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.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.
"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."
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.