- Martin Luther and Buddhism: The Aesthetics of Suffering
As a member of the Lutheran community (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), I am struck by the fact that Lutheran theologians—referred to as "teaching theologians" when employed by Lutheran seminaries—seem little interested in religious pluralism in general and interreligious dialogue in particular. There are important exceptions, of course, one being Donald Luck of Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Ohio. And the most intense and coherent dialogue between Christians and Muslims now taking place in the United States is located at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. But by and large, Lutheran theology seems unengaged with the realities of religious pluralism. Rather than dialogue, "missionology" is the focus of most Lutheran theological encounter with the world religions, which means that most Lutheran conversation with religious pluralism is best characterized as monologue.
It's different for most Lutherans sitting in the pews of local congregations. Most lay persons understand that they must live their faith contextualized by their religiously plural neighborhoods. Lutheran laity are interested the religious practices and worldviews of their neighbors because they are in contact with their neighbors everyday. They desire to meet and know the religious "other" not as "other," but as fellow human beings seeking to live in community. My distinct impression, gained [End Page 235] from teaching adult education courses in local congregations (mostly Lutheran and other mainline denominations), is that Christian lay people are usually miles ahead of their pastors, denominational leaders, and teaching theologians in their encounter with the realities of religious pluralism and their desire for dialogue. For these reasons, Paul S. Chung's book, Martin Luther and Buddhism, is important, and I hope it will be the beginning of specifically Lutheran dialogue with the Buddhist tradition. Again, as a Lutheran, I can only say, "It's about time."
Chung's goal is twofold: (1) engaging in critical dialogue with the theology of Martin Luther, and (2) Asian pluralistic theology of religions. Specifically, the author, himself a Korean Lutheran pastor and theologian, places Luther's theology of the Cross in dialogue with Buddhist understanding of suffering (duh.kha). His thesis is that what Christianity and Buddhism have in common is their understanding of suffering, albeit each tradition having different approaches and "solutions" to universal suffering. Accordingly, rereading Luther's theology of the Cross in dialogue with Buddhism's take on suffering, its causes, and its resolution is the center of Chung's hermeneutical approach to Luther.
Surely, Chung is on the right track. Buddhism's focus on the experience of universal suffering and its resolution is one of its defining features. Chung's reason for placing Luther's theology of the Cross in dialogue with Buddhism lies mainly in the fact that Luther focused on the suffering of God on the cross incarnated in the suffering of the historical Jesus, which he placed in direct contrast to the "theology of glory" of medieval scholastic theology. Chung's claim is that Luther's understanding of divine suffering is a "liberation theology" that needs be contextualized by contemporary struggle for social, economic, ecological, and women's liberation from systemic structures of injustice. Because justice issues are not religion-specific, Luther's theology of the Cross in socially engaged dialogue with Buddhism should be a source of liberation for both Christians and Buddhists.
Chung's work stands in a long line of Asian Christians seeking to translate Christian teachings and practices into the religious traditions foundational to Asian cultures, in Chung's case Korean Buddhism and, to some degree, Confucianism. One immediately thinks of Aloysius Pieris's dialogue with Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Seiichi Yagi and Masaaki Honda's appropriation of Mahayana doctrines in their attempts to relate Christian faith to Japanese cultural experience, or Raimundo Panikkar's interpretation of Christian faith through the lenses of Hinduism and Buddhism. All ofthese theologians note that Anglo-European intellectual and cultural traditions are not easily translatable into Asian cultural experience. Because Western forms of Christian tradition are foreign to Asian cultural values...