- Editors' Introduction
In his recent work Secular Buddhism, the renowned Buddhist writer and practitioner Stephen Batchelor observes: "Just as Christianity has struggled to explain how an essentially good and loving God could have created a world with so much suffering, injustice, and horror, so Buddhism has struggled to account for the presence of joy, delight, and enchantment in a world that is supposedly nothing but a vale of tears."1 Batchelor notes that once you embrace certain metaphysical claims—such as "God is good" or "life is suffering"—one has to uphold their truth against the remonstrance of opponents eagerly marshaling evidence against these supposedly straightforward assertions. Theodicy and what Batchelor calls "dukkhodicy" develop as generations of practitioners and scholars come up against evidence that seems to discredit their belief systems. Batchelor argues that the only way to avoid the trap of these apologetic dead-ends is to view traditional religious teachings as praxis-based injunctions rather than theoretical descriptions of reality or—which for Batchelor is an even more deplorable option—as possible articles of belief.
This distinction between belief-based and praxis-based readings of competing religious claims may help us avoid sterile debates where one is led by default to denigrate the position of one's opponent. A closer consideration of the claims under consideration, however, may reveal that this is, after all, a false dichotomy. Traditional assertions about divine goodness or the samsaric character of the world are not meant to be exhaustive descriptions of reality—univocal claims offering the last word about the nature and purpose of the natural order leaving no room for further speculation and reflection. Historically, both the Buddhist and the Christian traditions have operated with far more modest epistemologies—in Madhyamaka, all attempts to encase reality in a rigid web of concepts are rejected as a form of epistemic grasping, whereas earlier authors such as Basil of Caesarea (330–379) or his brother Gregory of Nyssa (335–395) ridicule the members of the Eunomian sect for their naïve belief in language's power to capture and explain the divine mystery. At the same time, religious claims are more than just epistemic or behavioral guidelines, offering us a sort of Ariadne's thread to escape the maze of life's relentless suffering. These claims are ontologically grounded in reality, being in fact anchored in the phenomena that we experience in our everyday life. [End Page vii]
Perhaps, an alternative approach would be to regard competing theological and Buddhological claims as speculative hypotheses that also carry ethical implications for our lives. In this way, different religious traditions could be seen as offering tentative answers to ultimate questions that are simultaneously ethical springboards for personal transformation; these answers would straddle the divide between the speculative and the pragmatic while avoiding all forms of polemical reductionism. Hugh Nicholson offers another framework, which suggests we understand the creation of first-order doctrinal claims as the product of rhetorical and sociological conflict and debate. In either of these approaches, interreligious dialogue would then become a mutual engagement of these hypotheses, in a conversation that might still come up against claims of irreducible difference, but might nonetheless open up new horizons for better mutual understanding.
This issue contains a number of papers from a 2015 panel devoted to the question of theodicy and "dukkhodicy." Without claiming to have reached a final word on the subject, the authors go a long way in uncovering unexpected points of contact between the two traditions' treatments of fundamental themes such as suffering, sin, and death. Roger Haight, SJ, engages in a new reading of the notion of original sin, reviewing classical understandings of the sin of the first parents, moving on to individual and social notions of sinfulness, and concluding with insights from the Christian ascetic tradition and from what the author calls a contemporary Christian naturalism. The result is a reading of the classical doctrine that responds to what Haight views as the challenges posed by the shift in the contemporary religious imagination. Hsiao-Lan Hu offers a more existential appropriation of classical questions on the origin of suffering, shifting from a "cosmic" to a...