Christianity in the Crucible of East-West Dialogue


Summary and Conclusions


Here is the story we have seen unfold. Catholics have gone to the East, and penetrated deeply into the inner spirit of enlightenment, as witnessed by the Catholic Zen teachers of the Sanbo Kyodan, and people like Abhishiktananda. But this exciting spiritual adventure has played itself out against the background of the problematical relationship that some of them have had with their own Christian metaphysical, theological and mystical traditions. This has led them to reinterpret Christianity in the light of the nondual experience of enlightenment that has dazzled them, and in this way, obscure Christianity's distinctive nature.

This East-West drama has not evolved in isolation. It is an integral part of the post-Vatican theological scene, and as such, it shares common traits with what I called a reaction theology, or a theology without a net. It is also allied with some of the theological currents that have emerged in the debate over religious pluralism.

Christian Mysticism and Metaphysics

 All this has created an atmosphere in which the two great East-West dialogues, the metaphysical and the mystical, have become more difficult to pursue. The way to Christian metaphysics is barred for it is assumed that a philosophical metaphysics is invalid because it makes use of concepts. The mystical conversation is ruled out, as well, because its interpersonal character is denied. In each case, the experience of nonduality and its non-conceptual nature is held up as the supreme norm by which these other ways of knowing are judged.

The positive benefits for Christianity from the East-West dialogue are undeniable. The crucible of dialogue holds out the possibility of purifying Christianity from some of its institutional faults. There it can learn a certain humility in the face of the wisdom and goodness of its dialogue partners, and it can realize that the visible Catholic Church does not have a monopoly on how God's universal salvific will works itself out in the concrete. In that crucible the Catholic Church could learn to reach out to its brothers and sisters in other religions with an open heart, and cooperate with them in many important endeavors.

The experience of enlightenment, itself, is a beautiful multi-faceted jewel that has been appreciated in different ways by Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Islam, and it could greatly enrich Christianity, as well. But unfortunately, some of the Catholics who have gone to the East and have come back to Christianity bearing this wonderful gift, have also wrapped it in various presuppositions that make it much more difficult for Christians to receive it. The chief of these presuppositions is what we have been seeing all along. It is assumed that all religions are paths to the one nondual summit, and thus, all their conceptualizations, including the central doctrines of Christianity, are but skillful means pointing to that ineffable experience.

Catholic Theology

 At the root of the problems we have seen in the Catholic participation in East-West dialogue, as well as in a theology without a net and religious pluralism, is the question of faith. In the wake of the Second Vatican Council the glaring faults of the institutional Church became visible, and people who had entrusted themselves to the institution with the intent of trusting themselves to God and the life of faith, felt disillusioned and betrayed. They were told that the way to holiness was to be found in God's will and God's will was to be found in obeying those who stood above them in the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Unfortunately, in the name of God's will they suffered at the very human hands of men. Therefore they needed to liberate themselves from this paternalism that stunted their psychological and spiritual growth. The institution that they were rebelling against had confused Christian faith with its more fallible human presentations of it. Now those who reacted against it, struck out not only at the very real faults of the institution, but sometimes at the central message that it was proclaiming. It was as if they said if the Church in the persons of its leaders could act in a way that harmed those who had given themselves most intimately to it, then how could the message they proclaimed be trusted. In this way the delicate movement toward adult faith which takes place in the heart and demands that we reach out in love and entrust ourselves to God becomes more difficult. A loss of trust in the institution becomes a loss of trust in the Christian message, and the theology that emerges reflects this. This kind of painful drama played a part in the exodus from priestly and religious life, and may have even had a covert role in the sorry spectacle of priestly sexual dysfunction,1 and it certainly seems to be active today in the theology without a net that we have looked at.

I am not saying that the challenge of faith today is not a serious one. It is. The Catholic faith we have received from the past and have grown up with has to become our faith and this means we have to examine it. Can we really believe in a personal God who surrounds us with love? Can we believe in Jesus as the only begotten Son of God Who, as one of us, lived and died and rose from the dead? But there is a difference between doing this with trepidation and prayer as we try to reach out to God, and doing it in an atmosphere tinged with emotional and intellectual bias against faith. But to adequately address this question of faith will not be easy. We need to admit the very real faults of the Church in which faith was, and sometimes still is, presented in an all too materialized and human form, even tinged, at times, with cult-like behavior.2 At the same time, we should not imagine that a theology of reaction is an adequate response to this problem. The challenge is to distinguish faith, both in its essential content and how it operates from its counterfeits.

Faith is not simply the acceptance of what reason has told us. It is something much more mysterious and interior which addresses our hearts and makes demands on our ability to love. It is an invitation to reach out to God who is the mystery of love, and who is already warming our hearts. Nor is faith contentless, or opaque to the understanding by nature, for it tries to teach us something of what that mystery is. It is certainly time to transcend the polarizations that have locked up much of the Church's energy since the time of the Second Vatican Council so that that energy can be used for the contemplation of, and the entering into, this mystery of love.

Christian Enlightenment?

 The very life of Christian prayer and contemplation grows out of our understanding of Christian faith, and in turn, nourishes that understanding. This interior life takes place in an atmosphere of interpersonal love, and expresses itself as a dialogue, whether in words or interior thoughts and feelings, or a wordless reaching out in love. What will happen to it if we imagine that any I-Thou relationship must be overcome, and Christian prayer is a somewhat childish misunderstanding of a higher and deeper nonduality?

What are we to say, then, about Christians practicing Eastern forms of meditation? In themselves, they can be extremely valuable because enlightenment can be understood as a deep metaphysical mysticism which has God as the author of being as its goal, and it can even be seen as the foretaste of our essential human destiny.

But in actual practice Catholics are often introduced to Eastern forms of meditation by Easterners, or Catholics who have gone East and brought back these kinds of meditation in the problematical ways we have been looking at. Given this state of affairs, Christians should consider creating what could be called a Christian enlightenment. In a way that is analogous to Christian philosophy this does not mean an enlightenment that is somehow Christian in content. That would make no sense. But rather, it is an enlightenment that is sought for and takes place in a Christian context, and so it remains open to Christian metaphysics, theology and mysticism. Then Christians would not have undertaken over and over again the difficult and dangerous task of unwrapping Eastern forms of enlightenment from these presuppositions. Another way of saying this is that we cannot receive these treasures of the East as Christians without a firm grasp of our own deep spiritual traditions.

If such a journey to enlightenment could be carried out in a Christian atmosphere, then the light of the different wisdoms of the East and West, whether metaphysical, theological or mystical, could dwell harmoniously in the same depths of the spiritual unconscious, and strengthen and enrich each other. They would be distinguished from each other in order to be united.



1.      Freburger, William. “A deeper clerical problem than sex,” in National Catholic Reporter, April 16, 1993, p. 17.

2.      “Diabolical Possession and Catholic Cults? The Lack of Psychological Awareness and the Materialization of Belief in the Catholic Church” at