- The Immanent Divine: God, Creation, and the Human Predicament: An East-West Conversation
John J. Thatamanil has written a paradigmatic comparative theological essay that is at once methodologically self-conscious and rigorous; scholarly in the deepest, linguistically based sense of the term; original in its theological questioning; and constructive in its outcomes. Thatamanil builds a comparison of Śaṅkara, an eighth-century Indian thinker in the Advaita Vedānta tradition, with Paul Tillich, a twentieth-century German-American Christian philosophical theologian. He does not intend a general comparison of Eastern and Western thinking, although he highlights in an introductory way the perils of making comparisons across such cultural divides, and across such wide time divides. Nor does he make general comparisons between Vedānta and Christianity, although he is careful to situate Śaṅkara and Tillich within the larger firmaments of their historical traditions. He intends rather to compare the theologies of these two singular thinkers, based mainly on texts taken from their important writings.
Thatamanil is a veteran of the Cross Cultural Comparative Religious Ideas Project at Boston University. He is explicit about his comparative method and has worked closely with scholars such as Malcolm David Eckel.1 Thatamanil insists, rightly, that comparison is only "in some respect." The respect in which two positions might be compared is a comparative category. The category needs to be protected as much as possible from bias, Thatamanil argues, so that, for instance, one position in the comparison does not unilaterally set the terms for the comparison. Although every comparative category has a history through one or several particular positions, each needs to be purified as far as possible to be neutrally hospitable to the positions that instantiate it so as to be compared. The process of comparison therefore includes not only the careful explication of how each position is an instance or specification of the category, and the careful drawing of comparative connections, but also the continual monitoring and restatement of the comparative category so as to correct for bias. [End Page 171]
Thatamanil proposes to compare Śaṅkara and Tillich in respect of what they said about the "human predicament." Although that term was made prominent in comparative thought by Tillich, it has been developed for over half a century by many comparativists. Moreover, Thatamanil further specifies the human predicament as a comparative category with a medical model that rose to prominence mainly in Buddhist traditions, although also in several branches of Hinduism. Thus, the human predicament is to be analyzed as something like a disease to be diagnosed, with an etiology to be understood, therapies to be prescribed, and a prognosis. Tillich did not theorize about the human predicament in exactly these terms. But this medical model supplies extremely fruitful questions to ask of Tillich's analysis, which also can be asked of Śaṅkara's analysis, and on the basis of which comparisons can be made. Thatamanil then asks how the answers each position supplies are functions of their larger conceptions of ultimate reality and of creation, which are also brought into comparison.
Śaṅkara diagnosed the human predicament as sa. sara, with all the pains and miseries involved in the passing of time, especially reincarnation. In a subtle analysis that weaves an interpretation of Śaṅkara 's theory of "superimposition" through numerous scholarly controversies, Thatamanil shows how Śaṅkara interpreted saṃsāra within the ontology of Advaita Vedānta. The etiology of the Advaitin sense of saṃsāra (nicely distinguished from some other important interpretations in classical Indian thought), according to Śaṅkara, is the belief that selves are actors, agents. That is a false belief, but one that is almost impossible to expunge so long as we are caught by it, since it seems within the wheel of saṃsāra that we necessarily have to act.
Śaṅkara's therapy for the belief in agency that commits us to the miseries of saṃsāra is attaining to the knowledge that Brahman is the only...