An Infinite Forest of Meaning
Towards a Buddhist-Christian Metaphysics of Love
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Few would dispute that modernity has its problems, though precisely what those are is contested. Likewise, few would deny that those problems largely originate from the culture of what used to be the “West” but now occupies most of the Northern Hemisphere and threatens to subsume the whole world; but again, to inquire which aspects of that culture are deleterious to the common good and which contribute to it provokes a range of responses. That range tends to cluster around one of two poles of opinion popularly depicted as camps in a culture war. Enter either camp, though, and you will find fractious elements held together in alliances proving ever more fragile and tenuous.
The broadly Leftist alliance – admittedly, an unsatisfactory designation – is characterised by the often derogatory moniker of “Woke,” which is essentially a postmodern redirection of Marxist “conscientization” of class difference to ethnic, sexual or other social categories. The strategies of class warfare are instead applied to resolve an ever-expanding plethora of perceived social ills, the symptoms of which vary widely according to whoever is making the diagnosis. Many of these have so little to do with Marx’s concerns for the poor and their control of the means of production that actual Marxist find themselves alienated from their political parties and activist movements, like hatchlings pushed out from the cuckoo’s nest. Indeed, to more old-fashioned Marxists, the cuckoos’ preoccupation with free association based on one’s self-selected identity from a range of pre-packaged templates begins to look rather too close to the destructive atomisation, individualism, and reduction of people to mere consumers that has historically been espoused by the liberal capitalist foe.
One can see this dynamic at work in the hostility found among those sectors of the new alliance defined by sexuality. It goes back some time. Twenty years ago, many who identified as L or G were suspicious of the B, let alone of the T etc. Hence we see now the fallings-out between transexual activists and “traditional” feminists. These echo older and now apparently buried conflicts between same-sex marriage campaigners and those who spurned marriage as a despicable vehicle of patriarchal domination. Go back further still, to the time apparently immemorial of the 1970s, and you will unearth a conflict between those within the same movement who advocated, to put it delicately, the full exploration of children’s sexuality by adults, and those who firmly resisted such relations as susceptible to abuse of power and as necessarily psychologically harmful. It is not coincidental that so many of the clerical abuse scandals in the Church arose just as the new sexual conscience of the postmodern intellectuals and nihilists entered full swing.
Those allies more motivated by racial concerns are, too, divided. Some are not convinced that the injustices their people have faced on the grounds of the colour of their skin or their place of origin are strictly comparable to those endured as a result of sexuality, where the line between nurture and nature is more contestable. They are not unanimously delighted with being declared “queer” simply on the basis of being “non-white.” Not all people who, quite rightly, assert that the lives of their people matter equate that with a need to destroy the nuclear family. Some resent being told that their race defines what they should think, especially when the people telling them what to think are in many instances precisely people of precisely that other race which has had the unfortunate habit of telling them what to think for the last few centuries.
Then there are the environmentalist allies, for whom the general urban thrust of the movement (the “metropolitan” slur is not altogether unwarranted) and its reliance on technology and pharmaceuticals to achieve its liberationist aims may seem suspect. Indeed, some come to think that more traditional, conservative and agrarian models of communal life, such as the family and the village, are more conducive to the flourishing of the world than models based on technological domination in macroeconomic political blocs: some fear that their colleagues’ calls for border-free unions of nations simply invites the same kind of capitalist domination enjoyed by the truly borderless realms of high finance and the Internet.
Essentially, the attempt to unite a kind of social liberalism or even libertarianism, committed to absolute autonomy from inherited social mores, with protectionist socialist economics is unconvincing to many. The illusion that one can maintain social liberalism while denying its obvious fiscal analogue in untrammelled free-market capitalism makes the alliance fundamentally unstable. Hence erstwhile leftists steadily drift over to the other side.
What awaits them on the other shore is their mirror image, the alliance of the so-called Right. Its alliance is unstable for equal and opposite reasons. Writer N.S. Lyons dubs this pole the “Counter-Revolution,” and sums up its problems in four overarching questions.
The first applies equally to Left and Right: “is Liberalism what needs to be saved, or the source of the problem?” Yet this question cannot be answered without first defining what Liberalism is, a notoriously difficult enterprise. Clearly, it has to do with libertas, freedom, but what freedom are we talking about? The pursuit of absolute social autonomy? Fiscal autonomy? And if that freedom is delimited by the freedom of others in a social contract, is it freedom at all? Such initial queries highlight the basic fissure on the “Right” between social libertarians who oppose the Left on the grounds of free speech or equality of opportunity, and social conservatives, who oppose the Left for diametrically opposite reasons.
This segues into Lyons’ second question: “is rationalism savior or suspect?” This is a direct response to the postmodern Left’s resistance to empiricism, but it invites differing responses also among the Right, varying from the mystical to the outright scientistic; between, for example, the religious traditionalists who wish to reassert historical continuity between faith and nation by building on a shared cultural mythos, and the atheist scientists who oppose the new Left for its anti-empirical and anti-biological emphases. Even the religious elements are diverse, including Roman Catholic throne-and-altar integralists, Protestant biblical fundamentalists and creationists, Anglican Prayer Book revivalists, Benedict-option cultural conservators, conservative Jews and Muslims, and more. There can indeed be rapprochements between, say, Thomists and scientific rationalists, but many on the “science” side have been led (I would aver, misled) into seeing religion as the enemy of reason.
The third question, whether “the machine of technological-capitalism” is “sustainable,” and “a blessing or a curse,” marks the division between fiscal libertarians who oppose the Left’s socialist economics and see capitalism as the most just and equitable way to allocate the world’s resources, and small-state communitarian socialists, often including environmentalists, who oppose globalisation. These seek to re-establish geographical or familial (at the extreme, even racialist “blood and soil”) identities rather than international groupings based on self-identified criteria, whether sexual, political or commercial. Trans-exclusionary feminists also find themselves at least tentatively allying with the group, wary of technological and medical solutions to what many consider a psychological condition that disproportionately affects autistic boys and teenage girls of a similar demographic to those who were in previous generations susceptible to anorexia and bulimia.
To say that all this makes for strange bedfellows would be an understatement. Both camps comprises elements of both traditional Left and Right, liberal and conservative. Neither offers a single, coherent basis for its ideological commitments. Lyons’ final question, whilst aimed at the “Counter-Revolution,” is in fact therefore pertinent to both groups: “Is a new balance possible?”
The trouble with the question, however, is that its premises are already predetermined by an assumption which one might characterise as broadly Western, or of the Northern Hemisphere: the assumption, that is, of materialism, which is fundamental to both capitalism and communism, the political systems, both of European origin, which exclusively dominate the world today. And while it is salient to ask whether the solution to ills caused, or at least accelerated, by technology and liberal economics is more of the same, there is a prior and analogous question which remains unasked and therefore unanswered: namely, can the problem caused by materialism be solved by materialism?
It is surely beyond dispute that our ability to wage mass warfare, to develop weapons of unprecedented scope for carnage, to set up extermination camps, to develop and spread deadly viruses, to pollute the skies and seas, to disrupt communities by mass migration, and to tear hitherto unparalleled numbers of the unborn from the womb have been augmented and in some cases enabled only by technological progress. With almost certainty, one might say that our ability to prevent and to cure illnesses once terminal, to predict and protect against natural disasters, to grow crops in abundance and protect them from disease, to share cultural goods by world travel and transport, to communicate instantly over vast distances and to share information globally has also been thanks to the same technological progress. Even the neo-Luddites call for Luddism through their iPhones.
To weigh the pros and cons of modern technology is, I suppose, a task patient of empirical method, but would segue into utilitarianism, balancing the ledger of the quick and the dead. The arithmetic, admittedly, would be easier if one did not consider, say, Jews, or Uighur, or people with Downs Syndrome, or fully-formed foetuses to be “human.” At any rate, whatever one’s personal measure of what constitutes a human (a phrase which I hope would sour even the most resolute relativist’s palette), the validity of such measurement rests on the underlying assumption of materialism: that we can only guarantee and therefore only be politically concerned with this life, in this world. Whether one is considering the goods or evils of human technological domination of the world and (heaven forfend) beyond, we are licensed by modernity to do so only in strictly material terms. If spiritual perspectives are to be considered at all, they are only a secondary and ultimately private matter.
But this materialism, at risk of labouring the point, is a particular philosophical position, of a particular genealogy, originating in a particular culture. It is neither universal nor commonsensical. The fact (and fact it is) that a materialist culture has ridden roughshod over all the rest does not mean that the rest may not, in the end, be right, and the materialist assumption wrong. At a deeper level than most on the new Left are willing to recognise, even the project of decolonisation is a kind of colonial imposition, in that it assumes a neutrality and universality to its own unexamined premises and imposes them on others. If that cultural specificity is exposed, however, it refines my last question about technology and materialism in a way which may help the world to escape the stalemate of the West’s exported identity crisis: can Western problems really be solved by the West, or further afield, by more Westernisation? This is the key problem for both the new Left and Right, whose incoherence derives in both cases from the failure to recognise and to address the intellectual peculiarity and cultural specificity of their respective positions.
Though these are problems of our age, they are not unprecedented. Indeed, they are only the latest refinements of an ongoing “culture war” which has been waged for well over a century. The agitators’ primi parentes can be and have been traced back much further by any one of several competing genealogies, a speculative effort which readers may notice I have not altogether ignored in earlier work. Nonetheless, one of the war’s more readily identifiable and recent theatres is the contested terrain of mid-19th to early 20th century biblical interpretation. The new school of historical critical exegesis applied to sacred Scripture the same scientific methods of philological dissection and palaeography that were being applied to classical Greek, Latin and Near Eastern ancient texts. This work, undertaken mostly by Protestant scholars, undermined or at least re-prioritised portions of biblical texts in relation to one another on the grounds of historical or archaeological data and, at times, somewhat speculative reconstruction.
This rereading of scripture was not without doctrinal implications, which several Catholic theologians were keen to seize on.1 In 1907, their “Modernist” agenda was condemned by decree of Pope Pius X, who dubbed it the “synthesis of all heresies” and from 1910, forced all clergy to swear an anti-Modernist oath. Instead, clergy were to continue to teach the laity as they had been taught in seminary, which is to say, the rote learning of select passages of St Thomas Aquinas often abridged, critics alleged, to such extent that they distorted the Angelic Doctor’s own intended meaning. Then as now, a selectively deconstructive party faced a selectively conservative opposition, which is to say, what each party sought respectively to jettison or retain rested more on their desired political and social outcomes than on a commitment to the pursuit of theological truth.
As we seek a balance between the anxious extremes of our time, so did our forebears in theirs. A middle way between the revolutionaries and reactionaries did emerge, and proved predictably unpopular to both camps it bisected. This was the method of ressourcement, championed as the word suggests by a mostly Francophone school of scholars, among them Jean Daniélou (1905-74), Henri Bouillard (1908-81), Yves Congar (1904-95), the Swiss Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-88) and their grand-père, Henri de Lubac (1896-1991). Ressourcement meant returning to the sources, not only biblical, but also patristic and liturgical, and reading them in their own light, rather than refracted through the lens of the prevalent neo-Thomism of the time. It therefore harboured both conservative and potentially modernistic tendencies.
More conservative than the conservatives, the Ressourcement scholars called precisely for a return to and deeper engagement with ancient texts and ancient ways of reading them – even if this came at the risk of yielding conclusions that left them looking more modernistic than the Modernists. It was the latter danger which earned the ressourcement movement its derogatory nickname of Nouvelle Théologie, and later, official censure. Several of de Lubac’s sympathisers had their publications formally condemned by Rome, and in 1942, three of them were removed from teaching positions.2 Debate intensified during the 1940s, notably around de Lubac’s De la connaissance de Dieu (1941), Corpus Mysticum (1944) and Surnaturel (1946), in which he argued respectively that humans have an innate belief in God fundamental to our nature, that the Eucharist rather than bureaucracy makes the Church, and that there is no such thing as ungraced or “pure” nature; and for which he was criticised respectively for fideism, over-identification of God with the Church, and the destruction of the gratuity of God’s grace. Overall, he was suspected of crypto-modernism. All three books were removed from circulation, and by the time Pius XII’s encyclical Humani generis was issued in 1950 condemning much of the work of the ressourcement scholars, de Lubac too had been removed from his academic post. His own Jesuit order cautioned him against writing any theology for the time being. Nonetheless, by the time of the Second Vatican Council, he was rehabilitated thoroughly enough to be called as a peritus, a specialist theological advisor, and the mark of the Nouvelle Théologie is evident throughout the Council’s documents and resolutions. It would also influence the then young priest-theologian, Fr Joseph Ratzinger.
But let us stay for now in the 1950s. Relieved of his formal theological work, de Lubac was set free to pursue another interest: the study of Buddhism. Yet he did this not in isolation from his calling as a Christian theologian. Rather, he found analogues in the ressourcement of Buddhist texts to certain of the problems faced in the Church of his day and so, we might say, the seed of non-Western solutions to Western problems.
Theologians have already drawn deeply from de Lubac’s deep well of biblical, patristic and liturgical ressourcement as a means toward resolving the problems of modernity. His reading of Thomas against Aristotle, that the entire natural realm has a supernatural purpose or telos, has more recently furnished the Radical Orthodoxy movement with grounds for rejecting the materialist basis of utilitarianism, which treats matter as a neutral resource merely waiting passively for human definition. This in turn challenges the secularist supposition that there can be such thing as a “neutral” public square, exorcised of religion. Flowing from his apprehension that all nature is in fact already suffused with divine grace, de Lubac’s reconstruction of the Augustinian motif of the desiderium naturale, the “natural desire” for God implicit in every human soul, has been brought to bear in Catholic doctrine on the extent to which truth and salvific efficacy can be found in non-Christian religions. Recently, the Anglican theologian Hans Boersma has articulated de Lubac’s thought and that of the wider Nouvelle Théologie in terms of a broadly Platonic “sacramental ontology,”3 though this has led scholars including David Grumett and Christians Alpers back to the old Augustinian question of whether such an ontological reification of divine grace may not understate its necessary gratuity:4 is God’s grace really freely given if it is already inherent in creation?
Leaving that question aside for now, little work has been done as yet on de Lubac’s writings on Buddhism and their connection to his wider opus.5 The specific kind of Buddhism that de Lubac wrote about most profusely was that of the Pure Land and True Pure Land schools, or as he called them collectively, “Amidism.” Indeed, of his three volumes on Buddhism, La rencontre du bouddhisme et de l’Occident (1952) and the two volumes of Aspects du bouddhisme (1951 and 1955), the last, subtitled “Amida,” treats exclusively of these schools. Where many of his contemporaries, including Von Balthasar, tended to regard Buddhism as a kind of Oriental atheism, de Lubac’s view was more nuanced. This is not to say that it was uncritical. De Lubac contrasted what he considered the “Buddhist orthodoxy” of monism with Christian dualism,6 and Buddhist “illumination” with Christian “salvation.”7 For Buddhists, he claimed, since everything is one, there is really nothing to be “saved” from, only a reality to be “unveiled.” 8 He approvingly quotes Rudolf Otto to the effect that Buddhism tout court “approaches the truth of a theistic concept” but “can never attain it.”9 And yet, despite all this, he ends chapter 12 with a breathless coda seeming to concede much of the ground he has hitherto covered. Christians, he avers, cannot resign ourselves to treating Hōnen and Shinran, respective founders of the Pure and True Pure Land schools of Buddhism, as atheists10. “The rays of the Word are eternally ready to shed light there where, in simplicity, the windows of the soul are opened,”11 he concludes, citing St Hilary of Poitiers without expansion, explaining only that his studies are limited by a lack of access to the source materials.
Aspects was not de Lubac’s last word on Buddhism. In 1971, he prepared a text for the Roman Catholic Church’s Secretariat for Non-Christian Religions, recently translated and published in David Grumett’s anthology, Henri de Lubac and the Shaping of Modern Theology.12 While maintaining key doctrinal differences between Christianity and Buddhism, notably between Christ’s Incarnation into the world versus Amida’s transcendence of it, he noted the affinity between the two in their emphasis on a personal relationship of dependence between the saved and the saviour. This he found represented pictorially in the iconographic tradition of Pure Land devotion represented by the tenth century monk Genshin. The image he describes is of the sort pictured above (I cannot locate the exact image, alas), entitled Amida Rushing Forward from Behind the Mountains:
Genshin had contemplated [Amida Buddha] in a miraculous vision, at the end of a long night spent entirely in invoking Amida. For him the dawn became confused with this vision. In this kind of descent, Amida is most often accompanied by his two habitual acolytes; the three gigantic figures are delineated with half their bodies showing behind the extended ridge of mountains while, in the foreground, the countryside is still immersed in the night, or else the luminous cloud that carries them is already be ginning to descend into the valleys, which are filled with a golden light. The arms of the Buddha are sometimes stretched out as a sign of the power and willingness with which he is coming to gather up his disciples. Whatever the variations, an essential characteristic consists in the marked contrast between the two parts of the painting. There are two zones: one, terrestrial, plunged in obscurity, the other, heavenly, completely luminous with a light that one feels to be all pervading. On the one hand, there is the glorious radiance emanating from the three supernatural figures, and, on the other, there is the shadowy green freshness of the wooded hills. Nevertheless, one senses a profound, although secret, harmony between this approach of the world on high and the serenity of nature. Amida shines forth on human misery like a pitying morning sun. A mysterious and calm force is preparing to seize the wretched realities here below and absorb them in its joy.13
This presents a quite different picture to the often more forensic accounts of Shinran’s work in view of the Protestant doctrine of salvation by faith alone, which remains the default position for comparative Christian work on Pure Land Buddhism. Nor is this new. Shinran’s teaching on the need for complete entrusting (shinjin 信心) in Amida Buddha’s Vow to enlighten all sentient beings was taken by the first Jesuit missionaries in Japan as evidence that the Lutherans had somehow beaten them to it, and indoctrinated the locals. Modern North American Protestant scholars have continued on this trajectory. However, as de Lubac says, the impression the Pure Land iconographic tradition leaves is “less a reminder of the Lutheran faith than of Catholic mysticism.”14 De Lubac does not claim that Pure Land Buddhism in itself is salvific or even theistic. What he sees, though, and more clearly in its devotional practice than its philosophical theory, is the blossoming of an inherent human recognition of personal sinfulness and desire for liberating grace. Shin Buddhism, in other words, reveals a universal human need. This recognition of sin and desire for grace may look at first sight very Lutheran, but precisely insofar as it is inherent and universal, rather than reliant on direct divine revelation, de Lubac comments, “a keener regard could see, no less plausibly, the very opposite of Lutheranism.”15
De Lubac may have had in mind the Calvinist Karl Barth’s caveat along those lines16: while he considered True Pure Lane Buddhism “the most adequate and comprehensive and illuminating heathen parallel to Christianity,” as such it is all the more suspect, for it risks reducing the peculiarity of Christian revelation to Barth’s nemesis, natural theology. Barth had firmly and famously rejected natural theology, and in particular Aquinas’ doctrine that our existence is analogous to that of God’s, going much further than his Calvinist contemporaries or even Calvin himself in this regard. This was urgent, because he saw Nazi ideology as the extension of a liberal theology which idolatrously deified the human will and human reason. In the late 19th century, the Roman Catholic Church had already responded to similar “Modernist” emphases, and they like Barth did so by isolating the natural order from the supernatural, clearly dividing nature from grace, and the created from the divine. Their method, though, quite contrary to Barth’s, was a hyper-Aristotelian reading of Aquinas himself known as neo-Thomism.
Both the Reformed Barth and Catholic de Lubac were, somewhat ironically, arguing around doctrines of the Angelic Doctor, in face of a common foe, and yet to quite contrary theological ends. De Lubac and his fellow nouveaux théologiens challenged both the neo-Thomist and Reformation positions, arguing for an integral relationship between nature and grace. Barth saw the liberal naturalisation of theology as the recipe for Nazism, and traced its genealogy back to Thomas’ aforementioned analogia entis, the concept that the existence of creatures is analagous to God as Esse, the Act of Being itself, and hence that the created order participates in God: this is what Boersma means by a “sacramental ontology.” But for Barth, this notion of participation left too much power to human reason to discern and define God and the good. It was Enlightenment trust in human conscience and reasoning which had led German Christian groups to back Hitler as a God-sent ‘messiah’ to save Germany, and for Barth, the only proper response as a Calvinist was to condemn the image of God in humanity as utterly broken, reparable not by human cooperation with God, but by God’s freely willed gift of grace alone. Hence in his famous “Nein!” to fellow Calvinist Emile Brunner, Barth went further even than Calvin himself, and discounted any human access at all to God’s work in the “book of nature.”
Conversely, for de Lubac, the evils of modernity arose not because of natural theology, but precisely because the modern dichotomy between nature and grace had evacuated matter of any sense of divine purpose, or indeed of any purpose at all, except that which humans with the strongest army or the best weapons might deign to impose on it. It was the supposed lack of any continuity between grace and nature, the notion that God is imparticipable, in short, the erosion of a sense of the world as sacrament or effective sign of God’s presence, which relegated God to the status of Napoleon’s “unnecessary hypothesis.” The problem of Modernism lay in its anti-sacramental mindset, whereby things of this world might at best be symbols of spiritual realities, but certainly avail no real participation in them or mediation of them – for a symbol is, as Fr Schmemann goes to lengths to point out in his book, The Eucharist (tr. 1988), precisely not a sacrament – and yet, the neo-Thomistic doctrine of “pure nature,” the idea that there can be any kind of existence devoid of divine grace, seemed only to reinforce this Modernist divide and help its predictable segue into utter materialism. It marked theology’s abdication from her place as queen of the sciences17, the removal of the supernatural “keystone” from the “arch” of philosophy.
The notion of “pure nature” was, indeed, to be found in the thought of St Thomas. Its hypothetical possibility was a concession to Aristotle’s insistence that things have their own particular telos, or purpose, and that two distinct things cannot share the same telos. Hence, the natural realm cannot have a supernatural telos, but exists on its own terms as a self-sufficient system; and a natural appetite can seek only a natural end, thus precluding any innate desire for God in creatures. This idea gained momentum only in the sixteenth century, when it was invoked by Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) as a means of preserving the gratuity of God’s grace in the controversy with certain radical Augustinian followers of Michael Baius (1513-89) and Cornelius Jansenius (2585-1638).18 These had viewed the prelapsarian Adam and Eve as inherently good and capable of achieving their own salvation, already and necessarily infused with eternal life not as a gift, but as a condition of their creation. Grace was reduced to a consequence of the Fall, born of the depravity of human sin, and a subsequent addition to human nature, now stripped entirely of its ability for self-salvation. There was now no possibility whatsoever of cooperation between God and humanity: what had been humanity’s work was now in God’s gift alone. Like Calvin, Jansenius therefore followed Augustine’s tendency to see the majority of humanity as a missa perditionis, a secular mass of perdition condemned to hell by their sinfulness, in sharp contradistinction to the heaven-bound minority who accepted God’s sovereign and undeserved gift of grace.
Straying dangerously close to Calvinism in the eyes of the Counter-Reformation Catholic Church, the theology of Baius and Jansenius raised two problems. One was prelapsarian, in that the state they imagined seemed to obligate God to give humanity eternal life, thus eliding the gratuity of God’s gift (and hence rendering it other than “grace,” which is by definition gratuitous); the second was postlapsarian, in that they divorced nature from grace to such an extent that human freedom of will and human cooperation with God became impossible. Bellarmine countered the first problem by recycling the old doctrine of pure nature19, arguing that grace was an entirely supernatural gift given by God to Adam and Eve, but lost at the Fall. It was, he insisted, at least theoretically possible that God may have created humans without any capacity whatsoever for salvation. This, however, served only to amplify the second problem, and to pave the way for 19th century neo-Thomists to posit, on the basis of Aristotelian metaphysics, a realm of “purely natural” human activity entirely discrete from God’s grace.
The pure nature defence was seen in some cases as a valuable response to Modernism, enabling the positive articulation of a political and scientific realm independent of theology and of the Church. For de Lubac, however, the articulation of a realm of pure nature ended up achieving precisely what it was intended to protect against: a refutation of the gratuity of grace. For by positing grace as a superadded “extra” on top of a fundamentally ungraced nature, did this not deny the sheer gratuity of the primary datum of existence: namely, that there is anything at all rather than nothing? Creation itself, de Lubac argued, is consistently regarded by the Church Fathers as an act of divine freedom, not necessity, and therefore constitutes in itself an act of grace. There can be no such thing as “pure nature.” Existence is gratuitous! In their insistence that humanity has a purely natural capacity to receive grace, certain neo-Thomists were effectively taming or domesticating grace, privatising the gratuitous and naturalising the supernatural. This had materialistic and atheistic political consequences. De Lubac countered with the Augustinian teaching, developed further among others by St Thomas and John Duns Scotus, of the desiderium naturale, the “natural desire” for the beatific vision of God implicit in every human heart. This, he reasoned, is an innate capacity or appetite for divine grace, but it is itself a freely given gift of divine grace. The innermost nature of the human as a spiritual being is our longing for God, and this is the product of the same divine grace which made us in God’s image and likeness. However, this need not imply any restriction on the gratuity of God’s grace, for while we harbour this innate, (super-)natural longing for God, we are incapable of attaining our goal by our own efforts. The beatific vision remains in God’s gift alone. All humans, not only the baptised recipients of God’s special grace, are by the very grace inherent in their creation in His image called to Him who is beyond themselves. If this were not so, we would not be able to hear the call to baptism, we would have no capacity to receive grace. De Lubac’s analysis of the problems of modernity, Nazism included, demanded the bridging of the gap between God and the world, not, as Barth prescribed, even more radical separation between the two. It was the notion of a self-sufficient realm of nature which allowed humans to redefine the world according to their will alone, a point made familiar by Weber’s notion of the “Protestant work ethic.” De Lubac was as wary as Barth of the tendency among natural theologians to naturalise the supernatural, but his solution, instead of sundering the natural and supernatural, was to supernaturalise the natural.
This, I think, is what allows de Lubac to say about Pure Land Buddhist devotion what Barth could not: namely, rather than being an idolatrous mimicry of Christian faith, qua Barth, de Lubac claims that it awakens – albeit to an imperfect degree – a real insight into our human nature as being in need of the saving grace of God, and, importantly, capable of receiving it. Grace and nature are by no means to be elided, as Barth feared: they remain as absolutely distinct as the realms of light and darkness he recognised in the picture of Amida behind the mountains. Yet, Amida is not static, an unreachable entity squatting hidden behind the mountains: as the title of the image says, he is “rushing forth.” So, de Lubac interprets, “one senses a profound, although secret, harmony between this approach of the world on high and the serenity of nature…A mysterious and calm force is preparing to seize the wretched realities here below and absorb them in its joy20.” He seems to find in this depiction of Shin Buddhist spirituality an analogue for his rejection of any realm of “pure,” that is, ungraced, nature. Rather, like the sun motif beloved of Platonists, Amida shines out, and moreover, like the Christian modification of the Platonic Good we find in Dionysius, he does not merely draw the world to himself as a sort of one-way erotic magnet, but actively comes forth in love, to share the joy of his presence. He manifests, he shows himself.
In words redolent of Tolkien’s description of Christianity as the one “true myth” which lends its truth to the others, and despite his earlier reticence towards positive appraisals of Shin Buddhism, de Lubac concluded his 1971 paper to the Secretariat for Non-Christian Religions21 with the insight that Jesus Christ is the only “true Amida.” The Shin Buddhist, he says, is in a way responding in faith to an act of grace. And yet, he cautions, “it is the Catholic spirit – and not some kind of doctrinal liberalism or some relativisation of our Faith – the esteem for human nature that is inculcated in us, that leads us to sympathize and admire occurrences such as Amidist prayer.”22 Nonetheless, his regard remains qualified. He persists in designating Pure Land Buddhism “a religion of individual salvation.” He sees it not as an equal to Christian revelation, and certainly not as a replacement for it, but as what one might call a praeparatio evangelica, revealing more in practice than in doctrine the fundamental human desire for God. Amida seems to be a type of the radiant Bridegroom who in the Song of Songs “comes leaping upon the mountains” (Song 2.8), to spread His light here below.
Yet de Lubac draws attention not only to the “mysterious and calm force” that descends from Amida’s mountain, but also to the “secret harmony” between the “world on high” and “nature.” He thereby suggests that Shin Buddhist devotional art reflects something of the participatory or sacramental order of reality. Though he was keen to disavow himself of Platonism, one cannot mistake the Platonic tenor of this suggestion, which is understandable, given the Platonic worldview which formed the great patristic thinkers who were his life’s work. It seems to me, then, that de Lubac, in forming an intra-traditional, Western response to the Western problems of modernity, found support for his metaphysical insights in apparently unrelated Eastern sources. He separates his work on Christian theology from his work on Buddhism, and yet the two inform one another.
This is the springboard for my forthcoming book, tentatively entitled An Infinite Forest of Meaning. Where The Lost Way to the Good was painted in broad brush strokes for a more general audience, this more academic book will fill in the detail, engaging with the source texts of Shinran and Dionysius in their original languages. Starting with the Platonic undercurrents of the patristic ressourcement which guided de Lubac’s theology, I will once again look to the Eastern, theurgic strand of Platonism as medium for creative dialogue with Buddhism. The answer to Western problems will not be found just in more Westernism, but by looking East to recover what the West has lost or buried in its own tradition: namely, the knowledge that the universe has God-given salvific potential and purpose, which consists not in radical individualism, nor in a mere dissolution of the individual into an undifferentiated unity, but rather in interpersonal relationship with and in God. We must learn to see ourselves as sinners in need of salvation and liberation which we cannot effect through our own means, still less through technology, and that we live in relationships of reliance and dependence rather than independence for independence’s sake. The finding of self through others, as a supernatural gift, rather than through the exercise of absolute will, is common to both Dionysian and Buddhist thought. By no means will I posit that there is a unitive “religious experience” underlying all forms of religion, or argue for equivalence. However, I will continue to insist that representatives of so-called “religions” cannot join forces to promote the common good if they rely on the materialist and fundamentally atheistic definitions of what that “good” is, since such efforts often end up uncritically echoing whatever political discourse happens to be in academic vogue. Rather, we have a higher and prior task of engaging in comparative theolog, philosophy and metaphysics, insofar as those terms are applicable, and discerning where the Good really lies. To write this off as an impossible labour is, I fear, to concede to the spirit of a destructive and atomising age. It seems to me that the Buddhist and Christian alike may be able to conceive of reality as, in words de Lubac cited from St Jerome’s (Ep. 64.20), “an infinite forest of meaning,” where we live not on razed ground, among a pile of burning logs, but among the living trees. Modernity’s alternative is the hell of a concrete plain with no horizon.
1 Boersma, H. (2009). Nouvelle Théologie & Sacramental Ontology: A Return to Mystery. Oxford University Press, 18.
2 Boersma 2009:25.
3 Boersma 2009.
4 Grumett 2020: 358
5 Grumett, D. (2008). De Lubac, Christ and the Buddha. New Blackfriars, 89(1020), 217–230. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-2005.2007.00203.x
GRUMETT, D., & PLANT, T. (2012). De Lubac, Pure Land Buddhism, and Roman Catholicism. The Journal of Religion, 92(1), 58–83. http://cat.inist.fr/?aModele=afficheN&cpsidt=25507556
Grumett, D. (2020). Henri de Lubac and the Shaping of Modern Theology. Ignatius. Chapter 6.
6 Lubac 1955:257ff.
7 Lubac 1955:274.
8 Lubac 1955:287.
9 Lubac 1955:303.
10 Lubac 1955:307.
11 Lubac 1955:307. ‘Les rayons du Verbe sont éternellement prêts à luire là où, simplement, s'ouvrent les fenêtres de l'âme.'
12 Grumett 2020:316.
13 Grumett 2020:326.
14 Grumett 2020:326.
15 Grumett 2020:330.
16 Barth 2004:340-342.
17 Boersma 2009:91.
18 Boersma 2009:93, Grumett 2020:40.
19 Though he was not, as de Lubac maintained, the first of his generation to do so, as demonstrated in Schelkens & Gielis, “From Driedo to Bellarmine. The Concept of Pure Nature in the 16th Century.” Augustiniana, Vol. 57, No. 3/4 (2007), pp. 425-448.
20 Grumett 2020:326.
21 Grumett 2020:335.
22 Grumett 2020: 329.
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