“Dear friends, God is love. Such is our faith,” began Notre Dame Theology Professor John Cavadini in his introduction to the conference “God is Love: Explorations in the Theology of Benedict XVI.”  Held March 25 – 27, the conference was organized and sponsored by the Institute for Church Life.

Scholars from around the world gathered to reflect on the ongoing theological achievements of Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.  They addressed many elements of the pope’s work, from its doctrinal and biblical aspects to the practical and political.

Visiting presenters included Rev. Edward T. Oakes, SJ, professor of systematic theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, Simona Beretta, professor of international economics and policy and political science at Catholic University of the Sacred Heart of Milan, and Peter Casarella, professor of Catholic studies and director of the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at DePaul University.

Robert M. Gimello, professor of theology and of East Asian Languages and Cultures, spoke on “A Depth of Otherness: Buddhism and Benedict’s Theology of Religions.”

Concerned chiefly with “what Catholic theology can, or should, or must make of Buddhism,” Gimello described the origin of his interest in Buddhism as a set of theological issues.

What has been termed “the Orient” by Western scholarship represented to him a “severe otherness” he found “intellectually irresistible.” The religions of Asia provided the best access to such diversity of ideas. Buddhism, as the “one truly pan-Asian religion,” captivated him.

Gimello’s affection for Benedict was equally apparent. At one point, he strayed from the written text to note his delight in “Benedict’s subtle humor weaving in and out of his prose.”

Buddhism has managed, Gimello explained, to traverse geographical and cultural chasms without losing its essence. Through a process of “enculturation” the religion has become, for example, truly Chinese, while remaining truly Buddhist.

Sister Ann Astell of Notre Dame’s Theology Department asked in the question and answer session for clarification about this process of enculturation.  Gimello described in response the transformations in Buddhism’s institution, literary expression, artistic trends, and meditative techniques across cultures. He suggested Buddhism as an instructional model for how a religion can traverse cultural barriers without abandoning its core truths.

Gimello distinguished traditional Buddhism from “Buddhist modernism,” a more New Age supermarket Buddhism “very far removed from pre-modern practice.” This breed of Buddhism has now reached back to East Asia in an unfortunate form of reverse influence, Gimello said.

The complex relationships of interreligious dialogue, Gimello said, most often leads to “deep mutual understanding and enrichment.” This fruitful exchange validates NOSTRA AETATE and Pope Benedict’s instructions on how a Catholic should engage other religions: with expert, critically-aware attention to the truths and holiness present.

While critics have labeled the Pope’s approach reactionary or insensitive, Gimello explained how Benedict actually “pays serious tribute” in acknowledging religions’ “genuine otherness.”

His call to reject nothing true and holy in other religions doubles as an invitation to scrutinize closely those religions, Gimello said. The Buddhist denial of a transcendent, personal God, the objective materiality of the world, and the divinity of Christ fundamentally contradict Christian doctrine. Furthermore, the Christian view of prayer as communicative and of Christ’s sacrifice as self-gift are incompatible with the Buddhist views of prayer as purely introspective and all men as empty.

Love, Gimello said, is often posited as a connecting feature of the religions, uniting them above their diverse metaphysics. Buddhism proclaims a universal compassion for sentient beings, while Christianity proclaims the importance of loving one’s neighbor.

The three categories of love found in Buddhism – roughly translated as pity, benevolence, and altruism – primarily benefit the lover, and picture the beloved as having no independent identity, and thus no intrinsic worth. The resultant love, Gimello explained, appears cold and abstract in comparison to Christian CARITAS. One treats men as instantiations of emptiness; the other, as beings deserving of love as images of Christ.

Gimello detailed several truths we can learn from Buddhism, such as its ability to adapt without altering its core, and its useful meditative tools, frequently adopted in the Christian “centering prayer” movement.

Senior PLS major Katie Petrik is a daring and skillful biker with anarchist tendencies.  Contact her at kpetrik@nd.edu.