Symposium Introduction

Joe O’Leary is a scholar of many talents. Trained in phenomenology, Christian theology with special reference to the patristic period, modern theology with special reference to Karl Rahner, Buddhism, interreligious dialogue, and comparative theology, and living for over thirty years in Japan, O’Leary and his work only grows more relevant by the year. His vast and polyvalent oeuvre is fresh, interdisciplinary, and above all, attentive to the flesh-and-blood of practice and interreligious repartee. Beginning with the widely read Questioning Back: The Overcoming of Metaphysics in Christian Tradition (1985) up to the recent Conventional and Ultimate Truth: A Key for Fundamental Theology (2015), O’Leary’s long and productive (with six monographs) career opens up an interlacing between Christian theology, metaphysics, and Buddhism, which culminates wonderfully in the present manuscript, Reality Itself: Philosophical Challenges of Indian Mahāyāna (2019). Philosopher and theologian alike will benefit from the luminous prose and imaginative cross-disciplinary comparative theology (and comparative philosophy) invoked on four-hundred-plus pages of this monograph. Select chapters hold substantive engagements with philosophers like Hume, Hegel, and Husserl; these chapters will especially appeal to philosophers who do not drink from the theological turn or invoke the Christian tradition. Those who work in religious studies and continental philosophy and European philosophy (broadly conceived) will find much to enjoy and contemplate. Theological formulations and Christian confrontations with Buddhism are especially rich in chapters 1–4, but I would recommend Conventional and Ultimate Truth for a more sustained example of comparative theology (between Christianity and Buddhism).

While he never shies away from theory, philosophical intervention, and speculative inference, O’Leary entreats on every page his readers to employ and recruit hope for this world. Scholars of religion can disclose more carefully how academic reflection and religious practice remain situated in and always submit to “the world in which we breathe here and now” (31). The question of reality is a theoretical evocation, perhaps a rhetorical device, and yet, it lingers: what is reality itself?

The world, for O’Leary, involves the mystery of relationship with worldhood or the transcendence of lived experience, a phenomenon distinct from the world of science and empiricism. When O’Leary claims that the kingdom of God “cannot be anything less than reality itself” (32) and that God lays claim to the world as the site of the kingdom, he does not exploit the correlation between reality and world in service of scientific realism or empiricism. We must “let go” of our delusions to see the world as permanent “thing” built up as bits of spatiotemporal content or atoms. Reality itself discloses that no such realities like being, substance, thing, object, concept, and so forth exist. They only pretend to be permanent, timeless, and secure. Christian theology need not fear finitude, contingency, and impermanence. He writes eloquently of how Buddhism’s therapy in this regard can illuminate the Christian hermeneutic of the contingency; O’Leary’s analyses are not so much conceptual as therapeutic, not so much dogmatic as meditative. Hence the encounter here between Christian practice and Buddhist enlightenment is pragmatic:

For many Christians Buddhist meditation has the effect of bringing the Gospel message of salvation into clearer perspective, by training the mind to focus on the essential or vital aspect of this message rather than on theoretical or doctrinal dimensions. Salvation is of course an unconditional gift that lies beyond the machinery of religion (Rom 5:1–17); it “is coming into the world” ( Jn 11:27), reaching us right where we are, and is not something we reach up to; but in so far as that “machinery” can impede or aid perception of this gift, then Buddhism may play a key role in improving the functioning of the Christian machinery, clarifying how it can be a skillful means. A Christian can thus embrace Buddhism wholeheartedly, albeit as a complement to Christian faith. (32)

Theologians hailing from the Christian tradition shall profit from O’Leary’s many encouragements and nudges to do more than “compare” Buddhism and Christianity. Interaction between the traditions shall evoke learning genuine techniques of contemplative practice lived here, in the world, apart from textbooks, encyclicals, debate, and conceptual machinery, without implying that such machinery be stripped down completely.

The conceptual and deliberative heart of the book, should I risk the claim, may well be chapter 9 on the two truths, a chapter that echoes the dialectic between conventional vocabularies and experiences of ultimacy found in his 2015 Conventional and Ultimate Truth. The attentive and detailed outline of conventional truth in Buddhism, here named saṃvṛti, shall please scholar and novice alike. One statement that draws me into O’Leary’s narrative is the following: “To see the conventional as conventional is already to see its emptiness. . . . Against a popular misconception among some Western scholars, the upshot is not merely relaxing back into the conventional, in a Humean or Epicurean style, but rather a shattering of the conventional and the emergence of the ultimate or nirvanic dimension that cannot be reduced to conventionality” (44). The conventional truth of reality is that reality is not the “substantial stuff” we assume it to be. Such is the illusion whose spell we must break. Reality, the mystery of the world here and now, remains too elusive for that kind of crude direct realism. Yet, as chapter 4 articulates so well, O’Leary asks us to be self-aware attitude about the complementary role Buddhist saṃvṛti can assume in relation to Christian doctrines of the imago Dei and the Trinity. Thus,

noting that the doctrines of non-self and emptiness do not annihilate human personhood, but free it for a more authentic existence, it will ask whether the Buddhist denial of God is susceptible of a similar positive interpretation. Meanwhile theologians may find that an empty God, who is non-self, is closer, phenomenologically, to the dynamic Johannine and Pauline conception of God as an event of Spirit, light, agape than to the God of classical metaphysical theology, which has “tended to shield the humanity of Jesus from contingency and impermanence (anityā) in a docetistic fashion. (79–80)

Furthermore, and I agree here with O’Leary, traditional christological formulations that I teach to my students like Nicaea and Chalcedon, enunciated in strong metaphysical vocabularies like hypostasis, substance, nature, etc., are vulnerable to conceptual idolatry. Buddhism’s focus on the conventionality of all language, dogma included, can free Christians from this essentialism and free Christ to be Jesus of Nazareth. This dovetails, in that he narrates and re-narrates with greater precision the critique of conceptualism, with another striking chapter: chapter 12, “Critical Buddhism and Hermeneutics of Religion.” O’Leary enters the fray of debate surrounding the (more) recent intramural controversy over authentic Buddhism, sometimes called critical Buddhism; here O’Leary mobilizes the critique of essentialism in Buddhism, in order to raise a broad-ranging philosophical point about religion as such. The lazy religious habit (Hinduism, Christianity, and Buddhism itself) to find safe, secure conceptual ground trades on a fundamental insecurity, namely, that fresh insights may corrupt or contaminate the original purity of the founder or the sacred text. The fear and anxiety over an “original” logos or “pure” set of doctrines prompted the atmosphere of heresy, growing out of a primal impulse to isolate a “pure” event of religion out from accretions of later theological development. Rightly, O’Leary says that the more psychology that funds the pursuit of purity or proctology can be understood as an unconscious drive to conserve, which is seen as “constantly stifling new revolutionary insights” (297).

In addition to the forgoing, we have diverse and insightful commentary on O’Leary’s work in each panel member’s essay. Catherine Cornille investigates the theological problem of the uniqueness of Christ in O’Leary’s use of Christian theology. James G. Hart opens up what space there may be in O’Leary for an affirmation of transcendental phenomenology, which wrestles with O’Leary’s foray into phenomenology. Nikolaas Deketelaere offers a suggestion that an often-neglected voice be heard anew, that of the secular or nonreligious individual. And finally, John Keenan approaches Buddhism by asking in what way O’Leary can reread Critical Buddhism.

While the critical readings carried out by our panel below will challenge interpretations of self and God embedded in O’Leary’s volume, I have raised here in this introduction only a few observations about the intention of the text as a way to orient and guide the reader. And while the title, Reality Itself, gives reason for us to pause when confronted with such a weighty and cumbersome term like “reality,” the book suggests with profound insight that reality eludes any straightforward taxonomy in western metaphysics—to the point that we rightfully guard against the reification of self, God, world, and ultimately, hesitate before drawing an ontological map that fixes and encodes their interrelation in concepts, dogma, signs, and conventions. Reality as philosophical grammar can be utilized as a strategic term in our repertoire of theological tools, as long as it is chastened, disciplined, even emptied. Similarly, for the Christian theologian and scholar of religion, I wonder if the lesson we may learn from O’Leary is consolidated in a simple comment any reader may pass over, which may be ramified into the categories of any religious tradition: “The categories of classical dogma have a role in orienting Christian towards reality, if they are skillfully deployed” (31). The point may well be that liberation from conceptual idolatry, essentialism, and the insecurity that can mount in the face of fresh interpretations and retrievals of ancient doctrine, is more like relief. Liberation from concepts, that is, need not descend into the rejection of ancient wisdom and texts.

Catherine Cornille


Whither the Uniqueness of Jesus Christ?

One of the most important philosophical challenges for Christian theology lies in its engagement with Indian philosophies of non-duality, and one of the most daring and creative theologians confronting this challenge is Joseph O’Leary. For the past two to three decades, O’Leary has pushed the Christian theological agenda to open it up to insights from Buddhist Mahayana thought, which he has consistently argued exercise a chastening and purifying effect on the Christian understanding of doctrine.

Reality Itself brings together many of O’Leary original insights on the topic of Mahayana Buddhism in general and its importance for rethinking Christian faith. O’Leary refers to his own work as a type of “interreligious theology,” that goes beyond the particularities of Buddhist or Christian or any denominational thought and moves in a “more self-consciously philosophical direction” that represents a “contribution to the rich disinterested play of the human mind” (10). Still, O’Leary remains a Christian theologian and the volume moves back and forth between a search for a “pre-denominational faith” and a critical and constructive engagement with specifically Christian sources.

One of the most important challenges for Christian faith in subjecting it to a Mahayana interpretation lies in its unmooring of the traditional Christian understanding of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. This is also clear in Reality Itself. The classical conception of the unique redemptive role of Jesus Christ is based on a Hebraic and Hellenistic worldview that acknowledges the irreversible salvific importance of singular historical events and that moves toward a more dualistic conception of the relationship between the divine and the human. The Mahayana conception of reality, on the other hand, is based on the notion of radical emptiness, dissolving any substantialist idea of God and self, and of once-and-for-all transformative historical events. The ultimate goal is awakening to the emptiness of reality, which may be realized through different paths, but which in the end is attained through self-effort. Though Mahayana Buddhism has developed various types of mediators of salvation or liberation (heavenly Buddhas and bodhisattvas), these are generally understood as imaginary figures that may support the realization of the emptiness of reality and of the self, rather than ontologically real human or divine saviors. There is thus in the Mahayana cosmology no place for a vicarious salvific event or for a unique historical savior. O’Leary also acknowledges that there is “a deep tension between the Indian wisdom that grasps ultimate reality in impersonal terms and regards the idea of a creator (Isvara) or any personlizations of the ultimate as at best provisional skillful means (upaya) for those who need them, and the Christian conviction that ultimate reality is most fully and concretely known when it gives itself the voice and face of a personal God” (53). However, he does not regard this tension as insurmountable, but on the contrary views it as an opportunity to rethink Christianity and to bring it back to what he believes is its original meaning and intention:

Study of Buddhism throws new light on Christianity by showing it to be a religion of awakening to reality. It focuses the attention of Christians on what is most essential in their faith and yields a new way of affirming Christian identity, such that this no longer means obsessing over church claims or lifestyles, but rather a return to the basics of the outlook on reality taught and lived by Jesus Christ. (30)

One of O’Leary’s favorite categories in Mahayana Buddhist thought is upaya, skillful means, which serves to de-absolutize religious teachings without discounting their value and importance in religious faith and practice. Rather than cling to religious doctrines and practices as absolute and ultimately true, it allows believers to remain faithful to particular teachings without rejecting the possible truth and validity of other teachings and traditions. The notion of upaya still leaves room for a hierarchy of truths, or for more or less skillful means. It thus provides a framework for affirming the reality of religious plurality without falling into the trap of radical relativism. Among the many teachings that form part of the Christian doctrinal tradition, O’Leary lifts up certain central orientations of the gospel that he regards as “coterminous with reality itself”:

the primacy of love, the superiority of the life-giving Spirit to the letter that kills, the abundance of grace and of divine mercy, justification by faith in Christ, the assured triumph of the eschatological Kingdom. (31, 88)

It is not entirely clear whether or not these central orientations are also to be regarded as skillful means, or not. His attempt to develop a pre-denominational faith would suggest that he is searching for a truth beyond or before the particular doctrines that constitute the skillful means of the various traditions. But he does not discuss the status of these particular insights and conclusions.

It is the mention here of “justification by faith in Christ” that is particularly intriguing. O’Leary is sharply aware of the fact that his reinterpretation of Christianity in Mahayana terms leaves little room for the traditional understanding of the uniqueness of Christ. The notion of the ultimate emptiness of reality “demands a less substantialist ontology of the Incarnation” and “puts a question mark against definitive eschatological events” (75). He puts it more bluntly when he states that

credibility is strained by the startling particularity of the Christian claim that the salvation of the entire world, including all of humanity stretching back to its ancient evolutionary origins, has been decided by an event that happened on an afternoon in Jerusalem in 30 CE. (31)

For O’Leary, much of what constitutes traditional Christian soteriology and eschatology belongs to the realm of mythology, which is indebted to particular cultural and historical remnants and which obscures, rather than reveals, the original meaning of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Rather than jettison the meaningfulness of the Christian belief in the incarnation, he thus calls for a process of demythologization which would uncover its true and universal meaning.

O’Leary’s understanding of the universality of the truth of different religions deserves attention. He does not suggest that all religions ultimately teach the same or that they arise from and are oriented to the same experience. He does, however, believe that the deepest truth of each religion is universally valid, and that there is a need to demythologize religions in order to bring them back to “a bedrock simplicity where they all meet in their truth” (179). He is thus intent on discovering the universal elements in particular religious beliefs and events. “What best survives of classical religious claims” he states, “is their universal dimension, that which emerges when one reduces their message to an account of reality itself” (186). This is what he has in mind with his pursuit of a “pre-denominational faith” that may serve “as criterion for discerning truth of the manifestation of ultimate reality” (25).

In dealing with the Christian understanding of the unique salvific role of Jesus Christ, O’Leary distinguishes Jesus’ own experience of the saving presence of God from the ways in which it has been expressed, which are “a matter of adroit convention or skillful means, constantly adjusted to new situations of communication” (175). He goes back and forth between minimalizing the uniqueness of Jesus and tentatively affirming it. On the one hand, he states that “the uniqueness of Jesus Christ is a concern of orthodox theology, but one that need not weigh heavily on the philosophical mind, which takes from theological tradition only what meets its own specific concerns” (81). In Mahayana terms, he understands Jesus as “a man empty of own-being, and therefore manifesting in his dependently originative existence the ultimate reality of divine emptiness” and believes that this is “a vision that chimes well with many aspects of the Gospel” (83).

O’Leary certainly recognizes that this reinterpretation of Christ from a Mahayana perspective “carries the great risk of losing its integral content” (83). He thus seeks to reinstate an understanding of the uniqueness of Christ in a way that does not deny the presence of saving grace in other religions. With regard to the divine nature of Jesus, he proposes that “phenomenologically, the claim that Jesus is savior and divine is grounded in the way that in the story of Jesus divine and human historical struggle click together in a cogent and potent way, unknown elsewhere” (83). The last clause thus sets Jesus apart from saviors in other religions. And with regard to the unique salvific work of Jesus Christ, he offers a few tentative proposals:

Perhaps the concrete completion of historical eschatological salvation is what is meant, the idea that Christ brings to fulfillment and leads to its ultimate destiny the universal creative-salvific process that is always going on in all religions and in all life. (86)


Perhaps we could say that in the Christ-event humanity passes a new threshold of God-consciousness, opening up to the nearness of the divine in an integral way. (182)

The striking use of the qualifier “perhaps” illustrates O’Leary’s uncertain attempt to hold on to some notion of the unique salvific role of Jesus Christ within an overall Mahayana framework in which it would seem incongruous. The conception of ultimate reality as emptiness would not seem to allow for a distinction between experiences of emptiness or God consciousness. Is the experience of Christ different from that of the Buddha, or from any other experience of realization either within or outside of Christianity? It is not entirely clear on which grounds that could be argued.

The classical Christian understanding of the salvific role of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has no place in O’Leary’s approach. Rather than as a particularly Christian symbol of suffering and redemption, he proposes a “non-confessional philosophy of the Cross, as a key to putting human nature back in touch with itself” (84). He believes that the “Christian story of sin and redemption can seem a mythical rigmarole falling short of the dignity of being” (85). Consequently, traditional views of the cross as a symbol of atonement for the sins of the world become meaningless and are dismissed as a magical or “behind the scenes process.” O’Leary is sympathetic toward Rene Girard’s anthropological interpretation of the cross as an expression of the universality of sacrifice and victimization (177) and as means of exposing and “dismantling of human mimetic rivalry and its murderous outcome” (83). But his main understanding of the Cross is as a symbol of deconstruction “dissolving the barriers set by human arrogance and fixation against the liberating space of divine ultimacy” (84). O’Leary’s interpretation of the Cross as symbol and power of deconstruction resonates with the work of another great Christian philosopher and friend of O’Leary, Stanislas Breton. In his work Unicité et Monothéisme, he also emphasizes the critical function of the cross as a sign of contradiction and the contestation of all idols, including its own pretentions to uniqueness:

The empty space in which the Cross traces the sign of contradiction, and the spirit in its germination of non-being prescribe the conditions which simultaneously make possible the universalization of the Christic function and the contestation of its uniqueness.” (Unicité et Monothéisme, 109)

The reinterpretation of salvific function of the Cross in the approaches of O’Leary and Breton is intended not to bring about its dissolution but rather to bring out its universal meaning and function. However, with this, the particularity of Christianity and its understanding of the reality of sin and the promise of forgiveness and redemption is also sacrificed.

In general, O’Leary approaches the Christian understanding of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ not as absolutely or ultimately true, but rather as skillful means:

Even if a believer is utterly convinced that Christ is the one Savior and divine the meaning of these expressions is elusive: they are monuments of religious thought that mark a place of depth, but they need to be used skillfully if they are to continue to mark that place. (159)

The appeal of the notion of upaya or skillful means is that it “allows one to cherish the richness of the religious fabric while not investing too heavily in doctrinal fixations” (159). In his own work, O’Leary however focuses more on deconstructing the traditional meaning and status of the claim to uniqueness rather than on affirming its skillfulness, or its salutary effect in the lives of believers, both past and present. If the ultimate goal of religious faith and practice lies in overcoming human arrogance and self-centeredness, a focus on the person of Jesus Christ as the only one to have fully attained this state provides a powerful model and antidote against spiritual pride and self-aggrandizement. The belief in the uniqueness of Jesus Christ may thus be seen as skillful means for preserving spiritual humility, which may be regarded as the highest goal of religious life. This is only one of many possible functions of the belief in the uniqueness of Jesus Christ.

The interpretation of Christianity from a Mahayana philosophical perspective opens up new and very promising horizons for understanding and living Christian faith. For O’Leary, however, Mahayana philosophy represents not merely one among many possible frameworks of interpretation, but rather reality itself, as the title of the book indicates. What is more, he claims that his interpretation of the person and teaching of Jesus coincides with Jesus own self-understanding and intention, or that it represents a “return to the basics of the outlook on reality taught and lived by Jesus Christ” (30). These claims to attain to reality itself and to the mind of Christ seem like an unnecessary and unfounded leap to objectivity in a work that otherwise overflows with rich and inspiring hermeneutical insight.

  • Joseph S. O'Leary

    Joseph S. O'Leary


    Response to Catherine Cornille  

    I thank Catherine Cornille for the time and attention she has devoted to my text and for her generous words. It is instructive to see how the text appears to someone approaching it with the question of “the uniqueness of Christ” uppermost in her mind. This topic was addressed more fully in the final chapters of Questioning Back (1985), Religious Pluralism and Christian Truth (1996), and Conventional and Ultimate Truth (2015), and in a book not primarily concerned with Christology I took that background as given, no doubt failing to make my ideas on the topic sufficiently clear this time round. Both the topic and my presentation are quite slippery, so let me begin by sketching my belief on this (writing theologically, not philosophically) and then try to clarify points where I feel that misunderstandings have arisen.

    How Is Jesus Unique?

    Let me preface my reply by attempting to answer once again the question sounding at the centre the Synoptic Gospels: “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29; Matt 16:15; Luke 9:20).

    The eternal divine Word enlightens the minds of all human beings (John 1:9), which are made in the image of the Logos. This means that all of humanity is being graced all the time, they are images in the Image, logikoi in the Logos, sons in the eternal Son, and even “gods.” This is the universal situation described in John 1:12–13: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”

    All humans are born of God.

    In his humanity Jesus shares this status with all human beings:

    The Jews took up stones again to stone him. Jesus answered them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of these do you stone me?” The Jews answered him, “It is not for a good work that we stone you but for blasphemy; because you, being a man, make yourself God.” Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came (and scripture cannot be broken), do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’? If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” Again they tried to arrest him, but he escaped from their hands. (John 10:31 RSV)

    What is distinct about Jesus is his mission—consecrated by the Father, sent by the Father, to be the Saviour of the World (John 4:42) as a witness to universal truth: “Pilate said to him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice’” (John 18:37).

    Is Jesus then “only” a prophet who reveals a universal situation? Well, in the Christ-event we have a new threshold of the presence of the Word: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14).

    Can we say that the revealer is taken over, transfigured, by what he reveals? That he is graced with a singular, unprecedented union with the divine Word? Thanks to what Schleiermacher would call the fulness of his God-consciousness?

    That sounds like a rationalizing adoptionist solution, softening the blinding paradox of the Incarnation.

    But I would argue that it satisfies the demands of Chalcedonian orthodoxy, giving us a Jesus who is fully human and fully divine, “without division, without separation, without alteration, and without confusion” of the two natures.

    It may be objected that others could equally claim the same status as revealers who become themselves inseparable from the revealed. So Christ would not be totally unique. But in fact, St. Thomas Aquinas considers that perfectly possible. Supposing there was another Christ on another planet, sharing the nature of the creatures on that planet. Then, in St. Thomas’s view, he would be the same person who shared our human nature. If that person is the person of the eternal Word, that does not present a difficulty. The Word would have become flesh again, entering some alien history just as it enters ours in the Christ-event (and in particular in the Paschal Mystery, through which Christ’s humanity becomes “a life-giving spirit,” 1 Cor 15:45, and a universal sign). The ultimate identity of that other Christ in outer space would by the hypostasis of the Logos just as this is the ultimate identity of Jesus.

    Studying the fleshly, contingent, historical, Jewish humanity of Jesus, in all its inter-human connections, we are brought to a discovery of the Logos, more richly present than ever before. The kenotic poverty of this humanity is what most makes it a vehicle for the presence of the Logos, marked by such attributes as Truth, Spirit, Life, Light.

    We leave off from the quest for foolproof doctrinal definition at some point; that is not what Chalcedon’s horos offers in any case, but rather a horizon, a space of thought. The formalism of post-Chalcedonian theologians may have muddied matters instead of clarifying them. We remember, hopefully not too late, the traditional insistence that the hypostatic union is an unfathomable mystery, eluding our intellectual grasp. John 10:39: “Again they tried to arrest him, but he escaped from their hands.” Like Jacob’s angel, he is known in his withdrawal.

    Philosophy and Theology

    “O’Leary refers to his own work as a type of ‘interreligious theology,’ that goes beyond the particularities of Buddhist or Christian or any denominational thought and moves in a ‘more self-consciously philosophical direction’ that represents a ‘contribution to the rich disinterested play of the human mind’ (10).” This risks conflating two different concerns: interreligious theology and the “philosophical direction” attempted in Reality Itself. Of the latter I say: “This philosophical discussion possesses an inherent fascination as an end in itself, and I attempt to surrender to this properly philosophical fascination as much as possible” (10). Reading all I say about philosophy only as a contribution to interreligious theology is a slight distortion that has a knock-on effect, in that statements meant as strictly philosophical are read as theological ones. My aim was to furnish a philosophical plateau on which interreligious theological dialogue might build.

    Thus, when I say that “the uniqueness of Jesus Christ is a concern of orthodox theology, but one that need not weigh heavily on the philosophical mind, which takes from theological tradition only what meets its own specific concerns” (81), I am speaking of the limited reception of religious truth that philosophy can allow itself without ceasing to be philosophy. I add on the next page that orthodox theology would never admit that Christ’s body was just a docetic appearance but that “this may not be a major issue for the philosopher” (82). The context here is a polyphonic discussion of the “interplay of Buddhism, Christianity, and philosophy” and what I attribute to philosophy does not necessarily represent my theological position.

    The classical Christian understanding of the salvific role of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has no place in O’Leary’s approach. Rather than as a particularly Christian symbol of suffering and redemption, he proposes a “non-confessional philosophy of the Cross, as a key to putting human nature back in touch with itself (84).” No, in the polyphony between Buddhism, Christianity, and philosophy, that is what philosophy might construct; but as I say on the same page, in a properly theological vision “the Cross reveals the truth of God’s loving-kindness constantly pressing on his creatures despite their closed heart, ‘reconciling the world to himself.’”

    I admit that the book lends itself to this misreading, since the attempt to reshape in a philosophical direction essays originally written in a theological context tends to produce a mixed discourse in which it is hard to keep the strands distinct, so that the envisaged trialogue becomes a tangle. The basic aim of “clarifying the philosophical presuppositions and implications of Buddhism, its understanding of being, knowledge, mind, consciousness, and truth” (7) is perhaps best exhibited in the last six chapters, which make little reference to Christian themes. The interplay of Mahayana and Western philosophy is the central concern of the book, though “this book has also touched on the religious solicitation of Buddhism and Christianity” (410), and attempts “to highlight philosophical implications of the Buddhist and Christian quests for the real and their current interaction” (412).

    Is Mahayana Incompatible with the Uniqueness of Christ

    “One of the most important challenges for Christian faith in subjecting it to a Mahayana interpretation lies in its unmooring of the traditional Christian understanding of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ” which “acknowledges the irreversible salvific importance of singular historical events and that moves toward a more dualistic conception of the relationship between the divine and the human,” whereas Mahayana “is based on the notion of radical emptiness, dissolving any substantialist idea of God and self, and of once-and-for-all transformative historical events.”

    I think rather than “unmooring” the uniqueness of Christ, I am rethinking and recontextualizing it. The Paschal Mystery is an eschatological event of universal reach, which makes Christ “the Savior of the world” (John 4:42). What is the nature of this event? The rich New Testament categories, including those connected with sacrifice, need to be interpreted convincingly. The effort to find empirical, phenomenological correlatives of the redemptive role of the Cross is already pursued quite intensively within Christian theology, but Mahayana offers new sources for that effort. The speculation of René Girard, limited though it is, points to the potential for an anthropological clarification of Christian language. The idea of a breakthrough of a new level of God-consciousness inviting comparison with the Buddha’s enlightenment offers another phenomenological lead-in to understanding this eschatological event. I don’t see Mahayana as dissolving the possibility of recognizing the Paschal Mystery as a once-for-all transformative historical event. Rather it could be seen as clearing the ground for a new recognition of the power and reality of that event.

    “The ultimate goal is awakening to the emptiness of reality, which may be realized through different paths, but which in the end is attained through self-effort.” In Christianity the awakening is a work of grace. I think we cannot write off the grace-dimension in Buddhism either. “Self-effort” is not a meaningful category in a religion of non-self. Rather, it is in letting the delusions of self drop that one allows reality itself to dawn on the mind. “There is thus in the Mahayana cosmology no place for a vicarious salvific event or for a unique historical savior.” But cosmological constructions fall silent in the mindful attention to reality itself, and that attention can prepare the welcome that faith gives to the Savior.

    “O’Leary is sharply aware of the fact that his reinterpretation of Christianity in Mahayana terms leaves little room for the traditional understanding of the uniqueness of Christ. The notion of the ultimate emptiness of reality ‘demands a less substantialist ontology of the Incarnation’ and ‘puts a question mark against definitive eschatological events’ (75).” A less substantialist ontology does not make the Incarnation less real, and the challenge to eschatological events does not go unanswered.

    A Mythical Rigmarole?

    “He believes that the ‘Christian story of sin and redemption can seem a mythical rigmarole falling short of the dignity of being’ (85).” As the context makes clear that is how it may appear to a skeptic. The very next sentence gives the Christian response: “But we recall that Christian thinkers have always rejoiced in the radical goodness of being. . . . Christianity, like Buddhism, engages the concrete plight of suffering beings, but at the same time embraces being itself as the ultimate horizon of all salvific processes” (86). So far from believing that the Christian story of redemption falls short of the dignity of being, I believe that its power is shown in the way it impacts on being itself in its depths.

    “Consequently, traditional views of the cross as a symbol of atonement for the sins of the world become meaningless and are dismissed as a magical or ‘behind the scenes process. . . .’ But his main understanding of the Cross is as a symbol of deconstruction “dissolving the barriers set by human arrogance and fixation against the liberating space of divine ultimacy’ (84).” I said: “Redemption, too often conceived as a magical ‘behind the scenes’ process, is worked out in history as the deconstructive impact of the figure of the Cross, dissolving the barriers set by human arrogance and fixation against the liberating space of divine ultimacy” (84). Cornille says that “with this, the particularity of Christianity and its understanding of the reality of sin and the promise of forgiveness and redemption is also sacrificed”; but surely “barriers set by human arrogance” is a description of the reality of sin (though not an exhaustive one) and “liberating space of divine emptiness” includes forgiveness and redemption?

    I do not in fact believe that the Cross is “a symbol of atonement for the sins of the world” or “a particularly Christian symbol of suffering and redemption”; I believe it is the reality of atonement of the sins of the world, and that “God was in Christ reconciling the world with himself,” 2 Cor 5:19).

    Catherine Cornille has scanned my book with the question whether it does justice to “the uniqueness of Christ” and whether any Mahayana ontology can allow that uniqueness to be recognized. This concentrates attention on the pages dealing with Christology (30–33, 75–93, 116–17, 139, 179–82). I have tried to show that in those pages I do not uphold any of the following views: that once-and-for-all transformative historical events are incredible and impossible (rejected, 31–32); that the universality of the Christ event diminishes its unique singularity: that the cross is merely a symbol of deconstruction (rejected, 35, 84); that the doctrine of redemption is just a behind-the-scenes metaphysical mythology (rejected, 84–86); that the promise of forgiveness and redemption is a flimsy myth (rejected, 50–51); that the entire Christian message is surpassed by a more basic faith in reality itself, drawn principally from Buddhism.

    Whither the uniqueness of Christ? A better question is: “What is the significance of the Paschal Mystery in the interreligious horizon that regards all true religions as breakthroughs to and of reality itself?” It is a distinctive breakthrough of reality itself, which we speak of as an “eschatological event,” manifesting the ultimate meaning of human life and death and of human history. Our faith in this is renewed and substantiated when we bring philosophical, anthropological, and above all interreligious perspectives into play. Tidy answers are not enough. The question, “Who do you say that I am?” remains one on which theologians continue to labor, going back to the start again and again in “Christologies from below” and reaching out to the widest horizons of understanding again and again by consultation of all other witnesses to ultimate truth.

James G. Hart


A Transcendental Phenomenological Wrangle with Buddhism Occasioned by Reality Itself

Joseph O’Leary’s book is admirably rich, learned, ambitious and provocative.1 Of course any lengthy philosophical discussion of religious matters will deal more or less explicitly with the essentially interrelated concepts, e.g., in metaphysics and ethics. In this book numerous rich concepts are more or less explicitly taken up and returned to in discussions in various contexts which weave them back and forth. In what follows I’m afraid I will also pursue a path of such interweaving and repetition.

The core perspective is that of an advocate, apologist, and proponent of Mahayana Buddhism who is steeped in Christian philosophical theology as well as contemporary continental philosophy. My own background is similar to that of O’Leary, but in Buddhist studies I am not even an amateur. However, through probably a misinterpretation, I have always been positively disposed to some core themes, especially of the traditions of Mahayana Buddhism because I have found some kinship with my home base in especially transcendental phenomenology.

A tension that runs through O’Leary’s work is the one initiated by Nagarjuna, i.e., whether the core Buddhist teaching of “emptiness” does or does not make impossible an ultimate philosophical or theological truth, e.g., of the ultimacy of Emptiness, the Buddha, Essential Mind. (Perhaps the most important discussion is ch. 9, “The Two Truths.”) O’Leary repeatedly returns to the question of whether foundational doctrines, e.g., that of emptiness and dependent co-arising of causes, may be applied to the foundational doctrine itself. I want to briefly pursue this tension in relation to some of the basic issues as they emerge out of my own present theoretical interests and inclinations. What follows will be a sketch of a transcendental phenomenological position that is laced with more or less explicit interpretations of not only Buddhism but Prof. O’Leary’s version of it. Given my illiteracy in Buddhist matters I cannot engage Prof. O’Leary on his deep far-ranging turf but on my own. Thus this somewhat selfish undertaking is minimally in the service of the truth about whether or not I have got close to understanding Buddhism and Prof. O’Leary, or whether I fail in regard to both. In any case I am grateful to both Professors O’Leary and Rivera for the challenge and stimulus to move at least a little “outside my comfort zone.”

Consciousness, Selfhood, and Ethics without Persons

I take it to be true that for transcendental phenomenology and Mahayana Buddhism, the ultimate relation of “Being” and “Mind,” obviously terms laden with historical and conceptual schemes, is the core metaphysical theme upon which everything else is founded. This is not the relation ultimately of two essences or entities but a non-twoness in which everything is encompassed and included.2 We are confronted by an apparent two in “the natural attitude” where a sense of “Being” unmindful of mind goes in advance, indeed this sense of “Being” itself raises the issue of whether it is able to have any prior antecedent or anterior consideration.3 But a familiar sense of mind surfaces later when the mind is not absorbed in “Being,” i.e., in its life with beings in the world but, for whatever reason, it is turned toward itself as distinct from Being as in the sense of the world absorbing it. This may happen for a variety of reasons, not least of which might be a mistake or an error in interpretation. Here mind as a medium of the presence of the being of the world surfaces, and it might initially and falsely appear as an intervening entity needing to be overcome. But once it becomes evident that being is evident or manifest only through the mind’s agency of manifestation, then we have reason to hold that being and its manifestation are coaeval.

Indeed, because the notion of Being is limitless in its extension, and yet never present without the agency of manifestation, Husserl proposed that we speak of consciousness as “Being” in a uniquely radical sense, i.e., as “absolute being,” or the “root of ‘Being’” or even as non-Being, but here non-Being is by no means a nihil negativum.4 Both the possibilities of the root of being and non-being are tied to the consideration that consciousness’s manifesting manifestness was the source of the manifestation of all of that which is or can be called “Being” in the sense of something able to be made present, and especially what is in the space and time of the horizon phenomenonology names “world.” This, of course, includes the beings of dreams, numbers, selves, dreamings, rememberings, questions, doubts, square roots, irrational numbers, etc. Thus if we (mistakenly) take “beings” to be that which is individual by being individuated and having identifiable distinguishing properties, and having duration both in terms of its own changing and not changing, then mind as consciousness is not a being. And thus it is not in time or space. Indeed it bears all (being) that is manifest, i.e., it is the phenomenological (not efficient-causal) bearer of all manifest meaning and value, der Geltungsträger der Welt.5

It is not as if the meanings or kinds or suchnesses, the various ways world is fleshed out as . . ., are not inherent in the displayed world, but they require the agency of manifestation for this to be brought to light that it might be so manifest (cf. eidos). With this inherent excellence manifested by the agency of manifestation (mind or consciousness) itself is enriched by participating in the excellence intentionally.

Further a fundamental feature of being mind is that not only is it agency of manifestation but that it is self-manifest, self-aware without being aware of itself, and in its pre-reflective self-awareness as well as in its explicit self-awareness, is indicated with the first-person singular pronoun, whereby one refers to oneself as oneself. This reference is non-ascriptive (no property assignment) to what itself is essentially non-sortal, i.e., without properties. Referring to oneself as oneself is not referring to one’s identifiable person as intersubjectively in the world with others.

We need to make a distinction between the use of “I” in the natural attitude and the use of “I” in the transcendental attitude. Both refer non-ascriptively to what is non-sortal and unique. But the “I” achievement in the natural attitude spontaneously thinks of itself as itself something in the world, whereas with the “transcendental I” one refers to oneself as the transcendental ultimate agent of manifestation, to whom everything appears through its acts of display, and this included the display of oneself as this person in the world. For the transcendental I as such there can be no identity-crisis or proclivity to clinging to delusional fabrications of its identity. This is because its transcendental self-presence is non-sortally and non-ascriptively and non-reflectively intact and the basis for the awareness of such crises. The transcendental I recognizes its referent in the natural attitude “as oneself.” “As oneself” is not identically the same as recognizing, e.g., “JGH.” That is, the reference of “I” is free of any identifying, recognizing, predicating activity. This same reference happens in the natural attitude where “I” refers non-ascriptively to what is made presence apart from any identifying of the familiar properties. (This is what is meant by the referent being “non-sortal.” But it is in a philosophical reflection, e.g., the transcendental attitude, that there emerges the transcendental identity of the person as standing in contrast with the public intersubjective identity. Consider how when one responds to “who is there?” I answer, “I,” and the questioner then asks: And how am I to identify who “I” refers to, I will say my name or identify me as the neighbor, or a census taker, etc. Here there is a clear sense in which although one answers to “who are you ?” with “I” but at the same time there is another sense given to “me” with, e.g., “JGH,” or “the neighbor,” a sense than with “I.” Even if I answered with “a stranger” I would have identified myself differently than with “I.” Indeed there is a clear sense that with “I” I don’t identify myself. And, to say that “I” refers to “this speaker now” or by using some other identifier or indexical, as “this one here and now across from you” what “I” refers to is not captured. To make a long story short: the thought experiment of an “ontological” clone in the very restricted sense of a doubling of JGH down to every detail, would still not mean that the “JGH One” with “I” would refer to “JGH Two”; the first one (as well as the second, assuming the experiment) would each say: “Whoever you are in the world you are, you not me and I am not you.” In this sense, the inclination to name certain identifying properties as identical with oneself, or saying I cannot be me unless I am “trans-” or even I cannot be me if I am not Catholic or Buddhist, etc., is metaphysically “delusional” even if demanding a loving understanding.

Nevertheless we may not therefore underplay the ontological necessity of the transcendental non-sortal I to be “sorted out,” to personalize itself in its being in the world with others. This is not an option but personifying me as the one I should be is the most important task, i.e., it is the absolute ought to be one’s ideal self; it is a calling to an adventure of discovery and self-formation. But as such it is never a finished accomplishment, and the truth of one’s ideal self is never given to us in apodictic evidence.

All forms and habits of presencing and self-presencing and identification depend on the unique non-sortal referent of “I” as an agent of manifestation and, in the course of one’s being in the world with others, are “personifications” of this. That is, they are synthetic cumulative acts forming habituations and identifiable features as a result of one’s living out what may be taken as an original unique pervasive “ought” or “calling” to concretize the unique non-sortal essence that is the referent of “I.”

There is obviously no transcendental person in the world without these embodied self-identifications, whether they are delusional or not. (For example, I must believe that I have a father, and further believe that X the famous athlete was my father, and that belief has pervaded much of my life and life-choices, but it might well turn out that X was not my father and neither was he a famous athlete, etc.; but this person, JGH, with his constellations of properties is not the proper referent of either the first-person reference nor of the transcendental I of JGH that comes to light in transcendental-phenomenological reflections. Nevertheless, even though there is an identity when I, JGH, the metaphysically mistaken person, say “I,” and when I, JGH, engage in transcendental phenomenology and gain a theoretical detachment from JGH.)6

Now let us (finally) switch to Prof. O’Leary’s book. He presents a novel and nuanced analysis of religious concepts and language and how the ineluctable discriminations emergent out of our perceptual life in the world can only provide a superficial framework unless these are emptied of ultimate significance in favor of their moorings in another deeper transcendent, perhaps even transcendental, dimension to which we do not have the same ready access (see 103 and ch. 9). Inseparable from these considerations is his proposal for the advancement of social justice, peace, compassion, forgiveness and reconciliation, in the light of a Buddhist theory of no-self, anatman.7 I confess to a basic difficulty of not knowing whether this theory that holds that there is no such legitimate thing as “self-ness” or “I-ness” is a theory denying the fundamental philosophical status of mind as intellectual consciousness as such, or whether it is a theory that holds that an I-less, self-less theory of consciousness is more basic than one claiming that consciousness necessarily “selved” or “egoic.” This difficulty will reassert itself in the course of what follows.

I appreciate that violence and conflict have much to do with one’s being attached to our moral and psychological self-identifying baggage and vices (not least of which is the propensity to demonize). Thus I appreciate also the importance of the exhortation that protagonists “empty” themselves of this baggage, and especially important is each’s emptying herself of hate, frequently the source of the legitimation of demonization (cf. 105).

Although I appreciate the basic important claim that conflict is tied very, if not most, often to our erroneous self-identifications, I find it to be an unrealizable thought-experiment to retain traditional moral concepts and moral language, to say nothing of exercising forgiveness, compassion, and reconciliation, in the face of a self-less person or Humean self. For me it is similar to requiring one to behave toward ethically toward robots or zombies (assuming I am correct in my metaphysical assessment of these beings). All the virtues practiced by members of a peaceable society presuppose the ontological respectful presencing of others as self-experiencing agents of manifestation whose presence of each to each is not exhaustively grasped as something in the world. This transcendence is an “empathic” experience of what the I refer to with “you,” refers to, i.e., to what the Other refers to when saying “I.” The one who is before me and identified as this embodied experiencing person in space and time and who is an identifiable person in the world in endless ways of gender, race, appearance, etc., is not what “you” refers to, but rather the one who “has” this embodiment, i.e., the transcendent self-aware agent of manifestation and world-transformation. As transcendental subjects the persons do not have their being exhausted by a third-personal thingly description proper to worldly objective beings. Thus they are never able to be reduced to the causal considerations which may be involved in their being bodies here and now and in their experiencing here and now what they do experience. As Kant said, persons are never just things in the world, but are incommensurate with things and thus are never worldly means but always ends in themselves. In short, they have a unique dignity which is not commensurate with the values proper to objective things in the world.

On the one hand, Hume was right about not being able to find himself given to himself among what is given, certainly among things in the world, but even among the things in his stream of consciousness. But, on the other hand, as Chisholm observed, because it is not possible so to find himself, it is impossible that he would not know that it was he himself seeking the self and/or himself. It is not possible that he not know that the very one, the one that is searching, stumbling and perplexed in not finding the self among the incessant flow of different perceptions, to be himself. And if he is correct in saying he finds himself to be stumbling how can he say he doesn’t find himself?8

(Of course, the Buddhist [as well as commonsensical and materialist] response is that the self-aware Humean self that is seeking his objective self, as well as Chisholm’s, and the searching self of JGH, are manifestly ephemeral, i.e., dead or soon to be. Yet [if I’ve got it right], in some sense the Buddha Nature/self of Hume and Chisholm are not ephemeral. John P. Keenan, for example, says that “after the dawning of an awareness of no-self, the awakened subject “searches for appropriate words and images skillfully to lead other subject so share in the direct experience of wisdom.” He also says the “awareness of an ‘I’ leads to no affirmation of “therefore I am.” But he also says the awareness of there being no I or no-self involves the awakened subject to want to help others.9 Thus we have a non-self that is continuously aware and awakened to the importance of helping others. Having overcome one’s collapse into one’s delusional self, one now lives awakened to a life of compassion. But putting it this way presupposes what the O’Learyan Buddhist denies. One may interpret James Joyce as making a Buddhist case, but will the claim for a stream of consciousness without a subject of this consciousness, i.e., without a dative of awareness, withstand reflection? Key would be to distinguish intentional consciousness and the non-reflective foundation which is ineliminable for any personal and therefore ethical agency. Otherwise we are left with something like the sheerest “behaviorism,” cybernetics or robotry, where no one is there but rather there is a screen displaying “events” without viewers.

For transcendental phenomenology there is no evidence available that would enable any propositions about the eternity of the self. Yet it does raise questions about how to understand its undeniable ephemerality. For example: Whether the transcendental I’s ineluctable engagement with the primal temporal flow, its “internal time-awareness,” does not mean that this awareness itself cannot be totally immersed in the flow; there are also important questions about the senses of its mortality as these are evident in the experienced world. For example, i.e., everyone experiences herself surrounded by death and that death is the lot of everybody, and typically makes the solid presumption that one too will die—in spite of the impossibility of experiencing one’s death. (The verb “to die” does not know a first-person past conjugation.) We will return to this.

Furthermore, we all recognize, and both Hindu and Buddhist thought are especially rich in pointing this out, that “one’s life” has numerous discrete interruptions and transformations like sleep and illness. Of course also life is laced with “surprises” and the occasional experience of the contradiction to what one has “every reason” to expect. Similarly, one has the familiar experience of looking back on one’s life in amazement: Did I do that? Did I write that? The framing habits of our perceptions of ourselves and the world undergo enormous changes. But the evidence seems clear that even though by definition recalling the past is recalling what is removed from the actual Now and what is at a personal-psychological-social distance, and thus it is not a perception, which, of course, has its own form of obscurity. Rather memory or recollection necessarily has to do with what, in contrast to perception, is something no longer present and available for clarification and interaction. But nevertheless, granted these difficulties, it is undeniable that I am not looking for my past in someone else’s memory. And if I can recall the past events I recall them as what were as experienced by me, not someone else, even though I may sense the sameness at a distance between the one who experienced that former event and the one recalling it. And even if, e.g., a friend may tell me that even though I have no recollection of an event and my behaving in a certain way, and, in contrast he knows that it is so, still I cannot experience it as my past until the right cues evoke it as indeed my former life.

Obviously there is some support for the no-self theory in our familiar experiences with the discontinuities in our lives, but is the discontinuity absolute? It seems hyperbolic to take such incidents and offer them as arguments for a no-self view. Not only does the observation of the discontinuity require continuity, but it is always a matter of my past. And in cases of not-remembering often enough there are techniques and therapies for overcoming the barriers and occasioning the right recollection.

The transcendental I-awareness is a flow of its conscious engagement of the life in the world as a personal I. This is an awareness of a series of processes or a series of a series of processes. The event of taking a sip of coffee in an Irish cafe, is a rich complex event of a lived synthesis of multiple identity syntheses. The simple movement of picking up the cup of coffee is an experience of an identity of temporal-spatial identities: there is the identity of the experience of the surfacing of the desire to taste the coffee, which involves the protention of the extension of one’s hand, with the execution of this extending of the arm there is the identity of the retention of the just past experience of the initiating desire, with the extended hand fulfilling in the present the protention of the extended hand, the motion of the hand seizing the cup, thereby fulfilling that protention, and moving it back to one’s lips, the satisfaction or dissatisfaction with how it tastes in relation to the original desire, etc.—all these moments are a flow of temporal different identity syntheses within the one large one of “taking a cup of coffee.” And the event of, e.g., one’s “trip to Ireland,” which upon one’s return might be rendered in a narrative which necessarily prescinds from the concrete richness of the ongoing variety of identity syntheses, building on the awareness of inner time, is a complex identity synthesis of identity syntheses, of which the sipping the cup of coffee in the Irish cafe might be not only negligible but hardly memorable. But this ongoing now-awareness of these is not itself a process in time any more than the now-consciousness of the flowing present itself is now. And this is just one more reason supporting Husserl’s own claim for an equivocal sense of “I” as it is used in transcendental phenomenology.10

Again, doubtless, most would benefit from a therapeutic deconstruction of their personal and cultural habitualities and inheritances, providing the therapy culminated in an appreciation of the epistemic achievement of respect as the necessary epistemic precondition for presencing persons as persons, i.e., not only is it a matter recognizing persons as not things or bundles or constellations of more or less blind efficient causes, but this very recognition as a cognitive act is inseparably an affective-moral act whereby the inviolable unmerited dignity of the other is manifest.11 Without this forgiveness, compassion, and reconciliation make no sense. Indeed, this therapy of respect needs to be extended also to the agents of violence themselves, and may be shown to at least imply a disrespect themselves in so far as the violence indicates their distorted sense of themselves. This is a view surely of Gandhi.

  1. Joseph S. O’Leary, Reality Itself: Philosophical Challenges of Mahāyāyana (Chisokudo, 2019). My thanks to John Maraldo for a very helpful critical reading of an early version this paper; many of the longer parenthetical sentences, which aspire to be clarifications, are due to his probing.

  2. Here I merely mention the hypothesis I am presently entertaining of a loose analogy of non-twoness of the non-reciprocal dependency relationship between transcendental consciousness and manifested world and the Christian (Thomist) distinction between God and the world. Whether a Buddhist positing of pure essential mind in relation to the experienced world would be part of the analogy is an even more tenuous hypothesis. In any case, I do not explicitly carry this out in what follows. For my inspiration on the “non-reciprocal” dependency relation, see Sara Grant’s discussion of Shankara and Aquinas in Sankaracarya’s Concept of Relation (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1998). Cf. also her Toward an Alternative Theology: Confessions of a Non-Dualist Christian, Teape Lectures, 1989 (University of Notre Dame Press, 2002).

  3. Being here and throughout will be parasitic on the false Cartesian separation of consciousness and Being as that of which one is conscious; the cogito ergo sum in fact, and contrary to the Cartesian assumption, presupposes the sum ergo cogito; but the sum is always being-conscious Bewusst-sein, as the condition for the reflexive ego cogito and this being-conscious is always consciousness of a general sense of “Being”: Bewusstsein ist immer schon Seinsbewusstsein.

  4. See, e.g., Edmund Husserl, Transzendentaler Idealismus Husserliana XXXVI , 70.

  5. Edmund Husserl, Zur Phänomenologische Reduktion: Teste aus dem Nachlass (1926–1935), Hua XXXIV, ed. Sebastian Luft (Doredrecht: Kluwer, 2002), 278.

  6. For all of this, see my Who One Is, vols. 1–2, (Dordrecht: Springer, 2009).

  7. See especially O’Leary, ch. 3, “The Ontology of Forgiveness.”

  8. See especially ch. 13 for Prof. O’Leary’s analyses of Hume, etc. See Roderick Chisholm, Person and Object (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1975), 39–40. Cf. my Who One Is, 1:92.

  9. The Meaning of Christ: A Mahayana Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1989), 197–98.

  10. I wrestle with these issues more at length in Who One Is, vol. 1, ch. VII; vol. II, ch. 2.

  11. The German word Achtung captures at once the cognitive and moral dimension. It means and is used for our word “attention” as well as “respect.” Paul Ricoeur emphasized that Husserl’s “empathy” ought not to be regarded as merely a distinctive cognitive-epistemic act by which Others are rendered present; rather one had to take note that it was at the same time an emotional-volitional form of perception. For a rich analytic discussion of “respect” as integral to the presencing of other persons and all discussions of ethics, rights, etc., see Stephen Darwall, The Second-Person Perspective: Morality, Respect and Accountability (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).

  • Joseph S. O'Leary

    Joseph S. O'Leary


    Response to James G. Hart

    I thank Professor Hart for this report from his workshop, and for his provocative interaction with Buddhist ideas. He raises vast questions of the kind that one must reconsider carefully every time that one seeks to answer them. Here I can only suggest a few critical pointers, that might be followed up in more leisurely study of classic texts both in Buddhism and in phenomenology.

    Professor Hart reveals that the primacy of consciousness in Hussserl is not merely a methodological question but has an ontological depth that would bring it into the neighborhood of mind-only (cittamatra or Yogācāra) Buddhism. A full study of this affinity would bring about a revolution in both Husserl studies and the understanding of Yogācāra. I quizzed the “transcendental ego” that comes to predominance in the Husserl of Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie, I (1913) and urged a non-egoic phenomenology of consciousness. Madhyamaka Buddhism would approve of the latter, and perhaps Yogācāra would too, though probably not to a degree that would satisfy the hypercritical Madhyamaka thinkers. Professor Hart obviously knows Husserl’s texts as I do not, but his discussion seems to confirm an incompatibility between the Husserlian ego, however refined, and Buddhist non-self. Is Buddhism wrong? Is Husserl right? Just now I am loath to take up the cudgels for the Buddhist doctrine, with all its inherent problems. Indeed a glorification of pure consciousness as the locus of one’s encounter with ultimate reality has great attractiveness, but it may inevitable lead out of Buddhism and into the warmer world of Vedanta, where the absolute is not emptiness but being-consciousness-bliss. I hope to study the bridge-figure between those two traditions, Gaudapada, the guru of Sankara’s guru. Gaudapada lifts entire verses from Nagarjuna and earned the repute of being a crypto-Buddhist. But perhaps the empty ultimate of Madhyamaka is not as remote from the “Brahman without qualities” of Vedanta. Perhaps such instances cannot be put in simple opposition to one another.

    Hart asks “whether this theory that holds that there is no such legitimate thing as ‘self-ness’ or ‘I-ness’ is a theory denying the fundamental philosophical status of mind as intellectual consciousness as such, or whether it is a theory that holds that an I-less, self-less theory of consciousness is more basic than one claiming that consciousness is necessarily ‘selved’ or ‘egoic.’” Offhand, I would say that for Buddhism the answer is “yes.” The ego has at best a conventional validity, and is never an ultimate truth; and at worst it is an agent of illusion and perdition, like the “moi” of Pascal. Sometimes we have apparent abolitions of the ego in Christian mysticism, beginning with Paul: cupio dissolvi et esse cum Christo, τὴν ἐπιθυμίαν ἔχων εἰς τὸ ἀναλῦσαι καὶ σὺν χριστῷ εἴναι (Phil 1:23). This language means more than “I am ready to die, to continue as an immortal soul in the bosom of the Lord”; there is a hint of radical relativization of the self’s identity. Compare 1:21: “For me, living is Christ and death is gain”; and not that only a dozen verses later we have the hymn about Christ’s self-emptying, which again destabilizes fixed identity. “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me, and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:19–20). Can one say that voice of Paul comes to us from a place of non-self? The Christ of Paul has two marks of identity: the cross, which is the total assumption of the marks of existence—impermanence, suffering, non-self—and the resurrection, a passage to a purely pneumatic mode of being; both are marked by non-self and emptiness, as Lynn A. De Silva has explored.1 Hart refers to Paul: “In one“Ontological” here cannot refer to a conventionally solid sense of being. If one asks what is being for Paul, the answer must be Spirit, pneuma, and an ontological interrogation of that phenomenon may take us into quite unsettling regions.

    “I find it to be an unrealizable thought-experiment to retain traditional moral concepts and moral language, to say nothing of exercising forgiveness, compassion and reconciliation, in the face of a self-less person or Humean self.” This is a basic crux of Buddhist thought. Perhaps we must say that all these moral attitudes belong to the level of the conventional, and the ultimate will emerge when one lets them go. If the identity of the self (its continuity over time, as established in recollection), whether it be one’s own self or another’s, is a conventional construct, not an ultimate reality, then there is an asymmetry between the first three of the four “immeasurables” or Brahma-abidings, namely loving-kindness, compassion, and sympathetic joy, and the fourth, equanimity.

    Ordinary individualized sentient beings are nonexistent in the ultimate sense. Hence, for equanimity, their welfare, suffering, and joy are not matters of genuine concern. . . . How can it possibly be that equanimity, which only detachedly observes the course of human life that “makes beings its objects by detachedly looking on” (Buddhaghosa), deliberately disciplining itself to avoid any concern for the sorrows, joys, and welfare of human or other beings, can be called the synthesis of the other dispositions of loving-kindness, compassion, and altruistic joy that are the specific embodiment of that concern?2

    Mahayana Buddhism aims to make the two pillars of Buddhism—Wisdom and Compassion—equal, and to see them as two wheels of a cart that cannot advance if one of them is defective; wisdom without compassion is empty, compassion without wisdom blind.3 But the answer given to the question “How can I have compassion for a being who does not really exist?” seems to be “Just do it!” “If the bodhisattva considers all beings in this way, how does he produce great benevolence toward them?” To Mañjuśrī’s troubled query, Vimalakīrti replies: “Mañjuśrī, the bodhisattva who considers them thus says to himself: ‘To make understood to these beings the essence of dharmas, I shall preach the dharma.’ Thus he produces toward all beings a benevolence that is always helpful” (Vimalakirti Sutra, VI, 2). The Prajñāpāramitā sūtra in twenty-five thousand verses presents this as the greatest difficulty for bodhisattvas. To lead beings to awakening is like attempting to discipline or dispute with space, for like space the beings exhibit the characters of isolation, emptiness, insubstantiality, and vanity. If, having understood this, “a Bodhisattva does not lose heart, feels no despondency and does not tremble in his mind, then he courses in perfect wisdom.”4 But when he or she “surveys all dharmas from emptiness, and does not abandon any being,” the bodhisattva becomes “a refuge to those without refuge, a shelter of the defenseless, the final relief of those who are without one.”5 Exertion in the conventional attitudes of kindness, compassion, empathy will attune one to emptiness, and is a spiritual exercise keeping one in the realm of emptiness, though seeming to leave it behind (just as the bodhisattva who refrains from entering into nirvana out of compassion for the needy beings in samsara ends up incarnating the nirvanic in the samsaric, so to speak, or revealing that nirvana and samsara are one).6

    1. Lynn Alton De Silva, The Problem of the Self in Buddhism and Christianity (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1979); Mit Buddha und Christus auf dem Weg (Freiburg: Herder, 1998); Pioneering Exploration in Inter-Religious Dialogue, ed. Marshal Fernando (Colombo: Ecumenical Institute for Study and Dialogue, 2013.

    2. Winston L. King, Buddhism and Christianity (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1963), 7980.

    3. Ludovic Vievard, Vacuité (śūnyatā) et compassion (karuṇā) dans le bouddhisme madhyamaka (Paris: Collège de France, 2002).

    4. Edward Conze, trans., The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), 463.

    5. Vievard, Vacuité, 464.

    6. See my Buddhist Nonduality, Paschal Paradox: A Christian Commentary on The Teaching of Vimalakirti [Vimalakirtinirdesa] (Leuven: Peeters, 2018), 194–204.

Nikolaas Deketelaere


The Depth of Reality

For a Loving Struggle with Atheism

Joseph O’Leary’s latest book eloquently uses Buddhist philosophy to highlight what he understands to be the core of any lived Christianity, which it would share with Buddhism as with any other religion, namely an opening up to reality itself: “Study of Buddhism,” he explains, “throws new light on Christianity by showing it to be a religion of awakening to reality” (30). On O’Leary’s account, the ground for their reciprocally elucidating capacity is what we might call their shared kenotic structure, namely the “logic of the Incarnation” in Christianity as it corresponds to “the truth of emptiness” in Buddhism (190). If Christianity is characterized by a historical person in which God has emptied himself of his own divinity (Phil 2:7), in which God manifests himself by withdrawing from himself and assuming the finite condition of humanity, then the Buddhist development of emptiness might help us think this gesture:

Phenomenologically, the claim that Jesus is savior and divine is grounded in the way that in the story of Jesus divine ultimacy and human historical struggle click together in a cogent and potent way, unknown elsewhere. Unless Christological discourse acquires some such concrete and graspable profile it withers away in abstraction. Buddhist philosophy contributes to this regrounding. To see Jesus as a man empty of own-being, and therefore manifesting in his dependently originating existence the ultimate reality of divine emptiness, is a vision that chimes well with many aspects of the Gospel. (83)

According to O’Leary, this is what puts religions in touch with reality itself. After all, if the divine is “a reality that cannot be securely pinned down, and that reveals itself in its withdrawal, as what forever eludes our grasp” (62), religion is better equipped than any other human activity to think reality itself: “Reality plays hard to get; it is known only in its withdrawal” (412). Within theology, then, this “implies a reconversion of all religious terms into indications of concrete life-orientations” (23). The exercises this book thus rightly engages in are “reductions of dogma to what is phenomenologically accessible” (90), namely the elusive experience of reality itself that escapes the clutches of metaphysical reason.

My knowledge of Buddhism is too embarrassingly superficial to comment on the details of these various exercises—which on their own constitute an impressive venture in (comparative) philosophy of religion—, but I do wish to raise a question regarding the overarching argument of the book: in saying that “the whole point of religions” is to put us in touch with “reality itself, in its deepest and most universal sense” (11), does O’Leary not declare reality itself to be religious, as opposed to merely pointing out the reality of religion, namely the fact that “religions are false and valueless when they are not in accord with reality itself” (10)? Throughout the book, he depicts religion as the primordial access to reality itself, superior to philosophy, science, and art. Whilst these other human activities are indeed also concerned with reality itself, “religions maintain that concern in a more ultimate sense, since they live by the conviction (and experience) of reality as numinous and graced” (30).

This critique of philosophy as unable to think (or to experience) the withdrawing (of) experience is not new; it sits arguably at the heart of philosophical projects of both Heidegger and Derrida, and I therefore wonder whether O’Leary is not being overly hasty in seeking this experience outside of philosophy. More importantly, however, the idea that the real is inherently religious has a potentially dangerous implication, namely that contact with reality becomes a feature of a particular religious practice and thus the privilege of people of faith. That religion in no way accords with the real, that it is entirely illusionary, a question of childish self-indulgence or at best a useful evolutionary fiction, is indeed a position we can hardly take seriously. However, establishing the religious structure of reality itself nevertheless strikes me as an enterprise that is both impossible from the point of view of philosophy (i.e., given the necessity of sticking to the horizon of finitude) and undesirable on its own terms (i.e., the book’s admirable ambition of contributing to an interreligious dialogue where the transformative encounter with the other gives rise to a better understanding of oneself). Indeed, there seems to be an unresolved tension within the book: though O’Leary urges us to “recognize the blessings of conventionalism and relativism” (190) in dealing with the differences between the religions, he seems reluctant to apply this to the category of religion as such. However, if specific “religious terms” indicate certain “concrete life-orientations” (23), why would religion itself not also be one of many equally valid ways of approaching reality itself?

Of course, at no point does O’Leary claim that religion is the only means of accessing reality itself; however, religion is said to deliver a “richer and deeper” (13) or “fuller and deeper” (14) grasp of it. I cannot help but be suspicious of this language of depth. What does it mean to say that something is more fully real when it is deeper? Indeed, the abyss is truly deep, but more than that cannot be said about it either. Depth might in some instances belie an uninteresting superficiality: by plunging into the abyss we also step outside of our life in the world, which was supposed to be the matter at issue. Here, we would do well to bear in mind Nietzsche’s warning that even “those Greeks were superficial—out of profundity!1

On O’Leary’s account, an appreciation of the depth of reality itself is available only to the religious perspective, only religion puts us in touch with what “blank secularity” (15) would find itself “unable to articulate convincingly” (14) or “attain on its own” (94). This results from the method he borrows from Heidegger, which consists in setting up what the latter calls a “loving struggle” between Christianity and Buddhism: “All refutation in the field of essential thinking is foolish,” Heidegger says, and in that spirit O’Leary does not see Christianity and Buddhism as competing claims to truth; rather, the differences between them are sketched as “a ‘loving struggle’ concerning the matter itself,” which “assists them mutually toward a simple belonging to the Same,”2 namely an awakening to reality itself. It is Jaspers, however, who has developed this notion in more detail as a confrontation that is not oriented towards victory and domination over the other, but rather towards an understanding of oneself through the other:

The [loving] struggle (…) is unlike the struggle for existence in which all weapons are brought into play and trickery and fraud become inevitable, in which my fellow man is treated as an enemy (…). The [loving] struggle (…) has to do (…) with utter candor, with the elimination of all kinds of power and superiority (…). It is a struggle in which both combatants dare to show themselves without reserve and to allow themselves to be thrown into question. (…) It never aims at superiority and victory; if these are gained, they will be felt as disturbing (…). Mutual transparency is sought not only in the matters at issue, but in the means of questioning and of contention. Each combatant penetrates himself along with the other. 3

Emmanuel Falque, in his The Loving Struggle, has aptly described this kind of confrontation as a “quasi-athletic tussle,” where “the partners are adversaries only in order to measure themselves against one another and thereby to surpass themselves.”4

Indeed, though he might be reluctant to admit it, O’Leary’s use of this metaphor of a loving struggle puts him very close to Falque’s understanding of the relationship between philosophy and theology in terms of the transformation of one by the other: like when Christianity comes into its own in its encounter with Buddhism; when philosophy encounters the religious, when thinking happens within the context of religion, what follows is a “glorious apprehension of the real” (94) that neither human activity could attain on its own. I am aware that O’Leary has elsewhere described Falque’s position, along with the rest of contemporary French phenomenology, in a wonderfully stinging way as presenting “philosophy as a pouting servant girl, the ancilla theologiae who would like to climb into her master’s bed.”5 By nevertheless drawing the comparison here, I do not mean to suggest that O’Leary similarly theologizes philosophy, like so many French phenomenologists do at their peril and as he (correctly) remarks here again (e.g., 87); but rather that he fails to recognize the sophistication of Falque’s position and the radical break with the generation of phenomenologists of religion that came before him it represents: for Falque, it is very much the case that phenomenology and theology make two.

The key difference between Falque and O’Leary, however, is that the former has far more time for “atheism” or “secularism,” whilst the latter insists that “with any religion one steps into a realm of thought and feeling that goes beyond common secular perception” (14) and where “faith feels itself to be in contact with an inward truth that secular rejection cannot crush” (13). The loving struggle O’Leary thus sets up—a struggle about reality itself unfolding between different perspectives on it—is thus exclusively between religions, and in this case between Christianity and Buddhism in particular. The secular or atheist perspective does not get involved, for it would not have the same level of access to reality itself. The struggle between religion and atheism, unlike that between Buddhism and Christianity, does not “take place at the same level” since there is no “mutual recognition, and in the questioning, mutual affirmation,”6 as Jaspers puts it: it is not a loving struggle over the matter itself, but a fight to the death. However, why not extend this loving struggle to atheism? Do atheists not also experience the real in a valid way? O’Leary’s struggle about reality itself involves only “the religious other” (16), but not the other of religion, which is dismissed as superficial.

The problem here is O’Leary’s understanding of atheism. By engaging in Christian-Buddhist dialogue, he wants to illustrate how “we are living through a change in the nature and function of theism,” away from doctrinal truth and towards life orientation, which has as its result that “atheism ceases to have a clear target” (18). If God no longer is a transcendent being that would exist ‘out there’, there no longer is anything for atheism to deny the existence of. However, is this really the atheism we see around us today? Are so many of our contemporaries really that naive? If the experience offered by the confrontation with another religion “is more puzzling than the challenges of a blank secularity,” for O’Leary, this is because “it advances under the guise not of scepticism but of a conviction every bit as firmly held as one’s own” (15). Yet, this ignores the fact that there are plenty of people who genuinely claim to be atheists, with this conviction being every bit as firmly held as other people do their faith. Moreover, this atheism—precisely as firmly and sincerely held conviction—is not simply an exercise in intellectual scepticism, and it therefore does not need a target: most people who would call themselves atheists, unlike Richard Dawkins, do not spend their time trying to disprove what they think theism to be (why would they bother?). Today, most atheists are not militantly against anything, let alone God; rather, the religious or spiritual dimension has simply ceased to mean anything to them, they do not see the point of God, they are indifferent. Today, atheism designates not the rejection but rather the disappearance of any supposed depth-dimension, or precisely its appearance only as something profoundly unreal. To understand atheism as being against something, as having or needing a target, is only atheism “as seen by the theologian,”7 to reprise the insightful phrase the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty directs against the theologian Henri de Lubac. When O’Leary then elevates religion as the primordial access to reality itself, he does so—despite his protestations—from a theological position: if not speaking from any particular “confessional investment,” it is still not the “more disinterested” (76) speaking of philosophy he aims at, but instead a speaking from a position that has “already succumbed to the attraction” (15) of religion, for only from that position could one ever declare its superiority, could one declare reality to be structured in a religious way. However, since this implies that atheists would be living in unreality, condemned to an inauthentic existence, I feel this should be resisted on philosophical grounds.8  Indeed, atheism is anything but easy, superficial, or invalid, when it comes to approaching reality itself. For someone like Jean-Luc Nancy, for example, ‘atheism’ consists precisely in the attempt to think the world as it is, namely on its own terms and therefore without transcendent referent or depth.9 For him, the deepest and most difficult thing to think is also the most ‘superficial’ or mundane: the world as it worlds, without seeking anything behind this worlding that might ground it.

In conclusion, if O’Leary’s admirable book establishes that religions are undeniably real, in that they consist in a lived approach to reality itself as opposed to idle speculation; I wonder whether it does not overshoot its mark somewhat by implying that reality itself is religious. Likewise, if the loving struggle between Christianity and Buddhism he stages to make his point delivers valuable results for Christian theology; I wonder if the question it raises for the philosophy of religion is not whether another loving struggle must be staged: not between Christianity and Buddhism, but between religion and atheism, for they too struggle over reality itself yet are not in competition, existing instead in an “incomparable solidarity,”10 as Jaspers puts it, that is documented by swathes of recent work in continental philosophy. The goal of this loving struggle, as Falque puts it, would be “to come to an understanding of ‘man without God,’ in the double sense of entering such a person’s thought processes and feeling empathy for one who holds such a view,” which “entails incessantly taking up the challenge (…) not to destroy atheism but to learn from it, avoiding (…) seeing it only through Christian eyes, and thus condemning it de facto.”11 After all, if from the loving struggle about reality itself between Buddhism and Christianity it becomes evident that the nature of theism itself has changed; then it is from a similar struggle between religion and atheism that we likewise discover “a new mode of being of atheism (the surpassing and the relinquishing of God, rather than a combat with God),” from which follows the need for Christian theology “to appropriate it before we condemn it,” and even more importantly the “need to see it not simply from the point of view of the certitudes of faith.”12 When it comes to the awakening to reality itself, which is perhaps not so much a characteristic of religion as it is of human existence in general, the Christian then has as much to gain from a loving struggle with the Buddhist as they do from a similar struggle with the atheist. After all, as Husserl already suggested in a famous phrase from the Crisis that has lost none of its relevance today, the “struggle between the philosophies” is a “struggle for the meaning of man.”13

  1. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001), 9.

  2. Martin Heidegger, Pathmarks (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998), 256 (translation modified); The Basic Problems of Phenomenology (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988), 328.

  3. Karl Jaspers, Philosophy, vol. 2 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 60.

  4. Emmanuel Falque, The Loving Struggle: Phenomenological and Theological Debates (London: Rowan & Littlefield, 2018), 2.

  5. Joseph S. O’Leary, “Phenomenology and Theology: Respecting the Boundaries,” Philosophy Today 62.1 (2018) 99–117 (107). For Falque’s account, see his Crossing the Rubicon: The Borderlands of Philosophy and Theology (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016).

  6. Jaspers, Philosophy, 2:61.

  7. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, In Praise of Philosophy and Other Essays (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1988), 46. For an excellent commentary on what this might mean in the contemporary context, see Emmanuel Falque, The Metamorphosis of Finitude: An Essay on Birth and Resurrection (New York: Fordham UP, 2012), 33-36.

  8. For an insightful perspective on this issue, see Jean-Yves Lacoste, Le monde et l’absence d’œuvre (Paris: PUF, 2000), 23-54.

  9. See, for example, Jean-Luc Nancy, The Creation of the World or Globalization (Albany: SUNY, 2007).

  10. Jaspers, Philosophy, 2:60.

  11. Falque, The Metamorphosis of Finitude, 33.

  12. Falque, Metamorphosis of Finitude, 35.

  13. Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970), 14–16.

  • Joseph S. O'Leary

    Joseph S. O'Leary


    Response to Nikolaas Deketelaere

    The idea of a “loving struggle” between philosophy and theology is quite Heideggerian, and I would have no quarrel with Emmanuel Falque about that.1 However, the idea of a loving struggle between faith and unbelief is quite a different matter. Deketelaere sometimes sees philosophy and atheism as being on the same page, whereas I see philosophy as the ally of faith “in problematizing the adequacy of secular vision and opening a space of questioning in which the old religious languages may resonate afresh” (Reality Itself, 14). When Frederick Copleston and Bertrand Russell debated the existence of God, or when Rowan Williams jousts with Richard Dawkins, it is partly true (but leave out the “only”) that “the partners are adversaries only in order to measure themselves against one another and thereby to surpass themselves” (Falque). The deeper motivation of the debaters is to refute the opponent, which is quite logical given the contradiction between their basic claims. I don’t think that questions of religious truth and falsehood have become disabled by the changes in the religious landscape; or that what I called the “change in the nature and function of theism,” is simply one “from doctrinal truth and towards life orientation” (Deketelaere’s interpretation); I would rather say that the phenomenality of divine presence has become harder to bottle in the inherited metaphysical or Platonist frameworks, which is the reason that “atheism ceases to have a clear target.” To be sure, atheism may have become a blurry target as well. Nonetheless, atheism is a position that religion contradicts fundamentally and seeks to refute. In the past we saw interreligious debate in the same light, and possibly have swung too far in the direction of glossing over interreligious contradiction. In any case we are content not to see those contradictions as deal-breakers, but as matter for loving ecumenical discussion in view of deeper commonalities. Deketelaere and possibly Falque want to establish the same ecumenical rapport with atheism, perhaps along the lines of Jocelyn Benoist’s friendly jousting with Jean-Luc Marion, and it may be that Richard Kearney’s “anatheism” opens up the same possibility. I would say that Buddhist-Christian dialogue covers the issues of such a dialogue with atheism at greater depth, holding them within a shared quest for reality itself, but not in such a way that one position is the sheer negation of the other.

    The debate with atheism may go on within the believer’s breast. Faith has a certain dialectical quality, in that it struggles with difficulties and overcomes them. “Ten thousand difficulties do not make a doubt,” said Newman, and a French theologian offers the modification, “Ten thousand doubts do not make an infidelity.”2 The Psalms brood constantly on two dismal prospects: that God has forgotten his people, and that his people have forgotten God. Can the temptation of atheism be treated as an inherently valuable and interesting new perspective comparable to that of another religion? Scepticism may purge faith and may awaken us from dogmatic slumbers, and it may be drawn on by Christianity as an ally in its resistance to superstition and fundamentalism. In the first interactions between Buddhist and Christian thinkers in Meiji Period Japan, Anesaki Masaharu (1873–1949) urged that Buddhists and Christians join forces against irreligion, but also that Buddhists join forces with irreligion against Christian errors.3 In philosophical discussion the point of view of a sceptic, or an atheist, or a materialist, or a nihilist is welcomed, and may be necessary. But since radical scepticism negates any religious perception, the religious thinker is bound to relate to it apologetically, as a position to be refuted. One may be happy to say that a good Catholic must be a Protestant, and vice versa, or that a good Christian must be a Buddhist, and vice versa, one hesitates to embrace Ernst Bloch’s dictum that “only an atheist can be a good Christian; only a Christian can be a good atheist.”4 For a Christian atheism has a subsidiary usefulness, as directed against false gods; for an atheist, Christianity has a subsidiary use as paving the way for total negation of divinity. How can a Christian enter a dialogue that would recognize such a destructive aim as legitimate?

    Deketelaere writes, “Do atheists not also experience the real in a valid way? It seems that O’Leary’s account of the struggle about the matter itself involves only ‘the religious other’ (16), but not the other of religion, which is dismissed as superficial.” I’ve been hearing about a dialogue with atheism since reading Romano Guardini and Henri de Lubac as a teenager, and it sometimes sounds like the fretting of Irish bishops about Mass attendance. They invoked sociology to measure the nation’s faith, under the title Christus Rex, and then as the reassuring statistics yielded to disheartening ones they seemed smitten with a Beckettian paralysis, watching the last embers of faith grow cold. The writers I have most studied—Henry James, Joyce, Beckett—can be seen as representing aspects of atheism.5 One might confer on their unbelief a positive status, as enabling their original vision of human reality. But that vision as such goes beyond mere negation. They certainly “experience the real in a valid way” but not so much qua atheists as in the spiritually charged realm of art. Indeed the most atheistic of the three would no doubt be Beckett, yet he is also the one who most prompts religious questioning. His godless landscape is tragic, like that of King Lear, and once atheism begins to give itself tragic airs we are back in a religious world.

    When Deketelaere says that “it is still not the ‘more disinterested’ (76) speaking of philosophy” that I aim at “but instead a speaking from a position that has ‘already succumbed to the attraction’ (15) of religion,” he is correct, but does this exclude the possibility of reverting to the methodology of philosophy, which I take to include an imperative of disinterestedness (not of course to be confused with indifferentism)? When I read Heidegger I suspend theological investments, to follow, as an end in itself, his phenomenological questioning after Being. It is only at a second stage that I seek to engage with this theologically. If I trace Buddhist affinities in Hume, Hegel, and phenomenology, I try to exhibit these on purely philosophical grounds, before going on to note their religious significance. Note that to being a determinedly atheist hermeneutic to these philosophers would also be a break with philosophical disinterestedness, a dogmatic presupposition that only atheism is rational (a presupposition few philosophers share). And of course disinterested philosophy can generate natural theology on its own premises. Thomas Aquinas patiently charted this in Aristotle, deferring a faith-based reflection until his specifically theological works. It is rather question-begging to assert the philosophical “necessity of sticking to the horizon of finitude”; all religions, in any case, step beyond that horizon.

    When I wrote, “Is the step from the world of common experience and reason into the world of faith a plunged into delusion or a step to fuller reality? This question can be resolved only when one has already succumbed to the attraction or authority of a religion” (15), I did not say that the question cannot be posed on purely philosophical premises, but that it cannot be resolved without a deeper engagement with religion than philosophy allows; even to resolve it negatively would be a theological rather than a purely philosophical judgement, so that we count Feuerbach among the theologians.

    Étienne Gilson regards as superficial the “atheism of sloth or inattention” of a Lévi-Strauss, who said: “Personally I never found myself faced with the notion of God,”6 though Deketelaere might see this as the most perfect form of atheism. Much atheism is based on confusion about the nature of God, a confusion uninstructed by the two and a half millennia of thought that the West has devoted to this topic. “A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion” (Bacon). Atheism tells its own story in the classical histories of Friedrich Albert Lange and Fritz Mauthner;7 and what comes across is not a serene array of clear and distinct ideas but a laboured mythology shored up by strenuous logical and systematic efforts that fail to avoid inconsistency. Perhaps the best way to refute atheism is to get it to talk. “For someone like Jean-Luc Nancy, for example, ‘atheism’ consists precisely in the attempt to think the world as it is, namely on its own terms and therefore without transcendent referent or depth.” The trouble is that there is no such thing as a world without transcendent referent. The very notions of good and bad, true and false, that guide us at every moment, posit a transcendent referent. A philosopher examining the world as it is, “on its own terms,” will stumble on such irreducibles, or on “the miracle of all miracles, that beings are,”8 which pose difficulties for shearing away transcendence.

    I would like to conclude by thanking Nicolaas Deketelaere for his lively debate and the various novel perspectives he opens up, which will merit further study.

    1. But is that really the position he states in Crossing the Rubicon? See my review in Journal of Theological Studies 64 (2013)841–45. If I miss “the sophistication of Falque’s position and the radical break with the generation of phenomenologists of religion that came before him” it may be that it is because this is expressed in the other book that I had not read (and was unaware of until reading Deketelaere’s essay).

    2. Jacques Durandeaux, Question vivante à un Dieu mort: Y a-t-il un problème de Dieu? (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1967); Living Questions to Dead Gods (London: Sheed and Ward, 1968). See also the works of Maurice Bellet, such as Ceux qui perdent la foi (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1965), and Michael de Certeau, La faiblesse de croire (Paris: Seuil, 1987).

    3. See Notto R. Thelle, Buddhism and Christianity in Japan: From Conflict to Dialogue, 1854–1899 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987).

    4. Ernst Bloch, Atheismus im Christentum: Zur Religion des Exodus und des Reichs (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp 1968), 15.

    5. See Charles Moeller, “Aspects de l’athéisme dans la littérature contemporaine,” in Jules Girardi and Jean-François Six, ed., L’Athéisme dans la vie et la culture contemporaines (Paris; Desclée, 1968), 2:73–174. In James’s greatest novels “God is never mentioned; it is unthinkable that he be named, for the characters live in a world where God is dead” (103). Religion may peep in as the characters taste the bitterness of their radical solitude, and sense “the guilt of existence” (103).

    6. Moeller, “Aspects de l’athéisme,” 30.

    7. Friedrich Albert Lange, Geschichte des Materialismus, 2 vols. (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1974); originally published in 1873, 1875. Fritz Mauthner, Der Atheismus und seine Geschichte im Abendlande, 4 vols. (Frankfurt: Eichborn, 1989); originally published 1920–1923.

    8. Martin Heidegger, Gesamtausgabe (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1975ff.), 9:307.



June 30, 2021, 1:00 am