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  • Transcendence and Violence: The Encounter of Buddhist, Christian, and Primal Traditions
  • Sarah K. Pinnock
Transcendence and Violence: The Encounter of Buddhist, Christian, and Primal Traditions. By John D'Arcy May. New York: Continuum, 2003. 225 + xi pp.

In popular media, religion appears as a dangerous social phenomenon with explosive potential. The investigation of transcendence as a source of violence is particularly timely in light of America's war on terrorism targeting extremist Islam. However, this negative dimension of religion is nothing new. Over the course of history, hostility [End Page 231] and killing are intimately connected with religious divisions. The irony of religious violence as a betrayal of religious ethical ideals is both obvious and inescapable.

Approaching this hot topic from the perspective of religious imperialism, John D'Arcy May examines violence perpetrated by the Christian and Buddhist traditions against indigenous religions. His investigation covers damaging evidence against these two universalizing traditions using geographically specific case studies in Asia and the Pacific Rim. Situating Christianity and Buddhism in parallel as religions of transcendence, he compares how indigenous localized religions were overpowered by expansionist universalizing religions, although not eradicated. Into his historical narrative, he weaves his personal encounters with otherness growing up in Australia while virtually oblivious to the oppression of Aboriginals by white settlers, and as a Roman Catholic doing ecumenical work in Papua New Guinea for four years.

May opens the book with bold admission of the failures of European Christianity, evidenced in anti-Judaism and Holocaust genocide, and Theravada Buddhism's violent involvement in Sri Lanka's civil conflict between Singhalese nationalists and Hindu Tamils. The reader is led to expect elaboration on the moral failings of Christianity, and this proves true; however, May's examination of the Buddhism's expansion and endorsement of violence tempers the tendency to single out Christianity as uniquely imperialist. He suggests that transcendence itself can cause hierarchy and oppression.

Part I of the book focuses on Christianity and violence. Chapter 1 studies how European Protestant and Catholic settlers to Australia treated the Aboriginal peoples. The story is grim. Using a psychoanalytic framework, May interprets the European vilification of Aboriginals as stemming from the repression of the primal other, and the repression of bio-cosmic religion in favor of transcendence. Constructively, he proposes that Aboriginal peoples can offer theological insights about the ontology of sacred space. Christians should not only seek reconciliation in society, but also consider new perspectives on the sacred in nature drawn from the dreaming of Aboriginal religious lore.

In chapter 2, May deals with colonization in the Melanesian Islands of the Pacific Ocean, concentrating on Papua New Guinea. In the indigenous religions of Melanesia, the prosperous community is the measure of religious rectitude, while misfortune is explained by the breaking of taboos and the revenge of enemies or evil spirits. After European colonization, "cargo cults" arose among the islands that promised abundant material goods possessed by European settlers by means of religious rituals and magic. Surprisingly, May points out the positive impulses at the root of these cargo cults that are typically viewed as detrimental and even outlawed outright by local governments for their harmful social impact. At bottom, he argues, cargo cults reflect a positive religious aspiration for wholeness and healing in this life that is a counterpoint to the spiritualization of salvation by European Christianity.

May tries to avoid idealizing these primal cultures and their religious insights; nevertheless, he finds them instructive for Christian theology. Native religions in both Australia and Papua New Guinea offer models of immanence that emphasize the religious value of nature and just relationships. It should be mentioned that [End Page 232] there is some nuance to this conclusion. For instance, Melanesian religion is portrayed as less exemplary than Australian aboriginal religion. But May's main point is that violence on a global scale is validated by Christian notions of transcendence that deny the material aspirations of the indigenous community, and promote a superiority that wreaks violence among indigenous peoples. Hopefully, intercultural theology will allow Christians to appreciate the Aboriginal respect for sacred geography and the Melanesian quest for the flourishing of one's local community.

Christianity and Buddhism are treated...


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pp. 231-235
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