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Reviewed by:
  • Buddhist-Christian Dialogue in an Age of Science
  • Nancy R. Howell
Buddhist-Christian Dialogue in an Age of Science. By Paul O. Ingram. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008. 155 pp.

To my knowledge, Paul Ingram’s Buddhist-Christian Dialogue in an Age of Science undertakes a new project: Systematic and methodological analysis of how Buddhist-Christian dialogue can be shaped by focus on the natural sciences, or, alternatively, how science-religion dialogue can be enhanced through interreligious dialogue. Either description is appropriate and remarkable in light of the accomplishments of a modestly brief book. While I have participated in multireligious dialogue on science, never have I seen a cogent guide for undertaking the conversation until Ingram’s book appeared.

The thesis of Ingram’s argument is that bringing the natural sciences into Buddhist-Christian dialogue promises mutual creative transformation of Buddhism, Christianity, and the natural sciences (p. 2). In such a compact sentence is much to be explained, and Ingram unfolds the meaning of the thesis particularly in chapters 2 and 6. Ingram describes both Christian and Buddhist understandings of the relationship of science and religion, as well as approaches to dialogue between the religions. Ingram’s book is focused on conceptual interreligious dialogue, which engages theological and philosophical worldviews and self-perceptions and how the religions can learn from each other (p. 10). (Not surprisingly, the Whiteheadian Ingram names John B. Cobb Jr. as an exemplar for conceptual dialogue.) Ingram proposes that Buddhism and Christianity enter conceptual dialogue with the natural sciences, with the goal of mutual creative transformation (p. 15). Creative transformation is a Whiteheadian concept defined as “a process of growth and novelty,” “the essence of life itself,” and “a process that alters the nature of...elements without suppressing or destroying them” (p. 120). Creative transformation is possible when all participants in the dialogue Ingram proposes have some particularity to contribute, so the challenge in Ingram’s book is to describe how Buddhism and Christianity have particular contributions to make to dialogue about the natural sciences, as well as whether the sciences can be creatively transformed by encounter with world religions (p. 121).

The structure of the book, which includes chapters on Buddhist and Christian encounter with cosmology, evolutionary biology, and cognitive sciences, provides specific awareness of the literature about how the religions have individually engaged the natural sciences. Ingram presupposes and names the awe, wonder, and reverence generated by the natural sciences, whose insights shape our worldviews and inform understanding of ourselves. Scientific insights, according to Ingram, generate “an urgent cultural need to reflect thoughtfully and critically on these changes and challenges in a constructive dialogue involving the world’s religious traditions” (p. 130). Ultimately the dialogue must overcome compartmentalized, disciplinary knowledge and engage in integrative, inclusive, multireligious dialogue (p. 130). Ingram envisions that the “purpose of interdisciplinary and interreligious dialogue is mutual creative transformation” (p. 130), which can occur only when the complex details of the sciences and Buddhist and Christian traditions are honored. [End Page 209]

Following Ian Barbour, Ingram recommends a critical realist stance, which he adopts as his approach. He understands critical realism to mean that scientific, Christian, and Buddhist conclusions, practices, and worldviews intend to correspond with reality. However, correspondence to reality, “the way things really are,” (p. 37) must be understood provisionally, so that conclusions and worldviews must always be subjected to correction and reformulation. In Ingram’s view, the need for reformulation is the justification for Buddhist–Christian–natural science dialogue because no single view “possesses the final truth about the natural order or ultimate reality” (p. 37). Buddhism, Christianity, and the natural sciences offer distinctive expressions of the search for truth, which (Ingram avers) “requires...some form of mutual critical integration” in the process of dialogue (p. 37).

Concentrating more on the constructive methodology of the book (rather than the three chapters with examples of engagement of the natural sciences with Buddhism and Christianity), I want to address one feature of the argument. Chapter 1, “A Common Cosmology,” proposes appropriately that “[while] scientific cosmology cannot simply replace the basic content of religious creation myths, current scientific cosmology can clarify and transform religious creation myths” (p...