Toward the Other: Christianity and Buddhism on Desire

By Reynolds, Thomas E. | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Summer-Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Toward the Other: Christianity and Buddhism on Desire


Reynolds, Thomas E., Journal of Ecumenical Studies


Aristotle noted long ago that the ability to spot the similar in the dissimilar, the familiar in the strange, is the hallmark of poetic genius. (1) In an increasingly global and cross-cultural human mosaic, this kind of genius can be an indispensable component in the process of building community among religiously diverse traditions. For, what is strange or other stands as an implicit challenge to the familiar, placing it in question. Yet, the unfamiliarity of the other can only be recognized and encountered as such on the basis of what is already experienced and known, interpreted through the lens of established or taken-for-granted networks of meanings. There is a tension here: neither reducing what is different to the similar and already known (in a kind of cognitive imperialism), nor simply allowing the different to slip into an obscure and impenetrable alterity (in a relativistic skepticism or agnosticism). The kind of poetic genius Aristotle talked about embodies an imaginative and constructive capacity that stretches out to stand in-between the familiar and the foreign, recognizing otherness in the form of a similarity-in-difference.

David Tracy's term, the "analogical imagination," nicely captures the intention here) For Tracy, the analogical imagination is a way of thinking that coordinates varied possibilities on the basis of some focal point of meaning, some primary analogue, bringing distinct particulars together into an interactive relationship without undermining their uniqueness and singularity. An analogy allows the other to come into view as both like and unlike, holding up the tension between real differences while serving to mediate between them as a vehicle of relation and connection. This is an integral part of the process of "understanding." and, in the context of cross-cultural interaction, it can even mean mutual enrichment or transformation, through which varied interpretive horizons may be brought into a vital correspondence, actively co-participating in each other.

But, this is no easy process. A genuinely creative engagement between religious traditions commences not with some pre-established commonality but in the throes of real tension as differences play off one another in ongoing counterpoint. Such an engagement entails no guarantees. It is designated not by facile agreement but by a collective and multilateral struggle to come to terms with and affirm genuine difference and strangeness. Proceeding dialogically, it moves ideally toward a reciprocity with reconciling power, bridging across essential differences, while at the same time authenticating those differences. Here, there is created an analogical horizon amid or "between" dissimilarities, a liminal zone of relation. Similarity, then, is not something established beforehand but emerges as an after-effect of differences shared in a mutually designated zone of counterpoint. The notion of sharing expresses a liminal in-between-ness that is the hallmark of interreligious analogy. Discovered in the unpredictable play of conversation, what is shared discloses itself not as a transcendental identity or univocal "sameness" standing behind individuated historical contingencies but as a similarity-in-difference that is itself grounded in an imaginative reach toward othemess. The key is this: that such an imaginative stretch remain open to the other as an integral "Thou" whose strangeness makes an ineluctable claim upon the familiar. Only in this manner can the perils of nondialogical closure and polemics be avoided.

With these introductory remarks in mind, this essay seeks to effect an "imaginative reach" toward Buddhism from the perspective of a Christian theologian. It explores the possibility of an anthropological analogy or "sharing zone" between Buddhism and Christianity based on the theme of human desire and its soteriological transformation. Along with John Hick, I maintain that the liberative experience characterizing these two post-axial traditions is one in which a reality-distorting posture of self-centeredness modulates into a larger Reality-centeredness. …

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