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  • Keiji Nishitani and Karl Rahner: A Response to Nihility
  • Heidi Ann Russell

In his essay “Kenosis and Emptiness,” Buddhist scholar Masao Abe states that “the necessity of tackling the Buddhist-Christian dialogue not merely in terms of interfaith dialogue, but also as an inseparable part of the wider sociocultural problem of religion versus irreligion has become more and more pressing in the past few decades.” 1 From Keiji Nishitani’s perspective a culture of self-centeredness has developed out of the inability of many people to move beyond a sense of nihilism in their lives. Furthermore, technological advances and an increased understanding of the laws of nature have allowed humans to manipulate those laws for their own purposes. In this development, Nishitani believes that “the perversion that occurred in the original relationship of man to the laws of nature has taken the shape of a fundamental intertwining of the mechanization of man and his transformation into a subject in pursuit of its desires, at the ground of which nihility has opened up as a sense of the meaninglessness of the whole business.” 2

Both Nishitani and Karl Rahner see in the development of science and technology a tendency to manipulate the laws of nature for one’s own benefit in a way that increases the self-centeredness and self-absorption of humankind while at the same time devaluing humanity and engendering an attitude of meaninglessness. In a world today that is confronted with issues such as war and global warming and in which religious communities are trying to make sense out of scientific issues such as stem cell research and cloning, the ability to address a nihilistic standpoint that sees the surrounding world as simply being at human disposal has never been more crucial. So how does one confront this crisis of a nihilistic culture? Abe recommends that both Buddhism and Christianity need “to pursue a fundamental reorganization in characterizing their faith such that the prevailing basic assumptions are drastically changed—for example, a revolutionary reinterpretation of the concept of God in Christianity and the concept of Emptiness in Buddhism—thereby allowing a new paradigm or model of understanding to emerge.” 3 The concept of emptiness or nothingness in Keiji Nishitani’s Religion and Nothingness and the concept of God as incomprehensible mystery in the theology of Karl Rahner 4 could allow for the [End Page 27] emergence of a model of understanding that addresses the problem of irreligion or nihility from an interreligious perspective.5 While in no way negating the very real dissimilarities between the concepts of Nishitani and Rahner or the respective religious traditions of which they are a part, one need not think of their concepts as diametrically opposed to one another in such a way that dialogue is impossible. To that effect, this essay will explore the common ground between Nishitani’s concept of śūnyatā6 (often translated or defined as ku /emptiness or mu /nothingness) and Rahner’s incomprehensible God 7 based on their interpretations of the human experience of meaninglessness and the need for a surrender of the self that manifests itself in one’s loving relationship with others. Common human experience, such as the experience of death or meaninglessness, and the interpretations of that experience found in various religions can provide ground from which to begin interreligious dialogue. One can search for a connection between the religious concepts by looking at the way they make sense out of a common affective experience without requiring an absolute identity between the cognitive religious concepts themselves.8 The important point of comparison is not manufacturing a false identity between the concepts, but the way the concepts work within the living communities to move one to volitive action. In this way the practical or ethical implications of the concepts and how they are lived out in the world become the focus. In the work of Nishitani and Rahner, that common human experience is the meaninglessness encountered in the world today and the call for a selfless love that will transcend such meaninglessness. In their roles as philosopher-theologians, both Nishitani and Rahner have probably had more influence on individuals or leaders within certain Buddhist and Christian...