- Speaking With and Away:What the Aporia of Ineffability Has to Say for Buddhist-Christian Dialogue
Years ago, I entered my graduate studies with the intent of undertaking a comparative study of the Christian apophatic tradition and Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism. Shortly after enrolling in a course on Indian Buddhist philosophy, I recall a question that in spite of its apparent simplicity has since troubled me. Having been informed of my interests, the instructor approached me at a coffee break and asked, "What's the point of comparing?" Feeling caught off guard by the absurdity of his question, I fumbled for a reply. Surely, it's obvious (I thought). "To understand?" I jousted with noticeable unease. He nodded, and I was left wanting. Indeed, what initially appeared as an awkward icebreaker became one of the more pressing theoretical questions that has plagued my thinking as a scholar in the Buddhist and Christian traditions as well as in the philosophy of religions: Do I compare with the hope of canonizing those very concepts and categories that I claim ostensibly to call into question? Do I seek to secure some place of conceptual stability for my home tradition amidst the sacred rhetoric of "the other"? Have I adequately assessed those implicit notions that inform my method of inquiry?1 And to what ends are texts to be drawn into conversation? Inevitably, this raises the question, is the term "compare" even appropriate?
Comparative study of religious traditions must learn from the spectre of its missiological past.2 This means keeping at the forefront of scholarship questions about how "the other" is depicted, and made accessible. In an effort to gain its legitimacy in the academy, pioneers of comparative religions wrestled with reconciling the aims of this burgeoning academic field with the mission of entrenched, confessional theology.3 Among so-called liberal theologians of the nineteenth century, such as Ernst Troeltsch, Christianity represented the pinnacle of human culture amidst a backdrop of less-evolved cultures.4 (No doubt, much of German theology during that century was directly—or indirectly—influenced by Hegel's progressive view of history.)
The so-called liberal shift toward inclusivism, beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing to the present, warrants critical redress whenever doctrines and [End Page 119] categories deemed sacrosanct by the speaker's tradition of identification are mapped (even inadvertently) onto "the other."5 Karl Rahner's concept of the Anonymous Christian might serve to illustrate this point.6 His extension of the Christian concept of grace for the purpose of extending salvation outside the Church, for example, says little or nothing about the beliefs of the recipients who may not have requested such "charitable" extension. A more productive line of inquiry might seek to dissemble and expose the mechanisms (epistemological, psychological, historical, theological, and so forth) that underpin inclusive approaches as well as ascertain some insight into how such conceptual extensions accommodate the grantors, rather than recipients. Put another way, is the goal of comparative study to reinterpret one's own tradition or to redefine "the other"?7 Recent "experiments" in comparative theology advocate the need to proceed in a self-conscious manner, questioning even the appropriateness of the term "comparative."8
Again, does one extend or elaborate on concepts in order to secure a place of safety for one's own tradition amidst the sacred rhetoric of "the other"? Is the exchange simply an attempt at negotiating tolerance economically, politically, or legally? Viewed pragmatically, is the underpinning value one of cultural or religious self-preservation?
Tolerance evokes a connotation of "putting up with," and does not necessarily imply any respect or commitment toward comprehending the religious convictions of "the other." Rather, tolerance more suitably concurs with Thomas Hobbes's redaction on the Golden Rule: "Do not that to another, which thou wouldest not have done to thy selfe."9 Embracing the value of tolerance does not necessitate the view that one must appreciate the beliefs and practices of another tradition, nor does it require an openness of being transformed by "the other."
Frequently undertaken for reasons of tolerance, dialogue centers on securing ways of achieving, if not mutual respect, a right to...