Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Dialogue with a Buddhist philosopher

How should a Christian apologist argue with a Buddhist philosopher? Folk Buddhists retain many common sense beliefs, so they are easier to witness to, but Buddhist epistemology and metaphysics are quite radical, presenting less traction. 

In some cases, an individual can put themselves out of reach of evidence by retreating so far into the maze that they are hopelessly lost (barring divine intervention). So there may not be enough common ground for a Christian apologist to have a constructive dialogue with a Buddhist philosopher. 

One issue is how seriously a Buddhist philosopher or Buddhist monk actually takes Buddhist skepticism. In general, their Buddhism is the result of social conditioning. They wouldn't normally adopt such a counterintuitive philosophy. To what extent are they saying this to keep up appearances? Deep down, how many are truly committed to it? Especially if presented with an alternative?

Buddhism is a tragic worldview that reflects radical alienation from the world into which they are thrust. It's an elaborate coping mechanism. It cultivates an attitude of fatalistic resignation to an uncaring reality. And that attitude makes sense given the pre-Christian background.  

There are, of course, a variety of Buddhist schools of philosophy. It's not monolithic, although they share a family resemblance. 

Buddhism is pre-Christian. Although classical Buddhism is atheistic, the foil is Hindu polytheism and pantheism. It didn't develop in opposition to Christianity. And while Buddhist philosophers can try to retool traditional arguments to deflect Christianity, that's rather ad hoc. If they were starting from scratch, with Christianity on the table, would Buddhism even have a foothold?  

One of the ironies of Buddhist atheism is the mythological deification of Buddha: 

The most articulate recent spokesman for this position has been Paul J. Griffiths, e.g., in his On Being Buddha: The Classical Doctrine of Buddhahood (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994). There, and in his seminal article, "Buddha and God: A Contrastive Study in Ideas about Maximal Greatness" (Journal of Religion, vol. 69, 1989, pp. 502-529), Griffiths seems to argue not only that Buddhists did adopt an increasingly God-like conception of Buddha, but that they had to, since religious theorizing about the ultimate is driven by the need to maximize that which is regarded as highest, truest, or most real. Without going into the strengths and weaknesses of this provocative idea, I would note that it is eerily reminiscent of the ontological argument for God's existence, but applied to the realm of intellectual history. Jackson, Roger (1999) "A Theology And Buddhalogy In Dharmakirtis Pramanavarttika," Faith and Philosophy: Journal of the Society of Christian Philosophers: Vol. 16 : Iss. 4 , Article 2, p499n7. 

Here atheism comes full circle to reunite with robust theism. Perhaps the most consistent–albeit extreme–version of Buddhism is Buddhist idealism:

However, even a radically antirealist position like Buddhist idealism offers a number of openings for Christian apologetics in terms of certain a priori and/or transcendental arguments, viz. 

• Argument from logic
• Argument from design
• Argument from reason
• Argument from numbers
• Argument from simplicity
• Argument from contingency
• Argument from counterfactuals

There's still the challenge of how to bring that down to earth in terms of Christianity's claims about historical redemption, but establishing the necessity of God is a preliminary step. 

There's also the question of whether philosophical Buddhism is skeptical to the point of self-refutation, viz. :

If so, then it can't provide a standard of comparison to judge Christian theism. 

On the one hand, Buddhist philosophy appeals to intellectual pride and autonomy. On the other hand, it represents a despairing and desiccated worldview. Christian apologetics can exploit the emotional fault-lines. 


  1. Argument from logic

    That one is hard to get off the ground with some Buddhists. One of my philosophy teachers in college was a Mahayana Buddhist, and he didn't put much value in what he called "western logic" at all.

    I think I fixed my name problem.

  2. I spent a couple years knee-deep in as many Buddhist texts as I could get my hands on. It was quite the trip. Like sailing through an ocean reliant on guides who don’t care where they’re going and don’t care how long it takes to get there.

    The Mahayana Lotus Sutra was my favorite, that and the various stories of the Buddha’s previous lives.

    One thing I always found with Buddhists was that if I showed a particular concern for understanding their culture, not so much their religion, they were more willing to hear me out.

    On an unrelated note, Steve, Rauser tweeted this out and I was curious what your answer would be:

    “If God could test Abraham's faith by asking him to sacrifice Isaac, is it *possible* that he could test your faith by asking you to sacrifice your child? If not, why not?”

    I’ve always thought since Jesus’ covenant is founded on better promises (Hebrews) than the Abrahamic and Mosaic ones, that that destroys the comparison as what God was testing for Abraham was if he believed his covenant or not. God won’t do that with us as we have a better promise is Jesus.

    1. I've discussed that on more than one occasion.

  3. The deification of Buddha is interesting. Last year I holidayed in Thailand. Statues everywhere of Buddha. Big and small.

    Big Budda in Phuket has a plaque dedicated to Steve Jobs. He paid for some renovations.

    Buddhists who believe in no God are like Muslims who believe in an unknowable God. In their desire to connect with the divine they deify mere men: Buddha and Mohammed.

  4. Steve, have you read The Unexpected Way: On Converting from Buddhism to Catholicism by Paul Williams? He's a former practising Tibetan Buddhist of twenty years, former professor of Indian and Tibetan Philosophy in the UK, and he gives a wonderfully engaging philosophical critique of Buddhism. I'm not sure if it is still in print; if it is not, feel free to e-mail me and I'd gladly send it to you.

    I believe Williams gets carried away with himself at times (I put it down to his excitement as a philosopher at having 'found' Christianity, with its rich 'playground'/opportunities for rigorous philosophical theology) and, as you might imagine, his theology leaves a lot to be desired, but as a critique of Buddhist thought it is very good. Cuts to the chase and gets down to the nitty-gritty.