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Aguilar, Mario I.


Church, Liberation and World Religions. Towards an Christian-Buddhist Dialogue.


London u. a.: Bloomsbury T & T Clark 2012. IX, 166 S = Ecclesiological Investigations, 14. Geb. US$ 110,00. ISBN 978-0-567-27324-6.


John D’Arcy May

The author Mario I. Aguilar of this helpful overview of Roman Catholic approaches to interreligious dialogue since Vatican II is not shy of naming the problems involved: the suspicion of plural­ism, the danger of fundamentalism, »a possible cynicism towards truth as an absolute« (89), the acknowledgement that religious certainty entails a sense of superiority which makes dialogue impos­-sible. The post-conciliar popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have endeavoured to make Catholics »forget the council« (16), leading to »paralysis in ecumenical relations« (143). This is encouraging, because it is becoming increasingly pointless to discuss or embark upon dialogue without facing these issues.
After briefly summarising the markers put down by Vatican II, noting correctly that Nostra Aetate on non-Christians, Dignitatis Humanae on civil and religious liberty, Lumen Gentium on the church and Gaudium et Spes on the church in the modern world belong together as complementary approaches to the council’s basic themes, A. bases his account of dialogue on »the diverse actions of practitioners rather than in epistemological truths that after all can change according to times, fashions and cultural forms« (145). This gives the book an immediacy that is a refreshing change from the usual abstract categorisations of theologies of religions. We experience the meetings between Thich Nhat Hanh and Dan Berrigan in the context of the Vietnam War and between Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama after the latter’s exile from Tibet. We enter deeply into the dialogue of spirit in the knowledge of imminent death between the Trappists of Thibirine in Algeria and their Muslim friends, and we meet the Benedictines who adopted the way of life of Hindu sannyasins in India. These are scrutinised against the background of A.’s Latin American origins and his contemplative experience as a Camaldolese Benedictine Oblate. He does not hesitate to discuss the similarities between monasticism and Marxism, as Thomas Merton did, and the role of Marxism in liberation theology. This is refreshing, because for too long these matters have been treated as entirely separate.
Taking a lead from the Dalai Lama, A. bases his theology of dialogue on our common humanity, which he sees as compatible with the primacy of conscience and human dignity affirmed by Vatican II. For him, monasteries – whether Christian or Buddhist – are signs of non-compliance with the consumerism of modern societies. They provide the basis for a dialogue of stillness and absence, of inner conversion but also at times of a dark night of abandonment as familiar spiritual paths are forsaken and religious strangers are encountered. In many of the examples he examines, dialogue arises from »the common task for peace« (77) in situations fraught with violence and tension. This is very much in line with the approach taken by Vatican II seen as a whole, but it will be contested by Chris­tian theologians, both Catholic and Protestant, who put principles before praxis and take orthodox doctrine as their starting point. Here the convergence between Latin American »post-idealist theology« (37), which »does not differentiate between religion and politics« (42), and contemplative experience, whether in Asia or the West, though controversial, becomes particularly fruitful.
What is less developed in the book is the Christian-Buddhist dialogue of the title. Buddhism might be said to hover over the work rather than being directly engaged. A.’s person-centred ap­proach partly compensates for this, as Buddhist teachings are most convincing when seen in the lives of practising Buddhists, but the contrasts and incompatibilities between them and their Christian counterparts are real and need to be explored in depth. There are already examples of theological dialogue on topics such as creation and eschatology, despite what A. assumes, nor did secularisation start only in the 1960s, which may be plausible from a Catholic point of view but is hardly true of Europe as a whole (6–7). Finally, one would expect an academic publisher, knowing that A.’s first language is not English, to have proofread the text thoroughly enough to eliminate howlers such as ›Pious IX‹ or ›Buddha-darma‹.
Nevertheless, the approach to dialogue through the experiences of practitioners is original and makes for absorbing reading. A.’s uninhibited acceptance of the difficulties that inevitably arise for such practitioners, both with their own religious traditions and in the encounter with others, opens the way for a refreshingly frank discussion of the potential of interreligious dialogue for world peace and individual fulfilment. The book is highly recommended for educators and general readers.