarkable commentary, The Gospel of Mark (Orbis Press). Even Johannine Christology could be re-envisioned in these terms; it is in his abandonment of vain claims to substantial self-nature that Jesus becomes the true Word of the empty God, and can enter the dimension of glory and become the source of Spirit for all who accept him and live the same "empty" life. But it may very legitimately be feared that Buddhist analysis will ultimately have a corrosive effect on the language of Christology. Converting it from a language of being into a language of emptiness carries the great risk of losing its integral content. The temptation that lies nearest, and to which Dominus Iesus is particularly attentive, is that of a "Nestorian" separation of the eternal Logos and the man Jesus.
The doctrine of the Atonement raises a further series of problems. Rene Girard offers pointers to rethinking atonement as a human process, the dismantling of human mimetic rivalry and its murderous outcome through the prophetic non-violence of Jesus, given universal presence in the symbol of the Cross. (Girard's humane sensitivity as a literary critic contrasts with the unwieldy contraptions of theologians who speculate on the "creative suffering of God" and other far-fetched unbiblical notions.) Jesus draws on himself the violence generated by human greed and ambition, eloquently countering it in his death with an expression of forgiveness, compassion, humility, and love: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). Jesus has a bodhisattva's insight into the bondage of his enemies to delusive passions and delusive objects of passions, rooted in a delusive idea of self, and he exerts educative compassion on their condition, to release them from suffering. Wherever the Cross is made known, the same compassionate education is continued. The truth revealed in the event of the Cross is as old as creation -- the truth of God's loving-kindness constantly pressing on his creatures despite their closed hearts. "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself" (2 Cor. 5:19), not by magic but through the eloquent expression of forgiveness and compassion in all the gestures of Jesus culminating in his death. Wherever the Cross is remembered, God's work of healing, through the Spirit, is something phenomenologically accessible. To human arrogance it is a stumbling block or mere folly, but when its meaning is discerned this exhibition of failure and weakness is understood to be "the power of God and the wisdom of God" (I Cor. 1:24). It may be objected that the Cross has been an emblem of violence and tyranny in crusades and colonization. That means that the Cross has not been understood. Today we understand it better, because we see more clearly how damaging is the disease to which the Cross brings the cure. The three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion are writ large in contemporary history and are studied in depth by psychoanalysts and sociobiologists. Alongside the wisdom of the Buddha, the power of the Cross is increasingly being recognized as the supreme antidote. (Buddhist gentleness suggests to us the question whether the harshness of biblical language -- especially in the gospel denunciations of Pharisees and "the Jews" -- has been an appropriate method of conveying the wisdom of the Cross.)
Against substantializing and magical theories of the Atonement, we do well to set in high relief the salvific impact of the Cross as registered in human experience; that impact reaches far, to the very depths of humankind's biological and psychological make-up, and it can correct even what is human all too human in the letter of Scripture and the activities of the Church in history. Redemption, too often conceived as a magical "behind the scenes" process, is worked out in history as the deconstructive impact of the figure of the Cross, dissolving the barriers set by human arrogance and fixation against the liberating space of divine ultimacy. God's reconciliation of humankind with Godself takes phenomenological profile as the power of the Cross -- epitomizing an entire trajectory of awareness and enactment -- to put humans back in touch with gracious ultimacy. What is experienced as dramatic divine intervention can also be grasped as the human process of opening to the ever-available ultimacy, an opening supremely expressed and enabled in the life and death of Jesus. A phenomenology of breakthroughs of ultimacy need not overlook the conventional processes which are the vehicle and the basis of such breakthroughs. Indeed, it is only by deepening our awareness of the sheer conventionality or contingency of religious languages, in a kenotic spirit, that we can preserve their functionality as vehicles of ultimacy.
Focusing on these phenomena, we realize that grace is not an abstruse invisible substance. It is the core of reality itself, constantly operative, awaiting our realization of its power and presence. One might compare this presence of grace with the notion of "original enlightenment," central in Japanese Buddhism and now powerfully rehabilitated in Jacqueline Stone's Original Enlightenment and the Transformation of Medieval Japanese Buddhism (University Press of Hawai'i, 1999). For Buddhism, at least in the optimistic form that prevailed in medieval Japan, the status of Buddhahood is open in principle to any human being; indeed we already have the Buddha-nature and need only wake up to the fact; why, even grasses and trees can be Buddha, or rather already have the Buddha-nature just as they are! The reason for this is that Buddhahood is identical with the suchness of things; to become a Buddha is to be what one is and to be it to the full. This is attained not by the intercession of a Buddha but by each individual discovering and following the path to Buddhahood, or simply awakening to Buddhahood. Such a system of salvation seems a blank denial of Christian claims about sinful humanity's radical need of a Redeemer. But let us remember that Christian thinkers have always rejoiced in the radical goodness of being, none more so than that prince of soteriological pessimists, Saint Augustine. All that exists is good to the core, and evil is a mere deficiency in being. Ultimate gracious reality is revealed in all beings and is at work in all beings. When we say that salvation is found only in Christ or only in the Church, the meaning of "salvation" here must be a highly specific one. Perhaps the completeness of historical eschatological salvation is what is meant, the idea that Christ brings to fulfillment and leads to its ultimate destiny the universal creative-salvific process that is always going on in all religions and in all life. Paul VI had a beautiful flight of eloquence in his Christmas sermon for 1975: "I see all the religions of the world converge around the crib of Bethlehem, and as I say this my voice trembles, not with incertitude, but with joy -- la mia voce trema, non d'incertezza, ma di gioia." This was the vision of Vatican II, albeit imperfectly expressed in its documents, a vision rooted in a Teilhardian sense of the dynamic of life.
The Universal Mediation of the Incarnate Word
The claim that all grace is mediated by the incarnate Christ and his Church, so stongly stressed in Dominus Iesus, could be interpreted more gently if one first stressed this universal constant presence of grace at the core of reality. Christ and the Church are definitive historical ciphers of grace, its eschatological incarnation, but they make sense only against this broader background. In theologies like that of Karl Rahner this background is expressed in abstract metaphysical terms, but we can discern it in its concrete richness if we interrogate the witness of the great religions, all of which speak of the miracle of grace.In the Fourth Gospel Jesus tells his disciples that they still have a lot to learn and that the Spirit will lead them into all truth (John 16:12-3). One of the places where that truth should be sought is in the religious witness of humanity. Intrinsically, Christ as the Word Incarnate is the fullness of truth; but to discover this divine fullness in the concrete words and signs in which it is deposited is an infinite labor, in which all humanity participates. Christ is always ahead of us, waiting to be fully known.
Jacques Dupuis's book, Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism (Orbis Press, 1997), under investigation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the two years preceding the publication of Dominus Iesus, is perhaps the target of the following remark: "the theory of the limited, incomplete, or imperfect character of the revelation of Jesus Christ, which would be complementary to that found in other religions, is contrary to the Church's faith. Such a position would claim to be based on the notion that the truth about God cannot be grasped and manifested in its globality and completeness by any historical religion, neither by Christianity nor by Jesus Christ" (Dominus Iesus, par. 6). The phrase "the theory" seems to lump together many different possible positions, to consign them all to the dustbin of heresy.
"Theological faith (the acceptance of the truth revealed by the One and Triune God) is often identified with belief in other religions, which is religious experience still in search of the absolute truth and still lacking assent to God who reveals himself" (par. 7). Here again an important nuance risks hardening into a black and white opposition. All religions have faith in the sense of generosity of vision and existential trust that goes beyond the warrant of narrow empiricism and implies a relation to gracious ultimacy. On the other hand, there is the specific recognition of God at work amid his people Israel (Jewish faith) or in Jesus (Christian faith), which corresponds to that extra something, that definitive eschatological fullness of salvation, that Scripture proclaims. But the quest-structure of human experience pervades all religions. According to Augustine, God "can be found while he is being sought" (inveniri posse dum quaeritur); God is "sought in order to be found more sweetly, and found in order to be sought more eagerly" (Nam et quaeritur ut inveniatur dulcius, et invenitur ut quaeratur avidius; De Trinitate XV 2). All religions have their mighty finds and their ongoing quests. The incompleteness of their understanding does not mean that they have not found what they seek; and the fact that Christians securely possess the fullness of divine truth does not mean that they are not seeking still for what they have found. The attempt to view this universal process of human religious seeking and finding as the medium and mode of even biblical revelation, and conversely to find a divine revelatory activity at work in the non-biblical trajectories of religious experience and questioning, seems to me an irreversible path of theological reflection, imposed on us by the facts of religious pluralism themselves. To see only its dangers and not its promise seems faint-hearted and ungenerous. To insist that "the sacred books of other religions, which in actual fact direct and nourish the existence of their followers, receive from the mystery of Christ the elements of goodness and grace which they contain" (par. 8) may be logical, in that the eternal Word (God) is the source of all goodness and grace (and truth, unmentioned here), and this Word is most fully and definitively incarnate in the Christ-event and the Christ-process. But this logical claim has had deleterious effects on Christian understanding of Judaism, in the two millennia when the Hebrew Scriptures were read as testimonies to Christ which the Jewish people, due to their blindness, were unable to read correctly. Applied with equal bluntness to the sacred texts of Hinduism or Buddhism it would amount to the claim that only Christians, full of the Holy Spirit, are capable of understanding the true import of, say, the teachings of the Buddha. The stubborn realities of history and of pluralism are in tension with bluntly expressed theological claims here, and this tension cannot be resolved in a wholesome way by simply shutting out awareness of the other, as happened in Christian exegesis of the Hebrew Scriptures in the centuries between Jerome and Calvin.
"The theory which would attribute, after the incarnation as well, a salvific activity to the Logos as such in his divinity, exercised 'in addition to' or 'beyond' the humanity of Christ, is not compatible with the Catholic faith" (par. 10). Nor is there any "economy of the Holy Spirit with a more universal breadth than that of the Incarnate Word, crucified and risen" (par. 12). According to theologians such as Karl Barth even the creation of the world is mediated by the humanity of Christ, and the idea of Christ's descent into hell implies that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were saved not simply by their faith in God but by their prophetic faith in the humanity of Christ. An inflated Christocentrism, even Christomonism, had a debilitating effect on much of Barth's and Von Balthasar's thought. Hasty insistence on stamping Christ and the Church on every phenomenon of creation and history leads to a counter-intuitive vision of reality and leaves no breathing-space for the diversity of humanity and the transcendence of the divine. That is why missioners are mistrusted; they are too quick to stamp Christ on local cultures or to stamp out these cultures to make room for Christ. In Asia, the Church is perhaps beginning to define itself as "defender of faiths" as well as propagator of the faith. Interreligious dialogue is not to be used as an instrument of mission, but rather it is out of dialogue that authentic mission may emerge.
At an abstruse, transcendental level the claim that adherents of non-Christian religions mysteriously participate in Christ's paschal mystery, and not merely in the universal light of the Logos, may belong to the logic of Christian faith, even though it must be admitted that the "logos spermatikos" doctrine by which Fathers such as Justin Martyr were able to discern traces of the divine Word in Greek philosophy and religion often sounds as if the logos asarkos (the non-incarnate Logos) is being spoken of. In the actual practice of interreligious thought, however, it may often be indiscreet and positively distorting to introduce the humanity of Christ as an explicit theme. Britten's chamber opera, The Rape of Lucretia, has a narrator who comments on the ancient Roman story from a Christian point of view; the effect is an unconvincing clash of styles. The beauty of Mozart's music is mediated by the humanity of Christ and not just by the disincarnate divine Logos; but such a claim offers only the most nebulous guidance for a theology of music, and could licence the most insensitive intrusion of Gospel themes on the fabric of the musical work. There is a lot of Zen in the Gospel and there is a lot of the Gospel in Zen; but this communion of the two traditions is not brought to light by dogmatic fiat; (see Fr Kadowaki's Zen and the Bible for a phenomenological uncovering of the dynamic interplay between the two traditions, as discovered in meditation). Christians may find it more convincing and more tactful to say, along with Vatican II, that "the Spirit" is moving in all hearts, and if pressed they will of course affirm that this Spirit is none other than that breathed forth in the fullness of its power by the dying and risen Jesus. The paschal mystery is universal because it touches the essence of human living and dying; this universality is not imposed from without, by preaching Christ, but discovered from within, in every human destiny, as a horizon of hope, given a certain definitiveness in the Cross. Modesty is de rigueur in making such claims, since we are dealing with realities of faith not of final vision. An eschatological proviso, a docta ignorantia, must qualify all our affirmations. We grasp only dimly and from within a human historical perspective what the Spirit is saying to the religions and to us through the religions. We may measure what we grasp against what we have grasped of our own scriptural revelation, and the result may be that our grasp of our own tradition deepens and changes. Thus the normative and complete character of God's salvation in Christ does not exclude a lot of give and take in practice, given the radical limitations of our understanding of God and even of Christ. That stress on limitations need not signify a Modernist Neo-Kantian agnosticism; what the Vatican document understresses is the degree to which this emphasis can draw on sources deep within Christian tradition itself.
Theological claims need not blind us to empirical reality. The claim that Christ and the Church are universal needs to be qualified by a recognition of the historical and culture-bound limitations of Christian discourse as it has actually existed. Only at the end of time will the universality of Christ be an actually realized phenomenon. For now it is a projected perspective of faith, a regulative idea guiding the dialogue between Christian tradition and other traditions. In that dialogue Christianity is in quest of its own universality. The fullness of truth dwells in Christ, but as particular historical movements the churches do not exhaust the totality of truth; there is always more of Christ to be discovered. Many new things are to be learned from Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, things not precontained even implicitly in the treasury of Christian truth that the Church effectively possesses, though they are precontained in the fullness of the Incarnate Word. Christian truth is not in any case primarily a set of knowledges, but the living memory of an event, the death and glorification of Christ. Our interpretations of this event, including the labor of dogma that produced the Nicene Creed and Chalcedon, remain very imperfect. Western philosophy has been found to be of great value in the ongoing task of interpretation, and Buddhism should prove of greater value still. Christianity, viewed in its history, is best seen as a dynamic and open project that is far from being able to grasp its own significance completely; still less can it grasp completely the significance of other religions, judging them from a superior vantage-point. The normativeness of the Christian project is an open-ended and fluid thing, as is the normativeness of the project of Western reason or of the Western quest for human rights. This normativeness is enriched if it can ally itself with kindred projects in other traditions.
The categories of classical dogma have a role in orienting Christian faith towards its object, if they are skillfully deployed. But the fundamental thought of religious people does not move on the conceptual plane. When we rethink our images of God in light of a Buddhist insight into emptiness, for example, the dogmatic prohibitions of atheism, pantheism, etc. provide only a safety net, rather than powerful positive direction. Dogmatic criteria are less central than the criteria inscribed in the Gospel itself: the primacy of love, the superiority of the life-giving Spirit to the letter that kills, the abundance of grace and of divine mercy, justification by faith in Christ, the primacy and assured triumph of the eschatological Kingdom. These are mysterious criteria, demanding ongoing contemplative perception, and cannot be summarized in cut and dried categories. Even within the Bible, these criteria functioned in a subversive way, as signs of contradiction. They remain troubling to the Church whenever it becomes excessively bureaucratized. One of the wonders of Vatican II was that these criteria again came unmistakeably to the fore.
Back to the Phenomena
If we identify the Christian essentials as love, Spirit, grace, we must be careful not to reify the saving event these terms indicate. We must not freeze our understanding of these terms, making them fetishes. When we meet an alternative discourse of ultimate spiritual life, such as the Buddhist discourse of Wisdom and Compassion, our mono-Christian terminology may be felt to be insufficient, parochial. The universality of love, Spirit, grace is perhaps already lost if we remain within the furrow of biblical language and refuse to confer an equal dignity and centrality on the Buddhist terms. The great religious founders were amazingly free people, and showed little concern with packaging their doctrine in an exclusive set of orthodox categories. The realm of religious truth is fundamentally that realm of pneumatic freedom, only very secondarily a realm of doctrinal propositions. Consider this description:
There is an important connection between the image of the Zen master as unhesitating and unflinching and the central Buddhist realization of the emptiness or groundlessness of all things. The Zen master is the one who no longer seeks solid ground, who realizes that all things and situations are supported, not by firm ground and solid self-nature, but rather by shifting and contingent relations. Having passed through this experience of the void at the heart of everything, the master no longer fears change and relativity. The Zen master is undaunted by the negativity in every situation and every conversation. He no longer needs to hold his ground in dialogue, and therefore does not falter when all grounds give way. What he says is not his own anyway; he has no preordained intentions with respect to what ought to occur in the encounter. Indeed, on Buddhist terms, he has no self -- his role in the dialogue is to reflect in a selfless way whatever is manifest or can become manifest in the moment. (Dale S. Wright, Philosophical Meditations on Zen Buddhism, Cambridge University Press 1998, pp. 100-1):
This description could apply very well to Jesus, especially as he appears in the sayings tradition and in Mark. The awakened person is in tune with the movement of life itself. The Kingdom of God, the main theme of Jesus' preaching, is beyond the register of control and calculability. Perhaps his prophetic statements about its future coming were never intended to be taken literally, but rather functioned to awaken people to the divine at work in their midst. The future triumph of the divine is assured, but the assurance rests on "whatever is manifest or can become manifest in the moment" and it is here that the teaching of Jesus becomes precise and penetrating, whereas the references to past and future depend on the conventional symbolic framework of the time. Church teaching, too, should center on awakening people to the presence of God here and now, relying less on the secure grounds presented by the past or by promises about the future. The burden of worrying about these grounds weighs down the Christian present and creates a musty, shabby idea of religious truth as consisting chiefly in claims about what happened or will happen at other times and places. The history of salvation is a necessary backdrop to Christian preaching, but it is less substantial than is supposed, as can be seen from the fact that our understanding of it has changed so much over the centuries. The significance of the past and the promise of the future are always things to be quarried anew from the experience of the present. The tendency of Christian thought to see the present only in light of a mythicized past and future, instead of the other way round, stifles spiritual creativity. Projecting our perspectives on past and future from the Zen groundlessness and emptiness of the present, we can reground past-oriented faith and future-oriented hope in the present movement of the Spirit, a movement that itself has no firm ground but blows where it will in shifting and contingent relations and encounters.
Reductions of dogma to what is phenomenologically accessible have been afoot in theology since Schleiermacher. They defuse the basic tensions between Christianity and Buddhism. Other tensions are more a matter of accent and atmosphere, for instance, the stereotypical opposition of Buddhism as an impersonal, rational, equanimous religion or philosophy and Christianity as personal, emotional, and based on faith in authority. Different personality types flourish on different types of religion. Buddhism does a better job that everyday Christianity in catering to those whose religious sensibility is impersonal and rational; Christianity is richer in resources for those of more existential and affective temper. But Christianity is no more lacking in fearless rational analysis than Buddhism is in passion and compassion. Rather than think of Buddhist equanimity as a cool, self-protective attitude, we should see it as guaranteeing the authenticity of compassion; a busy nurse cannot direct effective compassion to a succession of patients unless she is deeply grounded in equanimity. The wealth of equanimity, as a spiritual attitude of wisdom and freedom, is so great that it can found and fund compassion. Conversely, Buddhists tempted to stereotype Christian piety as emotional should consider that sentimentality can be a skillful means for some people, and that a radical purification of emotion is available within Christianity in such masters as John of the Cross. Generally, any totalizing criticism of a great religious tradition will fall flat. Cardinal Ratzinger's comment that "Buddhism is a form of spiritual auto-eroticism" is a case in point, at least if read as a remark about the entire tradition rather than about some irritating local Zen enthusiasts. British Buddhologist Paul Williams claims that this remark was instrumental in his conversion to Catholicism, and that as a Buddhist he was unable to get outside his own mind. But the attractions of mind-only idealism are not unknown in the Christian West, and each tradition has its antidotes to the extremes of solipsism or other forms of mind-based nihilism, just as it has its antidotes to substantialist reification.
All religions have to do with salvation and healing. A religion which is no longer effective in healing the ills at the root of human existence risks being numbered among those ills itself. For Buddhism, religions are skillful means, expedients adapted to the concrete situations of suffering beings. That does not mean they are merely lies or fictions; each in its own symbolic language functions as a mode of the Buddha's presence. In Japanese esthetics, even the poetic naming of a tree or the spring rain can be such a presencing of Buddhahood. Christianity has not had this sense of itself as a pragmatic construction and has not been very generous in admitting a providential healing function in all other religions as well. It has sought to center its identity on the rock-like security of doctrinal truth, often at the expense of healing efficacity. Perhaps we have been too anxious to pin down the truth, imitating the methods of philosophy and seeking foolproof guarantees. We have been more anxious for proof that there is a God than for an understanding of what is meant by the word "God." Energy invested in shoring up doctrinal certitude carries a charge of violence, violence against our own questioning minds, which can overflow into violence against others who revive the repressed questions.
"Unlilke the modern European focus on epistemological concerns -- the concern to attain accurate representation through avoiding error -- Buddhists envision a systematic distortion that pervades all human understanding" (Wright, p. 137). Buddhism avoids the trap of anxious attachment to views, content to let the experience of following the Buddhist path speak for itself. Buddhist tolerance of and respect for a variety of religious paths seems flabby to Christians, consonant neither with the biblical insistence on one saving truth nor with Greek rationality. But there is a twofold wisdom in the Buddhist approach. On the one hand, there is a clear insight into the relative character of any linguistic formulation of truth. Formulations belong to the register of conventional, not ultimate, truth, and they are characterized by an inbuilt inadequacy. On the other hand, Buddhists are optimistic about the power of truth to make itself felt in any language, always adapting itself to the capacities of the hearers. Applying this to Christianity, we may say that it is in its very brokenness that Christian language speaks with provisional adequacy of Christ crucified and of God. God is revealing Godself and acting for salvation in all languages, religious or secular, and even in the mute trees and stones. The Christian will hear the divine Logos in all things and in all religions, and even the Logos incarnate, as in Joseph Plunket's poem, "I See His Blood upon the Rose." The language of Bible and Church is a key for interpreting the other languages. In Buddhism a similar economy prevails: a canonical text such as the Lotus Sutra provides the perspective wherein all others are read. But whereas the Lotus Sutra marks itself as merely a provisional means of perception, the Christian Bible seems to have been absolutized in a way that makes it an obstacle to generous perception of grace and truth outside its pages. We need to find the places in the Bible itself where it marks its own status as an instrument of perception, to be used imaginatively.
The task of interreligious theology is "to explore if and in what way the historical figures and positive elements of these religions may fall within the divine plan of salvation" (Dominus Iesus 14). One way in which Buddhism may fall within the divine plan is as a pharmacopoeia of antidotes for the sickness of religion. Christianity, like Buddhism, is a self-critical religion; the Bible has been seen as containing the remedies for every kind of religious pathology, including many enacted within the Bible itself. But the self-critical prowess of Christianity, even as renewed by the Protestant Reformation and sharpened by the challenges of the Enlightenment and modern atheism, today needs to be supplemented by the gentler arts of Buddhism. Buddhism tempers the elements of fixation, irrationality, emotivity, and violence in Christian thinking, and presents a peaceful, reasonable, wholesome mode of being present religiously to the contemporary world. Buddhist-Christian encounter and symbiosis does not concern primarily the confrontation of two sets of doctrines. We misread Buddhism when we assimilate it to historical Christianity and think of it as centered on institutions and doctrines. The Buddhist Christian is not a speculative synthetizer, but one who draws on the rich and various resources of Buddhist tradition when and where they are found to be useful and illuminating. In an age when religious fundamentalism and sectarian strife are more virulent than ever, the healing critique of Buddhism has perhaps a more central role to play than the classical dogmas of Christianity, at least at the forefront of history, whatever about the ultimate shape of "the divine plan of salvation."
What needs to be lived and thought is this concrete symbiosis. The pontifications of theologians about inclusivism, exclusivism, pluralism, relativism, are part of that in-house ecclesiastical wrangling that is the mark of a theology disengaged from a living context. I would add that the dogmatism of liberal theologians who discard the notion of truth or who treat tradition as Henry Ford treated history could equally be a symptom of disconnection. The encounter of Buddhism and Christianity is an encounter of truths embodied in historical trajectories. The self-critical labor forever going on within each of the traditions is enhanced when they embrace in mutual appreciation and critique. Traditions may appear as conventional, contingent, culture-bound human constructs; yet they provide a necessary defence of and medium of transmission for the breakthroughs of truth in primary enactments of spiritual vision. A tradition is a finger pointing at the moon, fragile, provisional, changing as the moon moves across the sky. Yet without that fragile indicator few would see the moon, and there would be no sharing of the vision. The errors and distortions of tradition can be overcome only by a respectful hermeneutical retrieval of tradition, drawing on its salutary core to overcome these darker aspects. Theologies that escape from the historical concreteness of tradition and the critical labors it demands of us, and theologies that substitute a benign relativism for the scholarly and spiritual weight of inter-religious encounter, may create an atmosphere in which new questions are opened up, but more often their vacuous rhetoric is an obstruction to the advance of theological insight.
The symbiosis of religions may take the form of a mutual aid wherein the weak points of one religion are healed and corrected by another. To say that Buddhism has no right to play that healing and correcting role towards Christianity is like saying that the Samaritan had no right to bind the wounds of the man left for dead on the Jericho road. In real life the religions need each other, whatever their utter self-sufficiency on the plane of abstruse theological claims. The religions, as human historical trajectories, are inevitably marked by incompleteness and tragic failures. The tensions between them are not to be suppressed by dogmatic self-affirmation, but to be interpreted as the tension of "truth" itself, making itself felt within the finitude and brokenness of the human language striving to express it. Just as a married couple give each other a sense of perspective and prevent each other from falling into megalomanic egocentic delusion, so Buddhism and Christianity in their irreducible otherness are good for one another, helping to keep each other open-minded and sane. It used to be said that a good Catholic needs to be a Protestant while a good Protestant needs to be a Catholic; today, we might add, a sane Christian needs to be a Buddhist.