Friday, May 20, 2005

Exclusivity and Particularity

The following passage is John Dominic Crossan's response to a collection of articles in which exclusivity is seen as the principal obstacle to earnest and useful ecumenical dialogue.

Several of the authors spoke of the imperial exclusivity so characteristic of Christianity. For José Ignacio Cabezón, "What Buddhists find objectionable is (a) the Christian characterization of the deity whose manifestation Jesus is said to be, and (b) the claim that Jesus is unique in being such a manifestation". For Bokin Kim, "most Christians hold to an exclusive view of Christ that claims his uniqueness". For Rita Gross, "the exclusive claims made on behalf of Jesus by Christians appalled me even as a teenager, and my repugnance for exclusive truth claims on the part of religions - any religion - has not diminished since. Thus, part of my journey is working out both a theory and a praxis of religious pluralism that is neither relativistic nor universalistic, that encourages both commitment to one tradition and appreciation of other traditions." I myself find such exclusivistic claims by Christianity, or any other religion, insulting in theory and lethal in practice, objectionable in history and obscene in theology. They are implicitly genocidal even if political impotence limits the divine ethnic cleansing they imagine. But how, as Gross repeats, does one establish "a position that is neither relativistic, not exclusivistic"? My own answer is particularity, but I must explain that in terms of my understanding of Trinity, divinity, and particularity.

Trinity seems a particularly and peculiarly Christian understanding of God, but my proposal is that the structure of the Holy is Trinitarian in all religions that I know about and even in all those I can imagine. I speak very deliberately about the Holy (not about God) as the infinite mystery that surrounds and supports, fascinates and terrifies us. It is that against which we interact as meaning-seeking beings. Be it absolute open meaninglessness or absolute univocal meaning, our interaction with it does not seem to be an option but a necessity. And my point is that the Holy is Trinitarian in structure. It is not just on the one hand that religion is Trinitarian in structure. But it is not on the other hand that the Holy in itself and apart from us is Trinitarian in structure. It is, I propose, that the Holy in itself as seen by us across the spectrum of world religious experience is Trinitarian in structure. That trinity involve, first, ultimate metaphor, that foundational image that imagines the Holy as, for example, power, person, state, or order, as nature, god/goddess, nirvana, or mandate of heaven. It involves, second, material manifestation, some physical object in which that metaphorical vision is peculiarly, specially, or even uniquely incarnated, some person, place or thing, some individual or collectivity, some cave or shrine or temple, some clearing in the forest or tree in the desert where the ultimate referent is encountered and experienced. It involves, finally, preliminary preparation, for there must be at least one believer to begin with and eventually more to end with, But, as there are always nonbelievers as well, some prior affinity must exist, as it were, between this metaphor rather than that, this manifestation rather than that, and this believer rather than that. For me, therefore, all faith and all religion, not just my own Christianity, is Trinitarian in structure and that structure seems to inhere in the Holy itself, at least insofar as we can see it. For me, therefore, Christianity and Buddhism differ most profoundly on their ultimate metaphor for the Holy: it is person (God) for the former but state (nirvana) for the latter. In Christianity, of course, our ultimate metaphor is rather overinvested: it it person; and that person is parent; and that parent is father. But I leave those specifications aside for the moment.

Divinity is the term I use for any material manifestation. By calling such manifestations divine I mean precicely that a religion's ultimate metaphor is experienced by believers as peculiarly, specially, or even uniquely present in that physical phenomenon. In that sense I understand both Christ and the Buddha to be divine in exactly the same way - that is, as incarnations of the Holy but within different ultimate metaphors. Christ did not have a monopoly on the Kingdom of God but invited others to enter it just as he had done. So just as there is the Buddha and the bodhisattva, there is also the Christ and the 'Christisattva'. And just as the Buddha does not negate the bodhisattva, so neither does the 'Christisattva' negate the Christ. It is, in all cases, a question of lived lives and, sometimes, however unfortunately, of accepted martyrdoms. But those last words emphasize a crucial difference between the Christ and the Buddha, and José Ignacio Cabezón underlined it in his article: "Unlike Jesus, the Buddha was not a peasant; his followers seem to have been principally middle- and upper-middle-class men and women, as was his principal audience; and his criticisms were primarily directed at the Brahminical religious beliefs and practices prevalent in his day, not at the social structures that marginalized and oppressed men and women in Ancient India . . . The Buddha opened up the religious life (and therefore the possibility of salvation) to members of society that that hitherto been denied it: members of the lowest castes and women especially . . . Nonetheless, as a program of social reform, Jesus' must be recognized as being the more radical and far reaching, and this no doubt is why the Christian tradition to this day, even when impeded by its own institutional forms, has been at the forefront of social transformation." In this response I focus only on exclusivity and particularity, but this is another major focus for Buddhist-Christian discussion. It is a question of the divergent social class of the Christ and the Buddha. It is the difference between justice and compassion. It is the question of suffering outside the palace created from inside the palace itself. But, for here and now. I leave those questions aside to return to those terms I used twice already, "peculiarly, specially, or even uniquely present," terms that I sum up by the word particularity.

Particularity is, for me, the most universal aspect of our humanity. It is what rules us whenever we touch on anything most precious, personal, or profound. Examples may help. Suppose I awoke tomorrow morning beside my wife Sarah and announced, "If I had not met you, fallen in love with you, and married you, I would have met, loved, and married someone else and be waking up next to them this morning." That is, of course, a very bad way to start the day. But it is both absolutely true and absolutely inhuman. If it is true, then why is it most imprudent to start the day with this announcement? Particularity is the answer. One experiences and must experience a beloved spouse as "peculiarly, specially, or even uniquely" destined for that relationship and not as an interchangeable cog in a relational machine. As with human love, so is it also - and even more profoundly - with divine faith. It must be experienced as "peculiarly, specially, or even uniquely" right, true, valid, and correct. In anything that is of supreme importance to us, be it spouse or family, hobby or passion, job or profession, language or country, there is an inevitable slippage from a to the. But out of the corner of our minds we recognize that a has become the, and we know that this is perfectly human and presents no problem - unless it is taken literally and the equally relative absolutes of others are negated. So it is, also or especially, with one's faith or one's religion. It must be experienced as a manifestation of the Holy, but we must never forget or deny that it is actually a manifestation for me and for us. To be human is to live in a as the; to be inhuman is to deny that necessary slippage.

John Dominic Crossan
DePaul University

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