This book sets forth as a paradigm for theology today the practice of a reflective judgment that attends to the interplay of conventionality and ultimacy within Christian tradition and in the wider interreligious horizon. The theme of reflective judgment stems from Kant and the dyad of ultimate and conventional is taken from Nāgārjuna. The two strands blend as I seek to lay the ground of a comprehenive and flexible Christian thinking capable of responding to the signs of the times (as urged by Vatican II).
The thoroughly reflective theology I advocate can provide a medicine-chest for healing the many forms of obscurantism, fanaticism, and violence that have attached to our religious views down through history. It is ecumenically enriching, insofar as it integrates into Christian reflection the wisdom of Buddhism, which sees language as a source of delusive entanglement but uses it skillfully as a provisional raft and which sees all views, especially right views, as imprisoning attachments, to be handled with skeptical caution.
But this does not mean sinking into a blasé nominalism or relativism. Acceptance of the conventional texture of our language leaves us free to experience the emergence of realities marked by ultimacy. In letting go of whatever is hollow or obsolete, and treating all religious language as a convention to be skillfully deployed, we are empowered to discern and respond to whatever carries the full weight of prophetic truth or contemplative vision. The ultimacy at the heart of faith does not, however, carry over to the specific cultural forms that the divine call takes in different epochs. The old stories of encounter with divine reality can inspire us, but we are not obliged to take on board the archaic symbolic or conceptual frameworks within which they were located.
Constructing a religious template that allows modern aspirations to be freely expressed, and that reflects the much larger cosmic context of today as compared with that of biblical times, can be seen as a “development” of the old perspectives, but this development is not achieved by logical, metaphysical reasoning whereby one tight system is reshaped into another tight system. Rather, a bold stride forward is required, in which tradition is rethought from its sources as these come into new perspective today, let the chips fall where they may.
The first two chapters of the book establish the general climate of the inquiry by articulating two methodological orientations for fundamental theology. First, I discuss the conditions of theological judgment today, stressing the need for open-ended reflection rather than quests for systematic closure. Historical consciousness, cultural relativism and pluralism, recognition of the autonomous values of secular reason and sensibility, and the linguistic turn in structuralist and poststructuralist thought are so many factors that impose a new context for reflective judgment.
Then I discuss the Madhyamaka topic of the two truths, the ultimate and the conventional, advocating its strategic value for theology in that it allows us to be relaxed about the conventional texture of our religious discourse, defusing controversy and anxiety and opening up a space for the ultimate dimensions of the faith to emerge. To bring this way of thought into more gripping focus I connect it with the negative dialectic of Hegel, suggesting that an open-ended Hegelianism would go halfway to meet the Madhyamaka negations and could enable their richer and more effective application to the themes of Western philosophy and theology.
Talk of the ultimacy of emptiness does not plunge one headlong into a negative theology that abandons all discourse and doctrine to espouse a silent communing with an ineffable absolute. Rather, it sends us back to the fabric of conventional discourse, to be treasured and carefully tended as the indispensable vehicle for breakthroughs of ultimacy. The value of the two-truths perspective is that it can give free rein to the insights of pluralism, relativism, and historical consciousness, in constant rediscovery of the fragility and provisionality of all religious language, while at the same time remaining alert to the intimations or revelations of ultimacy that this language seeks to convey.
The remaining chapters explore and develop these basic orientations in relation to several concrete topics. The first locus I choose is literary modernism, which is a privileged guide to the spiritual situation of Western humanity today, so much so that any apologetics and any fundamental theology worth its salt must take account of the vision of existence so subtly explored in the writings of Mallarmé, Proust, Rilke, Musil, Kafka, Joyce, Yeats, and Beckett. The second locus revisits the theme of “overcoming metaphysics,” showing how reliance on classical metaphysical procedures, as well as on a crypto-metaphysical phenomenology, has blocked the subtler play of judgment that theology requires. The third locus is the one Barth sets at the foundation of his dogmatics, the church’s experience of listening to the Word of God. I attempt to reflect anew on the interplay between the ultimacy of this experience and our keen sense of the fragility, pluralism, and brokenness of its conventional vehicles, especially scripture itself as it appears in a modern historical, literary, and ethical critique.
The fourth locus is religious experience, which is so often treated as sheer ultimacy that abolishes the play of reflective critique. I focus on the way it is intimately imbricated with historical and linguistic conventionalities, though not thereby losing its character of ultimacy. Next I turn to the tradition of apophatic theology, again seeking to correct absolutistic tendencies and to reconnect this tradition with a reflective thinking taking its cue from the incarnational economy and a sense of the concrete texture of religious conventions. Comparison with Buddhist and Vedantic apophasis further serves to bring this tradition into dialogue with contemporary critical judgment.
The sixth locus, the practice of interreligious dialogue, has become a shaping context of fundamental theology, no longer something that can be deferred as a speculative luxury or treated as a problem to be mastered and dispelled in a supplementary exercise known as “theology of religions.” That “the question of the ‘other religions’ can no longer be left until the end of a Christian systematic theology but should enter at the very beginning” (David Tracy) is now widely recognized, but this “question” goes deeper than differences about what is believed. It obliges us to develop a comprehensive method for assessing all religious interpretations and judgments.
Finally, I ask about the status of dogma in light of the foregoing, attempting to show how doctrinal questions can be envisaged afresh in light of the fundamental-theological perspectives here explored. I sketch a method of successive “steps back”: from bad metaphysics to good; from good metaphysical theology to the sobriety of dogma in its nucleus; from dogma to its alleged grounds in the world of scripture, where dogma is unsettled and new critical judgments on its achievement can be formulated; and within scripture from the Johannine vision of God and Christ to the historical Jesus and his Jewish thought-world (as an example of the many critical trajectories theology can follow within scripture in the search to demystify its dogmatic lore); and finally a Buddhist step back that assesses the entire development of monotheism, messianism, and Trinitarianism as a conventional construction to be brought back to the silence of the ultimate.
All seven loci are fields of conventional discrimination and are searingly skeptical about their own status. The artist trades in fiction; the metaphysician undercuts the traditional claims and methods of the discipline; the preacher attentive to the Word of God will constantly relativize the letter of scripture; the mystic’s immediacy cannot shake off its conventional mediations; the apophatic theologian is thrown back on cataphatic conventionalities; the religionist seeking a shared contemplative core of different traditions is embarked on an unending dialogue between finite histories, in which breakthroughs of ultimacy become as elusive as ghosts; the dogmatician proclaims his or her creed with adamantine conviction, but close examination of any given proposition leads to a blurring of clarities and a crumbling of definitiveness. The to and fro between ultimacy and conventionality in all seven fields generates a dynamic critical dialectic that is the hallmark of the activity of the spirit (or the Spirit) in the world of history, the flesh, the letter.
“Here then I conclude my entire critical enterprise” (I might venture to say with Kant) under the happy auspices of the University of Notre Dame, where I began writing the first volume of this trilogy in fundamental theology, Questioning Back, in 1982. Rather than “stride forward without delay to the doctrinal,” as Kant boldly did, I prefer to sustain a leisurely study of Buddhist sources, and thus to continue theology in the form of conversation. May it be an increasingly civilized, tolerant, imaginative, and reflective conversation, so that religious ideas become again a blessing rather than a bane to humankind.