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  • A Trinitarian Response to Buddhist Antitheistic Arguments
  • John B. King Jr.

In his battle against theism, Vasubandhu developed three classical arguments that have set the agenda for Buddhist apologetics.1 More recently, Mattieu Ricard has employed these arguments within the field of religion and science.2 Because these arguments make their case from distinct angles of attack, they function as distinct means to a common end. Yet it is precisely this end that is problematic. Because the arguments rebut a bare monotheism, they fail to address the complexity of Trinitarian theism.3 As a result, the Buddhist arguments appear to be strawperson arguments from the Trinitarian side.

This failure to establish a point of contact is not an intrinsic failure of Buddhist polemics. Rather it is the result of two historical accidents. First, the Buddhist arguments were originally developed in a non-Christian context where Trinitarian theism was not in play. Second, Christians have often advanced a bare monotheism in their apologetic work because they have failed to grasp the architectonic significance of the Trinity.4

For both of these reasons, Buddhist antitheistic arguments are underdeveloped. Consequently, I cannot claim to refute the Buddhist case against theism by responding to these arguments. Indeed, I would commit the strawperson fallacy myself if I were to do so. Instead, I will here restrict myself to the more limited claim that Buddhist antitheistic arguments need to be updated in light of Trinitarian theism.

To make this case, my argument will unfold in three steps. First, to provide a basis for the subsequent discussion, I will present the significant features of my apologetic method. Second, I will then respond to the first of three classical arguments by Vasubandhu. Finally, I will examine the more recent arguments by Matthieu Ricard. Because Ricard treats Vasubandhu's second argument in a more concise way, I will respond to Ricard's version of the argument rather than Vasubandhu's. I will pass over Vasubandhu's third argument without comment since it has reference to multiple creators and is therefore irrelevant to a Buddhist engagement with Christianity.

Before proceeding with this discussion, however, I must say a few words about the role of apologetics in an interreligious context. Although some may fear that apologetics is detrimental to interreligious dialogue, the reverse is actually the case. Because my approach leaves space for a Buddhist response, it is simultaneously dialogical and apologetic. Moreover, my approach is warranted by Francis Clooney's [End Page 157] framework for comparative theology. In his book Hindu God, Christian God, Clooney says that comparative theology has four dimensions of increasing intensity and specificity that drive the interreligious conversation forward. In order of increasing depth, these dimensions are (1) the interreligious dimension, (2) the comparative dimension, (3) the dialogical dimension, and (4) the confessional/apologetic dimension.5 In pursuing a dialogical apologetics, therefore, I am seeking a deep interreligious engagement.

apologetic method

In an apologetic encounter, Christianity and Buddhism confront each other thoroughly and systematically.6 Such exhaustive confrontation follows from the fact that Christianity and Buddhism are all-encompassing worldviews, neither of which recognizes a higher standard for adjudicating their differences. To the contrary, because these views are all-encompassing, they constitute competing circularities in which the starting point, the method, and the conclusions of each system are intimately involved in one another. Thus, the argument between them must proceed by way of internal critique and must therefore be indirect rather than direct.

Stated differently, Buddhist and Christian apologists must reason by way of presupposition, comparing the two systems as transcendental conditions for grounding knowledge. This indirect approach of reasoning by presupposition was initially laid out by Cornelius Van Til in the 1930s and eventually became known as "presuppositional apologetics." Van Til provides a lucid description of this process:

The method of reasoning by presupposition may be said to be indirect rather than direct. The issue between believers and non-believers in Christian theism cannot be settled by a direct appeal to "facts" or "laws" whose nature and significance is already agreed upon by both parties to the debate. The question is rather as to what is the final reference-point required to make the "facts...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-9472
Print ISSN
0882-0945
Pages
pp. 157-171
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-28
Open Access
No
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