The Modern Buddhist-Christian Dialogue:

Two Universalistic Religions in Transformation, By Paul O. Ingram

Reviewed by Charles Hallisey

Philosophy East and West

Vol.42 No.1



Copyright by University of Hawaii Press



The notion of dialogue is a newcomer to theology and religious studies,

but the term already has many usages. For some, dialogue is a practical

means of overcoming religious exclusivism; for others, dialogue is an

interpretive tool favored by some phenomenologists of religion. It also

frequently names a hybrid form of theological reflection, one which

begins with the assumption that each religious tradition has only a partial

perspective on "the Sacred."

For the most part, Ingram is interested in dialogue as a theological

method. His 'transcendentologist' confession of faith is put in the follow-

ing, typically tentative, fashion:

I ... have a strong hunch that the evidence of the history of religions suggests

that every religious Way, in differing degrees, represents traditions of human

encounter with one sacred reality, named and experienced according to the

particular historical-cultural contexts of each Way. I cannot, of course, "prove"

this assertion ... but nevertheless, I do believe, in the sense of having a strongly

held opinion, that the evidence of the history of religions supports my hunch. If

so, interreligious dialogue itself becomes a form of religious praxis by which we

open ourselves to fuller apprehension of the Sacred.... (p~ 419)

Ingram wants to be visionary, to suggest something of the 'creative

ransformation' that will result from a dialogue between the Buddhist and

Christian 'Ways'. According to Ingram, this transformation is a desperate

necessity since "it can be cogently argued that in the present post-

Christian and post-Buddhist pluralistic age, traditional Christian theological

reflection and the Buddhist world view are presently at a dead end" (p. 417).

The tentative stance taken in the confession of faith quoted above gives way

here to one which some will find arrogant.

After a survey of Buddhist and Christian attitudes toward other

religions in the past, Ingram offers two proposals of the kind of transformation

he has in mind: one concerned with self-identity, the other with God. Consistent

with his foundational assumption, Ingram argues that "the traditional Buddhist

nonself paradigm and the traditional Christian self paradigm are, in separation

from one another, inadequate descrip-


tive accounts of the human experience of self-identity through time"

(p.312). In the same vein, he concludes that "Christians can deepen their

awareness of the Biblical images of God through dialogical appropriation

of the Mahaayaana Buddhist doctrine of Emptiness into Christian teaching"

(p.379). Both of these discussions are structured by categories and as-

sumptions from Whitehead's process philosophy.

As is often the case with works about dialogue, Ingram's book comes

across as sincere and well intentioned. It is not very good at persuading,

however, and I suspect the kind of reception it gets from individual

readers will depend on whether or not they share Ingram's hunches, his

evaluations of contemporary religion, and his commitment to a "White-

headian version of process philosophy." Anyone can probably gauge

how they will value the book by their reaction to the various quotes in

this review. It is not an original work in the study of religion, though,

and specialists in Buddhist or Christian studies will probably be disappointed

by some simplistic presentations.

Finally, it should be noted that Ingram's theological agenda is

inadequate when judged by the standards of the Christian theology he so

grandly dismisses. Contemporary theologians, operating in the pluralistic

context referred to by Ingram, are well aware of the importance and

difficulty of "finding criteria for evaluating theological constructs, for

rejecting certain claims and holding to others,"' and they will find an

equally serious concern for elaborating such criteria missing in Ingram's

discussions. Traditional Christian theologians included among their tasks

the expectation that the theologian would be concerned with how and

why any portrayal of God or the world is true. Ingram's background as a

historian of religions may betray him: as he notes (p.iii), historians of

religions often try to avoid or postpone questions of truth or value. The

theologian, just as much as the philosopher, should try to meet them

head on.


1 - Cordon D. Kaufman, An Essay on Theological Method (Missoula:

Scholars Press, 1975), p. 37.