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  • Divine Contingency: Theologies of Divine Embodiment in Maximos and Tsong Kha Pa
  • Skip Horton-Parker
Divine Contingency: Theologies Of Divine Embodiment In maximos And Tsong Kha Pa. By Thomas Cattoi. Gorgias Eastern Christian Studies 7. Piscataway: Gorgias Press, 2008. xiii + 307 pp.

Cattoi's book is both a landmark work in the genre of comparative theology and a fascinating and accessible exploration of Maximos the Confessor (580-622) and Tsong kha pa (1359-1427)—two brilliant synthesists whose architectonic visions became normative for their respective traditions.

The leitmotif of the study is the question of the soteriological value of the natural world—an emphasis shared by Maximos and Tsong kha pa, according to Cattoi. He engages this theme by setting Maximos's Chalcedonian understanding of the created order as eschatologically oriented logoi, into conversation with Tsong kha pa's understanding of the nonduality of conventional and ultimate reality according to the Mahayana concept of "non-abiding nirvana" (apratishtitā). In the process, Cattoi explores what defines Buddhism as Buddhism and Christianity as Christianity—in ways that are both juxtapositional and mutually illuminating.

Cattoi's opening chapters compare and contrast the soteriologies of Tibetan Buddhism and patristic orthodoxy. He begins in the Christian world with Origen and Evagrios Pontikos, whose pre-Chalcedonian schemata precipitated the controversies that called forth Maximos's syntheses as a corrective. Following Origen, Evagrios's Kephalaia Gnostika envisioned a fall from a primordial unity (henas) caused by "negligence"—an act creating a "thickness" that became the material world. In response, the Logos descends, pedagogically imparting a gnosis to fallen souls that allows them to turn away from multiplicity and movement, shed the incensive parts of the soul via apatheia, and again become pure nous in union with the divine mind. Cattoi argues that this soteriology of mere "retrieval" demonstrates Origen's "inability to account for the intrinsic value of the created order" (p. 7). Evagrian soteriology is thus a (Pyrrhic) "triumph of undifferentiated oneness" (p. 72). A central, recurring question throughout Cattoi's book is: must this same judgment be passed on Buddhism?

Cattoi then discusses how Maximos addressed Origen's and Evagrius's weaknesses. The heart of Maximos's theology is the person of Christ as understood through the Chalcedonian lens of the hypostatic union. In the Incarnation we see writ "the dialectical structure of God's eschatological plan, which does not suppress individuality and difference, but rather invests them with the greatest imaginable salvific potential" (p. 43). Diversity, transformation, and movement are not, as for Origen, remnants of an ontological "wound," to be shed in the apokatastasis. They are gifts of a benevolent Creator. The incarnate and resurrected Logos is thus the hermeneutical and ontological key to understanding the intrinsic value of the created order—one guaranteeing an eschatological "triumph of plurality" (p. 72).

Cattoi next focuses on Tibetan Buddhist thought in general as a prelude to introducing [End Page 245] Tsong kha pa. He surveys a myriad of Tibetan sources, including schools such as rDzogs chen, dGe lugs, and Yogcra, and texts such as Kun byed rgyal po, rDo la gser zhun, and The Seminal Heart. The expected comparisons are made between Origenist and Evagrian soteriology and rDzogs chen's flight from conventional reality to an unconditioned "henad" of emptiness. But Cattoi also shows us a Buddhism of many colors, thus complexifying such comparisons. Phenomenological parallelisms fly fast and furious. Almost every page contains exciting observations worthy of continued study (e.g., "It is almost too easy to discern an echo of the Palamite distinction between the divine essence and the divine energies" in "Jigs med gLing pa's dynamism (rtsal) and luminosity ('od gsal)" (p. 139). Specialists may raise a hue and cry regarding some of these comparisons, but Cattoi's observations are neither casual nor one dimensional.

Cattoi observes that several Tibetan schools express significant theisticethical overtones, not only in seeing the epistemological dimension of enlightenment as ontologically identical with a "Primordial Lord" or Buddha, but also through the identification of emptiness with "a transcendent dimension that is active on behalf of suffering sentient beings" (p. 193). The very sea change from Theravāda to Mahāyāna suggests the emergent...


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