- Religious Pluralism and Christian Truth
Joseph S. O’Leary has been named recipient of the 1998 Frederick J. Streng Book Award for his 1996 volume, Religious Pluralism and Christian Truth. Dr. O’Leary was born in Cork, Ireland, in 1949. He studied literature, theology, and philosophy in Maynooth, Rome, and Paris. After teaching briefly in the United States (University of Notre Dame and Duquesne University), he moved to Japan in 1983. He has worked in association with the Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture and currently teaches English literature at Sophia University (with special emphasis on Joyce and the modernist period) and a course on Japanese values at International Christian University.
He has been working on a trilogy in fundamental theology that has taken on an increasingly interreligious character. The first volume is Questioning Back: The Overcoming of Metaphysics in Christian Tradition (Minneapolis: Winston/Seabury, 1985), reviewed in Buddhist-Christian Studies in 1987; a French version is in preparation. The second volume appeared first as La verite chretienne a l’age du pluralisme religieux (Paris: Cerf, 1994) and then as Religious Pluralism and Christian Truth (Edinburgh University Press, 1996). Joseph O’Leary is also coeditor of Heidegger et la question de Dieu (Paris: Grasset, 1980) and Buddhist Spirituality (vols. 8 and 9 of World Spirituality, New York: Crossroad, 1993 and 1999).
Terry Muck: Why did you write this book?
Joseph O’Leary: My earlier book, Questioning Back: The Overcoming of Metaphysics in Christian Tradition, advocated deconstruction of the Greek and Hebrew elements in Christian theology—the need for a radical retrieval of the tradition in the spirit of Heidegger’s “step back” from metaphysical systems to the original phenomena. In Religious Pluralism and Christian Truth, I broadened the horizon to see all religion as historical, cultural constructs growing and changing through mutual interaction. Living in Japan brought me a liberating sense of historical and cultural relativity and with it the sense that the Christian tradition should be thought of as an essentially incomplete project, always reaching out to other traditions in search of a fuller vision.
But that discovery did not mean giving up on the Christian tradition.
No. Rather than sitting back and enjoying the pluralism, I found myself more and more concerned with the question of truth. Followers of Jacques Derrida assured me that “truth” has been exposed as a historical myth. Struggling with Derrida I found rather a recontextualization of the value of truth. Moreover, the “situated truth” (always relative to a given context in culture and praxis) of historically formulated dogmatic propositions turned out to be quite defensible despite Derrida’s demolition [End Page 239] of notions of truth as totality (Hegel) or truth as presence (Heidegger). Christianity has nothing to fear from opening itself up to its historical relativity. Buddhism has long accepted the provisionality of all religious expressions. I focused especially on the notion of skillful means and on the theory of the two truths (conventional and ultimate) in Madhyamaka Buddhism.
What does this “opening up” do to traditional Christian doctrines?
The notion of God is not only compatible with such a relativized view of the status of religious language, but demands it. The biblical discourse about God consists in a constant deconstruction of old images of God by new ones. As for the role of Jesus Christ, Incarnation is an ongoing event in that the historical significance of Jesus is still unfolding. The uniqueness of Jesus resides not in some ontological amalgamation of divinity and humanity but in the specifics of his historical role. God’s Word is spoken in other ways elsewhere, indeed is spoken in all things, and its specifically “fleshly” (human and historical) and “eschatological” manifestation in the unfolding of the Jesus story should not be divorced from these wider contexts.
How have these ideas been received?
The most flattering response has come from the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies in granting me the Frederick J. Streng Book Award. Streng’s book, Emptiness, which I read in Pittsburgh in 1982, opened my eyes to the world of Madhyamaka thought.
Predictably, the book has come under fire from two opposing camps. The Revue Thomiste reviewer claimed that I could...