- On Doing Theology and Buddhology:A Spectrum of Christian Proposals
This essay addresses the following questions: "Can/should Buddhists and Christians do theology/Buddhology together? If no, why not? If yes, why and how?" As a Pentecostal Christian systematician and comparativist, I review a number of volumes recently published in the field in light of these queries1 and situate them across a typological spectrum.2 I will conclude by providing my own constructive theological response.3
Keith Yandell, the Julius R. Weinberg Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Harold Netland, former missionary to Japan and longtime faculty member in philosophy of religion and intercultural studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois—one of the most important evangelical seminaries in North America—have collaborated on a volume recently jointly released by two of the most important evangelical publishing houses, InterVarsity Press and Paternoster Press.4 These are senior evangelical scholars; between them, they have written or edited numerous books in the areas of philosophy of religion, epistemology, theology of pluralism, and theology of interreligious encounter, among other topics, along the way touching on many aspects of the subject matter in their coauthored book, Buddhism.5 How would they respond to the set of questions above? More particularly, how might we anticipate their response in light of their book?
In contrast to previous evangelical engagements with Buddhist traditions, Yandell and Netland provide an exemplary model for future evangelical discussions of Buddhism in the following respects. First, they take the time to understand Buddhist traditions on their own terms, devoting the first half of their book to a historical exposition of Buddhism's emergence, growth, and development across Asia and the West. Second, both have familiarized themselves with the diversity of Buddhist debates and internal disputes, and thus recognize that Buddhists rarely speak with [End Page 103] one voice, especially on complex issues; this is important since it enables them, by and large, to avoid caricatures of Buddhist positions and of erecting straw-man arguments against Buddhist doctrines and ideas. Last but not least, Yandell and Netland do engage in negative apologetics against central Buddhist doctrines,6 as might be expected of evangelical scholars, but they undertake their critical analysis respectfully and with dialogical rhetoric quite different from the kinds of polemic deployed by prior generations of evangelicals.7
Yet even given these advances, in the end, Yandell and Netland emphasize the incommensurability of Buddhism and Christianity. The final chapter of their book distinguishes Christian views of God versus Buddhist conceptions of ultimate reality, Jesus vis-à-vis the Buddha, and the human fall into sin needing gracious forgiveness over and against human ignorance needing enlightenment. Their concluding words assert: "These are not simply variations on a common theme, or different ways of expressing the same spiritual insight. The choice here is between two radically different perspectives on reality, on the nature of the human predicament, and the way to overcome it."8
To be sure, Yandell and Netland have provided reasoned arguments for such a contrastive perspective, emphasizing especially what they feel to be the incoherence or unintelligibility of the Buddhist teachings that they examine. But if their evangelical readers agree with their conclusions, it will be only because they are not in the position to appreciate—the expositions of this volume notwithstanding—how Buddhists have wrestled with these issues over the millennia but yet come to peace with some of the answers that continue to mystify Yandell and Netland. More specifically, this book will probably appeal to evangelicals because they also presume the sort of either/ or logic at work in its central arguments. Put alternatively, the Buddhist worldview will remain baffling to most evangelicals because they either lack access to or refuse to avail themselves of the practices that give these ideas meaning. Such is the cost of staying primarily at the level of philosophical discourse and analysis.9
This probably means that Yandell and Netland would answer "no" to the leading questions of this essay. Christians and Buddhists occupy, in their perspective, incommensurable religious and intellectual grounds. Sustained interreligious encounter can result only in the awareness of the differences...