Thoughts on Why, How, and What Buddhists Can Learn from Christian Theologians

By Makransky, John | Buddhist-Christian Studies, Annual 2011 | Go to article overview

Thoughts on Why, How, and What Buddhists Can Learn from Christian Theologians


Makransky, John, Buddhist-Christian Studies


With my co-panelists, I am asked to respond to the question: "Can and should Buddhists and Christians do theology (or Buddhology) together, and if so why and how?" (1) I will respond as a Tibetan Buddhist of Nyingma tradition. My answer is "yes," we can and should, where "doing theology together" for me means learning things from Christian theologians that illumine significant aspects of my Buddhist understanding. How is one to learn things for Buddhist understanding from Christian theology--what method should be used? I find the method of comparative theology, as developed recently by scholars such as Francis Clooney and James Fredericks, to be a productive approach for interreligious theological learning, including Christian-Buddhist learning. But first the question of why must be addressed: a Buddhist comparative theology must be motivated and informed by a theology of religions that convincingly articulates for Buddhists why they can learn things from religious others that can make a positive difference for their own understanding and practice of awakening.

If the why and how to learn from religious others is well enough addressed, then one would have the motivation and orientation to explore specific Buddhist learnings from non-Buddhist theologies. In what follows, then, I will make a start at addressing the how, why and what of Buddhist interreligious learning by briefly summarizing the method of comparative theology, considerations toward developing a Buddhist theology of religions that can support such learning by Buddhists, and some examples of Christian themes that have been resources for my own learning.

COMPARATIVE THEOLOGY

The purpose of comparative theology is to learn from a different religious tradition in enough depth and specificity to shine significant new light on your own. By paying careful attention to elements of another religious tradition in their own context of doctrine and practice, your perspective on corresponding elements of your own faith may be shifted in ways that permit new insights to emerge. This does not merely involve learning at a distance about other religious beliefs and cultures that leaves your own religious self-understanding unaffected. Rather, comparative theological analysis provides a method to learn from religious others in specific ways that newly inform your understanding of your own faith and may also energize and deepen your practice of it. (2) For this kind of learning to occur, certain supportive dispositions are necessary, such as those identified in Catherine Cornille's book The Im-Possibilty of Interreligious Dialogue. These include: (1) doctrinal humility, the acknowledgment that the doctrinal formulations of your own tradition, including its formulations of other religions, are conditioned viewpoints that have never perfectly captured the whole truth; (2) knowledgeable commitment to your own religious tradition, so that whatever you learn from religious others may inform your religious community and tradition through you; and (3) in the context of potential Buddhists learning from Christians, a belief that there is enough common ground between Buddhism and Christianity that it is possible to hear things from Christians that make a positive difference for Buddhists in their own understanding and practice of awakening. (3)

THEOLOGIES OF RELIGIONS

For such dispositions to support comparative theological learning, in turn, they must be motivated and informed by an adequate theology of religions. A theology of religions is an understanding of other religious systems that explores their potential truth from within the theological framework of your own religious tradition. You can, as an individual, learn many things from other religions. But for your learning to inform not only yourself but also your religious community and tradition, it must make sense to your tradition in its own framework of understanding. And as Mark Heim, John Thatamanil, and Kristen Kiblinger have argued, behind any interest (or disinterest) in learning from other religions lies a theology of religions that is either conscious or unconscious. …

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