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Buddhist-Christian Studies 22 (2002) 127-131

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Beyond the Usual Alternatives in Buddhist-Christian Dialogue:
A Trinitarian Pluralist Approach

Harry L. Wells
Humboldt State University

When I was first asked to present this paper, I was concerned about the assignment —"Beyond the Usual Alternatives." I was told that the usual alternatives were exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. I consider myself a pluralist, so how was I to go beyond what I thought was the best paradigm? But I must make clear that I am a pluralist in the camp of Raimundo Panikkar and not of John Hick, the latter's approach being one that Panikkar has clearly "gone beyond" in my estimation. While pondering the dilemma of how to approach this paper, I auspiciously reencountered the breathtaking profundity of early Christian writings on the nature of reality as Trinitarian. What I found there was an incredibly dynamic notion of reality that refuses to be reductionistic to dualistic modes of analysis. I will do two main things in this paper: I will discuss the Christian experience and understanding of "the mystery of the Living God," including the Trinity and the Christ. In doing this, I will draw upon the book The Roots of Christian Mysticism, by Olivier Clement (New York: New City Press, 1993), whose exposition of these things has been one of rare clarity and wisdom. I will then reflect upon how the Christian Trinitarian reality can serve as a Christian framework for understanding pluralism and interreligious dialogue. If these reflections manage to move us beyond our usual alternatives, it is because they capture a profundity that early Christians knew was eternal and among us.

The Mystery of the Living God

God is always hidden and universal. That is the mystery of the Living God. Because all things spring forth from God, the world both hides and reveals God's being. God's being is expressed in particular relations that both reveal and conceal; God's being can never be objectified, though it is the horizon in which all things are situated. That is why we can only speak of the living God, as an encounter with God. As Clement points out: "The inexhaustible nature of transcendence is expressed in the profusion of creatures. The universe is the first Bible. Each being manifests the creative word [End Page 127] [the Logos of God] which gives it its identity and attracts it. Each being manifests a dynamic idea, something willed by God. Ultimately each thing is a created name of him who cannot be named" (Clement, p. 27).

But to say "willed by God" in a Christian context does not mean a closed monotheism, with a notion of Supreme Being existing objectively independent of the creation. In its very heart, Christianity says God is inexhaustible communion.

Dionysius the Areopagite, a pseudonym of an early-fifth-century Christian writer, wrote a treatise called "Divine Names." In it, he speaks of how from all eternity, God lives and reigns in glory, with each ray of glory being a divine Name, and these Names are innumerable. Early Christian writers spoke of these as the powers or energies that spring forth from the unapproachable nature of God that give each created reality, or each emerging manifestation, both its density and transparency. In other words, all things spring forth within God and are modes of the divine presence, receiving its density or particular identity, while clearly being transparent, arising in God. Each creature, each entity names in its own peculiar fashion the divine Names. To say, "from all eternity, God lives and reigns in glory" is to recognize that the very inexhaustible communion that is the cosmos arises from all eternity in the very nature of God. As Gregory Nazianzen proclaims in his work "Dogmatic Poems":

. . . Everything that exists prays to thee
And to thee every creature that can read thy universe
Sends up a hymn of silence.
In thee alone all things dwell.
With a single impulse all things find their goal in thee.
Thou art the purpose of every creature.
Thou art...