Walking With Buddha and Christ

Paul F. Knitter reviews “Buddhist and Christian?: An Exploration of Dual Belonging”, by Rose Drew.

Paul F. Knitter
16 March 2012

Buddhist and Christian?: An Exploration of Dual Belonging
By Rose Drew
Routledge, 2011$140; 288 pages

Rose Drew’s Buddhist and Christian? joins a growing lineup of scholarly studies on “religious dual belonging.” But it does so in a distinctive manner: it draws not only on theological and Buddhist scholarship, but on living, struggling practitioners. It is not only assuring in its careful scholarship, it is inspiring as it gives voice to women and men who are trying to figure out what is going on in them as they live out a spirituality that is both Buddhist and Christian. While she records carefully, Drew also assesses creatively. One senses that she is a dual belonger herself, trying to understand her love of both Jesus and Buddha.

The most salient, and successful, feature of Drew’s study is that it is spirituality, or theology, based on ethnography. To understand dual belonging, she has interviewed six dual belongers (though not all of them would be comfortable with that terminology): Roger Corless (since deceased), Sr. Ruth Furneaux, Ruben Habito, John Keenan, Sallie King, and Maria Reis Habito. All of them began their spiritual journey as disciples of Jesus, and all of them, to varying degrees, are continuing it now also as disciples of Buddha. Their voices, speaking clearly out of their experiences and insights, form the substance of the book. Drew shows how their voices blend as well as contrast with each other—and with what the theological or philosophical experts are saying about the possibility—or advisability—of dual religious practice and belief.

Drew describes Buddhist–Christian dual belonging as a “religious identity in which both traditions have come to occupy a strong, normative status.” Thus, dual belongers are “people who, through their interaction with these two traditions, have reached a point where they no longer identify themselves simply as Buddhist or simply as Christian, and have come to understand themselves as belonging roughly equally to both traditions.” So for Drew the two primary marks of a dual belonger are found in the abiding concern to both preserve and integrate the distinctive differences of each tradition. Neither is preferred; neither is held to be superior.

That, as becomes evident, is quite a tall order. Dual belonging is neither dabbling in the divine deli nor a new syncretistic spiritual sausage. Analogously to what Christian theologians have called the “hypostatic union” of divine and human natures in Jesus, in dual belongers there is the one practitioner (one person) but two practices (two natures). And the union of the two practices is such that the differences and integrity of each is not only preserved but enhanced. Such a commingling, Drew surmises, borders on the mysterious.

Drew collects, analyzes, and interprets the data from her extensive interviews under four categories: God or ultimacy, Jesus Christ and Gautama Buddha, salvation or liberation, and practice.

Regarding what Buddhists and Christians are ultimately after, she enters the contemporary discussion on whether they are going in two different directions or essentially the same one; and she clearly opts for what she calls a “monocentric pluralism” (one ultimate reality in divergent and always ineffable experiences) as more faithful to the teachings of both traditions and to her interviewees. This one, ineffable ultimacy, however, turns out to be much more nondualistic, much more co-inhering with relative reality, than Christianity has traditionally taught.

Primarily in view of the way her interviewees actually relate to Jesus and Buddha, but also in view of what they say about both of them, Drew draws her cautious, but bold, conclusion: both are held to be “mediators” (or incarnations) of the mysterious Ultimate, though each in profoundly different ways. In these differences, neither is superior to the other, but here again it seems that Christians are called upon to make more doctrinal adjustments than Buddhists: rather than holding up Jesus as the “constitutive” cause of salvation through his atoning death on the cross, her interviewees relate to him as a primary, though not exclusive, revelation-through-embodiment of a Divinity that already pervades all reality.

As for Christian salvation or Buddhist liberation, Drew admits irresolvable differences in the views about what follows death: One life or many? What lives on? But despite the different understandings of what lies beyond death, the this-worldly paths to get there resonate with each other, for they both call for “the replacement of egotistical, selfish ways of being with loving, wise, and compassionate ways of being.” Here she follows John Hick’s contention that the “other shore” for which Buddhism and Christianity provide different rafts is in fact one: a transformative shift from self-centeredness to other-centeredness.

Drew describes how most of her interviewees—whether praying or meditating, whether at the Eucharistic table or on their cushions—could not neatly distinguish or isolate their Buddhist from their Christian practices. In moving easily back and forth, they don’t know precisely what religion they’re occupying at any given moment. Thus, Habito, King, and Reis Habito were reluctant to speak of “dual practice” and preferred something like “practice across traditions.” Whether they as Christians were “praying to” or as Buddhists simply “praying that,” the effects of a sensed transformative connectedness with others seemed essentially the same.

Throughout her reporting and assessing of what she has heard from her six dual belongers, and in assembling and weighing the many critics of dual belonging within the academy of religious studies and theology, Drew clearly has made an effort to give all a fair hearing. Still, she goes about this task not only as a Christian, but as a progressive Christian. To be more dangerously precise (for all classifications are both helpful and dangerous), she would pitch her philosophical and theological tent in the pluralist camp of thinkers such as John Hick and Perry Schmidt-Leukel (who was her dissertation director at the University
of Glasgow).

Pluralists find the most useful and coherent map for understanding and engaging religious diversity to be one that posits multiple religions as different points of contact with one ultimate Reality (whether called “God” or “dharma”) that is always more than any one tradition can contain. (In affirming many, pluralists disagree with exclusivists, who hold to only one true religion; in denying the superiority of any one religion, they disagree with the inclusivists, who claim that one religion is meant ultimately to fulfill all the others.) Drew uses her pluralist hypothesis as the starting point for her exploration of dual belonging, adjusts it where the data so require, but finds it ultimately confirmed by the testimonies of the practitioners she interviews.

There are minor, though important, pieces in her pluralist picture that might need adjusting. In stressing the need for integration as an essential quality of belonging to two different religious traditions, she holds that neither can be deemed superior to the other. Speaking broadly, yes. But in particular forms of practice (such as the Buddhist insistence on nonconceptual sitting) or in particular teachings (such as the Christian insistence on the centrality of social justice), one tradition can be cautiously assessed as “superior”—that is, it sees things more clearly or effectively than the other. Such differences make for the richness of dual belonging.

Which leads, perhaps, to the need for some modification of her stress on preserving the integrity of each tradition. The results of dual religious identities—as of effective interreligious dialogue in general—can be both to preserve and transform. Where one tradition appears “superior” over the other in a particular practice or teaching, the other might have to change. And such change will not be simply a deepening or a clarification or a retrieval. It can also be a reconstructing—something truly new, but on the basis of the old. Drew indirectly recognizes this in some of the conclusions she draws for Christian dual-belongers in their understanding of Christ (no longer the one and only savior) or of the nature of God (no longer “totally other”).

Such reconstructions and such enrichments seem much more plentiful for the Christian side of dual-belonging than for the Buddhist side. More simply, it seems that Christians have more to learn than do Buddhists. Which raises a question that Drew doesn’t adequately take on: Her interviewees all started out as Christians. Where are the Buddhist dualbelongers? That might be a topic for another dissertation.

Whether one is primarily (or exclusively) Christian or Buddhist, this book, part of the Routledge Critical Studies in Buddhism series, is one that will both inform and engage. For Buddhists, it can be an aid in understanding all those Christians knocking on their zendo doors. For Christians, it can be a guide and inspiration for what might happen when they pass through those doors.