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What Modern Catholic Theology Can/Should/Must Make of Buddhism

Robert Gimello- 2009-10 Shinnyo-en Visiting Professor, Stanford,Notre Dame

The Vatican II declaration, Nostra Aetate, was originally intended to address only the question of the Churchís relations with Judaism. In the course of its formulation, however, its scope was broadened to encompass the larger subject of relations with all non-Christian religions. Its best known pronouncement - that 'the Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these [i.e., all non- Christian] religions" - came quickly to be understood as a thorough disavowal of the Fourth Lateran Councilís (1215) severe dictum, "extra ecclesiam a salus." In the forty-five years since its promulgation, Nostra Aetate's impact has been enormous. It has both stimulated and licensed a veritable flood of theological reflection and argument, even to the point of generating whole new sub-disciplines of theology, like "comparative theology" and "theology of the religions." And the theological waters it helped to roil are still far from settled.

For some this declaration began what Howard Greenspan might call (were he concerned with such things) an era of "irrational exuberance." "High Christologies" were eagerly abandoned in favor of rather "lower" ones; Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and others were accorded the unbidden and likely unwanted "privilege" of being deemed "anonymous Christians"; the Spirit was breathlessly said to be so universally active as not only to have planted in other faiths "seeds of the Word" (logoi spermatakoi) but also to have conferred upon those other faiths the full measure of salvific efficacy previously held to belong to the Church alone; and so forth. Often these fervent claims were made by persons only minimally familiar with the other faiths, and the diversity of faiths, they so readily welcomed.

For others, however, the admission that the Church can accept what is true and holy in other religions was not so much a call to religious pluralism as it was a summons to rigorous, albeit also charitable, examination of other religions with an eye especially to determining just what may be found in them that could legitimately be judged to be "true and holy" while also disclosing the issues on which they could be judged to be (in the unreasonably maligned words of Dominus Iesus) "gravely deficient" - even if such judgment might seem to threaten the comity of interreligious "dialogue."

This presentation will survey the major themes and voices in these post-Vatican II debates, but it will also join in them as they pertain especially to the Buddhadharma, this with the intent of showing how Catholic theology can acknowledge, celebrate, and profit from those aspects of Buddhist thought and practice that are consonant with its own verities without ignoring important, even fundamental differences and antinomies.

A graduate of Columbia University, Professor Gimello is research professor at Notre Dame and has taught at Dartmouth, UC Santa Barbara, the University of Arizona, and Harvard. He is a specialist in Chinese Buddhism, with particular interest in Buddhist thought in the Tang and Song dynasties. He has co-edited Studies in Ch'an and Huayen (1983) and Paths to Liberation: The Marga and Its Transformations in Buddhist Thought (1993), and is the author of numerous studies on Buddhist subjects. Among his many current projects, he is working on a Catholic theology of Buddhism.

Thursday, May 27, 2010 | 5:15 pm — 6:30 pm
Building 260 - Room 113, Main Quad

Ho Center for Buddhist Studies at Stanford