- Duality and Non-Duality in Christian Practice:Reflections on the Benefits of Buddhist-Christian Dialogue for Constructive Theology
The question before us is the desirability of Buddhist-Christian dialogue in the work of (what Christians call) constructive theology. As a feminist theologian whose work is ever more deeply shaped by such a dialogue, my immediate answer is an unequivocal yes.1 This dialogue fits a general pattern over two thousand years in which theologians have drawn from the wisdom of other traditions or cultures to better understand the mysteries of human experience. Without neo-Platonism and Aristotle there could hardly have been anything we recognize as Christian theology. Without pre-Christian Irish religion, there would be no Saint Brigit or Celtic Christianity. Without phenomenology, process, and Marxist philosophy the greatest works of twentieth-century Christian thought would not exist. Christianity, like all religions, is a moving river changed by time and culture and nearly as interiorly diverse as its members. The dialogue with Buddhism might be seen as a contemporary example of Christianity's openness to exchange with other ways of thinking that broadens and deepens its best insights. It is perhaps analogous to Origen's reliance on neo-Platonism or Thomas Aquinas's inspiration by the rediscovery of Aristotle.2
The porous boundaries between Christianity and its culture open it to wisdom beyond itself but they also open it to cruelty and ignorance. Nothing protects religions from participating in the human condition and thus the prejudices and power structures that mutilate human society. Consumer culture and oppressions by class, ethnicity, and gender are seamlessly incorporated into Christian identity. The tacit synthesis of a culture's values with those of a religion neutralizes possible critique and can elevate a society's oppressions to a sacred duty. For this reason, too, dialogue with Buddhism is important to call Christianity back to its ethical moorings in the ideal of universal love and compassion.
Religions are porous to the world around them, but they tend to conceal this from themselves and often imagine themselves to be not only untainted but also uniquely [End Page 135] qualified to mediate salvation. Religions provide human beings with language and practice through which dimensions of reality that cannot simply be read off of nature or experience are (in some sense) encountered. This is their great gift. The difficulty of religions is that tradition can become an end in itself. Because a tradition really does offer meaning and tools for transformation it is easy to slip into the existential posture of so idealizing a tradition that it seems in some direct and exclusive way to correlate to ultimate truth. The curvature of the ego onto itself, so attached to its own pain and pleasure that everything else seems a mere shadow, moves from the microcosm of the self to the macrocosm of religious tradition. The particular religion—or that element within it with which I identify—becomes identical with sacred reality. In the hostility to other religions characteristic of many Christians we see the illusion of egocentrism in its religious form. Paul Tillich described this tendency to absolutize itself as the demonic distortion of religion.3 Religious dialogue is a potent medicine against this overattachment to one's own tradition.
These different senses in which a religion integrates into itself the wisdom and illusions of its time and place create enormous diversity within a religious tradition. Root concepts within Christianity concerning soteriology, divinity, and suffering do not have any agreed upon meaning. That is, there is no "Christian" view of salvation. Gregory of Nyssa's ideal of theosis, Luther's emphasis on salvation by grace through faith, an evangelical's experience of being born again, a liberal Protestant's commitment to social justice are so diverse that they seem to represent almost different religions.
In light of the malleability and interior diversity of traditions, dialogue may not be between two self-sufficient religions but between participants who inhabit their tradition in a variety of ways.4 With this in mind, I would like to experiment with practice as a basis for some kinds of dialogue. Practice is concretely located in a religious tradition and yet reflects...