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Buddhist-Christian Studies 20 (2000) 311-315

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Book Review

Fire and Water: Basic Issues in Asian Buddhism and Christianity

Fire and Water: Basic Issues in Asian Buddhism and Christianity. By Aloysius Pieris, S. J. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1996.

Aloysius Pieris, Jesuit priest and Buddhist scholar, is well known in theological and interreligious dialogue circles in Asia, and this is the third collection of essays of his to be published in the Faith Meets Faith Series of Orbis Books. The eighteen essays which make up this book, all previously published elsewhere, are conveniently put together in three sections, under the following headings: 1) Women and Religion: Buddhist and Christian Appropriation of Feminist Criticism; 2) issues in Theology, Religion and Society; and 3) questions of Spirituality and Human Liberation. To merely summarize the content of the essays and offer a third-party critique would do injustice to the book, and could even mislead one who peruses such a summary into thinking one thereby "knows" what the book or Pieris is about. Such a hasty conclusion would deprive a would-be reader of the powerful experience that awaits in wrestling with Pieris through each essay of this volume. Judith Berling puts it well in her blurb at the back, pointing out that the author "uses poetry, evocative symbolism, and humor to offer a theological call to action in a voice that is liberationist, Asian, and feminist." Indeed, this volume invites one to a way of seeing that can also transform one's way of being in this world marked by increasing violence, poverty, and a systemic kind of oppression dehumanizing to both the perpetrators as well as the victims.

The title of the present volume, Fire and Water, alludes to a dynamic dipolarity, masterfully sketched for the reader by Paul Knitter in his foreword, which underlies the author's vision of reality and vivifies much of his writing. The masculine and the feminine, the (Buddhist) gnostic and the (Christian) agapeic, the metacosmic (transcendent) [End Page 311] and the cosmic (immanent), the prophetic and the mystical, are different ways of naming this dipolarity. The way to ultimate liberation is in the effective embrace of both poles in complementarity and mutual interplay, whereas taking one pole in preference over the other results in a warped vision or mode of being, in imbalance, or even in abuse.

In this review I would like to simply echo some key themes that will jump at one perusing the essays, reiterating that the very act of reading them can of itself be a transformative experience for an open-minded, open-hearted, and open-handed reader.

The thrust of the six essays comprising the first section can perhaps be summed up in the thesis as formulated by the author himself: "Religion cannot survive in the future without appropriating the feminist critique, just as feminism cannot achieve its liberative goal without the aid of a religion so critiqued" (p. 62). Behind this statement is Pieris' emphatically critical stance, on the one hand, against all forms of patriarchal religion, whether Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, or other, which has justified, lent a hand in, or continued to perpetrate the physical, psychological, and especially religious abuse of women, and on the other hand, against secularist (or anti-religious) kinds of feminist theory that take off on what he enumerates as "five false starts" (pp. 50-51), which only result in unnecessary dichotomies that truncate the understanding of the goal of liberation, and consequently of the human as such.

Pieris offers a vision of liberation centered on what he terms the humanum. This refers to the point of ultimate perfection to which the human, that is, "whatever pertains to men and women as self-conscious, other-oriented, and dreaming components of the cosmos," has the capacity to carry the cosmos. In this context, the human is no other than "this self-transcendent capacity immanent in the cosmos, this power to unfold within itself the Other, which is ever present from the first moment of evolution." To be human is inherently to be endowed...