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The Emptiness of Christ: A Mahayana Christology
Hakuin's Daruma


by John P. Keenan
Anglican Theological Review, Vol. 75 No. 1 Winter.1993, pp48-63
© Anglican Theological Review Inc.

The Christology of the Western Church has, with few exceptions, developed  in dialogue with the categories of Greek philosophy. As fruitful as the  dialogue has been, however, it has created problems for our articulation of  the doctrine of the Incarnation, and it is now problematical for those  Christians who do not share the philosophical tradition of the West. This  article begins the development of a Christology of emptiness, derived from  one of the philosophical traditions of Buddhism.

Mahayana theology is a Christian theology which attempts to understand the  Christian faith through philosophical concepts developed in Mahayana  Buddhism. An earlier article in this Journal introduced the general  contours of Mahayana philosophy, suggesting its usefulness in the doing of  Christian theology.[1] The present article will focus more specifically on  employing the perspective of Mahayana theology to interpret the central  Christian doctrine of Incarnation. This exercise is based upon the  contention that the enunciation of Christian faith need not depend  exclusively upon any one philosophical system, and that indeed it can be  enriched by the attempt to enunciate it from an alternative philosophical  perspective. Philosophy is seen here in traditional terms as in the service  of theology, as "the handmaid of theology" (ancilla theologiae) rather than  the overlord of theology (hegemonia theologiae). It serves to provide the  framework in which theological questions may be raised and answers  formulated.[2]

What need is there to pull traditional Christian theology out of its  accustomed Western philosophical framework and rework it in alien  philosophical categories? Is this a purely gratuitous intellectual exercise  for the amusement of academic theologians? I would submit that, to the  contrary, Mahayana theology addresses important issues facing the Church  and its theologians on several different levels, potentially (1) drawing  mystical, experiential dimensions into the arena of "respectable"  theologizing, (2) making the Christian faith spiritually and intellectually  accessible to that portion of the global population which does not admit  the validity of Western philosophical categories, and (3) resolving  philosophical conundrums that have arisen from the exclusive reliance on  Greek essentialist philosophy.

The Heritage of Greek Philosophy

The early Fathers of the Church adopted and when necessary adapted the  prevailing philosophy of their day, which was Greek ontology, a system that  focused on apprehending the essences of things and explaining the  relationships between them. It is not surprising that in enunciating their  Christian faith these thinkers did not follow more Hebrew modes of  thinking, for they themselves were not culturally Hebrew; most were in fact  Greek. The bond between Christian theology and Greek philosophy thus arose  from this historical circumstance, but need not thereby be set for all  time. The relationship between theology and philosophy remains doctrinally  fluid and historically contextual.[3]

One must recognize, however, that when any one philosophy is adopted to  enunciate a faith, the faith becomes clothed in the distinctive terms and  categories of that particular system of thought, often resulting in a  commitment not only to the faith itself, but also to its philosophical  raiment. Attentive reading of philosophical texts engenders attachment to  those texts and their ideas.[4] A Christian thinker raised on traditional  Western ontologies often is as vigorous in the defense of the philosophical  concept of essence as in the defense of the Gospel teachings themselves.  Despite Pascal's caveat to avoid confusing the living God with the God of  the philosophers, philosophic theism is easily identified with the God of  Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and criticism of theistic essentialism is  consequently perceived as a threat against the faith itself, as an attack  on God.

Such a confusion of faith themes with philosophic categories absolutizes  philosophy and fails to acknowledge its proper "handmaid" or instrumental  role. Philosophy then comes to provide not only the conceptual framework  for theological questioning, but takes over theologizing altogether.  Indeed, some would argue that there is such a thing as a "Christian  philosophy." During his illustrious career, Etienne Gilson drew scholastic  philosophy and the Christian faith so tightly together that the one seemed  necessarily to entail the other.[5] Greek philosophy was seen as a  providential gift from God and was thus elevated from its servant status to  the rank of overlord. This so-called Christian ontology has an illustrious  pedigree in the history of Christian doctrine. The proclamations of the  Council of Nicaea were all couched in this essentialist framework; one  cannot understand the early Councils of the Church without familiarity with  Western metaphysics.

Still, the theological world is not unaware of the distinction between  philosophy and theology, and theologies have been constructed upon  different philosophical bases. But, generally speaking, alternate  philosophical languages have found favor only insofar as they do not  contradict the traditional ontological model. Paul Tillich's theology based  on the existentialism of Martin Heidegger was widely accepted because it  still moved within a philosophy of being and left ample room for new  understandings of traditional themes. The Honest to God questioning of John  A.T. Robinson, on the other hand, jolted the philosophical context of  Christian thought precisely because it appeared not to honor those  traditional understandings. Similarly, the attempts of Maurice Wiles to  rehabilitate Arius and question the formulations of Nicaea caused distress  among more "orthodox" thinkers,[6] as did G.W. Lampe's recommendation that  we deem modalism to be a valid Trinitarian interpretation.[7]

Thus, although theologians have given lip service to the possibility of a  plurality of philosophical models in the service of theology, it would seem  that the basic pattern of a Christian ontology remains firmly in place in  most theological circles today, exercising a certain hegemony if not as the  actual ruler of the fief, then at least as the gatekeeper who excludes  outsiders from the manor house.

And yet, a price has been paid for this exclusiveness. The dominant  intellectualist thrust of Greek and scholastic thinking has succeeded over  the centuries in shunting to the periphery of doctrinal thinking the  insights of the Christian mystical experience. When one is intent on  defining just what the precise terms of theological understanding are to  be, one is apt to be less than patient with those who despair of finding  any definition at all. Clouds of divine darkness may, it would seem, be all  right for the mystic liturgies of quiet churches, but rigorous theological  thinking needs to move in a realm of light. There is a resultant split in  the Western Christian mind between "spiritual theology" and more serious,  doctrinal theology. These two theological compartments are seldom allowed  to overlap. Serious doctrinal theology moves in a theoretical pattern of  ontological analysis, while spiritual theology is viewed as more pastoral  and less rigorous. Seminars in spiritual practice glory in their distance  from arid theology, while theological conferences tend to disdain the  intellectual sloppiness of pastoral approaches to spirituality.

It is true that the apophatic approach of Gregory of Nyssa and Dionysius  the Aeropagite is well-known. But it is equally true that it is not often  employed in the tasks of serious theology. And even those apophatic  thinkers of the early Church, when they moved back toward kataphatic  theology, found themselves perforce resorting to the only terms available  to them at the time--the terms of Greek essentialism. (Thus it is that  Gregory of Nyssa is not only the father of Christian mystical theology, he  is also one of the framers of essentialistic Trinitarian thought.[8]) But  this historical inability to incorporate the insights of mystical  experience into Christian theology has led to a kind of schizophrenia. The  Western Christian mind is torn between the long-dominant ontological mode  of analysis and its own existential need for a kind of spiritual experience  which is marginalized by the theological enterprise.

Theology's traditional allegiance to Greek ontology has not only created  this division within the Western, Christian mind but has also handicapped  Christian thinkers in their attempts to communicate with the rest of the  world. Many who would engage in dialogue with other world religions find  the Western ontologies unserviceable and feel a need for new approaches to  theological understanding which take into account alternate religious  traditions and non-Western cultures. It is not obvious to those who do not  share Western cultural assumptions that Greek ontology should have a  privileged right to interpret the Christian Gospel for them. Some of the  cultures and philosophies of the Orient possess no terms into which one can  translate Greek ontological ideas. They cannot even express notions of  essence and accident, much less directly refute them. One cannot therefore  do meaningful Christian theology in a global context today if one insists  on the hegemony of Greek ontology.

But perhaps one of the most disturbing aspects of a Christian theology  which hews exclusively to the categories of Greek ontology is to be seen in  the conundrum created by its attempt to interpret the meaning of Christ as  simultaneously both human and divine. Because theologians were limited to  the essentialistic framework of Greek ontology, they were forced to  function within clearly defined notions of what it means to be divine and  what it means to be human. They accepted the notion of God which had been  developed in earlier Greek philosophy, understanding God to be  unoriginated, impassible, and unchanging being.[9] Yet, when one defines  God as impassible and unchanging, that definition directly opposes the  definition of a human being, a creature subject to change and suffering.  Early Christology found itself in the quandary of how to apply both terms,  divine and human, impassible and subject to suffering, to the same person  of Christ.

The first four centuries of Christian theology witness to the various  attempts somehow to balance these conceptually contradictory notions in the  one person of Christ, confessed in the liturgies to be both unchanging God  and suffering human. Most attempts went too far to one side or the other,  stressing the divine to the apparent exclusion of the human character of  Jesus, or the human to the apparent exclusion of the divine. Most critiques  were levelled not at what one party actually professed, but rather at the  unacceptable implications perceived in the opinions of others. The  doctrinal evolution that led to the proclamations of Nicaea and Chalcedon  was both Byzantine in its twists and turns and inspiring in its final  outcome, issuing in creedal statements which bent Greek categories to fit  Christian usage. As a result it takes a trained philosopher to unravel  these proclamations.

As evidenced, for example, by the disputes over the ideas of Maurice Wiles  and G.W.H. Lampe, this issue is far from dead. Modern understandings of  Christ are still formed in terms of the Greek ontological model. The great  majority of Christians, while confessing Christ as both human and divine,  tend to fall unconsciously into one or another of the heresies excluded by  the early Fathers: in their minds, Christ either becomes God striding  through the world, or a man with particularly godlike qualities. It is  precisely this kind of conundrum that a Mahayana Christology can avoid  because, in basing itself on the doctrine of emptiness, it refuses to  define either the divine or the human nature of Christ. If things and  persons have no essences, as Mahayana holds, then they have no specific  differences in light of which they might be defined. Mahayana theology is  not compelled to do an intellectual balancing act in order to reconcile two opposite natures attributed to the same person.

A Mahayana Christology

My earlier article, "Mahayana Theology: How to Reclaim an Ancient Christian  Tradition," outlined the basic themes of the philosophy which is employed  in Mahayana theology. Mahayana, the Great Vehicle, was articulated in the  Perfection of Wisdom Scriptures, which appeared around the turn of the  common era and marked the rise of Mahayana as distinct from earlier forms  of Buddhist teaching. Through concise axioms and jolting conundrums, these  texts expressed a doctrine of emptiness (sunyata). Mahayana teachings  subsequently were shaped into a philosophy in the writings of Nāgārjuna, a  monk-scholar who lived at the beginning of the second century. He developed  the philosophy of the middle path (madhyama) and his philosophy came to be  known as Madhyamika. It is this Madhyamika philosophy which serves as the  model for our enunciation of Christian faith.[10]

The fabric of Mahayana philosophy is woven from two main themes: the  identity between emptiness and dependent co-arising, and the differentiation  between the two truths of ultimate meaning and worldly convention. The  first theme sketches a Mahayana understanding of our "horizontal"  being-in-the-world and relates to everything we encounter in our ordinary  lives. The second theme is "vertical," and attempts to clarify our  experience of transcendence and its enunciation in symbols and languages.  Since these ideas have been briefly presented in the earlier article,  attention now will be directed to developing a Mahayana Christology which  employs this philosophy in the enunciation of the doctrine of the  Incarnation.

Christ as Empty and Dependently Co-arisen

The use of the notion of emptiness in Christology means that neither God  nor Christ has an identifiable essence that is open to definition. The  scriptures themselves certainly do not offer any definition of the person  of Jesus. There is no identifiable selfhood (atman) beyond the dependently  co-arisen person and his actions described in the Gospels, which texts  themselves are dependently  co-arisen from the contextual conditions of their  original communities.[11] The Gospels speak of Christ as he relates to  human beings, but nowhere do they interpret or define his essence. Just as  in the Old Testament one learns of the presence of Yahweh through the story  of the people of Israel, in the New Testament one discerns the meaning of  Christ through his words and through the course of his life, death, and  resurrection. There is no scriptural treatment of either the divine essence  or the human essence.

The scriptural words of or about Jesus do not analyze the divine nature.  God is described time and again as beyond any definition. God dwells in  light inaccessible. No one has ever seen God. Moses encounters Yahweh only  in the darkness of Mt. Sinai, in the absence of any mediated knowing.[12]  All creation is held to proclaim the presence of the Lord, but this  proclamation does not offer any definitive knowledge of what God is.  Rather, it renders us, Job-like, aware of the total otherness of Yahweh, of  the absence of any limiting definition.[13] The medieval scholastics taught  that, although God indeed is ineffable, God can be known analogically from  creation. This notion is a comfort to the theologian, who can, after  devoutly bowing toward the unknown God, proceed to delineate the attributes  of the known God with some degree of certainty. Mahayana theology would  negate the validity of such an attempt at delineation, seeing analogy as  but another instance of metaphor: suggestive and intriguing, but neither  definitive nor delimiting. In the Mahayana framework, all knowledge of God  is metaphorical, bending words and images in striking and disturbing ways.  The function of doctrine in Mahayana theology is not to communicate a body  of information about God, but to engender a sense of the presence of God  beyond all words. All proclaimed knowledge of God is parable, not entailing  acceptance of a given state of affairs in the Godhead but eliciting  conversions within the minds of the hearers.

 The scriptural words of and about Jesus likewise describe him as empty of  essence. He presents himself in the New Testament as unconcerned with his  own identity. It is impossible to understand him apart from the web of  relationships that form his life. As Edward Schillebeeckx asserts, "There  is no a priori definition of the substance of Jesus."[14] He is constituted  by being related to Abba in silent awareness and to humans in commitment to  the rule of God on earth. In the phrase of Ignatius of Antioch, he is "the  voice of the Father from silence."[15] He has no identity apart from the  Father. Almost all the descriptive terms applied to Jesus in the scriptures  refer him to the Father. He is the son of God, the word of God, the  presence of God, the sacrament of God among us. One cannot define a  sacrament apart from its referent, and the referent of the person of Jesus  is not an immutable essence as defined by Greek philosophy, but rather the  Father who dwells in silence.

Still, it is clear from the tradition that the meaning of Christ is not  simply a contentless sign of an empty God. He is not just a mirror of the  nothingness of God, however mystical that might sound. The teachings of  Jesus are many and specific: he proclaims the coming rule of God and calls  all to conversion from a deluded clinging onto idols, and toward engagement  in bringing about the rule of justice and peace in the world. As with all  men and women, his meaning is constructed from the course of his life, from  what he says and does. Just as emptiness entails dependent co-arising, so  the empty Jesus takes on significance from his dependently  co-arisen life.  To say that Jesus is empty of essential definition is to say that he takes  on his meaning through the dependently  co-arisen circumstances and  relationships of his life. Emptiness and dependent co-arising are  convertible, signifying complementary insights into essence-free being.  Jesus then is not distinctive in virtue of a unique and different  definition, but in virtue of his teaching, his death, and his resurrection  and ascension--all of which he shares with us. That Gospel teaching, just  as the entirety of Jesus' life, is centered around his experience of God as  Abba and his passionate commitment to the rule of peace and justice, to the  coming kingdom. His Abba experience and his commitment to that rule are not  mere aspects of his essential subjectivity. Rather, they are constitutive  of his being, the dependently  co-arisen being of emptiness. That is who he  is.

High Moral And Spiritual Message

Mahayana Christology is not content  to present a liberal depiction of Jesus as a deeply moving teacher. The  Gospel is not an ideology and its teachings are not simply spiritual  maxims. If so considered, they would have no historical specificity and  differ little from similar maxims offered by religious teachers the world  over. Neither are they to be defined in contrast to the supposed inferior  teachings of Israel. They are not all that distinctive. Their explosive  urgency arises out of their initial context, from Jesus' insistence on the  reality of God and the need to bring about the rule of justice on earth.

His denunciation of the religious establishment, content in its grasp of  reality, puts him on a collision course with the established authorities,  leading inevitably to confrontation and finally to his execution. He  insists on an alternate understanding of reality and proceeds to  deconstruct the religious underpinnings of the social order of his day.  Yet, his opponents are not simply the Pharisees and Scribes, for his  teachings reflect the liberal ideas of the Pharisees and draw upon the  teachings of Israel at almost every point.[16] His teachings are not  ideological banners, and offer no new definitions of his distinctiveness.  His being is not to be taken from later polemics between the emergent — and  somewhat marginal — Church and Israel. Jesus even insists that not the  smallest part of the torah (the teaching) will be unfulfilled. As the  prophets before him, he inveighs against that religious consciousness that  clings to its own idols and ideas, as if to God. He is no revolutionary set  against the Empire of Rome. He advises soldiers to be content with their  pay! His critique is aimed not at a "brave new world" constructed according  to an ideological social theory, but at insight into both the emptiness of  social (and religious) structures and the dependently  co-arisen need to  construct those structures with justice and truth. He points to God and to  God's torah as the basis of justice and peace, and excoriates the  professional religious for their emasculation of God and trivialization of  torah. His life oscillates between silent prayer in desert awareness of  God, and teaching in social engagement for justice and peace.

When we employ the tool of Mahayana philosophy to consider the divinity of Christ, definitions either of his dual divine and human natures or of his  distinctive identity become unnecessary. Rather, his divinity may be seen  precisely in the emptiness of his personal identity, whereby he  transparently mirrors the presence of Abba, and lives as one with Abba. The  confession that "I and the Father are one" is indeed a description of the  person of Jesus, totally open to and reflective of Abba. He is then not  defined in contrast to God. Neither is he to be defined in contrast to  other men and women. He teaches that all may address God as Father, that  all may share in that foundational experience of ultimate meaning, realized  silently and directly. He describes himself not as distinct from human  beings, but as united with them. He is the vine which is united to all the  branches. Christ cannot be understood apart from the body of all believers,  for that too constitutes his being. That too is who he is. His "definition"  as historically and co-dependently one with believers means moreover that  his being can be limited neither by the fact of his past historical  presence in Israel nor by the scholastic definitions of his metaphysically  impassible being. Rather, both his teachings and his life are an ongoing  temporal indication of his meaning into the future. Christians have always  believed that Jesus is more than an historical figure, that somehow he yet  lives in his risen presence. Christian living is not limited to following  his teachings, but experienced in the remembrance of and participation of  his life, death, and resurrection. The doctrine of the mystical body of  Christ is not merely a pious teaching of later Christendom, but, as in  Paul, constitutive of the very being of Christ. The being of Christ,  established by his teachings and life course, cannot be determined apart
from our being: he is the head of the body that we are.

If, however, we limit our Mahayana understanding of Christ to the themes of  emptiness and dependent co-arising, we still have a rather "Antiochene"  description of Jesus, focused on his and our horizontal being in the world.  There is more to Christology than that, for Christ is the voice of the  Father from silence. He is the word of God spoken to the world. Therefore,  we must also thematize his enunciation of the transcendent reality of Abba  in the world, and for this we turn to a more "Alexandrian" consideration of  Christ through the Mahayana doctrine of the two truths.

Christ as the Conventional Expression of Ultimate Meaning

In the middle ages the Parisian scholar Siger of Barbant was accused of  teaching a doctrine of two truths, according to which what is true on the  natural level of philosophy need not be true on the supernatural level of  theology, and vice versa.[17] At first glance, this idea may seem parallel  to the Mahayana doctrine of two truths (satya-dvaya). But the Mahayana  doctrine of two truths is not about two distinct perspectives or  viewpoints. It is not about double-decker levels of propositional truth.  Rather, it treats the relationship of all perspectives to the truth of  empty awakening. It is about how words enunciate "the silence of the  saints," the unmediated content of ultimate meaning and suchness. In  effect, the two truths of Mahayana thinking treat the function of language  in its attempt to bring to speech the unspoken and ineffable experience  that lies at the basis of all religious doctrine.

The first Mahayana truth is that of ultimate meaning (paramarthasatya), and  indicates the direct, unmediated content of awakening. It is the  non-discriminative realization of ultimate meaning that renders one an  awakened person, i.e., a buddha. The entire Mahayana tradition is unanimous  in describing this experience as beyond verbal or imaginal representation.  In the early Pali accounts, the historical Buddha was reluctant to preach  at all, fearing that he would be unable to express what he had realized  under that Bodhi tree. But, upon being importuned by a host of docile  sentient beings eager to learn the path, he did consent to teach, and  verbal elaborations of those teachings over the centuries have resulted in  vast collections of Buddhist scripture and commentary.[18]

The second truth, that of worldly convention (samvrti-satya), is the  enunciation in words and symbols of ultimate truth. Yet such words can  never correspond to or express that ultimate meaning. The Mahayana  thinkers, aware of how languages are constructed, held that conventional  truths--which are expressed in words, ideas, and propositions --- are tied to  their context and therefore valid only within that context. There is not,  nor can there be, any one-to-one correspondence between ultimate meaning  and worldly convention. They are totally disjunctive and apart from each  other. Ultimate truth is completely other (totaliter aliter) than  conventional truth.[19] If the truth of ultimate meaning were to be  captured in conventional words and worldly speech, it could hardly be  deemed ultimate, for there is in fact never a last word.

Yet, the very disjunctiveness of the two truths serves both to guard the  ultimacy of the truth of ultimate meaning and to focus on the conventional  nature of the truth of worldly convention. It guards the ultimacy of  ultimate meaning by insisting that no verbal statement can express such  meaning, not even analogically. The Bodhisattva Vimalakirti, who explained  the meaning of emptiness by holding his silence, expressed truth more  eloquently than any holy disquisition might have done.[20] But an awareness  of the otherness of ultimate meaning also focuses one back upon the worldly  and conventional tasks of enunciating contextual truths with skill and  compassion. Not being able to speak for God or bring to speech the very  words of the divine, the human, conventional words and actions take on  their originally meaningful value as humanly and dependently  co-arisen. No  one can pretend to speak apart from some particular history and some  particular context. Revelation cannot then be taken as a verbal incursion  of a usually absent God into the world for the sake of telling the truth.  Revelation too is a speaking, within a particular context, about the truth  that is God. It is with this meaning that the Fathers of the Church called  Jesus the "speaking' (sermo) of God.[21]

Conventional truth does not embody  the ultimate, yet by the very act of hiding that ultimate, it reveals its  presence as that which is other. Conventional (samvrti) truth is called a  covering over of ultimate truth, for the root vr means "to cover". But in  the very act of covering, it draws attention to that which is covered. The  contextual, relative words spoken by an enlightened person both hide the  truth and reveal it to be other than, different from, those words. Thus,  the Mahayana thinkers spoke about "worldly convention-only," signifying  that all we deal with is worldly and conventional--by the very fact that we  are dealing with it. The term "only" here signifies not merely privation,  that worldly convention does not express ultimate meaning; it also denotes  the fullness of insight into dependent co-arising as convertible with  emptiness. What "lies beyond" is not a referent for our words nor the  object of our thinking. Similarly, Bernard Lonergan distinguishes between  the primary meaning of God, which is not an object of thought, from the  secondary one, where we make God to be an object, i.e., where we describe  God and proceed to construct theologies.[22] The crucial point is to  remember that both the initial descriptions and the consequent theologies,  both the principles and the inferences, are contextual and never absolute. 

In this perspective, the Incarnation is not a synthesis of two natures.  Chalcedon itself teaches that each remains distinct and there is no  commingling between them.[23] Christ is God not as if God made a visit to  earth. That is religious science fiction. Rather, he is the son of God as  the sacramental sign of the otherness of Abba, identified with the reality  of what is signified as other at the deepest levels of our human  consciousness. As the sacrament of our encounter with God, Jesus is not a  second subject alongside God.[24] The words and mediation of Christ do not  lead directly toward the summit of the Godhead, but embody, as do all words  and symbols, a deeply conventional understanding of the limits of the  conventional, i.e., of the unknowability of the silent Father.

It is, I think, such an idea that lies behind the Patristic distinction  between theology and economy, for what we know of God is what has been  conventionally revealed within our cultures through the cultural models  available to us.[25] That knowledge is truly and even infallibly authentic  because it harmonizes with the foundational experiences of the Lord Christ  and of numerous Christians who follow in this path. It is, however, never  unchanging and absolute, for that is the mark not of infallible doctrine,  but of inauthenticity and deluded imagination.[26] About theology we know  nothing, for we have no words that correspond to God. The Madhyamika  philosophers distinguished a correspondential reasoning and knowing  (pramana), which relates to the "economic" disposition of human life, to  our experience of Abba and our commitment to carry forward the rule of  justice and peace, from the true reasoning (yukti) of emptiness, which  deconstructs all models of God and leaves us, like Moses, in the darkness  of direct contact.

By hiding (vr) God from view by conventional descriptions (samurti) Christ  manifests (samvrtti from the root vrt, to manifest) the otherness of  God.[27] By disappearing in the experience of Abba and the commitment to  the rule of God, Jesus embodies the reality of God in himself and for us.

In the Mahayana perspective, then, the being of Jesus is not the outflow of  some divine essence into the human nature of Christ. In Christology, this  means that Jesus embodies the divine by being truly and fully human, not by  participating in a divine essence. This, I think, is why Paul depicts  Christ as a second Adam, for he is confessed as embodying the true being of  the original human. In virtue of his abandonment of essence and  self-definition, Christ reflects the direct experience of Abba and calls  others to engagement in the tasks of the compassionate kingdom. It is in  virtue of his identity as dependently  co-arisen that he experiences Abba and  embodies the rule of justice. It is as "worldly convention-only" that  Christ shares in the divine otherness of God. That is to say, it is not by  clinging to an exalted, divine being, but by emptying himself of being that  Christ mirrors the divine and is one with the silent Father.[28] And as  with Christ himself, so the Christian theologian is ill-served by clinging  to essentialist notions of divinity, attempting to reconcile human and  divine characteristics in the one person of Christ.

The doctrine of the sharing of properties (communicatio idiomatum) tried to  explain how the properties of each nature of Christ could be attributed to  the same person, but that attempt was never very satisfactory. One was left  with a notion of Christ as able to shift natures just as one might shift  gears. A Mahayana Christology, refusing to move in that essentialistic  framework, has no need to appeal to such explanations, for it is in his  uniquely full and complete human identity that Christ is God. As embodying  dependent co-arising, Jesus is empty of essence. As fully conventional,  Jesus manifests the ultimacy of God.

These terms may sound minimalist to one accustomed to thinking in essences.  They might appear to negate the divine essence of Christ. Indeed, they do.  But they negate equally his human essence. A Mahayana theology is content  to say much less, while suggesting ever-new aspects of the meaning of  Christ as called for within different contexts and cultures. The empty  Christ is not merely free from essence. His  co-arisen being is the content  of the highest reality of awakening, experienced immediately and directly.  His conventional mirroring forth of the ultimate meaning of Abba not only  moves us spontaneously toward conventional reengagement in the dependently  co-arising and conventional world to carry out the tasks of justice and  compassion. It also provides us with the tools for constructing a  Christology that is at once mystical and critical.

Advantages of a Mahayana Christology

The use of Mahayana philosophy as a handmaid for Christian theology does  indeed issue in a different kind of Christology, a different understanding  of the Gospel confession of Christ as embodying the presence of God. It  avoids the old conundrums of essentialist Christology, always in danger of  falling to one side or the other and always teetering on the point of  presenting a schizophrenic picture of the Lord. A Mahayana Christology can  be recommended, I think, because it is grounded upon the mind of faith,  embracing and moving to the center the apophatic thinking of the Christian  mystic tradition. It goes beyond the apophatic tradition, not in the depth  of silent experience, but in developing a framework of ideas so that it at  the same time maintains focus on the immediacy of empty unknowing and  allows for the development of clear and rigorous theology which is in  harmony with that basic experience of God in darkness. Moreover, new  insights into the meaning of Christ through Mahayana philosophy may prove  more accessible to those unfamiliar with or disenchanted by traditional  Western metaphysical approaches.

Further Readings


[1] John P. Keenan, "Mahayana Theology: How to Reclaim an Ancient Christian  Tradition," Anglican Theological Review 71.4, (Fall 1989) 377-394.

[2] See Bernard J.F. Lonergan, Method in Theology (New York: Herder and  Herder, 1972) 283-4, for a discussion of the general philosophic categories  used in interpreting the special categories of faith.

[3] For a fuller treatment of the development of early Christian doctrine,  see John Keenan, The Meaning of Christ: A Mahayana Theology (Maryknoll:  Orbis, 1989) 45-65.

[4] Arthur Lovejoy writes, "Another type of factor in the history of ideas  may be described as susceptibilities to diverse kinds of metaphysical  pathos. This influential course in the determination of philosophical  fashions and speculative tendencies has been so little considered that I  find no recognized name for it, and have been compelled to invent one which  is not, perhaps, wholly self-explanatory. `Metaphysical pathos' is  exemplified in any description of the nature of things, any  characterization of the world to which one belongs, in terms which, like  the words of a poem, awaken through their associations, and through a sort  of empathy which they engender, a congenial mood or tone of feeling on the  part of the philosopher or his readers. For many people . . . the reading  of a philosophical book is usually nothing but a form of aesthetic  experience, even in the case of writings which seem destitute of all  outward aesthetic charms, voluminous emotional reverberations, of one or  another sort, are aroused in the reader without the intervention of any  definite imagery." The Great Chain of Being (Cambridge: Harvard University  Press, 1936) 11.

[5] Etienne Gilson, Elements of Christian Philosophy (New York: Doubleday,  1960) 5-6 & 11-42.

[6] See his "Homoousios emin," Journal of Theological Studies 16 (1965):  454-61, and "Does Christology Rest on a Mistake," Faith, Christ, and  History, ed. S.W. Sykes (London: Cambridge University Press, 1972) 3-12.

[7] In Cod as Spirit (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977).

[8] One of the main themes of Jean Danielou in his Platonisme et theologie.  mystique: Doctrine spirituelle de Saint Gregorie de Nysse (Paris: Editions  Montaigne, 1944).

[9] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development  of Doctrine, 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (Chicago and  London: University of Chicago, 1971) 2-55. On the ambiguities and inherent  contradictions of the Platonic notion of divinity, see Lovejoy, The Great  Chain of Being.

[10] Yogacara philosophy is not discussed in this brief paper, but it too  figures prominently in Mahayana theology by providing insight into a  critical philosophy of consciousness, both defiled and purified. See John  P. Keenan, `The Intent and Structure of Yogacara Philosophy: Its Relevance  for Modern Religious Thought," The Annual Memoirs of Otani University Shin  Buddhist Comprehensive Research Institute 4 (1986): 41-60. Also Keenan, The  Meaning of Christ 152-187. Christ in Christian Tradition: From the  Apostolic Age to Chalcedon (451) (Atlanta: John Knoz, 1965) 544.

[11] See Edward Schillebeeckx, Jesus: an Experiment in Christology (New  York: Seabury, 1979) 304, 307.

[12] The main theme of Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of  Moses, trans. Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson (New York: Paulist  Press, 1978).

[13] See Nishitani Keiji, What is Religion," in Religion and Nothingness  (Berkeley: University of California, 1982) 1-45.

[14] Schillebeeckx, Jesus, 600.

[15] Ignatius, Epistola ad Magnesios 8.2.

[16] See Abraham Geiger, Judaism and its History (1911; Lanham: University  Press of America, 1985 reprint) 137-152, for the depiction of Jesus as a  liberal Pharisee. More recent Christian scholars concur that the New  Testament teachings of Jesus take their meaning from their Jewish context,  without presenting startlingly new ideas. Their meaning comes, not from  subsequent Christian apologetic, but from their own Jewish matrix. See W.D.  Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism (1948; Philadelphia: Fortress Press,  1980) and Paul VanBuren, A Theology of the People Israel (New York:  Crossroads, 1989).

[17] Etienne Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages  (New York: Random House, 1955) 398.

[18] See Gadjin M. Nagao, "The Silence of the Buddha and its Madhyamic  Interpretation," in Madhyamika and Yogacara: A Study of Mahayana  Philosophies, ed. and trans. Leslie S. Kawamura (New York: SUNY Press,  1991), pp. 35-49.

[19] The otherness of the two truths is a principal theme treated in  Madhyamika thought. See Gadjin M. Nagao, The Foundational Standpoint of  Madhyamika Philosophy, trans. John P. Keenan (Albany: SUNY, 1989) 45-54,  65-68, 73-80, and 97-102.

[20] See The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti: A Mahayana Scripture, trans.  Robert A.F. Thurman (University Park and London: Pennsylvania State  University Press, 1976), pp. 73-77.

[21] Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition 161.

[22] Lonergan, Method in Theology 442: "In what I have called the primary  and fundamental meaning of the name, God, God is not an object. For that  meaning is the term of an orientation to transcendent mystery. Such an  orientation . . . is not properly a matter of raising and answering  questions. So far from being in the world mediated by meaning, it is the  principle that can draw people out of that world and into the cloud of  unknowing."

[23] The Council of Chalcedon proclaimed: "Following, then, the holy  Fathers, we all with one voice teach that it should be confessed that Our  Lord Jesus Christ is one and the same Son, the Same perfect in Godhead, the  Same perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man, the Same consisting of a  rational soul and a body, homoousios with the Father as to his Godhead, and  the Same homoousios with us as to his manhood, in all things like unto us,  sin only excepted, begotten of the Father before all ages as to his  Godhead, and in the last days, the Same, for us and for our salvation, of  Mary the Virgin Theotokos as to his manhood, One and the Same Christ, Son,  Lord, Only begotten, made known in two natures, which exist without  confusion, without change, without division, without separation, the  difference of the natures having been in no wise taken away by reason of  the union, but rather the properties of each being preserved, and both  concurring into one Person (prosopon) and one hypostasis--not parted or  divided into two persons (prosopa), but one and the same Son and  Only-begotten, the divine Logos, the Lord Jesus Christ, even as the  prophets from of old have spoken concerning him, and as the Lord Jesus  Christ himself has taught us, and as the Symbol of the Fathers has  delivered to us." Quoted from the translation of Aloys Grillmeier,

[24] The theme of Edward Schillebeeckx, Christ: The Sacrament of the  Encounter with Cod (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1963).

[25] See George L. Prestige, Cod in Patristic Thought (Toronto: W.  Heinemann, 1936) 98-102 on the divine "economy," and Keenan, The Meaning of  Christ, pp. 291-2S9.

[26] There are Mahayana parallels for the Roman Catholic doctrine of  infallibility. The Analysis of the Middle Path and Extremes presents an  explanation of ultimate meaning that includes the path as unerring full  perfection" (aviparyasa-parinispatti) inasmuch as it follows and harmonizes  with suchness. See Nagao, Foundational Standpoint 62. The idea here is that  when a worldly and conventional statement functions in accord with logical  criteria and in full awareness of emptiness, then it cannot err because,  while not attempting to express an absolute statement, it constructs  contextual statements that are in harmony with ultimate meaning.

[27] See Nagao, Foundational Standpoint 39-42, where the doctrinal  implications of the two spellings of samorti, covering, and samortti,  manifestation, are treated. Also "An Interpretation of the Term 'Samvrt'  (Convention) in Buddhism," in Madhyamika and Yogacara 13-22.

[28] See Masao Abe, Kenotic God and Dynamic Sunyata," in The Emptying Cod,  A Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation, ed. John B. Cobb, Jr., and  Christopher Ives (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1990) 3-65.

Further Reading

Jay Garfield, Dependent Arising and the Emptiness of Emptiness: Why did Nagarjuana start with causation?
Mark Siderits, On the Soteriological Significance of Emptiness
David Loy, Second Buddha : Nagarjuna - Buddhism's Greatest Philosopher
James M. Hanson, Was Jesus a Buddhist?