For the most part, Christianity and Buddhism have led separate lives. Christian apologetics has developed in relation to Western philosophy and science whereas Buddhist apologetics has developed in relation to Hinduism and Hindu polemics. As a result, there has not been much direct engagement between Buddhism and Christianity. So this represents an underdeveloped domain in Christian apologetics and its Buddhist counterpart. Since, moreover, Buddhism is not a missionary faith in the same sense as Christianity, it doesn’t generally initiate offensive apologetics.
So it was with a sense of anticipation that I read "A Buddhist Critique of the Christian Concept of God" (Antioch, 1988) by Gunapala Dharmasiri. I was looking forward to seeing how we as Christians are seen by a pre-Christian faith that developed independently of the Christian faith. Would the author introduce some novel criticisms of Christianity? Would he uncover some unique conceptual resources in Buddhism?
But as I actually got into the body of the work, it came as something of a let down. For many of his leading objections are recycled from Hume, Kant, and logical positivism (e.g. Flew, Nielsen). Instead of building a Buddhist critique from the ground up, the basic framework is supplied by Western philosophy and modern theology. This is somewhat self-defeating inasmuch as it fails to present Buddhism as a distinctive alternative to the Western tradition.
My hope was that his work would offer a systematic account of Buddhist atheism, and then oppose that model to a systematic account of Christian theism. That would afford a forum for constructive debate.
But as I’ve noted above, the author’s treatment fails us in first term of this proposition. Yet it disappoints us in the second member of that proposition as well.
In a book advertising itself as a critique of the Christian concept of God, we would naturally expect the author to first present a classic and comprehensive exposition and analysis of the Christian concept of God before he proceeded to attack that concept in relation to his own standard of reference. Especially when the author is coming from outside the Christian tradition, it is important to demonstrate a mastery of the concept at issue.
So it would makes sense if the author had taken one or more major representatives of Christian theism (e.g., Anselm, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin), laid out their theistic conception and supporting arguments, and then proceeded to an invidious comparison and contrast between their concept of God and Buddhist atheism. Wouldn’t that be a reasonable procedure? If a Christian were writing a philosophical critique of Buddhism, wouldn’t it be appropriate for him to take a leading spokesman of Buddhist faith and philosophy like, say, Nagarjuna as his foil?
But all the author offers us are two passing references to Augustine and four to Aquinas, period. This is in a book over 300pp long. Most of his interaction is with liberals, radicals, and atheists of the stripe of Altizer, Barth, Bultmann, Cobb, Hartshorne, Hick, Rahner, Robinson, Teilhard, and Tillich. None of these figures are at all representative of the historic Christian faith.
Perhaps the author would defend his selection by saying that these theologians illustrate the collapse of traditional Christian theism. Owing to the inroads of modern philosophy, science, Bible criticism, and comparative mythology, no intellectual can believe in the old unreconstructed form of historic Christianity. If that is his operating assumption, it suffers from a couple of crippling flaws:
i) There are, on the face of it, many intelligent contemporary Christians who continue to believe in the pre-critical view of Scripture and classic Christian theism. The fact that our author may not find the faith to be credible is irrelevant at this stage of the analysis. For you cannot rebut the opposing side before you present the opposing side. At this preliminary stage, the author's personal views are beside the point. What is only pertinent is the opposing belief-system, along with its supporting arguments. To sideline the traditional position in advance any exposition or analysis is a prejudicial and question-begging procedure. From start to finish, the author is tilting at windmills.
ii) Even if we were to accept this assessment of the situation, how does that constitute or contribute to a "Buddhist" critique of Christian theism? If the author is going to make good on his claim, he needs to apply Buddhist ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology to Christian theism.
Now the failure to directly engage any major exposition of the Christian faith wouldn’t be fatal if the author could demonstrate a competent grasp of Christian theology. But it would be impossible to retrieve and reassemble the full-orbed doctrine of God in Christian theology from the skewed and scatter-shot treatment it receives at the author’s hands. His knowledge of Christian theology seems to be chiefly culled from mediating theologians and open infidels. This would be like reading a biography of Lincoln by Jefferson Davis.
Of course, it would also be possible for the author to bypass the secondary sources and go straight to the primary source material. He could start with the Isaian or Johannine or Pauline concept of God, and then take it from there. In representing the Buddhist position, the author quotes extensively from primary sources. But there is nothing of the kind in his portrayal of the Judeo-Christian position. What we have instead is a tertiary concept twice-removed from the wellspring: Scripture filtered through tradition filtered through mediating theology and infidelity. But in the process of transmission the original is often garbled beyond recognition. It should be unnecessary to point out what an unscholarly method this is.
So what "A Buddhist Critique of the Christian Concept of God" really amounts to is an Occidental critique of a post-Christian concept of God. It isn't very Buddhist, and it isn't very Christian. This alone would discredit the main thesis and its execution.
I could, therefore, terminate my review at this point with no loss of cogency. But for the sake of completeness I will carry out a chapter-by-chapter review.
In chapter one, the author deals with the problem of personal identity and its relation to theism and Buddhism. Since Buddhism advocates a no-soul theory, the problem of personal identity is acute in this tradition.
And I don’t see that our author succeeds in clearing up the problem on Buddhist terms. Although Buddhism denies an enduring soul or self (1.1), this does not entail a denial of personhood (1.12)—or so the author claims. But it’s hard to see how you can have a person without a self—especially when he goes on to say that personhood is only a "conventional" concept (1.24). Again, he says that the Buddhist view doesn’t do away with the concept of a being, but two sentences down he speaks of how the "convention" of "a being" arises (1.13). What a person or being ultimately is "is only [a] group of ever changing factors." We seem to be up against willful assertions in the teeth of his own presuppositions.
However, the author tries to introduce an element of stability by appealing to the principle of a "formative process" (1.14), using the illustration of plant growth. He also says that a "person" is "not only a series of momentary events but also causal continuum" (1.15). Yet there are several problems with this analysis:
i) Change and process are not convertible. Process entails a linear or cyclical progression that is not at all the same thing as an endless alternation ("ever changing factors") is not. Mere change does not imply continuity.
ii) The analogy of plant-growth is tendentious inasmuch the common sense view of plants and trees takes these to be fairly stable entities. Of course, common sense could be wrong, but the illustration plays to common sense, whereas Buddhist ontology is deeply counterintuitive and nonsensical.
iii) The category of a "formative process" assumes a fixed form or pattern. If we change every part of a classic car, is it the same car? Yes and no. None of the parts are numerically the same, but they serve the same purpose and preserve the same organization of elements. But sheer flux is a formless and aimless affair..
iv) A series involves a specific sequence (e.g. the natural number series). Momentary succession does not add up to a series.
v) A causal continuum assumes a principle of continuity, which is just what is lacking on the author’s account.
What the author has failed to explain is how pure impermanence can secure any sort of persistent pattern. In a move theater, people may change seats, or the entire audience may turn over from one showing to the next, but the seating arrangement stays the same. But where is the point of fixity in Buddhist metaphysics? And if there is no fixed frame of reference, then there is no such thing as personal identity or persons or beings. A "being" implies a particular being, fairly discrete in relation to other beings in space and time—or being in general. It is a subset of being. But if everything is in a state of homogenous flux then there are no such subdivisions.
Let’s compare this for a moment to the way in which Christian theology can ground personal identity. God has a complete concept of every person. This concept is timeless. This concept has an internal structure. It assigns certain character traits to an individual. He will react in the same way under the same conditions. And his life has a final cause in relation to God’s master plan for the world. God instantiates his idea in time. This is a partial and progressive exemplification of God’s exemplary idea. But because Buddhism denies a personal Absolute or abstract objects, it lacks the metaphysical machinery to get a fix on personal identity. It has no abstract universals or transcendent structuring principle. Rather, it represents the extreme immanental end of the spectrum.
Some readers may find this all rather recondite. Yet unless Buddhism can establish this little beachhead, it will be incompetent to establish any other point, and for the following reasons:
i) If there is no such thing as personal identity, then there are no persons. And if there are no persons, then there are no Buddhists.
ii) If reality is radically discontinuous, then there can be no Buddhist propositions. It takes a certain amount of time for the speaker to state a proposition, and a certain amount of time for a listener to hear the statement and draw the appropriate inference. But unless the speaker, listener, and proposition are all self-identical and causally connected, there can be no logical coherence or interpersonal communication. (The same applies to the process of reading.)
iii) By the same token, there is no way of fixing the reference, for if the referent keeps shifting from one instant to the next, it presents a moving and elusive target—much like a mirage.
iv) But the situation gets even worse. Although it takes time to draw an inference, implication is a timeless relation. Even though the conclusion may follow the premise in time, it doesn’t follow "from" the premise in time; rather, the conclusion is implicit (contained) in the premise(s). But Buddhism denies abstract objects—including internal relations (e.g. implication). Yet in that event, Buddhism is in no position to affirm or deny anything at all.
For the second time, we could stop the presses right here. If the author can’t get over this initial hurdle, everything he says in chaps. 2,3,4... will be beside the point. But it may prove to be instructive to continue.
In chapter two, the author attempts to invalidate the cosmological and teleological arguments. He regards the cosmological argument as unscientific because it postulates an extramundane cause (2.4). But this is a verbal trick. You limit science to natural objects, so that, by definition, anything supernatural, anything outside the domain of nature is "unscientific." But there are several problems with this move:
i) Science is a descriptive, not a prescriptive discipline—based on observation, not dictation. Such a stipulative definition is out of keeping with the true spirit of scientific inquiry.
ii) Even if we went along with this restricted definition, it is prejudicial and question-begging to insist that all of reality is limited to the scope of the scientific method. Once again, that assumes the very point at issue, the very thing in need of proof.
iii) Cosmological and teleological arguments are broader than scientific arguments. They are more philosophical than that, dealing with meta-scientific questions regarding the preconditions of natural science. They may make use of scientific data, but they are not confined to scientific data.
He thinks that Darwinism overthrows design (2.8). But there are three or four things wrong with this objection:
i) In principle, you could simply recast the teleological argument in evolutionary terms, a la theistic evolution, by treating the evolutionary process as a goal-oriented and divinely directed means to an appointed end. That is not the move I'd make, but that move has been made by many modern theologians, and since our author often takes modern theology as his point of reference (e.g., process theology), he is hardly in a position to disqualify this particular move out of hand.
ii) Our author is taking for granted the Darwinian dogma. But, of course, this has come in for sustained criticism by members of the creation science community, the intelligent design movement, and even some notable mavericks within the secular scientific establishment.
iii) In principle, the argument is convertible: if evidence of evolution overturns design, then evidence of design overturns evolution.
iv) This also raises the question of epistemic priorities. Some would say that without design, you really have nothing at all—no basis for science, for rationality. Design is the foundation for every special, second-order discipline.
The author goes on to suggest that what we take to be design in nature is largely a psychological projection and reflection of our own creativity (2.8). Once again, this assertion is deeply problematic:
i) Even if that were so, it would only shift the problem because we would then have to account for "mental" design. In principle, the teleological argument is easily adaptable to idealism. You merely relocate the same basic arguments from extramental to mental phenomena. In dismissing observables, our author forgets about the observer himself—like a forgetful author who can't remember his own writings.
ii) However, I don’t find the author’s subjectivizing of natural design very plausible. A lot of technological gadgets simply imitate problem-solving strategies on display in the natural world. Our creative ability is imitative and adaptive.
iii) Projective theories are self-defeating inasmuch as they can turn on the theorist. If the evidence of natural design is subjective, why not say that the evidence of evolution is subjective? Indeed, it's hard to see how the author can raise scientific objections to the faith when science assumes the reality of an external world, pace the author's own scepticism.
In the same paragraph, the author equates intelligence with brain structure. But this also demands a separate argument. It is notoriously difficult to reduce consciousness to physical hardware. As a professional philosopher, our author ought to be conversant with the raging debate on this topic. And even if the architecture of the brain could account for intelligence, that doesn’t account for the brain itself—which is no minor engineering feat.
The author appeals to dysteleology (evil) to counterbalance the evidence of teleology (2.9). But this objection is defective on a couple of grounds:
i) Evil represents a declension from an ideal standard. Therefore, the good enjoys axiological priority over evil.
ii) Good and evil are moral abstractions. A concrete state of affairs doesn’t' come stamped with "good" and evil. Rather, it exemplifies abstract values. But Buddhism has no room for abstract objects, so it is not entitled to levy such value judgments.
Borrowing an argument from Flew, who borrows it from Peirce, the author contends that we can’t quantify the relative probability of this universe, for the universe is sui generis, which doesn’t offer a final frame of reference (2.10). But this assumes that the design inference is inductive in nature.
The cosmos is an example, and not exemplar, of design. Design is abstract. That is why the same design can take so many different forms.
Indeed, the author’s thesis is a case in point. His abstract idea could be translated into different languages, and stored in different media (hard copy; software). These are different property-instances of abstract design. So Flew’s objection commits a level-confusion.
The author contends that creation is a gratuitous postulate inasmuch as it is conceivable that the universe "goes back to an infinite past" (2.13). But this objection suffers from three flaws:
i) As Philoponus pointed out a long time ago, this is invalid. There are two kinds of infinitude: potential and actual. An actual infinite is timeless because all its members must be given. A potential infinite is temporal and finite. It is not a given totality because it expands over time. At most, the universe represents a potential rather than an actual infinite. But in that case, it could not have existed forever. That which is increasable is incomplete, and not an actual infinite.
ii) And even if the idea of an eternal universe were coherent, that would not eliminate the cosmological or teleological argument, for we would still have to ask, with Leibniz, why does "this" eternal universe exist instead than some "other" eternal universal out of all the possible candidates (pace 2.22)? One can conceive of any number of trivial variations on the actual world.
iii) When attacking the ontological argument (see below) our author will deny that what is conceivable is real. So he operates with a double standard.
The author tries to put the ontological argument to rest by quoting J.J. Smart as saying that there are no necessary existential propositions, for the idea of a logically necessary being is oxymoronic, like a round-circle (2.15). But this denial is unimpressive on at least three grounds:
i) It is just a barefaced assertion, not a reasoned argument. The author is falling back on a naked appeal to authority, contrary to his strictures in chap. 8.
ii) It seems pretty easy to me to come up with counter-examples. Here’s one: "If Jesse is David’s dad, then David is Jesse’s son; Jesse is David’s dad: hence, David is Jesse’s son." The premise is existential, but since fatherhood and sonship are correlative, if the premise is true, then the conclusion is internally related to the premise. Granting the premise, the statement that David is Jesse’s son is both a truth of fact and a truth of reason.
iii) Is Smart's disclaimer an existential proposition or a necessary proposition? If existential, it cannot be universal, in which event it must admit an exemption to its own rule. So Smart is guilty of overgeneralizing.
If necessary, then, of course, it refutes its own rule, and allows for an indefinite number of exceptions. So his claim either proves too much or too little.
The author then asserts that "no existential fact can be contingent" (2.16). Well, if there are no contingent existential facts, then how come there are no necessary existential propositions? By his own admission, it would seem to be a case of all of one or all of the other. (I don't happen to agree with 2.16.)
The author says that Buddha believed that "an empirical theory of causation and the regularity of laws of nature etc., within the world could fully account for causation" (2.18). The obvious objection to this explanation is that it could only account for internal cosmic causality and not for the cause of the cosmos itself. A wristwatch exhibits internal causality, but that doesn’t account for the origin of the watch as a whole.
The author attempts to parry this argument by invoking Hume’s illustration of a set of 20 marbles (2:21): If you account for each member individually, haven’t you accounted for the whole collection? But this comparison is fallacious:
i) Since one marble does not invent another marble, this fails to illustrate a series of second-causes with a primary cause. A set of marbles does not bring itself into being.
ii) A set of 20 marbles is a finite set. So how does this parallel an eternal world? Even if Hume’s argument were sound, it would be subversive to the author’s claim.
The author says it’s arbitrary to invoke the principle of causality, only the draw the line at God (2.18). On the contrary, causality only applies to temporal objects—objects that have an origin in time. Causality has reference to a process of events or temporal effects, occurrents and continuants. But since God is outside of time, the principle is inapplicable to the divine mode of existence. There’s a category difference between a timeless and a timebound object.
The author is aware of this distinction, but tries to explode it by arguing that God would still be "prior" to the world. By enacting a temporal state of affairs, God thereby generates a retrospective temporal relation (2.16).
That, at least, is what I take to be the thrust of his argument. It is very compressed, which makes it a bit difficult to disambiguate. This is an interesting object, but it doesn’t yield the conclusion he wants. Let’s take a comparison.
If I open a bank account and make a deposit, I thereby set up a logical relation between a positive balance and a negative balance that would not otherwise obtain apart from that action. The negative balance is analogous to God’s relative priority vis-a-vis the positive existence of the world. But the negative balance is just that—a mere negation or placeholder, such as a zero. It is existentially empty, like the null-set.
The negative balance is the logical correlative of the positive balance, but that is all it is—a logical relation. The respective relata are not existentially analogous.
You could, perhaps, say that God is prior in time to creation, but real time begins with the plus side of the relation. It is only the mundane relatum that counts as a temporal continuum. And from that end-point it can be employed as a point of reference for speaking of God’s relative priority. But the temporal priority begins and ends precisely at the vanishing point of the first instance. It doesn’t extend past that moment. The relation is unilateral and asymmetrical.
Put another way, time is a limit, like a spatial surface or boundary. On the one side you may have matter, and other the other side a vacuum and void. Something implies nothing, but nothing doesn’t imply something. To insist that every borderline retrojects the properties of the plus side would deny the possibility of a least lower limit, which is unreasonable.
To put all this more simply, to say that a timeless God made the world means that there was never a "time" when the world didn't exist. Time had a beginning. The world had a beginning. But there was no time before the first moment of time.
In chapter 3, the author takes up the problem of evil. He runs through a number of proposed theodicies and finds them all wanting. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with his assessment, but since he doesn’t address my preferred theodicy, it is all beside the point.
In Christian ethics and axiology, knowing God is the summum bonun, for God is the summum bonum. But the knowledge of some divine attributes (e.g. justice, mercy) is a second-order good inasmuch as their revelation presupposes the fall. That, in brief, supplies the divine justification for evil. We could, of course, spend a lot more time on this theodicy and field variety of objections, but since the author doesn’t deal with it at all, the onus is on him.
The author argues at some length that divine omniscience and/or foreknowledge implies foreordination. I wouldn’t deny that. He then says that this lays the ultimate responsibility for whatever happens in the world right at God’s own doorstep. I wouldn’t deny that either, although it fosters a misleading impression. Although God is responsible for everything, God is blamable for nothing, because God is not solely responsible for everything.
Finally, he says that this scenario robs man of personal responsibility. I don’t know if I agree with this because I’m not quite sure what he means. There are varieties of determinism—theistic, atheistic, Christian, sub-Christian. But our author doesn’t work up his version into an actual argument. He simply makes some bald assertions about how it renders "the whole of man’s moral and spiritual progress...meaningless" (3.19). But that is far from self-explanatory.
To begin with, it assumes, without argument, that everyone should have an opportunity for moral and spiritual progress. But does the progressive principle, even if otherwise valid, have to be universal in order to be meaningful? If this potential were restricted to a chosen few, it would still be meaningful for "them," would it not? Where is his argument to the contrary?
And in what sense is predestination antithetical to progress? Let’s take the Divine Comedy or the Pilgrim’s Progress. These are Christian versions of the quest genre. Dante and Bunyan have scripted every word, deed and phase of the protagonist in his pilgrimage. How does that nullify the progress of the protagonist? Isn’t the case quite the reverse? The moral and spiritual progress of the protagonist is staged every step of the way by the author. That is what advances the action. And that is what directs the action towards its telos.
In the same sentence, cited above, our author goes on to say "the ideas of good and bad lose their meaning because nobody is responsible for anything." Again, this isn’t transparently true. It would be easy for a Western reader to gloss this as meaning that it isn’t fair for God to blame us if he determines our deeds. But here we’re dealing with a Buddhist. His choice of words is perhaps telling. He doesn’t talk about being responsible "to anyone," but "for anything." He isn’t concerned with the conditions under which God may justly hold us answerable and culpable.
His meaning seems to be found in the last paragraph of the chapter: "when the implications of theism are fully drawn, with the doctrines of predestination and grace etc., the ideas of finding means of salvation and spiritual struggle and therefore the idea of religion as a way of salvation loses all meaning" (3.22). In other words, full-blooded Christian theism leaves no place for the role of human merit in his autosoteric system. The issue is not so much under what conditions human conduct is blameworthy, but worthy or unworthy. The subject is not accountable to another or superior.
Here we see a radical difference in orientation between the Christian and the Buddhist worldviews. The horizontal and vertical dimensions have dropped out of sight. And here is where we see the connection between Buddhist ethics and metaphysics. Nominalism dominates both domains. There are no relations, only particulars. No social dimension, only solitary individuals. No God, no church—just a bunch of hermits. Buddhist morality is cenobitic to the core.
And the author is quite right to register the incongruence between Christianity and Buddhism. But this is a description of the difference. It in no wise demonstrates the superiority of the Buddhist perspective.
Put another way, it shows that there is no ecumenical way of framing the problem of evil, for what counts as evil and its alleviation is relative to our respective worldviews. Yet the author has failed to show why his way of casting the debate improves on the position he is opposing.
In chapter 4, the author attacks Christian ethics. But his criticism doesn’t appear to be altogether coherent. In one paragraph he equates Christian ethics with deontological ethics or divine command theory (4.23). But in a later paragraph he equates it with teleological ethics or utilitarianism (4.40). It is unclear what we’re to make of this. Is the author confused? Or does he think that Christian ethics is confused?
Let us note that the two perspectives are not mutually exclusive. On the one hand, the commands are goal-oriented, as a means to an end. On the other hand, we cannot reach the goal without a knowledge of the means—the laws and precepts instrumental to that end.
The author regards divine command theory as defective in several respects, of which I’ll comment on following: (i) how to identify God’s commands (4.24), (ii) the Euthyphro dilemma (4.29), and (iii) immoral commands (4.28).
i) He admits that a Christian would simply point to Scripture as the source of moral norms. But he views this as only pushing the problem back a step inasmuch as we must still isolate and identify the "correct" tradition within the rival strata of the Scriptural tradition. Of course, it is because the author is a Buddhist that he holds such a low view of the Bible. So this criticism, taken by itself, is simply tendentious. He hasn’t presented any supporting argument for his view of Scripture. What we have is just another barefaced assertion precariously poised on a groundless assumption.
ii) It isn’t clear to me how an appeal to the Euthyphro dilemma qualifies as a "Buddhist" critique of Christian ethics. The author keeps slipping off his Buddhist harness. But an argument "against" Christianity is only an argument "for" Buddhism if it represents the application of properly Buddhist principles to the issue at hand.
iii) He says that if morality is "defined in terms of God’s will then the word ‘morality’ loses its meaning because there cannot be any discernible coherent criteria for moral and immortal actions" (4.29). But, as usual, there are a lot of gaps in the reasoning. Is he saying that there are no criteria for discerning God’s will? Or is he saying that God’s will is not a moral criterion because it is arbitrary? The former question is epistemic, the latter, ethical. If the former question were in play, we would refer back to (i) for the answer. The latter seems to assume that divine command theory indexes virtue and vice to God’s sheer will. But the attributes of God are correlative. His will is characterized by all his other attributes. So divine precepts are not arbitrary, as the author insinuates.
iv) For the author to brand some of God’s commands as immoral once again assumes the very point at issue, which is that Buddhist ethics is superior to Christian ethics. This doesn’t rise to the level of an argument. It is only the expression of the author’s hidebound prejudice.
The relation between the divine law and the divine lawmaker can operate at several levels, none of which is morally or intellectually arbitrary. Some human virtues are exempla of divine virtues. Other human virtues are contingent on man's divinely created constitution. Still other human virtues are contingent on a temporary state of affairs, and change with changing circumstances.