- Sunyata and Otherness:Applying Mutually Transformative Categories from Buddhist-Christian Dialogue in Christology
“The universe is expanding,” the physicists tell us. “But doesn’t an expansion of something mean the presupposition of boundaries?” my naïve mind inquires, thinking too much in terms of discrete substances. Can “something” expand “into” nothing, “into” emptiness? Shot through with “dark energy” (the name an intellectual signifier allowing physicists to speak of the ineffable), the immensity of the universe teaches a lesson in humility before mystery and the radically new. Dark energy makes up 74 percent of the universe and is responsible for increasing the rate of the universe’s expansion; it may be explained as the energy of empty space, or space devoid of matter and gravity. Although an unobservable phenomenon, dark energy penetrates the known universe as that which counteracts gravity’s relationship to matter, causing a negative pressure in regions of the universe devoid of matter to expand. Hence, the energy of emptiness is the reason for the universe’s expansion; emptiness is the reason reality is better described by rapid change and impermanence than stasis and immutability.
While it would seem that these developments do not impact religious thinking, the Dalai Lama and others have argued that because science helps us understand the nature of reality, it affects the paradigm in which we consider the veracity of religious ideas. In his words, “if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.”1 This is a bold statement, challenging both East and West to consider that when derived from only one source, even our most treasured religious ideas are narrowly conceived.
The Western worldview has kept pace neither with the challenges of cosmic and subatomic physics nor with a more sophisticated global community. Since Parmenides in the pre-Socratic era, Western thought has been dominated by Greek philosophical categories, in which the perfection of beings is regarded in immutability and stasis, and things ideally tend toward independence or self-sufficiency. These categories [End Page 73] not only are inadequate to describe reality discovered through scientific means but also fail to articulate the meaning of the religious and cultural encounters taking place between East and West. Writes Joseph O’Leary, “The encounter with Buddhist thought enhances the hermeneutical task of theology, by opening up the possibility that Christian truth today can be more luminously presented in a discourse influenced by Buddhist analytical methods and ontological insights than in the old frameworks formed in dialogue with Greek ontology.”2
Deconstructing substance ontology in the West suggests not only that science is a valuable conversation partner to religion but also that religions be conversation partners with each other. Christians should consider how divine or ultimate reality is manifest in other religions and abandon claims to exclusive truth. As Joseph O’Leary argues,
The religions need each other, whatever their utter self-sufficiency on the plane of abstruse theological claims. The religions, as human historical trajectories, are inevitably marked by incompleteness and tragic failures. The tensions between them are not to be suppressed by dogmatic self-affirmation, but to be interpreted as the tension of “truth” itself, making itself felt within the finitude and brokenness of the human language striving to express it.3
Truth for the Dalai Lama is “pursued by means of critical investigation,” requiring conversation with modern thought forms as well as both religious and secular Western traditions. If Christian theology is to be relevant today, it must continue to deconstruct the classical metaphysical categories that impede the appreciation of what is possible or true, especially in the encounter with non-Christian and non-Western thought, culture, and religious practice. Interreligious encounter necessitates the questioning of ontotheology, the classical metaphysical logic that refers to the rational basis for naming God, the supreme being, with supreme attributes, such as eternity, immutability, omniscience, and omnipotence. Ontotheology is related to the substance ontologies that describe the relation between God and the world and East and West in terms of dualism that according to Paul Knitter “so stresses the difference between two realities, so separates them...