- What Christians Can Learn from Buddhism: Rethinking Salvation
As part of Fortress Press's Facets series, Kristin Johnston Largen's What Christians Can Learn from Buddhism: Rethinking Salvation is intended to be brief. The author sets out to explain in a slim, pocket-sized volume why it is important for all Christians, and not just scholars or professional theologians, to deepen their own faith by learning from religious others. She uses as her example the way that Nāgārjuna's thought can advance Christian understanding of salvation doctrine. According to the preface, there are few resources available for interreligious learning that are geared toward beginners, and so Largen aims to fill this gap. (She declines to use diacriticals because of this intention.) It becomes clear in chapter 2 (where, for example, Largen explains that there is diversity of thought within Christianity on theological matters and defines for the reader the term "atonement") that by beginners, she means not only beginners in terms of knowledge of Buddhism but beginners to Christian theology as well. Given the demands and hazards of comparative theology, both the brevity of the project and the related orientation toward novices pose formidable challenges.
Aware of criticisms of the theology of religions and apparently siding with those who feel that comparative theology is an alternative to the theology of religions, Largen states that her book "will help Christians see a new way of thinking about salvation that moves beyond inclusive or exclusive categories" (p. xii). So Largen does not formulate a Christian position toward other religions (i.e., theology of religions) but indeed explores another religious tradition and learns from it theologically (comparative theology). She does not go beyond theology of religions, however, in the sense that arguably comparative theology will always assume and exemplify a theology of religions position, and there is some debate in the field as to whether it is preferable for comparative theologians to come clean about their theology of religions up front. Although she feels the need to confess her other commitments at the outset (i.e., Euro-American woman, Lutheran pastor and professor), she does not make explicit her theology of religions, except to say that Christian interest in interreligious dialogue should flow from the fact that God, as creator of all, is linked to all peoples, regardless of religious affiliation. In addition, attention to religious others, she writes, follows from Christians' need to be open to the possibility that the Holy Spirit may be working through interreligious conversation. [End Page 257]
In the first chapter, defending her intended approach and sensitive to the difficulties of interpreting the other, Largen explains quickly how Hans-Georg Gadamer's work—especially his Truth and Method—can help the comparative theologian avoid misinterpretation and distortion of the other. Gadamer's notion that all understanding is self-understanding, for example, demands of us self-awareness and openness. His notion of understanding "something," for a second example, teaches us that we cannot see in the other only what we want but must give real attention to what the other is saying, in the other's own terms.
Rather than settling on a particular thinker's work, a specific Christian text on soteriology, or a particular question pertaining to salvation for which Nāgārjuna's thought is illuminating, Largen leaves as the Christian pole in the comparison Christian salvation doctrine in general. She stipulates, however, certain parameters for Christian doctrine in the twenty-first century, such as that it must demonstrate awareness of the environmental crisis and recognition that theology is always perspectival and culturally bound. Also, she introduces three motifs of atonement, with criticisms and strengths of each, in order to indicate places in need of constructive work. The three motifs are Christus Victor, satisfaction (or penal substitution), and moral influence, and Largen maintains that the "picture of salvation is richer when all are held together" (p. 46). Fond of numbered lists, Largen follows the three motifs with a list of five tensions that she wants to sustain in explaining Jesus...