Divine Emptiness and Historical Fullness:

A Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation with Masao Abe

Reviewed by Harold Kasimow

Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Vol.34 No.4 (Fall 1997)


COPYRIGHT 1997 Journal of Ecumenical Studies

            The focus of this book is the essay "Kenotic God and Dynamic 
            Sunyata" by Masao Abe, one of the most creative and influential 
            Buddhist philosophers of our time. Eight scholars respond to Abe's 
            important essay, followed by Abe's rejoinder. The book also includes 
            a very helpful introduction by David W. Chappell. This volume is a 
            follow-up to The Emptying God (Orbis, 1990), which includes the same 
            Abe essay with responses by one Jewish and six Christian 
            Abe is deeply committed to Buddhist-Christian dialogue and is a 
            pioneer in Buddhist-Jewish dialogue. He argues that such dialogue 
            will transform and enrich these religious traditions and will help 
            them face the dangers confronting all religions today from various 
            antireligious ideologies, including scientism, Marxism, Freudian 
            psychoanalytic thought, Nietzschean nihilism, and atheistic 
            existentialism. Abe writes that "the most crucial task of any 
            religion in our time is to respond to these antireligious forces by 
            elucidating the authentic meaning of religious faith" (pp. 25-26). 
            In order to discover the deepest core of the Christian message, Abe 
            turns to Phil. 2:5-8, which deals with the kenosis of Christ. In 
            Abe's original and challenging interpretation of this passage, the 
            kenosis -- the self-emptying of Jesus Christ by the crucifixion -- 
            is the emptying of God the Father. Abe states: "Without the self 
            emptying of God `the Father', the self-emptying of the Son of God is 
            inconceivable" (p. 37). Abe's interpretation of God as completely 
            self-negating blurs the distinction between Christian and Buddhist 
            ultimate reality. Ultimate reality is no longer the personal God of 
            the Bible but the Buddhist concept of sunyata. Abe explains that 
            "the notion of the kenotic God opens up for Christianity a common 
            ground with Buddhism by overcoming Christianity's monotheistic 
            character, the absolute oneness of God, and by sharing with Buddhism 
            the realization of absolute nothingness as the essential basis for 
            the ultimate" (pp. 39-40). 
            In their responses, the Christian and Jewish theologians recognize 
            Abe's deep knowledge of the Christian tradition and his strong 
            commitment to interfaith dialogue, which he approaches with a 
            generous spirit. Yet, most find his interpretation problematic. Hans 
            Kung argues that the Philippian hymn speaks only of a kenosis of 
            Jesus Christ, not of God the Father. He states that "God the Father 
            (ho theos) does not die upon the cross, but the man, Jesus of 
            Nazareth, the Son of God" (p. 214). In his rejoinder to Kung and 
            other critics, Abe admits that his interpretation is inspired by 
            Buddhism, but he claims that it is in accord with Christian 
            From my own Jewish perspective, I find his interpretation of kenosis 
            problematic. It is a radical break with the vision of the Hebrew 
            Bible. In Abe's interpretation of Christianity, the God of Abraham, 
            Isaac, and Jacob, of Amos and Isaiah has vanished. Jewish readers 
            will be especially challenged by Abe's treatment of the Holocaust 
            and interested in the perceptive Jewish responses by Richard L. 
            Rubenstein and Sandra B. Lubarsky. Abe argues that the Holocaust can 
            best be understood by the Buddhist idea of the fundamental ignorance 
            inherent in human beings (avidya) and the Buddhist doctrine of 
            karma. I think that most Jews will be very dubious about such 
            Nevertheless, I feel that this encounter with Abe is creative and 
            philosophically sophisticated and one that can help us see some of 
            the real problems and possibilities of interfaith dialogue.