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Reviewed by:
  • Converging Ways? Conversion and Belonging in Buddhism and Chrisitanity
  • Catherine Cornille
Converging Ways? Conversion and Belonging in Buddhism and Chrisitanity. By John D’Arcy May. Sankt Ottilien: EOS Klosterverlag, 2007. 207 pp.

In the course of the past seven years, the European Network of Buddhist-Christian Studies has established itself as a locus of serious dialogue and creative religious reflection. This volume, which emerged out of the sixth conference (in 2005) at the Benedictine Abbey of St. Ottilien in Germany, combines a diversity of contributions on various issues relating to conversion, religious belonging, and multiple religious belonging. At the heart of the volume are two responses (by Christian theologian Perry Schmidt-Leukel and Buddhist theologian José Cabezón) to the highly publicized conversion of Paul Williams from Tantric Buddhism to Roman Catholicism, followed by a reply by Williams himself. These three articles represent a powerful demonstration of religious apologetics at its best. Each offers their critique of the other from a clearly defined religious position, displaying a clear understanding of the views of the other, but arguing unabashedly for the validity or superiority of their own position or theological convictions. Somewhat missing in the reading is an account of Williams’s conversion story, which he developed in An Unexpected Way. But each of the discussants offers a clear enough account of the other so that even those who have not read the book are able to reconstruct the main points of Williams’s narrative and arguments. Against Williams, who juxtaposes Buddhist atheism with Christian theism, Schmidt-Leukel proposes a conception of the absolute which he believes is amenable to both, but which—as Williams later argues—may be representative of neither. Cabezón, for his part, focuses not only on Williams’s theological arguments, but also on his ethical arguments for the superiority of Christianity, objecting that the black-and-white picture presented in a conversion narrative often entails a distortion or oversimplification of the tradition left behind, and pointing to the importance of interconnection and love in Buddhist texts and traditions. While conceding the latter, Williams, in his retort, passionately and eloquently reiterates his arguments for the plausibility of the Christian conception of God, countering one by one the points raised by his respondents. In this, he draws almost exclusively on Thomas Aquinas, which gives power and focus to his arguments but also seems to ignore the presence of other theological voices within the Christian and Roman Catholic tradition. This exercise in apologetics is interesting, not only because of the contents of the arguments, but also because of the tone. While Williams pays heed to Cabezón, [End Page 161] who approaches his conversion from a clearly defined Buddhist perspective, he seems less respectful of the position of Schmidt-Leukel, who attempts to reconcile Buddhist and Christian views of God. The reasons why such reconciliations are unappealing for someone who has converted from the one religion to the other may be many. But it certainly points to the tensions between clear commitment and belonging to a particular religious and theological tradition and the rhetoric of multiple religious belonging.

This brings us to some of the other articles collected in this volume. Some focus on the lived reality of multiple belonging in Korea (Thomas Timpte) or in Sweden (Kajsa Ahlstrand) while others focus on personal experience (Thomas Josef Gotz and Ruben Habito) or on the religious or theological grounds for multiple religious belonging (Jorgen Skov Sorensen and Michael von Bruck). All of these contributions point to the reality or the ideality of belonging to more than one religious tradition. It would appear that in the context of religious diversity, such multiple belonging is all but unavoidable. While some point to the false construction of religious boundaries, others dismiss all notions of religious and theological superiority as well as the centrality of truth in religion. In contrast with this, the robust theological debate on matters of truth and difference at the heart of this volume offers a healthy counterbalance and a welcome reminder of the categorical and at times conflicting claims to truth in religion. If religions are taken seriously, multiple religious identity is less evident than sociological data...