Talking About God: Doing Theology in the Context of Modern Pluralism
by David Tracy and John B. Cobb, Jr.
Chapter 5: God and Buddhism by John B. Cobb, Jr
In the preceding chapter I argued that to believe ourselves free and to experience that freedom as a gift of God conflicts in no way with the fullest development of science, although it does conflict with a world view that tries to extrapolate directly from modern scientific methods and habits of mind. This approach, I suggest, is not a trick to escape into an area where science cannot follow, but a contemporary reaffirmation of the early Christian vision that intimately associated belief in God and the experience and affirmation of human freedom. Modern determinism is analogous to the classical fatalism from which the Christian affirmation of God liberated the Mediterranean world.
Neither the reality of freedom nor the reality of God is proved by this connection, but we who experience both are free to clarify our faith through the encounter with modern science and its associated world view. In doing so we see how often our tradition has demeaned God by speaking of God as one cause alongside others in the world, or else as the exclusive cause of rare events. We can be grateful to science, for the clarification of God as the giver of free- dom is not a restriction to a narrow realm but an opportunity to understand that realm as the all-important one, the true locus of all human creativity. We can now see that the desire to attribute ordinary efficient causality to God was an expression of a lack of faith. It is the insistence that Elijah should have seen God in the fire and whirlwind and that Jesus should have yielded to Satan's temptations in the wilderness. It may well be the reason that the church has too often yielded to analogous temptations. It is through the gift of freedom that God has brought into the world life, consciousness, the passion for truth, free associations of peoples, and communities of love.
In this chapter I want to confront this response to the scientific challenge with the challenge that arises in the study of the history of religions. Westerners have often supposed that we know what religion in general is all about through our own experience of religion. We think we can distinguish the particular features of our religion from what is common to all. In the light of this comparison, some Westerners have preferred to strip our Western traditions of their special or "positive" features, which they suppose are all that distinguish them from "pure" religion. Others have felt that these positive features make our Western religions superior to all others.
Belief in God has often been viewed as one of the features common to all religions. Indeed, the supposed universality of the hunger for God has been a factor strengthening the conviction that God is not a cultural projection but a reality that impinges on all human life. Of course it is recognized that God is known under many names, and that the unity of Cod is often not recognized. But it is assumed, nonetheless, that God may be found within the belief structure of all peoples.
To a point this expectation has been vindicated in the study of the world's religious traditions. Divine or sacred beings play a role in primitive religions everywhere, and as these are transformed into the great traditional Ways of humankind, this early stage leaves its mark on popular piety. Nevertheless, outside of the Western religions nurtured in Judaism, it is hard to find the Christian God under other names. It is equally hard to find analogous attention to what the Christian knows as freedom.
If we look at others of the great Ways for support of our belief in God, the situation is disturbing. It true that all religions witness to some sense of the sacred. But it is not true that in their dominant theoretical expressions they all witness to a sacred reality significantly analogous to the Western God. It seems that belief in God, as we understand that in the West, has arisen chiefly from the Jewish and Western experience, not from a universally human one.
That judgment seems to confirm another widespread view of Eastern religions as "heathen." If their practitioners do not even know God, how important it is that we teach them and bring them to faith! But it is now too late in our history to judge Asian Ways inferior simply because they are profoundly different. They have probed the human depths with remarkable penetration and seen much that we in the West have neglected. Yet they have not found God.
I have stated this conclusion strongly. It is, in relation to the Eastern Ways, a matter of dispute. For example, some scholars believe that what Confucianists call Heaven expresses their experience of the reality Westerners call God. Some scholars translate the Hindu Brahman as God or identify God with Isvara. Alternatively, one may suppose that the distinction of Brahman and Isvara reflects the incompleteness of Indian thought compared with the unity of their characteristics in the Christian God.
The pursuit of this kind of question is itself fruitful for Western reflection about the meaning of the word God. That one person may identify Brahman as God and another, lsvara, and that one may see the Confucian Heaven as God, while another disagrees, can be taken at first as a debate about how Brahman, lsvara, and Heaven are to be rightly understood. But on fuller analysis, it turns out instead to be a debate about the essential characteristics of God. Is God fundamentally the ultimate sacred reality underlying and manifesting itself in all things? Or is God the personal object of trust and loving devotion? Or, again, is God the source of natural and social order? Until recently our Western habit has been to attribute all this and more to God with little discrimination. In the context of the history of religion, this will no longer do, and we see that in our own traditions God has named diverse aspects of reality. It is no longer clear that the God of Thomistic metaphysics and the Father of Jesus Christ are the same reality.
As a result we are no longer sure what is at stake in debates about the existence of God. Does the denial of God at one blow deny the Hindu Brahman, the Confucian Heaven, the Thomistic Being, and the Father of Jesus Christ? That would be, indeed, a sweeping denial. Or does it deny only a supernatural, anthropomorphic, Newtonian, interventionist deity? That would be much simpler, and many believers in the Hindu Brahman, the Confucian Heaven, the Thomistic Being, and the Father of Jesus Christ will share that denial. So the question of God is wide open today as it has never been before. Perhaps our question today is not whether or not we believe in God but how we understand inclusive reality and whether within that understanding we find it appropriate to designate the whole or some element as God. Because of our uncertainty as to the essential meaning of the word, two persons viewing reality alike might reach opposite decisions as to whether to affirm God. We need to work toward some criteria of continuity with past usage by which to guide this decision, if the chaos is not to destroy the remnant of communication still aided by talk of God. This clarification must today take place in the context of the history of religions.
I have omitted Buddhism from the above considerations. Especially in the form of Zen, Buddhism constitutes a challenge to Western theism.
Even in the study of Zen, both Western and Buddhist scholars have at times found it useful to translate certain Buddhist notions as God. But here, more clearly than in any other tradition. Westerners find themselves confronted with a drive beyond anything that could for them represent God. Buddhists like to see in Meister Eckhart a Western mystic who shared in part their experience. However, it is not Eckhart's God, but his Godhead, that appeals to them, and even this seems to be dissolved in the ultimate reaches of Buddhist ex- perience. Even by the broadest stretching of our notion of God, it is hardly possible to identify Nirvana, the goal of Buddhist striving, with God.
Just as many Christians want to see in all religions a quest for God, so many Buddhists want to see in all religions, at their purest, the movement toward that Nothingness or Emptiness that is completed and perfected in their own experience. They prefer to see in the Western thought of God an incompletely demythologized and de-substantialized notion through which, nonetheless, sensitive persons have moved on through negation to Nirvana. If, as I believe, study of the history of religions shows that what the West means by God is no more a halfway house to Nirvana than what the Buddhist means by Nirvana is a distortion of what the West means by Cod, then there will be disappointed Buddhists just as there will be disappointed Christians.
If the hands of Christians and Buddhists extended from each side out of a sense of common purpose must fall back to their sides un-grasped, there seems to be a reason for sadness. But perhaps the gift that each can give the other is more precious even than companionship on a common path. Perhaps each can learn from the other something that it has not yet learned from its own history but to which it may now be open.
This mutual instruction is possible, of course, only if the deep differences between Christian and Buddhist thought do not amount to contradictions. If Buddhists necessarily deny the reality of the God in which Christians necessarily believe, then there can only be competition and conflict between them, and there is much evidence in favor of this view. Nevertheless, both Buddhism and Christianity are and express modes of experience, and modes of experience in themselves cannot contradict each other. They may, of course, be very divergent and may give rise to mutually contradictory beliefs. But the most accurate interpretation of such divergent experiences should be free of contradiction. Hence, however different, it should be possible to formulate Buddhist and Christian beliefs in non-contradictory ways.
The technical possibility of non-contradiction between Christian and Buddhist teaching would not do away with conflict. It may be that attention to the Christian God prevents the realization of Nothingness, and that the realization of Nothingness makes trust in God impossible. But if this mutual incompatibility is not grounded in contradiction, then the question of whether it, too, might be transcended is still open. The self-development required to be a champion weight lifter and that required to be a professional pianist are profoundly different. The two may be forever incompatible, but that remains an empirical question.
It is my Christian hope that it may be possible for Christians to realize Nothingness without ceasing to trust in God. I am told by some Buddhists that this is impossible, that trusting in God is a clinging that must be let go. My first goal is to show that this is an empirical question. If so, then those who without ceasing to be Christian are seeking to become Buddhists too may show the way forward in practice as I try to do in theory.
To appraise the challenge of Buddhism to our belief in God, we will first need to look more closely at Buddhism and at its central tenet. Nirvana. This doctrine has fascinated and appalled Western students of Buddhism. Nirvana means extinction, as in the blowing out of a candle, and this notion is applied to the human self as its highest good. Most Western scholars in the past were convinced that Nirvana could not mean simply extinction of self. For them, the extinction of self could only mean death, and specifically death that led to nothing more. They could not believe that hundreds of millions of people have devoted themselves to that goal. Hence they insisted that although some philosophic systematizations of Buddhism did indeed teach extinction, original and popular Buddhism offered a way of achieving a tranquil and serene happiness undisturbed by anxiety and guilt. At death the one who had achieved enlightenment would enter into a blessed immortality. With this understanding Buddhism could have great attraction to the West as it sought a positive religious faith free from the supernaturalism and legalism that were associated with the Christian God.
Other scholars recognized that this interpretation was a projection of Western ideals upon the texts. The texts spoke of annihilation rather than immortality. Still this annihilation was not simply identical with death as total extinction. It was rather the dissolution of the personal ego. But it remained perplexing to Westerners in general how this could be the goal sought so diligently by so many people.
Today we speak readily of altered states of consciousness. This provides us with much better access to the understanding of Buddhism. Although in the nineteenth century such talk was rare and difficult for Westerners to understand, the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer did grasp Buddhism in this way. Schopenhauer's own sense of reality had affinities with Buddhism that were nourished by his reading of Buddhist texts. He believed that the phenomenal world is a product of the human will, that this world is fundamentally characterized by suffering, and that salvation can only consist in the extinction of the will. This extinction is so basic a change that we can form no notion of what life is like when it has occurred, but we can glimpse the positive character of the results in the lives of mystics. Buddhism, Schopenhauer believed, was a system designed to produce this radical alteration of human reality.
Unfortunately, Schopenhauer's interpretation had little influence. Although the analogy with Western mysticism was considered by others, it meant for them nothing other than union with God. Hence, insofar as Buddhist Nirvana was interpreted as mystical experience, it could be seen as the Buddhist name for deity, or as the way of describing union with God.
Western mysticism has continued to be the best bridge to the understanding of Buddhism in the twentieth century. D. T, Suzuki, the leading Buddhist interpreter of Buddhism to the English-speaking world, spoke unabashedly of Buddhism as Eastern mysticism and even spoke of Nirvana as God. He could point to a long tradition in the West of the via negativa, that is, the path to God through negation of everything we cart know and think. This is associated with negative language about God as Nothing, and of crucifying and emptying ourselves so that we may be united with this Nothing. He insisted that even in its most extreme forms Western mysticism did not go far enough, but he saw that it moved toward Nirvana.
At this point the Westerner who admires Buddhism is forced to note a critical problem. The features of Western mysticism which move furthest in the direction Buddhists advocate are just those that have been viewed with greatest discomfort by the vast majority of the Christian community. These features seem to arise historically more from the influence of Neoplatonism than from the Bible. They subordinate or annihilate the personal Cod and transcend the distinctions of right and wrong, better or worse. Thus, in finding a bridge of understanding between East and West, it is to the heresies of Christianity that the Buddhist turns rather than to its mainstream of faith in God.
If we should agree that Nirvana is the Buddhist name for the reality we have called God, the results would be disconcerting. There is little doubt that Buddhist accounts of Nirvana arise from deep, existential experience. They cannot be dismissed as speculations. Their account reflects with greater consistency the indications arising from some of the greater mystics of the West. But in the perspective of this experience all that the Bible speaks of as God disappears. The conclusion seems to be that the Bible is a primitive book based on superficial experience, that we should turn from the God of the Bible to the true God who is better named Nirvana.
This conclusion is not acceptable to Christians so long as they remain Christians. Thomas Merton, one of the great Catholic mystics of this century, felt the powerful attraction of Buddhism and set out to incorporate Buddhist spirituality into his own life. His conclusion was that Buddhism is a superb means of leading us into purity of heart which is the first stage of the mystical experience, but that we must turn to Christian resources to proceed to its highest development. In his own words: "Purity of heart establishes man in a state of unity and emptiness in which he is one with God. But this is the necessary preparation . . . for the real work of God which is revealed in the Bible, the work of the new creation, the resurrection from the dead, the restoration of all things in Christ." (Zen and the Birds of Appetite, New York: New Directions, 1948, p. 132.) Needless to say, Buddhists reject this, convinced that one who could think of going beyond Nirvana to something else has simply not understood Nirvana. Are we reduced here to an argument between two types of mysticism, each holding that the other has failed to penetrate the One Reality with sufficient depth?
There is another and more fruitful possibility that requires profound rethinking of the Christian God. God has been conceived in the West as the One Ultimate Reality, the Absolute. It is obvious that this is not biblical language, but it has been characteristic of Christians that as they encountered new language that seemed to exalt God they have readily appropriated it. In the process some distinctive features of the biblical witness to God have been blurred. For example, the Bible always distinguishes God and the world. In Genesis God's creation is depicted as the ordering of a primal chaos that is distinct from God. God is depicted as having power over the chaos, that is, power to order it purposefully, but the creatures who express the divine purposes remain other than God. They have their own being as forms of order constituted out of the chaos. They can obey or disobey God.
In its doctrine of creation out of nothing, the church remained faithful to most of this picture. It retained the idea that the substance or matter of the creatures was radically distinct from God. But in relation to the Genesis account it exaggerated the unilateral power of God. Instead of picturing God as ordering chaotic matter, it pictures God as transforming nothing into that matter in the act of giving it form. Since the very matter of the creature exists only at the divine pleasure, the autonomy of the creature is undercut. The Genesis account pictures God as vastly powerful over the creatures, able to expel them from paradise and order their new lives. The church's account makes this power absolute.
As a result of this absolutization of God's power beyond anything stated in the Bible, the reality of evil in the world has become a mystery and the justification of God's ways has become impossible. In the Genesis account Adam and Eve were agents who could obey God or yield to temptation. There is no suggestion that their disobedience was itself a direct expression of God's power. From this perspective it is possible to think of God's creative work as very good while recognizing how profoundly it has been corrupted by human disobedience. The creation would not be good if the creatures had no autonomous being and power. With this creative power the creatures are able to be destructive of much that is good and to deny themselves the happiness that would accompany obedience. But when God's power is considered absolute -- when, that is, there can be no autonomy over against God -- then human sin as well as all other evil must be viewed as embodying the will and purpose of God. If, in spite of this, God is believed to be good, then the world with all its horrors must be, in Leibniz' famous phrase, "the best of all possible worlds."
The movement of absolutizing God at the expense of the world did not stop there. The church thought that if God is Ultimate Reality, then God must be the ultimate reality of all things. That is, in fact, consistent with the view that God is the sole power, for as Plato saw long ago, to be real is to exercise some power. If the world exercises no power in relation to God than it has no reality distinct from God. This means that such reality as the world has is God's reality, and this can be expressed by asserting that all being derives from God and is finally identical with God. In sum, God is Being or Being Itself. This is clearly a profoundly different view of God from that offered in Genesis or, for that matter, anywhere in the Bible. Its implications were worked out with some consistency by Spinoza. Within the mainstream of Christianity, thinkers resisted these pantheistic tendencies in loyalty to Scripture. They have dealt with the resulting tension subtly and often brilliantly, but we may speculate that one reason leadership in original thought about God and the world passed out of the hands of theologians in modern times is that they committed themselves to holding together two sets of ideas whose true synthesis could not be realized. To this day most philosophical critiques of Christianity play upon the incapacity of theologians to reconcile the irreconcilable elements in the tradition.
Our concern here is with mystical experience. In Meister Eckhart we have a clear case of the realization of the implications of the duality in Christian theology. On the one hand, deity was the personal God of the Old Testament and the Father of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, deity was identified as the ultimate reality of all things, that is, as Being itself. Officially, they were one and the same God. But Eckhart in his mystical experience knew that they were not. Being, as such, Eckhart called the Godhead. To realize this deity Eckhart could plunge deep into his own being. For such a movement Eckhart did not need the personal God whose reality he also knew and revered. Godhead as Being is found equally in all that is, in the human person as well as in the personal God. God and humans are alike embodiments of this one deity.
These conclusions violate the deepest intentions of the Genesis account and even of the church's first exaggeration of the power of God. Theologians had attributed sole power to the biblical personal God in order to exalt. But a personal God must be a relational God and the power of a personal God must be power to act in relation to others who have some autonomy. Power over what is wholly powerless is not power at all. By attempting to exalt God's power into omnipotence, that is, all power, they denied that God's power could be exercised on anything other than God's own power; in this way they emptied the notion of power of all meaning. Omnipotence in this sense can be attributed only to the whole or to the being of the whole. Omnipotence leads logically either to pantheism or to the identification of God with what Eckhart
knew as Godhead. When that move has been made the personal God to whom omnipotence was first attributed becomes only a powerless expression of the One Ultimate Reality, Being Itself, or, in profounder apprehension, Nothingness. Finally, the notion of power itself disappears.
Instead of seeking in Buddhism of the Zen variety an equivalent of the Christian God, we do better to use the encounter with Buddhism as an occasion for recovering the biblical God from the distortions that have resulted from heaping supposed metaphysical compliments upon God. Of course, that cannot mean that we simply deny that God is in some way ultimate. The biblical God is ultimate. And for me it does not mean that we should avoid philosophy or even metaphysics. What the encounter with Buddhism encourages us to do is to reopen the question of what it means to be ultimate. It may be that the biblical God is ultimate in some respects and not in others, and that the effort to treat God as ultimate in all respects destroyed the fundamental biblical vision.
In the first chapter I pointed out that God's reality must be the reason or explanation of some feature of our world. Otherwise there is no point in talking about God. Such explanation need not be in terms of efficient causation. It can also be in terms of material, formal, and final causation. For Aristotle there is no ultimate in the chain of efficient causation, and God is the ultimate in the line of formal and final causes. Aristotle was least interested in pursuing the question of material causes, and it was left to later Aristotelians to name the ultimate material cause "prime matter." Certainly Aristotle would not have thought it appropriate to view God as the ultimate material cause!
It is equally clear that the Bible does not view God as the material cause of the world. God is not the answer to the question what the world is but rather to the questions why the world is, how it came into being, and continues in being, and to what end it is directed. To these questions God is the ultimate answer, and this answer is confused and finally destroyed when, in the attempt to honor God, God is identified with Being as such, the ultimate Western answer to the question what the world is.
When we turn to Buddhism we find explicit and insistent rejection of the questions to which the God of the Bible is the answer. According to Buddhists we must cease to reflect on why the world is, how it came into being, what sustains it in being, and to what end it is directed. We must concentrate all our attention on realizing what we and all things truly and ultimately are. The answer to that question, profoundly experienced and brilliantly articulated, is that the "what" of our existence is Nothingness.
If this is correct, and I find it convincing, the Christian God is not the answer to the Buddhist question, and the Buddhist Nirvana is not the answer to the Christian questions. This leaves open the possibility that the Christian God is the answer to the Christian questions and that the Buddhist Nirvana is the answer to the Buddhist question. Since Christians have at times asked also the Buddhist question, we clearly have much to learn from the Buddhists. For the present we will leave aside the question whether they can also learn from us.
This does not mean that with this clarification of the relation of Buddhism and Christianity we can simply return to our habitual ways of thinking about God. In the first place I have already made clear that I believe the encounter has done us a great service in forcing us to unscramble the confused elements in our thought of God as that has been shaped by our tradition. It drives us back to recover aspects of the biblical faith which even the Reformation return to Scripture missed. It forces us to give up the self-destructive notion of omnipotence that has plagued so much of Christian theology, Catholic and Protestant, to our own day, and to attend once again to the kind of power attributed to God in Scripture generally and in the Genesis account of creation in particular. And on the basis of this it requires that we rethink the mode of God's relation to the world.
How then should we think of God's agency in bringing the world out of chaos into a good order? First it is striking that God does this by speaking. If we were asked, in ignorance of Scripture, how we might image a powerful (and anthropomorphic) God making our world out of chaos, I suspect that most of us would introduce God's hands as the agency. We do occasionally find in Scripture the image of potter and clay (Isaiah 45:9-11 and Romans 9:20-21). But in the crucial accounts, both in Genesis and in John's prologue, the agency of creation is the word. Further, the word of God is not an entity other than God, an intermediary between God and the world. The word, without ceasing to be God's word, is also that which informs the world, that which gives form to the chaos. In John's account it is the light that enlightens every person and the life of all that lives.
If we ask, now, whether God is the efficient cause of the world, the answer is surely affirmative. The primordial chaos is not a world, and it is God's agency alone that creates the world. Further, this agency is not the final causality of Aristotle's unmoved mover but the agency of a God who acts and reacts. But this affirmative answer, so consistently given in the Christian tradition, is easily, even usually, misunderstood. For example, in much of the tradition it has been held that the efficient cause is external to the effect while containing it. That means that God contains the world while remaining external to the world. Here again we meet the omnipotent God who has nothing with which to interact, and we have a world from which God is absent, a world that can lead the mind to God only by modes of reasoning that have been exposed today as unsound. No. The efficient causality exercised by God in the creation of the world, according to our scriptural sources, is much more like that described in the first lecture. It is the effect that contains the cause. The word, the light, and the life communicated by God to the world are constitutive of the world as God's actual presence in the world. They give form to the world, but in doing so they bring into being a world that can thwart as well as fulfill God's purposes. This is so because what is imparted by God to the world is not its matter. That matter in itself has no agency over against God, but as it is formed by God it contributes a measure of autonomy to the agency of what is formed.
The first response to the Buddhist challenge is thus to purify our Christian thought of God from all suggestion that God is the what-ness of whatever is. That what-ness is Nirvana, and we will do well to recognize in Nirvana a more profound grasp of the chaos of the biblical account. We can learn not to think pejoratively of chaos, but, after the Oriental fashion, to respect it and appreciate it. It is the nature of Being as such.
But the Buddhist has given us clearer images of Nothingness than those I have suggested thus far. Of these the most important and most fully developed is Sunyata or Emptiness. Nothingness is not the sheer absence of something, it is perfect receptivity and openness. This is clarified further in the idea of pratitya-samutpada or dependent origination. According to this mode of explanation, whatever-is is a momentary conjunction of all that it is not. That is, each event or occurrence is constituted by its reception of all the forces that impinge upon it. Entities do not first exist and then receive from others. The entity is nothing but this reception. It is an evanescent coalescence of the world. What a thing is, then, is receptive emptiness, nothing more. And since such Emptiness is characterized precisely by lacking any character or form or substance of its own, it is Nothingness.
Now this poses a more serious challenge to Christian thought of God. We must understand that the Buddhist is realizing and explaining the ultimate reality of whatever is. There can be no excep- tions. The total and unqualified interrelatedness of all things is such that there cannot be, alongside what is Empty, some other entity that has substantial existence. The Buddhist imagination can populate the universe with Buddhas who function very much as gods, and it can even speak of gods in distinction from Buddhas, but these Buddhas and any deities there are must be Empty, that is, their true nature, like the nature of all things, is Emptiness. In discussions between Christians and Buddhists this has often been the most troublesome point. Even when Christians avoid thinking of God as the substantial Being of all things, they still attribute to God what the Buddhist can only hear as substantial characteristics. And it may be that no doctrine of God can ever be formulated that answers the Christian questions without violating the Buddhist sensibility. This chapter is not the place to pursue in metaphysical detail the possibility of satisfying the Buddhist requirement. Our question is instead what we as Christians can learn of God in this encounter. And the answer here is that we can listen to the Buddhist to hear what is existentially offensive in the idea of substance, why a God conceived to be substantial must be experienced by the Buddhist as inferior. The Christian must believe that God is "perfect" in some sense. Hence, it is important to formulate our ideas of perfection with as much sensitivity as possible. We can hone that sensitivity in relation to the Buddhist who declares perfect only the completely Empty One, or perhaps better, only those who realize their complete Emptiness.
It is not hard for Christians to grasp some of what is meant here. We, too, speak of emptying ourselves of our self-centeredness, our pride, our desires for fame and wealth, our prejudices, our defensiveness, and so forth. In prayer we may seek to empty our minds of all our cares and hopes so as to be more open to God. We can see in the Buddhist disciplines more sustained and systematic programs of self-emptying than any we have attempted. There remains a difference in that we empty ourselves so as to be receptive primarily to God, whereas the Buddhist regards this direction of attention as a limitation upon emptiness that must also be overcome. But at least we can appreciate in general, if vaguely, the reason for seeking Emptiness.
Among the mystics some have also spoken of the divine Emptiness, and this has not always meant that, with Eckhart, they have turned from God to Godhead. No, they have experienced God as also Empty. In the New Testament we read of the famous kenosis or self-emptying whereby the Son of God became a human being (Philippians 2:6-8). Thus the themes of divine self-emptying and of divine Emptiness are not wholly strange to our tradition. Still they are a minor note in the whole.
What would it mean to think of God's emptiness in a way stimulated by the encounter with Buddhism? It would mean that the divine reality was constituted by perfect openness to, and reception of, whatever is possible as possible and whatever is actual as actual. It would mean that there were no divine purposes or attitudes or interests that interfered with such perfect receptivity. It would mean that the response to what was received was perfectly appropriate to what was received rather than being distorted by any antecedent purpose or intention.
Such a vision would not exclude God's efficacy in the world. On the contrary, the Buddhist vision of pratitya-samutpada ensures that every event would receive God as part of its own constitution, just as God would receive every event into the divine life, This is not the way that Christians have usually thought of God. The language is very different from that of the Bible. Yet if we reflect on the meaning of perfect love it can lead us in this direction. Are not lovers, ideally, fully open to those they love, responding appropriately to their present feelings rather than operating on prior agenda? Do not lovers offer themselves to those they love to be experienced in turn for what they are without imposing alien aims and purposes upon the beloved? Perhaps through our encounter with the Buddhist ideal of Emptiness we can purify our thought of God's love from inappropriate elements of judgment and favoritism and coercion.
There is a final mystery for the Christian believer in God raised by the encounter with Buddhism. We have thought that all the good in the world is made possible by God and that the greatest goods, especially the supreme spiritual gifts, arise as people attend to God and trust God. We have felt that the denial of God, while not pre- venting God from working, nevertheless ran counter to the highest religious experiences of peace and joy. Yet in Buddhism we see saints who fully match our own who understand their attainment as dependent in part upon their total denial of God. We seem to be driven either to deny this historical evidence or else to attribute to God a peculiar effectiveness among some of those who deny or ignore God's existence. Of these the latter is far the more Christian option.
But how can we affirm God's peculiar efficacy among those who deny God's reality? The answer must come from further consideration of what occurs in the achievement of Emptiness. When we are not Empty, or when we have not realized our Emptiness, we undertake to direct our own attention and receptiveness according to our beliefs. Our beliefs are shaped by many factors, and even if some of them approach accuracy, they never conform perfectly to the world. We have already seen in these lectures the extent to which our ways of thinking about God have been confused and erroneous. Hence even when we attempt to attend to God, to trust God, and to listen to God's Word, that to which we direct our attention is not in fact God as God really is. Our beliefs are a screen between us and God. Further, our effort to listen to God is never free from a mixture of motives. There are some things we would prefer not to hear from God. And this fear that God may not say what we want to hear clouds our listening. In this way belief in God and attention to the God in whom we believe is bound up with concepts, preferences, hopes, and fears. It is, in the Buddhist sense, a form of clinging.
The Buddhist rejects belief in God not primarily for theoretical reasons, but because it is a form of clinging. To become Empty is to be free from such clinging. But this does not mean that the realization of Emptiness is being cut off from the rest of reality in a self-enclosed moment. On the contrary, to be Empty is to be filled by all that is without prejudice or distortion. If, as we Christians believe, all-that-is includes God, then God is part of that which fills the Empty One.
Furthermore, when one is Empty, each aspect of what-is plays that role in filling one that is appropriate to its own nature. What is appropriate to God is the giving of freedom together with that direction of self-constitution which is best in that situation. Hence the Empty One, precisely by being free from all self-direction, is directed by God. From the Christian perspective this explains why the realization of a state described as beyond all moral differentiations of better and worse, right and wrong, consistently expresses itself in ways that appear good and right. The purpose of this chapter has been to confront Christian theism with the reality, power, and beauty of a great traditional Way that has rejected theism. This confrontation forces us to ask whether Christians can continue to believe in God when we see that precisely through withdrawing attention from God Buddhists achieve saintliness. My answer thus far has been that from our point of view the Buddhist achievement can be interpreted theistically. But the challenge goes deeper. If precisely the rejection of such interpretations has facilitated the Buddhist achievement, is it not perverse to insist on retaining it -- even if we can do so with conceptual consistency?
The answer can only be that from the Christian point of view there are some important attainments that have been advanced by attention to features of reality from which Buddhists withdraw interest. For example, in the first lecture I talked about science. Science develops only where there is intense interest in and sustained attention to forms. Buddhism has discouraged that, whereas Christian theism over a period of many centuries nurtured it. Similarly Christian theism has encouraged attention to questions of justice in social organization in ways that the Buddhist ideal of Emptiness has not.
This might suggest that we Christians should retain an overarching theism while adopting for religious purposes a non-theistic stance. Such a proposal has at least the virtue of reversing an unhealthy trend in the modern West toward relegating God to a narrowly religious and personal sphere! But to exclude attention to God from the religious and personal sphere would also be a major abridgment of Christian theism. Christians such as Thomas Merton and William Johnston have worked sensitively and critically to learn from Buddhism in such a way as to inform and transform inherited practices of theistic devotion. Perhaps in time faith in God can be so freed from its association with clinging that Christians can risk losing what they have known as God for the sake of being conformed to God.