Divine Self-Emptying: A Buddhist Lens on Christian Scripture and Doctrine
The entire Christian tradition stands by the mind-boggling claim that God became human, taking on our flesh (“becoming incarnate”) in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ (“Anointed One”). The foundational doctrine of Christianity, proclaimed by the early church and confirmed by successive elders and leaders of the Christian faith community in their official councils, is the logic-defying affirmation that this Jesus—an itinerant Jewish preacher and teacher who walked and talked, wined and dined, rubbed elbows with and taught a small band of disciples about God’s ways during a three-year period of public ministry in Galilee and environs, and who was eventually arrested by the authorities and ignominiously put to death on a cross—is as truly God as he is also truly human.
The devoted followers who came together to form a community after Jesus’ death went about proclaiming that he rose again from the dead. They must have experienced something so powerful and life-changing throughout all this that it could not have been conveyed with due justice otherwise. In the words of the Roman centurion who witnessed Jesus’ death: “Truly, this was the Son of God” (Matt 27:54). As the word quickly spread around the neighboring areas, believers increased by leaps and bounds over a relatively short period of time. This community of faithful stood firm in their proclamation from generation to generation on through the centuries: No, Jesus Christ was not a (mere) human being who was elevated to a quasi-divine status (Arius), nor was he God who merely took on a human appearance to show us the Way (the Docetists). This Jesus was, if anything, nothing less than fully human and at the same time one in being (homoousios, όμοουσιος) with God the Father, as declared in the creed that was formalized at the Council of Chalcedon (451 ce) and became a hallmark of the Christian faith.”
Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, written some two or three decades after the death of Jesus, is one of the earliest documents that can provide us with a window into the faith of the early Christian community. This letter contains excerpts of an early hymn they sang highlighting the mystery of the Incarnation, or God taking on human flesh:
who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross 9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:6–11)
This passage has provided impetus for theological reflection and speculation since the early church fathers through the medieval ages and up to our contemporary times. We find commentaries on this passage by an illustrious line of theologians—including Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Cyprian, Origen, Athanasius, Cyril, Nestorius, Gregory of Nyssa, Hilary of Poitiers, John Damascus, Ambrose, Augustine, Chrysostom, and others—all seeking to elucidate this doctrine of the Incarnation with their distinctive approaches to this Philippian hymn. There has been a resurgence of interest in the theological significance of kenosis, or God’s self-emptying, since the nineteenth century and in more recent times.
As has been frequently pointed out, the pivotal phrase of Phil 2:6–11, “emptied himself,” strikes a resonant chord with a central theme in Mahāyāna Buddhism, the notion of śūnyatā, or “Emptiness.” This theme of emptiness or kenosis has thus caught the attention of thinkers engaged in the ongoing Buddhist-Christian dialogue, where it is providing an impetus for fresh spiritual insights and renewed theological exploration.
A unifying theme in the work of John P. Keenan, now spanning nearly three decades and including a number of hefty tomes as well as significant journal articles, can be described as applying a Buddhist lens in reading Christian scripture and for understanding Christian doctrine. It is welcomed and appreciated as a major contribution in the ongoing Buddhist-Christian conversation (see the bibliographical listing at the end of this book). But more importantly, as hopefully may be more clearly recognized in due time by wider circles of readers, his work invites and challenges Christian theologians to consider taking on a fresh and radically new approach in their proper task of doing Christian theology, whether one takes this task in the traditional sense as “faith seeking understanding,” or as “the fully reflective understanding of the Christian witness of faith as decisive for human existence,” or as “critical and constructive reflection on Christian experience in the light of contemporary understanding, and critical and constructive reflection on contemporary understanding in the light of Christian experience.”
The Meaning of Christ: A Mahāyāna Theology, Keenan’s first major tome in this vein, takes a passage from the Letter to the Ephesians as a starting point: “Wake up from your sleep, rise from the dead, and Christ will enlighten you” (Eph 5:14). Keenan invites the reader to an experience of awakening to what he calls “the Christ meaning,” as he seeks “to present in clear language the meaning of being enlightened by Christ, the meaning of Christian awakening and rising from the dead.”7 In other words, his stated approach is “not to sketch the objective meaning of Jesus as a statement of Christian belief to which all must assent in order to retain their union cards as believers. Rather, the Christ meaning is considered and recommended from an understanding of the faith consciousness from which it is generated.
Keenan derives inspiration from his many years of engagement as a scholar of Buddhism, an area where he has also made significant contributions—specifically in the elucidation of Mahāyāna Yogācāra teachings, elaborations on the central notion of śūnyatā grounded in Buddhist meditative practice. In a similar vein, Keenan’s approach to reading Christian scripture and understanding Christian doctrine seeks to place these in the context of the spiritual experience out of which scriptural and doctrinal expressions emerge: “a mystic realm of meaning in which meaning is constituted not by thinking and judging, but by the immediacy of contact, of being touched. Indeed, this base experience is the source from which all theologizing springs.
A very important theme in all of Keenan’s writing is his proposal for a different conceptual framework to convey this “mystic realm of meaning” that Christians are able to enter into through their experiential encounter with the mystery of Christ. Since early times, articulation of Christian understanding of the gospel message has been characterized by a “substantialistic” frame of mind, i.e., one that takes the Aristotelian concept of “substance” as a primary building block for understanding reality. Arising within the context of the Greco-Roman, Medieval European, and Western cultural matrix in which Christian life and thought thrived and developed over these two millennia, this frame of mind finds its expression in notions like ousia (ουσια, “substance”) a term that is the root for homoousios (όμοουσιος, “consubstantial”), used in conveying the understanding of Christ’s oneness in being with God the Father, as well as the term hypostasis (ύποστασις, “nature”), used for articulating the distinctive human and the divine natures of Christ, and so on.
These expressions, Keenan points out, are linked to “ontotheological interpretations” of the nature of reality, relying as they do on an understanding of self-enclosed (“substantial”) being as the basic unit of all things that exist. Seen from a Buddhist perspective, this is a deluded view that prevents us from seeing the intimate interconnectedness of all things in the universe—a key insight into the nature of reality that stems from the awakening experience of the Buddha. Keenan turns to Mahāyāna Buddhist thought in seeking a different set of conceptual tools for articulating Christian doctrine that might more suitably convey the experiential meaning underlying its often convoluted expressions and that may resonate more with contemporary modes of thinking.
The doctrine of the Incarnation that is the centerpiece of the Christian gospel message is intimately linked to another key Christian doctrine that blatantly goes beyond the normal parameters of logical discourse: the teaching that God is One and at the same time Three (God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit). This seemingly logic-defying statement continues to be firmly affirmed through the centuries, with the double emphasis first that God’s distinctly threefold mode of being (ύποστασις hypostasis) is upheld in a way that is not tritheistic—that is, that divine Threeness does not compromise divine Oneness—and second, that neither is Threeness subsumed into Oneness. Much of trinitarian theology through the centuries, beginning with the early church fathers up to recent times, has also been characterized by what Keenan refers to as an ontotheological frame of mind, that is, based on a substantialistic view of reality that many of our contemporaries no longer find viable. How a Mahāyāna Buddhist view centered on the notion of Emptiness and the concomitant understanding of the interconnectedness of reality may shed new light on trinitarian theology is a task still waiting to be addressed with more thoroughness.
In this book, The Emptied Christ of Philippians: Mahāyāna Meditations, by building upon as well as critiquing previous attempts at comparing Christian kenotic theology with the Buddhist understanding of Emptiness, the author walks the reader through the entire Letter to the Philippians to unveil the rich world contained therein. This is one more gem in John P. Keenan’s impressive array of works that teem with his thought-provoking comments and spiritually enriching insights on reading Christian scripture and understanding Christian doctrine.
Ruben L. F. Habito
Professor of World Religions and Spirituality
Director of Spiritual Formation
Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University
Praise for The Emptied Christ of Philippians
“John Keenan’s work remains radical, both in getting behind established conventions to the roots of Christian faith on the one hand, and yet opening up Christianity’s primary sources toward a global conversation on the other. This book is exemplary in thinking afresh about the meaning of Christ in dialogue with Mahayana philosophical traditions.”
—Amos Yong, Professor of Theology & Mission, Fuller Theological Seminary
“Loaded with helpful historical and linguistic background information, Keenan’s book carefully guides the reader to fresh insights into Paul’s letter. Keenan’s deep learnedness in both the scholarship on Paul and Buddhist philosophy enables him to write an interfaith commentary as few others could.”
—Kristin Beise Kiblinger, Author, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Director of the International and Global Studies Program, Winthrop University
“Continuing his mission to ‘enunciate the gospel in ever-new languages and philosophies,’ Keenan offers a penetrating Mahayana reading of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Beautifully written, it opens our spiritual imagination to new ways of understanding Jesus Christ and experiencing his message.”
—Catherine Cornille, Professor of Comparative Theology, Boston College
About the Author
John P. Keenan is Rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Newport, Vermont, and Professor Emeritus of Religion at Middlebury College. He was trained at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia and in the Buddhist Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of The Meaning of Christ: A Mahayana Theology (1989), The Gospel of Mark: a Mahayana Reading (1995), and The Wisdom of James: Parallels with Mahayana Buddhism (2005).