Saturday, 15 September 2007

Praying to the Buddha

The Washington Post has an article that highlights how the Vatican, and the U.S. Catholic Bishops are conducting an investigation of Georgetown University Catholic Theologian Peter Phan, apparently for comments regarding pluralism that he made in some of his writings. The Vatican claims that Phan's writings, especially a recent book titled Being Religious Interreligiously, "is notably confused on a number of points of Catholic doctrine and also contains serious ambiguities."

The Vatican's comments about "serious ambiguities" should give us pause, and should also remind us of what a progressive and "modern" buddhism, or a progressive spiritual practice if you will, ought not do. Any ethical/moral practice, and any practice that purports to guide our behavior by reliance on otherworldly speculation, should be extra careful about claims to certainty. Ambiguity is inescapable in human affairs, and we might do well to consider that a healthy respect for, and critical reflection on, ambiguity might enhance our moral imagination.

Perhaps literary and rhetorical critic Kenneth Burke put it best in his book A Grammar of Motives, when he noted:
A perfectionist might seek to evolve terms free of ambiguity and inconsistency (as with the terministic ideals of symbolic logic and logical positivism)...We take it for granted that, insofar as men cannot themselves create the universe, there must remain something essentially enigmatic about the problem of motives, and that this underlying enigma will manifest itself in inevitable ambiguities and inconsistencies among the terms for motives. Accordingly, what we want is not terms that avoid ambiguity, but terms that clearly reveal the strategic spots at which ambiguities necessarily arise (xviii) [Emphasis added].
It seems to me that Burke was absolutely right. Ambiguity has a kind of existential inherency when we speak about ultimate matters, or when we use final vocabularies. To be sure, the Catholic Church can declare dogma and rules that seek to eschew ambiguity, but seeing how its pronouncements are meant to elicit adherence based on an ultimate lawgiver, and hence on their not been the ones to "create the universe," ambiguity is inescapable. Moreover, as per church doctrine, we cannot know the mind of God right?

So what kind of comments has Prof. Phan made that are troublesome to the Church? In a January issue of Commonweal, felicitously titled "Praying to the Buddha: Living Amid Religious Pluralism," Phan wrote:
"It is only by means of a patient and painstaking investigation of particular texts, doctrines, liturgical practices, and moral precepts that both differences and similarities between Christianity and other religions may emerge. Only in this way can there be a mutual understanding, full of challenge, correction, and enrichment, for both Christians and non-Christians.

"For even if Christ embodies the fullness of God's self-revelation, the church's understanding of this revelation remains imperfect, and its practice of it remains partial, at times even sinful."

The article (do read it for a taste of Rev. Phan's "subversive" nature) emphasizes precisely the need for a strong pluralism that requires we remain undogmatic, and in fact extend ourselves to a dialogue of life, and in action with others. Apparently, the Vatican, and the U.S. Catholic Bishops seem to have missed the point of Phan's article. It seems to me that, along with Burke, we (and here I will include the religious, spiritualists, and others like me, atheists and humanists alike) do not want to avoid ambiguity. Instead we ought to look deeply, to reflect mindfully, on exactly those nodes and moments when ambiguities necessarily arise. It is out of those moments of deep reflection over those uncertainties, and of sustained attention to our desire to fix and suture meaning, that we may re-cognize and transform our suffering.

A Progressive or modern Buddhism, even what I like to call a Zen Humanism is best when non-dogmatic, when deeply pluralist. Such an orientation does not mean that we must accept every pronouncement in the name of some confused "cultural sensivity." It does require that we look deeply at those claims, and engage them with an explicit self-consciousness for our own positionality, for willingness to discursive contestation, and for the seeking of agreement on a deep moral convention that we can agree promotes life and freedom, maximizes autonomy, and recognizes its own contextuality. My excursus here is not a programmatic presentation of such an approach, and so it remains superficial and perforce more tantalizing than substantive. Yet, in exploring the questions of what a progressive or modern Buddhism, or a Buddhist-inspired ethical path, might look like, I hope we can eschew the example provided by the Vatican in this instance, and look deeply at the pluralism to which Rev. Phan commends us.




  1. What a great article Nacho. It just occured to me that your middle brow must be a bit higher than mine. Anyway, thought-provoking stuff. Although I occasionally get frustrated with the Zen/Buddhist establishment for being narrow, dogmatic or authoritatian, a reminder about the Catholic church really helps put this in perspective. Is it just me or is the Church getting worse in this respect over, say, the last two years?


  2. Hey Justin, thanks for the kind words. I hope it wasn't too stuffy for the blog. It is still early so I will gauge the style better. I've been meaning to respond to a few things related to Buddhism, and Progressive Buddhism comes at a good time. Thanks for the opportunity to do so. Now to finish a paper due tomorrow, another due in a week, one due later next month, Two for November... :) I'll try to post again soon.

    One idea: we can select a subject, issue, or topic, and all post something short about it. Sort of a variations on a theme approach.

    Thanks again,


  3. Oh, about the Catholic Church... I think with the new Pope things are definitely getting more conservative. He is rather conservative, and demonstrated how much so while he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. His actions and words since becoming pontiff have also shown him to be more hard-liner, especially his reassertion of the primacy of the Catholic church over other religions.

    That one is an interesting theological claim. I always wonder why they bother with that. Would it truly make a bit of difference if they just discarded such a claim as an official part of doctrine? It is an exceptionalism that, similarly to American exceptionalism, just irks others who come to recognize it as arrogant self- and other-deception. Too sad.

    Thanks again,


  4. I think the Catholic church bothers with calling itself the only true religion because it believes that that is true!

    Its holy book says that Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." So what else can they assert without repudiating that saying of their founder? The interesting question is why other Christian denominations (most of them, at least) have stopped saying it.

  5. The interesting question is why other Christian denominations (most of them, at least) have stopped saying it.

    Well, presuambly because they believe that saying so would inflame intolerance and division or because , to a greater or lesser extent, there is more than one path to knowing God.

  6. Yes, I think a lot of them have recognized that maintaining the exclusive truth of their sect is at least pretty bad public relations, and many of them also sincerely believe in tolerance of other world views. (I was a Quaker in my youth, so I am familiar with that type of Christian. Indeed, lots of Quakers really don't consider themselves Christian, though the original ones certainly did.)

    But there is something in religions that leads to many people who have a strong commitment to one religion reacting intolerantly to anyone who disagrees with them. We even see that among Buddhists, of course. Just one difference between religion and science.

    My guess is that it has something to do with the connection between religions and the social groups they are associated with. Humans have a strong tendency to fear and develop hostility to groups they don't belong to, because of the possibility of strange people attacking them, and if you go back to the origins of the religious state of mind, they seem to have a lot to do with pulling a society together so that it presents a united front to potential enemies. (It's interesting to see how this aspect of religion sometimes appears and sometimes doesn't appear in the history of Buddhist traditions.)

  7. Hey Nacho - thanks for this great article, very thought-provoking. I think you and I, being raised Catholic, are particularly sensitive to trends there and I wonder what we (and others) could do to encourage more 'liberal,' open Catholicism. I too have noticed a regressive (conservative) trend in the church recently and see this as not only bad for Catholics but for humanity in general.

    I am so delighted to meet people these days who are quite devoted to their faith and yet still curious and open toward others. It bespeaks a sense of security that is the exact opposite of dogma. Better yet are those like Phan that see that devotion necessitates openness and curiosity!

    One last note: science is, in my experience, really no better than religion in eschewing dogma. Perhaps a bold statement, but having studied the philosophy of science for a couple years, I have seen more than my share of idiocy in the name of science (e.g. look up phlogiston and/or Lysenkoism), but that is a topic for a whole other post :) - B. Alan Wallace is a good guy to read on this topic.

  8. "Never trust someone who is certain about anything." That's what my grandfather always said.

    You're right: ambiquity is what makes life so fun, and so interesting, and it sure keeps us humble.

    It seems to me the Middle Way is all about ambiguity; who, after all, can know anything for sure?

    I enjoy your blog - I'll be back for more.

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