- Buddhist-Christian Dialogue as Theological Exchange: An Orthodox Contribution to Comparative Theology by Ernest M. Valea
This volume, a revised version of the author’s doctoral dissertation submitted at the University of Wales, seeks to bring the theological tradition of Eastern Orthodox Christianity into dialogue with the world of Mahāyāna Buddhism. In the introduction, we are reminded of the glaring absence of Orthodox voices from interreligious dialogue and comparative theology, with only few exceptions, such as John Garvey’s introductory survey Seeds of the Word (2006). The author, a member of the Romanian Orthodox Church, is himself aware of one single academic study in Romanian—the 1993 volume Budism şi Creştinism by Nicolae Achimescu—which explored the relationship between Buddhist meditation and Eastern Christian spirituality (pp. i–ii). The present study tries to fill this vacuum, exploring the points of contact as well as the differences between the thought of Dumitru Stăniloae (1903-1993) –doubtlessly the most significant Romanian theologian of the twentieth century—and the world-view of Japanese Buddhism, as articulated by a number of Japanese thinkers such as Kitarō Nishida, Keiji Nishitani, and Masao Abe, who over the course of the last century were inspired or challenged by their encounter with Christianity.
The first part of the volume charts the current situation of contemporary Buddhist-Christian dialogue and outlines the doctrinal presuppositions of Mahāyāna Buddhism and Orthodox Christianity as a foundation for further interreligious conversation. Echoing other works on the methodology of interreligious dialogue by authors such as Paul Knitter and James Fredericks, Valea outlines the fundamental claims of three classic theologies of religion—exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism—and moves on to propose comparative theology as an alternative approach to interfaith dialogue. Valea notes the obvious shortcomings of an exclusivist approach, reminding us of the Panadura debate that took place in Sri Lanka in 1873, where Buddhist and Christian apologists came together and tried to prove the falsity of their opponents’ traditions (p. 7). He then proceeds to list a number of inclusivist approaches, such as Rahner’s well-known concept of “anonymous Christianity,” Achimescu’s attempt at developing an Orthodox theology of “church outside Christianity,” but also the Dalai Lama’s and John Makransky’s “Buddhist inclusivism” and their understanding of Christianity [End Page 231] as “skillful means” or preparation for an encounter with the Buddha-nature. Valea sees great value in these conceptual experiments, but is ultimately disappointed by their alleged “paternalism” (pp. 17–18), claiming that they do not leave any space for authentic dialogue with the religious Other. John Hick’s pluralism is even more disappointing, as it engages in a form of reductionism that “ignores or plainly rejects essential Christian doctrines” (p. 20). This rather disheartening review of theology of religions leaves the author in agreement with James Frederick, for whom comparative theology better understands the Other “in a way that does not annul the Other’s alterity,” and therefore provides a better entrée to interreligious conversation.
Having laid out his better point of entry, Valea discusses the fundamental tenets of early Buddhism and then proceeds to outline the way in which appearance of Mahāyāna resulted in a reinterpretation of some of these doctrinal foundations, such as the notions of karma and nirvana, and paved the way for the new conceptual developments such as the teaching of the Buddha-nature or the theory of the Buddha bodies. Seasoned scholars of interreligious dialogue will most likely be familiar with this material, but many of them may not be so conversant with the theological and spiritual vision of Dumitru Stăniloae that Valea outlines in the following chapter. Valea explains how Stăniloae’s theology represented a significant break with the Orthodox scholasticism of the nineteenth century, which aped Western models of theological speculation and encouraged a more experiential theology grounded in the Scriptures but also in the writings of the Greek Fathers. Stăniloae’s theology is fundamentally Trinitarian, and views the ultimate goal of...