- A Buddhist and Christian on the Way to Carnegie Hall:A Response
Each of the four insightful, thought-provoking, and well-crafted papers on Engaged Buddhism and Christian liberation theology, by Paul Knitter, Karen Enriquez, Sallie King, and John Makransky, provides its own unique angle on the intimate link between personal spiritual practice and engagement in tasks toward social transformation. One way of offering a response is by summarizing the key arguments of each of the papers and giving due appreciation for and/or critique of the various issues raised. But given the clarity and cogency of the papers themselves, this attempt would only be like “adding feet to a snake,” citing a Japanese proverb (蛇足 dasoku), which means “doing something entirely unnecessary and redundant” (read: a snake can move about rather freely as it is without feet, demonstrating my point twice over). So I would like to cut short my task as respondent and pursue the single theme that runs throughout the essays. This theme recalls the answer to the famous question posed by a tourist visiting New York City: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? The answer, of course, with a slight variation from the well-known retort, is “praxis, praxis, praxis, praxis” (there are four papers).
All of the essays are of one voice in affirming the vital need for both personal spiritual practice and engagement in socioecological transformation, as well as the mutual reinforcement of both dimensions toward the realization of the vision of liberation, salvation, or holistic well-being, however this may be articulated in religious terms from their respective Buddhist or Christian frameworks. In short, liberative praxis with an inherent double thrust, personal spirituality at the service of social transformation, or social engagement grounded in personal spiritual praxis is the common thread that unites advocates of Engaged Buddhism and Christian liberation theology.
A recurring theme addressed by each of the essays from their different angles is the question of which takes priority in the tension between “peace versus justice” or, expressed in another way, between love and harmony (standpoint of nonduality) versus prophetic denunciation of injustice and oppression (standpoint of confrontation). On this question, John Makransky’s description of “fierce compassion” and [End Page 109] Sallie King’s recommendation to “see through the eyes of Auschwitz and the Killing Fields” raise pertinent and powerful points to ponder, calling for further conversation and mutual challenge not only among Buddhists and Christians, but for all people of goodwill acutely aware of this mess of the world we are in, as Paul Knitter puts it, as we together seek a way out of this mess. Karen Enriquez’s moves beyond personal spiritual practice to seek avenues of communal praxis toward sociopolitical transformation may also provide a lead worth pursuing in this regard.
The authors of the four essays write in a way that assumes it is a “good thing” for Buddhists and Christians, as Buddhists and as Christians respectively, to be engaged in tasks of socioecological transformation, that is, in the various tasks involved in making this world a more just, more humane, more equitable, sustainable one for everyone on Earth, in ways grounded in their own faith traditions. The authors of the essays thus invite readers who are already sympathetic to the cause of spirituality-cum-social (and ecological) engagement to consider the various issues that come up in the ongoing dialogue between engaged Buddhists on the one hand, and liberationist Christians on the other. In one sense, they may be said to be “preaching to the choir.”
While I find myself singing with the choir in my own work and writings, here I would like to present objections that some (many?) Buddhists, and some (many?) Christians have raised or may raise against those within their own faith communities who so engage in sociopolitical action toward transforming our human society.
In a conversation with a retired military officer I met while visiting Burma (now Myanmar) some years ago, I asked the question of how people were addressing poverty and other social issues in his predominantly Buddhist country. The gist of his reply was that it was of no use to help the...