My Recent Article—another Christianity & Buddhism interaction

The journal of the MLA Conference on Christianity & Literature recently published my article “Before a Fall:  the role of the interpreter in Endo’s Silence”; one of the key moments in that work is an extended discussion of some differences between Christian understanding of God and certain ideas that have become common in Buddhist-Christian dialogue, as these are reflected in the words of a character called only “the interpreter,” who helps to lead Endo’s protagonist Rodrigues to his apostasy (whether temporary or permanent) at the climax of the novel.

This gets really rather technical, so do fasten your seatbelts.  Here’s the relevant section from that article:

Buddhist-Christian dialogue and the interpreter’s summation

The third point of interest in the interpreter’s summation is complex, but worthy of extended treatment.  In this summation, the interpreter’s effort to force Rodrigues to adopt a secular standard for evaluating religious beliefs and practices adopts the protective coloration of ambiguous religious language:  “the path of mercy means simply that you abandon self” (146).  Much that has made Silence both appealing and controversial among its twentieth century Japanese and American audience can be unpacked from this sentence.

The studied ambiguity of the religious language the interpreter uses can be glimpsed in the supplemental “simply” in this translation.  “Simply” here marks the suppression of a complex process of truncation and deflation which makes mercy “simply” (or “merely”) a negative quality of the individual’s subjectivity; to call on another to “abandon self” in this sense begs the fundamental religious question of to whom or for what the self should abdicate its apparent self-authority.  This call also tacitly denies that the self in question is already abandoned to or participating in some larger order, such as the priest’s religious vocation and his receipt of holy orders.  It is impossible to escape the signal irony of the gleefully cruel interpreter describing this enforced religious migration as “the path of mercy.”  The reference to “the old bonze” instructing “Chuan” (Ferreira), who now wears Japanese religious vestments, evokes the history of Christian-Buddhist dialogue in the twentieth century, which has often been carried on in terms of the relationship between Zen and Continental philosophy.  The language of the interpreter’s summation is at least as suitable in that conversation as in any conversation that might have been held in Tokugawa Japan, and probably much more suitable.

A key point in that dialogue is, as Steve Odin has pointed out, “the mutual encounter of two monumental ideas:  Christian kenosis (self-emptying) and Buddhist sunyata (emptiness)” (71).  John T. Netland thinks that Endo has arrived at an understanding of kenosis in terms of “radically self-denying and culture-transcending love” in the course of his career, culminating in the character of Otsu in Deep River.  Netland says that “In Silence this love is the self-negating invitation of the emaciated Jesus on the fumie who permits Father Rodrigues to apostatize and who reaffirms his presence to the disgraced apostate” (“From Resistance to Kenosis” 192).  According to Netland, “always this love finds its origins and supreme expression in the broken body of Jesus hanging limply from the cross of Calvary.”  Netland thus suggests that Endo’s “self-negating” model of “radically self-denying […] love” remains essentially Christian, though he admits that such “radical love […] is not easily accommodated within the theological boundaries of Christianity” to an extent that makes Endo’s work “disappointing to Christian readers who wonder if this singular devotion to divine love weakens the soteriology of the cross” (192).  Netland points out that Endo’s “reluctance to use the language of atonement and justification” and “selective emphasis on the self-emptying love of Jesus” have systematic consequences (193); this approach “renders traditional theological boundaries permeable” so that Endo’s work represents “ambiguous spaces where Christian theology diffuses into a more inclusive, if theologically imprecise, ethic of love.”  Netland maintains that even though Endo “creates a blurred soteriology” he nonetheless successfully “assumes a transcultural point of moral reference” in a way that “points us to the mystery of Christ’s kenotic entrance into human history” (194).  The interpreter’s specific arguments, though, challenge the notion that this putative “transcultural point of moral reference” is distinguishable from a wholly secular determination of moral value that treats religious truth claims as culturally contingent.

Netland’s account does not penetrate to the heart of the matter because he does not attend sufficiently to the blurring of the term kenosis in the interreligious discourse indicated by the interpreter’s reference to the “bonze” (Buddhist monk) who instructs the apostate Jesuit Ferreira that Buddhism and Christianity converge on the effort to “abandon self.”  Renée D. N. van Riessen helpfully clarifies the usage of kenosis:  “Traditionally kenosis expresses the descent or approach of the Transcendent to earth” (180).  Such a “descent or approach” modifies the transcendent being (“the Infinite, or God”) in relation to beings on “earth” so that transcendent being “is no longer a lofty and elevated idea that prefers to remain by itself and can only be understood by itself,” an entelechy like “the representation of God in the philosophy of Aristotle.”  Instead, “A kenotic representation of God’s relationship to reality” posits “a descent or humiliation that is not contrary to God’s transcendence, but rather an articulation of it.”  He suggests that Vattimo’s philosophical appropriation of kenosis goes too far in “trying to argue that being itself is subject to a process of weakening in its historical development” because “the time of the world view (as Heidegger called it) is over. Thinking has gradually become ‘secularised’” (202).  Thus Vattimo’s account boils down Christian kenoticism to say that, “influenced by the story of the emptying of God in Christ, a process is going on in our culture in which man is learning to conquer the violent nature of the sacred and of social life.”  Such a reduction of kenosis to secularization strongly resembles the interpreter’s call for the Jesuits to “leave us in peace” after forcing them onto a “path of mercy” that substitutes a range of secular efforts for the practice of the Christian faith.

Odin’s work on kenosis in Buddhist-Christian discourse clarifies this parallel between the interpreter’s summation, Vattimo’s metaphysical reduction of kenosis, and Netland’s quasi-kenotic “ethic of love” interpretation.  In his critique of “the mutual encounter” between “Christian kenosis (self-emptying) and Buddhist sunyata (emptiness),” Odin provides the key to understanding the instruction “the path of mercy means simply that you abandon self” that the interpreter relays from the “bonze.”  Odin acknowledges that “Christian kenosis and Buddhist sunyata traditions” strongly resemble each other in that “the process of self-emptying becomes the pattern for true discipleship” (72).  This resemblance consists in the similarity between kenosis and “the Buddhist concept of sunyata (emptiness) in its standard definition as anatman (no-self, selflessness, or non-ego)” (71).  The Buddha’s coming to conceive all things through the concept sunyata is “the model of enlightenment in Buddhism” insofar as the Buddha came to view the world as definitively and exclusively populated with objects of moribund desire, so that conceiving that which desires (the self) as itself an intrinsically ephemeral manifestation of that moribund desire becomes the central movement of Buddhist “enlightenment,” the realization of anatman.  Twentieth-century Buddhist-Christian dialogue presses the superficial similarity between kenosis and sunyata in much the manner suggested by the interpreter in Silence.

As Odin states, a perceived identity of kenosis and sunyata has become a cornerstone of Buddhist-Christian dialogue, especially in light of the work of thinkers in the Japanese Buddhist tradition of the Kyoto School, whose “project of relating kenosis to sunyata is a form of syncretism that is developed in the framework of a kenotic buddhology” (77).  Odin traces this juxtaposition throughout the work of the Kyoto School, from Nishida to Abe (73-75), but he proposes that the work of Nishitani Keiji offers the clearest examples of “identification of Christian kenosis with Buddhist sunyata or emptiness in its meaning as anatman or non-ego” (77).  Specifically, Odin cites Nishitani’s assertion that “What is ekkenosis for the Son is kenosis for the Father.  In the East, this would be called anatman, or non-ego.”  Odin’s summary suggests how much Nishitani’s approach modifies the understanding of kenosis found in van Riessen’s summary of the traditional teaching:

Nishitani calls for a shift from the Aristotelian/Scholastic ideal of divine perfection as “self-sufficiency” toward a completely nonsubstantialist ideal of divine perfection as “self-emptying,” or, as it were, “making oneself empty” (onore o munashikusurukoto) as espoused by both the Christian kenosis and Buddhist sunyata traditions.  However, of special importance here is Nishitani’s primary distinction between the original kenosis or self-emptying of God and the derivative ekkenosis or self-emptying of Christ. Kenosis is the original condition of “having made Himself empty,” which is essentially entailed from the beginning in the idea of the divine perfection of God, whereas ekkenosis or the activity of self-emptying love as typified by Christ and the command of man is the embodiment or practice of that perfection. Hence, the kenosis of God is the origin of the ekkenosis of Christ. (74)

Recalling that the fundamental meaning of kenosis, as seen in van Riessen, is “a descent or humiliation that is not contrary to God’s transcendence, but rather an articulation of it,” the shift in meaning proposed by the Kyoto School is evident.  Kenosis proper is now construed as a condition of divine being, a part of what is meant by naming “God,” while God’s self-disclosure through what Christians call kenosis—Christ’s descent to humanity in the Incarnation—is now seen as a “derivative” movement.

As Odin points out, “The Kyoto School project of relating kenosis to sunyata” represents a contribution to “a kenotic buddhology rather than a kenotic christology as such” (77).  Like Christian teaching about kenosis, Nishitani pushes off from the “the philosophy of Aristotle”; like Vattimo, however, Nishitani gives the term a radically different meaning.  By eliding the difference between Aristotelian and Christian conceptions of God, Nishitani pushes off against “the Aristotelian/Scholastic ideal of divine perfection as ‘self-sufficiency’” (Odin 74).  A properly Aristotelian view differs from a scholastic view precisely insofar as scholastic philosophy is Christian, that is, as the scholastics understood the kenosis of Incarnation to be the central fact of Christian revelation.  To conflate these views into an “Aristotelian/Scholastic ideal” masks the double movement from Aristotle to Aquinas and from Aquinas to the scholastics; it also masks the subsequent movements of thought that give Nishitani’s words, and the interpreter’s, a force today that they could not have had in the sixteenth century.

Despite the contextual differences, Nishitani and the interpreter employ the same rhetorical strategy.  The interpreter quotes the “bonze” as saying that “the path of mercy simply means to abandon self,” while interpreting “abandon self” under Japanese Buddhist assumptions.  When Nishitani prefers an understanding of kenosis which makes “‘making oneself empty’ (onore o munashikusurukoto)” the “ideal of divine perfection,” so that the Christian should imitate Christ (in his ekkenosis) as one who realizes the sunyata (emptiness) of a God whose divinity consists in perfectly manifesting anatman (no-self), he is making excellent Buddhist sense over against a misrepresentation of the Christian teaching of kenosis.   To use Christian vocabulary under such assumptions is to reduce the facts of God’s self-revelation that form the core of Christian faith to mere instruments for realizing sunyata; it shrinks hope until it can envision only the objects of moribund desire.  Especially under the conditions the Japanese authorities have created by persecution, the interpreter and the “bonze” seem eminently reasonable in suggesting that the only remaining senses in which Christian ethical teaching could be interpreted would demand apostasy.  They thus work a direct reversal of the sense in which a Christian is taught to “abandon self.”

Endo’s own Catholic baptism and the Catholicism of his Christian characters are chief contributors to the tension within his work, so it is hardly surprising that the interpreter’s words resonate far beyond their putative seventeenth-century context in this way.  As if to refute the interpreter’s misprisions, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s recent declaration Dominus Iesus authoritatively restates key elements of Christian teaching about the Incarnation, especially in the context of interreligious discourse.  It points out that teachings which make “the revelation of Jesus Christ […] complementary to that found in other religions” are “in radical contradiction with the foregoing statements of Catholic faith according to which the full and complete revelation of the salvific mystery of God is given in Jesus Christ” (6), then summarizes that revelation as follows:

The truth about God … is unique, full, and complete, because he who speaks and acts is the Incarnate Son of God. Thus, faith requires us to profess that the Word made flesh, in his entire mystery, who moves from incarnation to glorification, is the source, participated but real, as well as the fulfilment of every salvific revelation of God to humanity.

Such teaching expands, rather than eliding, the gap between Christian faith in God and a narrowly Aristotelian conception of deity.  Likewise, the Christian response to the kenosis of Incarnation leads the Christian to “abandon self” in a manner quite different than the Buddhist realization of sunyata as anatman would suggest:

The proper response to God’s revelation is “the obedience of faith (Rom 16:26; cf. Rom 1:5; 2 Cor 10:5-6) by which man freely entrusts his entire self to God, offering ‘the full submission of intellect and will to God who reveals’ and freely assenting to the revelation given by him.”  (Dominus Iesus 7)

From the standpoint of Catholics like Endo and his protagonist Rodrigues, the choice which the interpreter offers should not be understood as between two interpretations of Christianity, or between two interchangeable religious interpretations of an essentially secular situation.  For Christians to “abandon self” means to yield “obedience of faith” to the singular revelation of God in Christ Jesus.

If, as Odin concludes, the fusion of Buddhism and Christianity apparently effected by the identification of kenosis with sunyata is an illusion, so must be the connection the interpreter suggests between “the path of mercy” as a religion-tinged secular effort to achieve social goods (“to help others”) and this syncretistic interpretation of the command to “abandon self.”  As Mark Williams has recently pointed out in a very important critique of interreligious themes in Endo’s work, in mid-career Endo already acknowledges that he is “indebted in equal measure to the Buddhist preoccupation with knowing the self and the Christian focus on redemption” (120).  In the character of the interpreter, Endo seems to dress twentieth-century interreligious discourse in seventeenth-century garb.