Of Gods and Minds

In Search of a Theological Commons

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James Heisig
  • Japan: 
    Chisokudō Publications
    , March
     2019.
     222 pages.
     $10.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781092151856.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Of Gods and Minds comes from the 2019 Duffy Lecture Series in Global Christianity at Boston College. Originating from a series of five lectures, the book’s five chapters are more a presentation of provocative ideas rather than an airtight argument. The author, James Heisig, includes many quotations, but no footnotes or endnotes; instead, annotations listed by page number are at the end of the book.

Heisig is an exceptionally interesting philosopher, who has been teaching and researching in Japan for more than forty years, so his writing shows remarkable range. Of Gods and Minds continues some themes from his earlier work, especially Dialogues: At One Inch Above the Ground (Crossroad Publishing, 2003), including skepticism of institutionalized religion and creeds, an emphasis on interreligious dialogue, concern for nature, and an overall trajectory toward open-handed nothingness.

Heisig puts Western Christian-influenced philosophy in conversation with the Kyoto school to generally argue that “the gods” persist in human minds because they are versatile symbols. These symbols point to something beyond symbols or minds, to a permeating totality that cannot be fully grasped, so people tend to fixate on the symbols. Heisig writes: “Perhaps the only real God we can know lies in the longing for God, and the only way we can understand that longing is by way of the symbols it throws up to the mind” (78). In Buddhist terms, the conventional and ultimate truth are both true, but the symbolic language of conventional truth belies knowledge of total truth. The bulk of Heisig’s argument is for another way: that neither the idea of gods should be rejected, nor should any literal God be fully embraced. For Heisig, the search for a god, the drive toward theology, is a part of never-ending desire and a simple piece of being human.

At the same time, Heisig rejects the idea of theism as only a simple projection of humanity. This is not to reject Ludwig Feuerbach’s mechanism of projection itself, only to say much more is being projected. Citing a long tradition of apophatic theology, Heisig argues that Christianity is in the process of changing from a colonizing, converting force toward one of tolerance and hospitality. The point is not that the gods are projections of the self, as Carl Jung might say, just that they are not only projections of the self or objects of wish fulfillment. More, Heisig sees the gods as also artifacts of the earth’s wish fulfillment, a process in which humans play only a part.

Compared to Christianity, Heisig is more optimistic about Shinto as a religion that harmonizes with the earth, and regarding practical steps, instruction to care for the earth is the most important takeaway. As Heisig says, “No item of faith is more important than the survival of the earth” (104). For Heisig, engagement with the earth is a vital site of revelation. The common Christian idea of God in some heavens beyond is a concept people need to get past, according to Heisig, the same way the idea of a relational, familial god replaced popular ideas of a vindictive one.

Heisig speaks more of “skeletal ideas” or perhaps “imaginative memory” than true propositions. Following apophatic and Eastern traditions, the book is more an experience or exhibition of quotations, each followed by deductive analysis, than an inductive argument. Impressionism more than expressionism.

In searching for theological commons, Heisig makes demands of multiple faiths. Most explicitly he does so of Christianity, which means the book often does not feel especially hospitable for Christians. Notably, special revelation or the incarnation of God do not seem to be allowed within this search for commons, because they would be exclusive truths. While some readers may agree with the project of preserving the earth and have had minor revelations in nature, there may be a struggle with locating God too closely in the earth (or even the cosmos), given the seemingly inevitable heat death of the universe. No doubt Heisig would tell such readers to release some ideas about God, but he does not provide firm grounds for doing so, just an opinionated though widely sourced recommendation. If the book is a search for theological common ground, rather than having found it, the search is still on.

If some readers’ main takeaway is that people who know Western philosophy also should know Eastern philosophy, Heisig may very well be satisfied. This book lacks a singular thesis, going nowhere specific. It passes beautiful scenery, and even if the landscape at times seems random, readers will inevitably catch a flash of inspiration.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Thomas Hampton is a PhD candidate in social and political theory at the Global Center for Advanced Studies and a PhD student at Asbury Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
February 24, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James Heisig is Senior Research Fellow, Nanzan Institute for Religion & Culture, and Professor, Faculty of Arts and Letters, Nanzan University.

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