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  • Report on the Tenth European Network of Buddhist-Christian Studies Conference:History as a Challenge to Buddhism and Christianity
  • John O’Grady, Elizabeth J. Harris, and Jonathan A. Seitz

The Tenth Conference of the European Network of Buddhist-Christian Studies (ENBCS) brought together between sixty and seventy people at the Oude Abdij, Drongen, Belgium, between 27 June and 1 July 2013, to examine the theme “History as a Challenge to Buddhism and Christianity.” It was a collaborative effort between the ENBCS and the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. The 2011 ENBCS conference had focused on whether hope was a relevant concept for Buddhists and Christians. The choice of history as a theme complemented this. It also resonated with a research concern of both KU Leuven and the Network.

Five key themes were chosen for examination: the traditional Christian and Buddhist conceptions of history; Jesus and the Buddha: fact and fiction; Buddhist and Christian historiography; dangerous memory in Christianity and Buddhism; and permitting historical consciousness in Buddhism and Christianity. Each was approached from a Buddhist and a Christian perspective. An opening lecture addressed the theme “Modern Historical Consciousness and the Challenge to Religion.” In addition, eighteen research papers on Buddhist-Christian relations were given in parallel sessions on Friday evening and Saturday morning. These covered topics as various as the writings of Edmund Pezet (Pierre Gillet), Paul Knitter’s understanding of Buddhist-Christian double belonging (Achim Riggert), Keiji Nishitani and the death of God (Jonatan Navarro Estrada), the encounter of Zen Buddhism and Christianity in the works of D. T. Suzuki (Mariusz Rucki), Buddhist-Christian encounters by Han Yong Woon (Seung Chul Kim), and “Liberating the Conflict from ‘History’ in Sri Lanka” (Jude Lal Fernando).

Perry Schmidt-Leukel (Münster, Germany), in the opening lecture, discussed [End Page 189] seven challenges that modern historical consciousness was posing to religion: the challenge of falsification (when historical evidence, for example, showed some doctrines cherished by believers were not taught by the founder), the challenge of uncertainty or methodological doubt, the challenge of methodological naturalism (should a natural explanation be considered more probable than a supernatural one?), the challenge of the distance between past and present, the challenge of change (religions are not static), the challenge of demystification, and the challenge of relativity (the writing of history is perspectival, conditioned by context). He stressed that it would be a blessing to religion if these challenges were faced and, throughout the conference, encouraged other speakers to face them.

The first theme was tackled by Mark Blum (Berkeley, USA) from a Buddhist perspective and Jan-Olav Henriksen (Norwegian School of Theology) from a Christian perspective. In a magisterial historical and geographical survey of the Buddhist tradition, Blum first noted that no one had unearthed a traditional notion of Buddhist history in the early texts. The theme of decline and reformation had been taken from Indian cosmology, but with a Buddhist twist and the conviction that it was pointless to talk about beginnings. And in the growth of the Mahāyāna tradition, a dehistoricization of the Buddha had occurred in the belief that the Buddha’s dharma-body was his only “real” body.

Henriksen argued that Christian salvation history had its origin in the narrative of the Fall, an event for which there was no historical evidence, and developed into a history of God’s call (election) to all people that they should be brought together in community. It was a history that was linked with the divine logos, a force that Christian theology has seen as deeply interwoven into creation from the beginning of time and that was made human in Jesus.

Terrence Merrigan (KU Leuven, Belgium), giving a Christian perspective on the second theme, distinguished three quests or attempts to reach the historical Jesus. The first, from 1774 to 1906, sought to uncover the Jesus that had been obscured by dogma. It imploded with the realization that separating “core” from “myth” was impossible, and conditioned a reactive “no-quest” in the first half of the twentieth century. A “new quest” arose in the 1950s, initiated by Käsemann’s reaction to the theologies of Barth and Bultmann. A further quest that appealed to archaeology and the...