- The Cosmic Breath: Spirit and Nature in the Christianity-Buddhism-Science Trialogue by Amos Yong
The Cosmic Breath is not for the intellectually faint of heart. Its author, Amos Yong, professor of theology at Regent University School of Divinity, brings his characteristic [End Page 230] meticulous scholarship to bear on three worldviews—Christianity, Buddhism, and science—any one of which would be daunting enough for most readers. The book is sourced with copious footnotes and a long bibliography, and it leaves few scholarly stones unturned. One can almost envision the author writing each section with palpable concern to cover every nuance of the topic at hand.
The subtitle indicates that this book is about a “trialogue.” Yong explains his choice of this word, noting its use in interreligious contexts and arguing that it better “captures the kind of complex interactions” he wishes to explore than the “now trite cliché” of “dialogue” (p. 2, n. 2). (By the way, some may think “trialogue” is a neologism but the Oxford English Dictionary traces its use to the sixteenth century.) Yong intends to “expand” (“consolidate” might be a better word) the current dialogues between religion and science and between Buddhism and Christianity into “a trialogue between Christianity, Buddhism, and science” (p. 2). The trialogue’s two religious partners can be specified more precisely since Yong draws primarily upon Christian pneumatological theology (i.e., framed by doctrines about the Holy Spirit; see pp. xiii, 34) and from certain strands of Mahayana Buddhism. Several fields represent the trialogue’s scientific partner, including physics, cosmology, and cognitive neuroscience.
The Cosmic Breath is organized into a preface, an introduction, three main parts, and an epilogue. The preface should not be overlooked as it offers a concise summary of the author’s theological motivation for his trialogical project, which is elaborated in the introduction. The introduction also surveys key methodological issues in the religion-science and interreligious dialogues.
The three chapters of part 1 explore the Christian notion of pneuma (spirit) and its implications vis-à-vis science, nature, and human nature. As a Christian, I found Yong’s exegetical work on the biblical creation story both interesting and innovative. The three chapters of part 2 explore the Mahayana notion of shunyata (emptiness) and its implications vis-à-vis science, nature, and human nature. As a scholar of Buddhism, I noticed that Yong subsumes Tibetan Buddhism under Mahayana (some would consider it a third turning of the wheel of the Buddhadharma) and includes a sideward glance at Theravada Buddhism in considering the work of the Sri Lankan Christian Lynn de Silva. The three chapters of part 3 offer a synthesis of parts 1 and 2, a summary of the implications of the author’s pneumatological project, and a rather unexpected discussion of “a Christian theology of the environment” informed by Buddhism (p. 224) but not science.
The epilogue is brief compared to the other chapters of the book and offered with an apology for its inconclusiveness in certain respects. I suspect readers will be satisfied that Yong has sufficiently expounded his arguments by that time.
“Dialogue”—in this case, “trialogue”—is a loaded term. One must always ask: Dialogue for what purpose? Yong is clear that his trialogical project has a primarily Christian goal, namely, to develop a theology of nature that is informed by both the latest scientific knowledge and the insights of Buddhism. In this, Yong wishes to remain “faithful to the historic Christian tradition” while also “being sensitive to how Christian self-understanding may be deepened, corrected, and even transformed [End Page 231] by our [Christians’] dialogue with modern science and Buddhist traditions” (p. 175). The imagery of the book’s title, The Cosmic Breath, is biblical: The breath of God created and continues to enspirit the universe (pp. 60, 80, 93).
A derivative goal of Yong’s trialogical project is to bring new insights to bear on the bilateral religion-science and Buddhist-Christian dialogues. Consistent with his primary goal of developing a Christian theology of nature...