- Seeking Buddhist-Christian Understanding Friends in Dialogue
Buddhist-Christian Studies is pleased to publish the following exchange between two friends and scholars of Buddhism and Christianity. Their exchange revolves around a new book:
TO SEE A WORLD IN A FLOWER: A FRACTAL INTERPRETATION OF THE RELATION BETWEEN BUDDHISM AND CHRISTIANITY (一花一世界: 分形理论视角下的佛耶对话). By Perry Schmidt-Leukel. Beijing: Religious Culture Publishing House, 2020. 279 pp.
Professor Paul Knitter (Emeritus, Union Theological Seminary, New York) introduces the book and raises further questions stimulated by what he has read, and this is followed by a response from Professor Perry Schmidt-Leukel (Professor of Religious Studies and Intercultural Theology, University of Muenster, Germany), providing the reader with a rich and fascinating exchange.
Paul Knitter writes:
Among the many books on Buddhist-Christian dialogue, this one, for a number of reasons, is quite exceptional. First of all, it is "bilingual." Born from lectures that Perry Schmidt-Leukel gave at Minzu University in Beijing in 2017, it bears the Chinese translation on the left page and the English original on the right. Another, and more significant, reason is that its brevity for English readers (140 pages) nevertheless contains an amazing wealth of scholarship and creative insights. And this is what has stimulated the following dialogue between us. Perry has opened up some hugely interesting issues in the contemporary discussions about the nature and promise of comparative studies in general and within the Christian-Buddhist dialogue in particular.
I will, first, summarize what I believe are the highlights of his book, and this will lead me to inquire of him further responses to some teasing questions.
The neat structure of the book is noteworthy and helps to facilitate our dialogue: a hypothesis is proposed and then proven. In his opening chapter, Perry lays out his "fractal interpretation of religious diversity" and then in the ensuing four chapters verifies it in a bold and creative comparison of Buddhist and Christian teachings and practices. Doing this, he presents an original and quite inspiring example of what "comparative theology" (he prefers "interreligious theology") looks like. A fractal understanding of humanity's religions becomes a summons to escape the postmodern or constructivist prison of localized "thick" studies and invites us into the open spaces of discovering comparisons that can become "mutual illuminations."
In his first chapter, Perry reviews the fractal interpretation of religious diversity that he laid out in detail in his Gifford Lectures of 20151. His fractal interpretation [End Page 338] claims that the recurring, multileveled patterns that one observes in organic and inorganic nature (and that are neatly exemplified in the head of a cauliflower whose structure is repeated in each floret) can also be identified both between and within the religions. More precisely, the "incommensurable" differences that postmodern scholars identify between the religions (e.g., personal vs. impersonal ultimate, mystical vs. prophetic messages) are identifiable also within each of the religions. This means that "… religions are neither all the same nor incommensurably different. Rather, they resemble each other precisely in their internal diversity" (7).
The reality of interreligious fractals poses unsettling challenges to the contemporary academy of religious scholars. If "the other religion is other but never wholly other" (49), the fashionable insistence that the concept "religion" is nothing but a Western, imperialistic invention is deflated. The notion of "religion" has indeed been manipulated, but there is in reality an identifiable common, though diversified, phenomenon for which the word "religion" is a most appropriate indicator.
There is, I suggest, another challenge that this fractal interpretation presents to the academy of Christian theologians which Perry does not take up. Does not the fact that no religion has it all, and that much of what one finds in one religion can be found in another (though in some other form), rule out the possibility that one religion has a superior or final "saving truth" that no other religion has? And doesn't this imply that in the debate among theologians about "exclusivism" (only one true religion), "inclusivism" (one best religion...