Religions as Conventions

the truth rushes in to fill the gaps left by

Its sudden demise so that a fairly accurate record of its activity is possible

           John Ashbery


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). 

From Graham Ward, ed. The Blackwell Companion to Postmodern Theology, Oxford, 2001.

The Significance of John Keenan's Mahayana Theology

Sometimes one is tempted to think of Christianity as a high-rise building that has been hit by an earthquake and is about to collapse. Many have deserted the edifice; others huddle in panic; meanwhile voices of authority deny the rocking of the walls, forbid discussion and dissent, stridently insist on old certitudes. If only there were some assurance of a solution in sight, it might be possible to let go of fear and face the crisis honestly.

"But there is!," shouts a fireman from the street below. He holds out a wide safety net, and calls out: "Jump!" The fireman's name is John P. Keenan and the net is called "emptiness." The figures on the balcony stare down in terror -- that net looks like a black void – better to clutch at these solid stones, no matter how they quake, than leap out into the unsupported air, entrusting oneself to some nebulous nirvana. The voices warn against the dangers of Buddhist-Christian syncretism, denouncing Buddhism as “a sort of spiritual auto-eroticism” (Cardinal Ratzinger). But the fireman's persuasion begins to take effect. One by one, the trembling believers drop down into the net of emptiness.

If I cast John Keenan in this grandiose role, it is because his achievement is well-nigh unique, as a fully qualified Buddhologist, with particular expertise in Indian Yogacara thought, who has drawn on Buddhist insight to construct an original Christian theology. What we see emerging in his work is a new theological landscape, one that is consciously interreligious at every point, or rather `intrareligious,' since the Buddhist and Christian frames of reference work together within a single integrated religious vision. He is the first theologian to reveal that Mahayana Buddhism has become structurally necessary to Christian faith. [Keenan, 1998, p. 139, doubts that the edifice of faith is “in imminent danger of being consumed in the fire of postmodern malaise”, making Mahayana structurally necessary to it. He prefers to see Buddhist philosophy as a supplementary ancilla theologiae. Perhaps it is unbuddhistic to talk of urgent necessities, but at least a certain need of Buddhist healing seems to be built into the present situation of theology, especially as we become more fully conscious of the monstrous perversions to which inadequately critical faith led us in the past as well as of the sterility of unacculturated, unmodernized faith today,] Without the background of wisdom and insight explored by the Madhyamika and Yogacara thinkers, the Christian kerygma fails to exfoliate its full meaning and remains truncated and opaque. In the past the thought-world of Hellenistic metaphysics provided an intellectual medium for the unfolding of the meaning of Christ. This resource has now been exhausted, and continued reliance on it has a cramping effect, intensifying rather than resolving the crisis of credibility. [Again Keenan demurs. To be sure, Western philosophy is rich in resources, but the limited yield of these for a renewal of faith is something that we can measure, whereas the resources of Buddhism are full of unexplored promise.] Hence the sense that the discovery of Mahayana thought comes as a providential rescue. Its categories are not in tension with contemplative insight, and they keep in touch with an attentive openness to the phenomena of experience; thus they can heal the split in Western theology between the abstract intellectualism of dogmatic debate and pre-conceptual awareness of divine presence.


Keenan's procedure is to reinterpret the meaning of central Christian texts and traditions in light of dependent co-arising (pratitya-samutpada) and emptiness (sunyata), as interpreted by Nagarjuna, along with the distinction between conventional truth (samvrti-satya) and the truth of ultimate meaning (paramartha-satya). Another important reference is the Yocacara theory of the turn-about of consciousness from investment in imagined meanings to recognition of the dependently co-arisen world in awareness of its emptiness. He sees nothing obscure or problematic in these notions [or rather, in his application of them he does not highlight the aspects that fuel Buddhist controversy, but brings out the main lines of force], and so can apply them consistently to the theological tradition, which has often invested in imagined meanings (parikalpita) and confused conventional with ultimate truth. The critical edge of this diagnosis is complemented by a constructive correlation of the presence of God with the realization of emptiness. This is something fully experienced only at the level of ultimate truth, where all the skillful articulations and conceptualizations of religious doctrine and theory fall silent. [“There is, I think, no ‘level’ or ‘vantage’ of ultimate meaning, and to it makes no sense to complain about consigning doctrine to the ‘conventional register.’ The only register we have is conventional” (1998, 141).]

The necessity of applying these ideas to Christian tradition, and the healing illumination they bring, are undeniable. Yet is may be that Keenan, in the manner of many great pioneers, has moved too far, too fast. In bringing into conjunction the worlds of Christian theology and Mahayana Buddhism he may be riding roughshod over the radical differences between the two, both in their epistemological and ontological presuppositions and in their cultural and religious contexts. He anticipates and refutes the more obvious objections to his procedure, but its undeniable validity in principle does not guarantee that its enactment in practice will be plain sailing. Every single application of Buddhist categories to Christian discourse implies a `fusion of horizons' raising the most difficult hermeneutical problems. The strong affinities between the two religious traditions, especially in their mystical reaches, make it imperative for theologians to think out their relationship. But affinities must not be taken for identities. The critical impact of Buddhist analysis on the illusion-ridden texture of much Christian discourse has to be pursued fearlessly. But we must be sure that the targets of the critique are properly identified, not underestimating the degree to which Christianity, too, is a sophisticated, self-critical religion. For a fruitful development of the questions Keenan has opened up, we need to stand back and pursue the inquiry in a more scrupulous and elaborate negotiation, keenly conscious of the difficulties that rise up at every step. [Keenan thinks that this is putting the cart before the horse; hermeneutics always comes later: “I consider myself to be doing straightforward theology, not brokering disparate discourses identified as Buddhist or Christian” (1998, 145). But is there such a thing as straightforward theology?] The resulting encounter may be less direct and global than what Keenan proposes. The Buddhist and Christian ideas and sources may play off against another in mutual critique, without any decisive overriding conquest either way. Their debate may take the form of a series of local interactions rather than a grand synthesis. To the ambitious theologian that may seem a messy prospect, but it is more faithful to the concrete complexity of history and of human encounter.

Keenan has faced the crisis of traditional beliefs and categories and tasted deeply the skepticism and nihilism of the modern masters of suspicion. Yet I do not think he has ever been an addict of anxiety. He has found a biblical correlate for the ordeal of the negative in Job and Qohelet. The skepticism and despair expressed in those texts is overcome by a higher wisdom, which lets go of certitudes and opens up to the presence of a God who cannot be contained by human categories, a God who is empty. This wisdom can take the destructive impact of suspicion in its stride; where doubt abounded, faith abounds the more. The ideas of dependent co-arising and emptiness give a more lucid, systematic cast to this trust in an empty God.

Christ is the richest presentation of wisdom; we find “in the pattern of his life, death, and resurrection an answer to the dilemmas about human suffering, death, and the silence of God” (1989, 29). His life is characterized by non-clinging; his death is a complete opening up to emptiness; his resurrection is the arising of authentic consciousness of ultimate reality. Such wisdom is appropriated in an experience of the overwhelming, undeniable presence of the love of God, manifested in Christ, an experience Keenan finds to be in deep accord with Buddhist understandings of awakening or enlightenment.
The dogmas that caused such headaches to generations of modernist theologians – the existence of God, the divinity of Christ, the resurrection, the immortality of the soul – are reinterpreted as events of the wisdom of emptiness. Christianity exists only to create an experience of wisdom: “the realization of an Easter enlightenment that can transform our consciousness and, with that, the world we construct based upon that consciousness. It is an experience of the emptiness and dependent co-arising of all our notions and endeavors that frees one for awareness of God beyond discriminative concepts and transparently embodies the rule of compassion in the world of hard politics” (242).

This experience of the world as it is, in its dependent co-arising, is identical with the discovery of God as “Abba,” “Father” [Keenan denies making such a simple identification (1998, 145)]. We must renounce all images of God as one who intervenes miraculously in human affairs; the only miracle is the grace of awakening: “The very arising of all things in interdependency is itself directly and immediately the presence of Abba... Abba does not come to the rescue of bodily or mental anguish ... The Old Testament skeptics were right: Yahweh does not save his people. He allowed them to be consumed in the fires of the holocaust” (1989, 244). More substantive and dogmatic ideas of God are idolatrous projections that close us to Abba-awareness: “The point of the Mahayana refutation of the creator deity is that any idea clung to as ultimate is an illusion, for any such idea represents a meaning constructed within the conditioned world” (245). The God of Jesus is not posited as an object: “Jesus as the wisdom of God embodies not an idea of Abba, but a preverbal awareness of ineffable meaning thematized as Abba” (247).

There is a basic misfit between the reality of God and the conventional world of ideas and concepts: “Ideas of God indicate their reference in terms of their dependently co-arisen context and cultural milieu. This does not mean simply that ideas are inadequate to present God, but still analogically applicable. It means, rather, that the presence of God is simply not amenable to conceptual expression at all” (247). This is a far cry from John B. Cobb's process-philosophy claim that God is the supreme instantiation of dependent co-arising. Our words and concepts are made for the samsaric world. It is only by realizing their fragility and the fragility of the world they designate that we can open onto the silence of the ultimate. To find God: “Attend not to an absentee gardener, but to the garden itself in all its immediacy and empty transparency”; as death-of-God theologians saw, “an objectively real God somewhere within or transcendent to the world simply did not matter anymore” (247).

The heart of Christian truth lies not in dogmatic certitudes but in a conversion of consciousness: “The basic structure of consciousness is already directed toward ultimate meaning and rejects God-conceptions because of their failure to ground themselves in that structure ... In awareness of the original structuring of consciousness oriented toward ultimate meaning one becomes aware of God as prevenient and encompassing” (248). Divine activity is conceived of non-anthropomorphically, as follows: “the activity of the pure Dharma Realm in benefiting beings is like empty space encompassing all actions: although space is not purposeful and never sets about implementing any divine plan, yet it is the encompassing source for all beneficent action” (249). This is quite a convincing phenomenology of grace, which can detect grace at the heart of all processes of life, which allowing it to emerge dramatically to the fore in experiences of conversion and enlightenment.

For Keenan it is contemplative experience that is the source of doctrinal insight, not the other way round. He is critical of the what he considers the intellectualist, objectifying approach to knowledge of God in the “mysticism of light” deriving from Origen and sees it corrected by the “mysticism of darkness” found in Gregory of Nyssa and Pseudo-Dionysius, which opens onto “the mystic realm of meaning as apart from all mediating images and words, as distinct from the extraverted, confrontational knowing of imagined essences” (116). But Christian theology refused to let itself be founded in such radical mystical awareness. Today, Madhyamika and Yogacara thought “can assist Christian theology both in reclaiming the centrality of its own mystic tradition and in maintaining a valid place for theoretical systematics” (123). A radical skeptic would explain the heightened immediacy of contemplative experience and its dissolution of the subject-object dichotomy as a projection of unconscious desire. But Keenan, though well aware to the human capacity for generating illusions, finds that negation is brought to a halt at this point.


Recently Keenan has turned his attention from Gregory and Pseudo-Dionysius to Mark's Gospel [and more recently still to the Letter of James (2005)]. This text, the earliest of the Gospels, comes from a pre-dogmatic and non-metaphysical level of Christian tradition. Its parables and cryptic narrative exemplify a style of religious communication that undoes at every turn dogmatic rigidity and bondage to convention. Recent commentary on this Gospel has been marked by a deconstructive radicality which goes half way to meet Keenan's Buddhist insights. He attempts to capture the resonances of the Markan text when heard with a Buddhist ear, just as others have listened to the text with Marxist, feminist, or psychoanalytical ears. A Lacanian psychoanalyst does not impose his interpretations upon the analysand, but offers only a punctuation of the analysand's speech, so that its meaning become clear to the analysand. Keenan's commentary is just such a Buddhist punctuation of Mark's speech. The result of the punctuation, however, is to interpret Christianity as far closer to Buddhism than one had imagined. Some might say that the Buddhist insights add nothing to what deconstructive exegetes have already seen. But this underestimates the significance of what is afoot here. Keenan applies to Mark not merely a few scattered Buddhist ideas, but a sensibility formed by the mainstream of Mahayana Buddhist thought. The fact that Mark and his exegetes can be translated so consistently into the terms of that tradition reveals a substantial common ground between Christianity and Buddhism.

Such a Buddhist parsing of biblical wisdom in its various forms saves the biblical message from seeming peremptory or archaic and rehabilitates it as a probing and well-grounded revelation of our relationship to ultimate reality. It opens up a new way to making sense of the notion of God, one that may allay the doubts of the death-of-god philosophers. But it seems to me that the biblical God may resist the consequent application of Buddhist categories, and that Keenan may be underestimating the strength of this resistance. One problem is that the Buddhist conception of ultimate reality, as entirely ineffable and as excluding all distinctions and discriminations - these have validity only on the conventional level - seems to fit poorly with the concrete figure of a living, active, personal God, who speaks through the prophets and involves himself in human history. Can the biblical God be entirely explained as a thematization of a preverbal awareness of ultimate meaning? Ultimate meaning, `the emptiness of things in their inexpressibility and silence,' seems extremely static, silent, monotonous, in comparison with the dynamic, communicative, and many-sided God of biblical tradition. [“Ultimate meaning is neither static nor dynamic, neither silent nor enunciated, neither monotonous nor many-sided, because ultimate truth does not function within our frameworks of meaning or philosophy” (1998, 142). Certainly, I cannot criticize ultimacy, but the discourse it prompts may have a monochrome cast. A “holy skepticism” that pulls us back again and again “to the silence of wonder and the givenness of the world” (ib.) is what Zen seeks a dynamic language for.] Keenan might say that the simplicity of the ultimate is perfectly compatible with the variety of the everyday world in its dependent co-arising, and indeed sharpens our perception of this variety. God-for-us would belong to this dependently co-arisen level, while God-in-Godself can be attained only in the ultimate quiescence of all fabrications and disappearance of all distinctions. This solution is reminiscent of Eckhart's postulation of a pure Godhead, beyond all the shifting forms of revelation and the affirmations of dogmatic theology. But it may be that the biblical God undoes precisely such a vision of ultimate purity. The Buddhist demythologization of Scripture may be matched by a biblical dismantling of the Buddhist myth of ultimate meaning as a realm in which all differentiations disappear. Such biblical resistance to a Buddhist reading would immensely complicate the project of a Buddhist-Christian theology. [I agree that ultimate meaning is not the purity of the Neoplatonic One (not even as reconceived by Gregory of Nyssa or Pseudo-Dionyius) and that any demythologization of the language of ultimacy is itself at the service of ultimacy.]

Keenan often appeals to ultimate reality in order to reduce doctrinal claims to the level of conventional truth: “All perspectives are worldly and conventional, in the face of ultimate meaning which is perspectiveless and silent” (1989,139). All religious utterances are contextual and provisional, and they function well only when they point beyond themselves to the ineffable ultimate. “Mahayana theology argues that all theological models (even a Mahayana model) are valid only within their contextuality in terms of the particular conditions in virtue of which they arise. In the words of Maximus Confessor, ‘the doctrines of the Church are transcended by their own content’” (225). One cannot insist too much on the fragile, hodological character of religious statements (hodos = way); they are pointers, set in the context of a practical lifestyle, to an ultimate mystery they can make no pretence of defining or explaining. Yet there seems to be a residual tension between the biblical and the Buddhist evaluation of these pointers. Christian doctrine about God is not exclusively negative or apophatic; rather, it is resolutely affirmative or kataphatic. To associate the negative with the ultimate and the affirmative with the conventional is almost a reversal of traditional Christian priorities, though it is true that under Neo-Platonic influence Gregory of Nyssa, Pseudo-Dionysius, and Eckhart came close to such a reversal.

The doctrine of the Trinity is sometimes cited as setting limits to apophaticism in Christian theology, since it proffers objective statements about the divine being in itself, which it would be heretical to regard as merely symbolic. However, when we look at the matter more closely we see that this doctrine is only a clumsy parsing of the biblical encounter with God as Creator, Word, Spirit. All it claims is that there must be some objective distinction of these aspects within the divine unity. (Of course popular and speculative conceptions of the Trinity have gone far beyond this, but without solid biblical or patristic support.)

A better objection to Keenan's apophatic emphasis is simply the style of the Scriptures, their overwhelming insistence on God's Word and the almost complete absence of reference to God as an ultimate reality best contemplated in silence. Biblical revelation and salvation seems to dwell fully in what Keenan would see as the conventional realm, while the dimension of ultimate meaning, in its otherness from this realm, hardly gets a look in. [Keenan sees no place for such a presentation of ultimacy as other than conventions critically scanned: “Ultimate meaning does not entail a cross-culturally shared immediacy of pure experience, but is the guardian against any view of or claim for such an experience. The emptiness of ultimate meaning is a non-affirming negation of the the ultimate validity of any language, and at the same time a reclamation of the logical, reasoned validity of conventional discourse” (Keenan 1998, p. 143).] The critical impact of ultimate meaning, as relativizing all conventional constructs, has to be transcribed into more positive terms in order to be applied effectively to Christian discourse. The Bible is very much a self-deconstructing book, but the deconstruction is not in the name of a purer ultimacy, but of a more convincing incarnation of God. In this context, is Keenan's stress on ultimate meaning not perhaps a subtler version of the `absentee gardener' approach he rejects?

The myth of the ultimate goes hand in hand with an epistemological myth of pure, unmediated experience, shared by mystical traditions in different cultures. Keenan distances himself from this myth to some extent: “There are, I would acknowledge, no pure, unmediated meanings for the very act of insight mediates experience in some terms or other” (1993, 17). Despite the gulf between ineffable experience and language about it, there is a “symbiotic and reciprocal relation” between experience and doctrine (18). Now, if the heightened immediacy of contemplative experience does not exclude such pluralism and contingency, does this not in turn undermine the monolithic view of ultimate meaning? [Keenan replies (1998, 143) that ultimate meaning is not a matter of views of any kind.]

Keenan grounds the variety of Jesus’s teachings, parables, and discourses in a single transcendental experience of God as `Abba' (Father). The application of Buddhist categories seems to smooth away the pluralistic perspectives suggested by the biblical text. Jesus’s parables no doubt aim to produce awakening, in a manner reminiscent of Zen koans. But is that all they intend to do? Is it even their primary aim? Jesus speaks more as a prophet than as a master of spirituality, and all the difference between biblical and Indian tradition weighs against any effort to translate his teaching immediately into Buddhist terms. But even if we do correlate Jesus with Zen, could it not be that the Madhyamika-Yogacara way of talking about ultimate reality is just the sort of thing that Zen snaps us out of and that Jesus too would have snapped us out of if he had ever heard of it?

Nonetheless, there is a substantial enough phenomenological core to Keenan's correlation of Mahayana and Gospel vision. In both he discerns a powerful call to conversion from the mind of delusion to the mind of wisdom, a conversion that brings us into intimate contact with ultimate reality. Despite its hermeneutical short-circuits, Keenan's theology is consistently phenomenological; it sticks close to the experience of delusion and awakening as exhibited in both religious traditions, and all its categories are derived from this experience. In contrast to the speculative constructions of other Buddhist-Christian thinkers, which distort both the Buddhist and the Christian phenomena, Keenan's constant effort is to allow these phenomena to unfold their meaning in an unforced way. When he feels obliged to the archaic categories and images in which they have been transmitted to us, he does so not in view of speculative reconstructions but in an appeal to the phenomena themselves.


In admitting freely that all language belongs to the register of conventional truth and that the truth of ultimate meaning will always elude its grasp, Keenan brings a healing serenity to the epistemological crisis of religious language, and weans his readers away from the vice of `attachment to views.' The polishing and refining of our religious language becomes a functional affair, a matter of removing fixational habits of thought and reifying representations, so that the conventional language can continue to serve as a skillful means of awakening us to the ultimate.

His conception of the conventional language is not a monolithic one. Within the conventional, he distinguishes between purely illusory thoughts and thoughts which correspond to the dependently co-arisen condition of the samsaric world; in Yogacara terminology: between parikalpita and paratantra. He moves from a conventional religious language which is unaware of its limits and constantly projects illusory reifications of that to which it refers, to a self-conscious language which has taken cognizance of its provisionality.

If `the conjunction of strategies to embody truth always fails and self-destructs before the disjunctive otherness of ultimate meaning' (1989, 138), why worry about the correctness of these strategies? The answer lies in the criterion by which religious traditions are judged, namely, their capacity to permit experience of the deepest reality. Religions can serve as pragmatic, provisional paths to spiritual freedom, or they can hinder and repress such awakening. Dogmatic propositions, when divorced from their reference to spiritual awakening, lose their truth and their meaning. In light of this criterion, most theological discourse seems reified and alienated.

Religious traditions are dependently co-arisen. This means that they are human historical formations that have to be studied in their cultural particularity. The absolutization of a religion or its credal propositions spells a denial of the law of dependent co-arising. Such absolutism is a lie, which will issue in violence. Here we touch on the basic flaw that explains the tragedies of Christian history. When their historical particularity is seen, religious traditions are reassessed in terms of their functional effectiveness, as paths cut out within a given culture, enabling an opening to reality, or in theistic language, an opening to God. `God' is not a rival to `emptiness' as the name of ultimate reality. Both are valid conventional indicators of the ultimate reality, which both inspires and surpasses all the paths toward it that are traced within religious cultures.

Keenan is not opposed to a theology of conceptual refinement, even system, as long as it remains open at every point to the experience of wisdom, as he considers the conceptuality of Yogacara to do. The classical debates about the three hypostases of the one divine substance, or the two natures of the one hypostasis of Jesus Christ, have divorced themselves from such mandatory reference to awakening, or in Pauline terms, to Spirit. Their apparent logical coherence masks a profound debility, for they no longer serve as effective conventional testimony to ultimate reality. [“In their time and culture, classical formulations were existentially crucial to the Christian practice. They were felt intensely and triggered deep emotions”, Keenan 1998, p. 140. That is slightly off-key. Chalcedon was a horos, a definition of the space of orthodox discourse, not anything existential or kerygmatic. This theoretical horizon is what we seek to “overcome” by bringing it into historical perspective – in reference back to Scripture and forward to the present. That has little to do with claims that the categories of Chalcedon once “rocked” and have now become bloodless.]

Here again I want to sound a note of caution. There are many valid ways of constructing a critique of traditional Christian discourse, including the critiques of feminism and liberation theology. Keenan seems to put all his eggs in one basket, in his focus on the absolutization of the conventional. This critique is made to do work it is not suited to do. It gives rise to sweeping assessments of the language of dogma (notably of the Christological doctrine of the Council of Chalcedon in 451) and of the role played by metaphysics in theology, topics of extreme historical complexity which cannot be dealt with in a single massive stroke.

Can one accept the conventional status of language in Nagarjuna's sense, seeing religions as skillful means for opening up a path to the ultimate, while at the same time preserving theological realism, that is, the claim that dogmatic statements have objective reference, and are not merely expressive or symbolic or pragmatic utterances? The old awareness of the merely analogical status of talk about transcendent realities has been enriched and intensified by the modern experience of the historicity and culture-bound nature of religious language, so that theology is more than ever ready to embrace Buddhist insights in this realm. Dogmatism, which posits an identifiable truth as ultimate meaning, can be corrected through a subtler presentation of dogma, as a statement of truth which has integrated a sense of its own situatedness and relativity.

Our contingent culture-bound religious languages are skillful means for pointing to the ineffable. They are the finger, not the moon. Yet they retain the capacity, when set in the context of the entire tradition and lifestyle that sustains them, to speak objectively of transcendent realities. Religious statements are `undecidable' in a sense: we cannot pin down what they are saying in a language other than the very imperfect, ramshackle, myth-laden language which the tradition has given us; we believe the statements are true, but we are rather in the dark as to wherein exactly their truth consists, or how exactly they touch the truth to which they point. Religious statements are shots in the dark, but they can succeed in hitting their mark. They can be analogical statements about what is in fact true, though the analogies are shifting, fragile and context-dependent in a manner not theorized by Aquinas. Keenan objects that for Aquinas “theoretical meaning becomes not a symbolic weaving of models to express the ineffable, but an analogic and valid affirmation of what is in fact is true about God” (117). Ultimate truth lies in the realm of mystic awareness; doctrinal statements belong to the realm of “conventional, language-formed presentations of that awareness” (123). Is there not a danger here of reducing theology to a science of the “as if” or of “supreme fictions”? [No, for one aims “merely to affirm that it is human discourse” (1998, 143). Indeed, one could well argue that the biblical language of God is evidently a fiction, a means of creating a scenario in which the silent ultimate speaks to us and we to him, so that this human discourse – warts and all – becomes the highest fruit of a human group that exposed itself radically to ultimacy, becoming the “chosen people” by that token.]

Referential success is not guaranteed for all time to any statement, for the statements arise within an ongoing historical struggle to articulate religious conviction, and the integrity of their terms depends on the concrete conditions of their production. “Last year's words belong to last year's language” (T.S. Eliot). A true religious statement is the product of a kairos; the decision about its truth-content always contains, therefore, a moment of prophetic discernment. Yet none of this undermines the objective referentiality of such a statement.

God is not an object over against us, to be grasped in confrontational knowing (a Gegenstand), but in another sense God is objective, in the sense that the ultimate reality to which the term refers is not merely a supposition. God cannot be conceptually grasped or circumscribed, yet inadequate concepts can be used in a conventional language to advance a judgment which can stand as a valid statement referring to God, for example, `God is supremely good.' To say that the conventional status of religious language forbids us to speak here of valid judgments and objective reference would inhibit and undercut that language to a degree incompatible with belief that the biblical word is a communication of truth about God. Keenan devotes much attention to imaginary patterns of thinking about God, but there is a sober and modest discourse about God which does not fall prey to these patterns. Objectivity is not a matter of imaginary objectifications; valid affirmation is not a matter of exhaustive conceptual grasp.


The critique of the role played by Hellenistic metaphysics in Christian theology has a long history, but the subject remains a difficult and delicate one. It is a mistake to underestimate the cogency and intellectual force of the metaphysical tradition. Keenan himself draws on the best of Christian metaphysics – the apophatic reaches of medieval ontology and refined philosophy of consciousness developed in the transcendental Thomism of Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan. Reference to Heidegger could serve both to complicate and to clarify Keenan's stance toward metaphysics. Heidegger does not contest the truth of metaphysics, or the truth of science, on its own terms; rather, he points to a dimension of thought which metaphysics has been too busy to attend to, a contemplative attunement to being which is attained by stepping back from the conceptual realm. The critique of metaphysics from this perspective need not involve any discrediting of the conceptual labors of the philosophical tradition since Plato. Keenan's critique of metaphysics, unlike Heidegger's, is largely an intra-metaphysical critique: he advocates a flexible, critical metaphysics of consciousness over against a fixated reifying metaphysics of substance. In addition he performs a step back from metaphysics which has some remote analogies with Heidegger's, insofar as he consigns all metaphysical discourse to the level of conventional truth, not to the truth of ultimate meaning. One recalls that Heidegger drew inspiration for his `step back' from German translations of Lao-tse and D.T. Suzuki's essays on Zen. Heidegger's step back, like Harnack's critical labors on the history of dogma, is not merely a shift of register, but installs a thorough interrogation of the entire history of the tradition, somewhat as in Madhyamika the conventional is critically revisited from the vantage of the ultimate. Does Keenan's handling of the two truths facilitate such critical work on the tradition or does it simply bypass ancient tensions through consigning them globally to the conventional register? [The point is that immanent critique, say of the role of Greek metaphysics in theology, should be differentiated from a more searching reflection on the conventionality of all discourse.]

In his critique of Chalcedon, Keenan moves too quickly from a Buddhist stress on the `selflessness' of Christ to a rejection of all talk of `nature' and `hypostasis' in connection with Christ. He presumes that the conceptual labors of the Council were tied into the pattern of imaginary reification, neglecting the possibility of a more benign reading in light of his own view that the language of `self' may be reassumed on the conventional level. To be sure, if we accept the Buddhist ontology of the emergence of phenomena in radical interdependence, there can be no fixed substance of the humanity, divinity, person, or nature of Jesus Christ. But this does not rule out a reformulation of Chalcedon without any reference to fixed substance. “There is no selfhood to Jesus at all, for all human beings are empty of any self (atman). Christian doctrine on the person of Christ cannot then be expressed by attempts to define his dual nature or divine personhood” (1989, 225). But the doctrine of Chalcedon does not “define” the natures and person of Christ. Its concerns could well be expressed in Buddhist language. Its stress on the distinction of the divine and human aspects of Christ consigns his humanity cleanly to the conditioned realm and his divinity to the unconditioned. The inseparability of the two aspects recalls the inseparability of samsara and nirvana in Madhyamika.

Though Keenan's reading has a constant critical agility, the sifting of gospel events between conventional and ultimate becomes rather monochrome, like the practice of some of the Fathers who ascribed some actions of Christ to his humanity, some to his divinity. Resistance to Jesus always derives from attitudes that can be cured by insight into the two truths. People are fixated on the conventional taken as ultimate; they cling to the defined boundaries of the conventional instead of letting go in faith; they are trapped in discriminations which impede whole-hearted faith; they bifurcate the sacred from the profane, the supernatural and their ordinary lives, mistaking the otherness of ultimate meaning for an identifiable other, a separate realm, rather than the “silent awareness of the emptiness of everyday living” (1995, 151). In contrast, the way of faith abandons the props of the conventional, in “a wilderness conversion, modeled on that of Jesus’ direct awareness of God” (153). Faith is not insistence but expropriation, not clinging but letting-go. It rejects the institutional temptation “to reduce the ultimate meaning of tradition into the conventional framework of obvious necessities” (288).

In its central thrust this reading does capture much of the impact of the Markan Jesus. But there are elements in the Gospel and even in Jesus' own religious world-view that can be revised in the light of Buddhist insight. (This will sound blapshemous to fundamentalists, but Paul and John encourage a critical overcoming of the Letter that kills in light of the Spirit that gives life.) If Keenan had made a greater effort to define carefully the differences between the New Testament and Mahayana contexts, he could have staged such an open confrontation between Buddhism and the Gospel. Bland appeal to the two truths can whitewash ancient errors, such as Paul's approval of slavery: “Paul acquiesces in the givenness of his world” (256). Here a serious blind spot in early Christianity is whisked away and the door is opened to an over-facile method of coping with the Christian past (Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung). [A necessary immanent critique of tradition is eluded through recourse to the loftier vantage of the ultimate/conventional distinction.] Again, Keenan wishfully assures us that Mark “is not recommending a replacement theology, whereby the new religion of Jesus takes over from the outmoded religion of the Jews” (1995, 283); yet “he will give the vineyard to others” (Mark 12:9) can have no other meaning, and to say it refers to “the recognition of the otherness of ultimate meaning, of the falsity of clinging to any tradition, whether Jewish or Christian” is pure escamotage [if one is asking about the significance of the text for Jewish-Christian relations. Keenan replies that the text is directed against the temple authorities, denounced for giving ultimate status to human customs; “it is an implausible stretch to imagine that Mark himself is arguing for the superiority of Christianity over Judaism, as if a critique of religious authorities entailed a rejection of the tradition they inauthentically represent” (1998, 147). Yet the parable does allude, disturbingly, to the people who kill the prophets and the Son, not merely to their religious leaders, even if at 12.12 the leaders sense that it is directed at them]. From the Buddhist standpoint we should be freer to recognize the gravely questionable things in Scripture, such as this replacement theology which lays the foundation of Christian antisemitism. Precisely because the Gospel-writers did not have access to Buddhist refinements about the status of religious language and about spiritual awareness, they fell into various dangerous short-circuits, of which Buddhism can help to heal us today. Keenan's supposition that Mark is an anonymous Buddhist may cause him to miss the full healing potential of Buddhism for Christian tradition. [“I do not suppose that Mark is “an anonymous Buddhist.” Never in life should such a thought be thought! It is precisely because Mahayana maps such a different terrain and elicits such an alternate set of questions that it seems to assuage my theological itch” (1998, 146). Fine. But a “straighforward” theological reading of Mark through Buddhist lens must be the beginning of a more elaborate hermeneutical reflection that will abide with the tensions between the two horizons, as we abide with the tensions between the Greek and Hebrew roots of classical theology.]

I wish he had applied the two-truth hermeneutic more cautiously, with constant attention to its problematic aspect, instead of using it as a catch-all net. His commentary is a perpetual hybridization of two heterogeneous worlds, sometimes effected by allegorical eisegesis that biblical scholars will find regressive. [I agree that “a hybrid is perhaps better suited to withstand the frost of the modern world” (1998, 139).] Even the most adventurous exegetes Keenan draws on follow the basic law of literary criticism, that interpretations must be grounded in a plausible construal of the text. Commenting on Mark 11:23 (the believer can cast a mountain into the sea), Keenan writes: “The depths of the sea symbolize the complete absence of human constructs, the emptiness of all supports for conventional language” (1995, 276). Here the effort to coax Buddhist insight from the text is counterproductive. It leads not merely to over-interpretation, a common vice of recent Markan exegesis, but to completely tangential associations [“I offer but one plausible symbolic reading” (1998,147)]. A shorter, trimmer book, that would sacrifice such descants and siphon out the more persuasive correlations between Mark's strategies and two-truth theory, would serve more effectively to establish Buddhist-Christian theology as a viable discipline, capable of steady development.


The resurrection is perhaps the Christian doctrine that is most unconvincingly preached at the present time, and it is also the one that generates most anxiety, for if Christ was not raised from the dead the entire system of Christian doctrine collapses and there is no guarantee of eternal life for believers. Discussion of this theme is polarized between “realistic” accounts that insist heavily on the alleged empirical signs of the miraculous event, such as the empty tomb and the appearances, and more “spiritualizing” accounts that tend to reduce the resurrection to a mere interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ life and death. For Keenan: “The resurrection stands as the breakdown of all conventional linear events and the breakthrough to awareness of the complete otherness of ultimate meaning” (366). Useless, then, to try to circumscribe this ultimate spiritual reality by insisting on empirical data or by giving a dogmatic definition of the resurrection-event. Resurrection means awakening to the ultimate reality signified conventionally by the entire ministry and passion of Jesus. The resurrection narratives, if taken literally, take us into an unreal world in which the laws of nature are broken at every moment. But if these miracles are taken as symbolic representations of the breakthrough of ultimate meaning everything falls back into place. In all probability the laws of nature are never suspended and apparent miracles are ultimately explicable in natural terms. The resurrection is not to be sought in the realm of magical interruptions of nature’s course, but in the realm of ultimate meaning, or what Paul and John call “Spirit.”

“Mark is not trying to demonstrate the truth of the resurrection within the context of imagined thinking, for no such demonstration is possible. Rather, the point is that Jesus is not there within conventional frames of reference, and thus not within the realm of words and judgments that might be called upon to demonstrate his renewed existence” (1995, 393). “There are no resurrection appearances because Jesus is beyond empirical validation. He will not ‘reappear’ even in Galilee. The resurrected Jesus can be seen only upon the awakening of conversion that he came to preach about, not in some supernaturally perceptible coming back to show his new glorified body” (394). “Through his life and death, Jesus has resurrected the ordinary dependently co-arisen course of life, infusing it with his presence” (395). “His resurrection is an awakening to the eschatological wisdom of God-awareness, empty of any identifying image or idea, and to the subsequently attained wisdom of reengaged world awareness, with all the images and ideas needed to live and witness to the gospel” (397). “There is no great day when the Lord comes in all his glory and gives Jesus' enemies what for. The eschaton comes in the everyday suffering and the everyday resurrection from that suffering” (358).

All this sounds as if the resurrection-faith hangs on a very thin thread. Yet the thread is no thinner than that on which Buddhism hangs. It consists in contemplative insight, rather than empirical proofs. Matthew Arnold claimed that the facts on which Christian faith depended had failed it, leaving only the poetry. But for Keenan the true facts are of a spiritual order, the breakthrough of ultimate reality in the figure of Jesus, which like the Buddha’s enlightenment is received not by blind faith but by growth in insight. As to the resurrection of the individual believer, this too becomes nebulous, about as intangible as Buddhist nirvana. The voice of the Johannine Christ, assuring us of the presence of eternal life, has the same calm authority as the voice of the Buddha proclaiming nirvana. But we can appropriate the message only by letting go of worldly or egotistic expectations.

[While all of this may help to identify the mode of being to which the message of the resurrection points, there is an extra dimension of objectivity and concreteness which the Buddhist framework does not particularly help one to see. To be a witness to the resurrection is not merely to be able to see beyond conventionalities, recognizing their emptiness. It is to announce a perception of the eschatological Kingdom breaking into the historical world. In short, the resurrection is an event (a historical-eschatological happening, registered by its witness at particular times and places), not a state.]


Does Keenan do justice to the Christian claim that God is made known in a uniquely concrete way in the election of Israel and in the incarnate manifestation of God in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Perhaps this claim, too, needs to be refocused and tempered, or given a specific limited bearing, so that it no longer lessens the autonomous dignity of other religious traditions. The categories in which Keenan refocuses it may not be adequate to capture what is most concrete and decisive about God's action in Jesus, which is not only a breakthrough of ultimate meaning but a concrete, historically mediated work of salvation.

On this point it would be illuminating to compare Keenan with the century’s most influential New Testament scholar, Rudolf Bultmann. For Bultmann, the resurrection is the transformation of the memory of Jesus into a powerful kerygma, a word of salvation, wherein Jesus becomes the Eschatological Event of God's breaking into human history. Eschatology is demythologized and existentialized, but for Bultmann the kerygma remains primarily a prophetic address to faith and conscience, rather than an instrument of converting us to the mind of wisdom. His Eschatological Event engages with real history in a more positive sense than Keenan's. No doubt Bultmann’s Lutheran hermeneutics of the New Testament could have been enriched by Buddhist and Hindu attunement to the dimension of Spirit (pneuma) in Paul and John (and here the later Heidegger would have been more helpful to him than the Heidegger of “Being and Time”). Keenan, to the contrary, practises an entirely spiritual hermeneutic, emphasizing the universal presence of the Kingdom as the “power of awakening” (211), a present reality which no longer strains toward a future consummation. The Kingdom is redefined as “the judgment of ultimate meaning that empties all conventional traditions and activity” (282); it is “present and available at every moment, has no linear time reference” (267). But once the Kingdom message ceases to be a concrete intervention within human history and becomes instead a universal, ahistorical wisdom-teaching, it loses its raison d’etre. Of course we should avoid giving Jesus’ eschatological language an absolute status; it is only a provisional expedient; the eschatological in itself remains ineffable. [“Eschatology itself is a myth, not a map of linear time. We already have our concrete and unavoidable history, which is quite capable of satisfying any demand for social embodiment. Precisely because Jesus collapses the mapped hopes of linear time, the kingdom is history-only, worldly convention-only, and not an imagined realm of God-Taking-Over on that final day” (1998, 148).] Still, to make it refer only to enlightenment, in its ultimate and worldly aspects, goes against the grain of biblical thinking; the reader can resist Keenan’s emphasis by consulting the exegetes he generously quotes in his notes (e.g., 1995, 268). If Jesus was merely teaching timeless spiritual truths, he chose an extremely clumsy and cumbersome vehicle for them, and the best thing would be to jettison these eschatological myths altogether. [Jesus, in short, does not leave history-only just as it is but constitutes a transformation of history; not just by lending it new spiritual significance, but by orienting it toward its concrete goal.

If there is a blind spot in Keenan's theology, it is located here. But the fact that he is forced to a spiritualizing interpretation reveals how opaque the eschatological message has become in our world and how difficult it is to retrieve the concrete historical meaning of the Gospel call. [Not only difficult, but “chimerical,” Keenan thinks, for it involves thinking “as if that history were happening today”; but surely the ongoing history of the Gospel is happening today, though of course “our histories are different and our tasks for constructing the kingdom of justice and peace must consequently differ” (1998, 148). Reading “the signs of the times” is precisely the way to actualize the historical-eschatological power of the Gospel.] Buddhism puts great pressure on Christians to dissolve this aspect of their tradition as an archaic positivism. Meanwhile, Christians find themselves incapable of addressing to Buddhists a concrete kerygma of the Kingdom of God. But in time both Buddhists and Christians may rediscover the distinctive strength of Christianity, its prophetic engagement with concrete history.

Meanwhile, Keenan has opened up a Buddhist way of reading the Gospel that may today be more practicable in the West than standard Christian readings, for it bypasses many thorny theological conundrums. The appropriation of Christ as wisdom-event is one of the most fundamental demands of the Gospel. All the dogmatic claims that have divided Christians and Jews, and split the Christian community itself, can be handled more lucidly and irenically if this foundation is first put in place. There is another, even more fundamental demand of the Gospel that Buddhism sheds less light on, namely the concrete message of a historical event of salvation to be received by faith. Here we still stumble on profound differences and unresolved problems of interpretation and articulation.

My thought has been profoundly influenced by John Keenan's over the last twenty years, to the point that in arguing with him I have the impression that I am arguing with myself. He is better armed than I to move boldly to the frontiers of Christian-Buddhist theology. I am more inclined to worry about the hermeneutics and methodology of the enterprise. I have no doubt that the enterprise itself is a great one, and that it is laying the ground for a future religious vision, one that can elicit an adult and vibrant faith, far beyond the sectarian panic and dogmatism of the churches today. We may anticipate that Christianity will emerge from its embrace of Buddhism altered even more profoundly than Keenan's writing suggests, though not thereby diminished.

(1989). The Meaning of Christ: A Mahayana Theology. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis. Reviewed by J. S. O'Leary, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 19 (1992), pp. 94-100.
(1993). "Mahayana Theology: A Dialogue with Critics." Buddhist-Christian Studies 13:15-44.
(1995). The Gospel of Mark: A Mahayana Reading. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.
(1998). "Hybrid Buddhism." The Eastern Buddhist 31.1:139-49.
(2005). The Wisdom of James: Parallels with Mahayana Buddhism. New York: Paulist.

From The Eastern Buddhist 30.1 (1997), updated.

Love Conquers All: An Encyclical and its Intertexts

There may seem to be little new to say about love, or about the encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est, which is a pastoral catechesis on Christian love. In this essay I should like to focus on an aspect of the encyclical that may shed interesting sidelights on it. Benedict XVI, now every inch a Pope, is an erudite theologian, steeped in history, and also a man of literary culture. It is remarkable that in the part of the encyclical that most bears his imprint there are no references to recent Vatican documents (in contrast to the style of his predecessor) but many explicit and tacit references to secular literature and to classical Christian sources. It seems to me that a study of the intertextual effect these allusions produce may help us place Benedict’s teaching in perspective and even, possibly, solicit it in directions “where he would not wish to go” (cf. John 21:18).


The term “intertextuality” stems from the Parisian avant-garde Tel Quel group of the late sixties. Launched by Julia Kristeva, it was taken up enthusiastically by Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. They understood it not merely as the use of sources and allusions, something as old as literature itself, but as the idea that no text makes sense on its own, that every text is related to others of necessity, or more sweepingly, that every text is related to all other texts. As Derrida put it: “One text reads another... Each ‘text’ is a machine with multiple reading heads for other texts” (in Deconstruction and Criticism, New York, 1979, p. 107). Sported as a revolutionary slogan, “intertextuality” undermined conventional ideas of the autonomous author, the self-contained text and the stability of meaning.

This revolutionary promise was only in part fulfilled. As developed in the deconstructive criticism of Derrida and his followers, intertextuality had a flattening effect, tending to put all texts on the same level. This thwarted the signifying power of individual texts and the reader’s capacity to respond to that power. In reaction to the Tel Quel thesis of generalized intertextuality, more conservative, literature-based critics confine the definition of intertextuality to just the devices whereby a text pointedly refers to a predecessor text. This errs on the side of narrowness.

Here I shall relate the encyclical to the texts quoted in it and to texts implicitly referred to, as well as to other relevant utterances of Benedict as Pope. The effect of these intertextual connections in the case of Christian allusions is to highlight certain strands in the tradition while passing over other less attractive possibilities; in the case of secular allusions it is to engage respectfully with a non-Christian sense of values while gently correcting it.

In the case of papal documents the issue of authorship is rarely simple. The second half of the text integrates some ultima verba of John Paul II, originally in Polish. Archbishop Paul Josef Cordes, President of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, has been named as a “ghost writer” in the Pope’s service. All such documents are no doubt passed through the hands of various committees, and in the present case, remarkably, the Pope had his text vetted by no less a body than the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith! The delay between composition (summer 2005) and publication (January 25, 2006) left time for a complication of the text that may have made it blander, muting the individual voice of its primary author.

The voices of those who greeted the encyclical with various degrees of warmth, as well as those who were critical, can also be considered a significant intertext. The flood of commentary has focussed less on the content of the encyclical than on its significance in relation to Benedict’s former image as Prefect of the CDF and how, as Pope, he will meet the expectations of a polarized Church. It is often the church reception of a Vatican document rather than its actual letter that makes the story, as we saw in the case of the recent Instruction on seminarians (see JMJ 59.4; also, R. Gallagher and P. Hannon in The Furrow, February 2006). In addition, though the letter is formally addressed only to Roman Catholics (without the addition “to all people of good will” found in Populorum Progressio, for example), the reception in the secular media constitutes a major dimension of the encyclical as an event of communication.

It may be objected that intertextual criticism is a dicy area, making for ingenious eisegesis and allowing one to “spin” a document any way one chooses. Yet in the case of major church documents, as of scriptural texts, the entire reach of the tradition is explicitly and implicitly drawn on as a warrant for what is taught, and any original trait such texts may exhibit has the momentous impact of an intervention in the course of that tradition, an inflection that has the potential to alter its future development. To read such texts is to enter a sound-box in which echoes from as far back as Deuteronomy are made to reverberate in a contemporary context, often suggesting or producing new and unexpected significance.


The encyclical may seem innocuous and uncontroversial, but perhaps its opening claim to speak from an uncontroverted “centre” (Mitte, translated as “heart” in the English version) of Christian truth is one that could be queried. A group of Benedict’s students edited a selection of his writings under the title Rediscovering the Centre: Basic Orientations (Vom Wiederauffinden der Mitte: Grundorientierungen, Herder, 1997), and this title could well name the programme of his pontificate.

The encyclical has been received as confirmation that in his new role Benedict, after his twenty-three years at the CDF, has resumed the professorial gentleness of earlier years, laced now with a fatherly pastoral warmth. Kleider machen Leute! The blandness not only of the encyclical but of the pontificate so far encourages a “Rorschach test” effect, Thus people project, sentimentally, a dialectical pattern on Benedict’s career, from the positive left-leaning Vatican II theologian, through the negative years at the CDF, into the final Goethean serenity of the Papacy.

The significance of the encyclical goes beyond the pontificate of Benedict XVI. In striking a note of reconciliation, the encyclical may promise an end to a period of faction-fighting within the Roman Catholic Church. Speaking on Australian radio, Charles E. Curran, a man steeped in that great theme of 1960's moral theology, the Primacy of Love, greeted an encyclical on love with appropriate generosity. He agreed that “we have a pope who’s talking from the centre again”; “he is trying to keep everybody together in the Church”. He is relieved that the text does not argue that “the Church is a small remnant fighting the world. You don’t see that at all in this encyclical,” which “bears out what I think the authority of papacy in the Church should be. Let’s face it, it’s a most difficult challenge. Because in the last analysis the role of the papacy is to be a role of unity. And how do you find unity in the midst of all the pluralism and diversity and complexity that exists in the world today? ‘In necessary things unity, in doubtful things freedom, in all things charity.’ And it seems to me this encyclical is a magnificent illustration of that approach.”

Hans Küng comments: “As Catholics we are happy that the first encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI isn’t a manifesto of cultural pessimism, or of restrictive sexual morality towards love.” In his unexpected and cordial encounter with the new Pope, Küng was happy to rediscover the congenial Tübingen colleague of the 1960’s. The encyclical takes me back to 1972-3 when I sat in the halls of the Gregorian University, listening to lectures by Ratzinger on the Eucharist, Lotz on Eros and Agape, Malatesta on I John, Tilliette on faith and knowledge in the German Romantics. These teachers calmly shared their Christian wisdom, with no noise of ideological conflict that I could pick up. Sadly, largely as a result of ideological pressures, the “Greg”, by all accounts, is no longer what it used to be. The extraordinary treatment meted out to of one of its best theologians, the late Jacques Dupuis, is hardly likely to reverse the decline. We can hope that a Pope-theologian will do something to restore the theological culture of Rome to its highest levels.

By its tone the encyclical conveys the message that the Church is more than an ideological battleground, and that what unites all parties lies deeper than what may divide them. Benedict is writing now from the upper reaches of orthodoxy, no longer obsessing about the fine print. The ideal of eros disciplined and purified, opening out onto philia and agape is one Catholics are hardly likely to disagree on, even if these categories and this neat way of arranging them are hardly the most persuasive method of speaking of love today. Such unity between the "orthodox" and the "dissidents" on fundamental matters could greatly relativize the oppositions that are acerbated when the two sides engage in mutual demonization.

Curran and Küng, in showing less concern for personal hurt than for the welfare of the Church, avoid making the great tactical error of providing the heresy-hunters with a simple target for demonization. Without Luther, the Church would not have become so rigid a fortress of orthodoxy in the sixteenth century; without the scarecrow of Modernism it would not have entered the theological fortress of the pre-conciliar decades. Curran’s warmth toward the encyclical is likely to be more resented by conservatives than a frank rejection of it would have been; he provided even more enthusiasm than they were able to muster, countering any perception there might be that the Pope was “their man.”

Interviewed along with Curran, Tablet correspondent Rocco Palmo, in what may be another wishful projection, talks of “the Nixon Goes to China papacy.” Without his orthodox reputation any changes Benedict may make would have been difficult for ecclesiastical conservatives to accept. “Going into the election, Joseph Ratzinger was their dream candidate. Well, now he’s the pope. And his program has not been what either the far left flank or the far right flank of the Church expected on Day One. So it’s been a great moment for Catholics to really stand back and think about the nature of the church, about the nature of Catholicism in terms of the Christian world.” He sees in the encyclical a “common ground initiative,” to use the language of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. “He wants to work with people from where they’re at, and not look at them for what they’re not… It’s really an approach that these days is more affiliated with the Catholic Left. Again, this is very counter-intuitive of this pope.”
Some conservatives, perhaps masking a sense of disappointment, hail the document as a step toward the crackdown they expect, a strategic setting out of the principles on which the Pope can now proceed to root out “contraception Catholics” and other undesirables. One conservative Catholic blogger celebrated the election of Benedict XVI by posting a shot from Apocalypse Now, with the caption, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning. It smells like VICTORY!” Yet the Vatican can hardly be overjoyed by support from those who are quick to disagree with its views on capital punishment, torture and the Iraq War.

On the other end of the spectrum, the expectation that papal rigidity and one-sidedness would set off some kind of self-deconstruction of the Vatican outlook also seems doomed to disappointment. A centrist consolidation is perhaps best challenged by arguments for an enlargement of that centre, in a Catholicism making room for a greater variety of tolerated opinions and innovative practices. The encyclical does set out basic principles, on which a sexual ethics can be defended as necessary to protect our capacity to love. Moral theologians generally share that concern and those principles. The more the values at stake are clarified, the more it should be possible for dialogue and consensus to prevail over needlessly acerbated quarrels. In placing the central emphasis not on a biologistic interpretation of natural law but on the dynamic of love, Benedict may have shifted the basis of discussion in a more helpful direction.


The consolidation of the centre fends off extremism on the right, but it also curbs adventurous innovation on the left. Few would now write in the style of the 1968 theologian par excellence, Michel de Certeau (see J. Moingt’s sketch in JMJ 58.2). In fact some scholars opine that his heterodoxy is self-evident, others that he had ceased to be a Christian. The ease with which such judgements are proferred shows how far Catholicism and the Christian world as a whole has swung back to the centre. Here is a sample of de Certeau’s writing from 1973:

“Paradoxically, the importance taken by religions in Western discourse is the measure of their progressive effacement from actual social life. The more one talks about them, the less one lives by them. Religious languages are still close enough to our society to furnish it still with a useful lexicon of signs, but distant enough to express henceforth something quite other than the faith whence they derive… The remains of vanishing church institutions designate the new questions of contemporary culture. Little by little they become fables of another history than that of which they speak. They have this role because of a theoretical vacuum… The fact that it is so often impossible to address ethical and philosophical questions in contemporary thought except by evoking them with religious metaphors points to a pressing task: a fundamental reflection proportioned to the actual organization of contemporary societies.” (La faiblesse de croire, Seuil, 1987, p. 255)

Benedict’s idea of theology is very far from this call for a reinvention of Christianity on its ruins. A dance with all the currents of postmodernity is not what he desires, but rather a clarification of the tradition of faith over against relativizing and destabilizing influences. He does not believe that the classical terms of Christian discourse are that far from contemporary social reality, or that they are picked up in a folklorized way by the thousands who listen to his sermons and addresses. Indeed it would be hard for the simple faithful to bear the rather disconsolate landscape of de Certeau’s theology. The vast majority of Catholics are happy to have their historical identity securely restored, and not to be bothered by innovative theological questions or dialogues. The very uncontroversiality of the encyclical bolsters this effect, assuring a display of Catholic unity in belief that carries its own momentum.

Speaking to the CDF on February 10, 2006, Benedict again stressed that “Jesus Christ is the Truth made Flesh… All other truths are fragments of the Truth that He is and that leads back to Him… Without knowledge of the truth freedom is distorted and isolated, and is reduced to sterile will.” Referring to “the centrality of the Catholic faith, in its authentic expression,” he warned: “when the perception of this centrality diminishes, the fabric of ecclesial life also loses its original vivacity and is damaged, decaying into a form of sterile activism or deteriorating into mere worldly political cunning.” Constant insistence on the centrality of the centre could become a very stifling kind of rhetoric, breeding leaden conformism.

The centre is by no means a harmless place. It continues to require repression of thinkers who are perceived as left-of-centre, such as our  esteemed colleague Juan Masia Clavel (see his essays in JMJ 56.1, 4; 57.1, 3), who according to El Pais (Jan. 29, 2006) has had his career at the Universidad Comillas terminated two months short of official retirement, due to pressure from Cardinal Trujillo of the Pontifical Council for the Family and Cardinal Rouco of Madrid. This also means that Masia will not be able to offer his post-retirement services to the University, another contribution to the vast brain drain afflicting Catholic theology. The reason for the dismissal is his “taking of positions, spoken and written, on certain themes of bioethics,” without further clarification. The following remarks from a 2004 article, reprinted in Tertulias de Bioetica (Conversations on Bioethics, Santander: Sal Terrae, 2006; Imprimatur withdrawn), are cited by El Pais: “Coming from the Japanese world, I am surprised by the misunderstandings on ethics and on Church and Society in our country. For example, the case – half comic, half anachronistic – of the debate on condoms; one hardly knows whether to laugh or to weep. Need they be a problem, when used not only to prevent infections, but as a common contraceptive preventing an unwanted pregnancy or an abortion? Serious moral theology has long overcome this false problem. Even if a Roman dicastery says the contrary, or the assessors of an episcopal conference, or those who redact a speech for the Pope, one can dissent in the Church from fidelity to that same Church. The question is not one of faith or morals or sin, but one of common sense, responsibility and good humour.”

Another sign of this centralism is the imposition of tighter control on the interreligious events organized by the Franciscans at Assisi, which seem likely to be discontinued. The centre can hold, and hold tight. Hans Küng suggests that the Pope can avoid performative contradiction only by working to make church structures more reflective of gospel justice and charity. Questions also remain as to whether the CDF model of orthodoxy is the one that best matches today the claims of Christian truth.


Papal history offers another intertext for the encyclical. Everything Benedict says is studied for signs of discontinuity with his predecessor. Others find a resemblance to the Paul VI. But the traditionalism of Benedict’s conception of papacy awakens older associations, even with Renaissance paintings of Popes wearing the chamauro as we now learn the Santaesque headgear he wore in December is called. After the activism of John Paul II the placid pace of Benedict is relaxing. We anticipate a peaceful, settled pontificate, without startling departures to left or right.

The idea that elderly popes are necessarily gentle is not supported by the historical record, as Hubert Jedin recounts in Kirche des Glaubens, Kirche der Geschichte (Freiburg, 1966, I, 293-304). John XXII reigned from seventy-two to ninety years of age (1316-1334), with amazing energy and irresistible authority, and with the tenacious stubbornness of the elderly; Paul III reigned from sixty-six to eighty-one (1534-1549) and became the principal papal architect of the Counter-Reformation by courageously convoking and preparing the Council of Trent; Leo XIII reigned from sixty-eight to ninety-three (1878-1903) and gave a modern face to the Papacy in his strong encyclicals; John XXIII reigned from seventy-six to eighty-one (1958-1963) and, again through bravely summoning a Council, radically changed the face of the Church. Whether Benedict will show the preternatural energy or prophetic daring of these predecessors remains to be seen. So far, the strongest note struck by his pontificate has been one of quiet consolidation.

Libération reports that Italian Vaticanists are disappointed with the document, which they see as confirming a certain ineptitude of the new pontificate. The text is an anodyne homily, not a charter, not one of those encyclicals that will be referred back to for decades to come. It may be that, without instincts for practical engagement with the machinery of church governance, the Pope has settled into a caretaker role, above the fray. But is there a fray? The Catholic Church seems to be in a state of low vitality, needing inspiring leadership and a new vision, which the recycling of rather old-fashioned theological thoughts cannot provide.

This, too, may be wishful Schadenfreude. The Pope’s style may betoken a romantic loyalty to historical Europe, but he sees himself not as a stage play character but as a teacher, and he has drawn multitudes who are happy to learn from him. Alberto Melloni comments: “The pope wants to get to the essentials. He wants to be listened to. It’s clarity he’s after, not stardom” (The Japan Times, Feb. 1, 2006). A teaching Pope, even if he does nothing else than teach, fulfils the major function of the Papacy, especially if his teaching is characterized by crystalline clarity.


Much has been made of the fact that the first non-scriptural quotation in the encyclical comes from Nietzsche: “The tendency to avoid the word eros, together with the new vision of love expressed through the word agape, clearly point to something new and distinct about the Christian understanding of love. In the critique of Christianity which began with the Enlightenment and grew progressively more radical, this new element was seen as something thoroughly negative. According to Friedrich Nietzsche, Christianity had poisoned eros, which for its part, while not completely succumbing, gradually degenerated into vice (Beyond Good and Evil, 4.168). Here the German philosopher was expressing a widely-held perception: doesn't the Church, with all her commandments and prohibitions, turn to bitterness the most precious thing in life? Doesn't she blow the whistle just when the joy which is the Creator's gift offers us a happiness which is itself a certain foretaste of the Divine?” (par. 3). When writing the encyclical in a mountain setting last summer, Benedict must have thought of his compatriot Nietzsche, the Alpine philosopher par excellence. The Pope chides Nietzsche gently. Perhaps we can see here a gesture of reconciliation, of recognition, a willingness to take on board what is true in the Nietszchean critique.

The modern humor of “blow the whistle” is an invention of the English translator; the German refers to putting up warning signs (Verbotstafeln). Here we note another intertextual layer, in the interplay between the different versions of the encyclical: the official Latin text was composed on the basis of an Italian translation from the German original, and the Vatican website also offers the text in English, French and Spanish. The Nietzschean aphorism reads: “Christendom gave Eros poison to drink: -- he did not die thereof, but degenerated, to vice”. (Das Christentum gab dem Eros Gift zu trinken: -- er starb zwar nicht daran, aber entartete, zum Laster.) “Completely succumbing” and “gradually” are neither in Nietzsche nor in the German text of the encyclical, which resumes Nietzsche’s own words, casting the verbs in the subjunctive, to indicate that they express an opinion: “Das Christentum — meinte Friedrich Nietzsche — habe dem Eros Gift zu trinken gegeben; er sei zwar nicht daran gestorben, aber zum Laster entartet.” Had the statement been reproduced directly it might have clashed too violently with the context.

Does the papal comment quite catch the point of the aphorism? If we historicize what Nietzsche is saying, we might think of how prostitutes and prostitution were stigmatized in the nineteenth century. Also the poisoning of eros was far more severe in the past than it is now, when Christianity has been greatly liberalized by the impact of Freudianism, modern literature and the “sexual revolution”, so that we no longer ever remember the morose Augustinian outlook of fifty years ago, which inhibited any natural acceptance of sex, even within marriage. The poisoning of eros had less to do with curbing sexual behavior than with mixing into sexual desire a constant consciousness of guilt, in a manner likely to induce neurosis. Many pastors today are ready to see in this a tradition of spiritual abuse for which they are ready to offer apologies.

Nietzsche’s comment has a sociological and cultural character, and deplores the lost innocence of the Greco-Roman world, in which the sense of sin (expressed by Seneca for example) was not focussed excessively on sex, and in which sex, even when expressed in sordid or disordered ways, brought at most ridicule and shame, but not the acute characterization as “vice” that it acquired in Christendom. In short, the Christian method of exterminating sexual disorders misfired, creating a worse situation than existed previously. When the Christian missions brought these methods to Asia and Latin America, setting up the Inquisition in Peru, Chile, Goa and Manila – with sexual transgressors among its victims – , did they succeed again only in casting a pall of corrosive guilt over people’s sexual lives, undermining the natural values and regulatory mechanisms of the local cultures?

To link Nietzsche’s comment to Enlightenment critiques of Christianity may miss the fact that it also has Christian antecedents in muted murmuring against repression throughout the centuries of Christendom. It would be interesting to have full history of this pagan resistance. The quite orthodox Chaucer allows the Wife of Bath to give it voice: “Alas, alas, that ever love was sin!” A sixteenth century Benedictine poet, Barthélemy de Loches, asks: “Why did you create women and forbid intercourse with them beyond the bond of two and the yoke of matrimony? You are more generous to the beasts, whom you bind by no law,” only to dismiss this as a self-refuting sophistry (L. Febvre, Amour sacré, amour profane, Gallimard, 1996, p. 204). Fifteenth-century Papal Rome was a riot of courtesans, concubines and common-law wives. The peasantry even of intensely Catholic countries took clerical instruction with a grain of salt, as in the ribald eighteenth-century Gaelic poem, The Midnight Court. The German peasantry, too, were the despair of their Lutheran pastors on that score. In general, the rebellion against strict sexual ethics can hardly be seen as coming from external secular agencies, but has always been brewing within Christianity itself.

Nietzsche may be the anti-Christian thinker who has implanted himself most insidiously in Christian consciousness, but his predecessor Ludwig Feuerbach had a far more intimate acquaintance with the discourse of theology, which he was able to analyze with a serene common sense not to be found in the over-strained utterance of Nietzsche or his theological friend Franz Overbeck. Feuerbach’s monograph on Pierre Bayle begins with a swashbuckling attack on Christian dualism of flesh and spirit that anticipates Nietzsche: “Christendom – to be well distinguished from the teaching of Christ – associated to the inevitable evils other evils that in themselves are superfluous, to the necessary and immanent battles other transcendent and soul-destroying battles, to bodily pains spiritual pains, to natural contraries unnatural contraries – the cleavage of God and world, heaven and earth, grace and nature, faith and reason”. The Pope wants to overcome any dualism of Eros and Agape and warmly celebrates physical love (within marriage) with no trace of the Augustinian notion that something sinful always attaches to it and no insistence on the superiority of virginity to marriage. He is showing that Christian love, properly understood, is a form of being true to the earth, nature and reason, as well as a gift of heaven, grace and faith. He concedes to Feuerbach and Nietzsche that anti-body tendencies always existed in Christianity, and he takes up Nietzschean-sounding language about “Man’s great ‘yes’ to the body” (par. 5). Curran comments: “In the traditional understanding of eros and agape, eros was the human way of loving, and agape was the divine way of loving. I was fearful that he might have downplayed eros a bit. But he didn’t – he even puts it in God, something that had not been done in the past by many people in this area.”

We who trade in literature may feel that the encyclical does not do justice to the variety of human love and desire. Composed in German, the text does not draw on the rich heritage of German poetry since Goethe, perhaps the foremost repertoire of love-language in the modern world. The Pope reaches further back, to an ancient sacral experience, that he seems to discern as well in the “neo-pagan” culture of today: “The Greeks – not unlike other cultures – considered eros principally as a kind of intoxication, the overpowering of reason by a ‘divine madness’ which tears man away from his finite existence and enables him, in the very process of being overwhelmed by divine power, to experience supreme happiness. All other powers in heaven and on earth thus appear secondary: ‘Omnia vincit amor’ says Virgil in the Bucolics – love conquers all – and he adds: ‘et nos cedamus amori’ – let us, too, yield to love. In the religions, this attitude found expression in fertility cults” (par. 4). There is a tendency here to amalgamate quite different things under a global notion of a “counterfeit divinization of eros.”

In any case, “an intoxicated and undisciplined eros, then, is not an ascent in ‘ecstasy’ towards the Divine, but a fall, a degradation of man” (par. 4). “Eros tends to rise ‘in ecstasy’ towards the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves; yet for this very reason it calls for a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing” (par. 5). I wonder how relevant this sacral tradition is to contemporary experience of desire and love. The hedonistic frenzy of the modern world could be seen religiously as a sort of idolatry, but to most people the idea of eros as a divine force will seem recondite. Moreover, the conception of ascending eros is a Platonic construct, bound to a certain history and culture, and it puzzles even scholars today; it is hardly the most intelligible language in which to explain to contemporary people the significance of their love-lives. The Pope may be attempting to make the old words eros, philia and agape do too much work. A third aspect that seems somewhat ill-adjusted to contemporary awareness is his language of body and soul: “Man is a being made up of body and soul. Man is truly himself when his body and soul are intimately united; the challenge of eros can be said to be truly overcome when this unification is achieved” (par. 5). The lame professorial joke about Descartes and Gassendi, representing the opposed sides of soul-body dualism, hardly rejoins contemporary sensibility. The Church’s doctrine that each individual soul is immediately created by God at the moment of conception perhaps blocks access to more “integrated” ways of connecting the flesh and the spirit.


Curran comments: “The two central arguments are truly astonishing: that God loves us with eros – that the Bible is a love story: ‘The universal principle of creation – the logos, primordial reason – is at the same time a lover with all the passion of a true love.’ And that in the final wash-up (this is the second argument) because God’s love is a forgiving love, God’s love triumphs over God’s justice. What a blessed relief!” Yet the insistence on love can itself distort the Gospel if it is played off against the justice of the Kingdom, but also if it dilutes the drama of salvation by faith. Protestants instinctively fear that to say we are saved by love can easily turn into a doctrine that we are saved by our own virtue rather than by the gratuitous acceptance of God.

In a comment on his encyclical, the Pope said: “The cosmic excursion in which Dante wants to involve the reader in his Divine Comedy ends before the everlasting light that is God himself, before that light which at the same time is the love “which moves the sun and the other stars” … God, infinite light, whose incommensurable mystery had been intuited by the Greek philosopher, this God has a human face and – we can add – a human heart… God’s eros is not only a primordial cosmic force, it is love that has created man and that bends before him, as the Good Samaritan bent before the wounded man.” The encyclical states: “God’s eros for man is also totally agape. This is not only because it is bestowed in a completely gratuitous manner, without any previous merit, but also because it is love which forgives... It is so great that it turns God against himself, his love against his justice.” None of this is new to Catholic reared on devotion to the Sacred Heart. The dialectic of love versus justice may be an echo of Luther’s dialectic of the alien work of God – to condemn – and the proper work of God – to forgive.

Perhaps the most substantial theological discussion of love in recent times in that of the Swedish Lutheran Bishop Anders Nygren in the 1930s, translated into English as Agape and Eros (London, 1953). Building on Luther’s and Melanchthon’s suspicion of the Platonic element in Christianity, Nygren opposes biblical Agape to Platonic Eros. The Platonic philosopher, Proclus, seems already to confuse the two: “There is a plain departure from the old scale of values. The higher has begun to interest itself in what is lower and to approach it with a view to helping and saving it… Eros has changed its direction. It is no longer merely an ascending love, but also and primarily a love that descends” (pp. 569-70). The projection of eros onto God by Pseudo-Dionysius is particularly deplored: “the fundamental Neoplatonism is but scantily covered with an exceedingly thin Christian veneer” (p. 576). “The fundamental idea in Pseudo-Dionysius’ thought is that adopted from Proclus, of a unitary force of Eros permeating the whole universe and holding all things together. Eros is not limited to a particular sphere, but is found at all levels, from the highest to the lowest. It is found in the Deity Himself” (p. 578). Nygren abhors Pseudo-Dionysius’s identification of eros and agape in God; Benedict celebrates it. Nygren also sees the synthesis of the two loves in Augustinian caritas as an impure and instable hybrid. “The problem involved in Mediaeval Caritas theory is obscured if the Caritas of Augustine and Dante is taken to be a simple interpretation of the New Testament idea of love” (p. 620). Again the Pope’s unproblematic appeal to Dante is at the antipodes to this.

The Pope is clearly thinking of Nygren when he says that “these distinctions have often been radicalized to the point of establishing a clear antithesis between them: descending, oblative love – agape – would be typically Christian, while on the other hand ascending, possessive or covetous love – eros – would be typical of non-Christian, and particularly Greek culture. Were this antithesis to be taken to extremes, the essence of Christianity would be detached from the vital relations fundamental to human existence, and would become a world apart, admirable perhaps, but decisively cut off from the complex fabric of human life. Yet eros and agape – ascending love and descending love – can never be completely separated. The more the two, in their different aspects, find a proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love in general is realized” (par. 7).

The stark opposition of Agape and Eros was resisted even within Lutheranism, notably by Paul Tillich. In the Catholic world the synthesis of Agape and Eros was defended by M. C. D’Arcy in The Mind and Heart of Love (London, 1962). Jean-Luc Marion, like the Pope, seeks “to comprehend love in its concept” (Le phénomène érotique, Paris, 2003, p. 9) – something a poet or a novelist is unable to do. He offers phenomenological explorations that seek to give concrete verification to the Catholic unity between eros and agape, first tracing the infernal course of self-centred desire and at the end opening up the celestial prospects of human love as it opens onto divine. Serious thinking about love, Marion claims, is marked by “the effort to keep undivided as long as possible the unique tunic of love” (p. 15). He even tends to erase the distinction between eros and agape altogether: “Univocal, love can be spoken of only in one way (Univoque l’amour ne se dit qu’en un sens unique)” (ib.). It would be interesting to know if Marion’s difficult essay was among the works consulted by Benedict in composing the encyclical, as might be suggested by the sketches of a phenomenology of ecstasy that it proposes.


“Eros directs man towards marriage, to a bond which is unique and definitive; thus, and only thus, does it fulfil its deepest purpose” (par. 11). This is at the antipodes to Denis de Rougemont’s idea (Love in the Western World, Princeton UP, 1983) that erotic love, as developed from the Courtly Love of the Troubadours to the ecstasies of Wagner’s Tristan, is a kind of Manichean death-cult irreconcilably opposed to the values of marriage. The Pope finds the best antidote to such a morose view in the Song of Songs, which integrates into married love all the intensity of eros.

He reveals a modern attitude to the interpretation of Scripture when he writes: “According to the interpretation generally held today, the poems contained in this book were originally love-songs, perhaps intended for a Jewish wedding feast and meant to exalt conjugal love” (par. 6). This ties up with current exegesis of the Song, for instance Marvin Pope’s in the Anchor Bible series. It pulls the mat from under those who glorify the tradition of allegorical exegesis, and it spells a clear break with the many fundamentalist literalists (often converts to Catholicism) who ignore the critical study of Scripture as recommended in the documents of the Pontifical Biblical Commission (notably, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, 1994).

While Benedict celebrates erotic love, as the biblical text does, with not the faintest shadow of Augustinian suspicion, the idea that erotic love itself is a pathway to God is not one that has been frankly accepted in the Song of Songs commentatorial tradition. For Origen, the “carnal love coming from Satan” is opposed to “love of the spirit having its origin in God” (Patr. Gr. 23.1121). Benedict is drawing perhaps on a remark in a 1944 letter from prison of his saintly compatriot Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “I would in fact like to read it as an earthly love-song. That is perhaps the best ‘Christological’ exegesis.” Bonhoeffer held to a Chalcedonian unity in polyphonic distinction of the earthly, secular, human sphere and the divine “cantus firmus.” That is very close to the spirit of the Antiochene Fathers such as Theodore of Mopsuestia and Theodoret. Indeed, it runs the risk of falling foul of ancient anathemas, for Theodore’s secular exegesis of the Song was condemned at Chalcedon.

Benedict does justify the reception of the originally earthly love-songs as referring to God’s covenantal love for Israel or to Christ’s love for the Church. He even seeks an indication of the interplay of eros and agape in the two words used for love in the Hebrew text, though in reality they are used alternately and interchangeably: “dodim, a plural form suggesting a love that is still insecure, indeterminate and searching. This comes to be replaced by the word ahabà, which the Greek version of the Old Testament translates with the similar-sounding agape, which, as we have seen, becomes the typical expression for the biblical notion of love. By contrast with an indeterminate, “searching” love, this word expresses the experience of a love which involves a real discovery of the other, moving beyond the selfish character that prevailed earlier. Love now becomes concern and care for the other” (par. 6).

This leads to a rather strained account of how the Song of Songs became a mystical text: “God is the absolute and ultimate source of all being; but this universal principle of creation – the Logos, primordial reason – is at the same time a lover with all the passion of a true love. Eros is thus supremely ennobled, yet at the same time it is so purified as to become one with agape. We can thus see how the reception of the Song of Songs in the canon of sacred Scripture was soon explained by the idea that these love songs ultimately describe God's relation to man and man's relation to God.” This “union with God” is contrasted with “a sinking in the nameless ocean of the Divine” (par. 10).

Heavy stress on the centrality of truth can inhibit freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and academic freedom. Heavy stress on the right way of loving can inhibit the freedom of the emotional life, creating a prudent regulation of anaemic sentiments, instead of the passions that are so fully on display in the Gospels: thirst for justice, prophetic anger, compassion, tenderness. In the context of a globalizing, comprehensive, centrist mapping of the economy of Christian love, Benedict offers many signs of encouragement to the life of feeling, by letting the Song of Songs speak in its own uninhibited style without nervous theological interpretation. He attempts to speak from the heart as well as the head, and to show the harmony of both in Christian love. Is he a blind man speaking of colours, or does he really touch the springs of human love and desire, as many of his readers feel he does, or are we again faced with a Rorschach test?


Blogger Andrew Sullivan notes another dimension of the encyclical’s intertext:

“The Symposium, the source of Benedict's description of eros, treats same-sex love interchangeably with opposite-sex love. Benedict must know this. He’s a deeply learned man. Why rest his own treatment on sources that clearly embrace gay love? Beats me. He even cites Virgil’s Eclogues, a deeply homoerotic work. Part of me thinks that Benedict’s anti-gay posture is just orthodoxy, made more reactionary by the social revolution of our time. And then I wonder if he doesn’t have an esoteric meaning as well. Nothing in this encyclical couldn’t apply to same-sex eros.”

It was from the Eclogues that André Gide drew the title of his once scandalous Corydon (1923). Another reference to a homoerotic classic occurs in Cardinal Ratzinger’s 2002 message to Communione e Liberazione:

“Certainly, the consciousness that beauty has something to do with pain was also present in the Greek world. For example, let us take Plato’s Phaedrus. Plato contemplates the encounter with beauty as the salutary emotional shock that makes man leave his shell and sparks his “enthusiasm” by attracting him to what is other than himself. Man, says Plato, has lost the original perfection that was conceived for him. He is now perennially searching for the healing primitive form. Nostalgia and longing impel him to pursue the quest; beauty prevents him from being content with just daily life. It causes him to suffer. In a Platonic sense, we could say that the arrow of nostalgia pierces man, wounds him and in this way gives him wings, lifts him upwards toward the transcendent.”

Eros for the Greeks, as for us, was primarily male-female desire, but the philosophy of Eros as opening us to the transcendent was developed in a homoerotic milieu, in response to the sublimity of male beauty. This historical origin leaves an indelible mark on the discourse, as suggested by the naturalness with which Benedict reaches for quotations from Plato and Virgil, who are also the two classical authors that have left the deepest mark on Christian tradition. History has made it impossible to celebrate Eros without in the same breath celebrating homoerotic ardor. The literature of the philosophy of Eros (not to be confused with the literature of erotic love, which is as old as literature itself) first becomes primarily heterosexual in the Song of Songs commentaries in the line of Origen.
Some expected the Pope to confine Eros to heterosexuals, leaving homosexuals to specialize in Agape, or at best Philia. But while the text highlights male-female love as normative, it does not formulate any such exclusion. Indeed, Richard J. Neuhaus has been muttering about an alleged “truce of 2005” on homosexuality which he sees as just as fatal an error as Paul VI’s alleged “truce of 1968” on contraception (see for a severe critique of Neuhaus’s bullying discourse).

If gay-friendly notes, intended to offer reassurance to potentially alienated members of the flock, are inscribed on the margins of papal discourse, how is this compatible with the very negative tenor of the 1986 document from the same pen? The same question has often been asked about the contrast between Plato’s Laws and his Phaedrus. The clash is softened by the now widely accepted reinterpretation of the Church’s teaching, according to which it is not homosexual affectivity that is considered “objectively disordered,” but merely the positive inclination to acts judged objectively immoral. One could even promote a chaste enthusiasm for beauty as an antidote to lust and as actually stilling sensual passion. Eros in its core is holy, opening us to God, and betrays itself if it becomes an impure passion. All of this is in the best Platonic tradition, though whether it rejoins the realities of ordinary life may remain dubious.


It is surprising to find a Pope speak so warmly and sympathetically of the Emperor Julian: “Julian witnessed the assassination of his father, brother and other family members by the guards of the imperial palace; rightly or wrongly, he blamed this brutal act on the Emperor Constantius, who passed himself off as an outstanding Christian. The Christian faith was thus definitively discredited in his eyes. Upon becoming emperor, Julian decided to restore paganism, the ancient Roman religion, while reforming it in the hope of making it the driving force behind the empire. In this project he was amply inspired by Christianity. He established a hierarchy of metropolitans and priests who were to foster love of God and neighbour. In one of his letters, he wrote that the sole aspect of Christianity which had impressed him was the Church’s charitable activity” (par. 24). This passage is in stark contrast to the invective traditionally poured on Julian’s head. Some older apologists claimed that Christians protected Julian from the brutality of Constantius, so that his apostasy incurred the odium of ingratitude as well. Sympathy for Julian was a speciality of critics of Christianity such as Edward Gibbon or Algernon Swinburne. Gibbon deplores Christian unfairness to his hero: “The triumph of the party which he deserted and opposed has fixed a stain of infamy on the name of Julian; and the unsuccessful apostate has been overwhelmed with a torrent of pious invectives, of which the signal was given by the sonorous trumpet of Gregory Nazianzen” (Decline and Fall, ch. 23).

To recognize a sense for charity in the most famous ancient enemy of Christianity indicates an ecumenical flexibility also seen in the Pope’s warm support for Hans Küng`s Global Ethic. Benedict always has the last word in his discussions with those he censures, yet on the way to the last word he allows their views to be expressed and empathizes with what is true and valuable in them. Such capacious, inclusive vision would no doubt be seen by him as the best antidote to the relativism he deplores.


The second half of the encyclical focusses on love of neighbour: “Only my readiness to encounter my neighbour and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well.” “No longer is it a question, then, of a ‘commandment’ imposed from without and calling for the impossible, but rather of a freely-bestowed experience of love from within” (par. 18).

The Church’s role in regard to social justice is described in a rather stilted way, as that of purifying reason by the light of faith. “The State must inevitably face the question of how justice can be achieved here and now. But this presupposes an even more radical question: what is justice? The problem is one of practical reason; but if reason is to be exercised properly, it must undergo constant purification, since it can never be completely free of the danger of a certain ethical blindness caused by the dazzling effect of power and special interests” (par. 28). Here we need to recall the intertext constituted by the history of the relations between faith and reason, particularly in the Enlightenment. That history shows that it has often been reason that served to purify faith, and to awaken the Church to a sense of its social responsibilities.

“Faith liberates reason from its blind spots and therefore helps it to be ever more fully itself. Faith enables reason to do its work more effectively and to see its proper object more clearly. This is where Catholic social doctrine has its place” (par. 28). “The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper.”

The encyclical insists on the relevance of the message that “God is love” for a world in which religion is often dragooned into the service of hate. But in one respect it must be asked whether the encyclical enacts that concrete consultation of “the signs of the times” urged by Vatican II. The text refers to this idea, to be sure: “Concern for our neighbour transcends the confines of national communities and has increasingly broadened its horizon to the whole world. The Second Vatican Council rightly observed that ‘among the signs of our times, one particularly worthy of note is a growing, inescapable sense of solidarity between all peoples.’” But amid the rather stale polemic against Marxism, there is very little in the way of concrete commentary on the present ills of global society. Recall that for Vatican II such commentary would not a mere topical allusion, an icing on the cake, but an essential context of effective preaching of the Good News. Benedict refers to Populorum Progressio, but gives no indication that he will take up the left-leaning spirit of that prophetic document.

Questions may be asked about the way Mother Teresa is held up as a model of church action in the world. Charity alone, without political alertness and a concrete programme of social change, can end up in collusion with structures of injustice and inequality. Surely there is an unnecessary dichotomy in the following statement: “With regard to the personnel who carry out the Church's charitable activity on the practical level, the essential has already been said: they must not be inspired by ideologies aimed at improving the world, but should rather be guided by the faith which works through love (cf. Gal 5:6)” (par. 33). But what if these ideologies are inseparable from perception of injustice and thirst for justice?

“It is very important that the Church's charitable activity maintains all of its splendor and does not become just another form of social assistance” (par. 31). Is this a real danger? “Christian charitable activity must be independent of parties and ideologies… The modern age, particularly from the nineteenth century on, has been dominated by various versions of a philosophy of progress whose most radical form is Marxism.” The opposition of Christianity and the modern ideal of progress is a disturbing note. As a faith oriented to the future, to the coming of God’s Kingdom into the world, Christianity cannot disassociate itself from the Enlightenment ideal of progress and from efforts to change the world for the better. Cardinal Martini called on the Church to preserve what was valid in Marxism. Benedict adverts only to its worst perversions: “People of the present are sacrificed to the moloch of the future – a future whose effective realization is at best doubtful” (par. 31).

I think we would be well advised to heed the following comments of Irish moral theologian Paul Surlis. He notes that the encyclical “seems directed towards a re-privatizing of Catholic faith and a shift of focus in Catholic Social Teaching away from ‘action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world,’ which the Synod of Bishops described as a ‘constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation’ (Justice in the World, 1971). Benedict’s emphasis on charity and his rejection of involvement by believers in efforts for systemic change as Marxist are of a piece with his hostility to liberation theology when he and Pope John Paul II helped undermine social justice struggles in Latin America in the 1980’s. Benedict’s position falsifies also the dangerous social message of Jesus for which he was tortured and politically assassinated.”

Writing from Zambia, Peter Henriot SJ has a different take, finding that the encyclical “pushes forward the more radical aspects of the Church’s social teaching,” confirming that “an integrated social activism is essential to the mission of the Church. For charity that attends only to alleviating suffering without attempting to do away with it is only partial love art best and destructive love at worst – something open to the Marxist critique that Benedict soundly rejects.” “Benedict’s view is in continuity with the major emphasis of that great social teaching document from the 1971 Synod of Bishops, Justice in the World: ‘Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world’ is constitutive (that is, central, essential, necessary, indispensable) to the preaching of the Good News.” Henriot suggests that a revised version of the encyclical might quote the Synod on the inseparability of love and justice: “Love implies an absolute demand for justice… Justice attains its inner fullness only in love.” Which of these readings is the “correct” one is a question that is rendered otiose by the boredom-factor coming into play in these passages of the encyclical. No doubt the Rorschach effect will allow both readings.


A little noticed “intertext” of the encyclical is its reference to the question of theodicy brought to the forefront of people’s minds by the tsunami of Dec. 26, 2004. The Pope offers a surprisingly low-key interpretation of the role of prayer: “The Christian who prays does not claim to be able to change God’s plans or correct what he has foreseen. Rather, he seeks an encounter with the Father of Jesus Christ, asking God to be present with the consolation of the Spirit to him and his work” (par. 37). This statement seems to mark a cool theological distance from popular piety, which storms heaven with petitionary prayer. Between a deus otiosus indifferent to the sufferings of mortals and a cruel God who wills them, the Pope presents a God who is trustworthy even when incomprehensible: “An authentically religious attitude prevents man from presuming to judge God, accusing him of allowing poverty and failing to have compassion for his creatures… It is Saint Augustine who gives us faith's answer to our sufferings: ‘Si comprehendis, non est Deus’ – ‘if you understand him, he is not God…’ Even in their bewilderment and failure to understand the world around them, Christians…remain unshakably certain that God is our Father and loves us” (par. 38). Remarkable in this is an almost Calvinist sense of the sovereignty of God, a rather violent application of a classical dictum of apophatic theology to the problem of suffering, and a dramatic portrait of the believer holding on in blind trust when God is silent and the world baffling.

As a document that is likely to be much used in preaching, spiritual reading and discussion groups, Deus Caritas Est is blessedly free from “controversial” notes that could foment yet more quarrelling among Catholics. Let us remember however, as Peter Steinfels points out, that its basic message concerns the most fundamental controversy of all: Is the universe the work of blind, potentially malevolent forces, or of divine love? “To make love loved,” to assure people that their love for one another links them to the divine and is an image of the divine love, is a teaching gesture that draws on the core experience of twentieth century Catholicism and gives an encouraging direction for the years ahead. The document does not come closely enough to grips with the signs of the times, either in terms of the political and social agonies or in terms of the contemporary culture of love. For this the voice of the Pope will need to be supplemented by the countless other voices of the Church, in a spirit of serene and loving discussion.

The Theological Significance of Jean-Luc Marion's Thought

The name "Jean-Luc Marion" conjures up a distinctive, vibrant, and rather enigmatic presence in the world of contemporary Catholic thought. Born in 1946, and a graduate of the Ecole Normale Superieure, he has risen in the French academic ranks by dint of tireless energy, ambition, and brilliance, and is now a professor at the Sorbonne and the University of Chicago and the director of the prestigious collection "Epimethee" at Presses Universitaires de France . The mainstay of his academic career is a long series of contributions to Descartes scholarship, including ‘Sur l'ontologie grise de Descartes’ (PUF 1975; 1981; 1993; 2000), ‘Sur la theologie blanche de Descartes’ (PUF 1981, 1991), ‘Sur le prisme metaphysique de Descartes’ (PUF 1986; ET ‘On Descartes’ Metaphysical Prism’, University of Chicago Press, 1999), and the two volumes of Questions cartesiennes (PUF 1991; 1996; ‘Cartesian Questions’, University of Chicago Press, 1999). These are in the classic tradition of French history of philosophy, a tradition graced by such names as Emile Brehier, Etienne Gilson, Henri Gouhier, Martial Gueroult, Pierre Aubenque, and Marion's Sorbonne contemporaries Alain de Libera and Jean-Francois Courtine, and his disciples Olivier Boulnois and Vincent Carraud.

   There is a special wit about Marion's discussions, even in handling the dustiest Cartesian themes. This is perhaps partly due to the influence of his early teacher, Heidegger's friend Jean Beaufret, who recounts the history of philosophy with humour and profundity in his four-volume collection ‘Dialogue avec Heidegger’ (Editions de Minuit). A striking feature of Marion's Descartes studies is the frequency with which theological notes are sounded. Descartes emerges as the one who imprisoned God in metaphysics, in the sense of onto-theo-logy, that is, the systematic explanation of the totality of beings in terms of their common being (onto-logy) and the supreme being (theo-logy) which grounds them and is its own ground (causa sui). But Descartes was unhappy with this imprisonment of God, for from the start of his quest he felt himself addressed by another, and in his meditation on the idea of the infinite he found a luminous and self-authenticating presence of God to the mind. Marion notes how the sovereign freedom of God is championed in Descartes' thesis that God creates the "eternal truths" such as the principle of non-contradiction.

The Divine Distance
   In a second series of books, Marion dramatically reveals his theological passion: ‘L'idole et la distance’ (Grasset, 1977; Poche, 1991; ‘The Idol and Distance’, Fordham UP, 2001); ‘Dieu sans l'Etre’ (Fayard, 1982; PUF 1991; ‘God Without Being’, University of Chicago Press, 1991), ‘Prolegomenes a la charite’ (La Difference, 1986; ‘Prolegomena to Charity’, Fordham UP, 2002), ‘La Croisee du visible’ (La Difference, 1991; PUF, 1996). ‘L’Idole et la distance’, published amid the short-lived "nouvelle philosophie" movement, unmasks the idols that have replaced God in modern philosophy. It is these idols, not the biblical God, that Nietzsche referred to when he said that "God is dead." Marion uncovers the authentic divine distance, as it manifests itself in the writings of Nietzsche, Holderlin and, above all, Pseudo-Dionysius, or Denys as Marion calls him. The figure of the Cross, which emerges obscurely as the mark of the distance and nearness of God in the tragic careers of Nietzsche and Holderlin, is exhibited with perfect lucidity by Denys. It is a great X that crosses out the God of metaphysics, shattering the conceptual idols that shatter faith and distract it from its goal. The God of metaphysics is a mirror in which we see only our own face, but the Cross is an icon in which God is not the object of a gaze but addresses his gaze and his call to us. The "distance" of God is a discreet withdrawal which marks both the transcendent holiness or God and his loving nearness to us. It is not a concept, but a phenomenon. It is not established by argument, but simply allowed to show itself.

   To know the divine distance requires a conversion on the part of the subject, just as for Heidegger the phenomenality of being begins to appear only when we convert ourselves to meditative thinking. Only the subject who is summoned, arrested, by the divine distance can speak well of it. It is a lordly "I" who constructs the God of metaphysics, but it is a humbled "me" who is summoned into being by the call of the biblical God. Human beings are "me" before they are "I", and it is only in a second step that they assume their god-given identity by responding: "Here I am, Lord". Marion's phenomenology of selfhood chimes with the displacement or decentering of the self effected in different styles by such thinkers as Levinas, Lacan and Derrida.

   The whole world exists in the play of the divine distance, as given and for-given from a source which is pure gratuity. Everything that Heidegger writes about the play of the ontological difference between Being and beings, World and things, and everything that Derrida writes about the dissemination and differance writ into the texture of being, is subsumed and surpassed in the theological vision of being as divine gift. In those concluding claims Marion went too far, too fast. Heideggerians objected that the subsumption of Heidegger was based on a doxographic account of his thought rather than a patient dwelling with its texture, and Derrida rejected Marion's interpretation as a tissue of misunderstandings. The task of articulating together the biblical phenomenology of creation and the Heideggerian phenomenology of worldhood is a daunting one, and Marion's later writings approach it in subtler fashion.

God Without Being
   In ‘Dieu sans l'etre’, Marion pursues the argument against idolatry, finding that Heidegger, despite his critique of the God of modern metaphysics, himself subordinates God to Being. When Marion first presented this accusation, in the context of a colloquium organized by Richard Kearney at the Irish College, Paris, on June 24, 1979, his warning against accepting Heidegger as an innocent "ancilla theologiae" was a salutary and well-timed one; though it elicited a spirited response from Maria Villela-Petit, who deplored the over-use of the notion of idolatry as an all-purpose ideological weapon (see ‘Heidegger et la question de Dieu’ [Grasset, 1980]). Marion's attendant claim, that God should be thought of purely as love, with no reference to being, struck me then as an unhelpful exaggeration, and the subsequent fortunes of this thesis confirm my misgivings. The biblical God, Marion declares, is not limited by the categories of Being. God's true nature is to love. Love insists on giving, not on being, and the true character of reality is to be divine gift, not self-sufficient being. God is not bound by being, he does not "have to be" (GWB 44). At some point Marion crosses the line from a phenomenology of God's presence as love to an abstact juggling with the notions of love and being, drastically simplifying the entire history of Christian language by ascribing a unique adequacy to the category of love and writing off the equally hallowed language of being, which goes back to the Septuagint translation of Exodus 3:14. This language of being needs to be sifted and overcome in view of its phenomenological basis. Its peremptory dismissal as idolatrous does not make for a fecund retrieval of Christian tradition. But even when Marion is one-sided, he does give hints for directions of questioning which can be taken up and developed in a more historically grounded style.

   Just as Heidegger writes "Being" with a St. Andrew's cross barring it, in order to show that the authentic phenomenality of being shatters the objectifying notions of being that block access to it, so Marion writes "God" crossed out, to show that the phenomenality of the biblical God, revealed above all in the Cross, is in constant contradiction with the idol-building proclivities of the human mind, of which metaphysics is one of the most impressive products.Dieu sans l'Etre was taken as an attack on Thomism, for which "being" is the first of the divine names after the Tetragrammaton. On this point Marion has backtracked a little. He now claims that "metaphysics", properly speaking, means only the modern onto-theo-logy that begins with Descartes, and that when Thomas Aquinas speaks of God as "being itself subsisting" (ipsum esse subsistens) he is close to Denys, for this God cannot be brought under the categories of metaphysics but exceeds them at every point. Apart from the implausibility of a definition of metaphysics that does not include Aristotle, I find it disappointing that Marion has not attempted to think through the tensions between his phenomenological approach to God and Thomas's metaphysical one. A phenomenological overcoming of the objectifying metaphysical horizons of Thomism remains one of the great tasks of contemporary theology.

   A Protestant reader of ‘God Without Being’ remarked to me that in his emphasis on transubstantiation and episcopal authority Marion seems to relapse into the very idolatry he deplores. For Marion the presence of Christ in the Eucharist – "the violent and insurpassable fact of the eucharistic body" (GWB 179) – thwarts the tendency to self-idolatry which he detects in modern Christian communities. Similarly the acceptance of the bishop as the theologian par excellence and the source whence theologians draw their authority suspends the self-idolatry of theological speculation: "only the bishop merits, in the full sense, the title of theologian" (153). Marion is right to resist the reduction of eucharistic presence to the self-presence of the community and the reduction of theology to an autonomous speculation no longer in the service of ecclesial faith. But in the process he does scant justice to some painfully won insights of the Church of Vatican II. Christ's presence in the Eucharist cannot be abstracted from the totality of the meal event, including the hearing of the Word and the enactment of community. The specific charism of theologians cannot be reduced to that of the episcopacy, and its autonomy must be respected for the health of the whole ecclesial body. Marion would claim that the eucharist and the bishop as he conceives them have iconic status, but sometimes it is not clear in practice how one differentiates between iconodulia and idolatry.

   Whatever holes one may pick in Marion's specifically theological writings, they remain of immense significance as opening up a platform for dialogue between Christian tradition and contemporary culture. There is an energy in his thinking and argumentation which one rarely finds in contemporary theology. His concern for the "matter itself" (die Sache selbst) of Christian revelation gives this thinking a stamp of witness, challenging both to philosophers who have written off the transcendent and to theologians who have allowed their language to become stale and predictable.
Marion's Theological Situation
   The deepest influence on Marion's theology comes from Hans Urs von Balthasar, with whom Marion collaborated as editor of the French edition of Communio. But in his concern with returning to the authentic phenomena of New Testament revelation Marion sometimes sounds like Kierkegaard or Barth, and his use of Heidegger for this purpose gives his theologizing a fresh impact despite its conservative background. Liberal theologians of the Concilium school tend to distrust Marion, who was a close confidant of Cardinal Lustiger. They point out that Marion has not gone through the mill of a formal theological training, and that his unfamiliarity with scriptural studies gives his account of the biblical phenomena a narrow and arbitrary cast. Conservative theologians, on the other hand, are alarmed by the novelty of his language and the potential dangers of talking of "God without being." Marion notes that his theses "were better received by the philosophers and academics than by the theologians and believers" (GWB, xix). Even in his theological works, Marion's way of thinking is that of a philosopher. The patient assessment of historical sources and authorities, which gives theology its densely positive character, is not to be found here. When Marion takes up historical authorities, it is to substantiate some phenomenological insight of his own, rather than to probe fully the hermeneutical problems.

   At the moment Marion is being courted by two schools of postmodern theology or philosophy of religion, the deconstructionist wing led by John D. Caputo and the "radical orthodoxy" of John Milbank. He is likely to disappoint both, because he does not take postmodernism seriously. Indeed Milbank's colleague Graham Ward accuses Marion of cutting off theological questions from the philosophical problematic of postmodernity, thus creating an unnaturally rigid and undialogal theology. The purism of Marion's cult of the phenomena, a purism both Heideggerian and Barthian, is at a great remove from the postmodern concern with the relativity and pluralism of historical, cultural and linguistic conditioning. There is little trace of relativity or pluralism in Marion's thought, and he views involvement with the human sciences such as sociology or psychoanalysis as a menial business, beneath the dignity of the philosopher or philosophical theologian. This purism limits his receptivity to the implications of the critical-historical study of Scripture. The result is that the phenomena themselves are brought into view in an excessively narrow focus. Central to the revelation of the biblical God are the notions of justice and liberation, yet these seem quite absent from Marion's phenomenology of the divine distance and its supreme icon, Christ crucified. Marion does not talk much about sinfulness and righteousness, preferring the sunnier world of the Greek Fathers to the Augustinian tradition that perhaps has produced more headaches than holiness. Thus Marion's Pascal is the phenomenologist of the vanity of the world, the glory of God, and the "order of charity", not a brooder on guilt. Luther, again, is remembered as signalling the opposition between metaphysical and biblical ways of thinking rather than for his dialectic of Law and Gospel, sin and justification.
The Primacy of Givenness
   In addition to his Cartesian and theological roles, Marion has presented his own original philosophy in two very rich, though rather sprawling works, ‘Reduction et donation’ (PUF, 1989; ‘Reduction and Givenness’, Northwestern UP, 1998) and ‘Etant donne’ (PUF, 1997; ‘Being Given’, Stanford UP, 2002), to which may be added ‘De Surcroit’ (PUF 2001; ‘In Excess’, Fordham UP, 2002) and ‘Le Phenomene Erotique’ (Grasset, 2003). His aim here is to complete the work of Husserl and Heidegger, by re-establishing the discipline of phenomemology on a new foundation. Whereas Husserl's is a phenomenology of the data of consciousness and Heidegger's one of the being of beings as lit up in the openness of human being-in-the-world, Marion pushes through the horizons of consciousness and of being to reach what lies at their basis : givenness itself, the fact that of every phenomenon whatever the first thing that must be said is that it is "given." Givenness is a more ultimate reality than being itself.

   To make this claims more concrete, Marion considers the everyday activity of gift-giving. As the parables of Jesus show (and the same idea is found in Mahayana Buddhism), in an authentic gift the being of giver, gift and recipient disappears from view. The gracious event of giving and receiving a gift is ruined if the giver insists on the substantial value of the gift, on his own merit as giver, and on the obligation incurred by the recipient. Usually gift-giving becomes caught up in a network of quasi-contractual obligations. Jacques Derrida argues that these render pure gift-giving impossible. The gift is something intrinsically aporetic; its conditions of possibility are its conditions of impossibility. Marion agrees that this is so if we remain on the plane of philosophical reason, but Christ reveals and enacts a true gift-giving, the disinterestedness of agape. Perhaps Marion is too much of a purist here too. The Gospel seems cheerfully to accept that all human giving will be circumscribed by economic considerations - and "do ut des" (give that you may receive) arguments are part of Christian rhetoric from the start (despite Marion's efforts to whisk them away). Paul's appeals for contributions to the Jerusalem collection use such arguments: "your abundance at the present time should supply their want so that their abundance may supply your want" (2 Cor 8:14). But God's giving, and Christ's self-giving are an exception to this rule. Wonder of gratitude at God's gift inspires Christians to give freely - but not to examine scrupulously whether their giving is really pure.

   Buddhists talk of the virtue of giving as being perfected when there is no longer a substantive giver, gift, or recipient. There we are dealing with an ontology of emptiness, where fixated illusions of substantiality are the great obstacle to spiritual freedom. In the Gospel, the call to be an uncalculating giver is set in the context of the eschatological openness to the Kingdom that transcends worldly economies.

Rethinking God
   Derrida views negative theology as an inverted form of onto-theo-logy. The negation of all positive attributes of God or the One merely allows a super-essential absolute to be all the more radically affirmed. This is a triumph of the logocentric metaphysics of presence that Derrida abhors. In a lecture titled "Au nom", delivered at Villanova University in 1997, Marion contests this claim, pointing out that negative theology is a leap away from both kataphatic and apophatic discourse to a relating to God in faith, a sort of pragmatic attuning to the divine words and leadings. Affirmation and negation have helped to clear the space for this reaching out to God, but it lies beyond both. It is not bogged down in a pingpong game between kataphasis and apophasis, nor is it a higher level kataphasis, a hyper-affirmation, but it is "other than" affirmation and negation, as a lived relating to the God who makes himself concretely known. Thus conceived, negative theology provides a good platform for dialogue with Buddhist philosophy, notably Madhyamika.

   It is not metaphysics but communitarian immanentism that is accused of missing the gift-dimension. The setting of the present in the liturgical temporality of anamnesis and eschatological expectation - nothing particularly new about this. True, he follows Heidegger in overcoming the metaphysical idolatry of the here and now.

   What Marion says about God is of great value for interreligious dialogue, for it frees God from rigid definitions in terms of being or substance and urges us to rethink God as distance, a unifying withdrawal, as gift, as call, as love. None of these notions are fuzzy or vague in Marion. Each receives a thorough phenomenological clarification.
The Border between Philosophy and Theology
   Marion's effort to think the phenomenality of all phenomena in the key of givenness has been attacked as crypto-theological, notably by the late Dominique Janicaud in ‘Le Tournant theologique de la phenomenologie francaise’ (L'Eclat, 1991) and ‘La Phenomenologie eclatee’ (L'Eclat, 1998) and by Jacques Derrida in ‘Psyche (Galilee, 1987) and ‘Donner le temps’ (Galilee, 1991). Marion himself claims that his strictly philosophical works rigorously exclude any content coming from Christian revelation. Even when his thought is guided by possibilities lit up by revelation, he claims to uncover these possibilities in a strictly philosophical study of phenomenality as such. Robin Horner argues ‘the threads of exclusion regularly unravel in Marion's work’ (‘Rethinking God as Gift’, Fordham UP). If they do, it must be for essential reasons, for Marion is very keen to keep them separate. His philosophy is self-sufficient, depending on purely phenomenological argument, but at the same time drawing on Scripture as a source of phenomenological hypotheses and showing that phenomenology cannot exclude these as possibilities. Thus it is at once an autonomous "separated philosophy" and a Christian "philosophy with presuppositions" (to use the terms of Gery Provoust, ‘Thomas d'Aquin et les thomismes’, Cerf, 1996). His theology is also self-sufficient, in a Barthian way; it is a clarification of the biblical phenomena which `has no need of the thinking of being' (Heidegger). It is thus unfair to accuse him of giving a dogmatic religious answer to philosophical questions. For Marion phenomenology stumbles on a basic aporia which only theology can resolve. Here again the critics suspect a theological orientation of the philosophical quest, despite Marion's disclaimers: "All this is sewn with an immaculate thread," remarks Janicaud ironically.

Marion prefers to translate `donation' into English as `givenness'. This is to ward off the accusation of surreptitiously introducing theological connotations. Donation as act is not God's act. ‘The possibility of a giver' never appears in Marion's philosophy – the giver in his theology (God) probably does not have so direct a reference to his philosophy as is often assumed. The discussion of the call in ‘Reduction et donation’ (p. 295) comes close to overstepping the border between philosophy and theology, but Marion claims that he has no intention of `invoking revealed authority to enlarge the field of phenomenology'. An abstracted call-structure, suggested by the Bible, enters phenomenology, and this entry is prepared by the opening up of a dimension ‘before’ being; but the construction of this dimension may depend on an ironing out of the diversity of Heidegger's being-language and Husserl's modes of givenness. This biblical call and gift structure is developed much more concretely in Marion's theological writings, but in principle he respects scrupulously the distinction of the two genres. ‘Reduction et donation’ is not about `the relation between phenomenology and theology' but like ‘Etant donne’ it attempts to construct pure phenomenology with some help from theological ideas (which are not imported as such into the phenomenology) – the call-structure is constituted as a phenomenological datum, independently of bibical revelation. Marion's ultimate goal is theological, and he uses phenomenology as a prooemium to theology, but nonetheless he carefully marks the autonomy of phenomenology as first philosophy, to which he believes his theory of donation offer a new foundation. The philosophical objection to his monolithic call-structure should begin by querying the equally monolithic accounts of givenness, being, nothingness etc. And there the trail leads back to Heidegger.

Heidegger would say that the phenomenology of being is falsified when we see it as given by some other (then it is objectified as ens or esse creatum). We can only say `there is being' - `Es gibt Sein' - and `it is itself' (Es ist Es selbst). Marion and Von Balthasar try to make the Ereignis in which being is given some sort of reflection of God giving creatures their being, but this an unconvincing metabasis eis allo genos, a slip from phenomenological to metaphysical discourse. Marion strains to bring the Ereignis and la distance into phenomenological accord, but usually the result is to void the Ereignis of its phenomenological substantiality, so that the givenness of beings becomes a futile vanity unless brought back to their situation of being accorded by la distance. A tenser pluralism between the Greek experience of being and the deliveries of biblical faith is erased in Marion's discourse; it is a charter for long and subtle dialogue (continuing in a new key the Greco-Hebraic dialogue running through the last two millennia), as Graham Ward has suggested. Marion's imposition of donation as the supreme transcendental reality in philosophy (at the expense of Heideggerian attentiveness to the modalities of the presencing of being in beings) is matched in his theology by the imposition of a few biblical models, given a neoplatonic twist (here donation, call and saturated phenomenon recur, only now not as transcendental structures but as concretely instantiated in the donation of Christ, the call of God's biblical word and the saturated phenomenon of biblical theophany). A more dialectical and pluralistic interplay of philosophical and theological discourses, apprehended in their full historical reach, would spoil the neatness and beauty of Marion’s construction, but it would allow Being to be Being and revelation to be revelation in all their respective pluralism of perspectives. Marion never allows the biblical vision of reality to be challenged or even supplemented by the philosophical tradition of meditation on being. At best he treats the insights of Heidegger as “the spoils of the Egyptians”. They find their proper place only within the biblical vision. If he brought the same stance to bear on other traditions, such as Buddhism, it would certainly make for a new vitality in interreligious thought. But a more open-ended and questing approache, in which the biblical perspective seeks correction and enrichment from its encounter with the other, might provide a more solid and comprehensive basis for a lasting dialogue.

Originally published in The Japan Mission Journal 53, 1999, and slightly revised. See also “The Gift: A Trojan Horse in the Citadel of Phenomenology?” in Ian Leask and Eoin Cassidy, ed. Givenness and God: Questions of Jean-Luc Marion, Fordham UP, 2005.

Incarnation and Evolution

In a continuation of his response to my essay, "Demystifying the Incarnation" Apolonio Latar III takes up three issues: the motive of the Incarnation, Rahner's theory of the "anonymous Christian," and the status of metaphysics and of dogma using metaphysical language. The first two of these themes were exhaustively discussed back in the 1960s. The endless protraction of theses discussions without any fundamental renewal of perspective is a sign of the stagnancy of Catholic theology today. I suggest that a renewed understanding of what is meant by "the Incarnation" can dislodge these old debates and put the issues in a new light. Here I look at the first of the issues A. L. raises.

A.L. thinks that I am "a Scotist when it comes to the discussion of the Incarnation, that even without sin the Incarnation would have happened as the divine consummation of human destiny." My understanding is that the divine Logos or Wisdom is always present in creation, filling all minds with its light. This presence takes a specific twist in the Christ-event, the divine presence becomes more intimately associated with the fleshly texture of human history. How? The prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, speaking out of the heritage of Israel's wisdom, lights up God's presence in creation and preaches the eschatological fulfillment of God's purposes in the coming Kingdom of God, already breaking into the world in this preaching and the signs attending it. Jesus seals his message by his death. The early Christians recognize that God has spoken in Jesus; they do so not in mere reflection or speculation but under the impact of an undeniable revelational event, attesting the ongoing presence of Christ in their midst, an event called the exaltation or resurrection of Christ, and associated with an unprecedented outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Looking back they see that the ultimate meaning or identity of Jesus is most adequately designated as Incarnation, as the speaking of God's eternal Word into human history.

A particular trait of this revelation is Jesus' obedience unto death. It brings human death into concord with divine glory (as in the Hebrew scriptures the glory of God fills the temple at the hour of sacrifice). Jesus, through his graced obedience to divine purpose, provides the key to a more intimate conjunction between human life (human history with its struggle for justice and freedom) and the creative working of God. Hence he is acclaimed in the language available at the time as "Son of Man," "Messiah," "Son of God," and eventually, in John, as "Logos incarnate."

Human beings are distinguished among the products of evolution by rationality of a high order and also by moral freedom. The latter entails the freedom to do evil things, and one must suppose that this freedom was exercised by the human species from early in its career (as the book of Genesis indicates in mythical language). To say, "if man had not sinned" is to invoke an impossible hypothesis. While sin is a free act, the idea that beings born into the context of primeval violence that was the cradle of human evolution would heed unfailingly the murmurings of their elementary moral conscience, rather than falling into "knowledge of good and evil" and learning from their mistakes, is unrealistic.
Despite sin, the divine presence presses on humanity, and the development of the higher religions is a fruit of this. Israel in particular deepens the consciousness of sin and of the need of divine salvation, confiding its historical struggle to God as no other nation did, and imaging the divine in the specific style of ethical monotheism. The figure of Jesus meets the long-felt need for reconciliation between divine holiness and human sinfulness. God is seen as accepting the death of Jesus, as he accepts the deaths of the righteous in the Old Testament, and as accepting all humans who identify themselves with Jesus in his death. A new platform of reconciliation is provided (Romans 5.1-2).

The richer, fuller presence of the divine all this entails is not an ad hoc solution to the contingent problem of sin. It is a realization of divine presence in accord with the specific conditions of human evolution. If humanity had evolved in some other style or if some other species had involved instead, this presence would no doubt have taken a corresponding different form. The movement of evolution is toward union with the divine, as the constant pressure of the ideals of truth, goodness, justice, love, as well as the deliveries of mystical consciousness indicate. The divine draws the world into existence from nothing and draws it to ever higher realizations of spiritual life. In concrete, the Christ-event is a threshold in that evolution, as Teilhard and Rahner indicated. There is no clear opposition between the Incarnation as an event of salvation and the Incarnation as an event of "divinization"; the two aspects are intimately conjoined, in the picture I have sketched; both Scripture and the Fathers provide ample hints for developing this picture.

A. L. points out that "the infancy narratives tell us that mercy is the reason for the Incarnation. It is because God wanted to save man from his sins that He became man". In fact the Matthean and Lukan infancy narratives do not speak of God becoming man. The Messiah is indeed "Emmanuel, which is translated 'God is with us'" (Mt 1.23) but that is not at all the same thing as "God becoming man". The infancy narratives specify the reasons of the birth of the Messiah in a very Jewish perspective. The Kingdom as announced in the preaching of Jesus is not much in evidence; instead we hear of the Davidic kingdom. Jesus is to be "King of the Jews" (Mt 2.2), "to shepherd thy people Israel" (Mt 2.6). The phrase, "he will save his people from their sins" (Mt 1.21) refers to the people of Israel.

In Luke, Gabriel tells Mary that Jesus "will be called Son of the Most High and that God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and his rule will have no end (Lk 1.32-33). The Magnificat celebrates God's fidelity and mercy to Israel. The Benedictus of Zachariah similarly refers to the people of Israel, the house of David, salvation from our enemies, the oath God swore to Abraham, the Baptist giving God's people (Israel) knowledge of salvation in forgiveness of their sins. The angel brings the shepherds "good news to all the people" of Israel (2.10): "a savior is born to you in the city of David" (2.11); their song of "peace on earth to men of good will" (2.14) may not refer to the whole human race. Simeon awaits "the consolation of Israel" (2.25) and greets in the infant the salvation of God which He has "prepared in the sight of all the nations, a light unto revelation of peoples and glory of Thy people Israel" (2.31-2), and one "set for the rise and fall of many in Israel and as a sign contradicted" (2.34). In all of this the Messiah is primarily for Israel but is also a light for the nations as in Isaiah 2, etc.

(Mark has, "the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mk 10.45). This may not go back to the historical Jesus, who may not have called himself the Son of Man, but it could suggest that he did indeed see himself as offering his life in expiation for the sins of his people, as his very name "Yahweh saves" suggests.)

There is nothing in the infancy gospels about Incarnation, God becoming man etc. John 1.1-18 introduces the concept of incarnation. Here the motive for the Word entering history in the flesh is in continuity with the Word's illumination of human minds since the beginning of history. Salvation seems to play second fiddle to this. The Word become flesh to make us children of God (1.12-13), to dwell among us and reveal his glory, bringing the fullness of grace and truth (1.14, 16-17) and to reveal the Father whom no one has ever seen (1.18). In John's Gospel as a whole the atoning character of the death of Jesus, chiefly noted in recalls of older material, as in the Baptist's "behold the lamb of God" in Jn 1, is secondary to its status as a revelation of the glory of God. This suits a "Scotist" or Teilhardian vision of the Incarnation quite well.

The theme of salvation thus seems linked with the humanity of Jesus as Messiah; the broader vision of the incarnation as the ultimate significance of all this seems to focus less on salvation than on the fuller manifestation of divine glory in the realm of flesh.


The Fathers do not confine the Incarnation to a mission of mercy. They also speak of it as divinizing man. This gives ample material to modern reflection along "Scotist" lines. As Jeremy Moiser admits, "The Fathers, particularly the Greeks, had often put as a motive of the incarnation the deification or adoption of man, almost, it would seem, apart from the fact of sin" (,%20vol.%2037/April/1973%20April%20A%20Moiser%20web.htm).

A. L adduces Irenaeus: "If the flesh were not in a position to be saved, the Word of God would in no wise have become flesh" (Against Heresies, bk. 5 ch. 14). But elsewhere Irenaeus speaks as if the Incarnation were planned from the beginning: "Hence also was Adam himself termed by Paul 'the figure of Him that was to come,' (Romans 3:14) because the Word, the Maker of all things, had formed beforehand for Himself the future dispensation of the human race, connected with the Son of God; God having predestined that the first man should be of an animal nature, with this view, that he might be saved by the spiritual One. For inasmuch as He had a pre-existence as a saving Being, it was necessary that what might be saved should also be called into existence, in order that the Being who saves should not exist in vain" (Bk. III, ch. 22.3). Note the very subordinationist Christology here. Again, "And so fair and good was this Paradise, that the Word of God continually resorted thither, and walked and talked with the man, figuring beforehand the things that should be in the future, (namely) that He should dwell with him and talk with him, and should be with men, teaching them righteousness" (The Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, 12).

Origen writes: "If there had never been sin, there would have been no need for the Son of God to be made the Lamb (of sacrifice), and he would not have needed to be slaughtered in the flesh; he would have remained what he was in the beginning, God the Word" (HomNum 24.1). But Origen is notoriously shy of stressing Christ's flesh and sees the central saving event as the coming of the Word into our minds; his enfleshment is sometimes presented as just as prop for the weak.

Athanasius says: "For He was made man that we might be made God; and He manifested Himself by a body that we might receive the idea of the unseen Father; and He endured the insolence of men that we might inherit immortality" (De Inc. 54). Here saving humanity from death and corruption (conferring aphtharsia and athanasia, incorruption and immortality) is only one side of the incarnational economy; the other is to give us knowledge of God; both privileges combined amount to "divinization." In commenting on Prov. 8.22, "The Lord created me," Athanasius argues that it does not mean that the Son was created but that his humanity was created for the sake or our salvation: "His becoming man would not have taken place, had not the need of men become a cause" (Contra Arianos II 56); this is only an obiter dictum.

A.L. quotes Chrysostom: "He took on Him our flesh, only for Love to man, that He might have mercy upon us. For neither is there any other cause of the economy, but this alone." The Son then is not a creature. Chrysostom's remark occurs in a homily on Hebrews, focusing on Christ's role as High Priest; it need not be taken a strict doctrine of exclusion of all other aspects of the Incarnation.

A. L. quotes Leo the Great, who in a Christmas sermon says that the Incarnation was due to "the condescension of Pity not the failing of Power"; Christ came "not to succumb to our faults but to heal them" (Hom. 22). Again, there is no stress that this was the exclusive reason of the Incarnation.

Aquinas says::

The truth of this question is known only to God. We can know what depends solely on the divine will only insofar as we can glean some knowledge from the writings of the saints to whom God has revealed his purpose. The canon of Scripture and the quotations from the Fathers mentioned above (Augustine, Gregory) assign one cause to the incarnation: man's redemption from the slavery of sin. Certain theologians say, with great probability, that if man had not sinned, the Son of God would not have become man. This is stated explicitly by St. Leo and St. Augustine . . . Other theologians, however, hold that the purpose of the incarnation of the Son of God was not only freedom from sin, but also the exaltation of human nature, and the consummation of the whole universe. It follows that even had there been no sin, the incarnation would have taken place for these other reasons. This opinion is equally probable. (III Sent., d. 1, q. 1, a. 3)

In a late text, Aquinas says:

But the whole question is not of any great importance, because if a thing happens it is because God ordered it, and we do not know what he would have ordered if there had been no sin. Nevertheless, the authorities are pretty clear that if man had not sinned there would have been no incarnation, and I inkling more to this view. (In I Tim, lect. 4).

For Suarez, reports Moisel, "the incarnation has a double complete and adequate motive: manifestation of the perfection of the divine work and redemption of the human race. The former reason would have been sufficient on its own even if man had not sinned, but since sin it is so no longer. There is one divine decree from all eternity, foreseeing sin and embracing inseparably the remedy for sin and the completion of creation. This theory introduces a hypothetical element into God's knowledge which is difficult (impossible?) to justify."

Moisel writes: "Redemption and incarnation are not intrinsically connected. But in the historical order, only one incarnation is known and only one Christ. Christ crucified realizes the conflux of all creation.
"Consider the following argument. Col. 1:26 states that Christ is the cause and end of everything. His task is to restore everything and bring it to perfection. The conflux of the universe is realized according to an ordered scheme which means subordination. Christ, head of the Church, recapitulates in himself all things because they are ordained to Christ the Church: 'He is the head of the body the Church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent' (Col. 1:18). Domination over creation exceeds, spatially speaking, domination over the Church, and Christ's first definition is thus Head of Creation. In other words, one cannot argue: Christ is head of the Church, and therefore head of the universe (as the Thomists do) but rather the other way round. On biblical principles, creation comes before redemption.
"The position just described is untenable, because spatial domination is not primacy. Christ exercises dominion over the universe as head of the Church. The Church is at once part of the universe and its influxive center. The Church is Christ's body and as such makes him present to the world in a visible fashion. Cf. Eph. 1:22-23: 'And God has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the Church which is his Body, the fulness of him who fills all in all.'"

All of this strikes me as a heavy-handed reading of New Testament hymnody. The Jesus community are the cutting edge of God's incarnational presence and a "light to the nations" in that regard. But all people have access to God-consciousness and Christ-consciousness in some degree. The specific action of God in Jesus and the Church is a threshold towards the final consummation, so in an eschatological perspective one can say Christ is the head of creation because he is the head of the Church. But all this is rooted in the eternal divine wisdom, shown first in creation itself. Retrospective ecclesiasticization of this seems problematic. The religious wisdom of humanity may be oriented to the new stage brought in by Jesus and the Church, and in this sense make "anonymous Christians" of all who enjoy it. But it seems a short-circuit to say that this wisdom is invisibly mediated by the Christian church rather than simply accorded by God in his Word and Spirit to all. See my piece on "Buddhist Interpretation of Christian Truth" below.

Towards a Buddhist Interpretation of Christian Truth

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.

Vatican Warnings
   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. 

Ultimacy and Conventionality in Religious Experience

   To what extent is mystical experience shaped by language? To what extent does it touch on an absolute, immediately given, beyond the grasp of language? This is a tired old question, but we can perhaps renew it and make it fruitful by drawing on the Indian topos of the twofold truth (dva-satya), taken as a theory of how conventional historical religious languages can serve as vehicles for insight or revelation having the quality of ultimacy. I shall use 'ultimacy' freely here as a phenomenological term, meaning that which is recognized as supremely, undeniably, unsurpassably real. It does not have the metaphysical implication of terms such as 'absolute' or 'transcendent' nor does it have, as these do, the status of a unitary principle. It is more adjectival than substantive, in that it can attach to a great variety of experiences. Yet it is not merely subjective, but is recognized by the subject as irreducible bedrock reality. A question that will occupy us in the following pages is the degree to which not merely the conventional languages of religion, but even the ultimacy of which they are a vehicle, can be conceived of as a pluralistic, culturally contextual phenomenon.

Mâdhyamika Buddhism connects the lighting up of ultimate reality (paramârtha-satya) to the skillful deployment of a given conventional set-up (samvrti-satya): 'Without relying on the conventional (vyavahâram), the ultimate cannot be taught' (Nâgârjuna, Mûlamadhyamakakârikâ 24:10, trans. Garfield). The word samvrti has the connotations of something that covers, occlusion, a surface reality that occludes the true nature of things. The word vyavahâra refers to the conventional, pragmatic realities of everyday life. Conventional truth is a truth agreed on for practical purposes. All the realities of our world have a merely conventional existence; the ultimate truth about them is their emptiness; yet the truth of emptiness is realized only in constantly dismantling the delusions of substantiality to which the conventional world gives rise. The two-truths doctrine ‘establishes the ontological basis of Madhyamaka and at the same time its soteriological basis: to understand the two realities correctly means to know the world and its true essence, and this is the knowledge that brings redemption… Every other theme is related to this, directly or indirectly’ (Tauscher, 3).

As Mâdhyamika reflection advances, the ultimate truth becomes increasingly elusive, so that in the end we seem left with little more than a skillful play with conventions. The two-truths theory is a logical and historical quagmire. Within Mâdhyamika, the most authoritative and influential accounts are those of the Tibetan Gelugpa, as formulated by their founder Tsong Khapa (1357-1419); yet even within the Gelugpa there is a great variety of interpretations of its meaning (see Newland). Some Buddhists have a ‘sliding-scale’ conception of the two truths, what is the ultimate truth at one stage of analysis turns out to be a conventional truth at a higher stage (see Dunne). It is remarkable that an entire religious culture should center on so rarefied a matter, and the relevance of this to Christian concerns may seem remote. Still, I believe that immersion in two-truths theory can free up our thinking on the historical and textual embeddedness of faith, doctrine and mystical experience. It may indeed abolish the entire idea of 'mystical experience,' which is all too redolent of a fixated clinging to a reified ultimacy. The idea of 'the emptiness of emptiness' thwarts any tendency to cling to emptiness itself as a privileged object of a special experience, and sends us back instead to engagement in the world, an engagement that has become free, vital, and creative because emptied of fixations.

   In the present essay I shall not enter into any details of Buddhist debate, but merely allow a general sense of the interplay of the two truths to guide my reflections. I shall argue that the embeddedness of religious experience in a given historical, cultural, traditional, and linguistic context means that that experience cannot be treated as a pure delivery of ultimate reality. Certainly any attempt to formulate it as such is immediately compromised. Ultimacy can only be indicated obliquely by the torsions of a manifestly non-ultimate language. Even silence, situated at the end of a traversal of speech, is always located as a signifier within a certain cultural context: a world separates the silence of Vimalakîrti from that of the Pseudo-Dionysius. Ultimacy is encountered situationally, as confirmation and fulfillment of a pre-given language but also as revelation of its inadequacy. At the very point where the conventional web of religious discourse is most charged with a sense of the ultimate, it is also shown up in its thinness, almost to the point of breaking. Here the text will start using the negative terminology of ineffability or incomprehensibillity, or will burst into poetic metaphor or nonsensical paradox, mantras, glossolalia. In the past there was a certain security in such apophatic rhetoric, for the writer was securely situated in prayer before the divine incomprehensibility. Today our religious metaphors are more likely to have a spectral quality, as remnants and quotations from a historical repertory.

   Very interesting to the theologian are those figures, such as Plotinus and Augustine, who after experiencing a powerful encounter with ultimate reality turn back to the realm of conventional language, which they revise in light of the encounter. Mysticism thus impresses its mark on language. The comprehensive critical labors of the Neoplatonists or the Mâdhyamika thinkers are a clearing of the pathways of thought and language that lead to and from the breakthrough to ultimacy. These include the pathways of established religious tradition, Hellenic or Indian, now purged of representations that have become obstacles to insight, and given a relativized and more functional status. Today the movement of history brings breakthroughs to a simpler vision of what matters in religion, and these breakthroughs, though more of an existential than a mystical order, are our cues for reappropriating the radicality and clear-sightedness of the classic mystical texts. Reassessing conventions in light of ultimacy takes on today a historical depth. We measure the entire sweep of religious traditions by the orientation to ultimacy manifest in classic mystical texts, and in doing so we gain a new sense of the radical contingency and conventionality of religions as historically constituted. This allows us to acquire a free relation to the tradition, so that instead of being a prison that blocks out all sense of ultimacy, it becomes a repertory of skillful means (upâya) that can serve in varying manners to orient the religious quest to its ultimate goal.

   It might be objected that this critical enterprise can proceed on the basis of modern theological common sense and that there is no need to invoke the luxuries of mysticism. But if mysticism is really nothing more than a matter of seeing things as they are, and thus filling in the central piece in the puzzle of existence, then theology at its moments of highest lucidity may find itself rejoining the insights of those contemplatives who grasped most clearly the phenomena that are religion's concern. However, there is a more serious objection to harping on ultimacy and mystical breakthroughs -- namely, that it misses the point of the biblical revelation. If God has come to humanity, incarnately, in a generous outpouring of the Spirit, then mysticism and contemplation are no more than a registering of this reality, within the context of the total response to it constituted by the multi-faceted life of the people of God. To talk of the ultimate or of religious experience is to cut across the breadth and wealth of biblical language and lifestyle, intruding on them an alien and narrow concern. Philosophers of religion are quite likely to project a warped theology in their preoccupation with such matters as religious experience and mysticism. The theologian cannot in any case ignore the heritage of mystical texts, but he will bring to them critical discernment, even suspicion, as for example Luther did in esteeming Augustine and spewing out the Pseudo-Dionysius. Luther was able to read Augustine's contemplative texts as revealing an entire life-style, both individual and ecclesial; perhaps those of Dionysius could have been read in the same way if Luther had been attuned to the life-style of the Eastern Church. Perhaps one may say quite generally that mystical experience gains its meaning and validity only within the total context of the way of life that secretes it. The fleshliness of the biblical world is then not the exception but the rule. Even mystical purists such as Plotinus, if looked at closely, may be found to be engaged in wide-ranging communal praxis, within which the rare encounters with the One acquire their full significance.

   The cosy frequentation of approved classics is no doubt a narrow and old-fashioned approach to religious experience. But it can be argued that the enduring classics of religious articulation offer our best defence of sanity and rationality in the religious sphere, and that these qualities are even more important than mysticism at a time when civilization is threatened by religious irrationality. The classic status of certain contemplative breakthroughs in the history of religion, which realize in a ripe and illuminating form the spiritual potential of the tradition within which they arise, and in turn serve as the foundation for further developments of the tradition, has usually been secured by a correspondingly great literary text -- such as the Bhagavad-gîtâ, the Enneads, the Epistles of Paul, the Zen kôan-collections. As an object of study this can be more fruitful than any phenomena of real life, not only because of the vast historical reach of the classic text, but also because the textual inscription reveals that the mystical witness is involved with all the conventionalities of a given culture, and in addition exposes it to the various treacherous features of textuality rehearsed so dramatically by Jacques Derrida at one time: dissemination, citationality, iterability, and all the other dimensions of la différance.

   The achievement of the religious classics is that they succeed in disposing the resources of their cultural context toward the dimension of ultimacy, allowing it to react on that context with critical and illuminative force. A mystical text empties out conventional language before the ultimate, burns the language like straw, but in such a way that it then functions as a burning bush, indicating the contours of the numinous real by its stammerings and silences. This eloquent breakdown of the conventional before the ultimate is favored by cultural crisis or by a meeting of cultures, a fusion of horizons, in which conventional frameworks are enlarged and broken open. The traumata of the twentieth century have enabled artists to approximate to the dynamic of mystical expression: I venture to mention Anton Webern and Paul Celan. To read a mystical text one has to be attuned to the contemplative wavelength of its author; that is the reason why for most of us, most of the time, mystical texts are not the most attractive reading. Of course there are countless mystical texts that fail to communicate at all, either because they merely repeat the conventional spiritual jargon of their time or because they flounder helplessly in their effort to articulate the ineffable.

The Case of Augustine

   Though Augustine of Hippo was a very busy ecclesiastic and a very productive intellectual, his works are steeped in a steady contemplative awareness, which at times blossoms into direct testimony to experiential encounter with the divine. It was at the time of his conversion, in 386-7, that mystical aspirations gripped him most; his experiences of that time are written up in glowing colors in the Confessions (401), but the mystical does not retain the central place in his preoccupations. It had given him just enough light to illumine the great public mansion of his thought, without withdrawing him into an esoteric sphere. In contrast, Plotinus, whose writings kindled Augustine's mystical period, was single-minded in pursuit of direct encounter with the One. Porphyry tells us how 'that God appeared who has neither shape nor any intelligible form... To Plotinus "the goal ever near was shown": for his end and goal was to be united to, to approach the God who is over all things. Four times while I was with him [in Rome, 263-270 CE] he attained that goal, in an unspeakable actuality and not in potency only'. Porphyry himself 'drew near and was united' only once in his sixty-eight years (Porphyry, Life 23). Plotinus himself tells us: 'I have come to that supreme actuality, setting myself above all else in the realm of Intellect. Then after that rest in the divine, when I have come down from Intellect to discursive reasoning, am puzzled how I ever came down' (Enn. IV 8, 1). Plotinus's circle was a laboratory of the spirit, and in Milan Augustine frequented a circle modeled on it. But already in his own circle in Cassiciacum the wider world of the Church is shaping spirituality in a more homely, communal, down to earth manner (see O'Leary, 2001).

   A fusion, or mutual cracking open, of cultural horizons (Gadamer's Horizontverschmelzung) underlies the spiritual synthesis that Augustine wrought. The classical world and its values had entered a twilight zone of incertitude, intensified by the barbarian menace, whereas the Christian Church, having secured its basic dogmas, was crossing a new threshold of self-conscious lucidity. In Augustine's thought classical values are Christianized wholesale; most notably, the Platonic tradition of philosophical eros, which ascends to the ecstatic vision of Beauty and, beyond that, to a mystical contact with the One, is transformed through encounter and synthesis with the New Testament mysticism of the divine agape poured forth in our hearts as a gift of grace descending to our fleshly, historical world. The mutual transformation of the two horizons is not only philosophical, but is lived out in contemplative experience. Augustine had appropriated two languages, two cultures, which were already intersecting in previous Christian tradition. Milan in the 380's was the site of a repristination of both traditions. The Latin reception of Plotinus and Porphyry revealed an unsuspected spiritual majesty in Greek thought. The Latin appropriation of the spiritualizing, Origenian approach to Scripture, represented by Ambrose, made the biblical tradition equally fresh and exciting. Augustine steeped himself in these currents. His mystical experience is inconceivable apart from them, and represents his internalization of them, his appropriation of the existential possibilities they opened up. The traditions prepared the ground for his breakthrough to an ultimate level, and this in turn permitted him to retrieve the traditions with a lucid mastery which is not merely intellectual but is constantly referred to that encounter with ultimacy as to its foundation..

   Disentangling himself from Manicheanism, Augustine was plagued by dualistic and reified conceptions of the world of spirit. His confusion on this account had become a nagging koan. The words of Plotinus, like those of a perceptive Zen master, cut these knots and kindled an enlightened awareness:

Et inde admonitus redire ad memet ipsum intravi in intima mea duce te et potui, quoniam factus es adiutor meus (Confessions VII 16); 'And being thence admonished to return to myself, I entered even into my inward self, with you as my guide: and I was able, for you had become my Helper' (trans. Pusey, modified).

The taste of ultimacy here is also a taste of spiritual freedom. In Buddhist terms it is an experience of emptiness: his mind is emptied of the reified conceptions of self on which a deluded and superficial self-consciousness battened and he is freed to rejoin the pre-reflexive awareness that precedes the construction of that rather opaque object we call 'I' and 'me.' Consciousness, Sartre says, in words that resonate suggestively with Buddhist themes, is 'l'existant absolu à force d'inexistence' (Sartre, 26). This 'non-substantial absolute' (25) also resonates with Plotinus: 'He has nothing and is the Good by having nothing. But then if anyone adds anything at all to him, substance or intellect or beauty, he will deprive him of being the Good by the addition' (Enn. V 5, 13). Contemplative awareness is intrinsically empty of substantiality, empty of being. It opens up at the 'absolute near side' (Keiji Nishitani). It is a joyful unfolding of the light of the phenomena such that distinctions between subject and object do not arise. The self that clings to itself, that projects itself as a solid substance, then clings to objects, gives them substantiality too. The ego, as Freud and Lacan show, is a projection of our deep-rooted needs, an objectification of self that, by masquerading as the true subject, actually shelters us against true subjectivity and alienates us from our original empty freedom. Such an ego will cling also to fetishized objects in the world around it. But the self that has discovered its emptiness also lets objects go in their emptiness and abides in a state of pure experience in which subject and object have not arisen.

   Augustinian caritas opens up at this radical level; it is not, originally at least, an objectified psychic construct: 'to place interiority before one is necessarily to give it the weight of an object. It is as if it shut itself up, offering us only its external aspects... an interiority closed on itself' (Sartre, 66). However, it is true that caritas gives an interiorizing and spiritualizing inflection to biblical agape and is shaped and limited by a kind of Platonic self-containment. Lutheran scholars such as Anders Nygren have pointed to the task of finding the way back from this enclosure to the open horizons of agape. Caritas, for Augustine, was supreme reality, the inner light of love. Yet after centuries of caritas-thinking -- one could list, in the manner of Von Balthasar, figures such as Bernard, the Victorines, Dante, Petrarch, Pascal, Fénelon -- we can see that the regime of caritas is a product of cultural conditions, which could function within a medieval regime of truth as a useful convention for attunement to a gracious ultimacy, but which is less immediately functional within modern horizons of thought. Charity and grace are indeed ultimate and unconditioned realities, yet there is a specifically Augustinian staging of their emergence. Augustine's conventional world, with its notions of the human psyche, of temptation and sin, and its residual Platonist preoccupations and structures, belongs to a past epoch, so that we cannot fully assume it as coterminous with our own world. The style in which he figured the presence of the divine as gratia and caritas, is no longer ours. We must seek the ultimacy specific to our present conventional world, the specific way in which our world signals its limits, its emptiness. Here we sight a paradox of the intrication of ultimate and conventional in religious experience: Augustine broke through to the pneumatic immediacy which is the milieu in which one can begin to apprehend the divine, yet the ultimacy of this experience comes to us now shackled by the time-bound conventions of thought and language that once were its perfectly efficacious vehicle.

   Augustine's earliest references to the enlightenment he experienced in Milan on reading the libri Platonicorum (Contra Academicos II 5; De Beata Vita 4) are more nakedly Plotinian than the account in Confessions VII, without the rich biblical harmonies of the later text. Thus such expressions as quoniam factus es adiutor meus (Ps. 29:11) may refer less to the phenomenology of the original quasi-Plotinian experience than to a retrospective recognition of divine providence and grace at work in it. (For Plotinus's own sense of grace, see Sorabji, 171.) The borderline between experience and interpretation, already problematic at the heart of the experience itself, becomes more so in the case of the rememembered experience. The joy and light of Milan and Ostia had their own irreducible reality, but their articulation in words, the interpretation of their theological and metaphysical implications, and their placing within the total edifice of his vision required many years of further study and reflection. At least in Augustine's case, breakthroughs to ultimacy are inseparable from the long processes of interrogation and interpretation that precede and follow them. The classic religious vision is by the same token inseparable from its classic literary expression in the text of the Confessions itself. Here again the intrication of ultimacy and its conventional vehicle turns out to be more intimate than one might expect.

   Thus despite the powerful unity and simplicity of Augustine's experience, the harmony between Plotinian and biblical sensibility in his account of it harbors tensions that lie open to deconstructive interrogation (see O'Leary 1985, ch. 4). The retrospective biblical recuperation of the Plotinian experience may be an act of hermeneutic violence, erasing the pluralism implicit in the difference between Plotinian ultimacy (Book VII) and Pauline ultimacy (Book VIII). Augustine is constantly weaving a unitary language of the spiritual realm from his two sources, the Platonist and biblical traditions, and the seam between them, with the occasional dropped stitches, marks the conventionality and constructed quality of his vision. The Augustinian system began to unravel when Luther pulled more heavily on the Pauline thread, releasing a dynamic of agape that could not be recuperated within the regime of Platonist interiority.

   Intravi et vidi qualicumque oculo animae meae supra eundum oculum animae meae lucem incommutabilem, non hanc vulgarem et conspicuam omni carni... sed aliud, aliud valde. 'I entered and beheld with the eye of my soul, (such as it was,) above the same eye of my soul, above my mind, the Light Unchangeable. Not this ordinary light, which all flesh may look upon... but other, yea, far other.' The phenomenon that Augustine first names is a new intimacy with an inner depth in himself to which his access had been blocked. As Zen masters also testify, enlightenment is not merely a change in subjective vision; it is a return to the bedrock reality of one's being, from which one had been cut off by the fabric of habitual deluded thinking; hence the Japanese term for enlightenment, kensho 'beholding (one's) nature'. Immediately supervening on this is a new awareness of God as spirit, imaged as the Plotinian sun (the One) that rises above Intellect itself which contemplates it: 'One should not enquire whence it comes, for there is no "whence": for it does not really come or go away anywhere, but appears or does not appear. So one must not chase after it, but wait quietly till it appears, preparing oneself to contemplate it, as the eye awaits the rising of the sun... What is the horizon which he will mount above when he appears? He will be above Intellect itself which contemplates him' (Enn. V 5, 8). The intima mea are not quite identical with the eye of the mind which perceives the divine light. The spiritual freedom that allows one to be fully present to oneself is the milieu within which the eye of the mind, the purified intellect, can open. In Augustine the light and the mind that contemplates it differ as creator and created: superior, quia ipsa fecit me, et ego inferior, quia factus sum ab ea; 'above to my soul, because It made me; and I below It, because I was made by It.' Is this recognition of the light as creator a retrospective construction or was Augustine's experience conditioned by his biblical formation, recently renovated by the sermons of Ambrose? A retrospective resfashioning of the experience would be facilitated by the fact that Plotinus, too, speaks of the Good as making all things (through the Nous and the Soul), so that the realization ipsa fecit me could have been part of Augustine's Plotinian vision without the fully-developed biblical sense of a personal Creator.

   The next phenomenon noted is the sense of unworthiness that overcomes Augustine faced with the purity of the divine light:

      Et cum te primum cognovi, tu assumpsisti me, ut viderem esse, quod viderem, et nondum me esse, qui viderem. Et reverberasti infirmitatem aspectus mei radians in me vehementer, et contremui amore et horrore: et inveni longe me esse a te in regione dissimilitudinis, tamquam audirem vocem tuam de excelso: `Cibus sum grandium: cresce et manducabis me. 'When I first knew you, you lifted me up, that I might see there was something I might see, and that I was not yet such as to see. And you beat back the weakness of my sight, irradiating upon me most strongly, and I trembled with love and awe: and I perceived myself to be far off from you, in the region of unlikeness, as if I heard your voice from on high: "I am the food of adults; grow, and thou shalt feed upon me."'

The Platonic language here corresponds to the sense of the numinous as fascinosum (inspiring amor) and tremendum (inspiring horror); though as the coiner of these terms points out, it is the fascinosum that prevails in Augustine (Otto, 232). The voice of God that is imagined to be speaking is a later gloss ('as if') on the gulf Augustine feels between his own want of being and the supreme reality of the spiritual realm. The gulf Augustine perceives will be interpreted in Pauline terms as a bondage to sin, to be broken at the end of Book VIII. But the Pauline and Platonic scenarios, with their respective traditional terminologies, do not coincide automatically. Throughout his oeuvre (notably in the De Trinitate) Augustine yokes them together in a constantly reworked collage; but the classical topos of how the mind is dazzled and thrown back in mystical vision (see Finan) has no immediate connection with the Christian topics of sin and faith. The same note of failure or incompleteness inheres in Augustine's post-conversion mystical moments also, and the explanation of it in terms of moral weakness is an extrinsic, ideological interpretation. In the anti-Pelagian writings the Pauline framework dominates and references to the mystical scenario recede, so that we have a more consistent, but narrower Augustine. Both the Platonic language of vision and the Pauline language of grace were vehicles of encounters with ultimacy for Augustine, yet the tense pluralism between them, and between the corresponding experiences, is not erased in any leveling vision. Augustine needs to narrate his spiritual voyage. since no closed systematic presentation can do justice to the variety of encounters it embraced.

   Augustine's encounter with the reality of God in this moment of intense vision yields a new vision of the reality of the world, a vision unfolded in calm reflection:

     Et inspexi cetera infra te et vidi nec omnino esse nec omnino non esse: esse quidem, quoniam abs te sunt, non esse autem, quoniam id quod es non sunt (VII 17); 'And I beheld the other things below you, and I perceived, that they neither altogether are, nor altogether are not, for they are, since they are from you, but are not, because they are not what you are.'

This vision is personalized by a Psalm quotation: Mihi autem inhaerere deo bonum est (Ps. 72:28); in my want of being I can truly be only by dwelling in the one who is. The biblical quotations serve throughout to Christianize the Plotinian experience. From there he expounds his ontological vision of the convertibility of being and goodness, with the corollary that evil has no real existence, which overcomes Manicheanism at its root (VII 18-22). Are these ontological considerations seamlessly derived from the religious experience, or is Augustine reading back the fruits of years of thought into a single dawning of fresh insight?

   Does ontological speculation already begin to project a space of thought that is in tension with the space opened up by the vision, and tends to screen it out? Is the vital immediacy of consciousness being replaced by a reflective objectification? Is speculative interest thwarting the unfolding of the phenomenological insight lying at the root of such convictions as the convertibility of being and goodness? If so this process is carried further in the De Trinitate, where the experience of God as Spirit cohabits uneasily with the analysis of God as substance, and where analysis of triadic structures of an objectified `soul' is in tension with evocations of its pre-objective consciousness (see O'Leary, 1981).

   Augustine tells how he sought to recapture the visionary moment by the practice of a Platonic ascent (as opposed to the complete gratuity of the initial enlightenment), passing by degrees (gradatim) from the beauty of bodies to that of the soul, and thence to the inner sense that even animals have, and to the reasoning faculty which judges the deliveries of that sense, until he reaches the level of intelligence, of nous, and above it the light whereby the intelligence judges. The ascent culminates in another ecstatic encounter with what truly is: et pervenit ad id quod est in ictu trepidantis aspectus (VII 23); 'And thus with the flash of one trembling glance it arrived at That Which Is.' Augustine again falls back, more quickly this time:

      sed aciem figere non evalui et repercussa infirmitate redditus solitis non mecum ferebam nisi amantem memoriam et quasi olefacta desiderantem, quae comedere nondum possem. 'But I could not fix my gaze thereon; and my infirmity being struck back, I was thrown again on my wonted habits, carrying along with me only a loving memory thereof, and a longing for what I had, as it were, perceived the odour of, but was not yet able to feed on.'

Here the labor of deliberate cogitation precedes the mystical moment rather than subsequently reaping its harvest of insight. This intrusion of intellectual reflection into the sphere of infused contemplation has led one author to suppose that there is nothing mystical about the Milan experiences at all. Even the first experience (VII 16) would represent 'not a mystical intuition of God, but an implicitly reasoned ascent of the mind to the height of truth which is God... God is pictured as engaged in a brief I-Thou dialogue in which he tells Augustine that he is "I am who am." But this utterance is essentially an intellectual or quasi-theological locution, not a mystical deliverance' (Quinn, 258). This is a flat and literalistic paraphrase of Augustine's sublime words: et clamasti de longinquo: immo vero ego sum qui sum. Et audivi, sicut auditur in corde. 'The analytical invocation of God's self-given name does not affectively move him or set his spirit afire; rather, it fills his mind with light... the satisfaction consequent upon a perception or experience characterized by expressions such as "Aha!" or "Eureka!"... He achieved intellectual fulfillment with an intense delight that Catholics born into the faith can abstractly conceive, but never concretely imagine' (258-9). 'Arrival at the apex of his reasoning process is accompanied by an undeniable intellectual pleasure as well as a peripheral affective satisfaction; still, neither of these affective modes even approaches full-flowered mystical experience. Significantly, the decisive factor of passivity is missing' (265). The intellectual and the affective are dissociated here in a manner which cannot do justice to such passionate thinkers as Plotinus and Augustine, in whom intellect and passion worked together in constant mutual illumination and stimulation. To see mysticism as a matter of 'affectivity' and to suppose that because Augustine, following Plotinus, describes a mystical enlightenment of the mind, which also stuns the mind and exceeds its grasp, he must therefore be talking about something 'merely intellectual' (though his language is charged with wonder and joy) is to bypass the phenomenon the text presents through reliance on cut-and-dried binary oppositions. (For the vibrant, indeed violent affectivity of Plotinian mysticism, taken up by Augustine, see Sorabji, 159-60, 165, 169.)

   Quinn finds genuine mystical passivity in the Ostia experience, and ascribes it to the grace of the sacraments Augustine received and the spiritual life he practised after his conversion. The idea that Augustine could have enjoyed mystical experience while in his unconverted state seems to Quinn to presuppose a special miracle, one God was unlikely to work. But there are many 'mute inglorious Wordsworths' to vouch that mystical experience is not tied to the sacraments. Augustine does underline the greater perfection of the joy of Ostia, firmly rooted in the practice of agape, and of friendship, and the communion of saints. But the Milan experience, at least in VII 16, has the notes of passivity and grace as well, as the phrases duce te and tu assumpsisti me indicate. Id ipsum, id quod est, is touched in a moment of pure ecstasy, in ictu trepidantis aspectus. Ego sum qui sum is no abstract proposition, as Quinn thinks, but auditur in corde - it is a homecoming to the maternal breast of being and to the paternal abode. The presence of God is with Augustine as a holy sweetness -- dulcedo mea sancta (I 4), an inner light, food, strength, and the breast on which his thought reposes: lumen cordis mei et panis oris intus animae meae et virtus maritans mentem meam et sinum cogitationis meae (I 21).

   The imagery of ascent can be translated into the more 'passive' imagery of stripping-away, Plotinian aphairesis. Like the Zen suppression of thought and images (munen muso) it allows the mind to be receptive to phenomena. The ascent is inward, away from the tumult of sense involvement, thus in the direction of non-involvement in external activities, and of passivity before the higher light that enlightens the mind. Eckhart's reading of this passage, in a sermon on the feast of St Augustine, responds sensitively to its witness to a pati divina: quando scilicet lux divina per effectum suum aliquem specialem irradiat super potentias cognoscentes et super medium in cognitione, elevans intellectum ipsum ad id quod naturaliter non potest; 'when the divine light through one of its special effects irradiates upon the cognitive powers and the cognitive medium, elevating the intellect itself to that of which it is naturally incapable' (Lateinische Werke V 93-4; quoted, Lossky, 180-1). The language of elevation is perhaps misleading, and it irritates us now by a certain archaism.. The One of Plotinus is not only 'above'; it is the reality nearest to hand. The negations of apophatic theology serve not to climb a ladder to a remote beyond, but to remove illusions that prevent God from speaking to us here and now. In Mâdhyamika and in Vedanta this is clearer; the dialectical negations serve not to take us beyond the world but to reveal emptiness or the Self in the here and now (see O'Leary 2003).

   Both Milan and Ostia are breakthroughs to ultimacy, but the Ostia experience is richer and more integrated. Between them lies the moral conversion made possible through the impact of the words of St. Paul (VIII 29), another breakthrough to ultimacy, which allowed Augustine to be serenely at one with himself and with his fellow-Christians. A crisis of Platonic eros is enacted in the 'drop' Augustine feels after his first experience at Milan; the crisis is resolved when eros is inserted in the context of communal agape, caritas, and at Ostia Monica and Augustine taste the delights of this more securely rooted contemplation. Augustine is now on a spiritual plateau, in daily enjoyment of the internum aeternum (IX 10). Though the language of the Ostia experience is still that of Platonic ascent, and in fact is close to the willed tentative mystique of Milan (see Courcelle), the affective tonality is very different. The subject of the experience is not an isolated philosophical seeker, but two friends united in serene praise of God in his creation.

      Erigentes nos ardentiore affectu in id ipsum perambulavimus gradatim cuncta corporalia... Et adhuc ascendebamus interius cogitando et loquendo et mirando opera tua et venimus in mentes nostras et transcendimus eas, ut attingeremus regionem ubertatis indeficientis, ubi pascis Israhel in aeternum veritate pabulo... Et dum loquimur et inhiamus illi, attingimus eam modice toto ictu cordis; et suspiravimus et relinquimus ibi religatas primitias spiritus et remeavimus ad strepitum oris nostri (IX 24). 'Raising ourselves up with a more glowing affection towards the "Self-same," we passed by degrees through all things bodily... We were soaring higher yet, by inward musing, and discourse, and admiring of your works; and we came to our own minds, and went beyond them, that we might arrive at that region of never-failing plenty, where you feed Israel for ever with the food of truth... And while we were discoursing and panting after her [Wisdom], we slightly touched on her with the whole effort of our heart; and we sighed, and there we leave bound the first fruits of the Spirit; and returned to vocal expressions of our mouth.'

Here again Augustine's displays his inspired mastery of the conventional techniques of contemplation, of metaphysical analysis, of a rhetoric of eros mounting to meet the descending manna of agape (ubi pascis Israhel), and of the arts of fictional and dramatic presentation. Ostia might be seen as a synthesis or a dialectical result of the metaphysical vision of Milan and the moral liberation of the tolle lege scene, producing yet another form of experiencing ultimacy. Perhaps we might call it a Johannine ultimacy, given the key role of interpersonal love and the eloquence with which Augustine will discourse on this theme in his homilies on I John. The whole of Scripture is for Augustine a set of occasions for breaking through to the ultimate level of vision, and his hearers are urged to knock constantly until the light of intellectus dawns for them: Surge, quaere, anhela desideria, et ad clausa pulsa... (Tractatus in Johannem 18.7). The taste of ultimacy gives him great freedom in imaginative penetration of the biblical text, handled as a functional 'skillful means' for evoking contemplative vision.

   All of this work with conventions circles around the vividly experienced truth-event, the encounter with id ipsum, an intimacy with the divine in conjunction with a privileged moment of intimacy with a beloved human being or in communion with the quest of the praying pilgrim community. Fragile and elusive as the moments of intellectus are, their value as clues to the ultimately gracious nature of reality spurs us to work on the conventions of our religious discourse to make them more effective antennae for picking up such signals. Augustine's entire theological oeuvre is an effort to render the conventional transparent to the ultimate. He joyfully disposed the linguistic and intellectual resources of his culture into alignment with this contemplative ultimacy. The equivalent achievement for theology today would be to explore the horizon of ultimacy onto which the questions, the lack, the unease of modern civilization open out, and to revamp religious discourse so that it no longer obstructs access to this realm, but kindles experiences of ultimacy through a recognition of its own thorough conventionality.

Ultimacy Under Fire: Psychoanalysts and Religious Experience

   A religious experience such as Augustine describes bears witness to a dimension of reality that triumphs serenely over death and meaninglessness. The authority of this witness comes from the quality of ultimacy inherent in the experience itself, rather than from the metaphysical ideas and scriptural teachings linked with it. Of course a scriptural word may be the occasion of the experience. Then it is that living word that has authority and ultimacy, not the mere text or secondary elucidations of it. The image of hearing a word may originate in the conviction that the experience is not merely subjective but is an encounter with the real. We saw how in the later account of his Milan experience, Augustine claimed that he heard the voice of God declare 'I am who am.' In Vedanta, too, the non-duality of atman and Brahman is not simply an insight, but a revelation, something heard (sruti), which as in the case of the Prophets and the Quran refers more to the mode of encounter with the divine than to the authority of canonical texts. Phenomenologically, the deliveries of religious experience impose themselves as unmasterable (Barth's Unverfügbarkeit), as 'saturated phenomena' (Marion), which we cannot go behind or seek to subordinate to any explanatory framework. The reality encountered is to be accepted entirely on its own terms, which are those of supreme being, awareness, bliss (the Vedantic sat-chit-ananda). Were one to grill it, to seek out its hidden background, to query its legitimacy, that would be a demonstration of phenomenological ill-breeding, or what Aristotle would call apaideusia. In the numinous moment there is no room for doubt or questioning. The reality apprehended is more undeniable even than the reality of the everyday physical world: non erat prorsus unde dubitarem, faciliusque dubitarem vivere me quam non esse veritatem... (VII 16), echoed in Newman's reference to an `inward conversion of which I was conscious (and of which I still am more certain that that I have hands and feet' (Newman, 127).

   Nonetheless, the rights of the conventional will not be denied. Orthodoxy attempts to regulate and assess religious experience in terms of its conformity to doctrine. Mystics will have trouble honoring the constraints of doctrinal discourse, which may not fit well with their more vivid sense of the realities to which dogma points, since the entire realm of words and ideas belongs to conventional or world-ensconced truth whereas religious experience is a breakthrough to the paramârtha level. The wise mystic will patiently negotiate the realm of conventional reason. That Augustine could do so with such aplomb perhaps suggests that he was not primarily a mystical type at all; his contemplative serenity positively throve on the cut and thrust of doctrinal debate. Plotinus's cogitations are turned inward: he pursues his philosophical riddles as a spiritual exercise, in a spirit of play; the themes of Aristotle and the Stoics, even those of ethics, logic, and cosmology, are rehearsed, but in a perspective remote from their this-worldly concerns; they become the occasion of a perpetual rethinking which enacts the soul's effort to locate itself before the One..

   Psychoanalysts practice a hermeneutics of suspicion that would trace everything back to the subject. While they respect experiences that show the subject engaging in the symbolic order in a realistic give and take, they tend to view religious experience as a saturnalian feast of the unconscious, in which all its repressed grandiose desires are given free rein. They assume it can be nothing more than an immanent psychic process, a blind jouissance, an oceanic feeling linked to pre-natal bliss. Many find in the Confessions nothing more than libido on the loose, ego inflation, masochistic self-annihilation before the super-ego. What a catastrophe it would be not only for religion, but for civilization, if these dismal diagnoses turned out to be the 'truth' about Augustine.

   Slavoj Zizek points out that in religious ecstasy, according to St Ignatius Loyola:

     the positive figure of God comes second, after the moment of 'objectless' ecstasy: first we have the experience of objectless ecstasy; subsequently this experience is attached to some historically determined representation -- here we encounter an exemplary case of the Real as 'that which remains the same in all possible (symbolic) universes.'.. precisely jouissance as that which always remains the same. Every ideology attaches itself to some kernel of jouissance which, however, retains the status of an ambiguous excess. The unique "religious experience" is thus to be split into its two components, as in the well-known scene from Terry Gilliam's Brazil in which the food on a plate is split into its symbolic frame (a coloured photo of the course above the plate) and the formless slime of jouissance that we actually eat... (Zizek 1997:50).

To contest the phenomenological adequacy of this description we must focus on the illuminative power of contemplative experience. The 'inner witness of the Holy Spirit' lights up the biblical text and charges it with radiant meaning. Religious experience, as Augustine's account shows, is also a source of metaphysical insight, yielding a renewed vision of the world and of being. Even if one calls this body of scriptural and metaphysical insight an ideological construction, the relation between the insight and the ecstasy is more integrated than Zizek recognizes. To be sure, there is an excess of the joyful sense of ultimacy over the framework of understanding which it both confirms and shows up as 'mere straw' (Thomas Aquinas), a vessel of clay. 'We have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us' (2 Cor. 4:7). For Paul, the excess is a mark of the divine glory, not of an obscure psychic murk. The darkness of divine glory is further along the trajectory of dazzling insight that the religious experience conveys: 'Dark with excessive bright thy skirts appear.' If what is touched in mystical ectasy exceeds the grasp of the mind -- 'what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived' (1 Cor. 2:9) -- this is not because it is a slippery preconceptual slime, but because only the Holy Spirit can investigate it: 'The Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God' (2:10). Contemplation is access to the dimension of Spirit, pneuma, marked by an intensification of the sense of reality, as 'seeing' gives way to 'touching.' (Here, though, I am again yoking together two disparate traditions, the biblical pneuma and the Neoplatonic touching, thiggein.)

   If the core of religious experience is a blissful pneumatic illumination, this is in close conjunction with an illuminating word. Both aspects are transformative: the spiritual bliss is a liberation from chains of delusion, from psychic blockage; the word associated with it is a judgment of truth, cutting through the false or unreal positions in which one had been entangled and establishing a secure new perspective. Even if jouissance were always the same, the word in which it finds expression inevitably varies according to the context of the experience. The word cannot be a pure expression of ultimacy, as it invariably relies on the conventional data of the given context. One may also ask if even the core jouissance itself is shaped by its context, so that the effect of ultimacy could never be disentangled immaculately from the culture-bound contingencies of its emergence.

   This dynamic of transformative illumination in religious experience is not undermined by the discovery of a connection with erotic drives. Those places in poetic or religious texts when we perceive the dawning of the sublime often bring a surge of erotic excitement or delight: consider the blissful release in the second variation of the third movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (bars 99-114) or the vaulting quasi-fugato of the final movement (bars 432-525). To be 'surprised by joy' is an erotic experience. But to reduce every summit of religious or aesthetic joy to instantiations of an invariable blind animal ecstasy is a doctrinaire curtailment of the phenomena and their significance. The idea that jouissance is always the same scarcely applies even to physical eroticism. The mood of sexual delight lights up intensely the varied beauty of the objects that elicit it, Analogously, the light and joy of the Spirit constantly reveals fresh aspects of the object of contemplation.

   'In our era of modern science, one can no longer accept the fable of the miracle of Resurrection as the form of the Truth-Event. Although the Truth-Event does designate the occurrence of something which, from within the horizon of the predominant order of Knowledge, appears impossible (think of the laughter with which the Greek philosophers greeted Paul's assertion of Christ's Resurrection on his visit to Athens), today, any location of the Truth-Event at the level of supernatural miracles necessarily entails regression into obscurantism, since the event of Science is irreducible and cannot be undone' (Zizek 1999:142). The primitive resurrection kerygma no doubt concerns a physical raising of Christ from the tomb, seen as the first-fruits of the general resurrection of the dead. Demythologizers in the line of Schleiermacher and Bultmann have reinterpreted this ancient language as referring to a pneumatic eschatological event, which no longer clashes directly with science. 'The resurrected Jesus can be seen only in the conversion he came to preach about, not in some supernaturally perceptible coming back to show his new glorified body' (Keenan, 394). The miracle of resurrection is not the literal raising of a corpse but the conquest over exactly the dead-end beyond which Zizek believes it is impossible to go. 'After Freud, one cannot directly have faith in a Truth-Event; every such Event ultimately remains a semblance obfuscating a preceding Void whose Freudian name is death drive' (154). The resurrection obfuscates the Real manifested in Christ's death, 'the lowest excremental remainder' (228). Yet in the Christian kerygma this Real is not eluded: Ego sum vermis et non homo (Ps. 22:6). The abyss of the Triduum is the condition of the Paschal dawn.

   Zizek himself speaks of revolutionary acts that 'miraculously' break through the constraints of a given symbolic order. Correlative with resurrection is forgiveness: 'the miracle of Grace which retroactively "undoes" our past sins' (331). Here it is not science which objects, but a scepticism based on the feeling that this is a tired old ideology. The phenomena of forgiveness and being forgiven provide, however, an empirical basis for belief in this miracle. The impact of Christ's revolutionary act of forgiveness can be described in Zizek's own terms: 'An act proper "miraculously" changes the very standard by which we measure and value our activity; that is, it is synonymous with what Nietzsche called "transvaluation of values"... The act occurs when the choice of (what, within the situation, appears as) the Worst changes the very standards of what is good or bad' (307). Christ 'becomes sin' to free us from sin, and his resurrection is perhaps the dialectical reversal brought about by this radical confrontation with sin and death. The joy of the resurrection is not sparked off by the news of a fabulous miracle; rather it is correlative with a vision of the full significance of Christ's teaching and his death, the vision that 'God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself' (2 Cor. 5:19).

   Beyond the finality of physical death lies the ultimacy of the death drive, the meaningless entropic noise at the heart of the universe. It is heard as a sublime interruption in a love-lyric of Catullus: Nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux/Nox est perpetua una dormienda. Freud and Lacan have increased the pervasiveness of this dark sublime. It, too, is unmasterable, there is no going beyond it. Yet Christ 'abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel' (2 Tim. 1:10). The dark places of death are entirely comprehended by the light of the gospel word, so that their meaning changes. 'The grace that is in Christ Jesus' (2 Tim. 2:1) is known on a nearer acquaintance with suffering and death. It is not by eluding the phenomena of sin and death, but by surrendering entirely to their claim, that one enters the domain of the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection from the dead.

   Religious experience, then, is a miraculous breakthrough to a realm of freedom -- be it nirvana, enlightenment, resurrection, the Vedantic Brahman, or the Plotinian One. Is there a specific form in which this 'truth-event' is to be sought today? The leveling and alienating effect of the machine of global capitalism reduces all experiences to commodities. Religious vision is stymied by it much as artistic and political creativity are. When we study the breakthroughs to ultimacy recorded in the classic religious texts of the past and attempt to discern how they related to the historical and cultural contexts in which they emerged, we may find clues for an opening up of the contemporary context to a liberating ultimacy. A thorough recognition of the historical pluralism and the contingent, conventional status of all our languages of ultimacy will be a distinctive feature of a contemporary retrieval of mystical traditions, and we may draw from Buddhism the encouraging thought that to recognize the conventional as conventional is to be already aligned to the ultimate.

The Conventionality of Religious Experience

   Religious experience should bring a sense of freedom and flexibility in dealing with the conventions of religious discourse. But when means and ends, the conventional and the ultimate, are confused, the result is a sclerosis of the religious tradition, some form of absolutism, fanaticism, or fundamentalism. To be sure, in the contemporary context a rigid fundamentalism may be more conducive to mystical breakthroughs than a liberal and pluralistic attitude. Yet perhaps if we go all the way with pluralism, recognizing the utterly contingent and conventional status of all religious constructions, we can traverse the religious fantasy (as Zizek might put it) and re-enact more skillfully the religious disposal of words, ideas and actions in view of ultimacy. When people take up religious words and attitudes, they are aware that they are subscribing to a historical tradition. Today that historical self-consciousness embraces not only one's own tradition but the wider community of faiths, bringing a critical sense of the non-absoluteness of one's mode of engaging with ultimate reality. The community that recites the Lord's Prayer is increasingly aware that they are enacting a specifically Christian convention, while neighboring communities enact conventions no less efficacious for them. Such awareness might undercut conviction at first, but subsequently it can renew one's relations to the forms one uses, as they are reappropriated in their fragile status as historically tried and tested means of opening to the divine. Can even the Eucharist be rethought in these terms? It is a form used by Jesus, drawing on all the riches of the Jewish heritage, and exhibiting the sense of his death. To reenact that form is the richest way we have of realizing the Paschal sense of Christ's death, attuning ourselves to his pneumatic presence, and realizing communion with one another in him. The rite 'works' for us as it did for Jesus. It is an eloquent and effective convention.

   For Henri Poincaré geometry is not an immediate datum of experience; neither is it a Kantian a priori structure, an inbuilt necessity of the mind. A geometry is freely chosen, as a conventional construct, constrained only by the necessity of avoiding contradictions. Einstein adds that physical geometry, or practical geometry, is constrained in addition by the empirical reality of solid bodies. When the purely theoretical conventions of mathematical geometry are put to practical use, we are forced to recognize a single specific geometry as that of our cosmos. This geometry turns out to be Riemannian rather than Euclidian, so that all the confirmations of Euclid and of Newton that centuries of experience provided now need to be recontextualized. But the move from theoretical to practical geometry is by no means a step out of conventions into transparent realities. Straight lines still remain idealized fictions which have no actual existence in nature.

   If geometry is a convention, philosophical systems must be much more so. 'In the endeavour to live up to traditional ideals of completeness and ultimate justification, a philosophical tradition or school tends to define and explain its basic notions in terms of the notions belonging to its own terminological core. Its arrangement of basic notions is in that sense circular, and it is by training and by allowing oneself to become convinced of its trustworthiness that one gets into that circle' (Stenlund, 196-7). The world yields to the analytic methodology of a strong philosophical system, but the bulk of the system's progress lies in its internal self-confirmation and self-perfecting, sometimes to the point where it seems to exclude worldly reality from the crystal palace of its own purified reconstruction of the world (a critique addressed to Husserl by Adorno).

   Analogously, Jonathan Z. Smith once compared religions to packs of cards. They are systems of conventional symbols and rules for playing with them. This conventionalist reading of religion has become very tempting as we take religious pluralism seriously, and realize that no one religion can set itself up as the ultimate norm whereby all the others are judged. Humans have forged religious systems from the materials available in their different cultures in complex historical trajectories. Faced with the contradictory variety of the results we are forced to wonder if religious discourse has any substantial referent.

   If we think of the chief referent of the biblical religions, God, it seems that God's 'housing problem,' long ago diagnosed by David Strauss, is more severe than ever. The notion of God has no steady place in our contemporary experience of worldhood. Even our grammar seems to exclude it, for the texture of signification no longer depends on a logocentric reference to stable substances. A Buddhist ontology of dependent co-arising, of a universal conditionality that functions without stable entitative causes, seems better suited to contemporary experience. As the most self-critical and thoroughly reflected of religions, Buddhism has a key role to play in resolving current questions about the status and function of religion and of theism. Buddhism is happy to see religions as conventional constructs, or as provisional skillful means to be used for purposes of spiritual liberation.

   Religious experience provides empirical confirmation to religious systems just as the physical world confirms geometrical systems. But the confirmation does not take away the conventional status of the system. At best it shows that the system has a useful function in favoring the occurrence of religious experience. Perhaps there is one correct 'practical geometry' of the religious cosmos. Buddhism, the most methodical of spiritual paths, may have unveiled the lineaments of this realm. Or Buddhism may be one conventional map alongside others, and all the maps may have to be corrected as we close in on the true shape of religious reality. Or all the maps may be equally valid, and conventionalism thus have a wider scope in spiritual than in physical space.

   For Poincaré the question, 'Is Euclidean geometry true?' had no meaning. Similarly the questions 'Is Buddhism true?' 'Is Christianity true?' could be construed as having no meaning. Both religions are skillful means for lighting up a spiritual space and traveling in it. Any other religion that works as effectively and as consistently would do just as well. We do not ask 'Is Mozart true?' 'Is Beethoven true?' as we travel in the space they open up. A conventionalist would say that within a certain geometrical set-up there are true and false propositions, while the question of the truth of the geometry as a whole cannot be asked, for there is no external, objective 'space' with which one could compare it. Any non-contradictory geometry will fit our spatial experience, and the question, 'which fits best?' reduces to the question of which is of most pragmatic value in a given context, or which best serves the evolution of the species. A religious conventionalist, analogically, could say that within a certain religious language-game there are true and false propositions, but the question of the truth of the religion as a whole cannot be asked, for there is no external, objective religious space with which one could compare it. A religion is a human method of tuning in to ultimate mystery. Its language generates propositions which have their own inbuilt, autonomous logic, just as those of geometry have. In Euclidean space it is true that the angles of an equilateral triangle are equal, and false that they are not. The truth-effect is embedded in a context, inscribed within a web of writing that exceeds and encompasses it; and that writing itself eludes the question, 'true or false?,' as Derrida argues. In terms of the dyad of samvrti-satya and paramartha-satya, all propositional truth is conventional or world-ensconced truth, not ultimate truth. But the careful tending of the garden of conventional truth is a condition for the blossoming of ultmacy. Thus the dogmatic wrangles of the past had a point. Unfortunately, instead of being seen as labor on the conventional in service of the ultimate, they were seen as themselves ultimate and degenerated into a clash of absolutes.

   In Christian religious space it is true that God, Logos, Spirit are equal, and false that they are not. But the dogmatic truths about the Trinity are embedded in a web of writing that ultimately eludes the question of truth or falsity. Mapping their experience in terms of God, Logos and Spirit, the biblical writers were not aware of any tensions or contradictions of an ontological order. Only with the emergence of theology, fashioned after the Greek philosophical model by Philo and Justin, did questions about the ontological conditions and foundations of the biblical language begin to take a sharper character. The inspired utterances of the Johannine contemplative community offer little foothold for determining the ontological status of Christ; when John (1.1) writes that the Logos was theos (not ho theos) he is not stating that the Logos is lesser in divinity than the Father, but only apprehending the phenomenon of the Logos as one who comes from the intimacy of the divine realm; conversely, when he has Thomas call the risen Jesus ho theos (20.28) he is not defining Jesus as truly God; it is a contemplative utterance, a recognition that the encounter with Jesus is an encounter with God.

   The construction of trinitarian and christological orthodoxy is a skillful theological performance within an intellectual framework that is ill matched to the world of the texts on which it works, and that is not entirely suited to expounding the faith (though it was commonly taken to be the ideal, providentially supplied framework for clarifying Christian truth). Now that we have worked with the dogmatic framework for two millennia we can see that for all its power it has a rigid and sterile cast; it no longer provides a basis for creative development. Dogma developed according to its intrinsic metaphysical logic up to the fourteenth century, with the result that scholastic brilliance replaced authentic clarification of the biblical phenomena. From the Reformation on, creative theology has focused on tracing dogma back to its biblical roots. Systematic theologies in all Christian confessions today will normally adopt a biblical pattern of exposition, as in Melanchthon's Loci and Calvin's Institutes. This biblical refashioning of dogmatic thought has revitalized basic dogmatic claims, recontextualized others, and cast others into the shade. It has exposed as inadequate the classical frameworks of dogmatic thought, shaped by canons of rationality deriving from metaphysics.

   Today the intellectual space or regime of truth within which dogmatic truths enjoyed an immovable security has become obsolete. What is left of dogma survives only on the strength of biblical support and within a space of Christian thinking quite foreign to that of the Fathers, Councils, and scholastics. Little weight attaches to 'dogmatic' claims unless they carry the mark of ultimacy -- unless they could be candidates for a mystical level of contemplative apprehension. The Vedantic revelation, 'that are thou' (tat tvam asi), and the Mahayana paradox, 'samsara is nirvana,' are claims of that sort. 'He was delivered for our sins and rose for our justification' (Rom 4.25) and 'The Word became flesh' (Jn 1.14) are such claims too, if apprehended in their original contemplative context, without the intrusion of inappropriate ontology. The language of religion is primarily a language of mystical ultimacy, a language voiding itself before the numinous real, the divine. The more systematic down-to-earth explication of religious world-views that most religions offer as well, the kind of thing Augustine spells out in The City of God will have little of the character of ultimacy, and the texts devoted to it will be much imprisoned in their time and culture than those, like the Confessions, that boldly run up against the limits of language.

   Ultimacy is not a thing, a noumenon to which the merely phenomenal paths of the various religions would point. Ultimacy is rather adjectival, a quality attaching to a certain specific vision. Thus the language expressive of it does not convey new substantive content, but a new depth of realization. Systems of religious thought centered on ecounters with some ultimate reality, such as those of Plotinus, Augustine, Sankara, retrieve previous tradition in a key of greater simplicity, radicality and integration. Even if most of the traditions they rehearse are now outdated, their work on them is graced by a sense of the due roles of the conventional and the ultimate. They handle the conventions with wisdom and respect, yet one senses that they all the time have a quiet awareness that the ultimate, the one thing needful, is around the corner, and that the conventions need not be worried about excessively. Augustine never becomes excited as he contemplates the fall of Rome and unrolls his panorama of history and eschatology; but when it comes to the topic of grace, a topic central to his encounter with God, his tone is urgent, impassioned. He becomes even fanatical, trapped in the horrendous theologoumena of predestination. Yet as in the case of Luther's reply to Erasmus, On the Bondage of the Will, the value of the texts lies in their exemplification of an indefectible sense of the reality of God and grace, a constant effort to let the ultimate be spoken in words that can only be the feeblest, most fragile of vessels. Though The City of God is weighed down by desultory lore and though the writings on grace err through hammering too hard at the essentials, Augustine can stand as an exemplar of the interplay of ultimate and conventional, unfolding the doctrines from the central vantage-point of his contemplative vision, setting each element in its place, a relative and auxiliary one, as his mind ranges freely through the system in a spirit of play, knowing that all its constructions are mere provisional conventions at the service of the one thing needful, the internum aeternum.

   What we call divine revelation is not an alien force that strikes from outside. It emerges within the conventions of a given historical world as a breakthrough to a new level of interiority or lucidity. Though it shatters the conventions prepared to receive it, as the real always shatters the merely notional, it does not offer a new empirical datum calling for categories not anticipated in the previous tradition. Although a revelation is stamped with the quality of ultimacy, that ultimacy always has a basis in the conventional; it is the ultimacy of this conventional world, the unconditioned that this particular set of conditions allows to emerge. Breakthroughs to ultimacy happen in function of particular conventional set-ups. The irreducible and unmasterable core of the revelation event both fulfills and overthrows the context in which it emerges. It is not derived naturalistically from this preceding context, as a psychologist of religion is tempted to think: 'Every religious phenomenon has its history and its derivation from natural antecedents' (James, 23). But the manner in which its transcendence is manifest always exhibits a reference to the context. Even as the visionary struggles to express the 'wholly other' character of what is manifested the words that surge up to express it are those of the religious culture he or she had already acquired, words that now take wing, charged with new immediacy and fullness of sense.

   In the Buddha's enlightenment the conventional constructions of centuries of Indian religious exploration click into a new and luminous perspective. In the resurrection of Jesus the conventional constructions of centuries of Jewish religious exploration find a new bearing. The resurrection is the happening of ultimacy amid the conventional. In the breakthrough to ultimacy Gotama becomes Buddha, and Jesus becomes Christ: 'descended from David according to the flesh, and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead' (Rom. 1:3-4). Ultimacy is a radical transformation of the conventional world, and it can be known only in this way, starting from this conventional basis. The Pauline movement from flesh to spirit is the movement from conventional to ultimate.

   Ultimacy, despite its 'wholly other' quality, dwells in conventionality, and we remain open to it only in disposing the conventional world in line with its ultimate orientation. In Buddhist vision, ultimate reality is not some hidden thing-in-itself, but is fully accessible to enlightened awareness. The ultimate is not hidden behind the conventions. Etymologically, it is claimed, samvrti-satya is not merely 'screening reality' but also 'revealing reality'; to experience the conventions as conventions is already to be attuned to their emptiness, to ultimacy.

   The mystical texts of the past give ample evidence of the flimsiness of even the most privileged religious language. To read them is to visit a museum of rusty old flying-machines. There is a whole collection which is built according to the Neo-Platonic model, and which includes Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, Eckhart and many other princes of Christian mysticism. That the machines flew need not be questioned, nor have the fundamental laws of aviation changed. But we no longer know how to build those contraptions. Despite the gap between the claims of ultimacy made by mystics and the manifestly culture-bound language they use, their fragile myths did function as vehicles of ultimacy for them -- an ultimacy that could be expressed and experienced only in terms of those specific myths. Our present conceptions of spiritual space and of the technology for its conquest generate a very different body of conventions from those of classical mysticism, and these in turn will seem as farfetched to people in the future as the mystical maps of the past seem to us. Yet past texts, including the biblical ones, speak to us through the core phenomena of spiritual freedom to which they attest, despite the elaborate interpretative framework in which these phenomena are enshrined.

   But are the core phenomena themselves a conventional formation, arising in dependence on a congeries of contingent historical conditions? In the case of the Protestant peasant who is related to have spent days lost in contemplation on reading Romans 8:1 -- 'There is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus' --, should we say that, rather than appropriate the meaning of Paul in a luminous communication, the reader constructed his own contemporary vision, kindled by Paul's words, and shaped by subsequent theological development, notably the creative retrieval of Paul in the Lutheran tradition?

   A common core-experience cannot be distilled out of the various languages of ultimacy. Each of them is from the start a rich particular texture, and the ultimacy they secrete is the fine fruit of an entire religious culture. Like the experience of listening to a Beethoven quartet, 'music heard so deeply/That it is not heard at all, but you are the music/While the music lasts' (T. S. Eliot), the interiorized appreciation of the images, truths, presences constructed by a given religion is not an external confirmation of these, but their product. Yet as a musical ecstasy confirms the greatness of a musical opus, so a religious ecstasy confirms the greatness of a religious vision. Something clicks, something chimes, and one cries: 'That's it!'

   A context-free description of ultimacy might be possible if it was essentially a psychological experience. Then one might discover the corresponding brain-waves. But ultimacy is a matter more of being than of consciousness. It is a quality of reality itself. To isolate that quality independently of the cultural vehicles that open access to it would entail finding a truer, more objective, more universal language of ultimacy than any concrete tradition has found. It is as if one were to seek a true, objective language of beauty that would surpass and replace the many languages of the great poets. One might trace general patterns of the emergence of ultimacy in religious traditions or of the emergence of beauty in poetry. But ultimacy and beauty are not things but 'effects.' The effect of beauty in poetry is on each occasion singular, unrepeatable. The effect of ultimacy in religion has a similar individual irreducibility. One can be initiated into a religious tradition and led to its vision of ultimacy, so that one 'repeats' the experience of one's predecessors on this path. Similarly, one can come to appreciate a great poem and have the same experience of beauty as its previous readers had. There is a tradition of experience, its transmission from mind to mind. But just as the poetry is not a dispensable vehicle of the experience of beauty it transmits, neither are the conventions of a religious tradition separable from the ultimacy they convey. They are not ways of cutting a pre-given experiential cake according to culturally conditioned conceptual or linguistic schemes. The schemes are intrinsic elements of the cake, which is always already rich in intelligible patterns.

   Opposing talk of religious experience as culture-bound and historically contextualized, Anne Klein points to the direct perception of emptiness in Tibetan Mâdhyamika Buddhism. She claims that the immediate experience of ultimacy becomes independent of its conventional vehicles and in consequence attains a universality that common experience lacks. The conditioned makes the unconditioned possible, as the dissolution of conditions and the discovery of a realm of unconditioned freedom. It is thus that the ordinary mind can'experience a state that is unconditioned, omniscient, and pure,' 'direct experience of the final or ultimate nature of things' (Klein, 269). 'This knowledge and its object are unconditioned by particularities of history and thus accessible in the same form, albeit through different means, to all persons regardless of cultural or psychological particularity' (270). The cultural particularity of religious paths fades into insignificance when the ultimate emerges. The conundrum of 'how conceptual conditioning yields a nonconceptual experience of the unconditioned' (271) is solved by a gradualist approach in which conceptual analysis applied to the data of conventional awareness works in tandem with an abandonment of conceptuality for a nonconceptual, nondualistic experience of emptiness. This abandonment is achieved through mental calming and concentration, which allay the tensions between conceptual thought and direct perception and reduce the impact of conditioned objects on the perceiving subject. Here a path of awareness opens up that is less and less subject to the conditioning that provides the basis for historicist and constructivist epistemologies. Insight into the constructed character of mental experience is not the highest insight for Buddhism; for such constructions are seen as interfering with cognition of the unconstructed, emptiness.

  Against this, one might recall that in Mâdhyamika thought 'emptiness' is always 'emptiness of'; ultimate truth has as its basis some conventional truth; the unconditioned dawns on a conditioned mind, and emerges as the dissolution of just those conditions already in place. Buddhism may seem to preach a simple transcendence of constructions toward an experience of emptiness that is invariable, but in practice emptiness emerges on each occasion as a deconstruction of a given construction. Not the endless deconstruction of Derrida's différance, to be sure, but a deconstruction that finds something unconstructed, unconditioned at the heart of the constructed, conditioned. Ultimacy is always known as a conventionality deconstructed.

   Thus, while in its inscrutable inner core the unconditioned may lie beyond all conventional contexts, in its actual emergence it appears in a variety of styles. Plotinus's One is not the same thing as Buddhist emptiness, though both are given as the ultimate nature of things. The One emerges as a simplicity transcending the noetic realm, as mapped in the theory of the Nous, whereas emptiness emerges in the quiescence of the distinctions of our conventional dealings with the dependently arisen world, as mapped in Buddhist theory. The unconditioned in each case takes its color and its mode of emergence from the conditioned set-up in terms of which it is sighted, even if it defines itself entirely by negation of the conventional conditions. A Pauline mysticism of grace, similarly, depends on a specific mapping of the human condition in terms of bondage to sin and death and condemnation by the Law; the unconditioned that emerges is the unconditioned of this particular conditioned. Even when mystics insist most radically on the unconditioned nature of their vision, they do so in a way that involves reference to specific cultural conditions: Plotinus has set up his entire conceptual machinery so as to allow the unconditioned to manifest itself in this way. In itself utterly simple, the unconditioned nonetheless comes into view in function of the conventions prepared for its apprehension. The various discourses about the unconditioned, whether it is envisaged as nirvana, Brahman, spirit, or the Good converge in attributing to it such qualities as absolute simplicity. Yet the simplicity overcomes a different complexity in each system.

   The Buddhist doctrine of the twofold truth frees us then for a double reception of mystical witness: on the one had we recognize that the classic accounts remain beacons of ultimacy, on the other we recognize the constitutionally broken character of these accounts, all linked to archaic historical contexts, when a certain makeshift human language served effectively as a provisional skillful means for tuning in to ultimacy. We rejoice in this brokenness and irreducible pluralism, since it clarifies the conditions of a contemporary quest for ultimacy, holding out the promise that the ultimate is not hiding in a recondite past but is ready to be found anew in our present rag-and-bone shop of samsaric conventions. 


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Grace Before Being

From Philosophie de la religion entre Éthique et ontologie, ed. Marco M. Olivetti (Biblioteca dell'Archivio di Filosofia 14 = Archivio di Filosofia 64). Padua: CEDAM, pp. 121-34. 

The modern age has regrounded religious thought in two ways:

   (1) Enlightenment criteria of rationality have been applied to religious traditions, seen as constructions of the human mind, for which it must now assume full responsibility in a critical stocktaking. The justification and rethinking of religious belief in this key demands a perspicuous restructuring of the religious world from its roots.

   (2) Religious thinkers have performed a `step back' (Heidegger), from categories that objectify and distort religious reality to a more originary apprehension of the Sache selbst. The distinctive contours of the religious have come into view on a plane beyond ethical or ontological ratiocination. A line from Luther through Schleiermacher to Rudolph Otto's meditation on the `religious a priori' extends this `phenomenological turn' from the specific Christian case to religion in general.

   Unfortunately, there has been a gulf between these two paths of thought, which have tended to harden into the rival extremes of rationalism and fideism. The rational critique has become more and more attentive to the historicity and pluralism of religion while the phenomenological step back has tended to seek a single abiding essence (Schleiermacher's utter dependence; Barth's revelation-event; Eliade's sacred). Yet the two paths inherently need each other: religion cannot become rationally perspicuous without phenomenological clarification of its origins; conversely, such clarification withers into a biblicist or experiential positivism unless it opens fully to the demands and questions of critical reason.

   If Buddhism is currently enjoying an intellectual triumph in the West, it is because it appears to combine critical reason and phenomenological justesse in a free and flexible style such as Christianity has not known since the middle ages. Buddhist insight into the limits of language and conceptuality may provide the basis for reconciling the two faces of religion: its human face as a set of contingent culture-bound constructions, fragile imaginative strategies for arousing spiritual awareness, and its transhuman face as a vehicle of contact with some absolute or transcendent reality. We are led to see that pluralism, open-endedness, even a certain epistemological inconclusiveness, are inherent in the nature of religion, rather than unhappy accidents to be overcome. Yet in their very brokenness and inadequacy the religious paths that humanity has furrowed throughout the millennia are somehow charged with the conviction of being in contact with the supremely real: `we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God, not to us' (2 Cor. 4:7).

   This inherent doubleness in religion allows us a double freedom: the freedom to pursue a demystified critique of the various religious systems in historical perspective and the freedom to appreciate the irreducible claims of religious reality as they make themselves felt across these systems and their interplay. Exclusive allegiance to a single creed is increasingly felt to be a narrow and unsatisfactory way of reaching religious truth; believers are impelled by their faith itself to open out to interreligious space, as the locus of a more ultimate religious truth, not formulable as a synthesis but enacted in dialogal interplay.

   In the delicate art of theological and philosophical discernment which the opening up of interreligious space requires of us, the phenomenological concern with foundational events and the rational concern with justification, intelligibility and truth have equally important roles to play. Here I shall show how in thinking about grace the strength and limits of both approaches come successively into view, pointing the way to a fruitful alliance between them.

   I The Step Back

A shift of emphasis from ontology to ethics in philosophy of religion can be seen as an impoverishment. The ethical `ought' does not bring into view the givenness of being in all its richness, and the God it projects risks being no more than a cipher or regulative idea of ethical uprightness. The promotion of a moral religion, which renounces as pagan any rejoicing in being, is part of the ideological training of bourgeois society. It limits religion to what is of pragmatic use for the construction of the (bourgeois) good life. A shift from ontology to grace, however, moves in a quite different direction. It brings back the dimensions of uselessness, superfluity, surrender, which have no common measure with everyday rationality. If grace contests ontology, it does so not as whittling being down to something less substantial, but in the name of an event that cannot be fully comprehended in ontological categories.

   To the believer, grace is the defining attribute of God, and all the other divine attributes and the relations between God and creation are parsed in terms of it. The philosopher, in contrast, is likely to fit grace in under a more general rubric of providence or theodicy, not allowing it to put in question the established frameworks of ethical and ontological reasoning. A philosophy which questions the adequacy of these frameworks for interpreting religion risks ceasing to be philosophy. The subordination of grace condemns philosophy of religion to a certain tone-deafness, and if philosophy by its very nature must ignore grace, then the very project of a philosophy of religion is impossible. If philosophy has to treat grace as a counter in a game whose rules are dictated by ontological or ethical necessities, then it can never close in on the specifically religious.

   Grace is a transcendental notion; it is not merely a theme in the Christian symphony, but the key in which the symphony is written. If we seek indices of grace in other religious or philosophical systems, we find them not in local themes reminiscent of the Christian notion, but at the transcendental level, in the general complexion of reality as envisaged in these systems. Yet this generality is not of much help to the philosopher. It does not mean that grace is convertible with being or the good, as another name for the ultimate nature of reality. There is an excess of grace over the ideas of being and goodness, such that it can never be pinned down in ontological and ethical categories. Rather, grace prescribes a new kind of thinking, which overcomes these categories, showing them up as incomplete, and exhibits a critical power that propagates a disturbance within philosophy itself, relativising its claims to have grasped the real.

   A philosopher may declare that `all things are', and that `all things are good', but to say `all is grace' is to make a statement of a different order. The notion of grace could be seen as an algebraic function, concretised on each occasion through the provision of an unpredictable variable. To say that `all is grace' then means: `expect to find, on every occasion, that the event of grace takes place in some unforeseeable manner'. Generalities to the effect that `all that exists is a gratuitous gift, an expression of divine favour, and can exist only in utter dependence on the giver' miss the specificity of grace as event, and are quickly absorbed in common ontology. `All is grace' as uttered by Therese of Lisieux or Bernanos's country priest is not an ontological thesis but a surprising situational discovery; remove it from this context and you change the tone from wonder to flatness. With the change of tone everything is changed. For the language of grace refers primarily to the discovery of a gracious God in a lived human situation. Generalisation of such language cannot move outside the milieu of origin; it must remain confessional. Objective, scientific generalisations about grace have always either fallen flat or led to irresoluble antinomies.

   Events of grace are of such a texture that the ontological language they may call forth is unable to reflect their concrete impact. There is a maladjustment between the metaphysical horizon this language projects and the concrete topology of the space of faith and revelation in which the phenomena of grace unfold for contemplative thought. Theology has been thrown into inextricable confusion whenever it has sought to explain the precise modalities of the operation of grace in ontological terms. The effort to tailor discourse on grace in the categories of being, substance, quality, act, habit, quantity eventually breaks down as each of these terms is magnetised by their reference to a living reality which does not respect the constraints of their normal philosophical usage.

   Direct statements about grace, outside this confessional horizon, suffer the same disqualification as the statement `there exist physical objects', as misdirected attempts to express something that cannot be expressed in this way (see Wittgenstein, On Certainty). The Church is sparing in direct positive statements on grace, preferring to criticise errroneous views. Theology stutters when it tries to speak of grace as its object; instead it must seek to keep its discourse tuned to the key of grace; the word `grace' signals the kind of thinking required, but does not provide a definition. Thinking about grace moves in the realm of reflective not constitutive judgment. No methodological or dogmatic rules or concepts can assure the attunement is requires. Reason comes into play only secondarily, in critical reflection on the various discourses of grace, testing their authenticity and well-groundedness.

   Paul's language of grace often has recourse to ontological statements which imply the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. Yet the primary tenor of these statements is not this general ontological vision, but in each case an irreducible event. It is in connection with the call of Abraham that Paul speaks of God as `calling into existence the things that do not exist' (Rom. 4:17, kalountos ta me onta hos onta), and the experience of the Corinthian community is the objective correlative of the claim that God chooses `even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are' (1 Cor. 1:28). Paul's own apostolic mission furnishes the necessary context for another ontological statement: `I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain' (1 Cor. 15:9-10). Such statements are not parts of a general ontology, but are inherently marked by the dynamic temporality of the situation out of which they are spoken.

   Grace cannot be confined to a single saturated moment; it `rides time like riding a river' (Hopkins). This dynamic temporality is not allowed to unfold in a discourse which reduces grace to clear principles - speaking, for example, of our utter dependence on God if it were a given fact, to be subsumed under the general principle of the creature's ontological dependence on the creator. Translate Paul's self-description into an ontological analysis (even spicing it up with a Buddhist twist): `Paul's being is granted as a free gift of God and has no intrinsic substantiality', and you have lost its cutting edge. Even statements about grace that apply to human existence as a whole, such as `where sin increased, grace abounded all the more' (Rom. 5:20), are given a concrete inflection by their insertion in a framework of salvation history and of God's covenants with humanity. Moreover, they deal not with ontology but with temporal events, not with qualities of the soul but with lived relationships.

   Pauline rhetoric places ontology at the service of a dynamic temporal event, and in the process subjects it to a paradoxical twisting. What is non-being is chosen and becomes stronger than what is. All that Paul is, all his free acts and achievements, are done by grace: `neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth' (1 Cor. 3.7). Salvation `depends not upon man's will or exertion, but upon God's mercy' (Rom. 9:16). Pelagius insisted that good works are accomplished with the help of divine grace; but for Augustine this was not enough: the good works must be entirely and exclusively ascribed to the working of grace. Human freedom is not another factor beside grace, co-operating with it; the possibility of freedom is itself granted by grace, and the enactment of freedom is itself through and through a work of grace. Paul expresses this in language that borders on contradiction: `Achieve your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who achieves in you both the will and the achievement' (Phil. 2.12-13). Augustine speaks best of grace in taut paradoxes, which seemed nonsensical to Pelagius: `Da quod iubes et iube quod vis' (Conf. X 40).

   These paradoxes reflect the decentering nature of the event of grace. The human subject, finding himself or herself a prey to sin and death, is clothed with righteousness and restored to life through the sole mercy of God. This is radical turn-about in one's sense of identity: `It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me' (Gal. 2:20). Grace is a death to one's former self, and the discovery of an unsuspected life, which is simply given: `to make us rely not on ourselves, but on God who raises the dead' (2 Cor. 1:9). Even if the process is long-drawn-out, and even if the operation of grace blends into the general texture of life, its presence is still marked by sustained paradox, the paradox of a death which is life: `always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies' (2 Cor. 4:10), or the paradox of an alien righteousness: `For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God' (5:21). Read swiftly, Paul's rhetoric could lead one to grasp this paradox as a neat pattern of death and resurrection, or even in terms of a Platonic dualism of flesh and spirit. But a more attentive reading stays tuned to the non-assured, non-automatic nature of what is afoot, to the lurch at the heart of it, the leap, the letting-go.

   Logic can tidy up our talk about grace. It can project a scheme of the entire divine plan underlying the experience of grace. The divine gratuity can be parsed logically: Christ's death for sinners is the logical basis of justification, and this in turn is founded in God's need to reconcile his justice with mercy and not to let his creation go to waste. But the more logical the situation is made, the greater the danger that the event of grace becomes something automatically assured and loses its quality of gratuity and unpredictability. Conversely, attunement to grace can bring out the spiritual sense of the paradoxical structure of other doctrines, such as the Trinity and the Incarnation. These doctrines broke with an enveloping Platonist onto-theology through paradoxical conceptions which pointed the mind to the realm of mystery; but the resulting rearrangement of metaphysical notions such as substance and hypostasis remains opaque unless grasped as reflecting the situation of grace.

   When this paradoxical tautness slackens, the inertia of the natural attitude takes over. What reasonable common sense makes of grace is well illustrated in the first work of Christian systematic theology, Origen's On First Principles, which explains God's gracious election of Jacob, rather than Esau, as a reward for his pre-natal merits. Pelagianism is another name for this drift towards unimaginative rationalisations. The slogans of Pelagianism are those of modernity: achievement, accomplishment, competition, success, self-assertion, doing our part, `You can do it!' A Pelagian moralism pervades Christian preaching, for attention to the phenomenon of grace calls for a tense vigilance which is hard to sustain. Grace is objectified or reified, and becomes a gift which one then develop using one's free will, or a possession of the soul which one earns or loses by one's own choice and effort. God is subjected to our ethical or rational controlled and we lose touch with the situation of trusting surrender which is the context for all credal utterance.


   II Phenomenological Fixation

   The recovery of a sense of grace has always meant the shattering of some established rationality. But the powerful breakthrough to a new paradoxical mode of perception, if it becomes a pretext for an arrest of critical reflection, results in the illegitimate elevation of one particular experience of grace to universal status. When theology wins back from the murk of Pelagianising calculation a clear, free vision of the reality of grace, it is tempted to assert that vision as rigid dogma. When such cramping occurs, the preaching of grace can no longer authorise a wide variety of practices, in the freedom of the Spirit, but gives absolute status to a single ritualised technology of salvation - Catholic fetishisation of the sacraments, Pietist cultivation of conversion-experiences, Pure Land invocation of Amida Buddha. One or two scriptural texts become the canon within the canon, confirming transparently and univocally the approved model and ironing out the troublesome variety of the scriptural landscape.

   Even Augustine narrowed the experience of grace in this way. He saw grace as an interior, spiritual power, an invisible medicine which Christ pours into us a mysterious operation not to be perceived or marked in space and time (see Greshake 1972:114). Greshake sees Plotinian metaphysical ideals at work here, and proposes instead an understanding of grace as the opening up of a space of freedom by Christ and by his Church, an event of liberation that cannot be reduced to a metaphysics of interior presence, and that has temporal and spatial visibility. Freedom is temporally structured as exodus from past to future, not as a verifiable present possession. It is a dynamic project; try to isolate it as a merely present reality and it disappears.

   Luther's simul justus et peccator can be interpreted as such an exodic structure; isolate the sinner in his present state and he is a sinner, place him in the dynamic open horizon of the Christ-event, which he embraces in faith, and he is free, and can stand confidently before God in righteousness. The marvellous variety of his rhetoric, recreating his Anfechtungen and his release from them by the Word of the Gospel, dramatises the unexpectedness of grace in a thousand forms. His thorough experience of the dialectic of Law and Gospel, condemnation and justification, exposed not only the futility of seeking salvation through works, but also the ungroundedness of intellectualist discourses about salvation. The deployment of Platonic and Aristotelian categories in theology from Origen to Ockham was a distorting objectification, based on an inadequate grasp of the point of departure, the event of saving faith in God's promise. Luther experienced God's justification as `against all reason', including ethical reason. `All Luther's invective against "reason" takes its origin from this point' (Holl 1948:77). From a distance one might rationalise the justification of the godless, but from within that drama the impotence of reason is apparent.

   Luther's followers did not sustain the open, dynamic character of his thought. Their vision tended to narrow to a stylised rhetoric of fiducia, of being clothed with Christ's righteousness. The opposition between the faith-event and alienated reason became mechanical, yielding a rigid caricature of both. Such a disjunction between phenomenological radicality and mundane conceptuality, whereby faith focusses on its grounding event at the expense of an open dialogue with secular reason, brings a cramping of vision, a fixated apprehension of the event of grace itself. Luther is always thinking furiously, from the thick of his dramatic struggle. For ordinary theologians, such reflection has to be pursued at a distance. Grace becomes the elusive theme of a searching inquiry that stands in need of constant renewal. An appeal to first-hand experience in order to overthrow this constant reflection would here be a destructive short-circuit. It would elevate the projected experience to the status of a constitutive principle which puts an end to reflection, thus unwittingly creating a new intellectualist system.

   Such rigid championing of grace would dismiss ethical reason as arrogant human self-assertion before God, and see efforts to reflect rationally on the existence and nature of God as idolatry of a dead substance. Instead of converting theological thought towards a more flexible reflection, attuned to the phenomena, such a `positivism of revelation' maintains a divorce between the primary biblically grounded language of faith and the wider effort of faith to locate itself through reflection and dialogue in the horizon of contemporary culture.

   Each way of grasping the reality of grace is accompanied by the correlative projection of a way of denying that reality, and this projection is superimposed on the supposedly benighted opponents. Thus Paul projects a system of `works-righteousness' onto his Judaising opponents, and even onto Judaism itself. Augustine projects full-blown Pelagianism onto Pelagius. Pure Land Buddhists project a Promethean reliance on self-power onto the practitioners of Zen (see Tanabe 1986; Unno and Heisig 1990). Luther found the opponent his vision needed in Erasmus, Calvin in Osiander, Pascal in the Jesuits. Here is one source of the caricatures of Judaism spawned by Christian theology. The Judaism overcome by Paul is presented as an ethical rationalism, incapable of conceiving the gratuitous gift of forgiveness and justification of the godless. Justification is a `saturated phenomenon', exceeding all the normal rational expectations; in Lutheran reading of Paul, and perhaps to some extent in Paul himself, the Jewish world of Law corresponds to these expectations. Thus theology presumes to explain the entire living phenomenon of Judaism and Jewish life in cut and dried dogmatic terms: `If the Synagogue, persisting in its comfortless calendar, can and will know nothing of the fact that all has been made new, then it must all the more clamorously attest the fact that the old has passed away. It speaks of the darkness that came over the world in the hour in which Jesus passed away' (Barth 1942:290).

   But legalism or Pelagianism do not exist historically as fully constituted systems in opposition to grace. They are projections of the defenders of grace, who want to draw attention to potential distortions. The distortions in question are too subtle and pervasive to be clearly mapped and banished as an identifiable heresy. Rather, like mistakes against which a critic might warn in the field of art, they indicate a cluster of vague dangers, and alert us to the points where something has clearly gone wrong. The attempt to draw sharp lines between heresy and orthodoxy here is illuminating at first, but if pursued too far it blunts sensitivity to grace in the end, and the slogan `grace alone' can even become a mask for Pelagian self-assertion. When Luther strikes out in all directions, the effect is to shake us out of complacent, half-hearted interpretations of the Gospel. The formalisation of his insights in Melanchthon and Calvin gives them the stability of a beacon. Yet when this message is absolutised to such an extent that it is taken as complete and sufficient, so that there is no need of ongoing questioning and critical reflection, then it begins to change into a tawdry slogan.

   Contemporary historical consciousness offers an antidote to the cramping of the discourse on grace, by bringing out the immense variety of forms which this discourse has taken. Metaphysical theologising begins by taking `sin', `the Law', `grace', `faith' or `love' as unitary phenomena, but the history of their usage reveals that they are labels for highly diverse ensembles of situations and experiential patterns, held together by Wittgensteinian `family resemblances' (see O'Leary 1991). When we speak of the order of redemption, the events of predestination, election, justification, sanctification, glorification, divine self-communication, each of these phrases is no more than convenient shorthand for processes which resist summary and definition, and can be spoken of only in a congeries of narratives, taking different colours in different epochs.

   It may be feared that this pluralism undermines the phenomenological perspicuity of grace, and robs the various messages of grace of their urgency. Certainly it makes a direct discourse on grace more difficult than ever, and the realities of sin, divine judgement, faith, forgiveness, sanctification can no longer be invoked as self-evident reference points. They make themselves felt obliquely, in a variety of perspectives; the biblical language alerts us to the depth-dimension where such words have resonance, but the words no longer have the firmly defining authority as in the past. Yet this flexible, pluralistic use of religious terms can serve to let phenomena of grace emerge in an unforced way and to prompt a more discerning and creative reflection on them. The powerful, integral vision of Augustine or Luther may be a thing of the past, but a wide-ranging, exploratory approach may build up a way of talking about grace which has a wide realm of empirical reference and offers a rich fund for reflective thought.

   The process by which we are reconciled to God is already grasped under a plurality of models in the New Testament. The pictures given by Paul, the Synoptics, the deutero-Pauline letters, Hebrews, the Pastorals, John, do not entirely coincide. Nor can one distil from these a single objective account, for the subjective and objective are more intricately imbricated in theology than in quantum physics (see Faye and Folse 1994). Luther's clarification of the biblical event is not the definitive focussing of what the various accounts aimed at. Rather it is a modern construction, in response to the particular problems of a community whose image of God had become clouded by paralysing fear and uncertainty. Today what most stands in the way of a firm and confident relation to God is not this moral confusion but the remoteness of the very notion of God; a clarification of the Gospel that could overcome this, in our changed epistemological context, would be something quite different from Luther's vision.

   Augustine and Luther were liberating in their day, but now their message seems couched in all too predictable terms, within a framework that we would question at every point. We so not receive their teaching as the definitive gospel of grace, but only as a powerful variation, the characteristically Augustinian or Lutheran one, on the gospel themes. Even Paul and John have to be received as one form of witness among many, if their words are to resonate freely in the complex pluralistic awareness of today. A preaching of grace adjusted to present conditions would be aware of its own provisional status, as an adroit actualisation of some themes from the traditional repertory. Awareness of the imponderable degree to which our idea of God is a human projection forces us to renounce the attempt at permanent definition of the human-divine relationship and to be content with a language that, despite its metphorical texture, can hold water for the here and now.

   III Pluralistic Reflection

   Theology cannot subsist on an exclusively phenomenological diet (not even if that phenomenology is open to the immense variety of the given). It has also to pursue a clarification of the intelligibility and truth of religious belief on the basis of logical argumentation. The laws of theological reason are not reducible to those of phenomenological attention to the data. Philosophy of religion has a special role in raising the questions and setting the criteria of justification and intelligibility which have to be met by the apologetic enterprises of each religion. Theologians may fret at the tone-deafness of many analytic philosophers of religion in regard to the fundamental phenomena of revelation, but where the rational dimension of theology is concerned the independent rigour of the philosophers is a necessary point of reference (as the rigour of phenomenological philosophy provides a touchstone for theology's dealing with the phenomena).

   If the theological discourse on grace treats reason haughtily, in return the first question reason poses about grace is whether such a thing exists at all. Any authentic experience of grace will welcome such sceptical assessment of its status and sifting of its claims. A pure phenomenon of grace can never be extracted from the dense texture of Christian life. Grace does not impose itself in a phenomenological knockout, but is apprehended in a web of suppositions, spun out in stories and traditions. Even the sudden conversions of Paul and Augustine emerge traditions of interpretative activity. Hence, a logical definition of grace and proof of its existence is impossible to construct.

   Theologians have studied closely the Kantian critiques of pure theoretical and practical reason, in which reason plays a constitutive role, laying down the infrastructural plumbing of intelligibility in general, and they have neglected the Critique of Judgement, in which reason functions as a play of reflective judgement dealing with empirical phenomena that exceed its totalising grasp. The elusiveness of the notion of grace reminds us that theological reason is an exercise of reflection, which has been tempted to take itself for a prima philosophia, a speculative determination of first principles. Had theology realised how thoroughly it is referred to empirical sources of information and how in consequence the kind of thinking it is licensed to practice is merely reflective, it would be in a better position to enter into dialogue with other reflective discourses such as literary criticism.

   The tensions and antinomies which haunt historical discourses about grace are due to stretching a contextual model too far, in an attempt to construct a comprehensive rational system. It is not that reason itself is out of place here, but that the data it has to work on thwart such constructive enterprises. The contextual and situational bearing of the primary utterances of faith, the `dissemination' of the meaning of its basic terms, the pluralism built into the phenomena these terms attempt to name, all this is repressed when the project of rational totalisation is launched. Inadequate attention to the complexity of the point of departure causes the resulting constructions to tilt dangerously. Retrospectively they appear less as the building up of systematic insight than as tentative essays in reflection, serving to light up a particular situation. The Western metaphysical investment in theoretical reason led them to misread the situation as requiring a speculative resolution of permanent validity, but the brokenness of the attempt at this throws them back on the situation, and illuminates the situation, at least for us, just as much as the positive clarifications do.

   When essentialism breaks down, we see that `grace', like `emptiness' in Buddhist tradition, functions as a strategic word for lighting up the nature of spiritual reality and shattering false characterisations of it. If this is the way that the words `grace' and `emptiness' function, then their encounter cannot be choreographed as a dialectical interplay of metaphysical principles. Rather two styles, two sensibilities, brush against one another, exciting innumerable vibrations, and bringing a stereophonic richness to our apprehension both of religious and of everyday realities (see O'Leary 1996). Combining the rhetoric of grace with that of emptiness, we can bring their critical power to bear on the Pelagian and substantialist illusions to which religious discourse is prone (and worldly discourse much more so).

   In addition to this ecumenical attitude to the phenomenology of grace, rational reflection also recognises that the phenomenological realisation of grace co-exists with and interpenetrates other phenomenological realisations, such as awareness of the phenomenon of being (which is equally pluralistic). Phenomena of grace do not absorb or subordinate these worldly phenomena. Such subordination is attained only when both sets of phenomena are traced back to metaphysical foundations, with the hidden help of such jejune arguments as the following: `Since God is the giver of all being, the experience of being, if it is authentic, must be the experience of a gift'.

   The revelation of gratuity and dependence in these events is a clue to the ultimate nature of reality, a clue whose application to `the order of creation' is as flexible as the situations in which it is applied are diverse. The mapping of the graced situation has to proceed from within that situation; to transfer it to the medium of disinterested philosophical observation is to distort it. But can that mapping acquire a stable form? That would entail a freezing of the graced situation from within. Grace is a surprising, decentering reality, and can be spoken of at all only when this element of its temporality is brought into view. A general theory of donation can only falsify the `hints and guesses' offered by a concrete phenomenology of situations of grace and gift. Since grace is always a concrete event, a convenantal turning of God to humanity, its enlargement to a universal process of donation misses the unpredictability of its concrete occurrences.

   Grace before being, in the sense of thankfulness for the givenness of being, is best expressed not in the subordination of being to a single metaphysical principle, but in a dialogue between the different voices in which being speaks to us. The voices in which it speaks of itself, as an end in itself, the voices of art and of science, are not to be discredited as idolatrous, and forcibly changed into iconic voices, so that being is not longer entitled to exist except as a cipher of the transcendent. Such a subordination of worldly thinking to a vision of faith projects a system of religious metaphysics or an all-embracing religious phenomenology, which closes off the space within which both religious and worldly phenomena are manifest, the space of pluralistic thought, a space whose boundaries can never be securely charted. The integralist subordination of secular to religious categories short-circuits the dialogical openness without which religious thought turns in on itself incestuously. Such a system paints itself into a corner, unable to attend to the great variety of human experience of world, or even to the great variety of Christian experience of world as graced. One example of such metaphysical narrowing is the exaggerated Christocentrism of Barth or Von Balthasar, which prematurely seeks to find the name of Jesus Christ inscribed on every phenomenon.

   The temptation to systematise the religious outlook on reality in this way is strong. Conviction of one's utter dependence on grace does indeed extend to a vision of all reality as gift. Creation is marked by all the defining traits of grace: it is a free gift, unearned by any merits of ours, and which from its beginning throughout its entire duration places us in utter dependence on God's goodness: `unde merito et ista gratia dici potest, quia non praecedentium aliquorum bonorum operum meritis, sed gratuita Dei bonitate donata est' (Augustine, Ep. 177.7).

   Yet this vision does not disqualify alternative experiences of the givenness of being, those of Heidegger or Goethe for example. We cannot dragoon these experiences into a biblical horizon without distorting them. The believer's joyful acceptance of everything as God's gift cannot be exploited as a higher form of Seinsdenken, subsuming Heidegger's Es gibt, in an ultimate phenomenological clarification wherein the order of being becomes a subordinate branch of the order of grace. The reason is that Seinsdenken moves in the opposite direction from biblical celebration of creation, bringing into view the proper texture of being which this celebration is likely to overlook. The world does not fit into the box of a Christian aesthetics, but retains its own autonomous modes of presence, its `transdescendence', that will always be other than any religious set of categories brought to bear on them, despite flashes of transparency to these categories (as in some nature poems of Christian or Zen inspiration).

   This lack of a smooth fit between the thinking of being and the concern of salvation is a salutary tension, not to be ascribed to some mutinous idolatry of being. For Barth, any celebration of the play of worldhood which fails to make explicit reference to the doctrine of creation is an idolatrous misrecognition of the sovereignty of God: `The sovereignty of God has nothing to do with the sovereignty of caprice, chance or whim. We must rather learn from the revelation of divine sovereignty that the power of caprice, change or whim is precisely not a sovereign power but belongs to the realm of the evil rejected and denied by God, which as such has only the power of impotence' (Barth 1942: 212). Yet pluralism brings the insight that no language, even that of Scripture, and even when illuminated by contemplative experience, can enjoy a monopoly or be applied as an absolute norm in the reception of all others. Rather the authority of this language is confirmed only in fresh contact with other voices, each time in a situation-bound and unpredictable style.

   Grace is not a one-way message; the grace of the biblical covenant best appears when it recognises grace at work in uncovenanted forms outside the fold of orthodoxy, as in the New Testament figures of the Centurion, the Canaanite woman or Cornelius. Faced with Heidegger and Goethe we can pursue a double reading, searching out critically the Pelagian or idolatrous potential of their work, while at the same time finding in its irreplaceable witness to the gift-quality of being a resonance with the doctrine of grace (but not a mere echo of it). The aim of such reflective Christian dialogue with Goethe and Heidegger, comparable in its open-endedness to literary criticism, is not to form a definitive judgement on these authors but to enlarge the space of vision in which we dare to think and talk about grace.

   Phenomena of grace, like works of art in the Critique of Judgement, call rational reflection into play, but can never be exhaustively comprehended in any of the perspectives of reflection brought to bear on them. The `saturated phenomenon' (Marion 1992), or rather the dense web of experience in which we dimly discern workings of grace, calls forth a versatile exercise of reflective judgement but does not warrant constitutive concepts that would bring it under their systematic graasp. The play of judgement cannot confine itself to a small selection of phenomena indicative of grace, but must keep in view the widest possible range, including both the inner intangible realities of freedom, temptation, sin, forgiveness, sanctity, and the outer forms that manifest grace, including the word of scripture and the communal life of the Church.

   Marion objects to the policing of intuition by the categories and its confinement to the sensible in the first Critique. In the Critique of Judgement Kant speaks of the aesthetic idea as an intuition of the imagination `for which an adequate concept can never be found' (par. 57). Marion contrasts this with the intuition of the first Critique: now `intuition does not expose itself in the concept, but saturates it and makes it overexposed - invisible, not by defect, but by excess of light'. Perhaps the word `intuition' is equivocal here: the intuition which transcends the concept is no longer the pure intuition of the first Critique (the abstract minimum without which all concepts are empty), but a richly significant phenomenon, for which reflective judgement has to find appropriate concepts. The aesthetic idea is not an intuition given nakedly, without concepts (an impossibility for Kant), but a complex projection attained at an advanced stage of culture. Marion tries to show that the saturated phenomenon disrupts the infrastructural apparatus supposed to govern all phenomena in the first Critique (the axioms of intuition, anticipations of perception, analogies of experience, and postulates of empirical thought), but in doing so he commits a metabasis eis allo genos for the thwarting of reflective judgment by the sublime phenomenon is not the same thing as an overthrow of the basic conditions of intelligibility in general by an outbreak of pure intuition. Kant revels in a great variety of modes of givenness and of intelligibility, and an exclusively phenomenological focus cannot do justice to his complex map of what the mind can do.

   My conclusion, then, is that the reality of grace does not give itself to be thought in any single package, neither as an ontological structure to be grasped conceptually nor as a phenomenon to be apprehended in meditative thinking. In its endless variety it opens up a space of reflection in which all the capacities of the mind are activated, and in which religious thinking discovers that, beyond its mastery of principles, it has to become an adroit discernment, tracking the subtle play of a reality that constantly overturns the frameworks of ethical and ontological common sense.

   Philosophy of religion can draw from this a negative lesson about the limited reach of ethical and ontological principles in regard to religious existence, but for the reasons we have seen it cannot usefully supplement religious languages of grace with some general theory of the nature of grace. Aesthetics and philosophy of science are similarly thwarted by the living diversity of their realms of application, and are threatened with demotion to the status of mere handmaids to art criticism and scientific methodology, just as philosophy of religion may shrink to being an ancilla theologiae. That philosophers, when they approach religion, should be threatened in their identity as philosophers, and lie open to the charge of performative self-contradiction when they continue to philosophise, is the fate that stamps one as a religious philosopher, the fate of Pascal and Kierkegaard, Levinas and Tanabe. To worry at this tension between the aims of reason and a religious fact that thwarts them, and to discern this tension anew on each approach to a concrete religious phenomenon, is perhaps the principal task of the philosopher of religion.



Barth, Karl (1942). Kirchliche Dogmatik II/2. Zollikon: Evangelischer Verlag.

Faye, Jan, and Henry J. Folse, eds (1994). Neils Bohr and Contemporary Philosophy. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Greshake, Gisbert (1972). Gnade als konkrete Freiheit : Eine Untersuchung zur Gnadenlehre des Pelagius. Mainz: Gruenewald.

Holl, Karl (1948). Gesammelte Aufsaetze zur Kirchengeschichte I: Luther. Tubingen: Mohr.   

Marion, Jean-Luc (1992). `Le phénomène saturé'. In: Phénoménologie et théologie. Paris: Criterion, pp. 79-118.

O'Leary, Joseph S. (1991). `Impeded Witness: Newman Against Luther on Justification'. In: John Henry Newman: Reason, Rhetoric and Romanticism, ed. David Nicholls and Fergus Kerr. Bristol Press, pp. 153-93.

O'Leary, Joseph S. (1996). Religious Pluralism and Christian Truth. Edinburgh University Press.

Tanabe Hajime (1986). Philosophy as Metanoetics. Trans. Y. Takeuchi et al. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Unno, Taitetsu, and James W. Heisig, eds (1990). The Religious Philosophy of Tanabe Hajime. Asian Humanities Press.

Gift and Debt in the Economy of Salvation

From Le don et la dette, ed. Marco M. Olivetti (Biblioteca dell’Archivio di Filosofia = Archivio di Filosofia 72). Padua: CEDAM, 2004, pp. 579-89.    

In what way does the anthropological and philosophical discussion of gift and debt solicit Christian theology? What ‘gift’ does it bring to theology and what ‘debt’ of reflection does it exact of theology? It seems to me that it does not merely provide neutral elements of reflection, which might enrich and improve theological methods, but that it also troubles theology at the basic level of judgement, which concerns its most intimate orientation toward its subject-matter.

Judgement and Method in Theology

First let me sketch the relations between judgement and method in theology. Theological thinking is not simply a matter of deploying methods. In the last resort the faculty of judgement must come into play, and at this level one has to orient oneself on the basis of seasoned instinct. In addition, judgement is at work all along, implicitly or explicitly, in the way the methods are deployed. Judgement is a free, creative activity, not the mere ‘application’ of insights gained by more methodical ways of thinking. Beyond the data and their treatment in a variety of methods, judgement intervenes as the ultimate sovereign authority. A theology which renounced the sovereign activity of judgement would no longer be theology, but at best an incomplete preparation for the properly theological task. A theology which compromised the sovereignty of judgement, allowing it to be pre-empted by conclusions decided in advance, would be as inauthentic as any other science proceeding in this way. Theology has perhaps more than any other discipline betrayed itself by such compromises, on seemingly virtuous pretexts of humility and obedience. The freedom of judgement is the supreme intellectual gift of the theologian, but the gift brings with it a debt: one must use that freedom without fear.

Theology, unlike amateur religious reflection, proceeds on the basis of a methodical investigation of its sources and questions. But the play of reflective judgement remains free and takes responsibility for its decisions. If theological judgement is impeded by extrinsic factors, such as a misunderstanding of the role of authority, which becomes intrusive rather than enabling, then, bereft of the free play of reflection, theology shrivels to the mechanical application of dogmatic principles, or treads a mill of threadbare speculation, or mulls around among edifying lore with no sense of perspective. A theology that is not challenged and sharpened by the most vital questions of its time, or that envisions and addresses these questions only in terms of its own pre-given schemata, is an exercise in pseudo-judgement, shadow-boxing with stale issues or within outdated frames of reference. Such self-parody marks a time of ‘atonie théologique’ (Henri Tincq), and presents theological judgement with the extra task of cutting through a culture of pseudo-judgement.

Judgement enjoys sovereignty in every field of reflective thinking. (This kind of thinking is the theme of Kant’s third Critique; it lies beyond the determinative thinking analyzed in the first Critique, which concerns the certitudes of basic empirical experience, a matter of automatic and non-reflective judgement.) In the moral sphere judgement takes the form of conscience, which is informed by laws and their methodical analysis, but which itself proceeds in the free realm of reflection from which decision is born. A moral thinking that would make conscience the mere application of laws that are placed above criticism, would be a betrayal both of morality and of thinking. In the aesthetic realm judgement is taste, which is instructed by the principles of the arts and the experience of many works of art, but which is exercised in free response to the work before it, and which is accountable only to itself. Threats to the freedom of aesthetic judgement come from the pressures of fashion, pedantism or ideological correctness. A greater threat lies in the divorce of art from history and from the life of the spirit, so that aesthetic judgement shrivels to a connaisseurship of trivial sensations.

The gift and debt of judgement cannot be transferred to an authority or a method that could relieve us of them. Many swear by the phenomenological ideal of returning to the phenomena themselves, zu den Sachen selbst. But phenomenology, too, is a method, and it cannot supplant the role of judgement. In practice, phenomenology is not a pure science, but is initiated and guided by decisions and evaluations that belong to judgement. Phenomenology, in its various forms, has the status of an auxiliary set of techniques at the service of paths of thought that construct, in an endless plurality of styles, what are to count as the essential phenomena. Within theology, a phenomenological orientation acts to keep the discourse in touch with its alleged subject matter. What role and weight the theologian should accord to the phenomenological quest is itself a matter of judgement.

Even hermeneutics is a method that is auxiliary to judgement, and does not determine it or pre-empt it, though it is perhaps the most capacious of methods and the one that provides the ripest context for judgement, as it takes into account all the subtleties of historical understanding. Those who say that ‘theology is hermeneutics’ must define hermeneutics so broadly that it no longer offers a counter-balancing check to the free exercise of theological judgement. The identity and function of hermeneutics are better preserved if we confine it to the realm of interpretation, on which judgement supervenes. Interpretation is a subtle art and can be short-circuited by the rush to judgement. Or one can say that the exercise of interpretative judgement is enriched by proceeding under the sign of a suspension of final judgement, that is, of the evaluative decisions that are made on the basis of interpretation. Hermeneutics, like phenomenology, serves to recall theology to its basis, and the degree to which the theologian will invest in hermeneutical inquiry is again a matter for judgement.

    A clear division of labour may not be possible here, since hermeneutics culminates in the actualizing of past traditions for present understanding. Moreover, the hermeneutics of tradition is always guided by some prior judgement, for instance, by the choice whether to preserve the texture of doctrinal tradition in all its encrustations or instead to drive the glaring boulevards of modernity through the accumulations of a musty centro storico. Harnack’s Deutung of the history of dogma, for example, is not only interpretation but critical assessment at every point. No method can remain unaffected by the theological orientation of the one who deploys it, except at the most positivistic level of establishing textual and historical fact (and even at that level, the governing orientation leads one to note some facts rather than others). Still, in strengthening the methodological musculature of theology, we check the licence of opinion and save theology from being merely essayistic, so that it becomes a reproach even to major theological thinkers such as Barth or Rahner that they enunciate sweeping theological judgements without paying due tribute to the constraints of the various methods that would add ballast to their thought. The exercise of judgement will always be in tension with the weight of professional methodologies and will struggle to master the latter instead of being stifled by it.

A thousand factors have to be weighed in applying theological judgement on any particular issue. The polyvalent witness of Scripture and the voices of church authority demand their tribute of respect, which must always be a critical respect, and which can be mature only if these sources are mastered with hermeneutical finesse. The voices of contemporary faith and of modern or postmodern questioning must also be attended to with critical respect. Movements such as liberation theology and feminism will give judgement a new orientation that even at the level of basic exegesis will provide new questions and new focusses of attention to the methodologies deployed. The dialogue between tradition and modernity has lurched into new gear with the discovery that it can no longer be solely a Christian affair but must take into account the perspectives of Judaism, Islam, Buddhism. As a result we have entered a transitional period of fluctuation and indeterminacy, in which dogged defence of traditions co-exists inharmoniously with daring but undeveloped suggestions sketching new perspectives. Theological judgement in this context may not be able to arrive at substantive conclusions and may take the form of developing a culture of tolerance, openness, flexibility, with a view to forming judgements, eventually, on the richest possible basis.

Gift and Debt: Uneasy Themes

In reflection on gift and debt, likewise, a suspension of conclusive judgement may be necessary, as we take cognizance of the new material coming in from anthropological studies. The notions of gift and debt are pervasive in traditional dogmatic and moral theology, though they are not thematized and analysed for their own sakes. They surface in the play of theological reflection, as they do in everyday life, at a level that comes before methodical, systematic thinking. Indeed, it seems that complete methodological mastery of the rhetoric of gift and debt and its bearings is unattainable, because these topics keep on emerging in new forms with each new situation of giving or receiving, obliging or being obliged, that we encounter. Even if all the methodological consequences of anthropological study of gift and debt and of philosophical reflection on this study had been fully taken aboard by theology, the topics would still continue to offer a challenge to our finesse as we seek to deploy them in a seasoned theological judgement. A preacher will play with the harmonics of gift and debt in various styles, and it might be thought that they are notions best left to the tact of the preacher as he or she addresses a concrete occasion, rather than being reduced to some single standard account. Certainly a general theory of gift or debt, like the general theories of such topics as grace, merit, atonement in classical theology, can be no more than a rough guide to the intelligent use of these motives in concrete contexts. The role of theological judgement lies between formally constituted theories and the spontaneity of the preacher, critically reassessing the former and seeking to provide more reflective horizons for the latter.

   We have tended to think of gift and debt as simple, self-evident notions, but the anthropological and philosophical debates have revealed unsuspected complexity in them. A first question for theological judgement is to decide how important it is for theology to take account of these complications. It might be thought that a simple understanding of gift and debt is quite sufficient for the purposes of theology. However, given the tangled history of discussions of such themes as sin, grace, atonement, justification, merit, sacrifice in theology, it looks as if a basic clarification of the notions of gift and debt is needed in order to sift and renew this heritage. René Girard’s reflections on sacrifice, though widely questioned by anthropologists, have had a wholesome effect on thinking about the Atonement, enabling this doctrine to be reanchored in the realm of social, anthropological dynamics. Luminous anthropological discoveries about gift and debt should have a similar impact within theology.

Whether such luminous discoveries were in evidence at the 2004 Castelli colloquium is not clear. But the very exercise of rehearsing the philosophy and anthropology of gift and debt could not fail to touch a theological nerve, at a level more intimate than theory or dogma, reaching into that realm in which we muse uneasily (though perhaps without much sense of urgency), on the roles of obligation and gratuity in human and Christian existence. It was hard to know what were the important questions to ask, and how to orientate oneself in theological thinking about these elusive topics. Among the questions that arose in the discussions and that remained undecided, some were questions of philosophical anthropology: Is human being primarily a condition of debt or of gift? Does ‘you ought’ always imply ‘you can’, or do we face demands whose fulfilment is not at our free disposal? Others touched on the theology of grace: Can God give grace without some prior disposition of the will, be it only a mere ceasing to will evil? Is the demand represented by ‘the face of the other’ itself a grace which it is impossible to resist? Should we meditate first on the superabundance of divine gifts, which cannot be measured by human lack or need, or should we rather start with our condition of need and of default before the requirements of the Law so as then to understand the grace of Jesus Christ as the solution of our problems? Can philosophy found itself or does it always remain obliged to a religious datum and to a religious goal; that is, is it legitimate or possible to conceive an autonomous natural order of philosophical reasoning, or should we rather insist that philosophy is always a quest for wisdom led by grace? .

Our discussion of these issues alluded in a rather desultory way to the classical loci of dogmatic theology: the themes of creation, nature and grace, original sin, predestination, atonement, Law and Gospel, faith and reason. The topics of gift and debt are confusing for students of anthropology, in our own daily lives, and in our reading of Scripture. In a Christian reflection on them we reach automatically for dogmatic points of reference, though with a growing sense that their value is merely provisional, or even that to invoke these topics is a question-begging move, for a radical thinking of gift and debt should jolt our thinking out of these ruts. Though useful and unavoidable, the dogmatic references fell short of the human and religious experiences of gift and debt, to which theology can do justice only by thinking through and beyond the dogmatic heritage in order to reconfigure the landscape of theological reflection.

‘All that we have is the gift of the Creator; in particular we enjoy the gift of salvation; for both we owe a debt of gratitude’. Such representations are jaded, and difficult to repristinate. Dogmas and theologoumena serve to map what is called ‘the economy of salvation’, but the notion of salvation has itself become difficult to define, and our inherited maps presuppose definitions of salvation that no longer impose themselves as self-evident. The refocusing of our ideas of salvation, or whatever we may now choose to call it, will call for new modes of mapping the economy of salvation, and in these new mappings dogma may no longer be the primary frame of reference.

When, today, we seek to orient ourselves within the economy of Christian revelation as exhibited in the New Testament, we may be led to place the emphases in different places than in past accounts. The text offers no firm dogmatic landmarks, but a congeries of stories and sermons of great theological density. One might master the contents of Denzinger’s Enchiridion Symbolorum in a few weeks, but one has never mastered the implications of the New Testament. It is a text that lays claim to us by a thousand forms of gift and a thousand reminders of debt. Often it combines gift and debt in the same sentence: ‘He was delivered for our sins and rose for our justification’ (Rom. 4:25). We seek a map that will master the economy of these texts and allow us to situate the various claims they make on us. Aquinas, building on dogma, offers an objective, ontological map of the procession of creatures from God and their return to him with all the aids of redeeming grace. Luther, taking Galatians and Romans as the key to the structure of the New Testament economy, maps the existential shape of salvation, in which we are first condemned by the Law (the opus alienum Dei), and then granted the free gift of forgiveness (the opus proprium Dei), and in which we are first justified by faith alone and then sanctified and empowered for good works. The practical use of these maps leaves a lot of room for the exercise of judgement, amid ongoing Christian quarrels about the details of the maps and non-Christian scepticism about the value of any such map. Reading the New Testament, we continue to be affected by utterances that do not seem to fit neatly into any map. Even the Sermon on the Mount poses problems to the Lutheran map, which is forced to take this cornerstone of the Gospel as an intensification of the Law. Part of the art of judgement is to recognize the limited and relative value of any maps of the world of spirit.

Gift and debt are strenuous themes for discussion, because they both refer to actions requiring moral judgement and a creative response, actions that cannot be acquitted by some automatic procedure. It is much more relaxing to discuss the economy of salvation in terms of historical events or in terms of a metaphysics of substances and natures. But the themes of gift and debt for that very reason bring us to closer grips with the process or event of salvation. Instead of seeking to map the economy of salvation, we seek to relate to the New Testament events along the paths of gift and debt. Here again judgement comes into play. If we relate to the salvific events in the mode of debt, we end up trapped in a calculus of fear, or even a ‘logic of terror’ as Kurt Flasch calls Augustine’s theology of grace and predestination. Because we live in time and because our projects always outstrip their fulfillment, we are always falling short, always failing to realize our potential. Some interpretations of Christianity acerbate the unease and discontent this situation causes. But the sense of unpaid debt (Schuld) built into the temporal structure of existence should not be confused with guilt (Schuld) in the sense of sin. The struggle to prove oneself by achievements is one form of the insidious Pelagianism that has always impeded reception of the Gospel. The impediment is double: a servile attitude that seeks to placate an internalized super-ego and misses ‘the glorious liberty of the children of God’ (Rom. 8.21); a Promethean closedness against filial dependence and against dialogue with the divine Word. Servility and pride are the two sides of the same coin. But if salvation is a free gift, and if good works are not the means of salvation, anxiety about their quantity is misplaced. The free gift of justification releases us to produce, in creative liberty, ‘something beautiful for God’ and to be sovereign givers rather than slavish debt-payers. If the most creative disciples nonetheless characterize themselves as ‘unprofitable servants’ (Lk 17.10), this is not in a masochistic spirit of self-denigration, but in recognition that all they have achieved is a gift.

In handling the New Testament, we make the practical judgement that in order to receive the gift of salvation we must think of its first and foremost as a gift. This judgement is put forward in opposition to previous judgements that have had distorting effects. It is a judgement that rests on faith in divine generosity. The best warrant of this judgement, apart from that basic faith, is the splendour of what it allows us to see, for the first time, in the biblical texts. Paul’s exposition of the economy of salvation in Romans begins, like Buddhism, with the diagnosis of a painful state, to which it brings the remedy. Indeed, sin and death are to the fore in almost every part of Scripture. But as we allow these themes to touch us, we must keep in view that they are always accompanied by their obverse, the presence of healing grace, and indeed of ‘eternal life’ (Rom. 2.7; Jn 3.16). If the Law shows us in a state of moral debt, debt that cannot be paid, and if our bodies are forced to pay a debt of pain and decay, the salvation that overcomes these conditions does so not in a neat balancing of accounts but in an excess that shifts us to a new horizon. ‘Where sin abounded, grace has superabounded’ (Rom. 5.20).

How does one receive such a gift? Not, surely, by clarifying the logic of the Atonement and of how Christ has paid our debts, nor by speculating on conditions in oneself that make it possible for God to grant the gift. (Such theorizing does not grow organically out of the experience of salvation, but characterizes it from the outside according to a logic of debts and conditions whose appropriateness would have to be called in question.) The free gift of salvation is received by faith. To receive it, one must first be convinced of its reality, and then one can appropriate it gratefully. A religious education will produce these attitudes of faith and thanksgiving on command. But faced with the doubt which suggests that the entire rhetoric of salvation is inflated and illusionary, it becomes necessary to reground one’s conviction in a broad experiential basis. For this one looks beyond the drama of sin and salvation to its wider context in the general experience of created being. The gift of salvation is more credible when related to the fundamental gift of being itself. How do I receive the gift of my being from the hands of a gracious God? How do I give thanks for the being of all creation? These again are questions that offer a wide field of play for theological judgement.   


‘Creation’ is the first and fundamental datum in the economy of salvation. Forgetfulness of creation lies at the root of much of the literature of alienation, the philosophy of existential guilt (including perhaps Sein und Zeit), and a Jansenistic theologizing obsessed with sin. To affirm the fundamental goodness of creation, or, with Augustine, the convertibility of being and goodness, and to affirm the gift-quality of creation, under the slogan ‘all is grace’, is a basic Christian instinct, which makes for happiness. But there is something facile about it, which leaves us dissatisfied. We sense that it needs to be translated into more modern language, by confrontation with the often harsh realities of an evolutionary cosmos or by engagement with modern poetic responses to nature. A full-scale development of a Christian doctrine of creation without reference to the texture of the universe as currently known was attempted by Barth in the four fat volumes of the third part of his Dogmatics. It fell dismally flat, all the more so because of its imposition of Christocentric patterns on the creation. In contrast, Teilhard tackled the empirical, evolutionary shape of things, and conjured from them a far more engaging, though equally Christocentric vision.

    Above all, celebration of the goodness of creation needs to be confronted with the texture of temporal existence. Against a beatific, quietist metaphysics of divine presence, even the Bible, in the Book of Job or in Ecclesiastes, protests the absence and otherness of God. ‘All is grace’ cannot be a self-evident proposition to be used without further ado as the foundation for further construction. To give thanks for the wonder of being is a wholesome exercise, but it is not a speculative comprehension of the totality of things. Our speech does not stop, and cannot stop, in the posture of such contemplative celebration of what is: ‘As soon as we open our mouths, we speak words that ache with messianic longing, words whose power derives from the fact that they are hollowed out and emptied by the expectation of things to come, words that are “filled” only with “promise”’.[1] The referential nature of language, always pointing beyond itself, as well as its temporal structure, thwart the capacity of Denken to remain in the key of Danken. ‘All is grace’ has a different sense when uttered amid the human condition of lack and deferral, as a act of faith.

Trust in the creator and in providence is the core of biblical faith (and the basic platform for understanding between Judaism and Christianity). It is not an esoteric revelation but consists in the most down-to-earth religious insight. Can the same perhaps be said of the revelation of God in Christ? Rather than thinking of revelation as a beyond of reason that transmits obscure mysteries, we should return to its basic character as recognition of phenomena, notably of the impact of the teachings, deeds and fate of Jesus. The inflated career of ‘revelation’ in twentieth century theology and of ‘mystery’ in older theologies is checked by a renewed acquaintance with ‘Jesus the Jew’ (Geza Vermes) and with the human texture of the Hebrew Bible. Appreciation of these common realities is the beginning of a grateful reception of the gift of God. Our commerce with God, along the pathways of gift and debt, cannot be an unintelligible tissue of miracles and paradoxes, but is simply the realization of basic relationships of humans to the divine, relationships rooted deep in our nature. The superabundance of divine gifts and the awesome revelation of divine glory do not descend on us from a mystifying outside but lodge in the depths of our being. The summit of the New Testament revelation is that the divine dwells in us (Rom. 8:9-17; Jn 15:4-10; 17:21-3), a supreme gift which leaves us with only one debt: ‘we have a debt, but not to the flesh’ (Rom. 8:12), the duty to follow the indwelling Spirit, which is a Spirit of freedom.

Much has been made of the Christian’s duty to practice a pure and selfless giving, but there is a risk in this of confusing the freedom of the Spirit with a sublime ethical performance. If Christians can give selflessly, it is because the Spirit has freed them to do so, not because they have carried out some paradoxical reduction of the giver, the gift and the recipient (Jean-Luc Marion). On this the New Testament speaks in many voices, and does not harp moralistically on a single model of selfless giving without hope of return. The common sense ideas of reward and merit are everywhere in the Gospels. Jesus reproaches the nine lepers with their ingratitude (Lk. 17:17-18), and the parable of the talents suggest that God expects a return on his gifts (Mt. 25:24-7; Lk. 19:21-2). These mundane dimensions of giving well reflect the sense that ‘the earth is the Lord’s’ (Ps. 24.1). If they were banished from Christianity as impure, the entire realm of social justice, of rightly ordered give and take, would disappear as well. Similarly in Mahayana Buddhism the ideal of perfect giving, rooted in the wisdom of emptiness, wherein there is neither giver nor gift nor receiver, co-exists with many other forms of meritorious giving. The issue for theological judgement is not to reduce these various languages of gift to unity and system, but to draw on them in the most skilful and helpful way for creating a culture of generosity and justice today.

Theological judgement is largely a matter of being familiar with the texture of created and redeemed worldhood. There are no dogmatic principles or schemes that can provide that familiarity in encapsulated form. The field of values and creative possibilities that biblically shaped vision of the world opens out invites us to affirmation of grace even amid the tragedies and apparent meaninglessness of life, and this affirmation will always be a novel construction of meaning. When the free play of judgement is stifled, so it the possibility of such creative affirmation. What then replaces it is hollow ideological propaganda, the ill-judged imposition of sacred slogans on the face of redeemed creation.

Philosophy and Theology

Does one need to think theologically in order to give thanks for the gift of being? Can philosophy not discover givenness as the basic characteristic of all beings, and go on to infer the existence of a transcendent Giver? And if philosophy can do this, then it is surely obliged to do it. A philosophy that failed to follow its insight into the givenness of being through to its ultimate theological implications would be a deficent philosophy, as well as lying exposed to the harsh criticism of Paul in Romans 1.21-3.

We recall that in the Middle Ages the groundwork for theological reflection on creation was largely provided by the philosophers; or rather philosophical reflection on the created order was carried out within the space of theological summae or commentaries on the Sentences. But we are not living in the Middle Ages. It is a grace for theology today to have over against it an autonomous philosophy – no longer subordinated as a handmaid, but a true, independent other, inviting to dialogue. The desireable character of this state of affairs is something affirmed in a theological judgement, as is the degree and kind of dialogue with philosophy that the theologian chooses to undertake. (One undesireable aspect of it is that theologians have often preferred to let the emancipated philosophy go its own way, taking no interest in it, with the result that the fabric of theological discourse lacks the conceptual caliber that it possessed in the Middle Ages.)

The scholastic principle of rendering to philosophy the things that are philosophy’s, and to theology the things that are theology’s, is hard to apply at a time of apparently fruitful hybridization (especially in philosophy of religion). A purism that insists on grimly giving to each what is its due and demanding it for each can become an obstacle to insight and flexible thought. One should be conscious of these questions of boundary, which were of more concern to scholastics of the modern period than to the medieval masters, but if one becomes rigid about them one closes oneself to appreciation of authors like Aquinas.

Theologians may continue to claim that philosophy, ideally, should discover the mind’s orientation to God and its incapacity of finding the way to that goal without the assistance of theology. According to Gilson:

Aristotle did not claim that the human intellect was adequate to being qua being and naturally capable of grasping it. He even held the exact opposite since, according to him, being is directly accessible to us only through sense experience and the only being who fully deserves the title, namely, the intelligible, eludes us by its very purity. There would then be matter for revelation in the world of Aristotle.[2]

Philosophy, the theologian may insist, owes it to itself not to close off this ulterior horizon, not to refuse this gift. This scenario is perverted when philosophy reaches out to appropriate the themes of theology as proper to itself. Then revelation is no longer a gift, or is a gift in much the same sense as the other givens of sensible and intellectual experience. Philosophy aspires to generate those givens from its own resources, to grasp them rationally or as embodiments of reason, and it applies the same method to the data of revelation. A naturalistic account of religions as humanly fabricated responses to ultimate mystery leads directly into an historicist rationalism that can master the sequence of religious representations as imperfect forms of the mind’s encounter with the absolute, which can be fully expressed only in purely rational, conceptual terms.

Theologians warn that this imperialist outreach of philosophy threatens not only the integrity of theology but that of philosophy as well. Even at a humbler speculative level, philosophers who use the Gospels or the Torah as a source of insight into such themes as gift and debt should try to recreate that insight in purely rational terms[3], just as they should if they received similar insights from literature. This is in order to preserve the integrity of philosophy, which is not exegesis or literary criticism. But insofar as religious texts carry authority and the claim to convey divine knowledge, philosophy as such can lend no weight to the claim. It takes from the texts only what philosophical reason can legitimately take, and leaves the rest to theology. The Christ of the philosophers is an inherently problematic construct, for philosophy has no business speaking of Christ qua Christ.

These protocols are more often breached than observed, and no protests can stop a Leibniz, a Hegel or a Schelling from trespassing on theological ground when they have a mind to it. Perhaps this, too, is a situation that theologians can welcome. For when they find their themes taken over by philosophy they are challenged to identify what is irreducibly theological in them. Of course what is not irreducibly theological can be yielded with relief to secular scholars: to historians who trace the development of Christian ideas about such matters as sin, death, and purgatory; to philologists who take charge of the patristic literary heritage; to critics who deal with the Bible and Christian classics as literature; to sociologists and anthropologists who study Christian history in terms of such issues as gender, the body, power, and institutions of gift, debt and sacrifice; to analytical philosophers who deal not only in natural theology but in the logical problems involved in classical theological conundrums. But a troubling rivalry arises when philosophers or literary critics, with no formation in exegesis and historical theology, launch into theological discourse as they seek to fill a void they sense in the theological world. This has a stimulating effect, but it does not establish truly comprehensive horizons within which to exercise the play of theological judgement. When such lay theologizing is done under the title of philosophy, the integrity of two disciplines is at risk. But instead of merely countering this risk with a nervous insistence on what is owed to the proper identities of theology and philosophy, theologians should first welcome the element of gift in these performances, and then seek to draw from their own resources the return gift that the philosophers, by the audacity of their ‘theological turn’, reveal them to owe to a questioning world.    


[1] John D. Caputo, ‘Derrida and Marion’, in Jeffrey Bloechl, ed., Religious Experience and the End of Metaphysics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003), pp. 119-34; here pp. 130-1.

[2] Étienne Gilson, Jean Duns Scot (Paris: Vrin, 1952), p. 17.

[3] As Jean-Luc Marion does; compare his ‘Esquisse d’un concept phénoménologique du don.’ (Archivio di Filosofia 62 [1994], pp. 75-94), with the later treatments in Étant donné: Essai d'une phénoménologie de la donation (Presses Universitaires de France, 1997) and ‘La raison du don’ (Philosophie 78 [2003], pp. 3-32). The latter essay betrays a certain exhaustion of the phenomenological approach to gifts and gifthood; see my critique, ‘The Gift: A Trojan Horse in the Citadel of Phenomenology?’ in a forthcoming volume on Marion’s theory of the gift, edited by Ian Leask.

The Completeness of Christ and the Incompleteness of Christianity

The Completeness of Christ and the Incompleteness of Christianity

Apolonio Latar, one of my “Neocaths”, in a commendable dialogical initiative, has published on his website a response to my article, “Dogma and Religious Pluralism” (Australian Ejournal of Theology). The points he raises are quite in line with the CDF Declaration, Dominus Iesus (DI), published in 2000. Apolonio is too young perhaps to remember the controversy surrounding this document, authored by Cardinal Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI.

1. Hermeneutics of Dogma

Much of Apolonio Latar’s essay is a resume of Christian faith, drawing principally on the Greek Fathers. My own effort is to recover the substance of the truth conveyed by the Greek Fathers, but in categories that make it accessible and challenging to contemporary culture. To do this one needs to see the Greek Fathers historically, building on the seminal insight of Harnack (though without the sceptical consequences he tended to draw): “Dogma is a product of the Greek mind on the soil of the Gospel”. This allows a dynamic reading of the Fathers, attentive to the tension between the biblical and the Greek philosophical elements in their thought.

Apolonio picks out a sentence from Origen that I also find very striking: “One must dare to say that the goodness of Christ appears greater, more divine, and truly in the image of the Father, when he humbled himself in obedience unto death – death of the Crossthan had he clung unto his equality with the Father as an inalienable gift, and had refused to become a slave for the world's salvation” (Origen, In Joannem I, 32). This is striking because Origen elsewhere has a Platonist reaction to the Incarnation as a concession to the lowly world of the flesh, one that is suited to the simple faithful but is surpassed by more spiritual Christians who can grasp the Logos in its naked essence without such carnal trappings. The sentence quoted marks an eruption of biblical insight within the text, a daring overcoming of the Platonist mind-set. Such tensions within patristic writing make it richly readable for the deconstructionist literary critic. The hermeneutical interplay between Scripture, the Greek patristic epoch, and modernity demands a polyphonic theology, which does not flatten out the differences between these horizons but allows their critical interaction to generate a constant flow of fresh insight into the nature of Christian truth and the dynamics of its transition.

Hans Urs von Balthasar and his followers are rather closed to the dynamic historical and critical vision of which Harnack is the chief teacher (though Ratzinger speaks of Harnack with respect). They seek instead to liven up the patristic material with flamboyant speculation about divine kenosis, speculation that has no real basis in Scripture or in the Fathers and that even threatens to become a tritheistic fantasy. Others, following Jean-Luc Marion, derive a static phenomenology of revelation from the Fathers, which is protected against exposure to the empirical historical realities of Scripture or to modern historical critical consciousness. The majority of patristic scholars fail to relate the Fathers to Scripture and modernity in a creative and convincing way. Instead they tout the merits of patristic exegesis and the fourfold system of spiritual interpretation of Scripture in a manner that does not escape from a lame restorationism. The Fathers await a genuine retrieval for today, one that will demand of their readers a flexible and capacious mastery of philosophical and literary-critical hermeneutics.

All of this applies as well to the contemporary reception of the dogmas of the Councils. The dogmas must be reconnected to their biblical sources, as the latter are currently understood, and the hermeneutic gulf between the classical thought-forms presiding over the construction of the dogmas and the very different thought-forms of today must be negotiated. Apolonio quotes me as follows:If we differentiate between two levels of faith – the level of encounter and the level of dogma – we may choose to place the primary emphasis on the first level, especially in interreligious encounter, while keeping the second level in the background, and acknowledging that it has become to some degree obscure. He agrees with this, except for the claim that the level of dogma must be put in the background, other than provisionally and temporarily. Certainly, to exclude dogma from interreligious dialogue would be artificial. But the discussion of dogma should occur at its proper place. Within Christian theology itself the historical and hermeneutical discussion on the status and function of dogma is far from having attained a satisfactory final clarity. Protestantism conceives of dogmas as confessions, bearing witness to the scriptural revelation. Catholicism tends to see dogmatic formulations as giving a total synthesis of scriptural truth and as sharing the authority and divine origin of Scripture; though since Vatican II Catholics, too, tend to see dogma as ancillary to Scripture, and as playing a secondary role in defending the integrity of revelation rather than lording over it. Premature appeal to dogmas in Christian-Buddhist dialogue would produce a short-circuit. But it would indeed by an error to use the experiential and critical awareness such dialogue engenders as a pretext to downgrade dogma. Rather what should be aimed at is to bring dogma into a new perspective.

2. Universality of the Logos, Particularity of Jesus Christ

Apolonio quotes Peter van Inwagen, “May it not be that Islam and Buddhism are not merely accidental instruments of salvation, as literally anything under the sun may be, but intended instruments, spiritual equals of the Catholic Church? I have no way to prove that this is false. If I had, I should be living not by faith but by sight. I can say only this: if that suggestion were true, then the Bible and the Creeds and all of Jewish and Christian history (as Jews and Christians tell the story) is an illusion”. This seems to me rather panicky. The specific role of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with proving that other religions are more or less spiritual. From the point of view of spirituality Buddhists and Hindus might well surpass Christians and have a higher spiritual culture. Christianity could only benefit from learning from this. This would only bring out all the more the special saving role of Jesus Christ, which centers not on spiritual cultivation but on the forgiveness of sins.

Can we (re)interpret Christ in such a way that it makes us say that other religious people such as Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus encounter the same Christ as a Catholic would? In other words, when a Buddhist takes refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, is he encountering Christ? My reply to this question would go something like this: The divine Word that enlightens all human beings is present in a special way in the religions that are the finest products of the millennia-long spiritual quest of people of good will. The Spirit that moves in all hearts inspires the vision and grants the mystical graces that these religions attest. This is basically the view of Vatican II. It is a Logos-inclusivism similar to that of the early Greek Fathers such as Justin and Clement of Alexandria, which has roots also in the New Testament (Romans 1, Acts 17, John 1).

Is this encounter with the divine Logos and the divine Spirit an encounter with Jesus Christ? Karl  Rahner spoke of “anonymous Christians”, a phrase that without further parsing would seem to suggest that such is the case. Dominus Iesus strongly insists on the impossibility of separating the divine Word from the Word incarnate in Jesus Christ. Such a separation of the divine and human aspects of Christ would be Nestorianism. Apolonio himself writes: “To separate Christ from Jesus of Nazareth, as if a Buddhist can encounter Him by taking refuge in Buddha, who is not Jesus of Nazareth, is to divide the natures of Jesus which should be united”. The conundrums that emerge here are rather abstruse, and I think their thin, abstract quality reflects the fact that our interreligious thinking is still in its infancy, so that anything we say about the relationship among religions is bound to remain very sketchy and provisional. A Buddhist who opens himself to the teaching of the Buddha is indeed opening himself to the divine Word, which sheds a ray of its light on humanity through the Buddha’s teachings. Precisely because one cannot separate the Word from the Word Incarnate one may say that the Buddhist is also thereby opening himself or herself to Jesus Christ and becoming an anonymous Christian. Again, I note the unsatisfactory and aprioristic quality of these lines of reasoning.

Dominus Iesus thus claims that all revelation and salvation that people enjoy in other religions must be invisibly mediated by the incarnate Christ and by his Church. “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” (DI, 10). Nor is there any “economy of the Holy Spirit with a more universal breadth than that of the Incarnate Word, crucified and risen” (DI, 12). The claim that all grace is mediated by the incarnate Christ and his Church could be interpreted more gently if one first stressed the universal constant presence of grace at the core of reality. Christ and the Church are definitive historical ciphers of this grace, its eschatological incarnation, but they make sense only against this broader background, to which all the religions, each in its way, bear witness.

Apolonio feels that I disconnect the Incarnation from sin, forgetting that the very motive for the Incarnation was to overcome the ravages of original sin, as Athanasius and Thomas Aquinas testify. However, there are other theologians who would say that even without sin the Incarnation would have happened as the divine consummation of human destiny. That is the perspective of Scotus, if I remember aright, taken up by Teilhard and Rahner. John 1.1-18 certainly sounds closer to the latter position.

Apolonio says that I talk of “the universality of the Word, but never the particularity. I suggest that passages such as the following are an attempt to speak of both:

For John, the meaning of Christ cannot be circumscribed by the categories of ordinary human understanding, or even by any of the titles previously conferred on Jesus and which are assigned their place in the Johannine spectrum. Only the notion of the divine Wisdom or Word, also received from a rich anterior tradition, is commensurate with the significance of Jesus' life. His presence was that of a living, penetrating word of judgement and grace, which came from God and imprinted itself in the hearts of its hearers with a pneumatic immediacy. The scope of this word is unlimitably universal, for it is spoken from the unmasterable divine dimension; it is an epiphany of the divine glory, particularly in the hour of the cross; its authority is not lessened by the limitations of its historical form, for these are overcome by the interpreting Spirit (Jn 14.26; 16.7-14). [Please note that I do not say the historical form is dissolved, but that its limitations are overcome, as Christ is revealed “in a thousand places” (G.M. Hopkins) thanks to the interpreting Spirit.] 

In John's vision, the Word is at work in the world from the beginning. Its enfleshment in the life of Jesus is a novum that classical Christology has hastened to express in ontological terms; but these can be cashed phenomenologically as meaning an unprecedently concrete articulation of the divine Word. The truth of God and the truth of humanity are here brought into conjunction across the total reality of a spiritual event, a finite but open-ended and ongoing history, centred on the figure of Jesus. [Note that here I am re-rooting dogma in the unique historical and eschatological specificity of the Christ event.]

... We may think of the Incarnation as a dynamic interplay between two processes: on the one hand, a human history, beginning with Israel, opening up to a universal covenant with Jesus, and continuing in the ongoing pneumatic life of Jesus as it unfolds as the Gospel comes into dialogue with different cultures, religions and historical struggles; on the other hand the process of divine self-revelation and grace, a process which is sheerly universal, but which attains a particular concrete breakthrough in the history centered on Christ.

3. Relativism 

Dominus Iesus is full of warnings against theological errors that have arisen in the course of interreligious dialogue. But these warnings must be seen in the perspective of the wider positive developments in dialogue that have been afoot since Vatican II. Dominus Iesus is a footnote to these, not the Church’s primary utterance on interreligious dialogue. When it says that  “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”, and when it points to “the difficulty in understanding and accepting the presence of definitive and eschatological events in history; the metaphysical emptying or 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 interpret Sacred Scripture outside the Tradition and Magisterium of the Church” (DI,. 4), interreligious theologians like myself will certainly feel that we are being “got at”, but we will also recognize that the dangers signalled are quite real ones and that caution is in order.

A facile relativism is certainly rife both in popular culture and in the academy today, in revulsion against its polar opposite, fundamentalism. There is also a strong pressure on theologians to abandon the dogmatic heritage founded on the definitions of early Councils. But dangers are sometimes unavoidable, even salutary, and a theology that had no exposure to danger would be a cocoon, a refuge from the real questions posed by our contemporaries. 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” (DI, 14). But in such exploration we must be open to surprises of the Spirit, who may have assured to Islam or to Buddhism a powerful corrective role in regard to our ever incomplete understanding of Christ.

Apolonio quotes Rahner on Jesus Christ as God’s definitive Word to humankind, to which nothing more could be added, and finds this to be in contradiction with my view that pluralism is “intrinsic to the nature of the religions as open-ended, incomplete, and always culture-bound paths of thought and imagination”. But we must distinguish two levels here. On one hand, Jesus is the eschatological saviour, the definitive final path of salvation, leading history to its ultimate goal; in this happening of Christ as the Eschatological Event (Bultmann) the eternal divine Word is spoken into human history (according to John 1.14). On the other hand, the full realization of this in the subsequent course of history, according to the Johannine Jesus’s promise that the Spirit will lead the believers into the fulness of truth, is another matter. Christ is complete but our understanding of Christ is never complete. “To say that the Christian religion is incomplete is to reject Jesus as the absolute savior” (Apolonio) is too summary a judgment. While Christ is fully present in his Church and in the sacraments, nonetheless, the Christian religion as we understand and practice it at any given time is a partial realization of the fulness of the Christ Event. Our understanding is capable of revolutionary enrichment by the Spirit of Christ, and such enrichment may occur in particular along the paths of interreligious dialogue. The Logos in Christ goes to meet himself in the Logos that enlightens every human heart. The eschatological role of the risen Christ is realized in a new way as Christ is connected with the various peoples and cultures to whom he is announced. Each of these cultures brings out a new facet of Christ. Again, this is a sketchy heuristic vision, one close to that of Paul VI who saw the religions of the world converging on the crib (Christmas sermon, 1975). (I note that Jacques Dupuis quoted my remarks to this effect in his book Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism, about which the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a critical notification on the same day as Dominus Iesus.)

“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 completenesss by any historical religion, neither by Christianity nor by Jesus Christ” (DI, 6).  Here again the distinction between the completeness of Christ and the incompleteness of Christianity helps to avoid the error of relativism while remaining open to learning from the encounter with other traditions. The true religion is not Christianity in isolation but Christianity in dialogue, for it is on the way to an integral understanding of Christ when it embarks on dialogue with the other, whereas if it were to close off such dialogue it would also close out the Spirit that leads us into all truth, according to the promise of Christ.

“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” (DI, 7). “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” (DI, 8). The eternal Word is indeed the source of all goodness and grace, and is most fully and definitively incarnate in the Christ-event and the Christ-process. But the reality of Christianity includes a reference to the other religions, for the Gospel goes forth to the world. Its globality and completeness are an open globality, in that Jesus preaches the inclusive Kingdom community. His church exists not for itself but for the world.

Apolonio asks: “Why is the relativization of the Christian faith necessary if the Christian faith possesses the final word of God?” But what is relative is not the faith that opens itself to the absoluteness of the divine in Jesus and that commits itself to the particularity of his eschatological role. What is relative is the human historical context and language in which that faith finds its ever-changing expression.

I do not say that “the dogmas are only good for us and not for everyone else” or that “dogmas are only true for me and not for you”. This is far indeed from my conception of truth, as explained in Religious Pluralism and Christian Truth.

Apolonio writes: “Sure, there can be developments of doctrine. But can we reinterpret the doctrines as if they can be interchangeable with the doctrines of other religions?” Of course we cannot, but we can find analogies in other religions that light up in a new way the significance of the Gospel.

It seems to me that religious pluralism is not a form of toleration but a destruction of the meaning and value of the Christian faith, and therefore the reason for the Christian existence. Why should I, who have committed myself to the Person of Jesus of Nazareth, follow Him, even if the very sacrifice of my life requires it, if I can simply jump into another religion?” No doubt some versions of religious pluralism are exposed to these objections. But an interreligious dialogue that remains rooted in the truth of the Christian faith can find that faith deepened, clarified and brought into a newly persuasive perspective thanks to the give and take with insights from other traditions.

Apolonio quotes this statement from me: “In Buddhism, the experience of emptiness belongs to this level of lived encounter. It is an encounter with ultimate saving reality analogous to the Christian encounter with the risen Christ. The encounter between these encounters can happen at the level of contemplation, but it should also happen at the everyday level of faith, through a sharing of languages, which for the Christian means an attempt to speak of Christ in Buddhist terms. Of course there is no point in doing this unless the Christian accepts that the Buddhist experience is an encounter with the absolutely real, just as a Buddhist could not draw on Christian language unless he believed it to speak from the realm of ultimacy”. Apolonio “can agree that there may be some Buddhists who encounter Christ in some way through their experience of emptiness. But this rather misses the point. I would not say that the Buddhist experience of emptiness is the same as or a replacement of the encounter with the risen Christ. What I am saying is that its analogies with the paschal experience help Christians understand the Resurrection more deeply. If Greek philosophy aided the Fathers in their effort to express the paschal mystery and if contemporary Western thought and literature has a similar role for modern theologians, what is more fitting than that the great religious traditions born in India, and known in the West for only two centuries, should serve as sources for a renewed understanding of the faith?

I do not disagree that “the experience of the Buddhist is missing something which is essential to his nature as a religious person” insofar as it does not attain to “a communion with the life, death, and resurrection of the Person of Jesus Christ”. But as a Christian I would hope that “anonymously” the Buddhist is implicated in the paschal mystery; after all it is Christ who draws people into that mystery, and we should be at least as “generous” as the Church Fathers in seeing non-Christians as enjoying this “anonymous” communion.

We might also surmise that in the divine dispensation the Christian experience is also missing something that Buddhism can bring. Buddhism may be “gravely defective” as regards salvation, as DI teaches, but Christianity may be gravely defective in another sense – I mean as a historical formation, rather than as regards the ultimate reality and eschatological saving role of Christ. I am told that Paul Ricoeur, in dialogue with Hans Kung on ARTE television, claimed that the monotheistic religions needed to heal the violence at their foundations and that mystical wisdom was required for this; surely Buddhism can teach us here?

4. The Resurrection

The core of Apolonio’s unease with my essay concerns the Resurrection. Can anything compare to the resurrection of Jesus? If so, then the whole Christian faith is destroyed. For anything to compare to the resurrection of Jesus is to say that there is another savior other than Jesus. What Apolonio is objecting to here is the idea (inspired by John Keenan’s book The Gospel of Mark) that the Buddha’s enlightenment is a breakthrough to ultimacy that invites comparison with the Resurrection. The Resurrection is not an isolated event; it makes sense only as related to the rest of Scripture; hence the Emmaus story of the risen Christ showing his disciples how to read the Scriptures. The Greek Fathers related the Resurrection to Greek conceptions of immortality. Today we clarify the resurrection by relating it to Buddhist or Vedantic notions of the breakthrough to ultimacy. None of this reduces the uniqueness of the Resurrection as a specifically eschatological event, as the breakthrough to God’s Kingdom into history. But it helps nonetheless to clarify the pneumatic dimension to which all the resurrection narratives point.

Discussion of this theme ranges between “realistic” accounts that insist heavily on the alleged empirical signs of the miraculous event, such as the empty tomb and the appearances, and more “spiritualizing” accounts that tend to reduce the resurrection to a mere interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ life and death. Paul Tillich, in the third volume of his Systematic Theology, gives a convincing account of the Resurrection as a objectively real event, namely, the event of being grasped and overwhelmed by the manifestation of Christ as a life-giving Spirit. The lighting-up of the spiritual meaning of the life and teachings of Jesus is not merely a subjective act of interpretation but a joyful conversion initiated by the Spirit of Christ himself. Bishop N. T. Wright in his rather hectoring book, The Resurrection of the Son of God, admits the contradictions in the concluding chapters of the four gospels, and accepts that each evangelist took the liberty to rewrite an older tradition in the way best suited to his gospel. He claims that the convergence of all the reports on an identical phenomenology of the risen Christ’s presence among his disciples testifies to the basic historicity of the appearance stories. But for all his bustle and bluster, Bishop Wright leaves us in the end much as we were. For even if we accept that the presentation of Christ in Luke 24 and John 21 is much the same as in John 20 (which is very doubtful), what is presented is something so elusive and spiritual that it does not really add much to the sober list of Paul or the interpretation thereof by Tillich.

John Keenan offers a startling correlation of the resurrection and Buddhist insight: For John Keenan: “The resurrection stands as the breakdown of all conventional linear events and the breakthrough to awareness of the complete otherness of ultimate meaning” (The Gospel of Mark, 366). Useless, then, to try to circumscribe this ultimate spiritual reality by insisting on empirical data or by giving a dogmatic definition of the resurrection-event. Resurrection means awakening to the ultimate reality signified conventionally by the entire ministry and passion of Jesus. The resurrection narratives, if taken literally, take us into an unreal world in which the laws of nature are broken at every moment. But if these miracles are taken as symbolic representations of the breakthrough of ultimate meaning everything falls back into place. In all probability the laws of nature are never suspended and apparent miracles are ultimately explicable in wider natural terms that take account of a creative spiritual dynamic in the universe. The resurrection could be taken as the ultimate miracle in this sense, that is, as a revelation of the ultimate triumph of life over death. As such it belongs not to a realm of magical interruptions of nature's course, but to the realm of ultimate meaning, or what Paul and John call “Spirit”. The most trustworthy witness to the Resurrection, namely, the list of appearances in I Cor. 15 and the general resurrection-awareness in which the New Testament bathes, does not refer to miraculous happenings at all.

Keenan is commenting on Mark 16.1-8, the rather stark ending of the original gospel. When Matthew rewrites this he has Jesus appear to the women, treating their reaction to the Marcan angel’s message as a case of misunderstanding which Jesus himself now corrects. Keenan writes: “Mark is not trying to demonstrate the truth of the resurrection within the context of imagined thinking, for no such demonstration is possible. Rather, the point is that Jesus is not there within conventional frames of reference, and thus not within the realm of words and judgments that might be called upon to demonstrate his renewed existence” (393). “There are no resurrection appearances because Jesus is beyond empirical validation. He will not ‘reappear’ even in


. The resurrected Jesus can be seen only upon the awakening of conversion that he came to preach about, not in some supernaturally perceptible coming back to show his new glorified body” (394). “Through his life and death, Jesus has resurrected the ordinary dependently co-arisen course of life, infusing it with his presence” (395). “His resurrection is an awakening to the eschatological wisdom of God-awareness, empty of any identifying image or idea, and to the subsequently attained wisdom of reengaged world awareness, with all the images and ideas needed to live and witness to the gospel” (397). “There is no great day when the Lord comes in all his glory and gives Jesus' enemies what for. The eschaton comes in the everyday suffering and the everyday resurrection from that suffering” (358).

I am not entirely happy with Keenan’s tendency to reduce the eschatological to ultimacy. In the biblical presentation the eschatological event of the resurrection is more tightly connected with history and with the end of history, though we little understand what this means. The evolutionist perspective adopted by Rahner and Teilhard can perhaps give a sharper profile to this claim.

Of course all this may sound as if the resurrection-faith hangs on a very thin thread. Yet the thread is no thinner than that on which Buddhism hangs. It consists in contemplative insight, rather than empirical proofs. Matthew Arnold claimed that the facts on which Christian faith depended had failed it, leaving only the poetry. But for Keenan the true facts are of a spiritual order, the breakthrough of ultimate reality in the figure of Jesus, which like the Buddha's enlightenment is received not by blind faith but by growth in insight. As to the resurrection of the individual believer, this too becomes nebulous, about as intangible as Buddhist nirvana. The voice of the Johannine Christ, assuring us of the presence of eternal life, has the same calm authority as the voice of the Buddha proclaiming nirvana. But we can appropriate the message only by letting go of worldly or egotistic expectations.

Beyond that, there is the experience of being grasped by the risen Christ not merely as representing a universal realm of spiritual ultimacy but also as the Creator’s eschatological intervention in history to lead it to its goal. The proof that such an event has occurred cannot be found by quizzing the narratives of the empty tomb and the appearances, or by mulling over the mythological representations in which the eschatological message of Jesus and the early Church is clothed. The proof is rather inscribed in the total dynamic of the New Testament and the ongoing history to which it testifies. The resurrection is the ultimate horizon of Christianity, which can only be approached through opening one’s mind and heart wide to the full dimensions of the Christ-event. We must not seek the living among the dead, but espouse the living dynamic of tradition in order to be carried forward, in dialogue with all humanity, into the large and free world that Christ grants us.

Modern Historical Consciousness in Roman Catholic Thought

A talk given to the Kyoto Zen Symposium, and published in Zen Buddhism Today 13 (1996).

In discussing modernity I feel a constant tension, for the subject is politically laden. Each topic I touch on has been a bone of contention between conservatives and progressives, and on very few of these topics has the controversy reached a point of final rest. My basic orientation is clear: I believe that my church must pursue more whole-heartedly the opening to modernity begun at Vatican II, especially in the intellectual sphere. This entails a critical, revisionist review of its historical tradition, a dialogal opening, in mutual critique, to other traditions, and an honest facing up to the questions which modern critical reason poses to Christian faith. But within this general orientation there is ample room for scruple and nuance as one tries to do equal justice to the claims of tradition and of modernity. The tension of this effort is greater when one makes modernity an explicit theme, situating one's critical thoughts in relation to the long hard struggle that has been going on between the modern world and the Roman church for perhaps as long as seven centuries.

   As one traverses this territory one must pick one's steps with gingerly caution, for every inch of the terrain has been fought over again and again. Sometimes one finds that the modern position is now well established, and one is running through an open door; sometimes some resistance will still be felt, and a rearguard defence is still being put up; sometimes one runs into sheer taboo, into questions that may not be asked, sacred cows that cannot be dislodged, - or permanent truths that no modernizing can be allowed to undermine. Sometimes, too, confident positions of modernity, once taken for granted, have come to seem problematic, and one begins to see merit in older approaches. Karl Barth's revulsion against liberal Protestantism or the recent queries of John Milbank illustrate how theological modernity can suddenly come to seem old-fashioned. To remain modern, modernity has to keep on its toes, constantly adjusting itself to the misgivings raised against it. Otherwise it soon ends in a museum, alongside the failed prophecies of Marx and Nietzsche.

   Given its complex historical roots and its mandatory reference to the historical figure of Jesus Christ, one would expect Christian theology to have a more sophisticated sense of historicity than most other disciplines. Indeed, the church has always cultivated a vivid consciousness of its own past, whether understanding it as a record of glorious achievement (as in triumphalist Roman Catholic apologetics) or as a history of sin and error (as in Reformation or Pietist polemics). However, from early on a variety of theological methods served to idealize or stylize the church's history and pre-history, creating a series of interlocking myths (essentialist myths of pure origins and unbroken continuity), which the modern critical sense of historicity has had to dismantle piece by piece.

   Perhaps the most potent of these theological techniques was the allegorical interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures, brought to perfection by Origen of Alexandria in the third century, which reduced the history of Israel to a set of veiled revelations of Christ, leaving no autonomy to the Hebrew world as a challenging other over against Christianity. This repression of Israel's historicity was at the same time a repression of pluralism, an elimination of the interreligious horizon within which Christianity was born (the Greco-Roman religious other was even more effectively integrated and overcome after Constantine: as an independent entity, it disappeared without trace).

   Today, as a critical modern consciousness undoes these idealizing myths, they bring to light not only the repressed other (including the often caricatured `heretics' and other groups on the church's margins), but the otherness of previous styles of Christian identity. The church's various pasts present an alien face, relativizing the church's present identity, and revealing that its apparent monolithic identity across time breaks down into a series of disparate formations.

   Scriptural scholarship has brought Christians face to face with the otherness of Israel, but also with the otherness of the historical Jesus and of the early church, thus introducing a historical pluralism into the core of Christian self-identity. The figure of Jesus is already to some extent dehistoricized in the New Testament itself, while the Acts of the Apostles projects an idyllic image of the primitive church. The evidence of pluralism and conflicting theologies in the New Testament was ignored by Christians until Luther reactualized Paul's controversy with Peter, and has been excavated in its theological and sociological aspects only by modern scholarship.

   Roman Catholic teaching sees the institutional decisions of the second century - the apostolic succession; the threefold ministry of bishop, priest, deacon; the canon of Scripture - as matters of divine law, ius divinum, established for all time. The doctrinal definitions of the great councils of the fourth and fifth centuries which defined the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation are seen as infallible and unrevisable, and there has been a strong tendancy to see even the language and conceptuality of these councils as having permanent validity. While Catholic thinkers have been realizing since the seventeenth century that a process of historical development preceded the establishment of these pillars of the church's identity, it is only recently that we have begun to suspect that these monoliths mask the differences and discontinuities, the conflict of interpretations, the change and movement, which are the stuff of history and which insinuate pluralism and change into the heart of Christian identity.

   If such thinking becomes established within Catholicism it will bring us closer to the Protestant approach when tends to see these past decisions as revisable (at least in theory) in light of a fuller understanding of scriptural revelation. The present crisis of the Roman Catholic priesthood is prompting Catholic thinkers such as Edward Schillebeeckx and Joseph Moingt to explore the variety of ministries in the primitive church before the emergence of what Lutheran exegetes call `early Catholicism.' Such willingness to view Christian ministry as a historical and possibly contingent formation is a modern attitude that generates extreme unease in the Vatican, for the genealogy of ministry, the sacraments and the papacy has been a flashpoint of conflict between historical questioning and Roman orthodoxy ever since Luther.

How Theology Became Historical

   Though bearing in every detail of its teaching and organization the marks of a complex historical genesis, medieval Christianity presented itself as a seamless fabric, stamped with eternity. The ecclesiastical hierarchy was modeled on the heavenly hierarchy of angels (as Pseudo-Dionysius had elaborated), and the entirety of the Creed and the sacraments was conceived as coming directly by unbroken transmission from the apostles. Medieval scholasticism inhabited a universe of being in which history had very little importance. Even so acute a thinker as Thomas Aquinas does not advert to the epochal diversity between the thought-forms of the Bible, the Fathers and his own time. Christian truth was transmitted through the ages with such transparency that the words of the Psalms, the Gospels and the early Councils could all be quoted as if their meaning was immediately apparent. Past texts were not yet experienced as foreign and opaque, and so there was no need of hermeneutics in the modern sense.

   The crisis of the medieval synthesis begins about 1300. The logical empiricism and anti-Papal politics of William Ockham, who is often seen as a key figure in the genesis of modernity, put in question basic ontological and ecclesiastical ideals. Distinguishing the order of absolute logical possibility and the order factually willed by God, Ockham conveyed a sense of the contingency, even arbitrariness, of the world of Christian revelation.

   The ahistorical transparency of medieval theology was undermined more tellingly by the historical researches of Renaissance scholars. Their return to the sources, and to the Greek language, was subtly subversive. Aristotle in Greek breathed a different air from that of scholastic categories such as essentia, substantia, actualitas, potentia. Plato began to emerge, shedding the age-old cocoon of the Neo-Platonic interpretation, as a quirky, questioning thinker. The study of the sources put in question not only their Latin interpretation. It also exposed the ancient texts themselves to a critical gaze. Thus the awesome authority of Dionysius the Areopagite suffered a costly blow with Lorenzo Valla's discovery that the texts were pseudonymous. Plato and Aristotle came to seem archaic, the happy hunting-ground of a scholarly elite, no longer voices of immediate relevance for Christian theology. Due to the labours of Erasmus and his colleagues, the Greek New Testament began to emerge as a sterling source of revelation, to which church tradition had not done justice. Symbolic of the clash between scholasticism and scholarship was the condemnation of the great Hebrew scholar Johannes Reuchlin (1453-1522) by the Dominican inquisitor of Cologne in 1513. Gospel-inspired critiques of the institutional church were common in the middle ages, but now these critiques took a historical turn. For the first time, Christian tradition appeared as a history of interpretation, subject to critical reappraisal.

   When Christianity split into opposing religious parties, each claiming the Christian past as its own, the modern sense of historicity was born, along with a sense of pluralism and relativity that could easily lead to scepticism and agnosticism. Luther retold Christian history as a process of forgetting and betraying the gospel message, and thus launched the conflict of interpretations which gave birth to the discipline of church history, as the work of the Centuriators of Magdeburg elicited a Roman response in the Annals of Cardinal Cesare Baronius (1538-1607). But as theologians combed through the past in search of warrants for their claims, the suspicion began to dawn that the past was not homogeneous with the present or easily accessible to it, but was rather `a foreign country' with mentalities that had become oblique to its modern interrogators.

   Roman Catholicism saw itself as the fundamentally unchanged Great Church existing since the earliest times, while Protestantism saw itself as recovering an unchanging Gospel that the church had forgotten or compromised. Protestant idealization of the apostolic age (or of the pre-Constantinian centuries in some cases) yielded grudgingly to the realization that the early era was as diverse, problematic, impure as any succeeding one. And even if its were possible to find some ideal embodiment of Christianity in the past, the past framework of thought (expectation of the imminent end of the world, for example) would remain so remote from the modern world as to make the rediscovery of this golden age useless for Christianity now. A growing sense of the strangeness, opacity and irrecoverability of the past, and of the modern, innovatory character of the Christian identities emerging from Reformation and Counter-Reformation, led gradually to the formation in the milieu of Lutheran theology of a new reflective discipline, hermeneutics, which had the task of mediating between the obscurity of past texts and the urgency of present questions. History thus became a school of pluralism and relativity. At the opposite pole from hermeneutic liberalism (whose patron saint, Friedrich Schleiermacher, 1768-1834, has only recently been discovered by Roman Catholics), the discovery of the unreliability of history can lead to Kierkegaardian fideism or to Fundamentalism, which instead of idealizing tradition simply dispenses with history altogether, in order to fashion an ideal Christianity from privileged religious experiences and a literalistic reading of the scriptural sources. Catholic integralism treasures tradition; but this form of reaction has been ceding in recent years to the new phenomenon of Catholic fundamentalism, based on charismatic experiences and a raw, immediate relation to the biblical text; a sub-species is the phenomenon of papalist fundamentalism, with its concentration on the figure of the Pope at the expense of all other mediations of Christian truth.

   An interesting example of the devastating effects of historical consciousness is the career of Paolo Sarpi (1552-1623), state theologian to the Venetian Republic, who brought the critical finesse of a Machiavelli or a Guicciardini to bear on recent church history in his History of the Council of Trent, a subtle, ironic, disillusioned and bitter work, which the Vatican attempted to refute through the more richly documented counter-history of Sforzo Pallavicini. Sarpi's sceptical cast of mind throve on a hatred of Rome which had both public and personal grounds: excommunicated in 1607, tailed by Vatican spies, and survivor of three assassination attempts, he might well have been burned at the stake had the Inquisition been able to get their hands on him, for this was a shameful age of such burnings; even in Goa and Manila Jews and ‘sodomites’ were burned at the stake. Sarpi came to see church history as unprotected by any Providence from the human folly and the meaningless accidents that characterize ordinary secular history. He tells no Reformation tale of some original purity preceding a long process of decline and corruption. Rather he finds in every age a pluralistic and ambiguous state of affairs. No age in Christian history can be idealized, nor can there be any retrieval of the past. Sarpi anticipates the sceptical mood of Gibbon (the fifteenth chapter of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) or even of Franz Overbeck, Nietzsche's friend, who felt that Christianity has reached its exhausted old age.

   Another historical controversy which would echo down through the centuries was the Jesuit Denis Petau's (1583-1652) demonstration that the early Fathers had held subordinationist views on the Son of God. This body blow to the idealization of the pre-Constantinian church was countered by a Defense of the Nicene Creed (1685) from Anglican Bishop George Bull (1634-1710), for which Bossuet thanked him. Bossuet was also responsible for the burning of almost all copies of an essay on the authorship of the Old Testament, by Richard Simon (1638-1712), the founder of Old Testament criticism. The great flowering of critical historical study of Scripture and critical history of dogma in the nineteenth century was to be a predominantly German Lutheran achievement. Catholic theology had maintained a cut-and-dried attitude to its sources, which often served merely as an arsenal of proof-texts for the edifice of dogmatic theology. Historical study of the doctrinal tradition served only the apologetic purpose of refuting Protestant or Jansenist claims, while historical study of Scripture was non-existent.

Besieged by Modernity

   Roman Catholicism was closely associated with modern monarchical absolutism (such figures as Philip II or the Rex Christianissimus Louis XIV), whereas democracy originated in Protestant circles (the seventeenth century Puritans, William III) or among deists and free-thinkers (the philosophes). Though Pius VI (1774-1799) condemned the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the liberal Pius VII (1800-1823) had ‘startled conservatives at Christmas 1797 by declaring in a sermon that there was no necessary conflict between Christianity and democracy’ (JND Kelly, The Oxford Dictionary of Popes, p. 303). However, the church hardened into a reactionary posture after 1815, and saw the Revolution was nothing less than the work of satanic forces. Bitter experiences made it hard to cut through appearances and see that the bloody downfall of a political order was not intrinsically equivalent to the destruction of religion (just as the downfall of a scientific order in Galileo's time did not intrinsically compromise religious truth). Secularization had been conducted in a spirit of hostility to the church, reducing its status to that of a private body whose claims could be contested and dismissed; the restoration of church property and the various concordats between the Vatican and European states throughout the century did not close the secularized perspectives the Revolution had thrown open. Yet it was also a cleansing and liberating process. Clear perception of the positive values of democracy and liberalism was impeded not only by the appalling prospect of a godless society, which the Revolution had opened up, but by nostalgia for lost power and privilege; the old caesaro-papist system of Christendom was refurbished on cheaper terms as the alliance of throne and altar in France; the defence of the Papal States remained a major preoccupation down to 1870, and their loss a major trauma for long afterwards. The church set its face against the current of history, in the belief that in doing so it was following the Gospel and standing up for transcendent truth in a world that had lost its bearings. In such circumstances a free critical revision of its own history was an impossibility. To the degree that it clung to outmoded futurologies which did not link up with what was afoot in contemporary history, the church's sense of itself and its mission became rather fanatical and fantastical. The Fatima crusade for the conversion of Russia, by means of the consecration of the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, or the vision of a new Christian Europe stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals, both promoted by John Paul II, represent a dangerous clothing of historical perception in inappropriate mythological dress. More wholesome languages are available, but they have been repressed for their use would entail too radical a conversion of the church. If the world had lost its bearings, the church had also, as its poor performance in Europe's darkest hour showed.

   Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire and Gibbon has taken malicious delight in the underside of history and the relativizing impact of cultural pluralism, in which they found much ammunition against Christian dogmatism. I am not aware of any strong intellectual response to this from eighteenth century Catholics. Pope Benedict XIV (1740-1758) raised eyebrows by carrying on a correspondence with Voltaire. The theology of the period was a lean scholasticism, relieved only by small injections of Cartesian and Leibnizian rationalism, a few minor skirmishes with Kant towards the end of the century, and some solid historical scholarship.

   Eventually the Catholic response to the Enlightenment took the form of an overturning of Enlightenment premises with help from Romanticism, in the post-Napoleonic Catholic restoration. Then the middle ages were glorified as an antidote to the evils of the modern world, and the Catholic past was recovered as a treasure-house of culture over against the desiccation of modern rationalism (Chateaubriand's Le Genie du christianisme). The Catholic aesthetic was a seductive cocoon, which made the church backward-looking and may well have favoured its flirtations with Fascism in the twentieth century (much as traditional Japanese aesthetics favoured dangerous ideologies of ‘overcoming modernity’).

   A central thrust of the Catholic restoration was ultramontanism, based on mystic glorification of the papacy, simplistic arguments on the need for unity and strong leadership, and aversion to the Gallicanism of the pre-revolutionary church with its abbes de cour. The ardour of Joseph de Maistre (Du Pape, 1819) and especially Felicite de Lamennais (1782-1854) helped build up the papacy as the supreme bulwark against the evils of modernity. The primacy and infallibility of the Pope were proclaimed as infallible dogmas at Vatican I (1870), perhaps the church's supreme act of defiance to the modern world.

   The Catholic restoration created ‘the peak of ghetto mentality within Catholic church history.’ (Jedin/Dolan, History of the Church, VII, p. 113). Communication with non-Roman churches and with the secular world dwindled away, and Popes Gregory XVI (1831-1846) and Pius IX (1846-1878) devoted themselves to stamping out signs of liberalism within the Roman Catholic world. Lamennais had argued that the church had nothing to gain from its association with the throne, and that freedom of religion and freedom of the press could only benefit its spiritual mission. In 1832, Gregory XVI denounced ‘this false and absurd maxim – or better, this madness – that everyone should have and practise freedom of conscience' and described freedom of the press as ‘this loathsome freedom which one cannot despise too strongly’. (Curiously, Goethe, a professed liberal, who had died a few months earlier, had similar sentiments.)

   Meanwhile, intellectual prowess was united with priestly piety in the labours of the drily Kantian Georg Hermes (1775-1831) and the speculative Hegelian Anton Guenther (1783-1863). These were condemned as rationalists, while Louis Eugene Bautain (1796-1867) was condemned for fideism; Vatican I issued a valuable clarification of the relations of faith and reason, but the regime of condemnations has greatly cramped the exercise of both.

   Romantic medievalism added its charms to the Oxford Movement, too, but its deeper strength lay in its sense of history. The organic and developmental model of the church's vitality which was promoted by the Catholic Tuebingen school, especially Johannes Moehler (d. 1836), is found also in John Henry Newman's (1801-1890) University Sermons and Essay on the Development of Doctrine (1845), in a homelier, empirical form, based on his patristic studies, his struggle with the historical warrants of Anglicanism, and the influence of such scholars as Petau. Through these thinkers a critical sense of historicity began to permeate the Catholic mind, under the auspices of growth, progress and optimism, in opposition to the Reformation rhetoric of Catholic corruptions and to the cynicism of Gibbon. Newman's sense that the church did and should grow and change through the embrace of new insights provided the platform for the emergence and acceptance of modern historical consciousness within mainstream Catholic theology and teaching, though most of the models of development of dogma presented in theological textbooks attempted to confine Newman's intuitions within a reassuring logical framework. Meanwhile, critical, questioning historians such as Ignaz von Doellinger (1799-1890), who were either too scholarly or too impatient to square their historical insight with Roman claims, still ran afoul of Vatican authoritarianism.

   The pontificate of Leo XIII (1878-1903), who aimed to reconcile the church with modern civilisation, was in some respects a liberal oasis. He elevated Newman to the Cardinalate, tried to reopen ecumenical dialogue, tackled the social problem in Rerum Novarum (1891), declared a moderate democracy compatible with Catholic teaching, launched an intellectual revival on the basis of Neo-Thomism, and encouraged, with great caution, the critical study of Scripture (Providentissimus Deus, 1893). This must have done much to generate the climate within which the Modernist movement emerged. But the Modernists' radical theories of historical change ran into a stone wall when the narrow, ultra-reactionary St. Pius X, speaking from the vantage-point of unchanging truth, launched a witch-hunt to purge the church of such heresy (Lamentabili and Pascendi dominici gregis, 1907), even at the cost of stamping out its intellectual life.

   The rather shocking rediscovery of the historical Jesus as an eschatological prophet by Johannes Weiss (1892) lies behind Alfred Loisy's (1857-1940) L'Evangile et l'Eglise (1902), whose title suggested a critical gulf between Gospel and church. Loisy was excommunicated and declared vitandus (to be shunned by all Catholics), and there was no further talk of encouraging critical study of Scripture; the Pontifical Biblical Commission acted rather as a watchdog, emitting the most restrictive responsa to the dubia submitted to it. (Compare the recent revival of this dubium and responsum format in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's 1995 declaration that the impossibility of women becoming priests has been infallibly taught by the church's universal magisterium).

   An optimistic ideology of progress underpins the eloquent writings of the Irish Jesuit George Tyrrell (1861-1909), who expanded on Newman's ideas to call for a development of Christian thought beyond a stifling ‘Medievalism’ and for a development of Christianity to a larger interreligious vision. Tyrrell was refused Catholic burial.

   The anti-modernist crackdown channelled Catholic intellectual energies away from critical history to the construction of a Christian philosophy within the framework of the Neo-Thomist revival. But even here, as an immense army of Dominicans and Jesuits worked over the Thomist synthesis, history would raise its ugly head. The plurality of medieval systems was brought to light by Etienne Gilson and other historically minded Thomists; the plurality of interpretations of Thomas became more and more evident; and finally Thomists who wanted to open Thomism up to the thought of Immanuel Kant or Maurice Blondel (Joseph Marechal, Karl Rahner, Bernard Lonergan) gradually discovered the necessity of moving from what Lonergan called ‘classical consciousness’ to modern historically differentiated consciousness.

   As to religious pluralism, despite the vast missionary experience the Roman church had now acquired, and despite the flowering of Oriental scholarship in Europe, the church still continued to view non-Christian religions under the rubric of heathenism or at best natural theology. The eventual suppression of the inculturation of Christianity in China begun by Matteo Ricci bespeaks a rejection of insight coming from that quarter. It may well be that Ricci's bold initiatives could have found their logical consummation only in a Christian reception of the relaxed syncretistic Chinese perception of religions as skilful means; as it was, his presentation of the Gospel in Confucian dress could seem a deceptive apologetic. Today such conceptions are attractive, but problematic, to liberal Catholics; up to recently they were simply abhorrent. Neither did the pluralism within Christianity impinge on Roman Catholic awareness, since the Protestant churches were written off as heretical and schismatic.

   In 1969, Karl Rahner summarized the state of Catholic theology thirty years previously as that of a closed system developing according to securely identified laws. Philosophy since Descartes and Protestant theology were poorly understood and were regarded not as sources of challenges and questions to be taken seriously, but as the work of outsiders or enemies, whose errors demanded only to be refuted. Theologians of that generation could not imagine that the central substance of faith could again, on new premises, become a topic of theological questioning.

   This petrified situation began to thaw with the rise of the ‘nouvelle theologie’, based on historical study of the Fathers (Henri de Lubac, Jean Danielou, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Yves Congar). The discovery of the richer, warmer and more open-ended theology of the patristic period implied a critique of the dominant scholasticism and of the Catholic Church's self-understanding. Pius XII's Humani Generis of 1950 was directed against the attractive modernity of this theological vision. ‘We see the very principles of Christian culture everywhere attacked’, lamented the Pope. Teilhard de Chardin is aimed at in the criticism of ‘those who, having imprudently and indiscreetly subscribed to the system of evolution, as they call it, a system not yet securely proved even in the realm of the natural sciences, go on to claim that it applies to the origin of all things’. ‘Historicism’ which leads to ‘dogmatic relativism’ is the second target of papal censure. If the modernizers only meant to adapt theology to current conditions and necessities, there would be no cause for alarm, but in their zeal for ecumenical understanding and openness to the modern mind, they are pulling down essential pillars of the edifice of faith. Their readiness to jettison scholastic language in favour of that of Scripture or the Fathers rests on the idea that ‘the mysteries of faith can never be signified by categories which are adequate to the truth but only by what they call "approximative" categories, always mutable, by which the truth can to a certain extent be indicated, but by which it is also necessarily distorted’. The Pope proscribes departures from the categories used by the Ecumenical Councils, and the neglect, rejection or devaluation of the labours of centuries of Catholic theologians whose work was inspired by the Holy Spirit and supervised by the church's Magisterium.

   Only twelve years later Pope John XXIII gave the green light to a more critical evaluation of Christian tradition in his speech at the opening of Vatican II, which differentiates between the truth of doctrine and the culture-bound language in which it is expressed. In this and many other respects, Vatican II marks a dramatic turn-about in the relation of Roman Catholicism to modernity. The violent wrench brought by the turn to vernacular languages has made the modern church a less beautiful but more biblical place. The eurocentric aesthetics of the older Catholic world is now seen as highly particularist, and as committing cultural violence when it pretends to an inclusivist universality. A Catholic aesthetic today would be distinguished by a strong Latin American and African component.

   Perhaps the most fruitful of Vatican II's openings to modernity, both theologically and pastorally, was the promotion of Scripture as `the soul of theology' and the encouragement of historical critical exegesis. An encyclical of 1943 had already broken the ice in this area. The church still tries to prevent radical demythologization of such sensitive doctrines as the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection, and a fairly cautious and balanced tone is set by leading exegetes such as Rudolf Schnackenburg, Joseph Fitzmeyer, Raymond Brown. Nonetheless, biblical studies have now become the strongest branch of Catholic theology, and have an autonomous momentum that cannot be stopped.

   Vatican II's recognition of history occurred under optimistic auspices; an ideology of progress and evolution, headily exemplified in the writings of Teilhard de Chardin, was in the air. The revolutionary impact of John XXIII's talk of aggiornamento (updating) can be grasped only if we place it against the background of centuries of papal oscillation between lofty condemnation of modern error and very timid opening to some modern values. The church had defined its role over against the world; now, throughout the early 60s, a dramatic shift in consciousness occurred. The church found itself placed with the world, and for the world, pointing forward to the Kingdom of God, which in turn was no longer conceived as a purely transcendent heaven but as the goal of human history. The Council taught the church to see itself in open-ended, dynamic historical terms, as a pilgrim people seeking its path in the real world in dialogue with all people of good will. Now all the `others' held at a distance for so long became cherished dialogue-partners, not only the `separated brethren' but Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and modern secular culture. Despite the climate of mistrust that has since replaced this happy mood, the opening of Vatican II provides the basic context of contemporary Roman Catholic thought, and is the principal reason why Catholic thinkers, when they do not fall prey to narrowing ecclesiastical obsessions, show a vibrant sensitivity to cultural and political realities and a robust concern for liberation. `Liberation' is probably the key word in post-Vatican II theology (much as `Logos' was in the theology of the 2nd to 4th centuries), despite neo-conservative efforts to promote such topics as `communion' instead.

The Continuing Unease

   In a global church speaking all the world's languages, an epochal shift into modernity seems to have definitively occurred. But this acceptance of modernity, and especially of a critical sense of historicity, is a very recent event. It was only early in the last century that the Spanish Inquisition was discontinued (it was reopened for a few more years in response to Vatican pressure); `democracy' has been a fully positive word on papal lips only since 1943, when World War II had lit up the horror of its alternatives; the freedom of conscience of non-Christians has been recognized only since 1965.

   As the world's most powerful religious organization, long entrenched in a defensive posture, the Catholic Church cannot easily change. Vatican II did not alter the hierarchical structure in which all power is ultimately concentrated in the hands of a single man. The Council's stress on episcopal collegiality, which Paul VI intended to put into practice through the Synod of Bishops held every three years in Rome, has been thwarted by a Vatican dedicated to strengthening the old centralized structure instead of diversifying or loosening it. The Synod has beecome a pawn of this policy, completely failing to serve its intended purpose (as Cardinal Franz Koenig, one of the pillars of Vatican II, pointed out in a recent interview).

   On the intellectual level the resistance to modern pressure is no less stubborn. The tradition of denouncing modernity since Descartes as a mass of errors has been boosted by the neo-conservative perception that because modernity can now be historically defined it must be drawing to its close, while the church remains what it has always been, a sign of contradiction over against the world, whether it call itself modern or postmodern.

   Though centuries of critical history have set in place an alternative story of Christian origins and development, the theological implications of this have not yet been drawn. Moreover, at a popular level, in preaching and catechesis, the old idealized images continue to be reinforced. Historical consciousness seems still to be suspected as `protestantizing' or `modernism' in Vatican circles, to judge from the Catechism of the Catholic Church with its literalistic account not only of the resurrection narratives but of the Genesis story of the Fall: ‘Even though man's nature is mortal, God had destined him not to die. Death was therefore contrary to the plans of God the Creator, and entered the world as a consequence of sin’. Here we see the capacity of pious myth to make people oblivious to massive evidence telling against it. A work attributed to all Roman Catholic bishops advertises their ignorance of biblical and dogmatic hermeneutics and even of the reality of evolution. Historical critique is still seen as a bad thing, and pious ignorance rewarded, with the danger that the church will shrink into a sect-like formation.

   In such a climate there is little encouragement for an alternative, critical view of theological history, that would see it not as the unchanging transmission of unambiguously defined teachings, or as a process of organic development in which truth unfailingly unfolds, but rather as a hit-and-miss affair, a ramshackle construction, full of blind alleys and erroneous turnings, open to critique at every point and entirely revisable. Such a vision is not negative, for it frees us to see the development of doctrine a creative, ongoing quest comparable to the adventures of the mind in science and philosophy.

   Perhaps the most elaborate theological challenge to the legitimacy of the modern age comes from the Anglican theologian John Milbank, who presents ‘secular reason’ as a Christian heresy or relapse into paganism: ‘The secular episteme is a post-Christian paganism, something in the last analysis only defined, negatively, as a refusal of Christianity and the invention of an "Anti-Christianity"’. Aquinas's partial recognition of an autonomous integrity of nature, the political order and human reason is already tainted by this heresy: ‘Because he speaks, even in the abstract, of a natural and a supernatural virtue, he is unable, like Augustine, to think instead of a true single virtue, now transformed by Christianity, through a critique of its antique form’. Modernity is to be overcome by a return to the integrated vision of Augustine, Bonaventure and Maurice Blondel, who knew that it is impossible to abstract a realm of pure nature or a purely secular social order from the concrete story of the supernatural relationships in which humans are de facto caught up. ‘Sociology must efface itself before theology’. Milbank cannot accept a pluralism between the Enlightenment interpretation of history and the Christian one: ‘Not to embrace [the Christian] “metanarrative”, or to ascribe to it a merely partial interpretative power, would undo the logic of incarnation. For why would we claim to recognize the divine logos in a particular life [= the life of Jesus], unless we had the sense that everything else was to be located here, despite the fact that this life is but one more life, itself situated along the historical continuum? Thus if the Enlightenment makes this sort of thing impossible, it also rules out salvation through the Church as traditionally understood’ (John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory, Oxford, 1990), pp. 280, 409, 225, 246). ‘The logic of Christianity involves the claim that the “interruption” of history by Christ and his bride, the Church, is the most fundamental of events, interpreting all other events. And it is most especially a social event, able to interpret other social formations, because it compares them with its own new social practice... A re-reading of the Civitas Dei will allow us to realize that political theology can take its critique both of secular theology and of the Church, directly out of the developing Biblical tradition, without recourse to any external supplementation. For within Augustine's text we discover the original possibility of critique that marks the western tradition, of which later Enlightenment versions are, in certain respects, abridgements and foundationalist parodies’ (pp. 388-9).

   This appears to reject the experience of pluralism, in which the Christian narrative finds itself as one narrative among others and in which the Enlightenment metanarrative forces itself on Christian attention, not only as a supplementation but as a correction. Christians have had to enlarge and reinterpret the Christian story accordingly. Neither narrative has absorbed the other, and the relation between them is an open dialogue. For Milbank, theology does not need the mediation of the social sciences; but precisely what the church has learned in the last two centuries is that the Christian message remains incomplete unless it listens to and learns from the insights of modernity. A narrative theology that would bring all the perspectives of Enlightenment human sciences safely back within its own ken would no longer have a real other with which to dialogue, it would be incestuous or autistic.

   Most Catholic thinkers continue to embrace modernity, in principle, as an autonomous other over against Christian tradition (however much its genesis may owe to Christianity). If a critique or overcoming of some aspects of modernity is pursued, it is on the basis of this prior acceptance, and in collaboration with the traditions of critique and overcoming that are so much a part of modernity itself. One might find neo-conservative efforts to uncover the blind spots of modernity more convincing if they were accompanied by an equal willingness to expose the blind spots of the church to the critique of modernity. Modernity can be overcome only when its rational and ethical constraints have been fully accepted.

   But one may query the depth of the liberal Catholic theologians’ response to modernity. They have appropriated the jargon of the Enlightenment, but they do not come from a tradition of close hand-to-hand struggle with modern thought, and their perception of the modern is too influenced by the peculiar Roman Catholic relation to it - centuries of condemnations and grudging concessions, against which the openings of Vatican II might look like a conquest of modernity, rather than merely the removal of an obstacle to the dialogue with modernity. We are still learning the ABC of the modern. The popular appeal of the pre-modern ideology of Pope John Paul II and the inability of Catholics generally to contest it in an articulate way shows that Catholic consciousness is still far from a confident rapport with the modern.

   David Tracy offers a sometimes rather stereotyping criticism of modernity characterized as the `evolutionary history of the triumph and taken-for-granted superiority of Western scientific, technological, pluralistic and democratic Enlightenment,' to which he opposes a postmodernity evoked in idealizing aesthetic terms: `the reality of otherness and difference - the otherness alive in the marginalized groups of modernity and tradition alike - the mystics, the dissenters, the avant-garde artists, the mad, the hysterical. The conscience of postmodernity, often implicit rather than explicit, lives more in those groups than in the elite intellectual classes constituting their ranks’ (David Tracy, On Naming the Present, Maryknoll, NY, 1994, pp. 3-4). This is a list of unreal stereotypes, which belong precisely to the imagination of modernism. To me the most convincing account of the postmodern moment remains Fredric Jameson's diagnosis of ‘the cultural logic of late capitalism’.

   Modernism in the sense of the artistic breakthroughs early in this century, allied with the revolutionary scientific insights of Einstein and Bohr, is also something that Christianity has yet to catch up on. The growing interest in theological aspects of modern literature has not yet brought us to the point where the Gospel can be brought into dialogue with the worlds of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, R. M. Rilke or Robert Musil. The reason is that we are still putting religious labels on the phenomena of life, instead of allowing them to unfold in their endless diversity. Our Gospel is a set of formulas for making sense of life instead of being an aid to vision, which allows life to become still more enigmatic, still richer. For the modernists, no word, no perception, no idea can go unquestioned. Everything has to be seen anew, in its unfathomable strangeness. `One must be absolutely modern' (Rimbaud), not for the thrill of it, but because it is the condition of vision and authenticity. All of this resonates powerfully with the gospel word, especially with the teachings of the historical Jesus, which have been left relatively untouched by the controversies of later theology. As a word of freedom, the Gospel can yet wean the church from its desperate clutching at archaic and impracticable securities.

   Despite his critique of modernity, Tracy is concerned to defend the modern values, including ‘the reality of reason as communicative; the hopes alive in all the new countermovements to a dominant techno-economic realm; the drive to a Jamesian cultural pluralism and a genuine political democracy undivorced from economic democracy,' especially in a church `where even the genuine gains of modernity first released by Vatican II after two centuries of Catholic resistance to modernity are now stymied at every point by those whose views are not post-Enlightenment at all but, at best, pre-Enlightenment’ (9, 10).

The Overcoming of Metaphysics

   The discovery of the internal pluralism of Christian tradition has been favoured by a sense of the historicity of Western thought gleaned from Heidegger's critical ‘history of being’. Heidegger can be invoked as an anti-modern thinker, and his recall to the openness of being can be co-opted by neo-medievalists, but a more intelligent reading will find in him the most profound critical exegete of the Western philosophical tradition. The fortunes of theology have been closely intertwined with those of metaphysics since the time of Philo of Alexandria. Critical labour on this connection has its most celebrated monument in the History of Dogma of Adolf von Harnack, heir to a long tradition which sought to recapture the `essence of Christianity' from its entanglement in Greek metaphysics and Roman institutions. His analysis of Christian dogma as `a product of the Greek mind on the soil of the Gospel' can be deepened through integrating the kind of questions opened up by Heidegger. Unfortunately, Roman Catholic history of dogma, as exemplified in the work of Cardinal Aloys Grillmeier, has not produced a critical perspective comparable to Harnack's, nor has it made any use of the hermeneutical insights of Heidegger, with the result that it threatens to leave Christian faith enclosed within the categories of late antiquity. The immensity of the task of remastering this vast history in a critical key reminds us to what a degree Christianity is still the prisoner of a past that it has failed to overcome critically. This critical task is a specifically modern one; postmodern exercises in radicality or neo-conservative exercises in restoration are no substitute for it.

   Other philosophical models for revisionist history include Wittgenstein's views on the plurality of language games and his replacement of essences with ‘family resemblances’, Thomas Kuhn's account of paradigm shifts, which Hans Kung has exploited in a rather schematic way, and the neo-Nietzschean approaches to history in Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, which have as yet made little substantial impact on Catholic historical thinking, with the exception of the studies of the French Jesuit Michel de Certeau. The fresh relation to history which the critique of metaphysical theology has opened up needs to be cashed in critical differentiated studies of classical Christian thinkers. Otherwise there is a danger that it becomes a vague ideological stance, easily co-opted by conservatives. Though there have been many feminist rereadings of Christian classics, the quieter, more long-term questioning to which Heideggerian and post-structuralist hermeneutics point has so far produced no major scholarly monuments.

   The suspicion that Christian tradition has been marked by a forgetfulness of revelation, analogous to Heidegger's ‘forgetfulness of being’, or that it has fallen prey to essentialism and linguistic illusions, in Wittgenstein's sense, or to logocentrism in Derrida's, frees Catholic theologians to appropriate on new premises the Lutheran and Calvinist critique of the tradition. Unfortunately, many theologians are investing instead in a modern repristination of speculative metaphysics, following Hegel, Whitehead or contemporary analytical philosophers of religion. The quarrel about how best to critically reappropriate the Christian past cuts across denominational lines.

   Bloated speculation, no less than panicky fundamentalism, is a defence against nihilism, that `uncanniest guest' at the banquet of modernity. Buddhist thinkers, such as Nishitani Keiji, teach us that the way to overcome nihilism is not to build such defences, but to embrace the emptiness, to let go of identities that have outlived their purpose. To nag at the negativity of modernity is only to increase it. A dialectical negation of negation is achieved only by plunging fully into the perilous element, allowing the `power of the negative' to do its work. An over-eager apologetic or constructive aim continues to vitiate Catholic attempts to appropriate the deepest questions of modernity.


Embracing Pluralism

   In the medieval synthesis every corner of the edifice of doctrine was well-lighted, and there was little space for rearranging the furniture. But the intellectual framework of that time is now obsolete, and the basic teachings emerge anew without the ontological moorings that kept them in their place in the system. The words `God' or `grace' no longer have the clear self-evident meaning they had in the middle ages, but have become topics for puzzlement and interrogation. The Creed itself sounds very different today, as its statements no longer have the clear definition they once had, but point us rather to the unknown. `God, the maker of heaven and earth' is a profoundly obscure idea today, one that we take up as a venerable means of expressing trust in an ultimate gracious reality. The more we reflect on it, the more we realize that the space of Christian thought has become endlessly open, its play of perspectives unmasterable, inviting a flexible, exploratory exercise of the mind. The concern with continuity, fidelity, identity can keep us sober as we enter this labyrinth, this Babel, but it must not impede us from opening up to all the questions. In such a context the consultation of other religions becomes an obvious help to finding our bearings. The central reference point of Christianity, Jesus Christ, has become as much question as answer, and we seek clues to interpreting his significance in dialogue with Jewish tradition, from which Jesus emerged, and in dialogue with Buddhism.

   Metaphysics built on the early church's sense that it had sublated Judaism into its truth, leaving behind an empty shell, and in turn the Aufhebung of Judaism nourished the Christian metaphysical vision, which saw itself as universal when in reality it was but a new province of the spirit. Now as the controversy between Christianity and Judaism turns out again to be an open question, and a highly complex and differentiated one, and as the monolith of Christian identity fashioned by metaphysical theology begins to fissure, the church can revel in the pluralism created in its history by the tense interplay of the Jewish and Hellenic elements. Here, again, however, there is still great resistance to the revision of Christian tradition that such a recognition of the autonomous dignity and truth of the Jewish heritage will entail. In any case, Christianity is thrown together with Judaism in a new give-and-take which promises to be endless, and this is a constant lesson in modesty, both ethical and intellectual.

   Just as Christianity can no longer overcome or be disentangled from its Jewish roots, so Catholicism can no longer be abstracted from the wider web of Christian traditions which increasingly come to seem complementary or alternative perspectives rather than defective ones. Nor can any religion be abstracted from the interreligious space in which each of them functions as a critique of all the others. The acceptance of irreducible pluralism threatens to turn religious life into an endless debate, in which secure identity and whole-hearted conviction are no longer possible. But that, too, is a danger that cannot be sidestepped. We are obliged to learn new combinations of conviction with uncertainty and to acquire identities that exist only in an open-ended exchange which constantly exposes them to revision. All faiths are lined with questioning and are acquiring, at the hands of modern scholarship, a consciousness of the fragile, contingent status of the languages they have constructed during their historical careers. It will be objected that such adult sophistication cannot be demanded of simple believers. Yet the advance of modernity in all spheres (politics, economics, technology) is an education in such reflexive sophistication. Religion, too, has to acquire its modern face. Persistence in religiously sanctioned infantilism is a kind of inauthenticity that the church of the future may no longer be able to permit itself.



   Facing up to modernity means repentance for the obscurantism of the last five hundred years. Only very recently have church leaders began to apologize for the crimes committed by a persecutory church in the past, crimes which haunt us today more than ever before, for they are better known now and more severely judged, as a major argument for the falsehood of Christianity. The Christian tourist in Jerusalem today is likely to be embarrassed by reminders of how the Crusaders massacred the city's inhabitants nine hundred years ago, burning the Jews alive in their synagogues. The perpetrators of such atrocities easily forget them, but the victims remember forever. Right into this century the Crusades were fondly celebrated as a glorious hour in Christian history. Who could believe that the war to liberate the holy places, propagandized in the beautiful sermons of Saint Bernard, commemorated in gorgeous technicolor in Tasso's epic, and legitimated, at least grosso modo, by the centuries long threat of Turkish imperialism, could really have been a diabolical adventure? The noble death in battle of young Christian knights blotted from remembrance the evils inflicted by the Crusaders on the territories they claimed to liberate. Today, however, the Jewish and Islamic perspectives have to be taken seriously, and they strike Christian triumphalism dumb.

   But the apology which the Pope has announced for the threshold of the new millennium will only be a form of damage control, or a public relations exercise, unless it is based on deep insight into the theological roots of the crimes committed in the name of faith. To attain such insight the church would have to abandon the witch-hunting mentality and odium theologicum that have become almost inseparable from the idea of orthodoxy and it would have to internalize profoundly the values of modernity - democratic conceptions of tolerance and justice, philosophical conceptions of the disinterested quest for truth, including the embarrassing truths of factual history. In reality, the intellectual questions of modernity, including those of the `masters of suspicion,' are still considered naughty and exotic in Roman Catholic circles. A convincing apologetic based on complete openness to these questions has yet to be composed. All of this demands a deep conversion, or even mutation, of Christianity. It is currently inconceivable that the necessity of such mutation could be voiced in an official assembly of the church. But history can make the inconceivable the inevitable in a short span of time.

   Some thinkers are asking whether the historically instituted identity of Catholicism is not in itself a constricting, even violent force, and whether we ought not to recover a Christianity that would be a universal human message of community and solidarity rather than a starkly defined institution. Thus Gotthold Hasenhuetl writes: ‘Mission cannot have the purpose of founding churches in the `heathen' lands. As Jesus always addressed himself to the whole people and did not found any special community, so the Christian message is not at the service of a special community, to be increased by proselytization and conversions. The `conversion to the Church of God' propagated by the inventor of hierarchical succession, Irenaeus (Adv. Haer. III 3,4), is a false narrowing, often tied up with claims to power. The slogan should not be: “Become members of the Church”, but rather: “Put fraternity into practice”.... The Christian faith is not primarily a defined religion, but a human momentum of liberation to be realized in the different religions. It is a light that could assume the most diverse colours as it shines in the entire chromatic spectrum of human cultures, ways of life and religious self-awareness’ (‘Mission und Inkulturation’, Hermathena 156 (Summer 1994), p. 56).

   Similar sentiments are voiced by Simone Weil, a thinker who has many Catholic readers, and who distinguishes the Christian inspiration, in its universality, from its all too imperfect incarnations in the historical churches. Clearly the negotiation between the historic claims of church tradition and the pluralistic awareness of the modern world will go on for a long time.

   Modernity has made Christians modest. The immense onward march of secularization has shown history as the most powerful critical force, the greatest teacher of negative theology. Yet in its essence the Christian faith has retained its rational respectability and its appeal to consciences. It need not shore these up by returning to pre-modern systems of myth or metaphysics, or by offering an ersatz version of modern rationalism. It suffices to let its voice be heard in a key tempered by and attuned to the times. We must adopt the speech of the age, fully recognizing not only its doubts and anxieties but also its broader, freer view of human nature. This entails that we let die forms of thought, ethical stances, ways of imagining, which can no longer function as a skilful means for the communication of faith. But what is living and what is dead in Christian language? That is a very difficult question to answer, as the long history of premature burials of such concepts as `God' has shown. Nonetheless, the question itself must be kept open, as the pledge of our engagement with modernity.

   Some fear that the combined brunt of Nietzschean critique and interreligious relativization threatens the church with extinction or with a sectarian withering and hardening. In this situation we need to see what we can honestly rely on and what has to be treated as disposable. A church in which theologians are sacked for questioning the historicity of the Virgin Birth is far from being able to make this distinction. And what can be relied on? I would answer: the essential thrust of the biblical, prophetic word, on the one hand, and the element of Buddhist emptiness in which this word is being tempered and lightened, on the other. The encounter of Christianity and Buddhism is the external enactment of the deep mutation happening within Christianity. Christian churches left to themselves come to seem like Platonic caves, unreal. The old images crumble away, the old languages grow stale, and we have to let them go, salvaging only a residue of authentic hearing of the Gospel and experience of community. Buddhism comes to Christianity in this time of crisis as a reassuring voice, encouraging it to step over boldly into emptiness, like Peter or Ananda walking on the water. Whether Christianity can equally play for Buddhism a graced and providential role of this sort is for Buddhists to discover.



Demystifying the Incarnation

I. The Demystifying Role of Chalcedon

   There are two realities in question. One is fleshly: the life and death of the historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth. The other is spiritual: an encounter with the living God, in judgement and salvation, grace and glory. The first is a matter of fact, the second a self-authenticating phenomenon, attested again and again in Christian experience. The christological problem is to articulate the relation between the two.

   Classically the relation has been expressed in paradoxical juxtapositions: `There is one physician, fleshly and spiritual, born and unborn, in the flesh become God, in death eternal life, both from Mary and from God, first suffering and then beyond suffering, Jesus Christ our Lord' (Ignatius of Antioch, To the Ephesians 7.2). This is quite close to the Pauline dynamic of the crucified and risen Jesus. In Tertullian, the paradox has a more doctrinaire thrust, marking that the union of divine and human in Christ is unsearchable to human intellect. His language builds on the Pauline `folly of the cross' (1 Cor. 1:18-24): `Crucifixus est dei filius; non pudet quia pudendum est. Et mortuus est dei filius: credibile est quia ineptum est. Et sepultus resurrexit; certum est quia impossibile' (God's son is crucified; it is not to be blushed for for it is shameful. God's son has dies; it is credible because it is absurd. And being buried he rose agains; it is certain because it is impossible; De Carne Christi 5.4). Later, this tradition of paradox builds more on dogma than on Paul, and can seem rather mechanical, rooted more in triumphant definition of truth than in the dynamic of its biblical unfolding: 'Invisibilis in suis, visibilis est factus in nostris, incomprehensibilis voluit comprehendi; ante tempora manens esse coepit ex tempore; universitatis Dominus servilem formam obumbrata maiestatis suae immensitate suscepit; impassibilis Deus non dedignatus est homo esse passibilis et immortalis mortis legibus subiacere' (Invisible in his own he became visible in ours; incomprehensible he willed to be comprehended; remaining before times he began to be in time; the Lord of the universe took a servile form, the immensity of his majesty obscured; the impassible God did not disdain to be passible man and, immortal, to be subject to mortal laws; the Tome of Leo, accepted at Chalcedon).

  Chalcedon (451) perceives in Christ is the union of two natures in one person: 'One and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, made known in two natures without confusion, without change, without division, without separation (asynchutos, atreptos, adiairetos, achoristos), the difference of the natures having in no wise been taken away by reason of the union, but rather the properties of each being preserved, and both concurring into one person (prosopon) and one hypostasis'. What strikes one immediately is that the two realities, the human and the divine, are here brought back to an underlying objective basis: the two natures. The relation between the two realities is similarly recalled to an objective foundation: their common hypostasis. Today this clarification is likely to be seen as an estrangement. Our search to articulate the relation of the human and divine dimensions of the Christ-event has to overcome the Chalcedonian perspective through a lucid critique of its limitations.

   Most of the waves of criticism that have washed against the rock of Chalcedon have been ineffectual; see especially, A. von Harnack, Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte (Tubingen, 1931), pp. 397-8; corrected by R. Seeberg, Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte II (Darmstadt, 1965), and A. Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition (London, 1975). If we could pinpoint where exactly they have fallen short, this would be a good preparation for a critical hermeneutical retrieval of the truth of Chalcedon. One reason for the failure is that the critics have been unable to bring into view the nature of the Greek metaphysical horizon within which the classical doctrine developed; here Heidegger offers resources for a critical genealogy which theology has yet to exploit. Another reason is that the critics did not do justice to the necessity and truth of Chalcedon on its own terms, nor appreciate how well this rule of faith had served classical theology, holding in check the monophysite tendencies recurring throughout the tradition.

   If we linger for a moment over some past episodes in christology, we may see that blind spots and distortions came chiefly from neglect of Chalcedon's insistence on the integral humanity of Christ. The twelfth-century 'nihilianists' claimed that Christ's humanity has no reality in itself, that insofar as he is a man he is nothing, that his human nature is less real than his divine; see M. Colish, Peter Lombard (Leiden, 1994), and 'Christological nihilianism in the second half of the twelfth century', RTAM 63 (1996), pp. 146-55. Some Thomists, such as Capreolus, Cajetan, and Billot, saw Christ's human nature as having its being in the being of the Logos, with no existence of its own; see E. Gutwenger, Bewusstsein und Wissen Christi (Innsbruck, 1959), pp. 178-84; M. Nieden, Organum Deitatis: Die Christologie des Thomas de Vio Cajetan (Leiden, 1997). In Thomas himself, however, there is a development toward a fully Chalcedonian viewpoint which respects the integrity and autonomy of Christ's humanity: 'Christ has no human personhood not because he lacks something positive but on the contrary because something positive is added to his human nature' (namely, the personhood of the Logos’ (Gutwenger, p. 177).

   Monophysites tended to attribute omniscience to Christ's human soul. Fulgentius of Ruspe argued that Christ's soul must have had full knowledge of his divinity: 'Durum est, et a sanitate fidei penitus alienum, ut dicamus animam Christi non plenam suae divinitatis habere notitiam, cum qua naturaliter unam creditur habere personam' (PL 65:416). The schools of Laon and Saint Victor, misled by a pseudo-Ambrosian slogan: 'The soul of Christ has by grace all that God has by nature', attributed divine knowledge to the soul of Christ, some going so far as to claim that `the soul of Christ is equal to the Father': see H. Santiago-Otero, El conocimiento de Cristo en cuanto hombre en la teologia de la primera mitad del siglo XII (Pamplona, 1970), p. 46. Again Aquinas corrects this in Chalcedonian style, distinguishing between Christ's divine, uncreated knowledge and his human, created knowledge, which is twofold: a natural knowledge based on the senses and on receptive learning, and a supernaturally infused vision of things in the divine Word and of the Word itself; the latter is not immediate, but is conferred by a superadded habit `through which a created intellect is elevated to what is above it' (De Veritate. q. 20, a. 2). The application of Chalcedon is scrupulously thorough: 'Oportet in ipso ponere omnia quae ad naturam divinam pertinent; et iterum seorsum secundum rationem naturae in eadem persona omnia quae speciem hominis constituunt' (q. 20, a. 1).

   As we ponder these past utterances, with their various orthodox or unorthodox implications, we discover that they have an oblique relation to present concerns and that they exercise us in an art of discrimination that can help us strike the right christological emphases today. Even today, Chalcedon can be effective in correcting speculative distortions in Christology, such as the popular theories of a `suffering God' which undermine not only divine transcendence but also the integrity of Christ's human nature.

   But Chalcedon can be applied still more radically than its defenders have done. Within scholastic perspectives, reinforced by Aristotelean conceptuality, it is hard to do justice to the link with biblical vision which Chalcedon had retained. Thus Aquinas takes the Gospel accounts of Jesus' preternatural insight and miraculous powers to warrant ascription to him of the greatest knowledge and power possible in a creature, including the capacity to see in the Word all that the Word sees. Only historical scholarship has allowed us to recover Jesus as a human being sharing the cognitive limitations of his culture. But this recovery is not in conflict with the Chalcedonian tradition; rather Chalcedon kept the stage clear for it and has allowed the Church to take aboard the findings of scholarship as a welcome confirmation of the doctrine that Christ is truly man. It helps us take in our stride the possibility that the human Jesus may have erred, due to the limitations of the framework of his eschatological thinking; such errors could include not only the Naherwartung (Mk 9:1; Mt. 10:23), but the elements in his teaching that gave rise to anti-Jewish supersessionist doctrine (Mk 12:9) and notions of eternal punishment. 'Verus homo' must include the errancy intrinsic to the human condition. It consigns the fleshly Christ to the processes of reinterpretation and correction to which all historical figures are subject. This is the task of reappropriation and supplementation in which the interpreting Spirit leads the church (Jn 16:13).

   Again, Chalcedon has often been taken to teach a massive ontological amalgamation of divine and human substances, best expressed in such forthright statements as: 'Jesus is God', 'the God-man', 'God became man'. But an authentic Chalcedonian understanding of the 'communication of idioms' can smooth away some of the unease these statements arouse. 'Jesus is a man' and 'The Logos is God' are direct predications, but 'Jesus is God' is misleading shorthand that needs to be spelled out carefully. Because the man Jesus is hypostatically one with the eternal Logos, we can attribute to this one person all the attributes of the humanity and of the divinity; thus we can say 'Jesus is God', 'Jesus created the world' or `The Logos was born of Mary', 'The Logos suffered and died' as long as we ward off any suggestion that the human nature as such acquires divine qualities or that the divine nature as such is subject to human limitations; see H. Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, MI, 1978), pp. 439-47. We should not traffic too freely in such expressions, however. The Greek patristic idea of a mutual perichoresis of the human and divine natures of Christ, in a total mixture (Stoic krasis di holon), comes near to being an abuse of the communication of idioms, especially if misinterpreted to mean that qualities of the divine nature are attributed to the human nature, as in H. A. Wolfson, The Philosophy of the Church Fathers (Harvard UP, 1970), pp. 418-28; G. L. Prestige, in contrast, plays down the ontological import of the patristic statements, in his God in Patristic Thought (London, 1964), pp. 291-9. An important text is John Damascene, Patrologia Graeca 94:1000A: `each nature giving to the other its properties through the sameness of the hypostasis and their perichoresis toward each other'. The ultimate hypostasis of Jesus Christ is God's eternal Word; but this is not in rivalry with his human personality. The trinitarian modes of being (tropoi tes hyparxeos) of God as Father, Son, Spirit are clearly not `persons' in the ordinary human sense. Chalcedon thus leaves considerable room for manoeuvre in interpreting the sense in which Jesus `is' God's Word spoken into our history.

   Yet however subtly one expounds Chalcedon - at the risk, indeed, of making it a wax nose -, people will object: Is it not enough to say that in Jesus we encounter the living God? The pursuit of the ontological grounds of this encounter seems epistemologically dubious and has divisive and alienating effects. Moreover, others may experience God's self-disclosure just as definitively elsewhere. 'Jesus was and is divine for those who experience in him the manifestation of God... To be human is to live in a as the; to be inhuman is to deny that necessary slippage', writes J. D. Crossan, in Who Killed Jesus? (San Francisco, 1996), p. 216. To show why Chalcedon may validly make a stronger claim than this today, we need to step back to the biblical sources, showing that they made Chalcedon necessary in the Greek metaphysical context, and that even when this context is overcome they continue to prompt accounts of Jesus which find his ultimate identity in the fact that he is the enfleshment of divine self-disclosure.

II. Rerooting Chalcedon in the Encounter with Christ

  Chalcedon is often spoken of as the foundation of the christological edifice (Seeberg), a beginning not an end (Rahner), but today we need also to register the sense in which Chalcedon is an end. The possibilities of speculation about the hypostatic union, rearranging the ancient categories of nature and person, are exhausted. This is clear in the case of Schoonenberg's attempt to think of the Trinity as becoming personalized and having I-thou relationships from the moment of the Incarnation, but also in the discourse of his critics who stay in the same rut of Chalcedonian argumentation; see P. Schoonenberg, Der Geist, das Wort und der Sohn (Regensburg, 1992); A. Kaiser, Moeglichkeiten und Grenzen einer Christologie `von unten' (Munster, 1992). One cannot beat the tradition at its own game; the speculations of process theology or kenoticism or tritheistic accounts of the intradivine social life are bad metaphysics that can be chased out by good, as in J. P. Mackey's critique of Moltmann, `The Preacher, the Theologian, and the Trinity', Theology Today 54 (1997), pp. 347-66. Mackey gives too much credit here to Augustine's siting of the Trinity as a transcendent, ineffable archetype; for a critique of this Platonizing topography of revelation, see J. S. O'Leary, `The Invisible Mission of the Son in Origen and Augustine', Origeniana VII,, pp. 605-22.

   But good metaphysics is not enough. Whether in classical or modernized form, metaphysical theology has to be problematized and overcome as the thinking of faith finds it proper path. Four trends of hermeneutical awareness converge to impose this overcoming:

   (1) Phenomenality: Modern theology insists that faith is grounded in an encounter with God in Christ and only secondarily in dogmatic formulae. `The presence of Christ in the Spirit is the all-encompassing situation of all christological statements'; F. J. van Beeck, Christ Proclaimed (New York, 1979), p. 252. 'It is not "the Incarnation" that is the basis of dogma, but judgement and conversion worked out through encounter with the tellling of Jesus' story'; R. Williams, in R. Morgan, ed., The Religion of the Incarnation (Bristol, 1989), p. 87. Dogmas mark certain logical constraints which must be respected in order to guard the integrity of the encounter, but they do not provide a foundation or synthesis superior to or equal to the biblical events themselves. Metaphysical theology is built on a reversal of this priority of revelation over dogma. In the space of thought it projects, the truths of faith are no longer grounded in encounter but in stable definitions and substances. In seeking to clarify the biblical events by asking first and foremost for reasons and grounds and by setting them within a doctrinal system, it overleaps both the pneumatic and the fleshly phenomenality of these events, which are no longer free to deploy their significance in the space opened up by scripture and its ongoing interpretation. Questions framed within a Greek metaphysical horizon, oriented to substantial identity, would not need to, and could not, be formulated in a thinking of revelation oriented to events and processes. Speculative construction would be stymied at the question stage by the impossibility of casting off the narrative vesture of biblical revelation in order to define the event in abstraction from its inexhaustibly pluralistic historical texture.

   (2) Pluralism: The biblical events come to us in a plurality of experiences, languages, literary genres, conceptual frameworks, and cultural contexts. Metaphysical theology proceeds from a falsifying unification of these data under a homogeneous framework. Taking a view from above on the variety of biblical languages, it cannot respect the specificity of each as a distinctive style of understanding. Its ambition is to be the definitive, objective language which integrates all others. But it turns out to be but one more language, equally subject to historical and cultural plurality which cannot be ironed out. Even when the Church has agreed on one dogmatic formula and maintained it through the centuries, the speculative explanations of the formula (even within the schools of Neothomism) have never admitted of reduction to a single framework. Full recognition of this pluralism greatly limits the role that metaphysical speculation can play in the clarification of Christian truth.

   (3) Historicity: All of the cultural frameworks within which Christian truth is articulated belong to limited historical epistemological contexts. They become to a large degree obsolescent and inaccessible when new contexts supervene. The metaphysics which attempts to isolate essential structures and foundations is itself a historically contextualized formation. Critical historical self-positioning has henceforth to be built into every responsible theological discourse. Full recognition of the historicity of theological thought makes us conscious that such notions as `nature' and `hypostasis' or any modern equivalent thereof are culture-bound constructs and provisional conventions. They may be aids to insight in certain contexts, but since they cannot be purged of historical relativity they refer us back to an ongoing activity of understanding that never halts in a definitive systematization.

   (4) Epistemological limits: After the critiques of Kant and Wittgenstein, the construction of a metaphysics has become a highly problematic enterprise. To invoke a metaphysics in expounding Christian faith is to saddle theology with the defence of the inherently dubious. The truth of doctrine has to be retrieved independently of the metaphysical frameworks which provided a stable background at the time the doctrines were formulated. In this postmetaphysical context, dogmas will be rated less as positive breakthroughs in ontological insight than as practical rules of speech of a largely negative cast. Thus, the Nicene prohibition of denial of Christ's true divinity remains in force, but a positive definition of what this `true divinity' means becomes elusive; at best it becomes another rule of speech: `what is said of the Father as God must be said of the Son as God'. Within a certain conceptual horizon, a certain language-game, such rules impose themselves, but the absolute necessity and validity of such a take on the divine may remain open to question. We observe the dogmatic rules of language not for their direct cognitive yield but as safeguards of the `divine milieu' in which we encounter God in Christ. This dogmatic minimalism undercuts the arrogance of a christological discourse that would directly speak of divine and human natures and hypostases, as matters of objective knowledge, obliging it to be rephrased in a tentative and hypothetical mode: `if we were to choose to speak in this archaic and rather problematic style, then this is what we would be obliged to say'. This apparent enfeeblement of dogma in fact renders it more functional and effective, recalling it to its role as defender of revelation, and preventing it from becoming the foundation of an alternative system of Christian truth in rivalry with the order of events that unfolds from Scripture.

   Given that metaphysics is now so problematic, and that classical doctrine has relied heavily on a metaphysical background, it is clear that the task of recalling Chalcedon to its roots in the encounter with God in Christ cannot be simply a matter of fleshing out skeletal categories with the richer languages of Scripture. It involves a fundamental overcoming of the Chalcedonian perspective, through subordinating it to the more originary horizon within which Paul and John sought to articulate an intangible and encompassing reality, the Risen Christ. The kind of linguistic performance to which this unmasterable phenomenon drove Paul and John is not reducible to the bare, literal sense of their words - such words as `light' and `spirit' and `Logos' elude definition in any case, and function as meta-phors, leading our thought to a level of pneumatic event which cannot be objectified and set forth as the person and natures of Christ are in classical dogmatic systems. Within this all-encompassing sphere wherein God is encountered as the `one who comes' in Word and Spirit, in judgement and grace, the language of Chalcedon has the status of a kind of legal codicil, to be invoked only when needed; and like law, dogma is less a matter of timeless insights than of slow historical growth in function of particular cases. Dogma builds a barbed fence about the burning bush of revelation, and it has been a common idolatry to venerate the fence instead of the bush or what is encountered therein.

  Chalcedon, ideally, is at the service of encounter. Its four negative adverbs ward off falsifications of that encounter, urging us to respect the integrity of Jesus' humanity and of his divinity, neither fusing, altering, dividing nor separating them. Despite the Neoplatonic language (Porphyry uses asunchutos and Plotinus atreptos with reference to the soul's relation to the body), the space of the statement need not be characterised as a cold, neutral one in which the hypostasis and the natures of Christ are objectified and torn out of the context of lived encounter. But Christology after Chalcedon became rigid, building a `cordon sanitaire around some irreducible core in Jesus' (Van Beeck, p. 422)., because the dogma was made into an absolute point of departure, instead of being constantly referred back to the encounter with Christ in Scripture and in the Church's worship. A phobia about speaking naturally of Christ's humanity undermined incarnational realism: `The condemnation of Nestorius was the most fateful event in the history of christology, for it made simple and natural ideas impossible in christology' (Seeberg, p. 303; similarly Harnack, p. 374). After Chalcedon the world of dogma largely ceased to convey a living link with revelation, which people sought elsewhere, in the mystagogical world mapped by Pseudo-Dionysius.

   Rudolf Bultmann remains an indispensable point of reference in the step back from an objectifying substance-based christology to one based on encounter: “Jesus Christ is the Eschatological Event as the man Jesus of Nazareth and as the Word which resounds in the mouth of those who preach him. The New Testament indeed holds unmistakenly fast to the humanity of Jesus over against all gnostic doctrine, naturally with a naivety for which the problems of `very God and very man' have not yet arisen - those problems which the ancient Church doubtless saw, but sought to solve in an inadequate way by means of Greek thought with its objectivizing nature; a solution which indeed found an expression that is now impossible for our thought, in the Chalcedonian formula... Christ is everything that is asserted of him in so far as he is the Eschatological Event... He is such - indeed, to put it more exactly, he becomes such - in the encounter - when the Word which proclaims him meets with belief” (Essays Philosophical and Theological, London, p. 286). Through a nuanced hermeneutics, it may be possible to square this orientation with the claims of orthodoxy. Orthodoxy as regards the Trinity is satisfied with the recognition of some kind of objective distinction in God between God, Word and Spirit, a distinction required if the New Testament evidence is to retain its full meaning. But the elaborate superstructures built on this in speculative trinitarian theology need to be dismantled if the original core of dogma and its necessity are to be brought into view. Orthodoxy as regards the Incarnation is satisfied with the assertion that the final meaning of Jesus is inseparable from the divine Word. The personality of the human Jesus and the personality of the divine Word cannot be one and the same, since an infinite abyss separates human personality from what we project as divine personality. The identity of Jesus and the Word has to be rethought in terms of event and process, as a coincidence of the human historical adventure of Jesus with the revelational activity of God. To encounter the risen Christ in faith is to encounter the divine Word; the two cannot be divided or separated: adiairetos, achoisto. But since the divine nature cannot be mingled with the human or subject to change - asunchuto, atreptos - Jesus is free to be integrally human, with all that this entails.

   K. Beyschag, who is severely critical of Chalcedon's play with bloodless categories, reminds us that Christ represents the eschatological inbreaking of God's grace and judgement, he is its earthly personification, and thus it is precisely insofar as he is fully and entirely man that he is fully and entirely God (Grundriss der Dogmengeschichte II.1 [Darmstadt, 1991], p. 133. But such animadversions need to be set within a fuller account of the metaphysical provenance of Chalcedon's categories and by a subtler, Heideggerian analysis both of their occulting effect and of the manner in which Chalcedon nonetheless functions as a disclosure event. B. Welte does not criticize Chalcedon but, recognizing its ontological framing of dogma to be historically relative, proposes to reground it in a quasi-Heideggerian language of event: `Es ereignete sich, indem sich der ganze Mensch ereignete, der ganze lebendige Gott auf den glaubenden Menschen hin. In dem einen Ereignis, in dem sich der Mensch ereignete, ereignete sich auch der lebendige Gott' `Die Krisis der dogmatischen Christusaussagen'; in: A. Paus, ed., Die Frage nach Jesus (Graz, 1973), p. 177. Heidegger might say, as he did of Bultmann's TWNT article on `faith': `Too Heideggerian for me!' But though Welte's proposal needs to be cashed in richer biblical terms, it indicates the hermeneutic task: to clarify the phenomena that gave rise to dogma and to measure against them the limits of the horizon within which the dogma was formulated.

  When we recall Chalcedon to its biblical basis we find that it is no more than a footnote to the incarnational vision expressed in John 1:14. But that text may allow of a subtler and wider exegesis than classical dogma countenanced. `The Word became flesh' may mean: `The divinity manifest in the creative Wisdom through which the world was made and in the Torah through which the holy community of Israel was assembled is now manifest in a more fleshly, historical form, in and across the entire career of Jesus'. It is not Jesus as an artificially isolated individual, but Jesus in the entire extent of his connections with Jewish tradition and his ongoing pneumatic presence within the community as the `firstborn of many brethren' (Rom
8:29), who is the enfleshment of God's creative, revelatory Word. God made Godself known in Israel, dwelling among them (the shekinah). It is not through a radical break with this tradition or some monstruous metaphysical paradox that God once again dwells among us in the warm fleshliness of Jesus, that is, of the total history of Jesus, with its roots in and dependence on the Jewish people and its pneumatic unfolding in the anamnesis of the Christian community.

   What is new about the new Torah, the new Covenant, is thus not the presence of the Word (for it is living and active from the beginning) nor `the revelation of the mystery of the Trinity', but rather the role of the flesh, which permits a more intimate conjunction of human and divine. The prophets had seen God as identifying himself with the victims of oppression and with the human historical struggle for liberation and justice. In the crucified Jesus this identification is sealed. A grandiose theology has lost sight of the first lowly paradigm for making sense of the salvific aspect of Christ's death, namely that of faith in the God of Israel who upholds the righteous. The fleshly story of Jesus's life and death fashions a more intimate acquaintance with what the Hebrew scriptures name as God, Word and Spirit, now renamed as Father, Son and Spirit - metaphorical, narrative designations for dimensions or presentations of the divine. In Jesus the divine Word draws near in overwhelming glory as of a Son proceeding from a Father, and the outpouring of the Spirit in conjunction with the drama of his loving death has a new immediacy, given `fleshly' expression in the experience of Christ as `risen' and `exalted to God's right hand'.

   This vision of the Word incarnate is not the most immediate impact of Jesus of Nazareth; the categories of a Spirit-christology capture this more effectively. It is rather the fruit of a long reflection on Jesus and his ongoing impact, the emergence of a background awareness that the entire career of Jesus can be grasped as the work of God. Insofar as Jesus's life, death and ongoing life are a vehicle of revelation in some definitive, unsurpassable way, they are seen as the Logos made flesh, and their ultimate meaning, the ultimate identity of Jesus, are henceforth to be sought in that dimension.

   If we see `the Word became flesh' as a statement of the same order as `God is Spirit' or `God is light', namely, as a resume of Christian experience, conveying a contemplative insight which one can appropriate only by a continual opening of the mind, then we can go beyond efforts to pin the event down to objective ontological privileges enjoyed by Jesus. Rather than a once-for-all ontological conjunction, somewhat magically and fetishistically located at the moment of Christ's conception, can we not think of incarnation as the transformation of this human life, in all its extensions, into manifestation of God, just as in the Eucharist, the meal-event is `transubstantiated' into a communion in the paschal mystery, so that its basic reality or `substance' now has no independent existence alongside what it has become?

   This more open-textured interpretation of incarnation attenuates the clash between the Christian claims and non-Christian religions, for the incarnation of God in Christ continues to unfold along the paths of historical, fleshly contingency as his Gospel and his pneumatic presence are redeployed in different cultures, and enter into dialogue with other historical apprehensions of divine presence in the world. Christian faith and devotion gravitates to Christ in a spontaneous and instinctive way, conferring on him the high titles which dogma subsequently interprets in a critical clarification. Is this gravitation a brute given, or can we map it as a geodesic within a relativistic interreligious space? Is the Incarnation a massive and unique event, the central reality of history and indeed of being? Or is it a cipher for a more subtle, historically textured disclosure process which is intimately linked with the broader web of human evolution, not as dominating that web, but as drawing its sense from it?


III. The Demystifying Role of the Historical Jesus

   The perennial tension between the Christ of dogma and `the historical Jesus as he lives hidden in the Gospels' – A. Schweitzer, Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung (Munich, 1966), p. 47 – has been exacerbated by clearer emergence of the historical Jesus thanks to two centuries of scholarship. The `God incarnate' schema seems to impose an alien mythological framework on the eschatological prophet who announced the imminence of God's Kingdom and gave body to his message through exorcisms and healings, table fellowship with outcasts, and a fresh interpretation of Jewish law and wisdom. Jesus associated acceptance or rejection of his own message with the eschatological judgement to come, and spoke in a way that gave rise to his identification as the Davidic Messiah and the coming eschatological Son of Man For well-grounded accounts of Jesus's teaching; see John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus II (New York, 1994); Jacques Schlosser, Le regne de Dieu dans les dits de Jesus (Paris, 1980).. But such an expression as `I am God incarnate' would have been unimaginable on his lips. The gap between the wisdom trajectory culminating in John's vision of Christ as the Logos incarnate and Jesus's more historical and eschatological claims about himself could be lessened if, as some exegetes suggest, Jesus thought of himself as personified Wisdom; see F. Christ, Jesus Sophia (Zurich, 1970); but this is unconvincing; E. O. Meadors, Jesus the Messianic Herald of Salvation (Tubingen, 1995), pp. 36-71; Meadors also rejects the theory that Jesus saw himself as Wisdom's eschatological envoy. In order to close the gap a degree of demythologization of the incarnational tradition seems to be required. The step back from Chalcedon to Paul and John has to be followed by a further step back to earlier understandings of Jesus, including his own self-understanding.

   Thus when we recall dogma to its Johannine basis, and John to his phenomenological foundations in a contemplative post-paschal anamnesis of Jesus, we still have to deal with the articulation between the historical Jesus and the post-paschal Christ of faith. John's vision is legitimated by reinsertion in the process of reflection whereby the early Christians realized that the significance of Jesus could not be contained within categories less capacious than that of `Logos incarnate' , John's presentation of Jesus is a theological vision, which for all its anti-docetic thrusts recalls the historical ministry of Jesus only as a set of sublime symbolic gestures, sighted within the dazzling blaze of his risen presence. The social concern with liberation from oppression and injustice, a defining trait of Jesus' teaching, and which we are slowly discovering to be part of the definition of incarnation itself, is obscured by John's focus on communal love. A Christianity based only on the sublimity of the Fourth Gospel would be ill-defended against blindness to these fleshly historical dimensions of the work of Christ. Theologians dismissive of critical exegesis, such as Von Balthasar, build on John to present idealized accounts of Christ's life from which historical contingency is banished: `From the first act on, the entire drama is constructed in view of the fifth; thus it is portrayed by the witnesses, and only thus is it the divine work of art as which it presents itself'; Kennt uns Jesus - Kennen wir ihn? (Einsiedeln, 1995), p. 90. But it is precisely to the extent that the Gospels are literary works of art that we must suspect them of being false to the murkiness and accidentality of real life. Von Balthasar is right to remind us that `the Word was made flesh' is followed by `and we have seen his glory'. Divine glory is the supreme biblical phenomenon, and it is at the heart of the Incarnation. Modern theology, cramped by the grids of dogma, the positivism of historical research, and activist demands for relevance, has had trouble opening up to this phenomenon. But a theologia gloriae which misses the broken, all-too-human texture wherein we are given intimations - `hints and guesses' (Eliot) - of the divine glory, or which stylizes this fleshly texture into a sacralized icon, undermines the reality of the divine assumption of humanity in Christ. The revelation comes from the unmasterable divine dimension, but it does not come in a huge undifferentiated ahistorical lump; `it rides time like riding a river' (Hopkins), espousing all the contingency and historicity of the human condition.

   In a deep and rich synthesis of his thought, Etant donne (Paris, 1997), which will be closely studied by theologians, J.-L. Marion frees phenomenality and eventhood from the tight grasp of the principle of sufficient reason and other metaphysical conditions of possibility, thus making straight the paths to recognition of the possibility of such a phenomenon as `the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ' (2 Cor. 4:6). Unfortunately, he ends up subordinating the phenomena to a totalizing, originary concept of givenness (donation), which enjoys the same transcendental status as being does in Thomism. Wittgenstein and Derrida, who are also in their way thinkers of eventhood and phenomenality, would object that this concept is a logocentric mystification, and that phenomena are caught in a pluralistic web of language which reduces `givenness' to a moment within a wider context (differance) which itself is not governed by the values of presence, givenness, or phenomenality. The scholastic lucidity and thoroughness of Marion's arguments leaves their weaker links all the more exposed, particularly in his lame, question-begging solutions to such objections, whose force he underestimates.

   Christian revelation in this perspective, despite the rich differentiation of degrees and modes of givenness, is sighted in a monolithic fashion: we are convoked by a once-for-all event without any trace of pluralistic, historical open-endedness. Revelation as a rupture of the tissue of history prevails over all modern attempts to apprehend Christ in evolutionary and historical perspectives On the tension between these two dimensions of messianic thinking in modern Judaism; see Stephane Moses, L'Ange de l'histoire (Paris, 1992). When Marion speaks of Christ's flesh as `affecting itself by itself and thus manifesting itself without having to inscribe itself in any relation, thus in an absolute mode, outside or beyond every horizon' (Marion, p. 333), the docetist overtones are troubling. To abstract Christ's flesh from dependency on human relations is untrue to the modalities of incarnation as theology has painfully rediscovered them over the last two hundred and fifty years. The fleshly Christ is `the light of the world' (Jn 8.12) not from a place above and beyond it, but from within it, radiating out to it along historical pathways and interpreted to it differently in successive contexts by the dynamic activity of his Spirit. His flesh is of the same frail `dependently co-arisen' texture as ours (Heb 2:14, 5:7-8), and it is precisely as such an `earthen vessel' that it becomes the vehicle of the `eternal weight of glory' (2 Cor. 4:7, 17) For an application of the Buddhist ontology of dependent co-arising to Christ; see J. P. Keenan, The Meaning of Christ (Maryknoll, NY, 1989). That glory is not given in raw immediacy, but for the most part in the straining of eschatological expectation; the story of the Transfiguration is firmly fixed in this horizon and not allowed to saturate or swamp it (Mk 9; Mt. 17; Lk. 9).

   Reference to the historical reality of Jesus before the post-Easter interpretations provides an invaluable critical resource over against the entire christological tradition, preventing it from ballooning off into vacuous idealism. The very difficulty of such reference, the uncertainty and obscurity of the enterprise, can free our faith from a narrow positivism of facts as much as from a blithe confidence in theological portraits of Jesus. Scientific concern with the facts about Jesus has become part of any responsible christology At present it is being enriched by reconstructions of the social context of Jesus's career, such as Sean Freyne's studies of the world of Galilee., in counterpoint to the imaginative unfolding of the significance of Jesus in Christian tradition and its present transformations. We can no longer rest uncritically in our imaginings of Jesus; we realize that they are a `skilful means' (Buddhist upaya) suited to a given epoch and in need of constant readjustment. But neither can we cease these imaginings by a return to the bare facts about Jesus, for these come clothed in religious interpretation from the start, and in any case their painstaking reproduction produces only museum fragments unless linked to the interrogation of Jesus by contemporary believers.

   Even the earliest interpretations of Jesus, by himself and his disciples, are subject to historical contextualization and critical reassessment. There was an abundance of mythic schemata to draw on, and their application to Jesus was a human interpretative activity, however much it may have been led by the Spirit (cf. Mt. 16:17). Since Christology is so much a product of the mythic frameworks then available, the retrieval of its truth for today demands a radical reinterpretation: “In certain Jewish circles, the biblical story of Melchizedek expanded into a sort of mythical biography: Melchizedek became a pre-existent and immortal being; he was thought of as having been begotten in his mother's womb by the Word of God, and there were those who expected him to be the judge of the Latter Days… The example of Melchizedek proves, therefore, that the time was ripe for the birth of Christianity, not in the Hellenistic world and surely not in the pagan world, but in the Land of Israel, where Jesus and his first disciples lived”; thus David Flusser, Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem, 1988), p. 192. Flusser comments that Jesus: “felt he was united with God as a son with his heavenly father and his unique tie of divine sonship became one of the main notions of Christianity, after having been interpreted with the help of Jewish theological motifs, mostly of hypostatic nature... Does Christ's divine sonship belong strictly to Christology or already to Messianology?... Many aspects of Christian theology and dogmatics appear in Judaism, where they are autonomous, Jewish and not Christian” (p. 263). For more on these Messianic hypostases, see J. J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star (New York, 1995).

   Jesus' own messianological notions, thus, must in turn be interpreted against the background of Jewish religion and culture, in yet another step back. H.-J. Kraus, Systematische Theologie im Kontext biblischer Geschichte und Eschatologie (Neukirchen-Vluyn, 1983), F.-W. Marquardt, Das christliche Bekenntnis zu Jesus, dem Juden (Munich, 1991), P. M. van Buren, Christ in Context (San Francisco, 1988), and M. Wyschogrod, ‘A Jewish Perspective on Incarnation’, Modern Theology 12 (1996), pp. 195-209, are some of the works that propose a Christian theology of Jesus using only Jewish categories. But under pain of a naive biblicism we must recognize that these Jewish categories also need to be demythologized. This applies even to the ruling idea of Israel's election, which cannot really mean that God binds himself to the physical descendents of Abraham; rather, Israel is the people of the Torah, and the Covenant is centered on that. Israel's identity is not secured by literal obedience to the Mosaic Law or to its Rabbinic reinterpretation, but more largely by its spirit of Torah fidelity; against B. D. Marshall, `Christ and the cultures: The Jewish people and Christian theology', in The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine, 1997, pp. 81-100.

   The obsolescence of Hellenistic myth does not entail any rejuvenation of Hebrew myth. The task of rearticulation in contemporary categories what the ancients envisaged in mythic terms is even more daunting in this case, for however refreshing we may find the older biblical representations by contrast with stale Hellenistic notions, it is the latter that harmonize with the tracks of thought most familiar in Western culture. The repertoire of Jewish eschatological thought-forms came to appear alien and inadequate as the Church spread, and though the notion of Messiah was crucial in controversy with Judaism, the Hellenistic mind was more engaged by representations of the pre-existent Son of God (Paul) and Logos (John). A reappropriation of the Jewish mythical categories in an existential translation, helped by thinkers such as Rosenzweig, Scholem and Buber, may challenge theology to break out of its Hellenistic rut, but it will also cut a swath through the over-abundance of mythological motifs in the Gospels.

   Slowly, the actual phenomenological and interpretative structure of how faith encounters the living God in and across the human Jesus is coming into sharper focus. We begin to see that the historical, Jewish fleshly existence of Jesus is the locus of his unique revelatory and salvific status, and that it is a bridge rather than an obstacle as our tradition opens out to other major loci of divine disclosure, especially the Jewish and Buddhist traditions.

  (from Archivio di Filosofia, vol.. 67, 1999)