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  • Conventional and Ultimate Truth: A Key for Fundamental Theology by Joseph O'Leary
  • Thomas Cattoi
CONVENTIONAL AND ULTIMATE TRUTH: A KEY FOR FUNDAMENTAL THEOLOGY. By Joseph O'Leary. Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 2015. 402 pp.

A masterful blend of speculative theology, philosophy, and literary criticism, this volume by Joseph O'Leary—an Irish scholar based at Nanzan University in Japan—sets out to critique what the author views as the flaws and shortcomings of contemporary approaches to fundamental theology, and eventually adumbrates the contours of a new foundation for Christian speculative thought that draws heavily from the tradition of Madhyamaka thought. This volume constitutes the culmination of the author's lifelong engagement with fundamental theology and post-modernity's challenges to its practitioner—an intellectual endeavor that produced Questioning Back (1985) and later Religious Pluralism and Christian Truth (1996). This latest installment addresses the question of rationality's role in speculative theology, and recommends a move away from "systematic" and "determinative" judgment—seen as overly preoccupied with coherence and finality–and the embrace of "reflective" judgment—grounded in the personal experience of ultimate reality and endlessly open to revision. The resulting "open-ended critical reflection on conventions in view of ultimacy" (p. ix) is a mode of theological speculation that will inevitably relativize, question, or even dismiss traditional doctrinal formulations or strategies that are no longer seen as adequate to the demands of the contemporary world.

O'Leary eagerly stresses that embracing the notion of conventional truth should in no way be interpreted as a concession to relativism or nominalism—rather, it should be seen as a way to integrate into theological reflection—a greater degree of alertness to the fragile and contradictory character of religious language, while also marking an oppositional stance to the totalizing pretensions of classical theology or its idealist reformulations by authors like Hegel and Schelling. Buddhism offers a much needed antidote to the univocal temptations of Christian theology, reminding us of the extent to which speech is a necessary tool to convey intellectual insight, but can also become a trap that entangles us in a web of attachment. O'Leary stresses that while our encounter with the divine word is an experience of the ultimacy, the cultural forms that divine speech takes in different contexts lack this ultimate quality, and indeed may end up quashing the divine invitation they are supposed to convey. Conventionality enables us to reassess the history of doctrinal debate and uncovers the contextual character of religious concepts. The result of this project is what O'Leary calls a "flexible hermeneutic" (p. xi) that accompanies Christians in their search for "intimations of ultimacy" (p. xii) amid what may prove to be the [End Page 327] theological detritus of previous, less enlightened eras. Grounded in such a questioning stance, the theological endeavor would often be closer to poetic or literary imagination than to the carefully arranged conceptual systems of the scholastic period, but according to the author this would actually make "the core affirmations of the Christian faith" more persuasive, helping us distinguish between the actual claims of the tradition and the culturally conditioned character of the linguistic and conceptual armory deployed at the service of the same.

The first two chapters of the volume outline O'Leary's relentless critique of traditional theological categories and of the epistemological strategies that undergird classical theological reflection. The "quest for systematic closure" (p. xii) that he associates with the premodern mindset is contrasted with the embrace of open-ended reflection that accompanies the emergence of historical consciousness and, later on, the linguistic turn. O'Leary is dismissive of practitioners of theology who hanker back to a metaphysical vision where the cosmos is imbued with God's presence. Such theologians—in his opinion—commit a "suicide of thought" that is often also "suicide of faith" (p. xii). O'Leary uses Hegelian dialectic as a speculative bridge to introduce the notion of conventional and ultimate truth that is developed by Mādhyamaka thinkers—an important conceptual distinction that serves as chief speculative frameworks for a variety of Mahāyāna schools, as well as Tibetan Buddhism. O'Leary carefully notes that his appropriation...


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