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  • The Annual Meeting of the Society for Buddhist-Christian StudiesMontreal, Quebec, Canada, 6 –7 November 2009
  • Sandra Costen Kunz and Amos Yong

The Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies (SBCS) sponsored two sessions in conjunction with the 2009 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. The first session was titled “The Boundaries of Knowledge in Buddhism, Christianity and Science.” The theme for the second session was “Buddhist-Christian Dialogue in an Age of Science.”

The first session, a panel discussion of The Boundaries of Knowledge in Buddhism, Christianity and Science, edited by Paul Numrich (Göttingen: Vandenhouek and Rupricht, 2008), considered the epistemological questions raised by Buddhist, Christian, and scientific insights on the inadequacies of conceptualization and language for understanding reality. The project that produced the book was funded by the Templeton Foundation, which also generously supported this panel.

After a welcome by moderator Miriam Levering (University of Tennessee), the book’s editor, Paul Numrich (Theological Consortium of Greater Columbus), gave a brief overview of the volume, followed by reflections on their chapters by two contributors: Dennis Hirota (Ryukoku University) and Paul Ingram (Pacific Lutheran University). Amos Yong (Regent University School of Divinity) responded to Hirota’s chapter, and Sandra Costen Kunz (Phillips Theological Seminary) responded to Ingram’s. Hirota and Ingram each made a few remarks on these responses, leading into an open discussion including other contributors to the book: John Albright (Lutheran School of Theology), Roger Blomquist (Argonne National Laboratory), Tom Christenson (Capital University), and David McMahan (Franklin and Marshall College).

Hirota’s paper, based on his chapter “Shinran and Heidegger on Truth,” examined the epistemology of Shinran (1173–1263), founder of the Japanese Shin Pure Land Buddhist tradition. Hirota noted that for both Shinran and Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) [End Page 197] truth is less a matter of asserting propositions and more a matter of the recognition and turning away from prior perceptual distortion. This permits the emergence of a new structure of awareness, an emergence that parallels Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm shifts in scientific understanding.

In his response, Yong called for a greater role for different “particularistic or even confessional approaches” within “the religion-science discussion.” He thus noted with appreciation the grounding of Hirota’s paper in a Buddhist tradition that is not “broadly Tibetan,” like much work in Buddhist-science dialogue. He compared and contrasted Shinran’s teachings about the corruption and purification of human reason with those of the Council of Dordt’s five-point condensation of Protestant reformer John Calvin’s soteriology, pointing out that both have a salvific intention.

Ingram argued that while science has amassed reliable information about physical reality, and Buddhist and Christian practitioners have amassed reliable knowledge about the structures of human experience, all three traditions confront epistemological boundaries imposed by their methods of inquiry. Questions arising at these boundaries form the foundation for a science-Buddhism-Christianity trialogue. Noting that science demonstrates that “nature is rooted in a realm . . . only half-translated into our phenomenal experience,” Ingram reviewed how scientists and Buddhist and Christian practitioners “work back from relevant experiences on the phenomenal level, and then ask what hypothetical reality might constructively explain these experiences.”

Kunz pointed out that in his examples of “working back” from experience toward hypotheses, Ingram cites many reasons for epistemological humility. Noting her research on how methods of Christian spiritual discernment might yield hypotheses for reducing the ecological crisis, she argued that Christians who have ignored the boundaries of human knowledge have contributed to this crisis. She suggested that if Western Christians who teach spiritual discernment took Buddhist and current neuroscience insights about human knowing more seriously, their teaching practices might differ less from those of non-Western Christians.

The second session, chaired by Amos Yong (Regent University), was a roundtable discussion of Paul O. Ingram’s book Buddhist-Christian Dialogue in an Age of Science (Rowman and Littlefield, 2008). Respondents included Mark Unno, associate professor of East Asian religions at the University of Oregon; Nancy Howell, professor of theology and philosophy of religion at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri; Benjamin Chicka, PhD candidate in the philosophy of religion and theology at Claremont Graduate University; and former...