Michael Barnes. Spiritus. Volume 6, Issue 1. Spring 2006.
What happens to faith when it becomes inter-faith? How does the language of faith speak to and learn from the language of another? These are questions that have long fascinated me, questions I believe to be both more difficult and more interesting than the largely theoretical issues that attend more programmatic versions of the theology of religions. I write as a Christian theologian with a very specific interest in the dialogue of religions as a focus of human growth and transformation. Christian spirituality, I would argue, entails more than the repetition of time-honored practices of faith; it also demands attention to those liminal moments when edges and boundaries are sensed and embraced. I work, therefore, from the premise that the Christian self is never a finished project. To live “in Christ” involves faithful discipleship and careful discernment, loyalty to what is known and openness to what is not known.
From this perspective, dialogue with a person from another faith tradition can never be accounted a purely pragmatic exercise in the art of persuasion. The encounter with “the other” raises the possibility that, at some level and in some mysterious way, God is at work. This happens, most obviously, in the meeting of persons of faith where conversation is more open-ended and the very lack of structure can challenge faith in complex ways. But the same goes for the more formal dialogue of ideas in which theologians and philosophers do not just offer an account of their own tradition but often risk an interpretation of the other tradition as well. For the Christian committed to interreligious dialogue, a generous and careful critique of another’s interpretation of Christian concepts and ideas and experience can be significant not only in providing one with a better understanding of the other tradition, but-more importantly-in providing a catalyst for a deeper understanding and more committed practice of Christian faith itself.
This essay takes up the challenge which two religious philosophers—Emmanuel Levinas and Masao Abe—put to Christian faith. Levinas and Abe come from very different philosophical worlds. Levinas’s unremitting espousal of “ethics as first philosophy” emerges from his Jewish religious background and raises important questions about otherness and relationality. Abe’s project is inspired by Zen Buddhism; for several decades Abe has been a major influence on the contemporary dialogue of ideas between Buddhism and Christianity. These two figures are not obvious dialogue-partners. They do not speak the same religious language nor ask the same philosophical questions. In bringing them together I do not intend to effect a correlation or comparison. Nor do I present any sort of exhaustive exegesis of their ideas. Instead what I offer is an exercise in theological hospitality, the opening up of Christian “theological space” to different perspectives. The encounter of religions is becoming daily more multilateral, with academics and practitioners increasingly engaged with more than one community of faith. My hope is that this essay may give some illustration of my growing conviction that theologians need to show how inter-religious conversation can become genuinely intrareligious, provoking serious thought about a Christian discipleship lived in dialogue with the other. The object of the exercise, therefore, is not to offer a philosophically coherent integration of a number of conceptual accounts of God, but to reflect theologically on the process of inter-faith engagement itself.
In what follows I focus on a radio broadcast by Levinas and a lecture originally given at an academic conference by Abe. The choice of two short and relatively obscure texts, rather than a systematic summary of the issues at stake, requires a word of justification. In inter-religious dialogue the sharpness of the specific context may give particular words and phrases a power to awake a response which is often lacking in more broadly discursive accounts. This is most obviously the case where an existing relationship is disturbed or deepened. But it may also happen, as in the two texts considered here, when the words of one tradition find resonance (or even a disarming dissonance) in another. Levinas’s radio talk has something of the quality of polemic about it, while Abe’s lecture is much more irenic in tone. But neither Levinas nor Abe is to be accommodated with ease. While they come from very different angles and with very different intent, together their accounts of Christianity raise critical questions about the nature of theistic faith, the self-revelation of God in human terms. My suggestion is that a challenge put by Levinas to Christianity may be addressed by an engagement with Abe’s version of kenotic Christology.
The argument proceeds in three stages. First, I present the challenge which Levinas makes to Christian theism, especially his sense of the infantilizing effects of a faith based on an “emotional communion” with an incarnate God. second, I take up Abe’s account of the Incarnation as a radical immanence, the “kenosis of God himself.” Third, I offer a response to Levinas in the form of a reflection on Christianity as intrinsically relational in form, what I shall refer to as a demanding encounter of two freedoms. Such a dialectic is not neat and may leave more ragged edges than it ties up. But the exactness of the presentation of such a three-way dialogue is perhaps less important than the conviction which underpins it-that the very process of wrestling with “the other” can build a properly Christian “spirituality of dialogue.”
On Loving the Torah More Than God
Levinas gave his talk, “Loving the Torah more than God,” on April 29th 1955, twelve years after the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto. He begins by speaking movingly about a fictional text that he has just read, “both beautiful and true-as true as only fiction can be.” In the midst of the horrors of the ghetto, Rabbi Yossel finds the very concept of the God of the Covenant disturbing and problematic. What remains for him, and what provides continuing support for the life of faith, is Torah-the Law revealed to Moses. “I love him,” says the rabbi, “but I love even more his Torah . . . and even if I were deceived by him and became disillusioned, I should nevertheless observe the precepts of the Torah.” Levinas finds this text simple and heartfelt, full of “a Jewish science in a modest but self-assured manner, [which] conveys a deep and genuine experience of spiritual life.” He agrees profoundly with the rabbi in professing a faith that appears to reach beyond faith. A survivor himself, Levinas tries to make sense of the “suffering of the innocent.” “Is it not a proof of a world with God, where only man measures Good and Evil?” he asks. The simplest response would be to deny the existence of God. But, like the fictional Rabbi Yossel, Levinas experiences “upon his shoulders the whole of God’s responsibilities.”
What Levinas seeks to present is an “adult’s God.” The God who withdraws from the world, veiling his countenance, takes with him all comfort and protection, leaving only “the specifically Jewish meaning of suffering, that at no stage assumes the value of a mystical atonement for the sins of the world.” In a disordered world, God does not intervene to take away our pain; there can be no “direct contact with the Sacred.” Rather God’s “presence” supports human living in a much more paradoxical form, namely “the inner clarity of the morality conveyed by the Torah”-a “difficult journey” which demands everything. Torah represents a trust which the veiled and absent God leaves behind, challenging and provoking mature faith, an heroic refusal to make God less than utter mystery and divine majesty. Levinas’s own hesitant, even agnostic, faith comes out clearly towards the end of his talk when he declares: “God must show His face, justice and power must join, just institutions must reign on earth.” But maybe even that is to say too much, to risk turning hope into expectation. And so he continues: “only the man who has recognized the hidden God can demand that He show Himself. This vigorous dialectic establishes an equality between God and man at the very heart of their disproportion.” That, for Levinas, is the greatness of the human person-to be considered capable of such a “difficult worship.” And that is the greatness of Judaism-to live from nothing other than the ever-demanding precepts of Torah.
All of this raises important questions about the Judaism that Levinas appears to be commending. To these we must return shortly. For the moment let us concentrate on the implications for Christian faith. In commending the noble austerity of Judaism, Levinas makes an incisive critique of Christianity. “Spirituality,” he says, “is offered up not through a tangible substance, but through absence. God is real and concrete not through incarnation but through Law, and His greatness is not inspired by His sacred mystery.” That juxtaposition of “incarnation” and “Law” makes this text rather more than a summary of Levinas’s typical themes of responsibility and otherness. The not-so-veiled subtext is that Judaism warns Christianity about the dangers inherent in an “emotional communion that takes place within the love of a God incarnate.” Levinas started by setting “true monotheism” against “the legitimate demands of atheism.” He ends by distancing himself from “the warm and almost tangible communion with the Divine” that he considers unworthy of a heroic humanity. If the glory of the Divine is replaced with the image of an indulgent deity who seeks only to forgive, humankind is condemned to a life of infantilizing dependence. Christianity, with its reliance on a God who subjects Godself to the human demand for warmth, comfort and consolation, compromises the utter transcendence of Ultimate Reality and produces not an heroic humanity but an immature religiosity which cheapens the cost of real responsibility. Such a Christianity is deeply corrupting.
Responsibility for the Other
Before turning to Abe, let me first set Levinas’s position in broader context. “Loving the Torah” comes from one of several collections of Levinas’s “occasional writings,” usually on Jewish themes. But he is best known for a number of dense and often tortuous philosophical studies of “the other” that seek to engage, albeit in a deliberately elliptical way, with the dominant discourse of the Western philosophical tradition.” Less familiar are his Talmudic commentaries that are set in the traditional form of careful comparison of different Rabbinic opinions. It is possible, therefore, to “read” Levinas in at least two ways, depending on where one puts the emphasis. Is he mainly a philosopher who happens to be Jewish or, more exactly, a “Jewish philosopher”-that is, one who is concerned to build philosophy directly out of Jewish discourse? Levinas himself was always reluctant to pronounce on the issue. That he cannot be understood apart from his Jewish background and the terrible experience of the Jewish people is clear.” His great work Totality and Infinity begins with the statement: “Everyone will readily agree that it is of the highest importance to know whether we are not duped by morality.” Auschwitz, says Levinas, represents the end of theodicy-which he regards as a discredited Western intellectualist project-but it does not destroy morality. For morality is of the essence of humanity. He is not a “philosopher of the Shoah” in the sense that he is grappling with the “meaning” of this cataclysm in a similar way to Jewish thinkers like Wiesel, Fakenheim and others. Rather his Judaism reinforces and in a sense brings to full fruition an account of human subjectivity that is already there-in his Jewish upbringing and inheritance that remained with him all his life.
Levinas seeks, therefore, to “universalize” certain typically Jewish themes, grounding philosophy in a phenomenology of the ethical relation with the other. His whole project can be interpreted as an immense effort to bring to light the roots of violence. To put the same point more positively, he seeks to understand the thoroughly counter-intuitive response to violence that is altruism. What are we to make of the human capacity to respond generously to the other, to put the other first? Philosophers in the Western tradition have always been much taken with the “problem of evil.” It may not be overstating the position to say that Levinas is fascinated with the “problem of good”: the human integrity which resists violence and racism. As an apologia for Judaism, written explicitly in the shadow of the Shoah, “Loving the Torah” is an extraordinary testimony to the continuing vitality of Jewish faith-not the power to resist and survive but the heroic quality which goes on loving in spite of everything. What stands out is not any apologetic intent, still less some “Jewish theology,” but the spirit of “a complete and austere humanism” which typifies the best of Levinas’s philosophical work. Morality, the ethical relation with the other, is the essence of what it means to be human. Levinas is anxious to avoid any religious, metaphysical or theological distraction from what he sees as the philosophical task.
Despite the undoubtedly polemical style, Levinas is not out to score cheap debating points. There is something more fundamental at stake. Supersessionist theologies that find only the fulfillment of the Old in the New miss the all-important critical or-better-prophetic function that the Old exercises over the New. Levinas’s fundamental distinction between Totality and Infinity is a reminder that Christianity has often colluded with the human desire to include all otherness within a comprehensive scheme, to reduce the other to “more of the same.” What is ignored by this way of thinking is the possibility of an event: a revelation, an experience which is, strictly speaking, not a phenomenon but something exterior or “beyond,” something which is not already intended or known by the all-encompassing agent. The ethical voice of the God of the Covenant has been lost amid the self-serving metaphysical categories of Western philosophy. Thus Levinas’s “ethical alternative,” using the language of Infinity, seeks to open up a different sort of philosophical sensibility, one which can be said to “universalize” certain typically Jewish themes. Too easily has this latter perspective been forgotten. And, as a result, too easily has the otherness of God been reduced to manageable proportions.
This rather broader framework of the ethical as “an optics of the Divine” comes out in another essay in Difficult Freedom where Levinas insists that: “No relationship with God is direct or immediate. The Divine can be manifested only through my neighbor. For a Jew, Incarnation is neither possible nor necessary.” It is not just Christianity with its indulgent God of forgiveness which Levinas considers bad for human beings. The same goes for any form of religion which gets too close to God-or allows God to get too close to human beings. In “A Religion for Adults,” he writes that the goal of education in Judaism consists in “instituting a link between man and the saintliness of God and in maintaining man in this relationship.” For Levinas, the genius of Judaism:
consists in understanding this saintliness of God in a sense that stands in sharp contrast to the numinous meaning of this term, as it appears in the primitive religions wherein the moderns have often wished to see the source of all religion… Judaism remains foreign to any offensive return of these forms of human elevation. It denounces them as the essence of idolatry. The numinous or the Sacred envelops and transports man beyond his powers and wishes, but a true liberty takes offense at this uncontrollable surplus. The numinous annuls the links between persons by making beings participate, albeit ecstatically, in a drama not brought about willingly by them, an order in which they founder. This somehow sacramental power of the Divine seems to Judaism to offend human freedom and to be contrary to the education of man, which remains action on a free being. Not that liberty is an end in itself, but it does remain the condition for any value man may attain. The Sacred that envelops and transports me is a form of violence.'”
So, if we are to be genuinely free and responsible human beings, God too has to be free to “keep [H]is distance,” precisely so as not to come so close that our humanity is swamped by feelings of the spiritual, the numinous, the sacred. In fact, for Levinas the religious experience of the faithful Torahobservant Jew is precisely not vested in any sort of mystical awareness; it is, rather, to be found in the conviction of being commanded despite any such “inner” assurance. Hence the conclusion to “Loving the Torah,” already noted, where Levinas makes the startling claim that “this vigorous dialectic establishes an equality between God and man right at the heart of their disproportion.” By this, he means that Jewish faith takes its stand on the paradox of “absent” or veiled presence, the God who is revealed only in what Levinas calls a “trace.” This enigmatic term, as Levinas uses it, refers not to any residual form which betrays the presence of God, but to how the other enters consciousness from beyond, from “the height” which is irreducible to Being.
I suspect that Levinas’s strictures on precisely how God “comes to mind” is what makes his Judaism quite difficult for Christians to appreciate. Where Christianity sets great store by the life of the Spirit which continues to enact in individual lives the paschal mystery of Christ, Judaism-at least in the form presented by Levinas-distrusts the charismatic. What Levinas wants to avoid is the tendency to make God the object of experience or to anchor the “glory of God” in the “said”-some formula of words. This necessary reticence in speaking of God is what is easily forgotten-perhaps especially by Christians. This quality of Judaism, its nagging insistence on the God who is present through absence, is what Levinas prizes most highly. This comes out clearly in another essay, entitled “For a Jewish Humanism,” where he says that “the no with which the Jews, so dangerously over the centuries, replied to the calls of the Church does not express an absurd stubbornness, but the conviction that important truths in the Old Testament were being lost in the theology of the New.” These “important truths” which Levinas the philosopher seeks to “universalize,” to make available for non-Jews, he makes perfectly clear: a responsibility before the other which issues not from an “experience” of God, nor from some metaphysical “proof,” let alone a theological formula, but from the sense of being commanded. Such is the mission of Jewish humanism: Hebrew studies which “herald a man freed from myths and identify spirit with justice.” Levinas has no time for what he calls “theological arithmetic.” But his overwhelming concern to protect the “otherness of the other” still begs the theological question, a question that Christians may not ignore: how to speak faithfully of what God in Christ has revealed of Godself?
Dynamic Sunyata and the Kenotic God
To turn to Masao Abe is to move into a very different philosophical world. Abe’s lecture, “Kenosis and Emptiness” was originally given at the East-West Philosophy Conference at the University of Hawaii in 1984. It remains one of the clearest statements of his position-and the more celebrated for the fact that it engages directly with the kenotic Christology of Philippians 2. Abe’s interest in the dialogue of religions stems not only from intrinsically interreligious questions of truth and value but also from his belief that the modern world lacks any proper understanding of the place of religion in the forming of human consciousness. All religions today, he says, face the same issue. He wants to reinterpret Buddhism in such a way as to address the “scientism” and nihilism of secular ideologies. For this task Buddhism needs Christianity-and vice versa. “Insofar as Buddhist-Christian dialogue is undertaken merely as an interfaith dialogue which takes religion’s existence and significance for granted it does not penetrate to the core of the present crisis which all religions are facing and it will not lead to the much-needed search for a new paradigm.” Abe is driven, then, by the conviction that Buddhists and Christians must work together to find some sort of philosophical accommodation if their respective traditions are to survive. He wants to subordinate the particularities of these two traditions to the construction of a universal religious paradigm-‘a much greater spirituality than now’-which will be sufficiently strong and coherent to address the contemporary problem of ‘religion versus irreligion.’
Taking as the determining conceptualities of Buddhism and Christianity, Sunyata and Kenosis respectively, Abe tries to bring them into a correlation. From his own account, Abe’s meditations on the Christian concept of kenosis, and specifically his exegesis of the Philippians hymn, have affected his thinking deeply. This “touching” narrative of the abnegation of Christ, the very heart of Christian scripture, is a statement about Ultimate Reality, about the way things are-in Christian terms a statement about the very nature of God and God’s relationship with the world. Christ’s own abnegation “indicates the selfsacrificial love of Christ for humankind, disobedient to and in rebellion against the Will of God. Through the incarnation or kenosis, the death and resurrection of Christ, God the Father reveals himself in terms of unconditional love beyond discriminatory justice. The infathomable [sic] depth of God’s love is clearly realized when we come to know and believe that Christ as the Son of God emptied himself and became obedient to the point of death, the death on the Cross.” Abe speaks of the fundamental nature of the Son of God as “selfemptying” but he then goes on to ask: “If the Son of God empties himself, should we not consider the self-emptying of God the Father, that is the kenosis of God himself?” Such a total abnegation on the part of Christ’s human nature implies a total emptying out of the divine nature.
This does not mean that Christ ceases to be God but that, in the fully human nature which is revealed in the kenosis of the Son, is also revealed the true nature of God as precisely kenotic, self-emptying. For Abe speaking as a practitioner of Zen this reading has an immediately practical purpose: to provoke the realization of true selfhood, the intuition that human beings regain an original selfhood in the emptying of self for others, the denial of any self independent of the selfhood of others. But his concern to bring Buddhism and Christianity into a broader alliance against modern indifference and irreligion makes him anxious to find more in the Pauline hymn than a narrative of a personal abnegation “in the temporal order” on the part of Christ. Abe is keenly aware of touches of “dualism” in Christianity that, he feels, compromise the sense of transcendence-in-the-world needed to overcome modern alienation. He wants to make an ontological statement about the nature of God as essentially and fundamentally self-emptying. God empties God totally. He thus reads the act of kenosis back into the very being of God: the self-emptying of the Son has its origins and true nature in the self-emptying of the Father, the kenosis of God.
Turning to Buddhism, Abe discusses the connotations of the key Mahayana concept of Sunyata. Literally meaning “emptiness” or “voidness,” the term implies “absolute nothingness” because it is beyond all language and objectification. In outlining its “positive and soteriological meanings,” Abe tries to show how Sunyata is better understood as a verb rather than as a noun, “because it is a pure and dynamic function of all-emptying.” In other words, one cannot speak of what Sunyata “is”; the concept can only be spoken of “under erasure,” to use the Heideggerian term. Sunyata connotes “boundless openness” in which can be discerned both the “interpenetration and the mutual reversibility of all things.” It is the nature of Sunyata precisely to empty itself of all contingency, anything “other” or relative. To speak of Sunyata as anything other than a dynamic movement or action risks a reification, the attribution of substantiality to what is beyond all form. Again, speaking as a Zen practitioner Abe is convinced that only in the moment of intuitive realization, satori, can one grasp the truth. But this is more than an intellectualist insight. Rather, dynamic Sunyata represents that enactment of the bodhisattva’s vow that turns aspiration into act or deed. In Abe’s words: “A vow which is not acted upon cannot be called a true vow. In this way, in and through self-emptying, Shunyata always transforms itself into Vow and into Act, and then dynamically centralizes itself into a focal point.” Such a realization does not take us “beyond,” into some other reality, but anchors us in the here and now; Sunyata describes the dynamic process by which the true self comes to understand itself as totally bound up with and inseparable from the pure “suchness” of things. For Abe, this reformulation of traditional Zen practice in dynamic terms addresses the challenge of a secular modernity that finds any notion of a dualism of everyday experience and transcendence impossible.
Kenosis-Emptiness of God or Darkness of Faith?
If Levinas is concerned with the universalizing of a Jewish religious sensibility, something analogous can also be said of Abe. According to Christopher Ives, Abe sees his work not as interpreting Buddhism for Westerners but as working for the “emergence of a unified world.” His upbringing, in a not particularly religious family, left him wrestling with philosophical issues that led him at first into the Pure Land Shin tradition and then, through study of Western philosophy at Kyoto University in the turbulent 1930s, to a more Zen-based view of things. Abe’s original Pure Land faith “crumbled away,” as Ives puts it, as he began to confront the painful truth that even Amida, the Buddha of compassion, is a fiction. Later, in the 1950s he studied Christian theology in New York before becoming involved in an in-depth philosophical dialogue with Christianity. In the line of Nishitani and Nishida, Abe is probably the single best-known exponent of the Kyoto school of philosophy. But, with his Pure Land formation, he is no stranger to the religion of grace and love-even if later it became refracted through a more consciously Zen attitude. When he responds to Christianity, he brings to the dialogue not only a depth of theological understanding but a more personal experience of what John Cobb, in his response to Abe’s essay, calls the “crisis of religion in the modern world.” How can faith in God be made credible today? If Levinas hesitates over a concept of God which risks too close a “communion” with human beings, for Abe the issue is how to avoid slipping into a Nietzschean nihilism. What he wants to articulate is clear: a positive account of the ultimate reality of Sunyata, a vision of nothingness-perhaps it would be more appropriate to say “no-thingness”-which overcomes the “autonomous reason peculiar to modern humanity.”
Just as Abe seeks to “correct” a Buddhism which risks reifying Sunyata by proposing a more dynamic understanding of Zen practice, so he points to a similar danger in Christianity-the dualistic ontology which keeps God and creation rigidly apart. He thinks his interpretation of the Philippians narrative mends the divide. “If God is really unconditional love, the self-emptying must be total, not partial. It must not be that God becomes something else by partial self-giving, but that in and through total self-emptying God is something-or more precisely, God is each and every thing.”” This emphasis, Abe says, does not imply pantheism. It represents the logic of a practice of faith summed up in typically Christian sayings such as: “he who loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt 10:39). Abe’s gloss is intended to eliminate a certain hesitation that he finds in Karl Rahner. Picking up on what Rahner says about “the death of Jesus as the death of God,” he quotes him to the effect that “Christology at the present day must reflect more closely on Jesus’ death, not only in its redemptive affect, but also in itself… Our ‘possessing’ God must repeatedly pass through the deathly abandonment by God (Matt 27:46; Mark 15:34) in which alone God ultimately comes to us, because God has given himself in love and as love, and thus is realized, and manifested in his death, Jesus’ death belongs to God’s self-utterance.” But for Abe Rahner is still caught up in a “dualism of God and the other, the infinite and the finite, immutability and change, within and without, and so forth.” Are these “traces of dualism” really necessary for Christian faith? Abe thinks not. If God is unconditional love, then God’s self-emptying must be total, not partial. Here I think it is important to remember Abe’s own religious history, within both Pure Land and Zen traditions. His point is that, if God is love, then God is totally self-emptying. “This means,” as Abe puts it:
that kenosis or emptying is not an attribute (however important it may be) of God, but the fundamental nature of God. God is God, not because God had the Son of God take human form and be sacrificed while God remained God, but because God is a suffering God, a self-sacrificial God through total kenosis. The kenotic God who totally empties Godself is, in my view, the true God. And it is precisely this kenotic God who thoroughly saves everything, including human beings and nature, through self-sacrificia], abnegating love.
It is at this point that Abe senses common ground beginning to appear. Buddhism and Christianity meet in the intuitive perception of an Absolute Nothingness beyond all dualistic forms. This is the “deeper religious dimension” that practitioners of the two faiths can inspire in each other.
Leaving to one side for the moment Abe’s interpretation of Christian faith, let us stay for a moment with the Mahayana concept of Sunyata. In the later version of his lecture Abe expands his account in several directions. Perhaps the most important is a brief section that picks up what in the earlier version is little more than an allusion-what he calls the “compassionate aspect” of Sunyata. Sunyata is to be understood under two aspects or characteristics-prajña and karuna, wisdom and compassion. It is clear in the discussion that follows, however, that these are not to be understood as complementary or interdependent. In the light of prajna, the “suchness of everything is clearly realized in terms of its distinctiveness and sameness.” This “wisdom aspect” is “dynamically connected” with the compassion aspect. But Abe understands this less in terms of the affective side of religious practice than as some sort of principle that overturns the “dominant-subordinate relationship among things in the ordinary and relative sense.” When this characteristic of Sunyata is invoked, the “normal” moral order is reversed. “In contrast to the ordinary statement-‘Even an evil person is born in the Pure Land, that is, can be saved, how much more so a good person’-Shinran, the founder of Pure Land Buddhism, declares: ‘Even a good person is born in the Pure Land, how much more so is an evil person.'” Abe defends this distinctly counter-intuitive “non-discriminating wisdom” as a dynamic process which, in constantly moving between vidya (enlightenment) and avidya (unenlightenment), transcends all forms of discursive and pure theoretical reason by developing an intuitive realization of the “suchness” of things. In trying to give voice to such a knowledge-which-goes-beyond-knowledge Abe finds himself resorting to paradoxical language that would not have sounded out of place on the lips of medieval Christian mystics. “It may be called ‘dazzling darkness.’ It is not half dark and half-dazzling. It is thoroughly dark, and yet, as darkness, it is thoroughly dazzling at one and the same time. That we are fundamentally standing in this dazzling darkness indicates that we are thoroughly unenlightened and ignorant, and yet simultaneously we are thoroughly enlightened.” This is why for the Mahayanist Nirvana and Samsara are ultimately the same; in the “absolute present” which is Sunyata the “suchness” of things, their true reality beyond all dualities, appears for what it is.
Abe’s account of “dynamic Sunyata” leaves us with a Buddhism that still has a very “monistic,” if not static, feel to it. I will return to the characteristic of karuna, compassion, shortly; I will suggest that a properly Christian spirituality would want to take this quality with utmost seriousness as an affective complement to the cognitive dimension of faith. However, the more immediate question for the Christian theologian in dialogue is how to respond to Abe’s re-writing of Christianity. Certainly his instinct to find common ground between Buddhism and Christianity is light years away from Levinas’s careful defense of the Judaism which guards God’s majesty against the danger of “emotional communion.” The question with which Levinas left us-how to speak of God without simply reducing God to some set of inner feelings-is not met with a similar stoic agnosticism in Abe. Abe wants Christians to go on speaking, and speaking more effectively, of what God has revealed in Christ. He sees in the kenosis of Jesus on the cross a revelation of the very being of God-and a graphic example of how life is to be lived, life given in love and compassion for the sake of humankind. What drives Abe, however, is his antipathy towards dualism in any shape or form. Buddhism, he insists, does not have to contend with the problem of dualism since its point of departure lies not with some ultimate “essence” of things to which human beings seek somehow to relate but with the guiding concept of Sunyata, the “interpenetration and mutual reversibility of all things.”
Christian Spirituality: The Meeting of Two Freedoms
So far I have sketched in broad outline the challenges that Levinas and Abe in different ways make to Christian theism. Whether or not Levinas’s description of the “characteristic features of Judaism” in terms of “a relationship between minds that is mediated by teaching, by the Torah” would be acceptable to his fellow Jews is not an issue that can be discussed here. More important for the Christian seeking to respond to Levinas’s austere humanist version of theism is his account of Christianity. His criticism appears to relegate Christianity to the status of-at best-a temporary stage for the religiously immature. Christians will object-and with good reason-that the Christianity which Levinas compares so unfavorably with Judaism is a caricature: the soft liberalism which smoothes out the more demanding features of the Gospel message. The Sermon on the Mount, taken seriously, can be just as difficult and demanding as the “difficult worship” that Levinas commends. Certainly Levinas is right to demand of Christians that their practice of faith be not dominated by the pursuit of inner feelings and a chronic obsession with personal needs. But Christianity cannot distance itself from God precisely because God in Christ has freely chosen to overcome that distance. It is precisely this point, the bodhisattva-ike quality of Christ, that impresses Abe.
Abe is a far more sympathetic interpreter of Christianity than Levinas. He is also quite clear that his intention is to rethink Buddhism in dialogue with Christianity, not to develop an apologia that sets up a strong contrast. He pays Christians the compliment of using an intrinsically Christian theme to revitalize his understanding of a central Buddhist concept. But, perhaps more importantly, he bases his dialogue not on a priori theoretical principles but on spirituality. My suggestion is that a critical yet respectful engagement with Abe may show how Levinas’s critique should be addressed.
What Levinas slightingly refers to as an “emotional communion” might be better formulated as the meeting of two freedoms-the freedom of God to command and of humanity to respond. To make that point with intellectual coherence and to keep it with a properly affective conviction is what Christian spirituality is all about-a response to Jesus’s christological question which is rooted in the practice of a faith that allows God to be God yet acknowledges God’s free gift of Godself. This is not to deny the importance of classical orthodoxy in the articulation of faith. On the contrary: it is to argue that only in the actual working out of the narrative of God’s self-revelation in everyday human terms can the theological tradition be given the energy and direction which sustains what Levinas would call mature faith. But what for a Christian is “mature faith?” Levinas’s alter ego, the Rabbi Yossel, goes on loving God “in spite of God’s every effort to discourage his love.” This is the paradox which Levinas seeks to promote-the dialectic which “establishes an equality between God and man at the very heart of their disproportion.” The distinctly uncomfortable spirituality that results does not expect any affective assurance, indeed is suspicious of the intimacy which compromises the majesty of the “veiled God.” But Christians must wrestle with an equally discomforting paradox. An analogous Christian dialectic would take its stand on the conviction that “in Christ” Christians are taken up through the action of the Spirit into the very life of the Father. But the relationship of communion with the one whom Jesus called Abba is no soft option; the God revealed in Jesus’s life, death and resurrection makes demands every bit as painful as Levinas’s God of distant majesty.
Christians also are commanded. The Christian imperative, vested in Jesus’s invitation, “follow me,” is no less demanding than Levinas’s austere reliance on the word of Torah. Neither tradition, however, can afford to minimize the risks involved in speaking of any sort of meeting of what I have presumed to call “two freedoms.” Levinas is well aware of the issue; it is the theme that dominates the second of his great philosophical works, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence. But his constant demand to place the other first makes any sort of meeting problematic. Abe, on the other hand, makes it almost too easy-a matter of enacting the bodhisattva vow, to engage in the act of self-emptying. According to Abe’s reading of Christianity, the Father-Son relationship collapses ultimately into some sort of impersonal unfolding of the cosmic process. Nevertheless, Levinas’s deistic suspicions and, less awkwardly, Abe’s Buddhist fascination with kenotic Christology do point Christians towards a distinct, if overlapping, issue-namely, that in this particular relationship, of self-emptying and submission, is to be discerned the act of divine self-communication. What Levinas forbids as “emotional communion” and what Abe tries to eradicate as “dualism” is for a Christian the ultimate value which is vested in the concept of Divine-Human relationality revealed in Christ.
This takes us back to the foundational narrative of the Philippians hymn. The biblical exegete will reply to Abe that the text is not proposing some “metaphysical” reading of the “inner nature” of God but is, more exactly, concerned with setting the narrative of human vulnerability and crucifixion within the wider context of God’s salvific action. The central truth of Christianity, as enunciated in Philippians, is as paradoxical as anything Levinas or Abe can conjure up: human empowerment comes not through “grasping” but through faithful submission. The problem is not residual dualism but the practical challenge of living in relationship with “the other,” what resists any reduction to “more of the same.” Putting the issue in practical affective terms: how are compassion and love to be exercised without either dominating or being dominated? The language of emptying, submission and abasement, with its clear distinction of “active” and “passive” poles, risks becoming abusive and manipulative, the one set over against rather than in responsible dialogue with the other. How to ensure that the human vulnerability that Christ seeks to embody is not reduced to mere victimhood? How, to put the same question in Levinas’s terms, to ensure that the abundant and inexhaustible riches of the grace of God are not perceived in such a way as to be either overwhelming or infantilizing? How, in short, to relate “passivity” and “activity?”
The dialogue with Abe may well suggest another angle, a different and, for Christians, more acceptable way forward. Although he does not use the word, conceptualities arising from the early Buddhist term pratityasamutpada, “dependent co-arising” or “conditioned origination,” underpin much of what Abe wants to say about the “positive” side of Eunyata. As used by Abe, the term Sunyata, developed within the Madhyamaka school of Mahayanist philosophy, elaborates the early Anatmavada, the teaching of “no self.” All things are subject to impermanence and change; they can therefore be regarded as “empty” or void of svabhava, any sort of essential or substantial “ownbeing.” But to say that entities are “empty of own-being” is not to fall prey to the accusation of nihilism. In fact, Abe, contending with nihilism of the Nietzschean variety, finds that his dialogue with Christianity both strengthens the Buddhist position and deepens the “religious significance of the Christian notion of the love of God.” Buddhism does not begin with a negative, the denial of the self, but with an invitation to see all things, all “sentient beings” as they really are. What holds this “all” together, the more positive side of what is always a “Middle Way” between extremes, intellectual as well as ethical, is enunciated in the principle of pratityasamutpada. Everything originates in dependence on something else; nothing exists independently or is sufficient to itself. Or, as Levinas might put it, there is no self except in response to the other.
Can this principle of the inter-relatedness of all things enlighten Abe’s interpretation of kenosis-perhaps restoring something of the more dynamic verbal form of the Philippians text? Christian spirituality, as noted earlier, exhibits both cognitive and affective dimensions. In this discussion Abe’s proposals have forced us to consider the former while Levinas has warned us to be suspicious about possible excesses of the latter. In so doing they have, perhaps, highlighted an aspect of Christian faith which cannot be ignored without doing serious damage to the fabric of Christian practice and discipleship. Certainly Christians need to go on thinking about the coherence of faith while at the same time making sure that the intellectual framework both emerges from the more affective relationships of love and compassion which underpin the practice of faithful discipleship. Putting it another way, any act of faith in the God revealed in Jesus Christ emerges from the life of the community and returns to it. If the self-communication of God is to be understood in Christian terms as the meeting of two freedoms, then the cognitive and affective dimensions of faith have to be seen as genuinely complementary. In the living out of that particular dialectic the proper relationship, Levinas’s “equality,” of God and the human person is assured.
This is not to say that the engagement with “the other” has nothing to teach Christians. But we should be careful not to presume that “learning from the other” means picking up some new spiritual insight, or retrieving some truth obscured by history. Rather more subtly, any open-ended dialogue challenges the naïveté that seeks comforting analogies and comparisons. “The other” is no more a finished project than the Christian self. Persons grow in faith not by learning “more,” as if faith can be calculated in quantitative terms, but by entering into relationships that go on raising questions about the adequacy or otherwise of the terms they use. The dialogue does not, then, present an alternative set of concepts or symbols, a different way of speaking of familiar truths. It may, on the other hand, challenge any sense of self-sufficiency-and, more importantly, deepen that commitment which is always implied in the central paradox of Christian faith: that only in death and distance is true communion and intimacy with God to be found.
The early Church sought to express the ultimate truth of God Emanuel made present in Jesus of Nazareth in Greek philosophical categories. Responding to Abe’s challenge does not necessitate working out some alternative Christian language acceptable to Buddhists. But it does require that Christian theologians be prepared to respond in ways that someone such as Abe can understand. That must be the first object of good dialogue-that it communicates. But the other side of the dialogical relationship is that Christians take seriously the demand to learn, and specifically to learn how to build the practice of dialogue into their own faith and spirituality. Here Christians may well find that such an engagement can indeed be transformative of the self-not just because they confront the edges and boundaries of the known but because Christian faith is always practiced in the Spirit of Christ who leads them into the unknown.
Conclusion: Loss and Fulfillment
To say, then, in response to Abe, that Jesus is “empty of own-being” does not deny any substantive existence or selfhood but affirms rather that his selfhood is expressed in a “conversion” of complete obedience to the will of the Father. Jesus’s act of kenosis described in Philippians negates all clinging and desire for anything other than what is “dependently co-arisen,” “empty of own-being.” As Son of the Father, Christ has nothing to call his own other than his sonship, his filial relationship to the God. It is surely significant, as Rowan Williams reminds us, that the only time in the Gospels when Jesus uses the term “Abba” is in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:36); the moment of greatest intimacy is also the moment of greatest test and greatest sense of loss. It is perhaps only through the living of this narrative that the Christian knows what discipleship-not “emotional communion”—really costs and thus how to answer Jesus’s question: “who do you say that I am?” When Jesus calls God Abba he is precisely not turning God into some comforting icon or talisman. Nor as the face that reveals God’s glory (2 Corinthians 4) does Jesus displace the God who surpasses all understanding. Rather, in Jesus is heard God’s Word, the voice that speaks out of the silent depths of God. Jesus is what Jesus does: the self that is confidently no-self, perfectly active yet perfectly passive, relying on no “given” essence, identity or svabhava, because he knows that the true self is never found except through being lost, becoming dependent on another, the Father.
According to Abe’s kenotic vision, the self-emptying of the Son, the Word made flesh, sanctifies the whole of creation, giving it an intrinsic revelatory value. But perhaps what he misses is that the Word is only properly recognized and understood as flesh when the flesh is at its weakest and most vulnerable, in the profound crisis of crucifixion. Only through the latter is the sacramental vision of the former made possible; only through entering into Jesus’s own loss is it possible to experience true resurrection and the newness made possible by the ever-creative God. As Levinas warns us, to aspire to a vision of transformation without facing the possibility of loss can result in a cheap consolation, an immanentist vision that compromises the otherness of God. But, as noted in dialogue with Abe, not to go through such an experience can be equally deadening, avoiding the confrontation with what is strange and other and escaping from the messiness of the everyday into some supposedly pure and peaceful world “beyond.”
For the Christian, the tension is not to be resolved in some theoretical accommodation. It must be lived out in imitation of the relationship of Jesus with the one he called Father, the God who calls him into the darkness of faith. Abe’s exhortations to Christians to overcome “dualism” may act as a reminder that Christianity is not dualistic in Abe’s sense but intrinsically and irredeemably relational. Jesus introduces us into a relationship which itself expresses the very nature of God; within that consciousness of the intimacy of all things gathered in God Christians learn how to speak the words Jesus used himself. At the same time, as both Abe and Levinas in their different ways remind Christians, to name that which is beyond all names is to risk idolatry. That is why it is only “in the Spirit” that it becomes possible to speak of that relationship, because the Spirit witnesses not just to the “naming” of God which takes place “in Christ” but to the wider context of a discipleship which leads the one who dares to name God further into the infinity and inexhaustibility of the gift of Godself. Putting it another way, the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ because the Spirit is always the Spirit of love whose very nature is to go on witnessing to the continual unfolding of the mystery that is God.