Robert MAGLIOLA. Facing up to Real Doctrinal Difference: How Some Thought-Motifs from Derrida Can Nourish the Catholic-Buddhist Encounter.  Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2014.  Pp. 206.  $16.95  pb.  ISBN: 978-1-62138-079-5    Reviewed by John V. APCZYNSKI,, Professor emeritus, St. Bonaventure University, St. Bonaventure, NY  14778-0012 

          This intriguing study offers a bold thesis that adapting the Derridean concept of difference within a Catholic framework can allow adept practitioners of both Buddhist and Catholic traditions to edify each other while acknowledging their radical difference (11).  This avoids the temptation to relativism and superficial syncretism that so often infects pluralist accounts of dialogue.  His professional background in contemporary continental philosophy coupled with his long history of sustained participation in Buddhist-Christian dialogue provide Magliola with a unique vantage point for this effort.  He notes how several authoritative voices within contemporary Buddhist communities as well as academic specialists certify his presentation of Buddhist teachings.  And he takes pains to emphasize that his presentation of Catholic doctrine is offered in accordance with papal teaching.  At first I was put off by his appeal to this relatively narrow, even if authoritative, range of the Catholic tradition.  But as I read further it called to mind the strategy of Karl Rahner, who would take a scholastic doctrinal formulation from Denzinger in order to “retrieve” it in an existentially and historically nuanced way in the manner of Heidegger.  Magliola’s strategy, in my estimation, is analogous insofar as he attempts to “deconstruct” traditional Catholic teachings in light of Asian insights derived from Buddhist forms of thinking by opening up further nuances not typically seen from Western modes of thought.

Magliola begins through an exposition of the early and middle phases of Derrida’s deconstruction of epistemology.  He explains how ‘sameness’ is a product of ‘purely negative reference’ within a framework (32-33).  Here he turns his focus to the radical difference between Buddhism and Catholicism: the former is a religion of self-help or self-power whereas the latter is a religion of other-help or other-power.  While there are variations with this underlying theme within Buddhist traditions, finally they all agree on this basic point.  And here the radical difference between Buddhist traditions and Catholicism comes to the fore: for Buddhism each and every individual is same-power or the purely unconditioned, whereas for Catholicism God is the cause of creation and present by divine power but distinct and thus transcendent to creation (66-67).  In Buddhism, the goal is liberation where no attachments hold the ‘person’ within the cycle of rebirth, whereas within Catholicism the person is so transformed as to directly perceive the divine life without elimination of the created person.  Catholicism affirms the radical distinction between God and beings, whereas Buddhism affirms self-power alone (97).

Since Catholicism adopts a theory of developmental theology, the tradition affirms that it can come to an ever more mature and profound understanding of matters of faith.  Both Catholics and most Buddhists adopt an “inclusive” understanding of each other’s practitioners.  On the Catholic side, this means that on the historical level God wants Buddhists to be saved through their practice as Buddhists.  At this stage in human history God wants Buddhists to receive the grace of Christ through their Buddhist practices.  Of course, Buddhists intend something like the reverse of Catholics.  Magliola suggests using the Derridean chiasm for understanding this situation in the context of dialogue: “each Buddhist and each Catholic has ‘inscribed’ under her/his ‘text’ . . . a ‘subtext’ which is the contradicting image of the other religion’s good-willed intentions for her/him” (120).  Pointing this out, Magliola contends, requires that at this stage of history the Catholic dialogist must not propose some watered-down revisionism of doctrine, but rather must acknowledge the irreducible difference.  How might  doctrine then develop authentically?  Exposure to teachings and practices of one’s counterpart in other traditions can stimulate the revival of dormant but important analogous teachings and practices in one’s own religion (126).  Magliola’s hope here is that the Catholic tradition may be able to develop further doctrinal understandings in an Asian manner, analogously to its earlier developments which adapted Hellenistic thought forms.

For example, revelation presented in scripture can now be seen to serve as clues, traces to an eminently ‘more’ that may be expanded in this context (143).  Consider the Derridean stroke and counter-stroke of the X, formation and formation-as-deconstructed.  The Johannine Logos (1:1-18) is helpfully served by such a deconstruction: “the humanity of Christ is absolutely God-as-present (the stroke), but the humanity of Christ is paradoxically a clue to God’s ‘more,’ the infinite reaches (of the infinite God) that are, at some point . . . , necessarily ‘absent-to-us,’ ‘beyond’ us (thus, the counter-stroke), or otherwise . . . we would become God ourselves” (151).  Another example speculates on the teachings of the Trinity where ‘hypostasis’ was devised to account for internal voiding oppositions.  Each of the Persons as a Person is constituted by oppositional relation between the Persons.  On this expansive Rahnerian reading of the immanent Trinity, Magliola suggests that we think of the divine Unity then as impersonal.  A final example to which I will point where Oriental modes of thought might bring forth further meaning of traditional formulations concerns the beatific vision.  The ‘neither-nor’ form of thinking may help plumb the depths of grace here.  His suggestion is that a person who is becoming deified is still definitely not God but somehow is not not-God either (169).  Perhaps such forms of thinking inspired by oriental thought forms may eventually contribute to a fuller understanding of the teachings of Catholicism.

This brief overview, I trust, provides a hint at the ways in which opening the Catholic heritage to oriental ways of thinking in ways suggested by Magliola might eventually prove fruitful for a fuller understanding of the faith.  The exploratory and probing nature of this work do not render it suitable for beginning students; but for advanced students with some awareness of continental thought and of the practice of shared Buddhist-Christian dialogue, it should be helpful stimulus.