Crucified Wisdom

Theological Reflection on Christ and the Bodhisattva

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S. Mark Heim
Comparative Theology: Thinking Across Traditions
  • New York, NY: 
    Fordham University Press
    , December
     2018.
     344 pages.
     $32.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780823281237.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

S. Mark Heim introduces Crucified Wisdom: Theological Reflection on Christ and the Bodhisattava as an experiment in comparative theology, while contextualizing his project within the broader history of Buddhist-Christian dialogue. Heim notes that comparative theology encompasses a variety of modes of learning—ranging from joint textual analysis to the rediscovery or reaffirmation of specific theological claims in light of those of other religious traditions, and sometimes going as far as the re-articulation of Christian theological elements using the categories and terms of a different traditions (3). Heim acknowledges his indebtedness to all of these conversations, but states that rather than fostering actual Buddhist-Christian relations, his interest is in “integrating sources and perspectives from another religion” into the Christian tradition of “faith seeking understanding” (4). In juxtaposing bodhisattvas and the bodhisattva path on the one hand, and Christ and the Christian discipleship path on the other, Heim sets out to address a variety of theological and anthropological questions, some of which—reconciliation, forgiveness, and transformation—reflect a specific Christian sensitivity, while others—wisdom, compassion, and the nature of the self—play a crucial role in Buddhism, but may not be present in the same way in the Christian tradition. Heim also notes that this project unfolds within an overarching theology of religious pluralism that brings into conversation the Trinitarian God’s impersonal dimension and the Buddhist teaching on emptiness. This aspect of the project echoes Heim’s constructive reflection on the theme of pluralism in his 2001 volume The Depth of the Riches: A Trinitarian Theology of Religious Ends (Eerdmans).

In the first section of the volume, Heim brings into an initial conversation what he calls Buddhism and Christianity’s “key events”—namely, the Buddha’s enlightenment and Christ’s incarnation—and the two traditions’ beliefs as to the ultimate root of suffering: ignorance about the nature of reality and humanity’s estrangement from God. Despite the similarities between the experience and teachings of the two traditions’ founders, Heim concedes that the application of the bodhisattva ideal to Jesus is routinely qualified by discomfort, with the nature of his social engagement and the emphasis placed on his suffering and death. At the same time, Christians may see bodhisattvas as Christ-like, but object that bodhisattvas are “too socially disembodied or ahistorical,” while their compassion is too universal to have “the savor of true love” (54). Given that “the problems they solve are not the same,” an appreciation of Buddhist teaching may result in a revision of Christian theological understanding.

In the second section of the volume, Heim turns to the Bodhicaryāvatarā, an important Mahāyāna text that is traditionally ascribed to the 8th century Indian monk Śāntideva, and that provides one of the most comprehensive, yet accessible presentations of the bodhisattva path. Relying primarily on the treatise’s Tibetan translation and vast commentarial tradition, Heim outlines Śāntideva’s understanding of bodhicitta—the desire for enlightenment that motivates sentient beings to seek enlightenment (64)—and the six paramitās, or virtues, before moving to an extensive reflection on the treatise’s last chapter, which is wholly taken up with a discussion of the role of wisdom in the context of practice. After outlining Śāntideva’s defense of the Madhyamaka notion of emptiness and his critique of the competing Yogācāra understanding (100-106), Heim notes that this vision of reality encompassing an ultimate, as well as a conventional dimension grounds the bodhisattva’s compassionate outreach, reflected in the teaching—already present in Mahāyāna, but emphatically foregrounded by Śāntideva—of the exchange of self and other (88-92). The tension between the unconditioned and the conditioned aspect of awakening—which is reflected by the teaching of the Buddha bodies—is what grounds the Mahāyāna notion of non-abiding nirvāṇa,and ultimately informs the simultaneous pursuit of wisdom and compassion as the constitutive character of the bodhisattva path.

In the last section of the volume, Heim offers three distinct yet interrelated reflections on three sets of claims: the no-self aspect of the bodhisattva path and the notion of the Christian as a creature (chapter 4); the teaching of the Buddha nature (tathāgatagarbha) and the belief in the divinity of Christ (chapter 5); and finally, the Buddha’s compassionate activity and Christ’s role as savior and redeemer (chapter 6). It is difficult in such a short space to do justice to Heim’s careful treatment of these themes, though his underlying hope is that Christian practitioners will be inspired by their encounters with Buddhism to rethink the claims of their tradition as to the nature and purpose of human subjectivity and religious practice, no less than their belief in God’s providential care for humanity. The notion of a mimetic as opposed to a separate and independent self, the relationship between the divine energies and the notion of a universal consciousness, and the tension between classical atonement theology and the Buddha’s call to epistemic purification are only an example of the many themes addressed in this section of the volume. Christian theology is called to a sort of conversion, and while it may not have to let go of many of its past certainties, it is certainly invited to pause and reflect again on the wisdom of its formulations, which the Buddhist tradition can enrich with its different perspective on subjectivity and ultimate awakening.                 

Heim’s sophisticated, yet engaging and accessible project constitutes an impressive contribution to the field of Buddhist-Christian studies, and, more generally, to the discipline of comparative theology. Scholars, students, and anyone with an academic interest in the dialogue between Christianity and Buddhism will certainly appreciate the author’s nuanced treatment of the Mahāyāna tradition and the impact that an appreciation of its claims can have on classical Christian theology, soteriology, and anthropology.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Thomas Cattoi is Associate Professor of Christology and Cultures at the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University, Berkeley, CA.

Date of Review: 
July 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

S. Mark Heim is Samuel Abbot Professor of Theology at Andover Newton Seminary at Yale and a Visiting Professor at Yale Divinity School. He is the author and editor of several books, the most recent of which is Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross.

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