Buddhist emptiness and Christian salvation

Kristin Johnston Largen, a professor of theology at the Lutheran seminary at Gettysburg, has written a stimulating little book: What Christians Can Learn from Buddhism: Rethinking Salvation. In it she offers a summary of the key points of what Christianity and Buddhism mean by salvation and reflects on how Buddhist notions of salvation can shed light on–and even change–the way Christians think about what it means to be saved.

Recognizing that Buddhism is as multi-faceted a tradition as Christianity, Professor Largen focuses her discussion on the Mahayana school of Buddhism, particularly as represented by the 2nd-century Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna. Nagarjuna has been described as something of a philosophical skeptic, using the tools of logical analysis to deconstruct some of the elaborate metaphysical claims made by the Vedic and Buddhist philosophers of his day. He is particularly well known for his arguments against the idea that the world is made up of enduring metaphysical substances with fixed essences and for collapsing the distinction between nirvana (the state of being free from suffering) and samsara (the cycle of karmic birth and death which it is Buddhism’s goal to escape from). The upshot is a view of reality as a pulsating, ever-changing, relational nexus, rather than being composed of fixed, externally related entities

For Nagarjuna, salvation is realizing–experientially, not just intellectually–the fundamental “emptiness” of all things. This isn’t nihilism; it’s the view that nothing that is has a fixed essence or has its reason for being in itself. Rather, everything is dependent for its existence on relations with everything else. As human selves, we are constituted by our relations with others, and with the rest of the world. Emptiness just is, according to Largen, the fact of interdependence and impermanence. Which is why the distinction between nirvana and samsara vanishes when one attains englightenment: nirvana is not a realm beyond the empirical world; it’s the realization of the “emptiness,” the impermanence and interrelatedness, of all that is.

So what does this have to do with the Christian idea of salvation? Largen provides a helpful overview of various theories, or motifs, of the Atonement, including the Christus Victor, satisfaction, and exemplarist views. Each of these, she says, preserve important aspects of the truth. She also identifies certain other themes associated with salvation in the Christian tradition, such as the tension between the already/not-yet, individual/communal aspects, as well as between the emphasis on divine initiative and human response.

What Buddhism can do, Largen argues, is provide a new vantage point on some of these tensions. For instance, a Buddhist metaphysics of emptiness (if we can call it a metaphysics) undermines the sharp distinction between the individual and the communal (or social) that much Christian tradition takes for granted. Likewise, Buddhism might help us to learn to see the Kingdom as already present, or at least as closer to the present moment than some Christian eschatologies have portrayed it. These insights can affect our practice in encouraging us to live more compassionately and ecologically.

Largen even offers an, admittedly speculative, argument for universal salvation on the grounds that God, in becoming incarnate, became intimately related to all people, precisely becuase of the irreducible interrelatedness of all things. Christians have often intuited something like this, but they haven’t always had the metaphysics to back it up. The early fathers, with their strong Platonist leanings, could argue that Human Nature itself was transformed when the Word became flesh, but a more individualistic and less participatory metaphysics has trouble making sense of that notion. Thus we end up with a lot of talk about imputation and substitution, replacing ontological language with the language of contracts and debts. A quasi-Buddhist view of reality (which is surprisingly similar in some ways to the view of reality portrayed in contemporary physics) could provide a more hospitable environement for a more participatory understanding of salvation.

Of course, there are a whose of other issus to be considered. For instance, the Buddhist view that Largen describes doesn’t seem to require a creator God who is the unchanging ground of the flux of temporal being. It’s not immediately apparent how compatible Buddhist “emptiness” is with the doctrine of creation as Christians conceive it. On the other hand, creation ex nihilo does seem to have at least some affinities with Nagarjuna’s doctrine of “dependent origination.” According to the Christian view of reality, none of us has our reason for being in ourselves; we are all radically dependent on God at every moment of our existence. Moreover, some contemporary theologians have tried to articulate a “relational” ontology that views relationship as a fundamental consituent of being. Whether this ends up being compatible with what a Buddhist might say about the nature of being is an open question, but it at least indicates that some Christians are pointing in that direction.

Regardless, Largen’s book is a valuable example of genuine inter-religious dialogue where the convictions of the other party are taken seriously–neither rejected out of hand nor assimilated to one’s own. She has also demonstrated that Christians have a lot to learn from Buddhists in particular.

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