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  • Exclusivity and Particularity
  • John Dominic Crossan

Several of the authors spoke of the imperial exclusivity so characteristic of Christianity. For José Ignacio Cabezón, “What Buddhists find objectionable is (a) the Christian characterization of the deity whose manifestation Jesus is said to be, and (b) the claim that Jesus is unique in being such a manifestation” (p. 56). For Bokin Kim, “most Christians hold to an exclusive view of Christ that claims his uniqueness” (p. 76). For Rita Gross, “the exclusive claims made on behalf of Jesus by Christians appalled me even as a teenager, and my repugnance for exclusive truth claims on the part of religions—any religion—has not diminished since. Thus, part of my journey is working out both a theory and a praxis of religious pluralism that is neither relativistic nor universalistic, that encourages both commitment to one tradition and appreciation of other traditions” (p. 64). I myself find such exclusivistic claims for Christianity, or any other religion, insulting in theory and lethal in practice, objectionable in history and obscene in theology. They are implicitly genocidal even if political impotence limits the divine ethnic cleansing they imagine. But how, as Gross repeats, does one establish “a position that is neither relativistic nor exclusivistic”? (p. 65). My own answer is particularity, but I must explain that in terms of my understanding of Trinity, divinity, and particularity.

Trinity seems a particularly and peculiarly Christian understanding of God, but my proposal is that the structure of the Holy is Trinitarian in all religions that I know about and even in all those I can imagine. I speak very deliberately about the Holy (not about God) as the infinite mystery that surrounds and supports, fascinates and terrifies us. It is that against which we interact as meaning-seeking beings. Be it absolute open meaninglessness or absolute univocal meaning, our interaction with it does not seem to be an option but a necessity. And my point is that the Holy is Trinitarian in structure. It is not just on the one hand that religion is Trinitarian in structure. But it is not on the other hand that the Holy in itself and apart from us is Trinitarian in structure. It is, I propose, that the Holy in itself as seen by us across the spectrum of world religious experience is Trinitarian in structure. That Trinity [End Page 97] involves, first, ultimate metaphor, that foundational image that imagines the Holy as, for example, power, person, state, or order, as nature, god/goddess, nirvana, or mandate of heaven. It involves, second, material manifestation, some physical object in which that metaphorical vision is peculiarly, specially, or even uniquely incarnated, some person, place, or thing, some individual or collectivity, some cave or shrine or temple, some clearing in the forest or tree in the desert where that ultimate referent is encountered and experienced. It involves, finally, preliminary preparation, for there must be at least one believer to begin with and eventually more to end with. But, as there are always nonbelievers as well, some prior affinity must exist, as it were, between this metaphor rather than that, this manifestation rather than that, and this believer rather than that. For me, therefore, all faith and all religion, not just my own Christianity, is Trinitarian in structure and that structure seems to inhere in the Holy itself, at least insofar as we can see it. For me, therefore, Christianity and Buddhism differ most profoundly on their ultimate metaphor for the Holy: it is person (God) for the former but state (nirvana) for the latter. In Christianity, of course, our ultimate metaphor is rather overinvested: it is person; and that person is parent; and that parent is father. But I leave those specifications aside for the moment.

Divinity is the term I use for any material manifestation. By calling such manifestations divine I mean precisely that a religion’s ultimate metaphor is experienced by believers as peculiarly, specially, or even uniquely present in that physical phenomenon. In that sense I understand both Christ and the Buddha to be divine in exactly the same way—that is, as incarnations of the Holy but within different ultimate metaphors. Christ did...

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