John P. Keenan, with Buster G. Smith, Lansing Davis, Sydney Coop. Grounding Our Faith in a Pluralist World – with a little help from Nagarjuna. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2009. xii + 123 pp.
[This reviews also appears in The Japan Mission Journal 63:1, March, 2009, which contains a number of interesting essays from various angles, by Peter Phan, Michael Desprez, Jan Swyngedouw, John Raymaker, Marcel Kauss, John Keane, on the theme of ‘Mission then, mission today.’ For information on this journal, which shows that a proper understanding of mission makes it a humanly and intellectually exciting enterprise, see http://www.oriens.or.jp/jmj/jmj.html. To subscribe, contact email@example.com.]
This book offers a measured, elegant, and persuasive statement about how Christians should position themselves in ‘a world of many faiths.’ Such a positioning is no longer the luxury of armchair speculators, but has become as intrinsic to Catholic identity as the Ecumenical Movement has been. It is part of the ‘foreign policy’ of the Church The last major statement of policy here is Dominus Iesus (2000), a text more notable for signaling the dangers of religious pluralism than for giving any concrete affirmative path for dealing with the other religious traditions. Vatican II’s document Nostra Aetate breathes a different spirit, which one will percolating through Keenan’s pages as well.
One of the first points Keenan makes is that religious identity is never pure, but always pluralistic in its texture. It ‘has influenced others and itself been influenced by a myriad of external factors’ (p. 2). This is a very liberating realization for many people, whose religious conditioning has been an identitarian strait-jacket, and who now discover that being religious frees one for dialogue with people of many religious backgrounds.
Today many Christians have become more appreciative of the Jewish roots of their faith, and more critical of how the structures of the Church were shaped by Constantine and the long centuries of Christendom. This critical historical awareness dislodges frozen notions of Christian identity, but it actually gives Christians a more vital and mobile identity as a people making their way in history, amid the threats and promises of differing cultural contexts.
Another point Keenan stresses is that our reception and interpretation of revealed truth is very dependent on the cultural conditions of its enunciation. Facing up to this makes us less eager to proclaim our dogmas as absolutes, in an intransigent and potentially violent way. Then we grasp that the religious project is a creative one, like music of literature, in which we are called to use our imagination and sensitivity as we reshape it: ‘Often we fail to acknowledge that our revealed worldviews are in fact also the cultural products of human endeavor... In consequence, we lose any sense that our religion can change its structure if so desired’ (p. 4).
Such a change of structure is taking place in our Christian faith because of our new appreciation of religious pluralism. ‘Any acknowledgement of the plurality of authentically practiced traditions will bend the question back onto what used to be narrowly Christian issues’; for instance, ‘if one understands the Pure Land Buddhist teaching of Shinran – according to which we are saved not by our own power but only through the grace-laden other power of the Buddha Amida – how can one recommend the exclusivist claim that God, who is totally other, saves only through faith in Christ?’ (p. 7). Well, the old exclusivist answer would be that the Pure Land believer is deluded, and an inclusivist answer would say that the Pure Land faith is a shadow game that at best can serve as a preparatio Evangelii. More generously, the inclusivist might say the Pure Land Buddhist is an anonymous Christian, perhaps glimpsing Christ under the traits of Amida.
Keenan is critical if the inclusivist strategy, though it is found in most religions as a way of accommodating their ‘rivals’. He claims that it ‘brushes aside the original context of others’ religious traditions or their sacred writings’ (p. 8). Modern Buddhists use the Lotus Sutra to warrant ‘a universal embracing of other traditions in religious gentleness, accepting them as variously skillful teachings toward that “supreme teaching, that is, the enlightenment of the one Buddha-vehicle”’ (p. 13, quoting Nikkyō Niwano). All such inclusivist approaches, whether Catholic or Buddhist, are in Keenan’s view ‘dreadfully unskillful and untactful strategies to employ in the encounter between religions,’ which ‘disable their own proponents from engaging in genuine dialogue with others’ (p. 13).
But what account are we then to give of the relation of our faith to the other faiths? Pluralists ‘acknowledge many religious traditions as valid and effective, and they appreciate them as offering authentic pictures of the real... At the same time, they recognize that all religions are imperfect, language-bound embodiments of the full truth’ (p. 23). The problem with this is that it seems to undermine any ‘absolute affirmation, as well as any commitment to practice that might follow in its train’ (p. 28). The pluralist smorgasbord reduces faiths to interesting cultural artifacts, and religious practice becomes something as desultory as a visit to a cluttered museum.
The dilemma of how to reconcile committed faith with pluralistic openness ‘cannot be solved, or even addressed, from within a single culture or theological tradition’ (p. 32), which is probably why Keenan speaks of the quest for ‘a workable philosophy of religions’ rather than ‘theology of religions.’ ‘Our approach to the religious traditions ought to be primarily philosophical, not theological... In interfaith dialogue, no single tradition or its theology can claim the privilege of providing a grid whereby others are to be viewed or judged’ (pp. 33-4). I am not so sure we should hand over this area to the philosophers of religion! The insight they seek, and find, will either by at odds with any established faith – as seems to be case with most of the great philosophers of religion – or else it will open up a realm of understanding that is preparatory to the richer mutual engagement that religions can undertake when they meet on the theological plane (and that can also assist and correct that theological encounter).
There is a danger here, perhaps, of making interreligious encounter and dialogue the preserve of an intellectual minority. To write a convincing apologetic for Christian faith in a pluralist world, ‘diligent and sophisticated historical and intellectual work’ whereby we acquire familiarity with the ‘vernacular’ of our religious neighbors is a prerequisite; ‘most theologians and clergy in the various faith traditions are either disinclined or ill equipped to take up this challenge’ (p. 43). But how are ordinary Christians to ‘give an account of the hope that is in them’ in this new context? A culture of informal exchange of ideas and experiences between people of different faiths should be developed, even if the theological riddles such exchange may create cannot be resolved (1 Peter 3:15). The prerequisite for this may not be scholarly sophistication but a capacity for sympathetic listening and serene appreciation of differences.
At this point in his meditation, Keenan turns to Mādhyamika thought as a particularly useful resource for handling religious differences, since it undercuts ‘not just our assumption that there exists a substantive everyday self,’ but ‘any and all philosophic views, for even if we affirm no-self we can still project our selfhood upon tribe, religion, nation, or even just upon being right’ (p. 51). Realizing that any absolute truth claim is a dead-end, we can use views and language without clinging to them, as does a bodhisattva, ‘a ‘wisdom-being’ moved by compassion to aid and teach other beings, to heal the suffering and the pain without proffering yet another ‘true’ viewpoint or some new program of action’ (p. 55). Keenan does not mean that the effort to enunciate and argue for truths and to plan courses of action is no longer necessary; rather we should be conscious of the provisional, contextual, contingent nature of whatever we achieve in this effort. ‘We are to be engaged in this world without becoming caught in reifying views’ (p. 57).
Keenan’s discussion of the dyad of ‘ultimate truth’ and ‘conventional truth’ may leave some readers uneasy. Conventional truth may be solid enough, in that it allows us to ‘fly airplanes and send space robots to Mars,’ but Keenan seems to suggest that it lacks even this solidity in the religious sphere: ‘When it comes to the quest for absolute truth, however, Nāgārjuna points out the futility of these common avenues of human knowing’ (p. 61). Ultimate truth is silent, ungraspable, and it is ‘completely and utterly separate and different’ from conventional truth. (p. 65); all they have in common is that they are ‘empty’ in different ways. I would like to see a recognition that conventional truth can embrace the objective bearing of religious doctrine as much as it embraces scientific objectivity, and that its efficacity can include the powerful and illuminating impact of the biblical word heard in faith – something so intimately aligned with ‘ultimate truth’ that a surgical differentiation of the two in the name of mystical apophasis seems untenable.
‘Mystical and silent awareness does find expression in the religious traditions’ and ‘in the everyday world of mediated meaning and verbal expression, we do seek and point to the ends of the cosmos of all our meanings’ (p. 68). But does the Bible place the central accent on mystical ultimacy and wise use of the conventional? ‘We now understand that all that happens arises from the will of God… Even the crucifixion of the Lord was the outflow of the many actions then performed. His obedience to the Father’s will signifies his total immersion in the way things were then, and the way they are now’ (p. 69). This does not give any very concrete indication of how ‘Thy will be done’ is an imperative for changing the world rather than only for understanding it.
Next Keenan turns to the other great philosophy of Mahāyāna Buddhism, Yogācāra. Its interreligious usefulness lies in that ‘it focuses not simply on things out there in the world that are objects of human attempts to understand, but also – and most importantly – it attends to and analyzes the consciousness that seeks to understand’ (p. 75). The thought of Bernard Lonergan is a discreet presence behind such remarks; Keenan strongly believes in rehabilitating Yogācāra ‘idealism’ by reading it in light of Lonergan’s study of the knowing consciousness. Yogācāra aims at ‘the wisdom of silence, where all the seeds of the unconscious have been abandoned, and even sense perception and thinking have ceased. Here, one abides far from the imagined pattern of delusion and self-craving’ (p. 86); meanwhile it analyzes the deluded patterns of consciousness of those who have not yet reached this ideal state. It gives conventional truth more stability than Mādhyamika does: ‘Once consciousness is converted from the imagined pattern, it can go on to engage in true and proper reasoning in the teaching of the scriptures and skillfully embody that teaching in ever new forms of doctrinal discourse’ (p. 90).
Both these Buddhist philosophies will come alive ‘in the practice of interfaith study and textual hermeneutic across cultures and traditions’ (p. 91). How? By their focus ‘not on any particular apologetic or negation, but rather on understanding our human understanding of doctrinal affirmations and negations, and on validating our human traditions of faith just as long as they demonstrate their truth in their actions’ (p. 101). They offer ‘a rather content-neutral approach to people of the various faith-traditions,’ invite them to ‘patient and respectful dialogue with other traditions in all the rich ‘thickness’ of their many experiences, insights, and doctrines’ even when those doctrines radically clash, and ‘encourage further meditation on the meaning of personal doctrines long held and not about to be abandoned’ (p. 102). In short, only if believers reach beneath doctrine to the mystical core that sustains faith, will they be ready for peaceful and mutually enriching dialogue, ‘open-mindedly accepting other traditions from within the ground of one’s own tradition’ (p. 106). ‘A Mahāyāna approach to religious traditions is a practice of emptying our identities, with the deep hope that thereby we may regain those traditions and those identities, no longer as self-enclosed bastions of surety, but as historically conditioned and passionate embodiments of the traditions that guide us to truth and salvation’ (p. 109).
This book gnaws at a problem faced by all believers who are aware of religious pluralism. Despite Keenan’s lucidity about all aspects of the subject, he advances his claims modestly, with a sense of inconclusiveness. His argument circles around a cluster of recurring topics, bringing new angles and suggestions at each recurrence. This very quality of exploratory groping faithfully reflects the interreligious situation today and the impossibility of dominating it by some magisterial map or some definitive breakthrough to an ultimate plateau of insight. What is most edifying about this book is that it does not makes the aporias a reason for skepticism, resignation, or whining about relativism, but rather conveys infectious enthusiasm for the great adventure of broadening our religious interests, in order that our faith, and even the Gospel itself, may breathe more freely.