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Reviewed by:
  • Facing up to Real Doctrinal Difference: How Some Thought-Motifs from Derrida can Nourish the Catholic-Buddhist Encounter by Robert Magliola
  • John D’Arcy May

More than forty years ago, the Yale philosopher of religion William A. Christian wrote an extremely useful little book on the ways in which religious doctrines can be opposed, logically appraising recommendations of courses of action, proposals of valuations, and proposals for belief, as presented in a standardized dialogue situation by a representative Buddhist and a representative Jew.1 The book under review, deriving its methodology from the deconstructive assault on philosophical rhetoric by Jacques Derrida and passionately concerned about the truth or otherwise of doctrinal statements, could in many ways hardly be more different, yet in one respect they share a common purpose: to show that no matter how well disposed the participants in dialogue may be toward one another, there is no way around the awkward fact that explicit and authoritative statements of their doctrines are not ultimately saying the same thing but are, as a rule, logically incompatible with one another. In tackling this question head-on, Magliola has done Buddhist-Christian relations a service. He goes to extraordinary lengths to present his “credentials” for this enterprise, documenting his previous publications, conferences and meditation sessions attended, plus endorsements from Buddhist masters, Derrida himself, Gavin D’Costa, and the Vatican, as well as giving a comprehensive overview of literature in the field. For this alone the book is valuable. Yet one of my problems with the book is this preoccupation with establishing authenticity, both the author’s own and that of the traditions he discusses.

A foreword on Derrida, which I am not competent to assess in detail, introduces the concept of “irreducible difference” from Derrida’s reflections on différance as the “trace” or “mark” left on the present by the past and future. The present is constituted by what it is not, namely past or future, and is purely relational or “non-entitative” (p. 30). A similar double-bind applies to space, so that “spatial and temporal coordinates necessarily abrogate each other” (p. 29). Yet this deconstruction of time and space does not devalue the life world, any more than Nāgārjuna’s dialectic does (p. 31). It is rather that difference itself is constitutive, and “pure difference founds sameness” (p. 30), just as a light switch is always either on or off, never both, and it is precisely this “sameness without identity” of its switch function that makes it a switch (p. 33).

Magliola then proceeds to compare Catholic and Buddhist doctrines under the heading “Sameness and Irreducible Difference” in part 1. For him the foundational difference is between Catholic “other-power,” that is, grace, and Buddhist “self-power,” which he differentiates further into Theravāda “self-power” and Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna “same-power,” since self-power is determinative even for them in that [End Page 238] “[T]he Buddha’s other-power is to facilitate self-power” (p. 54, not unlike grace) and no one is really distinct from the Unconditioned (p. 43, again reminiscent of the notion of natura pura in modern Catholic theology, because “everything is graced”). In one of many long footnotes Magliola clarifies his use of the term “norm.” It refers to “the median ‘real practices or beliefs’ of a group, rather than those systematically encoded in official teaching” (p. 36 n. 4).

This is interesting, because when he turns to presenting Buddhist and Catholic doctrines he offers us several long series of quotations from “authorities,” noting that “other Christian denominations contest … some or most or all of Catholicism’s official interpretation of its teaching authority” (pp. 57–58). One might add that numerous Catholics do, too! Here again the quest for authenticity intrudes itself. Traditionally, the authority of papal and conciliar statements is not complete until and unless they have been “received” by the faithful, for the sensus fidelium (“sense of the faithful”) is an integral component of this authority...


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pp. 238-241
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