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  • Divine Emptiness and Historical Fullness: A Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation with Masao Abe
  • Edward L. Shirley
Divine Emptiness and Historical Fullness: A Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation with Masao Abe. Edited by Christopher Ives. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1995. 272 pp.

This book is a continuation of a discussion begun by Masao Abe in 1984, previous incarnations of which have been published elsewhere. In the present volume, Abe’s expanded essay serves as the first part of a four-part book. The second part includes responses by six Jewish, Christian, and Buddhist thinkers. The third part is Abe’s responses to questions and criticisms raised in Part Two. The fourth part consists of critiques by Hans Küng and Wolfhart Pannenberg and Abe’s separate responses to each.

Part One consists of Abe’s well-known essay, “Kenotic God and Dynamic Sunyata.” There are many issues that Abe raises in this essay, of which only two—his understanding of a self-emptying God and his interpretation of the Holocaust—raise any serious concerns among his responders. Abe begins his theological reflection on the self-emptying of God by focusing on the kenosis hymn of Philippians 2:5–11. Abe raises the issue of the kenosis of Christ from a moral to ontological level, asking whether the self-emptying of Christ in either the Incarnation or the Crucifixion can be understood apart from the self-emptying “nature” of the Logos itself. And then, upping the ante, he asks whether one can speak of the kenosis of Christ without also speaking of the kenosis of the God whom Christ reveals.

Abe then turns his attention to the Buddhist idea of Sunyata and proposes that Sunyata, far from being either a static or merely negative term, is dynamic and positive. This, he believes, will help to distinguish the Buddhist notion of Sunyata from Nietzschean nihilism. Abe also writes of the place of human reason, free will, the concept of evil, and time and history in Buddhism. It is in this context that he addresses the question of the Holocaust, speaking of his own responsibility not in the sense of having been directly involved, but in light of “collective karma.” At the same time, he does not want to suggest joint responsibility of the victims in the ethical dimension, but rather that such solidarity is realized in what he terms “the most fundamental religious dimension,” this dimension being identical with dynamic Sunyata. [End Page 207]

The second part of the book consists of responses by six religious scholars. The first two respondents write from a Jewish perspective. Richard Rubenstein begins by asserting that the Philippians hymn can be understood only in light of Paul’s Jewish-Christian experience of the Covenant. Next, Rubenstein turns to his primary concern, which is Abe’s treatment of the Holocaust. He begins by outlining various Jewish responses to the Holocaust and rejecting each of them. Like Abe, Rubenstein denies the continuity of the ethical and ultimate dimensions, and accepts ultimate reality as ultimate nothingness.

Sandra B. Lubarsky also appreciates Abe’s concept of Sunyata, but for different reasons than Rubenstein. Lubarsky sees it as a healthy antidote to Jewish tendencies to absolutize the Jewish community, which has led to an idolization of the community. On the other hand, she questions the Zen assumptions that lie behind Abe’s treatment of history and justice. While there is a higher vantage point than the level of human understanding from which to understand historical events, this level is reserved for God alone and to pretend to that level is arrogant. Likewise, from a Jewish perspective, it is impossible to remove God from ethical considerations.

Christian responses begin with those of Heinrich Ott, who argues that the proper locus of interreligious dialogue lies not in the discussion of doctrinal or philosophical similarities, but rather in similar psychological experiences. Ott finds something in Christian experience similar to Sunyata. From this starting point, he proposes a Christian understanding of Nothingness that encompasses both human interconnectedness as well as the interconnectedness of humans with nonhuman reality.

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki maintains that speaking of the self-emptying God revealed in the self-emptying Christ has...

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pp. 207-210
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