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  • The Spirit of Contradiction in Christianity and Buddhism by Hugh Nicholson
  • Reid B. Locklin (bio)
The Spirit of Contradiction in Christianity and Buddhism. By Hugh Nicholson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. xxi + 318. Hardcover $55.00, isbn 978-0-19045-534-7.

Hugh Nicholson, Associate Professor of Theology at Loyola University of Chicago, has a mildly grim, highly fruitful fascination with polemics and interreligious competition. In his first book, Comparative Theology and the Problem of Religious Rivalry (Oxford University Press, 2011), Nicholson deployed Carl Schmitt to interrogate the contemporary discipline of comparative theology and its purportedly de-politicized engagement with religious diversity. In The Spirit of Contradiction in Christianity and Buddhism his theoretical dialogue partners have shifted from political theory to social identity theory and the cognitive science of religion, and his attention has shifted from the study of diverse religious traditions to the construction of those traditions themselves. Specifically, by means of a comparison of the Christological controversies of the first five centuries c.e. and early Buddhist refutations of "personalist" schools (pudgalavāda) beginning in the third century b.c.e., Nicholson contends that these traditions' core, "massively counterintuitive" doctrines of Trinity and anattā should be read less as "the products of philosophical reflection" and more as the results of a thoroughly human, socially conditioned and evolutionarily determined predilection for "hegemonic struggle" (pp. 11, 18).

Two theoretical commitments drive Nicholson's comparison in this volume: "theological correctness" and "metacontrast." The first of these, drawn from the work of Justin Barrett, refers to the "cognitive effort" required to affirm religious doctrines that are counterintuitive, preserving "relatively few of the inferences we make about [End Page 314] persons." Thus, while Christians may readily affirm a "theologically correct" notion of God as non-corporeal and Trinitarian, remote from ordinary experience, they invariably revert to "more anthropomorphic and intuitive" notions of God in everyday life (p. 7). So, too, for the Buddhist doctrine of "no-self" (anattā), which is similarly remote from conventional assumptions about personal identity and agency. The second theoretical commitment, "metacontrast," rooted in the social categorization theory of Jonathan Haidt, Henri Tajfel, and Michael Hogg, highlights the strong tendency of human groups to establish their shared identity by contrast to real or imagined social others. Taken together, these two theoretical commitments suggest a model of doctrinal development that traces the emergence of counterintuitive, theologically correct teachings such as Trinity and anattā to the hegemonic struggles of successive generations of religious elites. In short, Nicholson argues that "both the doctrine of the Son's consubstantiality with the Father and the Buddhist doctrine of No-self were, at least in part, the products of social opposition" (p. 19).

Nicholson brings an enviable command of primary languages, source texts, and secondary analyses to advance this claim. Following an elaboration of his theoretical framework in chapter 1, the three chapters following trace the evolution of the doctrine of consubstantiality in Christian tradition. Chapter 2 is perhaps better regarded as an extension of the theoretical discussion in chapter 1, insofar as Nicholson provides a bird's-eye view of the full development and modifies theologian George Lindbeck's notion of "Christological maximalism" to articulate a dynamic of "Chris-tological one-upmanship" as its primary driver (p. 49). Nicholson then uncovers this mechanism in the emergence of logos theology in the Gospel of John and the second-century apologist Justin Martyr (chap. 3) and the polemical replacement of this theology by the doctrine of consubstantiality in the fourth- and fifth-century Arian controversies (chap. 4). Chapters 5 and 6 can be read in parallel with chapters 3 and 4. In these chapters, Nicholson advances an alternative reading of Buddhist tradition as a parallel, dialectical process of doctrinal "one-upmanship," beginning in rival, equally plausible readings of the Pali Canon (chap. 5) and culminating in ever more polemical and contrastive refutations of the earlier pudgalavāda tradition in a period stretching from the Kathāvatthu in the third century b.c.e. to Śāntarakṣita in the eighth century c.e. (chap. 6). In both cases, the hegemony of new, counterintuitive orthodoxies is established by re-positioning an intra-group rival as...


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