Over at Love of All Wisdom, Amod has put up a sort of rejoinder to my review of Ken Wilber's Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, in which I assert (among other things) that Wilber does not offer a very recognizable portrait of Christianity, nor indeed of Judaism or Islam; and that this seems to me to stem from what I called his "Atmanism," his position that at bottom there really is One Big Thing (a.k.a. "Spirit,") whereas the sense that God is encountered is just foreign to his way of thinking.
This criticism is not the whole of my review, far less of my opinion about Wilber, about whom I tend to have a more cautious enthusiasm than his fans, and a more muted critique than his foes, who seem to see him as a guru who brooks no criticism. Also, as I have said both in an addendum to the review and over at Amod's blog in the comments, Wilber has somewhat expanded on his position in such a way as to make more explicit how he places the I-Thou experience. This remains, still, somewhat too little in my opinion to be a really robust account, but I'm a card-carrying Levinasian (of a sort), and so am hard to please on this score.
But I want to address here just one aspect of Amod's post. Amod questioned my reasons for finding fault with Wilber not reading the "religions of the book" in their own terms. This has to do with the "scandal of particularity," the claim that the people of Israel or the Incarnation of Christ or the revelation to Mohamed, these concrete historical events, have a universal pertinence rather than just being instances of some more generic truth. My own example was with regard to Christianity. I had written:
[Wilber] insists that Christian church fathers (note, we're not talking about run-of-the-pew "believers" in the Bible belt, but about the great Saints, Doctors of the Church, and masters of the Christian mystical tradition) have just got it wrong --with the exception of a few misunderstood voices-- about "the adept from Nazareth;" a claim that would be astounding if he made it about chess masters' opinions of the Ruy Lopez, or music critics' estimations of Beethoven's late quartets, or even of Zen masters' account of the Tathagata.On this, Amod writes:
....it is surely a gross misunderstanding of Christian saints’ claims about Jesus to take them as a matter of specialized expertise. On their own understanding, Jesus is not a specialty, a limited field of human knowledge; He is universal, a truth who saves us all. ...once one makes that sort of universal, nonspecialist claim (and I think it’s a legitimate claim to make), one necessarily opens oneself up to nonspecialist criticism: if the truth in general isn’t what you say it is, then maybe Jesus isn’t what you say he is either.Amod's point about nonspecialist claims making you vulnerable to nonspecialist critique is fair, but my argument really is that there is nothing immediately obvious about what is entailed by Christianity's claims. It is not an obvious thing to do "emic justice" to the Abrahamic faiths, or indeed to any other. Take the claim that "Jesus saves." What, exactly, is the danger we are "saved" from? What is this sin and death? The Bible, in fact, does not read itself; you have to inhabit the whole narrative for a good long while before you start to feel what might be meant by either sin or salvation (as opposed to, say, the superego's scowl or your parents' approval).
Nor is Buddhism transparent. The eightfold path doesn't explain itself; the four noble truths require considerable unpacking before they really sink in ("life is suffering" ...really?). What is this nirvana and why should it be sought? In what way does it answer the dilemma of desire? If as a Christian I tried to explain Buddhist enlightenment in terms of an encounter with Christ, and hence had to explain away all the obvious rhetoric of impersonality, absence of self, void, and so on, as "culturally determined" errors, Buddhists of all stripes would be right to caution me that I had got their tradition wrong. It is, after all, their tradition. (This isn't to reduce questions of truth to questions of proprietorship, though I do believe that such questions of "cultural sensitivity," to use the somewhat over-determined vocabulary of political correctness, have a place).
My review went on:
claims by or about the Buddha are wholly different in content from claims about Jesus as the messiah; and if one wants to understand Christianity (no matter what one "believes") one has to take those claims seriously in the terms in which they are presented.The methodological issues that arise from inter-religious encounter are very tricky. I don't want to say that translation is impossible or that one can only repeat what the tradition says. If there is to be any encounter at all, real dialogue and mutual influence and transformation must be possible. And there have to be differences between types of conflict--instances where it is in principle possible to resolve contradictions with judicious distinctions, and others in which there really is an either/or incompatibility. As I hope I made clear in my response to Amod, this difference has to do with what the claims are about. Amod offered (in a comment to his post) the example of Sura 112 of the Qur’an: "Say: He is God, (the) One; the Self-Sufficient Master, Whom all creatures need; He has begotten no one, nor is He begotten; and there is no one comparable to Him." This, I agree with Amod, designedly confronts the Nicene clause: "I believe...in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made." The conflict exists because the traditions intend the same object and make different claims regarding it.
But the Buddhist/Christian case is different. Caveat lector: I do not speak as a Buddhologist, just an interested layperson who's read a bunch of (mostly popular) Buddhist literature, plus the occasional deeper work like The Words of My Perfect Teacher. But as I understand, the Buddha (the very term means "awake," designating a condition of being, not an essence) is held to have seen the nature of the universe as becoming and passing-away. His prescription (the eightfold path) is claimed to be able to get you the same realization. This is held to be not just a recipe for an experience but a path to understanding (I would say, "objective" understanding, but this would already court terminological problems); but this understanding is about the natural order.
The Christian claim about the Incarnation, on the other hand, is of a different order. It is about the intersection of a "supernatural" order with the natural; and about relating oneself to a person. It is (I hold) quite possible to maintain in a Christian context that Buddhist experience and discourse is completely accurate and valid, if one remembers these distinctions, though of course this might mean some careful fine-tuning. If I were sketching such an account I would have to distinguish many strands of Buddhist (and Christian) tradition, for not all of them would work in such a context (as they do not all "work" with each other), but it would be very important to be sure that I was not falsifying the traditions I drew upon.
This doesn't mean, note, that the Buddhist will wind up agreeing with me, any more than the great pagan philosophers all agreed with the Christian re-working of the philosophical heritage. The Church Fathers are quite clear that they "appropriate" and turn inside-out some of the terms ("logos" comes to mind) and conceptual structures they inherit. Aristotle would not have concurred with Aquinas about God. But, I would argue, there is a difference between the way that Gregory of Nyssa, for instance, both carefully and audaciously used Greek philosophy (in which he was extraordinarily well-versed), and the way Wilber more casually (as it seems to me) reduces the Messiah of the Jews to an Indian adept.
For the vast majority of the Christian tradition, the Incarnation is not at all a question of a human being ascending upwards, but of human nature being drawn up in response to a divine descent. This isn't to say that, ultimately, Wilber's conclusion might not be justifiable; but in order to show this, he would have to get there via the Christian tradition. Wilber's presentation in SES, seems to me merely to assume (on other grounds) that this is what Jesus must have been, and so winds up not so much dismissing as simply not engaging with, those who would demur. This is not just the Christian tradition, but a vast range of both thinkers and mystics from Islam, Christianity, and Judaism alike.
It's this non-engagement that strikes me as problematic. I of course don't argue that it stems from a Christological interpretation; it stems, as I said, from Atmanism. The Christology is just a symptom.