- The Gospel of Mark: A Mahayana Reading
This is the latest effort of society member John Keenan to “pass over” (as John Dunne puts it) from one tradition to another in order to return to one’s point of departure with fresh perspective and heightened awareness. This book reflects impressive scholarship and builds on the theological indebtedness to Madhyamika [End Page 210] and Yogacara thought that shaped Keenan’s earlier work, The Meaning of Christ: A Mahayana Theology, also published by Orbis. The noses of academic purists may be put out of joint by what some might construe as a blurring of boundaries between Buddhism and Christianity, but Keenan places himself right in the thick of current hermeneutical discussions to establish the fruitfulness of Mahayana perspective in interpreting the “charter document of the Christian Gospel” (p. 4). He finds methodological legitimization both in the arguments of narrative criticism and in the lines of connection he discerns between deconstruction and the Mahayana recognition of emptiness. And in so arguing, he finds himself able to account for forms of New Testament criticism such as those advanced by John Dominic Crossan and Werner Kelber that not only undermine forms of essentialism but also resort to conventional modes of thinking and discourse without justifying the latter.
What is unwittingly going on, argues Keenan, is parallel to the Mahayana identification of emptiness (shunyata) with dependent co-arising (pratitya samutpada). Like deconstructionist hermenuetics, emptiness destablizes all fixed views by recognizing that ultimate truth is ineffable and silent. However, unlike deconstruction, emptiness avoids the vertigo of a text lost in the interplay of interpretations doubling back on themselves. “That is emptiness ineptly apprehended as itself an essentialist viewpoint that there are no viewpoints” (p. 7). Instead, Mahayana analysis connects recognition of the total otherness of ultimate meaning with the affirmation of worldly convention in its limitation. The result is a hermeneutic of nonabsolutizing suggestiveness shaped by upaya, which leads the reader to the possibility of enlightenment —or, in the case of Mark, disclosure.
According to Keenan, this Mahayana recognition of the identity of emptiness and dependent co-arising not only has hermeneutical legitimation but also is the key for unlocking a fresh appreciation of Mark’s contents. Accounting for this is the fact that “the Marcan rhetoric of indirection and irony is the narrative analogue to the Madhyamika dialectical rhetoric employed in Nagarjuna’s Stanzas on the Middle” and the fact that “Mahayana eschews precisely those clarifying elements that Matthew and Luke have added to domesticate Mark’s story and discourse, preferring the opacity of ultimate meaning to the full explication of stated truths, opting for the emptying of all themes and ideas in order to reclaim them with an awakened mind” (p. 4).
Keenan’s approach is coherent with Crossan’s observation that while mythos creates a universe of meaning, parable undermines established cosmoi. In this respect, Jesus not only speaks parable, he is parable. Utilizing the Mahayana identification of emptiness with dependent co-arising as a heuristic device and paying close attention to the Greek text, Keenan traces the simultaneously destablizing and restorative effect that Jesus has on his hearers—and that the evangelist potentially can have on his readers. Jesus’ “desert spirituality,” that is, his radically unconventional vision, undermines the expectations and securities of both hearer and reader. But it also reconnects those effected by the liberation he works “not to the ultimate glory of a false kingdom imagined by the disciples and the readers, but to the conventional realm of human living in which alone the kingdom may be established” (p. 73; italics added). Indeed, Jesus’ crucifixion makes clear that the transformation wrought [End Page 211] by the Gospel is an existential reappropriation of ordinary life in the face of ultimate mystery, not some supernatural deliverance within or from it. Appropriately, Mark ends with the women being confronted by both the jarring and ineffable mystery of Jesus’ empty tomb and the promise that he will see the disciples again in the familiar—and open-ended—context of life in Galilee.
Keenan has done more...