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  • The Boundaries of Knowledge in Buddhism, Christianity, and Science
  • John B. Cobb Jr.
The Boundaries of Knowledge in Buddhism, Christianity, and Science. Edited by Paul D. Numrich. Goettingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2008. 200 pp.

In Religion in the Making, Whitehead identified science, Christianity, and Buddhism as the three most promising movements in the world of that time. He expressed his hope that the boundaries that kept them apart would erode so that each would benefit from its interaction with the other two and the world would benefit from their shared wisdom. Since then, Christianity and science have engaged in numerous dialogues, and so have Christianity and Buddhism. The Buddhist involvement with science has not been as extensive, but it is taking place. This book may be the first instance of a three-cornered discussion. It has, therefore, an historical role, and it is a commendable beginning.

The title indicates the focus on "the boundaries of knowledge." On the whole, the contributors paid close attention to the topic. Hence the question of what can be known and what is not known in each tradition plays the central role. There are two essays by Christians, those by Antje Jackelen and Tom Christenson, that discuss the limitation of knowledge in Christian history with little or no reference to either Buddhism or science. In contrast Paul Ingram surveys the role and nature of boundaries in all three communities.

One Buddhist writer, David L. McMahan, surveys the history of Buddhist comments on science and religion. Buddhists have tended to be complacent about the superiority of the position they occupy vis-à-vis Christians, who are threatened by the advances in science. He points out that, nevertheless, Buddhists have tended to reflect the dominant Western culture of their time as rationalist or romantic. The Buddhist essays in this book express a considerable advance over the history he describes.

That few Buddhists have felt threatened by science may be the reason that less has been invested in the Buddhist conversation with science than in the Christian one. Buddhists understand that reality is seriously approached only through disciplined meditation and unveiling of the inner world. Very little science moves in that direction. And Buddhists have great confidence in the accuracy of much that they have learned. To a large extent this deep truth has for centuries been contrasted with ordinary beliefs about the external world. Buddhists have long known how to make a place for these ordinary beliefs for practical purposes. They have extended this secondary role to the findings of the sciences and to the metaphysical worldview bound up with them. They have not expected any development of science to either confirm or disconfirm what they know from direct experience.

This is the doctrine of the two truths. From the Buddhist perspective this is not dualism, because the practical empirical "truths" do not touch the deeper level of truth. We Christians can find a close proximity to this tendency of Buddhism in our own tradition. Our most influential theologian, Augustine, taught that whereas we [End Page 267] cannot but think in terms of time, for God, past, present, and future are eternally co-present. Hence we cannot help but view matters temporally, while yet knowing that this is not the deepest truth about the world.

Modern Christians can derive a somewhat similar notion from Immanuel Kant. He taught that the noumenal world, that is, the world of things as they are in themselves, is wholly unknowable. Our knowledge is of the world as our minds inescapably order the phenomena. Time is part of this ordering; so we know the phenomenal world as temporal. But we have no way to know whether the world in itself is temporal.

The similarity is not only at the point of acknowledging two levels of truth, but also specifically on the issue of time. Many Buddhists believe that at the deepest level of reality there is no time. Indeed, this idea has a far deeper hold on Buddhist thinkers than on Christians, where its contrast with biblical thinking has prevented it from dominating theological work even when it is verbally affirmed. None of the Christian contributors to this volume make use...


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