the truth rushes in to fill the gaps left by
Its sudden demise so that a fairly accurate record of its activity is possible
Since I regard postmodernism as merely an acceleration of the modern (as Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Zizek argue) and since, unlike the proponents of Radical Orthodoxy, I believe that modernity is an irreversible breakthrough for the human spirit that may require a fuller development and a more secure grounding but that it is futile to call radically into question, the theme I shall meditate on here -- namely the conventionality of religion -- is one that I consider indistinguishably modern and postmodern. If modernity stands for political freedom, intellectual integrity and fearlessness, ethical coming of age, then it itself stands in judgment over its self-betrayal in consumerist trivializations of freedom, rationalistic parodies of reason, and the subtle transformation of technological power into a new slavery. If there is a more radical crisis of modernity, it is the fruit of that critical radicality intrinsic to the modern project, and its resolution can only come through pursuing the dialectic farther, not by a step back to the premodern. Heidegger's step back is really a step forward, in struggle with the most sinister possibility uncovered by modernity, namely nihilism. Barth attempted something similar in theology, but was overtaken by restorationist instincts. Despite Schlelermacher, Harnack, Troeltsch. Tyrrell, one is left wondering whether any theology has adequately confronted modernity. .
The modern sense of the relativity and historical embeddedness of religious traditions, virulent already in the Enlightenment (Hume, Voltaire), leads to an awareness of the historical relativity of Enlightenment values themselves. Foucault's diagnosis that reason itself is mortal, that each new epoch consigns to unintelligibility the basic frameworks of its predecessor, represents a characteristic self-undercutting twist within modernity. Religions have to some extent come to terms with the modern "cntique of histoncal reason" (Dilthey) thanks to the highly inventive discipline of hermeneutics, which stretches very far what can count as a legitimate reinterpretation of past doctrines, thus saving them from obsolescence. Now the hermeneutics of religious traditions is being forced to take a further step, not only by poststructuralist theorists but by an increasing awareness of religious pluralism in contemporary culture. That step is the full recognition of the contingent nature of all religions as human constructs born of particular cultural contexts and intimately marked by the prejudices and peculiarities of those contexts. Foucault's question is whether reason can live with its own relativity. A truly modern faith, also, has to live with the awareness that there are no privileged viewpoints, and that religious constructions, just like philosophical or scientific ones, must sink or swim on the basis of their particular and always limited merits, buffeted by their rivals in the sea of history. Religions are fragile human language-games, always slipping into obsolescence. In Buddhist terms, they are conventional, world-ensconced constructs (samvrti-satya), skillful means, which can in certain circumstances convey a sense of ultimacy (paramartha-satya) or conduce to spiritual liberation, but which become agents of enslavement if they claim ultimate status for themselves.
There are many reasons why it is salutary to deepen this sense of the conventionality of religion. The most obvious is the need to defuse the various forms of religious absolutism and fundamentalism that wreak such havoc on the planet. From a Buddhist perspective, identity, including religious identity is a provisional construct. To reify it, cling to it, and hate those who threaten it, is to be ill from the three poisons of craving, aversion, and delusion. Threatened identity projects demonized others: for nationalism, it is the hereditary foe, the unclean alien, and the traitor; for Christians, it has been the Jew, the heathen, and the heretic. Religion has very often made itself the absolute to which it would bear witness. The dynamic of authentic faith (or authentic wisdom) is the reverse of this, and operates a prophetic (or enlightened) sifting of means from ends the conventional from the ultimate. Release from the "mind-forg'd manacles" of absolutism requires the insight that neither individuals nor nations nor creeds possess a stable identity unchanging throughout history. What they have instead is a story a trajectory, in which they are constantly reinventing their identity. Religions, in particular, are constantly tinkering with their own story, and when through historical research they become aware that they are doing so, then the radical contingency of the choices founding them comes to light.
The sense of conventionality sheds retrospective light on our traditions and identifies points at which some now archaic category was placed on the pedestal of dogmatic definition, where it lingers on to numb the mind, or points at which some local prejudice became a timeless moral prescription, at immense cost in human suffering. On the latter front, it looks as if the Catholic church now faces the prospect of having to contradict its solemn teachings on such matters as homosexuality and contraceptives. These are topics that leave little room for the diplomatic vagueness that can mask change in dogma, for they concern not nebulous notions such as substance or hypostasis, but precise identification of defined acts as intrinsically wrong. A clear confession of long-entrenched error here would entail the realization that it is time for the church to extricate itself from the business of precise moral prescription. Religious revelations are not the source of new moral precepts, but merely mark the ultimacy implicit in moraliy. This can lead to the absolutization of unenlightened moral attitudes, or to their gradual correction by the influence of the ultimate values. In traditional societies, religious institutions claim to legitimate social and legal institutions, but they do so chiefly by referring the socially established conventions to the ultimate, figured as the Law of the Father. When a religion claims to judge from outside, to reshape, or to add a concrete supplement to the conventional sociopolitical order that secretes it, in fact it uses a rhetoric of law or prophecy that this order has itself supplied. The reference of the conventional to the ultimate has a purifying, clarifying effect on the conventional, made aware of its conventionality and enabled to differentiate more radically between what is arbitrary and what points to ultimacy withln its texture. The commandment of love thus emerges out of the thicket of Hebrew law as an index of ultimacy. Ethical revelation has in a sense no content, or rather its content is of a comprehensive transcendental order that resists encapsulation in easily grasped slogans. The revealed adds nothing to the conventional, except to bring it into ultimate perspective. Religious fantasy abounds in tall tales, but when one distills from them the mature religious imagination, it consists in a rich vision of things as they are. The impression that revelation has no content, that there are no specifics in its call, is based on the reality that revelation is merely the remarking of a given cosmic, moral, and social order in its conventional dependently arisen state as a vehicle of access to the real. If religion ventures to correct and challenge that order, it is in light of the latter's own intrinsic orientation to ultimacy. Religion never teaches the world from outside but is the emergence of the ultimacy secreted within the world.
That is one reason why even the inspiration behind the New Testament does not effect a sudden conversion of the moral codes of the culture into a new, pure religious code. Enlightened awareness does not immediately purge its conventional basis of all unenlightened features. The conventional basis remains a vessel of clay, bearing all the prejudices and fixations of the culture that produced it. Treasuring the traditions that have yielded a vision of the ultimate aspect of things, people naturally tend to confer on these traditions themselves an ultimate status. Thus ancient errors and immoralities, enshrined in supposedly inerrant sacred texts, are propagated to later ages as divine wisdom that must override the protests of reason and conscience. If religion has been, as Enlightenment crusaders claimed, a plague to the human race, It is because of this confusion of ends and means, this transfer of ultimacy to the conventional. To cure religion what is needed is a discerning critique of religious conventions, which can both appreciate their value as paths to ultimacy and see their poverty flimsiness, and provisionality. Religious education confined to one tradition cannot attain this critical perspective. Only when young people are taught to see their own set of religious conventions in the broader context of human religious creativity can they be inoculated against the viruses of absolutism and fundamentalism.
If the churches accept this recontextualization of their moral authority, their dogmatic authority will also need to be rethought. Authoritative dogmatic definition can be seen as a human effort to clarify the truth of faith according to the best lights of a given period, which are drawn on ad hoc and in a pragmatic way (though the later glorification of a dogma will thoroughly occlude its humble origins). Seen thus, doctrine does not lose its clarificatory value, but ceases to be an instrument of tyranny over mind or conscience. Such a demystified account of authority seems compatible with the model of religious teaching that we find in scripture.
The products of fourth- and fifth-century thought which provide the basic framework of the Christian dogmatic system have become to a large extent an oppressive caput mortuum. It is not so much that one would wish to see them as false or mistaken, as that their relationship to truth, to reality has come to seem oblique and opaque. They represent good theological work within the conventions of the time, but these conventions have been shattered on a modern sense of ultimacy. They are no longer conventions that point to ultimacy, but rather point away from it. To give an example: the divinity of Jesus Christ is an idea that has developed into a cumbersome and baroque discourse on the God-Man; this needs to be recalled to its phenomenological basis, and perhaps translated into Buddhist language as follows: the divinity of Christ means that the dependently arisen story of Jesus, in his historical connections with Israel and the Christian community, is a privileged conventional vehicle for attunement to divine ultimacy. Squaring this with the claims of orthodoxy is a delicate theological game, whose importance I am far from underestimating, but the hysterical nannyism of current watchdogs has done nothing to clarify this task.
In Buddhism there appear to be two levels of conventional truth. One is the everyday reliance on substantive understandings of the self and of things for the purpose of conducting the practlcal business of life. The other is the speculative level, at which this substantializing mindset is deconstructed and the mutual conditionality, and consequent emptiness of own-nature, of the self and all things is taught. This teaching points to ultimate truth, but is itself a conventional means. Within Christianity the effort to formulate the ultimate radical truth about God and grace produces first the scriptural kerygma, with its subversive thrust, then the dogmatic clarification of the ontological implications of this kerygma, and finally a set of teachings which combines the existential immediacy of the kerygma with the scope of dogmatic principle: such are the teachings of Augustine on grace and of Luther on justification, meta-dogmatic criteria for making sense of dogmas and for re-rooting dogmas in the thrust of the biblical kerygma. All this labor on conventional diction is led by an intuition of the ultimate. But its efficacity in pointing to ultimacy is not guaranteed. A conjunction of certain words and a certain historical period may be a powerful vehicle of ultimacy. But as the period passes the words lose their electrifying clarity and immediacy, and the conventional language is now sensed to point to a pseudo-ultimate, and to hold the spirit back in postures that no longer correspond to its present existential possibilities. That fate seems to have overtaken the bulk of talk on God and creation, sin and grace, so that, for example, the Lutheran-Catholic consensus on justification appears as an exercise in rearranging archaic ideas, no longer real enough to be worth fighting about. The failure of great artists such as Claudel. Eliot, and Stravinsky to breathe convincing new life into the traditional vehicles of the Christian vision of ultimacy can only mean that the task itself is impossible. To find ultimacy today we must seek its bases in securely established contemporary conventionalities, warranted by science, historical scholarship, and real life experience as registered and analyzed in the arts. Only out of our reappropriation of our real world can new languages of ultimacy be born.
All formulated religious or philosophical truths are conventional truths, not ultimate truth. Religious language has the specific function of awakening an awareness of the limits of the conventional and a thirst for the ultimate. It is a language practiced at the borders of language. No matter how realistic it becomes, religious language always refers whatever topic it deals with to the ultimate, and thus signals the conventionality of that topic. The religious act summarizes and symbolizes my whole being-in-the-world. It redoubles the conventions of life: sacrifice redoubles gift, sacred meals redouble everyday meals. Nietzsche noted this parasitism of religion. But the redoubling reveals the conventions as conventions, marking them as such before the ultimate. The ultimate is not the absolute or the transcendent, it is merely the truly real. The ultimate is the reality of the conventional. The conventional goes through the looking-glass of religious representation to discover itself as conventional and so come closer to its ultimate reality. Yet the conventional base must be as real as possible. To provide a shoddy or archaic or sentimentalized conventional basis for religious insight, on the pretext that religion aims beyond the conventional in any case, is to ensure a treacherous hollowness in the rhetoric of ultimacy.
The ability not to take the conventional world with undue seriousness can be invaluable when it comes to breaking the deadlocks that arise from tendencies to absolutization. Human and religious maturity sometimes demands that we swallow the unswallowable, forgive the unforgivable. If the new parliament in Northern lreland succeeds, it will be a living monument to the wisdom of such courage. The forgiving spirit that enables one to do business with those one abhorred as evil is facilitated by a sense of relativity. Human evil is always a situational matter, and part of the situation is that the one who condemns is rarely himself free of involvement in some comparable evil (see Romans 2). Forgiveness of sins deconstructs the absolute categorization of the other as sinner and constructs new perspectives within which the other can be dealt with more flexibly In fact the Northern Ireand peace-keepers have gone beyond the paradigm of forgiveness. In active forgetting, they have jettisoned tired identities and put their hands to the wheel of present history. This is a transgressive, almost blasphemous liberation, especially in an age of vengeful political correctness. Perhaps all religions need to find such freedom from inherited paradigms, treating them as useful conventions that can be put on the back burner when they become dysfunctional .
Sin has a near-absolute status in traditional Christianity and "conviction of sin" is the essential first step in conversion and reconciliation. But supposing we realize that this entire scenario of sin and forgiveness is only one way of acting out the relation of our conventional world and gracious ultimacy. "Sin is a Jewish feeling and a Jewish invention" (Nietzsche, The Gay Science, paragraph 135); it belongs to a contingent, historically situated language. Other religions offer different scenarios, and none of these have absolute status. They are all imaginative skillful means for dealing with the perplexities of existence and attuning them to the ultimate in a healing way. Pauline Christianity is a magnificent vision, but it has had too long and successful a run in the West, and has produced a number of morbid offshoots - Calvinist nightmares about predestination, Pascalian misanthropy, Kierkegaardian masochism. If we view it as a conventional language-game, we do not lose the sense of ultimacy with which it is charged, but we are no longer imprisoned in it; we keep the Spirit (the ultimate) but are free in regard to the letter (the conventional), as Paul himself would say. Indeed, authentic voices of ultimacy can only be heard when they cease to be authoritarian megaphones and are heard instead as fragile human voices reaching out into gracious mystery. A religious revelation is an encounter with ultimate reality. But it always occurs at a given time and place, within the frameworks of understanding built up by previous tradition. The element of ultimacy in the revelation may be beyond criticism, but it cannot be siphoned out of the totality of representations and practices in which it is embedded, and these are exposed to the same questions as every other human historical construction. Religions depend on language and they are constantly changing and developing. No authority can arrest the course of change or reanchor language in a fixed, transparent reference to ultimate truth. Rather than sigh for the transparent paradisal language of logocentric myth, or attempt its simulacrum in a frozen canonical speech, religions have to recognize that their claims to ultimacy are irremediably entangled in linguistic and historical contingency. As apophatic theologians have always felt, it is only in a thorough confession of this broken, dispersed, and incomplete condition that religious language can give its testimony to the ultimate.
This recognition releases faith from idolatry, that is, from fixated religious representations which divert and thwart the opening of the believing mind to the ultimate. Furthermore, when the faiths rediscover their situatedness in history and culture, and the makeshift and provisional status of any language that they may use, a space is opened for inter-faith encounter on a new basis of modest inquiry. Each of the religious traditions can say to the others: "Your long duration, your vitality, and the fruits you have borne, testify that you, like us, are a vehicle of access to ultimate, gracious, life-giving reality. But just as we see you as a flimsy, myth-laden construction, you are equally justified in seeing us in the same way. Help us, as we help you, to reshape our language so that it can be a more functional and credible vehicle of ultimacy in the contemporary context we share."
Barth's sympathy for Hegel is based on their common acceptance of the historical and cultural contextuality of human thought and language, with all the relativization this entails, and their common aspiration to think through this, dialectically, to an "absolute" position -- a confident resumption of the totality of the tradition in a key suited to the times. But the most comprehensive and thoroughly reflected reappropriation of tradition is the one that most keenly realizes the conventional status of traditional discourse, its tangentiality in relation to ultimacy. Barth would perhaps agree that the origins of religious traditions are impure in that they involve many archaic conceptions that later ages are saddled with as a hermeneutic burden, and that a religious tradition never comes to express itself in a full and pure way, in some golden age of its development (for wherever we look in history we find the same murkiness, the same hybridization, the same obsolescence). He might accept that there is a pluralism between the different epochs and even within each epoch, which cannot be ironed out to yield a single transparent visiop. He could agree that to make sense of the history of religions the first thing to realize is its thoroughly human character, and not to expect of it the providential order and luminous unfolding that is typical of myth but not of real history.
But having admitted all this Barth would reserve one corner of history as the place of a privileged breakthrough to ultimacy, which is somehow immunized against the impact of the insights just mentioned. Yet the dialectic between the human-all-too-human conventionalities of religion and the ultimacy of revelation that Barth finds in Christianity may be expected to be operative also in the case of the other historical vehicles of ultimacy, albeit with specific distinguishing features. A generalized, open-ended Barthianism, Iike a generalized, open-ended Hegelianism, can retrieve Barth's power of systematic integration and give it a larger field of exercise. Instead of being a defensive fortress. Barthian reflection can become a pluralistic plateau, in which all religions are dialectically unfolded in their interplay of conventional and ultimate. To see religions as human constructs does not exclude the possibility that they are vehicles of revelation. It may be precisely in their very fragility as historical constructs that they best serve the reality of revelation. What we call a religious revelation can be conceived as the emergence of ultimacy within a given tradition of conventional representations. Revelation need not consist in new information or the happening of a supernatural event that cuts across the normal unfolding of the human quest of ultimacy It could be understood as a moment in the laborious development of a tradition of religious words, concepts, stories, and practices when things click into place, when a luminous perspective emerges, which both perfects the pre-given religious framework (through clarifying the ultlmate sense of its conventional designations) and exceeds it (through an immediate tasting or touching of ultimacy that shows up all the conventions of discourse as "mere straw"). Just as "naturalist" theology accepts the texture of the universe as one in which no intervention of a divine causal agency appears, and in which such an intervention is in principle impossible, so a historically based view of religions excludes the actuality or possibility of a revelatory intervention from outside. Evolution is seamless in both cases. Such a viewpoint does justice to the naturalistic modern sense of the historical texture of religions, while resisting the skeptical and atheistic conclusions commonly drawn. It can respect the central events in the history of religions as breakthroughs to ultimacy.
Some tragic works paint a depressing picture of the world, and the spectator leaves the theater asking: "but is it true?" One asks this after Zola or Maupassant, not after Racine or Flaubert. For artists that have created a vision marked by ultimacy, debates about true and false fall aside. These artists have said nothing new, but this very "nothing" is what permits things to click into perspective in a breathtaking way. Analogously, a religion bothered by the obsessive question "is it true?" is one that has failed to establish its authority In the only way possible, by a breakthrough to ultimacy. A pseudo-religion, that begins as a faked rhetoric of ultimacy, might become a real religion if the rhetoric begins to work as a medium of ultimacy. Conversely, a true religion, forgetting its core vision and declining into rhetorical convention, might end up vainly insisting on its truth, when the propositions of its distinguished past have lost their connection with ultimacy.
We should think of ultimacy in adjectival rather than nominal terms. It is a quality of pristine religious insight, its character of unsurpassability, of being supremely, indubitably real. Awareness of the ultimate is immediate, luminous, blissful. But ultimacy is not merely a psychological trait of contemplative peak-experiences. It is the lighting-up of reality as such. Such a lighting-up may occur independently of developed religious traditions, for example in a spontaneous natural mysticism, or in the state of being in love. In any case ultimacy is always "ultimacy of" - it is not a thing, but the aspect of things when they come into their own, revealing their thusness.
Religious vision is simply the happening of ultimacy. If we convert the claims of individual religions into terms compatible with this description, we find a wide array of myths that can be taken as narrativization of insight into ultimacy. The resurrection narratives in the gospels, for example, could be "cashed" as signifying the emergence of the ultimate significance of Christ's life and death, a pneumatic lighting-up of the core reality they attested. The mythical scenes of annunciation, transfiguration, resurrection, ascension, second coming, serve only to mark the ultimate significance of the empirical career of Jesus in its total dependently arisen context. The breakthrough of ultimacy in the event of Jesus who became Christ, or in the event of Gautama who became Buddha, is not marked by the revelation of any radically new idea. All the elements of their teaching and action are drawn from a rich anterior tradition. But the elements fall into a new and luminous arrangement, solving the complexities of the tradition and relaunching it on a more fundamental and integral basis. Central emphases such as the notion of non-self in Buddhism or of death-and-resurrection in Christianity stamp the new movement with a radical style that frees it from subservience to the categories of preceding tradition. The new religion leaps to a place of freedom from which it can assess the categories of the past as pointers to its own privileged vision or as obstacles to it.
These founding leaps in religious tradition are not merely a breakthrough from one level of conventional insight to a deeper level of the same. They are a judgment on the entire mass of preceding tradition, seen as an accumulation oppressing whatever seeds of ultimacy it may have contained. They proceed under the sign of contradiction. The emergence of ultimacy is likely to be translated as an attack on tradition: Buddha's attack on atmavada, the Mahayana attack on Abhidharma, the Zen attack on reliance on scriptures. Muhammad's attack on trinitarianism, Luther's on Catholicism. The radical force and truth of these attacks derives from the contradiction between ultimacy and conventions that no longer serve it in a changed context. Doctrinal views are a matter for scholastic debate. Ultimacy takes little account of them. The breakthrough to ultimacy is never simply a confrmation of established doctrine. It re-envisions the old doctrines from a simpler and more radical vantage point, retaining only what resonates with the new sense of ultimacy and casting off as chaff what does not. This judgment is unanswerable from the level of convention. To defend trinitarianism against Islam one would have to show that trihitarian dogma is a defense of ultimacy just as much as Islamic monotheism is. That defense would have to be more a "showing" than a "saying." How limited the scope of argument in this realm is becomes clear when we recall that ultimacy is not merely an epistemological quality, but is experienced as salvific. The substance of a religion is its function, for a religion is exhaustively defined by the salvation it brings. "Salvation" means health (Greek soteria. Latin salus). The ultimacy in a religion is the springing up of new life, which casts aside the old conventions no longer functioning for health and healing, and generates new laws out of itself.
Over a number of centuries a religious path will be tried by many adepts who will approach in nearer or closer degree to the supremely real as envisaged by that path. Each path yields a distinctive mode of encounter. Within a given tradition the path undergoes slow modifications, and the encounter with ultimacy accordingly takes on a new cast: nirvana in early Buddhism has not quite the same character as enlightenment in Ch'an Buddhism; mystical union in Christianity takes a variety of complexions from Gregory of Nyssa to Teresa of Avila: the prophetic passion for justice has a very different cast in the theocracies of ancient Israel and in modern democracies. A changed world must bring some alteration in the mode of encounter with the ultimate.
There is of course a tension between the historical approach to religion, which finds a pluralism of culture-specific languages, irreducible to any common core, and the testimony of religious founders and mystics, who are convinced that they have seen the way things really are. Religious visionaries often become keenly aware of the flimsiness of their linguistic and conceptual constructions, yet their vision is not compromised or relativized by this insight. Does this mean that historical and cultural conditioning come to a halt in the higher realms of religious experience? But if ultimacy is always the ultimacy of a given conventional basis, this conventional basis should make a difference to the way in which ultimacy emerges. When Plotinus talks of the One, or when Buddhists talk of buddha-nature, or when Sankara talks of Brahman, or when Augustine talks of the internum aeternum, the affinities between these discourses are so intense that one senses they are all treading the same realm. Yet the differences between them are not less striking. A whole world is concentrated in each of these namings of ultimacy, and the distinct physiognomy of that world is not eclipsed. Ultimacy in each tradition comes into view in reference to a different set of conventional representations. It is ultimacy as accessible from that particular conventional starting-point. Pure ultimacy independent of any conventional perspective, is unimaginable.
The role of imagination in religious vision makes it porous to the world of art. Conversely, great works of art yield a sense of ultimacy. If one finds a breakthrough to ultimacy in the music of Mozart, that ultimacy is inseparable from the concrete texture of the musical writing. It is the clicking into perspective of the musical conventions mastered and perfected by Mozart. Aesthetic ultimacy is fully embedded in the artistic language that expresses it. Religious language, in contrast, signals its own inadequacy and points beyond itself to a revelation of ultimacy that surpasses language. The linguistic convehtions clear the ground for the emergence of ultimacy, which both validates them and validates their sense of their own inadequation; the confident affirmative path and the modest apophatic path in negative theology are both validated and surpassed in a living encqunter with ultimate reality, beyond affirmation and negation. Ultimacy deconstitutes conventional religious worlds, shows them up as flimsy fictions, yet again reconstitutes them as valid conventional vehicles of insight. In the world of art, ultimacy is always the ultimacy of the language in which it is expressed and cannot be imagined apart from this language. In religion, ultimacy also depends on conventional linguistic vehicles, yet in a more oblique and tangential way. Yet one cannot draw a clear dividing line between religion and art. The dialogue between religious ultimacy and aesthetic ultimacy would be an important part of a healthy culture of religious pluralism, especially at a time when for many art is the primary mode of access to ultimacy
The formulated theses of given religious traditions are subject to critique and debate, though this is a task of daunting hermeneutical complexity when the debate is between views formulated in different epochs or in different traditions. But the happening of ultimacy within traditions is not a matter for the kind of comparison and differentiation practiced in logical debate. This happening is the kingpin of a religion's vitality, worth, and truth, and it is what lends their ultimate significance to the complex ideas and representations that the tradition generates. It includes an implicit critique of these terms insofar as they fail to conduce to the central vision. The constant polemic against suspected substantialism in the Buddhist schools or the suspicion of Hellenistic metaphysics in Christianity may be seen as defending the breakthrough to ultimacy against its reduction to a self-satisfied convention posing as ultimate.
Contradictions and comparisons between different breakthroughs of ultimacy depend on a distorting reification. A religion is its world grasped in its ultimacy, or opened to ultimacy in its distinctive style. One does not put entire worlds in contradiction. Within these worlds and between these worlds there will be quarrels about rival truth-claims. But truth-claims function on the conventional plane; at the level of ultimacy they fall silent, their purpose accomplished. Purging the conventional religious language of falsehood is an endless task, but its purpose is to keep the language serviceable for giving access to ultimacy When the truth-claims become ends in themselves, as in many bitter historical debates, the perspective of ultimacy is already long forgotten. Theology should be pursued without odium, as a serious game, content to tend the garden of conventionality and to ensure that its fragile products do not assume airs of self-sufficient substantiality that would make them an obstacle to the emergence of ultimacy.
Our religious awareness does seem to be undergoing a millennial "turn," call it modern or postmodern as you please, in which many an old truth is taking on a ghostly pallor. But as some certitudes die, new insights take their place. Our task is not to resist the evolutional process in which we are caught up, but to attune ourselves discerningly to its workings.
The above was written before the publication of the Vatican document Dominus Iesus, which I address in "Towards a Buddhist Interpretation of Christian Truth" (in Many Mansions?. Catherine Cornille), and "Emptiness and Dogma" (Buddhist-Christian Studies 2002). For more light on the conventions/ultimacy dyad, so slippery in its logic but so pervasive in Indian thought, see Malcolm Eckel, Jnanagarbha's Commentary on the Distinction Between the Two Truths (State University of New York Press, 1987); Guy Newland. The Two Truths (Snow Lion Publications, 1992); Jay L. Garfield. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika (Oxford University Press, 1995).
Joseph S. O'Leary
From Graham Ward, ed. The Blackwell Companion to Postmodern Theology, Oxford, 2001.