Monday, June 30, 2014

Can Buddha Be Baptized?

Can Buddha be baptized?  That is, could some modern-day Aquinas do for the philosophies of the East what St. Thomas did for the philosophy of Aristotle -- strip off those elements that are incompatible with established Catholic doctrine, yet still find a substantial core remaining that the Church could use?  It's an appealing thought for at least three reasons.

  1. Plato enabled the Church Fathers to make a great deal of progress in understanding and developing Christian theology, and Aristotle likewise enabled the blossoming of scholasticism.  The prospect of another surge forward in understanding is very attractive.
  2. The use of Plato to explain Christian doctrine played a role (though not the decisive one) in converting the Greco-Roman world to Christianity.  Maybe the use of elements of Eastern philosophies could lead to the conversion of much of Asia.
  3. Finally, it would fit in with the egalitarian view of the humanity that is so pervasive at present.
Plato and Aristotle in The School of Athens, by italian Rafael
This painting of Plato and Aristotle adorns the Pope's official residence, 
the Palace of Sixtus V.

Sadly, I don't think this is at all likely. 

To be clear, there is much of value in Eastern culture generally.  That is obvious -- any society that endures long enough to produce an actual culture must be doing some things right, and any culture large enough to produce an actual culture must contain some of the best (along with some of the worst) of mankind.  Asian accomplishments in the fine arts and the practical arts are too obvious to require further elaboration, and of course Christians can make as much use of these as of their Western counterparts.  Why should philosophy be any different?

One of the interesting things about Greek philosophy is that, although it spoke of the gods or even in fact of God, it had next to nothing to do with Greek religion.  Greek religion did not dictate Greek philosophy, and Greek philosophy did not dictate Greek religion.  Chesterton discusses this somewhat in The Everlasting Man:
Aristotle, with his colossal common sense, was perhaps the greatest of all philosophers; certainly the most practical of all philosophers. But Aristotle would no more have set up the Absolute side by side with the Apollo of Delphi, as a similar or rival religion, than Archimedes would have thought of setting up the Lever as a sort of idol or fetish to be substituted for the Palladium of the city. Or we might as well imagine Euclid building an altar to an isosceles triangle, or offering sacrifices to the square of the hypotenuse. 
In almost every other time and place, either philosophy has been the handmaiden of theology, or theology has been the handmaiden of philosophy.  In fact, there was some of that in ancient Greece, too, with the weird cult of Pythagoras, which seems to have more-or-less worshiped the natural numbers, and again in the late Roman Empire with the neo-Platonists.  Even the main tradition of the Golden Age of Greece -- Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle -- contains elements at odds with Christianity, such as the idea of the transmigration of souls in Plato and an eternal, essentially static universe in Aristotle.  

Nevertheless, it is possible to remove those elements from classical Greek philosophy while still having something that is recognizably the work of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.  In contrast, it would not be possible to remove the specifically Christian aspects of the philosophies of St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas without shredding and twisting them.  My impression is that the same is true of Buddhist and Hindu philosophy; the religion is thoroughly integrated into the philosophy, so that the philosophy would be distorted beyond recognition if the religion were removed.

After all, the main part of what is left when Plato or Aristotle is "baptized" is a mostly empty framework on which a pervasively Christian philosophy can be constructed.  This framework includes a technical vocabulary and rules of inference.  Some of the biggest philosophical mistakes in the Church's history have involved using Greek philosophy as something more than an empty framework -- in trying to hold on to Aristotle's physics, for example.  Even if Buddhist or Hindu philosophy could be "emptied out" to produce a bare framework, would the new framework be compatible with the old one?  If so, would it add to the old framework?  If not, would it have any advantage over the old one?  The prospects are suddenly much less encouraging.

The impulse, now stronger than ever before, to see all times, places, and persons as fundamentally equal does echo some genuinely Christian themes.  For example, 
And Peter opened his mouth and said: "Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him."Acts 10:34,35 (RSVCE)
But that does not mean that God distributes His blessings equally, a fact obvious to every child, only denied by adult ideologues, and dealt with explicitly in I Corinthians 12.

Jesus was born in a specific place at a specific time.  It is sometimes pointed out how the world was prepared for the Incarnation and the spread of the Gospel -- in particular, the Pax Romana had just begun and piracy was mostly eliminated.  Perhaps the blossoming of Greek philosophy a few centuries earlier should also be added to the list of preparations.

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