The Center Did Not Hold: On Seung Chul Kim’s “The Center Is Everywhere”

September 25, 2022   •   By Leo D. Lefebure

The Center Is Everywhere: Christianity in Dialogue with Religion and Science

Seung Chul Kim

GIVEN THE DEMANDS of specialization in today’s universities, Christian theologians focusing on one area of study often dedicate little or no attention to other issues: some scholars concentrate on dialogue with contemporary scientists, while others attend to interreligious theology, including dialogue with Buddhists. Thus, Christian theologians who work on science and religion have often presupposed that Christianity is representative of religion in general, neglecting the profoundly different path taken by Buddhists. Seung Chul Kim seeks to rectify this situation by integrating Christian dialogues with scientists and Buddhists, while also broadening Christian understandings of religion to include Buddhist perspectives. Kim proposes a radical rethinking of Christian theology using principles from Mahāyāna Buddhism, especially the Hua Yen School that has been influential in East Asia, and Keiji Nishitani, a leader in the 20th-century Kyoto School of philosophy.

Kim begins by reflecting on our theological situation or place (basho in Japanese, topos in Greek, locus in Latin, Stelle in German). In Greek, topos can refer to what we call “common ground.” Consideration of topos is related to the “topics” that Aristotle proposed for rhetoric in the ancient world, as well as to the hermeneutical program of Hans-Georg Gadamer, which seeks a fusion of horizons by understanding those who are different. Concern for place appears in Christian theology in the loci communes, the “common places” or “topics” discussed by Philip Melanchthon during the Protestant Reformation. Kim insists that the challenges of science and interreligious relations converge to shape the Christian theological locus today.

The author does not mention that the topos on which Buddhists, Christians, and scientists meet today is a planet threatened by ecological catastrophe. At the meeting of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago (1993), physicist Gerald Barney dramatically placed ecological concerns on the agenda of the international interreligious community; the 2018 meeting of the Parliament revised its declaration “Towards a Global Ethic” to foreground ecological concerns. Numerous Buddhist-Christian dialogues have focused on “care for the earth,” and many Buddhists have responded warmly to Pope Francis’s urgent call for interreligious cooperation in caring for all forms of life on this planet. Kim’s attention to topos is appropriate, but it is disappointing that he does not reflect specifically on Buddhist and Christian dialogues with scientists concerning the concrete ecological condition of our common ground.

Kim is critical of much of traditional Christian theology — and of monotheism in general. He endorses the critique of the so-called “Mosaic distinction” between true and false religion, which was proposed by Jan Assmann. The famous Egyptologist accused biblical narratives concerning Moses of introducing for the first time in history a sharp distinction between true and false religion — or true and false gods. He charged that such a distinction encouraged hostility to the worshipers of gods in other traditions, and alleged that biblical monotheism was uniquely culpable for religious violence. Kim accepts and builds on Assmann’s claim, arguing that the monotheistic tradition of religious hatred continues wherever people affirm that truth is one: “[T]he unquestioning commitment to the ultimate oneness of the truth is also a source of aggression and violence toward other religions.” Indeed, Kim applies this critique not only to traditional Christian exclusivists but also to Ernst Troeltsch, John Hick, and Paul Knitter, theologians who have rejected the exclusivism of the earlier Christian tradition and proposed theologies of religious pluralism that accepted multiple religious paths as equally effective in transforming human life. Kim challenges the imperialism hidden in these endeavors. According to him, any commitment to a single, ultimate truth, even that of well-intentioned pluralist theologians, will lead to violence: “The disposition toward ‘oneness’ is intrinsically violent, in the sense that it tends to exclude the reality of the other.”

Some scholars of the ancient world strongly questioned Assmann’s Mosaic distinction, and in 2015 he publicly withdrew it, acknowledging that the biblical texts concerning Moses do not make the claims that he was attributing to them. Assmann continued to criticize monotheism for fostering violence, but he broadened his understanding of holy war to include forms of religious practice that are not monotheistic.

Kim accepts the claims of Nietzsche and Nishitani that modern science, especially biology after Darwin, has rendered unbelievable traditional Christian claims of divine providence and teleology. He looks for guidance to Nishitani, a Japanese philosopher who listened to Heidegger’s lectures on Nietzsche in the 1930s and accepted the latter’s diagnosis that the modern world was suffering from nihilism. For Nishitani, the proper response to nihilism is not to affirm the Being of the one God, but rather to embrace the absolute nothingness or emptiness of Mahāyāna Buddhism, which he interpreted in dialogue with Meister Eckhart’s mystical views.

Kim’s uncritical acceptance of the views of Nietzsche and Nishitani is open to question. In his magisterial 2007 study A Secular Age, Charles Taylor offers a more nuanced and multisided account of the development of secular views, which begins long before Darwin and involves many more factors than modern science. Many Christian theologians, including those influenced by Alfred North Whitehead, have reinterpreted divine providence in light of modern science. It is highly ironic that Kim blames John Hick and Paul Knitter for unwittingly fostering violence while he endorses the views of Heidegger, who openly supported the Nazi regime, and Nishitani, who advocated for the special world-historical role of Japan in the 1940s. Other scholars have criticized the support of Japanese Buddhists for the agenda of Imperial Japan, as well as the Tokugawa regime’s persecution of Catholics in Japan.

Kim also accepts the scientific method of “reducing all religious phenomena without remainder to scientific principles” and assesses the survival of religious traditions in terms of “genetic advantage and evolutionary change.” Believing that Buddhists have an advantage in not believing in a personal, transcendent, creating God, and thus have less difficulty than Christians in relating to modern biology, Kim relinquishes traditional Christian notions of creation, and appropriates Nishitani’s nondual philosophy of emptiness.

To overcome the problem of monotheistic violence, Kim proposes what he calls a “pluralistic pluralism,” calling for Christians to appropriate and assimilate elements of other religious paths into their own religious practice. Kim celebrates the common East Asian practice of hybrid or syncretic identity as a resolution to the problem of objectifying other religions, and proposes “multiple religious belonging as a condition for the possibility of doing theology today.” As an example, Kim proposes that honoring Jesus as a bodhisattva frees Christians from “the demand that faith be grounded in one absolute, irreplaceable moment in history. Faith is only faith when it is free of all attachments, including the attachment to the idea of history as the realization of a single truth.”

Kim’s pluralistic pluralism involves a clear doctrinal rejection of traditional Christian beliefs in creation, the transcendence of God, and the salvific significance of Jesus Christ. Kim’s proposal is not pluralistic in the sense of accepting various religious traditions as roughly equal in efficacy; his advocacy of Hua Yen principles promotes a form of inclusivism that reinterprets other religious beliefs in light of Hua Yen views and accepts them only insofar as they are reframed.

When it comes to Christian appropriation of practices from other religions and multiple religious belonging, Kim one-sidedly highlights the positive history of the practice in East Asia, but does not consider the objections raised by some religious practitioners against seeing elements of their traditions being assimilated into Christian faith life. The current appropriation by Christians of practices coming from other traditions is highly contested. Granted, many Christians find this helpful, and some practitioners of other religions give their approval. However, a number of Jews, American Indians, Hindus, and Buddhists have expressed grave concern, and at times even outrage, when Christians have appropriated elements of their religions. While some Japanese Buddhists in the Sanbo Kyodan lineage have taught Zen practice to Christians, and even commissioned Christians as roshis (official teachers), other Japanese Zen leaders denounced this as heretical Zen. In conversation with Christians in England, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama discouraged people from trying to be “Buddhist Christians” because it was not advisable to “put a yak’s head on a sheep’s body.”

Despite the limitations of his discussion, Kim provides helpful reflections that should provoke further thought on important topics. His call for attention to topos can support the imperative to care for our place on earth in a time of ecological crisis. In this context, Christian theologies developed in dialogue with Mahāyāna Buddhists will indeed have much to contribute.

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Leo D. Lefebure is the inaugural occupant of the Matteo Ricci, SJ, Chair of Theology at Georgetown University. He is the past president of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies, a trustee emeritus of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, and a research fellow of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.