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Buddhist-Christian Studies 22 (2002) 163-179

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Emptiness and Dogma

Joseph S. O'Leary
Sophia University

The controversial Vatican document Dominus Iesus reasserts that non-Christian religions are objectively in a defective situation as regards salvation.Etymologically, salvation (soteria salus) means health. Here I should like to reflect on apparent symptoms of ill health in Christian theology and ask if Buddhist wisdom can help us formulate a diagnosis and bring the issues into perspective in a healing way. I shall take as my guiding thread an idea familiar to readers of this journal, namely, that Christian theology has suffered from a delusive clinging to substance and identity, and that the Buddhist teachings of dependent co-arising, emptiness, and non-self may provide an antidote.

Biblical and Christian traditions are rich in resources for a critique of substantialist conceptions of God and self. The God of the Bible is constantly shattering the fixated, idolatrous images his worshippers form of him, and the Johannine language of God as Spirit, light, love, locates God in a dynamic realm of communal contemplation from which it would be difficult to distill a well-defined divine substance suited to metaphysical analysis. As for self, Paul, and later Luther, present the Christian self as an existential and relational event, not a substantial self-contained soul.

What of Christian theology as shaped from Greek metaphysics? Is it irredeemably substantialist, prey to naive reification and objectification? The definition of God as ipsum esse subsistens("being itself subsisting") sufficiently eludes objectification to include the Plotinian sense of God as "beyond being." The idea adopted from Aristotle that "the soul [as knower] is in a manner all things" suggests that metaphysical theology also developed a nonobjectifying conception of human being. The Christological debates of the early Christian centuries rely of necessity on substance language, yet in placing that terminology at the service of a revealed mystery beyond the grasp of language or thought, they introduce a ferment of paradox into the play of concepts and make of it a dance of traces, following the contours of a reality that cannot be brought under substantialist rubrics.

Some might see the brilliant relational fireworks of Thomist trinitarian speculation as deconstructing logocentric images of divinity. However, the Trinity in itself is probably best seen as an abstract remainder concept, postulated as a dim background of the revealed phenomenon of Father, Jesus Christ, and Spirit, so that to spin stories of theories about it is futile, a form of misplaced concreteness. Robert Magliola finds [End Page 163] Nagarjunian resonances in the trinitarian logic of the Council of Florence, notably in the decree it addressed to the Copts in 1442 (Magliola, 85-89). The Copts were given an extra dose of the logic that had caused profound unease among the Greek delegates three years earlier (see Gill, 227-232; 325). How much of this later logic did the Latins read back into the patristic texts they cited? Though unbeatable in the fifteenth century, how convincing is it today? Theology has to face the hermeneutical task, and an ongoing one, of assessing the status and function of this trinitarian logic and referring it back to the biblical basis.

The desubstantializing tendencies just noted can be drawn on in a contemporary "overcoming of metaphysics" in theology. But the mainstream of the tradition invested massively in substance and identity. It was by strong affirmations of substantial identity that Christianity made its way in the world. Dogma determined the identities of Father, Son, and Spirit as consubstantial hypostases of the one God, the identity of Jesus Christ as true God and true man united in one hypostasis, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the unity, sufficiency, infallibility of the Church and its Scriptures, the continuity of the episcopal and papal ministries as transmitted from the apostles. The substantiality of what was proclaimed was matched by the total conviction of the faith that proclaimed it. Theologians might tinker with speculative elaborations, but the core of faith and dogma was untouchable, never subjected to doubt or questioning.

It is a kind of metadogma that all...