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  • What Has Chalcedon to Do with Lhasa? John Keenan’s and Lai Pai-chiu’s Reflections on Classical Christology and the Possible Shape of a Tibetan Theology of Incarnation
  • Thomas Cattoi

The starting point of this paper is a critique of John Keenan’s so-called “Mahāyāna Christology” in The Meaning of Christ, in light of Lai Pai-chiu’s “Chinese” response to Keenan’s position. My argument is that Lai correctly construes the Chalcedonian definition as a critique of Hellenist ontology, but fails to critique Keenan’s crucial contention that this same definition ratifies the subjugation of lived spiritual experience to abstract philosophical speculation. I also claim that Lai does not engage Keenan’s flawed use, in his constructive Christology, of the teaching of the Buddha-bodies, which in my opinion could provide an apposite template for the development of a Tibetan contextual Christology. My paper has a twofold purpose: on one hand, I sketch the contours of a possible Tibetan theology of incarnation; on the other hand, I offer a few methodological reflections on the role of classical doctrinal definitions in the development of new contextual theologies.

The burden of this paper is to offer a few suggestions toward the formulation of a culturally contextual theology of incarnation, which uses the resources of Mahāyāna speculation on the embodiment of the Buddha. My starting point is Lai’s critique of Keenan’s well-known 1989 volume The Meaning of Christ, in which Keenan sets out to critique traditional Hellenist Chalcedonian Christology and argues for an alternative articulation of the hypostatic union based on the Mahāyāna teaching of the Buddha-bodies.1 Lai’s article revisits Keenan’s critique and argues that the Chalcedonian definition, far from canonizing the uncritical appropriation of a school of thought, evidences the profound limitations of philosophical discourse. Keenan’s underlying contention that traditional Christology subjects the Christian message to the strictures of alien categories is thus deconstructed, although Lai goes on to offer yet one more Christological synthesis based on the Chinese understanding of Buddha nature. In my paper I concur with Lai’s reading of Chalcedonian categories, which I regard [End Page 13] as more accurate and fruitful than Keenan’s, but I also argue that Lai fails to engage the totality of Keenan’s argument and therefore does not appreciate the deeper flaws in Keenan’s appropriation of the Buddhakāya teaching. My constructive suggestion toward the end of this paper is that such teaching could actually provide a most useful template for the development of a “Tibetan” theology of incarnation, which would remain in continuity with the Chalcedonian tradition, and yet resort to the linguistic and philosophical categories of the local culture.

Theologians wishing to develop contextual articulations of Christian doctrine often meet considerable resistance, since their emphasis on the culturally contingent nature of traditional formulas is seen as a challenge to their continuing normative character. As early as 1969, Joseph Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity expressed serious reservations about the growing tendency to “de-Hellenize” Christian theology and strongly reasserted the enduring “providential” character of traditional Trinitarian and Christological formulas.2 At the same time, the development of a postcolonial Christianity in many Asian and African countries could not but call for inculturated expressions of the Christian faith that embedded the Christian message in the categories of the local culture. Theologian Stephen B. Bevans begins his work Models of Contextual Theology claiming that in the contemporary world, “the contextualization of [Christian] theology [. . .] is really a theological imperative.” 3 The understanding of theology as an objective and unchanging science of faith is thus superseded by a new approach that gives pride of place to the religious experience of the individual and the community where he or she lives, operates, and worships.4 Bevans’s call for a contextual theology views the “experience of the present” as the ultimately normative benchmark against which the “experience of the past” is assessed, in the search for a new synthesis rooted in a particular cultural and social location.5

The development of new Christological formulas that use the resources of Asian Buddhist culture is thus possible only after the...