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Buddhist-Christian Studies 23 (2003) 87-100

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"Soul-Less" Christianity and the Buddhist Empirical Self:
Buddhist-Christian Convergence?

Charlene Burns
University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire

Buddhist-Christian dialogue seems to founder on the shoals of theological anthropology. The Christian concept of the soul and concomitant ideas of life after death appear to be diametrically opposed to the Buddhist doctrine of anatta, no-self. The anthropological terminology, with its personalist implications in Christianity and its impersonal meanings for Buddhism offers perhaps the greatest challenge to interreligious understanding. The two traditions have built up stereotypical interpretations of one another's (and their own) vocabularies to such an extent that "personal" and "impersonal" have at times operated in dialogue as "party slogans and fighting words. " 1

In this paper I explore the plausibility that new interpretations of the human being in both traditions may overcome this problem. There is no agreement across denominations on the meaning of soul for Christianity and likewise no single orthodox interpretation of no-self for all forms of Buddhism. There are of course basics for both traditions that serve as the starting point for all interpretations, and these will be identified below. During the last decade interesting and innovative ways of elaborating on the basics for both Buddhism and Christianity approach something of a middle ground in religious anthropology. It is my thesis that the moves made by Christian theologians toward emphasis on the person as a body-soul unity, and by at least one Buddhist scholar toward the idea of an empirical (not metaphysical) self, are closing what has been perhaps the most problematic gap between the two traditions.

The State of the Personal Soul in Christianity

The stereotype of Christian anthropology is of the human constituted by a separable body and soul. Although there have been important voices expressing otherwise in history, for the average believer the immaterial soul separates from the physical body at the moment of death, and most assume that the soul goes immediately to its eternal reward or punishment. 2 (While the issue of the timing and nature of resurrection is an important and contested one, attention cannot be given to it here, since the present issue is the soul before death. ) [End Page 87]

Early Christians agreed that the human being is more than just a physical body. However, there has never been agreement on the number and kind of "ontological ingredients" it takes to make a person. 3 Trichotomy, dichotomy, and monism have all been proposed at one time or another. The trichotomist position, usually attributed to Paul, was first popular among Greek and Alexandrian Christians. In this view, the human is made up of body, soul, and spirit: the parts function in concert, with soul mediating between the spirit and body. Here, the spirit is the essential self that exists in relationship to God. Dichotomists say that we are made of two substances, body and soul/spirit. This dualism of separable metaphysical substances with soul animating the body came to dominate the Western theological scene, in part due to Augustine's influence. Although there are significant differences in detail between trichotomist and dichotomist positions, what matters for our purposes is the underlying common anthropological assumption that "persons survive apart from their bodies. " 4

Strong challenges to dualist anthropologies came in the seventeenth century in the form of materialism and monism. Thomas Hobbes, in Leviathan, argued for materialism, saying that there is no such thing as incorporeal substance. Nothing survives death, he said: it is through divine grace that we will be resurrected into eternity. Present-day descendants of materialism include psychological behaviorism, brain-mind identity theory, and epiphenomenalism. The second strong challenge to dualism took the shape of monism, as in the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza. He believed that reality is a single substance, and matter and spirit are properties of it. All of creation manifests the absolute substance, God. Each entity exists as idea in the mind of God, and so the soul can be said to be eternal when it becomes one with the mind...


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