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Buddhist-Christian Studies 22 (2002) 139-147

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A Mahayana Theology of Salvation History

John P. Keenan
Middlebury College

Salvation history is a Western theological strategy based on biblical ideas about how God acts in history to bring about the salvation/deliverance of God's people. It begins with the scriptural accounts of creation as the inception of God's plan. It moves to describe Israel's deliverance from slavery in Egypt and goes on to depict the guidance the Lord Yahweh provides for his people throughout their journeys and despite their trials and reverses.

Israel may be idealized in scripture as God's domain, sovereign among the nations, but in fact it was a small country sandwiched between the two superpowers of the day—Egypt and Assyria (or Babylon), and subject to the rise and fall of those empires. 1 The New Testament goes on to describe God's plan in sending his son Jesus to effect salvation and unite all people in him (Eph. 1:1-16). The passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus comprise the central drama, in which we all are invited to participate. The author of Luke/Acts gives an account of how God moves through the teachings and the life and death of Jesus to establish his Church and how that Church evolves from a small and marginal community to enter and permeate the very heart of the Empire at Rome. The story continues in postscriptural Christian history, from Constantine's vision at Milvian Bridge to the Christianization of Europe, and further to the missionary endeavors to convert all peoples to the path of the Gospel. In the twentieth century, Liberation theology is heir to these notions, insisting that conversion means not simply becoming Christian, but the furtherance of justice and peace among all peoples, even non-Christians.

A Mahayana reading of this schema is not at first glance very promising. Mahayana knows nothing of God, much less of God acting in history. Nor, indeed, of history itself as a purposeful unfolding of events. Indian thought is known for its ahistoricity. No histories were produced in ancient India at all. No Herodotus, no Thucydides. The first Buddhist histories were written not in India but in Tibet, some thousand years after the birth of the Buddha Sakyamuni. Indian traditions in their focus on the eternal truth (sanatana dharma) turned away from the concrete flow of events and from any recording of their progression. [End Page 139]

The task before us is challenging. To tackle it best, I will divide this essay into three parts, and thus attempt to argue for a Mahayana reading of salvation history. The first part will treat Mahayana philosophy and argue that despite its Indian lack of historical consciousness, it does possess the tools for writing history. Its teaching that all events are empty (sunyata) is coterminous with its teaching that all events arise in dependence upon a host of causes and conditions (pratitya-samutpada). In a word, emptiness itself entails a radical insight into the contingent and conventional historicity of events (dharmas). Beyond this, since all events are seen as empty of any abiding core essence, Mahayana deconstructs the very idea of an eternal world truth over and apart from the everyday world of events. It proclaims, rather, that to an awakened person, all is "worldly convention-only" (samvrti-matra). 2 This focus on the radical conventionality of events can serve, I would argue, as a needed corrective to a literalistic reading of salvation history. Looked at from this perspective, the story of the New Testament writers can perhaps become more apparent—how they are writing of God's design, purpose, and plan in order to counter the regnant patterns of Greek and Roman arrogance, and to substitute insight into the mystery of our being and of our being here.

The second part of this article will address the Western doctrine of salvation history, focusing on the New Testament, particularly Pauline theology as expressed in one passage from Ephesians about how salvation is attained through Jesus as the unfolding plan of God's purpose...