Editor’s Note: Beyond Dialogue by John Cobb
Alexius’ stint in hell has been growing steadily more unpleasant, and he has been stricken with a severe fever. Severe enough, at least, to impede any further communications between the two of us since the last post. Therefore, I will step in to discuss a book whose implications I have been mulling over for a couple of months now.
That book is Beyond Dialogue by John B. Cobb, Jr., and it has a rather cumbersome subtitle that pains me to type but it reveals much more about the specific intentions of the book. That subtitle is: Toward a Mutual Transformation of Christianity and Buddhism. In this fairly short book–less than 150 pages–Cobb, a Methodist theologian in the Process tradition, discusses what real inter-religious dialogue looks like. The subtitle reveals the specific religious traditions he intends to cover, as well as hinting at what lies “beyond dialogue” as the main title so temptingly proposes.
A paragraph of background never hurt anyone. John Cobb was born in Japan to missionaries and, while studying at the University of Chicago, abandoned traditional notions of God and embraced the philosophical theology known as Process theology. First developed by Alfred North Whitehead and later expanded by philosopher-theologians like Charles Hartshorne, this tradition denies the transcendent, simple, omnipotent God of classical thought and asserts instead a radically immanent, complex, limited and yet still active and real entity. Members of many religious traditions have embraced these tenets, and Cobb in his late eighties remains one of the leading figures in the field. Having grown up in Japan and lived alongside Buddhist traditions as well as having interactions with important Zen teachers, he has always had a strong interest in the potential for cross-polination between Buddhist and Christian thinking and living.
With that said, what lies “beyond dialogue?” In Cobb’s estimation, if dialogue is real, it will lead beyond it. Dialogue for its own sake is emptied of purpose, leading only to conversations that change no minds and make no real attempt to understand and live out the value of the other tradition’s contributions to the conversation.
Crucially, Cobb acknowledges the deep linguistic, philosophical, and cultural differences between the religions in question. He does not attempt to unify them under a broad umbrella of universal principles or ideas. Instead, he thinks of dialogue as looking for truth in disagreements, in being open to real change and articulating full-blooded expressions of the respective traditions. Buddhists must be willing to accept and possibly appropriate some edification from Christians and vice versa not so that they are either converted over or stand suspended in a negative space between the two, but to more truthfully and powerfully live out their own deeply held convictions. Distinctions are maintained, but, Cobb posits, a productive dialogue between Buddhism and Christianity will leave the two looking at least slightly more alike.
Though much of the book is dedicated to this theory of dialogue and a brief history of Western interpretations of Nirvana, the book earns its place of relevance, at least for me, in the subsequent chapters on what Western Christians can learn from Buddhists, what can be intelligently appropriated into our own belief and practice, and what we can give back to our dialogue partners.
In the first part, Cobb notes the affinity between Buddhist and Christian notions of clinging and balance. Both Christian and Buddhist texts affirm that the world as we see it is not ultimate. Clinging to the things of this world is futile because they are ultimately empty of permanent value. Materials possessions are nothing to be scorned as long as they do not become objects of clinging, idols in which we invest undue trust. Of course, Christianity retains a sense of attachment to God and Christ where Buddhist goes much further to decry all clinging, even to the highest ideals, as a source of suffering. Buddhists are generally dismissive of the importance of ideas about or worship of God for this reason. Using Process philosophy as a bridge, he also investigates the difficulties of navigating Buddhist ideas of sunyata (emptiness) and anatta (no substantial self).
Briefly, Buddhism denies that there is any substantial thing that one could truthfully label a “self.” Indeed, “things” in general are what are called dependently originated or existing only in virtue of their participation in other things. Everything is subject to constant processes of change, and it is these processes that define what “I” am, namely a sequence of mental and physical events intimately related both to each other and to events in the environment. As Cobb puts it, “Buddhism shows us first that in each moment there is no other reality than the subject experiencing.” Understanding this has been immensely helpful to living out a Christianity that not only pays verbal lip service to community or ecology but grows out of those ideas from the deepest level.
Cobb’s treatment of both parties in the dialogue is nuanced and suitably complex. I never had the sense that a misplaced naivety was behind this enterprise. Instead, the book approaches the problems of Christianity and Buddhism’s differences with a clear eye and an understanding that the dialogue was truly mutual. Christianity’s robust ethic of social involvement, so easily lost in the musings of contemplatives, is one example given of a virtue of Christianity that could be appropriated by Buddhists. Some Buddhist sects, like Jodo Shinshu in Japan, have doctrines of free grace remarkably similar to Christian perspectives, and could probably affirm Christ as an incarnation of Amida, whose vow is the source of their salvation. For my own part, I would argue that the most valuable part of Christian faith is its assertion of incarnation and, in my own understanding at least, the idea of the eternal Word of God acting as a distinct call to greater creativity and goodness throughout history.
I am in no intellectual position as of yet to make a final assertion of how Buddhism can inform my Christian practice, and perhaps I never will, but I find this book immensely helpful in clarifying the issues and giving me tools for reconciling the deep truths of this, what first appeared to be an alien tradition but that I have since discovered is a vital and invaluable source of wisdom. Devotion to a particular God does not preclude an understanding that one’s own understanding does not encompass the Entirety, and that it is wrong to attach yourself to your own understanding and cling to it as a refuge.
I could almost recommend the entire book just on the virtue of its last paragraph, which in part reads, “Our mission is to display the universal meaning of Christ freed from our past compulsion to contradict the truths known in other traditions…Once we allow Christ to speak apart from the impediments we have placed in the way, Christ will carry out the authentic Christian mission. Christ as Truth will transform the truths of all other traditions even as they transform ours.”