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Christianity and the Notion of Nothingness: Contributions to Buddhist-Christian Dialogue from the Kyoto School by Mutō Kazuo (review)
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Christianity and the Notion of Nothingness: Contributions to Buddhist-Christian Dialogue from the Kyoto School. By Mutō Kazuo. Edited by Martin Repp. Translated by Jan van Bragt. Philosophy of Religion/World Religions 2. Leiden: Brill, 2012. 225 pp.

This volume makes available the work of Mutō Kazuo (1913–1995) to the English-speaking world. Repp’s extended, fifty-page, introduction to the volume situates Mutō’s unique contributions as a Christian philosopher of religion and philosophical theologian to the legacy of the Kyoto school of philosophy. Of the three primary Kyoto school figures, Mutō heard lectures by Nishida Kitarō (1870–1945) in the last decade of the latter’s life, was a student of Tanabe Hajime (1885–1962), and had his Kyoto University PhD dissertation (on the relationship between theology and philosophy of religion) examined by Nishitani Keiji (1900–1990). Shortly after receiving his doctorate in 1961, Mutō was promoted to full professor in what was officially the Second Chair for Religious Studies (Christian Studies) at Kyoto University and while there worked as a close colleague of Nishitani. After retirement from Kyoto University in 1977, Mutō remained partially active as a teacher for ten more years—at Kwansei Gakuin University (1977–1982) and Ryukoku University (1982–1987)—during which time he continued to write and publish.

Repp rightly points out, and the Mutō chapters in the book bear ample witness to, the significance of Mutō’s role as a Christian interlocutor with Kyoto School thinkers. Mutō was born to parents who were members of a Dutch Reformed congregation, and he remained a lay Christian all his life. Yet his Calvinist Protestant upbringing left a lasting impression on his life and thought and prepared him for inhabiting the borderlands between Christianity and Buddhism that defined the chair he occupied. It ought to be noted not only that Kyoto University is Japan’s second oldest and most prestigious research-oriented institution, but also that the city is a historic and cultural center for the Japanese Buddhist tradition. Hence the “Christian Studies” professorship, established in 1922 and filled by Mutō from 1962–1977, was uniquely located within the Faculty of Letters at a state university within a predominantly Buddhist ethos. Not dependent on the church, holders of the position were expected nevertheless to bring contributions from a Christian perspective to their work. Inevitably, [End Page 209] many of the chair’s incumbents gravitated to engaging with members of the department of philosophy, and Mutō was no exception.

Having studied under Tanabe and carried along by the currents of modernization and westernization prevalent in the early to mid-twentieth century Japanese context, Mutō drank deeply from the wellsprings of the German philosophical and theological tradition. His doctoral dissertation focused on the legacy of Kant as mediated through Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, Troeltsch, and Bultmann, even as this work, finished when he was almost fifty years old, was both preceded and followed by monographs on Kierkegaard (in 1950 and 1967, respectively). Tillich was also an important dialogue partner, as was Barth. In fact, and perhaps not surprisingly, Barth emerges as the most formidable figure in the pages of Christianity and the Notion of Nothingness. Even though the eight Mutō chapters translated in the book date from about the twenty-year period stretching from 1966/1967 to 1988, the shadow cast by the early to middle Barth persisted. Inevitably, amid appreciation for Barth’s theology of revelation and theology of the word of God, Japanese Christian thinkers like Mutō sought to find a way beyond Barth’s either/or. This was especially important if the Christian viewpoint was to be brought into constructive dialogue with the prevailing scholarly—and in the case of Mutō: philosophical and religious—conversations. The challenges were particularly acute for Mutō in the 1960s and 1970s as a mentee of both Tanabe and Nishitani, and as someone who developed a close friendship, not just working relationship, with the latter. The Kyoto school of philosophy was not just a set of abstract ideas but powerfully embodied in its living representatives. Herein, then, lay the motivations behind Mutō’s work: to respond both critically and constructively to the main lines of Kyoto...