The emptiness of Christ: A Mahayana Christology

by John P. Keenan

Anglican Theological Review

Vol. 75 No. 1 Winter.1993


Copyright by Anglican Theological Review Inc.

The Christology of the Western Church has, with few exceptions, developed in dialogue with the categories of Greek philosophy. As fruitful as the dialogue has been, however, it has created problems for our articulation of the doctrine of the Incarnation, and it is now problematical for those Christians who do not share the philosophical tradition of the West. This article begins the development of a Christology of emptiness, derived from one of the philosophical traditions of Buddhism. Mahayana theology is a Christian theology which attempts to understand the Christian faith through philosophical concepts developed in Mahayana Buddhism. An earlier article in this Journal introduced the general contours of Mahayana philosophy, suggesting its usefulness in the doing of Christian theology.[1] The present article will focus more specifically on employing the perspective of Mahayana theology to interpret the central Christian doctrine of Incarnation. This exercise is based upon the contention that the enunciation of Christian faith need not depend exclusively upon any one philosophical system, and that indeed it can be enriched by the attempt to enunciate it from an alternative philosophical perspective. Philosophy is seen here in traditional terms as in the service of theology, as "the handmaid of theology" (ancilla theologiae) rather than the overlord of theology (hegemonia theologiae). It serves to provide the framework in which theological questions may be raised and answers formulated.[2] What need is there to pull traditional Christian theology out of its accustomed Western philosophical framework and rework it in alien philosophical categories? Is this a purely gratuitous intellectual exercise for the amusement of academic theologians? I would submit that, to the contrary, Mahayana theology addresses important issues facing the Church and its theologians on several different levels, potentially (1) drawing mystical, experiential dimensions into the arena of "respectable" theologizing, (2) making the Christian faith spiritually and intellectually accessible to that portion of the global population which does not admit the validity of Western philosophical categories, and (3) resolving philosophical conundrums that have arisen from the exclusive reliance on Greek essentialist philosophy. The Heritage of Greek Philosophy The early Fathers of the Church adopted and when necessary adapted the prevailing philosophy of their day, which was Greek ontology, a system that focused on apprehending the essences of things and explaining the relationships between them. It is not surprising that in enunciating their Christian faith these thinkers did not follow more Hebrew modes of thinking, for they themselves were not culturally Hebrew; most were in fact Greek. The bond between Christian theology and Greek philosophy thus arose from this historical circumstance, but need not thereby be set for all time. The relationship between theology and philosophy remains doctrinally fluid and historically contextual.[3] One must recognize, however, that when any one philosophy is adopted to enunciate a faith, the faith becomes clothed in the distinctive terms and categories of that particular system of thought, often resulting in a commitment not only to the faith itself, but also to its philosophical raiment. Attentive reading of philosophical texts engenders attachment to those texts and their ideas.[4] A Christian thinker raised on traditional Western ontologies often is as vigorous in the defense of the philosophical concept of essence as in the defense of the Gospel teachings themselves. Despite Pascal's caveat to avoid confusing the living God with the God of the philosophers, philosophic theism is easily identified with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and criticism of theistic essentialism is consequently perceived as a threat against the faith itself, as an attack on God. Such a confusion of faith themes with philosophic categories absolutizes philosophy and fails to acknowledge its proper "handmaid" or instrumental role. Philosophy then comes to provide not only the conceptual framework for theological questioning, but takes over theologizing altogether. Indeed, some would argue that there is such a thing as a "Christian philosophy." During his illustrious career, Etienne Gilson drew scholastic philosophy and the Christian faith so tightly together that the one seemed necessarily to entail the other.[5] Greek philosophy was seen as a providential gift from God and was thus elevated from its servant status to the rank of overlord. This so-called Christian ontology has an illustrious pedigree in the history of Christian doctrine. The proclamations of the Council of Nicaea were all couched in this essentialist framework; one cannot understand the early Councils of the Church without familiarity with Western metaphysics. Still, the theological world is not unaware of the distinction between philosophy and theology, and theologies have been constructed upon different philosophical bases. But, generally speaking, alternate philosophical languages have found favor only insofar as they do not contradict the traditional ontological model. Paul Tillich's theology based on the existentialism of Martin Heidegger was widely accepted because it still moved within a philosophy of being and left ample room for new understandings of traditional themes. The Honest to God questioning of John A.T. Robinson, on the other hand, jolted the philosophical context of Christian thought precisely because it appeared not to honor those traditional understandings. Similarly, the attempts of Maurice Wiles to rehabilitate Arius and question the formulations of Nicaea caused distress among more "orthodox" thinkers,[6] as did G.W. Lampe's recommendation that we deem modalism to be a valid Trinitarian interpretation.[7] Thus, although theologians have given lip service to the possibility of a plurality of philosophical models in the service of theology, it would seem that the basic pattern of a Christian ontology remains firmly in place in most theological circles today, exercising a certain hegemony if not as the actual ruler of the fief, then at least as the gatekeeper who excludes outsiders from the manor house. And yet, a price has been paid for this exclusiveness. The dominant intellectualist thrust of Greek and scholastic thinking has succeeded over the centuries in shunting to the periphery of doctrinal thinking the insights of the Christian mystical experience. When one is intent on defining just what the precise terms of theological understanding are to be, one is apt to be less than patient with those who despair of finding any definition at all. Clouds of divine darkness may, it would seem, be all right for the mystic liturgies of quiet churches, but rigorous theological thinking needs to move in a realm of light. There is a resultant split in the Western Christian mind between "spiritual theology" and more serious, doctrinal theology. These two theological compartments are seldom allowed to overlap. Serious doctrinal theology moves in a theoretical pattern of ontological analysis, while spiritual theology is viewed as more pastoral and less rigorous. Seminars in spiritual practice glory in their distance from arid theology, while theological conferences tend to disdain the intellectual sloppiness of pastoral approaches to spirituality. It is true that the apophatic approach of Gregory of Nyssa and Dionysius the Aeropagite is well-known. But it is equally true that it is not often employed in the tasks of serious theology. And even those apophatic thinkers of the early Church, when they moved back toward kataphatic theology, found themselves perforce resorting to the only terms available to them at the time--the terms of Greek essentialism. (Thus it is that Gregory of Nyssa is not only the father of Christian mystical theology, he is also one of the framers of essentialistic Trinitarian thought.[8]) But this historical inability to incorporate the insights of mystical experience into Christian theology has led to a kind of schizophrenia. The Western Christian mind is torn between the long-dominant ontological mode of analysis and its own existential need for a kind of spiritual experience which is marginalized by the theological enterprise. Theology's traditional allegiance to Greek ontology has not only created this division within the Western, Christian mind but has also handicapped Christian thinkers in their attempts to communicate with the rest of the world. Many who would engage in dialogue with other world religions find the Western ontologies unserviceable and feel a need for new approaches to theological understanding which take into account alternate religious traditions and non-Western cultures. It is not obvious to those who do not share Western cultural assumptions that Greek ontology should have a privileged right to interpret the Christian Gospel for them. Some of the cultures and philosophies of the Orient possess no terms into which one can translate Greek ontological ideas. They cannot even express notions of essence and accident, much less directly refute them. One cannot therefore do meaningful Christian theology in a global context today if one insists on the hegemony of Greek ontology. But perhaps one of the most disturbing aspects of a Christian theology which hews exclusively to the categories of Greek ontology is to be seen in the conundrum created by its attempt to interpret the meaning of Christ as simultaneously both human and divine. Because theologians were limited to the essentialistic framework of Greek ontology, they were forced to function within clearly defined notions of what it means to be divine and what it means to be human. They accepted the notion of God which had been developed in earlier Greek philosophy, understanding God to be unoriginated, impassible, and unchanging being.[9] Yet, when one defines God as impassible and unchanging, that definition directly opposes the definition of a human being, a creature subject to change and suffering. Early Christology found itself in the quandary of how to apply both terms, divine and human, impassible and subject to suffering, to the same person of Christ. The first four centuries of Christian theology witness to the various attempts somehow to balance these conceptually contradictory notions in the one person of Christ, confessed in the liturgies to be both unchanging God and suffering human. Most attempts went too far to one side or the other, stressing the divine to the apparent exclusion of the human character of Jesus, or the human to the apparent exclusion of the divine. Most critiques were leveled not at what one party actually professed, but rather at the unacceptable implications perceived in the opinions of others. The doctrinal evolution that led to the proclamations of Nicaea and Chalcedon was both Byzantine in its twists and turns and inspiring in its final outcome, issuing in creedal statements which bent Greek categories to fit Christian usage. As a result it takes a trained philosopher to unravel these proclamations. As evidenced, for example, by the disputes over the ideas of Maurice Wiles and G.W.H. Lampe, this issue is far from dead. Modern understandings of Christ are still formed in terms of the Greek ontological model. The great majority of Christians, while confessing Christ as both human and divine, tend to fall unconsciously into one or another of the heresies excluded by the early Fathers: in their minds, Christ either becomes God striding through the world, or a man with particularly godlike qualities. It is precisely this kind of conundrum that a Mahayana Christology can avoid because, in basing itself on the doctrine of emptiness, it refuses to define either the divine or the human nature of Christ. If things and persons have no essences, as Mahayana holds, then they have no specific differences in light of which they might be defined. Mahayana theology is not compelled to do an intellectual balancing act in order to reconcile two opposite natures attributed to the same person. A Mahayana Christology My earlier article, "Mahayana Theology: How to Reclaim an Ancient Christian Tradition," outlined the basic themes of the philosophy which is employed in Mahayana theology. Mahayana, the Great Vehicle, was articulated in the Perfection of Wisdom Scriptures, which appeared around the turn of the common era and marked the rise of Mahayana as distinct from earlier forms of Buddhist teaching. Through concise axioms and jolting conundrums, these texts expressed a doctrine of emptiness (sunyata). Mahayana teachings subsequently were shaped into a philosophy in the writings of Nagarjuna, a monk-scholar who lived at the beginning of the second century. He developed the philosophy of the middle path (madhyama) and his philosophy came to be known as Madhyamika. It is this Madhyamika philosophy which serves as the model for our enunciation of Christian faith.[10] The fabric of Mahayana philosophy is woven from two main themes: the identity between emptiness and dependent coarising, and the differentiation between the two truths of ultimate meaning and worldly convention. The first theme sketches a Mahayana understanding of our "horizontal" being-in-the-world and relates to everything we encounter in our ordinary lives. The second theme is "vertical," and attempts to clarify our experience of transcendence and its enunciation in symbols and languages. Since these ideas have been briefly presented in the earlier article, attention now will be directed to developing a Mahayana Christology which employs this philosophy in the enunciation of the doctrine of the Incarnation. Christ as Empty and Dependently Coarisen The use of the notion of emptiness in Christology means that neither God nor Christ has an identifiable essence that is open to definition. The scriptures themselves certainly do not offer any definition of the person of Jesus. There is no identifiable selfhood (atman) beyond the dependently coarisen person and his actions described in the Gospels, which texts themselves are dependently coarisen from the contextual conditions of their original communities.[11] The Gospels speak of Christ as he relates to human beings, but nowhere do they interpret or define his essence. Just as in the Old Testament one learns of the presence of Yahweh through the story of the people of Israel, in the New Testament one discerns the meaning of Christ through his words and through the course of his life, death, and resurrection. There is no scriptural treatment of either the divine essence or the human essence. The scriptural words of or about Jesus do not analyze the divine nature. God is described time and again as beyond any definition. God dwells in light inaccessible. No one has ever seen God. Moses encounters Yahweh only in the darkness of Mt. Sinai, in the absence of any mediated knowing.[12] All creation is held to proclaim the presence of the Lord, but this proclamation does not offer any definitive knowledge of what God is. Rather, it renders us, Job-like, aware of the total otherness of Yahweh, of the absence of any limiting definition.[13] The medieval scholastics taught that, although God indeed is ineffable, God can be known analogically from creation. This notion is a comfort to the theologian, who can, after devoutly bowing toward the unknown God, proceed to delineate the attributes of the known God with some degree of certainty. Mahayana theology would negate the validity of such an attempt at delineation, seeing analogy as but another instance of metaphor: suggestive and intriguing, but neither definitive nor delimiting. In the Mahayana framework, all knowledge of God is metaphorical, bending words and images in striking and disturbing ways. The function of doctrine in Mahayana theology is not to communicate a body of information about God, but to engender a sense of the presence of God beyond all words. All proclaimed knowledge of God is parable, not entailing acceptance of a given state of affairs in the Godhead but eliciting conversions within the minds of the hearers. The scriptural words of and about Jesus likewise describe him as empty of essence. He presents himself in the New Testament as unconcerned with his own identity. It is impossible to understand him apart from the web of relationships that form his life. As Edward Schillebeeckx asserts, "There is no a priori definition of the substance of Jesus."[14] He is constituted by being related to Abba in silent awareness and to humans in commitment to the rule of God on earth. In the phrase of Ignatius of Antioch, he is "the voice of the Father from silence."[15] He has no identity apart from the Father. Almost all the descriptive terms applied to Jesus in the scriptures refer him to the Father. He is the son of God, the word of God, the presence of God, the sacrament of God among us. One cannot define a sacrament apart from its referent, and the referent of the person of Jesus is not an immutable essence as defined by Greek philosophy, but rather the Father who dwells in silence. Still, it is clear from the tradition that the meaning of Christ is not simply a contentless sign of an empty God. He is not just a mirror of the nothingness of God, however mystical that might sound. The teachings of Jesus are many and specific: he proclaims the coming rule of God and calls all to conversion from a deluded clinging onto idols, and toward engagement in bringing about the rule of justice and peace in the world. As with all men and women, his meaning is constructed from the course of his life, from what he says and does. Just as emptiness entails dependent coarising, so the empty Jesus takes on significance from his dependently coarisen life. To say that Jesus is empty of essential definition is to say that he takes on his meaning through the dependently coarisen circumstances and relationships of his life. Emptiness and dependent coarising are convertible, signifying complementary insights into essence-free being. Jesus then is not distinctive in virtue of a unique and different definition, but in virtue of his teaching, his death, and his resurrection and ascension--all of which he shares with us. That Gospel teaching, just as the entirety of Jesus' life, is centered around his experience of God as Abba and his passionate commitment to the rule of peace and justice, to the coming kingdom. His Abba experience and his commitment to that rule are not mere aspects of his essential subjectivity. Rather, they are constitutive of his being, the dependently coarisen being of emptiness. That is who he is. high moral and spiritual message. Mahayana Christology is not content to present a liberal depiction of Jesus as a deeply moving teacher. The Gospel is not an ideology and its teachings are not simply spiritual maxims. If so considered, they would have no historical specificity and differ little from similar maxims offered by religious teachers the world over. Neither are they to be defined in contrast to the supposed inferior teachings of Israel. They are not all that distinctive. Their explosive urgency arises out of their initial context, from Jesus' insistence on the reality of God and the need to bring about the rule of justice on earth. His denunciation of the religious establishment, content in its grasp of reality, puts him on a collision course with the established authorities, leading inevitably to confrontation and finally to his execution. He insists on an alternate understanding of reality and proceeds to deconstruct the religious underpinnings of the social order of his day. Yet, his opponents are not simply the Pharisees and Scribes, for his teachings reflect the liberal ideas of the Pharisees and draw upon the teachings of Israel at almost every point.[16] His teachings are not ideological banners, and offer no new definitions of his distinctiveness. His being is not to be taken from later polemics between the emergent--and somewhat marginal--Church and Israel. Jesus even insists that not the smallest part of the torah (the teaching) will be unfulfilled. As the prophets before him, he inveighs against that religious consciousness that clings to its own idols and ideas, as if to God. He is no revolutionary set against the Empire of Rome. He advises soldiers to be content with their pay! His critique is aimed not at a "brave new world" constructed according to an ideological social theory, but at insight into both the emptiness of social (and religious) structures and the dependently coarisen need to construct those structures with justice and truth. He points to God and to God's torah as the basis of justice and peace, and excoriates the professional religious for their emasculation of God and trivialization of torah. His life oscillates between silent prayer in desert awareness of God, and teaching in social engagement for justice and peace. When we employ the tool of Mahayana philosophy to consider the divinity of Christ, definitions either of his dual divine and human natures or of his distinctive identity become unnecessary. Rather, his divinity may be seen precisely in the emptiness of his personal identity, whereby he transparently mirrors the presence of Abba, and lives as one with Abba. The confession that "I and the Father are one" is indeed a description of the person of Jesus, totally open to and reflective of Abba. He is then not defined in contrast to God. Neither is he to be defined in contrast to other men and women. He teaches that all may address God as Father, that all may share in that foundational experience of ultimate meaning, realized silently and directly. He describes himself not as distinct from human beings, but as united with them. He is the vine which is united to all the branches. Christ cannot be understood apart from the body of all believers, for that too constitutes his being. That too is who he is. His "definition" as historically and codependently one with believers means moreover that his being can be limited neither by the fact of his past historical presence in Israel nor by the scholastic definitions of his metaphysically impassible being. Rather, both his teachings and his life are an ongoing temporal indication of his meaning into the future. Christians have always believed that Jesus is more than an historical figure, that somehow he yet lives in his risen presence. Christian living is not limited to following his teachings, but experienced in the remembrance of and participation of his life, death, and resurrection. The doctrine of the mystical body of Christ is not merely a pious teaching of later Christendom, but, as in Paul, constitutive of the very being of Christ. The being of Christ, established by his teachings and life course, cannot be determined apart from our being: he is the head of the body that we are. If, however, we limit our Mahayana understanding of Christ to the themes of emptiness and dependent coarising, we still have a rather "Antiochene" description of Jesus, focused on his and our horizontal being in the world. There is more to Christology than that, for Christ is the voice of the Father from silence. He is the word of God spoken to the world. Therefore, we must also thematize his enunciation of the transcendent reality of Abba in the world, and for this we turn to a more "Alexandrian" consideration of Christ through the Mahayana doctrine of the two truths. Christ as the Conventional Expression of Ultimate Meaning In the middle ages the Parisian scholar Siger of Barbant was accused of teaching a doctrine of two truths, according to which what is true on the natural level of philosophy need not be true on the supernatural level of theology, and vice versa.[17] At first glance, this idea may seem parallel to the Mahayana doctrine of two truths (satya-dvaya). But the Mahayana doctrine of two truths is not about two distinct perspectives or viewpoints. It is not about double-decker levels of propositional truth. Rather, it treats the relationship of all perspectives to the truth of empty awakening. It is about how words enunciate "the silence of the saints," the unmediated content of ultimate meaning and suchness. In effect, the two truths of Mahayana thinking treat the function of language in its attempt to bring to speech the unspoken and ineffable experience that lies at the basis of all religious doctrine. The first Mahayana truth is that of ultimate meaning (paramarthasatya), and indicates the direct, unmediated content of awakening. It is the non-discriminative realization of ultimate meaning that renders one an awakened person, i.e., a buddha. The entire Mahayana tradition is unanimous in describing this experience as beyond verbal or imaginal representation. In the early Pali accounts, the historical Buddha was reluctant to preach at all, fearing that he would be unable to express what he had realized under that Bodhi tree. But, upon being importuned by a host of docile sentient beings eager to learn the path, he did consent to teach, and verbal elaborations of those teachings over the centuries have resulted in vast collections of Buddhist scripture and commentary.[18] The second truth, that of worldly convention (samvrti-satya), is the enunciation in words and symbols of ultimate truth. Yet such words can never correspond to or express that ultimate meaning. The Mahayana thinkers, aware of how languages are constructed, held that conventional truths--which are expressed in words, ideas, and propositions--are tied to their context and therefore valid only within that context. There is not, nor can there be, any one-to-one correspondence between ultimate meaning and worldly convention. They are totally disjunctive and apart from each other. Ultimate truth is completely other (totaliter aliter) than conventional truth.[19] If the truth of ultimate meaning were to be captured in conventional words and worldly speech, it could hardly be deemed ultimate, for there is in fact never a last word. Yet, the very disjunctiveness of the two truths serves both to guard the ultimacy of the truth of ultimate meaning and to focus on the conventional nature of the truth of worldly convention. It guards the ultimacy of ultimate meaning by insisting that no verbal statement can express such meaning, not even analogically. The Bodhisattva Vimalakirti, who explained the meaning of emptiness by holding his silence, expressed truth more eloquently than any holy disquisition might have done.[20] But an awareness of the otherness of ultimate meaning also focuses one back upon the worldly and conventional tasks of enunciating contextual truths with skill and compassion. Not being able to speak for God or bring to speech the very words of the divine, the human, conventional words and actions take on their originally meaningful value as humanly and dependently coarisen. No one can pretend to speak apart from some particular history and some particular context. Revelation cannot then be taken as a verbal incursion of a usually absent God into the world for the sake of telling the truth. Revelation too is a speaking, within a particular context, about the truth that is God. It is with this meaning that the Fathers of the Church called Jesus the "speaking' (sermo) of God.[21] Conventional truth does not embody the ultimate, yet by the very act of hiding that ultimate, it reveals its presence as that which is other. Conventional (samvrti) truth is called a covering over of ultimate truth, for the root vr means "to cover". But in the very act of covering, it draws attention to that which is covered. The contextual, relative words spoken by an enlightened person both hide the truth and reveal it to be other than, different from, those words. Thus, the Mahayana thinkers spoke about "worldly convention-only," signifying that all we deal with is worldly and conventional--by the very fact that we are dealing with it. The term "only" here signifies not merely privation, that worldly convention does not express ultimate meaning; it also denotes the fullness of insight into dependent co-arising as convertible with emptiness. What "lies beyond" is not a referent for our words nor the object of our thinking. Similarly, Bernard Lonergan distinguishes between the primary meaning of God, which is not an object of thought, from the secondary one, where we make God to be an object, i.e., where we describe God and proceed to construct theologies.[22] The crucial point is to remember that both the initial descriptions and the consequent theologies, both the principles and the inferences, are contextual and never absolute. In this perspective, the Incarnation is not a synthesis of two natures. Chalcedon itself teaches that each remains distinct and there is no commingling between them.[23] Christ is God not as if God made a visit to earth. That is religious science fiction. Rather, he is the son of God as the sacramental sign of the otherness of Abba, identified with the reality of what is signified as other at the deepest levels of our human consciousness. As the sacrament of our encounter with God, Jesus is not a second subject alongside God.[24] The words and mediation of Christ do not lead directly toward the summit of the Godhead, but embody, as do all words and symbols, a deeply conventional understanding of the limits of the conventional, i.e., of the unknowability of the silent Father. It is, I think, such an idea that lies behind the Patristic distinction between theology and economy, for what we know of God is what has been conventionally revealed within our cultures through the cultural models available to us.[25] That knowledge is truly and even infallibly authentic because it harmonizes with the foundational experiences of the Lord Christ and of numerous Christians who follow in this path. It is, however, never unchanging and absolute, for that is the mark not of infallible doctrine, but of inauthenticity and deluded imagination.[26] About theology we know nothing, for we have no words that correspond to God. The Madhyamika philosophers distinguished a correspondential reasoning and knowing (pramana), which relates to the "economic" disposition of human life, to our experience of Abba and our commitment to carry forward the rule of justice and peace, from the true reasoning (yukti) of emptiness, which deconstructs all models of God and leaves us, like Moses, in the darkness of direct contact. By hiding (vr) God from view by conventional descriptions (samurti) Christ manifests (samvrtti from the root vrt, to manifest) the otherness of God.[27] By disappearing in the experience of Abba and the commitment to the rule of God, Jesus embodies the reality of God in himself and for us. In the Mahayana perspective, then, the being of Jesus is not the outflow of some divine essence into the human nature of Christ. In Christology, this means that Jesus embodies the divine by being truly and fully human, not by participating in a divine essence. This, I think, is why Paul depicts Christ as a second Adam, for he is confessed as embodying the true being of the original human. In virtue of his abandonment of essence and self-definition, Christ reflects the direct experience of Abba and calls others to engagement in the tasks of the compassionate kingdom. It is in virtue of his identity as dependently coarisen that he experiences Abba and embodies the rule of justice. It is as "worldly convention-only" that Christ shares in the divine otherness of God. That is to say, it is not by clinging to an exalted, divine being, but by emptying himself of being that Christ mirrors the divine and is one with the silent Father.[28] And as with Christ himself, so the Christian theologian is ill-served by clinging to essentialist notions of divinity, attempting to reconcile human and divine characteristics in the one person of Christ. The doctrine of the sharing of properties (communicatio idiomatum) tried to explain how the properties of each nature of Christ could be attributed to the same person, but that attempt was never very satisfactory. One was left with a notion of Christ as able to shift natures just as one might shift gears. A Mahayana Christology, refusing to move in that essentialistic framework, has no need to appeal to such explanations, for it is in his uniquely full and complete human identity that Christ is God. As embodying dependent coarising, Jesus is empty of essence. As fully conventional, Jesus manifests the ultimacy of God. These terms may sound minimalist to one accustomed to thinking in essences. They might appear to negate the divine essence of Christ. Indeed, they do. But they negate equally his human essence. A Mahayana theology is content to say much less, while suggesting ever-new aspects of the meaning of Christ as called for within different contexts and cultures. The empty Christ is not merely free from essence. His coarisen being is the content of the highest reality of awakening, experienced immediately and directly. His conventional mirroring forth of the ultimate meaning of Abba not only moves us spontaneously toward conventional reengagement in the dependently coarising and conventional world to carry out the tasks of justice and compassion. It also provides us with the tools for constructing a Christology that is at once mystical and critical. Advantages of a Mahayana Christology The use of Mahayana philosophy as a handmaid for Christian theology does indeed issue in a different kind of Christology, a different understanding of the Gospel confession of Christ as embodying the presence of God. It avoids the old conundrums of essentialist Christology, always in danger of falling to one side or the other and always teetering on the point of presenting a schizophrenic picture of the Lord. A Mahayana Christology can be recommended, I think, because it is grounded upon the mind of faith, embracing and moving to the center the apophatic thinking of the Christian mystic tradition. It goes beyond the apophatic tradition, not in the depth of silent experience, but in developing a framework of ideas so that it at the same time maintains focus on the immediacy of empty unknowing and allows for the development of clear and rigorous theology which is in harmony with that basic experience of God in darkness. Moreover, new insights into the meaning of Christ through Mahayana philosophy may prove more accessible to those unfamiliar with or disenchanted by traditional Western metaphysical approaches. [1] John P. Keenan, "Mahayana Theology: How to Reclaim an Ancient Christian Tradition," Anglican Theological Review 71.4, (Fall 1989) 377-394. [2] See Bernard J.F. Lonergan, Method in Theology (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972) 283-4, for a discussion of the general philosophic categories used in interpreting the special categories of faith. [3] For a fuller treatment of the development of early Christian doctrine, see John Keenan, The Meaning of Christ: A Mahayana Theology (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1989) 45-65. [4] Arthur Lovejoy writes, "Another type of factor in the history of ideas may be described as susceptibilities to diverse kinds of metaphysical pathos. This influential course in the determination of philosophical fashions and speculative tendencies has been so little considered that I find no recognized name for it, and have been compelled to invent one which is not, perhaps, wholly self-explanatory. `Metaphysical pathos' is exemplified in any description of the nature of things, any characterization of the world to which one belongs, in terms which, like the words of a poem, awaken through their associations, and through a sort of empathy which they engender, a congenial mood or tone of feeling on the part of the philosopher or his readers. For many people . . . the reading of a philosophical book is usually nothing but a form of aesthetic experience, even in the case of writings which seem destitute of all outward aesthetic charms, voluminous emotional reverberations, of one or another sort, are aroused in the reader without the intervention of any definite imagery." The Great Chain of Being (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936) 11. [5] Etienne Gilson, Elements of Christian Philosophy (New York: Doubleday, 1960) 5-6 & 11-42. [6] See his "Homoousios emin," Journal of Theological Studies 16 (1965): 454-61, and "Does Christology Rest on a Mistake," Faith, Christ, and History, ed. S.W. Sykes (London: Cambridge University Press, 1972) 3-12. [7] In Cod as Spirit (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977). [8] One of the main themes of Jean Danielou in his Platonisme et theologie. mystique: Doctrine spirituelle de Saint Gregorie de Nysse (Paris: Editions Montaigne, 1944). [9] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (Chicago and London: University of Chicago, 1971) 2-55. On the ambiguities and inherent contradictions of the Platonic notion of divinity, see Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being. [10] Yogacara philosophy is not discussed in this brief paper, but it too figures prominently in Mahayana theology by providing insight into a critical philosophy of consciousness, both defiled and purified. See John P. Keenan, `The Intent and Structure of Yogacara Philosophy: Its Relevance for Modern Religious Thought," The Annual Memoirs of Otani University Shin Buddhist Comprehensive Research Institute 4 (1986): 41-60. Also Keenan, The Meaning of Christ 152-187. Christ in Christian Tradition: From the Apostolic Age to Chalcedon (451) (Atlanta: John Knoz, 1965) 544. [11] See Edward Schillebeeckx, Jesus: an Experiment in Christology (New York: Seabury, 1979) 304, 307. [12] The main theme of Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses, trans. Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson (New York: Paulist Press, 1978). [13] See Nishitani Keiji, What is Religion," in Religion and Nothingness (Berkeley: University of California, 1982) 1-45. [14] Schillebeeckx, Jesus, 600. [15] Ignatius, Epistola ad Magnesios 8.2. [16] See Abraham Geiger, Judaism and its History (1911; Lanham: University Press of America, 1985 reprint) 137-152, for the depiction of Jesus as a liberal Pharisee. More recent Christian scholars concur that the New Testament teachings of Jesus take their meaning from their Jewish context, without presenting startlingly new ideas. Their meaning comes, not from subsequent Christian apologetic, but from their own Jewish matrix. See W.D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism (1948; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980) and Paul VanBuren, A Theology of the People Israel (New York: Crossroads, 1989). [17] Etienne Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (New York: Random House, 1955) 398. [18] See Gadjin M. Nagao, "The Silence of the Buddha and its Madhyamic Interpretation," in Madhyamika and Yogacara: A Study of Mahayana Philosophies, ed. and trans. Leslie S. Kawamura (New York: SUNY Press, 1991), pp. 35-49. [19] The otherness of the two truths is a principal theme treated in Madhyamika thought. See Gadjin M. Nagao, The Foundational Standpoint of Madhyamika Philosophy, trans. John P. Keenan (Albany: SUNY, 1989) 45-54, 65-68, 73-80, and 97-102. [20] See The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti: A Mahayana Scripture, trans. Robert A.F. Thurman (University Park and London: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976), pp. 73-77. [21] Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition 161. [22] Lonergan, Method in Theology 442: "In what I have called the primary and fundamental meaning of the name, God, God is not an object. For that meaning is the term of an orientation to transcendent mystery. Such an orientation . . . is not properly a matter of raising and answering questions. So far from being in the world mediated by meaning, it is the principle that can draw people out of that world and into the cloud of unknowing." [23] The Council of Chalcedon proclaimed: "Following, then, the holy Fathers, we all with one voice teach that it should be confessed that Our Lord Jesus Christ is one and the same Son, the Same perfect in Godhead, the Same perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man, the Same consisting of a rational soul and a body, homoousios with the Father as to his Godhead, and the Same homoousios with us as to his manhood, in all things like unto us, sin only excepted, begotten of the Father before all ages as to his Godhead, and in the last days, the Same, for us and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin Theotokos as to his manhood, One and the Same Christ, Son, Lord, Only begotten, made known in two natures, which exist without confusion, without change, without division, without separation, the difference of the natures having been in no wise taken away by reason of the union, but rather the properties of each being preserved, and both concurring into one Person (prosopon) and one hypostasis--not parted or divided into two persons (prosopa), but one and the same Son and Only-begotten, the divine Logos, the Lord Jesus Christ, even as the prophets from of old have spoken concerning him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ himself has taught us, and as the Symbol of the Fathers has delivered to us." Quoted from the translation of Aloys Grillmeier, [24] The theme of Edward Schillebeeckx, Christ: The Sacrament of the Encounter with Cod (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1963). [25] See George L. Prestige, Cod in Patristic Thought (Toronto: W. Heinemann, 1936) 98-102 on the divine "economy," and Keenan, The Meaning of Christ, pp. 291-2S9. [26] There are Mahayana parallels for the Roman Catholic doctrine of infallibility. The Analysis of the Middle Path and Extremes presents an explanation of ultimate meaning that includes the path as unerring full perfection" (aviparyasa-parinispatti) inasmuch as it follows and harmonizes with suchness. See Nagao, Foundational Standpoint 62. The idea here is that when a worldly and conventional statement functions in accord with logical criteria and m full awareness of emptiness, then it cannot err because, while not attempting to express an absolute statement, it constructs contextual statements that are in harmony with ultimate meaning. [27] See Nagao, Foundational Standpoint 39-42, where the doctrinal implications of the two spellings of samorti, covering, and samortti, manifestation, are treated. Also "An Interpretation of the Term 'Samvrt' (Convention) in Buddhism," in Madhyamika and Yogacara 13-22. [28] See Masao Abe, Kenotic God and Dynamic Sunyata," in The Emptying Cod, A Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation, ed. John B. Cobb, Jr., and Christopher Ives (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1990) 3-65.