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The Emptiness of Christ: Mahayana Christology

Jesus in Meditation

The Christology of the Western Church has, with few exceptions, developed in dialogue with the categories of Greek philosophy. As fruitful as the dialogue has been, however, it has created problems for our articulation of the doctrine of the Incarnation, and it is now problematical for those Christians who do not share the philosophical tradition of the West. This article begins the development of a Christology of emptiness, derived from one of the philosophical traditions of Buddhism.

Mahayana theology is a Christian theology which attempts to understand the Christian faith through philosophical concepts developed in Mahayana Buddhism.

The fabric of Mahayana philosophy is woven from two main themes: the identity between emptiness and dependent coarising, and the differentiation between the two truths of ultimate meaning and worldly convention. The first theme sketches a Mahayana understanding of our “horizontal” being-in-the-world and relates to everything we encounter in our ordinary lives. The second theme is “vertical,” and attempts to clarify our experience of transcendence and its enunciation in symbols and languages.

 Christ as Empty and Dependently Coarisen

The use of the notion of emptiness in Christology means that neither God nor Christ has an identifiable essence that is open to definition. The scriptures themselves certainly do not offer any definition of the person of Jesus. There is no identifiable selfhood (atman) beyond the dependently coarisen person and his actions described in the Gospels, which texts themselves are dependently coarisen from the contextual conditions of their original communities.[1] The Gospels speak of Christ as he relates to human beings, but nowhere do they interpret or define his essence. Just as in the Old Testament one learns of the presence of Yahweh through the story of the people of Israel, in the New Testament one discerns the meaning of Christ through his words and through the course of his life, death, and resurrection. There is no scriptural treatment of either the divine essence or the human essence.

The scriptural words of or about Jesus do not analyze the divine nature. God is described time and again as beyond any definition. God dwells in light inaccessible. No one has ever seen God. Moses encounters Yahweh onlyin the darkness of Mt. Sinai, in the absence of any mediated knowing.[2] All creation is held to proclaim the presence of the Lord, but this proclamation does not offer any definitive knowledge of what God is. Rather, it renders us, Job-like, aware of the total otherness of Yahweh, of the absence of any limiting definition.[3] The medieval scholastics taught that, although God indeed is ineffable, God can be known analogically from creation. This notion is a comfort to the theologian, who can, after devoutly bowing toward the unknown God, proceed to delineate the attributes of the known God with some degree of certainty. Mahayana theology would negate the validity of such an attempt at delineation, seeing analogy as but another instance of metaphor: suggestive and intriguing, but neither definitive nor delimiting. In the Mahayana framework, all knowledge of God is metaphorical, bending words and images in striking and disturbing ways. The function of doctrine in Mahayana theology is not to communicate a body of information about God, but to engender a sense of the presence of God beyond all words. All proclaimed knowledge of God is parable, not entailing acceptance of a given state of affairs in the Godhead but eliciting conversions within the minds of the hearers.

The scriptural words of and about Jesus likewise describe him as empty of essence. He presents himself in the New Testament as unconcerned with his own identity. It is impossible to understand him apart from the web of relationships that form his life. As Edward Schillebeeckx asserts, “There is no a priori definition of the substance of Jesus.”[4] He is constituted by being related to Abba in silent awareness and to humans in commitment to the rule of God on earth. In the phrase of Ignatius of Antioch, he is “the voice of the Father from silence.”[5] He has no identity apart from the Father. Almost all the descriptive terms applied to Jesus in the scriptures refer him to the Father. He is the son of God, the word of God, the presence of God, the sacrament of God among us. One cannot define a sacrament apart from its referent, and the referent of the person of Jesus is not an immutable essence as defined by Greek philosophy, but rather the Father who dwells in silence.

Still, it is clear from the tradition that the meaning of Christ is not simply a contentless sign of an empty God. He is not just a mirror of the nothingness of God, however mystical that might sound. The teachings of Jesus are many and specific: he proclaims the coming rule of God and calls all to conversion from a deluded clinging onto idols, and toward engagement in bringing about the rule of justice and peace in the world. As with all men and women, his meaning is constructed from the course of his life, from what he says and does. Just as emptiness entails dependent coarising, so the empty Jesus takes on significance from his dependently coarisen life.

To say that Jesus is empty of essential definition is to say that he takes on his meaning through the dependently coarisen circumstances and relationships of his life.

Emptiness and dependent coarising are convertible, signifying complementary insights into essence-free being. Jesus then is not distinctive in virtue of a unique and different definition, but in virtue of his teaching, his death, and his resurrection and ascension–all of which he shares with us. That Gospel teaching, just as the entirety of Jesus’ life, is centered around his experience of God as Abba and his passionate commitment to the rule of peace and justice, to the coming kingdom. His Abba experience and his commitment to that rule are not mere aspects of his essential subjectivity. Rather, they are constitutive of his being, the dependently coarisen being of emptiness. That is who he is.

When we employ the tool of Mahayana philosophy to consider the divinity of Christ, definitions either of his dual divine and human natures or of his distinctive identity become unnecessary. Rather, his divinity may be seen precisely in the emptiness of his personal identity, whereby he transparently mirrors the presence of Abba, and lives as one with Abba. The confession that “I and the Father are one” is indeed a description of the person of Jesus, totally open to and reflective of Abba. He is then not defined in contrast to God. Neither is he to be defined in contrast to other men and women. He teaches that all may address God as Father, that all may share in that foundational experience of ultimate meaning, realized silently and directly. He describes himself not as distinct from human beings, but as united with them. He is the vine which is united to all the branches. Christ cannot be understood apart from the body of all believers, for that too constitutes his being. That too is who he is.

His “definition” as historically and codependently one with believers means moreover that his being can be limited neither by the fact of his past historical presence in Israel nor by the scholastic definitions of his metaphysically impassible being. Rather, both his teachings and his life are an ongoing temporal indication of his meaning into the future. Christians have always believed that Jesus is more than an historical figure, that somehow he yet lives in his risen presence. Christian living is not limited to following his teachings, but experienced in the remembrance of and participation of his life, death, and resurrection. The doctrine of the mystical body of Christ is not merely a pious teaching of later Christendom, but, as in Paul, constitutive of the very being of Christ. The being of Christ, established by his teachings and life course, cannot be determined apart from our being: he is the head of the body that we are.

If, however, we limit our Mahayana understanding of Christ to the themes of emptiness and dependent coarising, we still have a rather “Antiochene” description of Jesus, focused on his and our horizontal being in the world. There is more to Christology than that, for Christ is the voice of the Father from silence. He is the word of God spoken to the world. Therefore, we must also thematize his enunciation of the transcendent reality of Abba in the world, and for this we turn to a more “Alexandrian” consideration of Christ through the Mahayana doctrine of the two truths.

John P. Kennan is a Christian theologian and scholar of Mahayana Buddhism. He is Professor Emeritus of Religion at Middlebury College. He has written several books and articles regarding Buddhist perspectives and curates a website dedicated to Mahayana Theological resources. This article originally appeared in the Anglican Theological Review (Winter 1993) and can be accessed in its entirety here.

[1] See Edward Schillebeeckx, Jesus: an Experiment in Christology (New York: Seabury, 1979) 304, 307.

[2] The main theme of Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses, trans. Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson (New York: Paulist Press, 1978).

[3] See Nishitani Keiji, What is Religion,” in Religion and Nothingness (Berkeley: University of California, 1982) 1-45.

[4] Schillebeeckx, Jesus, 600.

[5] Ignatius, Epistola ad Magnesios 8.2.

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