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For a reasoned Usage of the Concept “Interface”’ in the Theology of Religions

dimanche 10 août 2014 par Phap
French translation - Traduction en français Japanese translation - 日本語での翻訳

The following article was published in French in the review :
Chemins de dialogue 32 (Décembre 2008), “L’Église et le judaïsme”
“Pour une utilisation raisonnée du concept d’’interface’ en théologie des religions,” p. 181-189
Translated by Timothy Bellamah.


For a reasoned Usage of the Concept “Interface”’ in the Theology of Religions
Table of contents


1. Methodological Considerations

1§ In this article we propose to reflect upon the comparative act in the theology of religions. Our method considers the various religious traditions as systems in which each element draws its signification from its differential relatedness to other elements, a relatedness functioning synchronically (the paradigmatic dimension) and diachronically (the syntagmatic dimension).  [1] The approach to religious traditions in a systemic perspective allows us to engage in a comparative act, inasmuch as we do not compare isolated elements, but functionings, configurations. More precisely, we intend to establish the comparative act on the basis of a concept issuing from the information sciences, that of “interface”.  [2]

2§ The information sciences define “interface” as something situated between (inter) two systems and which permits them to engage in mutual exchange, a possibility resulting from the interface’s capacity to engage in dialogue with each of the two systems. Applied to the field of religious traditions, the concept permits exchanges between religious traditions. What is more, if one keeps in mind that religious traditions constitute the realm where the human being is able to speak the “ultimate,”  [3] anthropology represents a pertinent candidate for formulating the interface : for example, what the Pure Land Buddhist says may, up to a certain point, be understood by a Christian inasmuch as the “existential experience”  [4] expressed by the Buddhist is a human experience, and that he may rightly say “I deem nothing of what is human to be foreign to me”  [5].

3§ We specify that the experience of the Pure Land Buddhist may be understood only up to a certain point for two reasons :

  • First, at any given moment, a religious tradition makes its appeal to a fundamental existential decision with respect to the “ultimate” to which it refers. To the extent that the human person is incapable of engaging the totality of his existence under the horizon of two different ultimates, he must choose one or the other tradition.  [6]
  • Second, perseverance in the choice made induces what the scholastics call a habitus, that is to say, an acquired spontaneity. The religious tradition thus acquires the characteristics of immediacy and evidence which cannot be experienced by anyone not durably engaged in this path.


2. Application : a comparison between Pure Land Buddhism and Christianity

4§ After these methodological considerations, we may now present the results of our comparative act. What follows is a comparison in the form of a table in three columns. In the columns to the left and right are expressions, respectively, of the Buddhist and Christian experiences, these being drawn into mutual proximity by the intermediary of an anthropological expression situated between them (inter) in the middle column.

The Pure Land Buddhist tradition expresses itself. The interface translates. The Christian tradition expresses itself.
5§ In Buddhism people avail themselves of the Middle Way, which discloses the Buddha(s) and which permits departure from the cycle of life and death. However, people cannot for all that attain to the objective of the Law by their own practice. In the Age of Decadence of the Law, no being can realize illumination in drawing support from her own power.  [7] The human person experiences herself as incapable of attaining her “ideal”, as she is detained in a situation with no exit ; she encounters resistances which prevent the realization of her “ideal”. The Jewish people avail themselves of a Law revealed on Mount Sinai by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. However, the people cannot attain to the objective of the Law by their own practice. Paul affirms that no one can attain to the state of being just before God by the practice of the Law. For him, this incapacity began with the first man, Adam, and after the Fall there has been no period in which the human person could have realized salvation by herself without passing through the faith of Jesus Christ.
6§ The thought of the faith in Amida which emerges in the conscience of the human person makes him feel a confidence that he is no longer linked to the cycle of life and death. Positively, the human person feels a confidence that he will reach illumination upon birth in the Pure Land virtually instantaneously after death, in the knowledge that from the first thought of faith, he has attained the state of non-regression. In an experience of salvation the human person feels a dissipation of resistances, or at least a confidence that these resistances will be dissipated in the future. Capture by Christ expressed symbolically (or more precisely, sacramentally) in an inchoate manner in baptism, makes the believer feel a confidence that he is no longer under the rule of sin and death. Positively, he experiences himself as a new creature, a “son of God” “by adoption”, “son of light”, called to eternal life in God.
7§ On our view, the active principle of salvation resides in the fulfilled Vow of Amida. This confidence draws support from the power of the active presence of another, which makes possible the realization of the “ideal”. Filled with wonder by the action of this power in her, the human person comes to consider the practices before her experience not only as ineffective, but even as counterproductive, insofar as they maintain the illusion that salvation may be attained without the help of another. On our view, the active principle of salvation resides in the Spirit offered after the resurrection of Christ for Paul, who designates the Spirit as the one who, dwelling in the believer, makes him cry out to God “Father,” who makes him a son.
8§ The one who is seized by Amida in the first thought of faith has to make no effort, not even that of allowing this to happen (otherwise, he would count on his own power). The question of cooperation with another’s action functions in a different fashion. The interface reaches its limits. For Paul, the gifts of the Spirit operate to the extent that the one who believes cooperates with the Spirit’s action, with the clear understanding that no one by himself, by his own efforts, can acquire salvation.

9§ These results we present without justification, and admittedly, it is in broad strokes that we here represent the two religious traditions – we make no distinction between Jôdo and Shinshu within Pure Land Buddhism, and we focus upon Christianity as it appears in the Pauline epistles. The reader wishing to go further would do well to consult the author’s master’s thesis held at the Institut Catholique of Paris [8].


3. Critical appraisal of the comparative act

10§ Our presentation of results in three columns highlights the contribution of the concept of interface with respect to traditional approaches resting upon the analogy of proportion. [9] Indeed, in our experience, analogical comparisons result in schemas in two columns, with one column given to each tradition. If such comparisons explicate the connections within each of the traditions (a vertical reading), they forget the common connection, the primum analogatum, which results from the juxtaposition of the two columns representing the two traditions (a horizontal reading). Even supposing that in a third column such comparisons specify their primum analogatum, this prime analogate risks functioning as a tertium quid, thus leading to the so-called “third man criticism” – it would be necessary to introduce another primum analogatum along with the aforementioned analogies, and so on ad infinitum.  [10]

11§ The concept of interface avoids this difficulty to the extent that it serves as an heuristic device and not as a tertium quid which would be homogeneous to the traditions in question. From this point of view, the interface’s usage of the concept of “ultimate” in taking into account its sole anthropological signification assures a “neutrality,” in the sense that the interface does not show itself as pretending to the truth of expressions of the “ultimate” to which it addresses itself.

12§ To return to the term “neutrality”, a critic could charge our approach with lapsing into “scientism,” in other words, with pretending to find a “truth” disengaged from historical contingincy and capable of formally rendering an account for every religious tradition. We reply by drawing attention to the interface’s limited scope. It does not allow for the total rendering of an account of traditions in their own coherence – it does not constitute a homeomorphism which would permit the transformation of one tradition into another. To the contrary, its usage leads us to note de facto the irreducibility of one tradition with respect to another. We have, then, at our disposal neither an instrument, nor a point of view, which would be all encompassing. We do not pretend to adopt “God’s point of view”.  [11] What is more, we are aware of the fact that our application of the interface derives from a mentality informed by the information sciences. Yet this situation appears to us an advantage, to the extent that it is able to attract the interest of the “modern” (or “post modern”) person to our debate – this person whom both the Pure Land Buddhist and the Christian, volens nolens, already carry within them.


Conclusion. The role of the theologian.

13§ The preceding work could fit squarely into the academic framework of religious sciences, but it would be inadequate in that of an establishment such as the Institut Catholique for its lack of a theological dimension. Here we shall introduce this dimension by taking up the anthropology of the interface Christologically  [12] : as confessing Christians we refer all human experience (and its expression, to which it is related by mutual conditioning) to the experience both unique (had by no one either before or after) and insurpassable (no other experience ever has or ever will surpass it) of this man Jesus of Nazareth. For us the experience of Christ constitutes the “ultimate” of all human experience.

14§ We believe that this man bears such a privilege because we believe that in this man and in him alone, in the “act” of this man, two accomplishments are united :

  • the gift without reserve made of himself by the one whom we call “God”  [13],
  • and the perfect response of the human being to the ultimate, to God, in a “yes” which is nothing but “yes”, in a total and unending mobilization by this man of his whole being in order to do the will of the one whom he calls his Father.

15§ This Christocentric anthropology brings to mind the “theory of accomplishment” spoken of by Jacques DUPUIS which allows the Catholic theologian to respond to the concern of the Magisterium to denounce the “relativism” of the ethos of contemporary culture  [14]. It is appropriate, nevertheless, to note that in the theological deployment of our comparative act we distinguish – for the sake of reuniting – Christian expressions and Christian experience : the former constitutes a realm of privileged expression of the Christian experience, insofar as Christ has promised his presence in the accomplishment of acts and words marked culturally and historically – but at the same time we also specify that this expression of the Christian experience must be “verified”, in the literal sense of the term. That is, it must be tested by the action of Christ who “does the truth”, who establishes the quality of the relation of the Christian expression to the Christian experience which it has aroused and to which it intends to lead (it would be necessary here to invoke sacramental theology).

16§ To avoid concluding on a purely cognitive note, we draw attention to the admiration and gratitude roused within us by the encounter with another religious tradition, in this case Pure Land Buddhism, as we find ourselves capable of “empathy” (recalling Troeltsch  [15]), of “communion” (recalling the Christian vocabulary) with what we call the other of the mystery of the human being – this being for whom being is at stake, as Heidegger would say ; this creature of the sixth day, made in the image and likeness of God, as the Bible says – with the wonder that at a moment in time, in this man, Jesus of Nazareth, all of divinity is at work, “bodily” as the Christian would say  [16].


Translated by Timothy Bellamah.


© esperer-isshoni.fr, June 2009
English translation : © Timothy Bellamah, June 2009
© esperer-isshoni.info, August 2014

[1See Émile BENVÉNISTE, Problèmes de linguistique générale, NRF, Gallimard, 1966, p. 22. We say that religious traditions may be analysed in a systemic perspective, without however excluding other analytical perspectives.

[2In English the term “interface” originally designated the surface or realm of separation between two physical bodies or two spaces. It has migrated into chemistry and the information sciences, where it has taken on a more metaphorical meaning. In the information sciences, it designates any hardware or software device placed at the juncture of humans and machines to allow them to communicate, Dictionnaire des Sciences, Michel SERRES and Nayla FAROUKI (dir.), Flammarion, 1998, p.488-489

[3As an initial approximation, one could define the “ultimate” as the unsurpassable reference of a religious tradition, that to which the tradition relates everything and which relates nothing other than itself (omni-référente et auto-référente). [The term “unsurpassable” expresses a spatial and temporal schema ; see the representation of verticality in Antoine VERGOTE, Interprétation du langage religieux, Seuil, 1974, p. 99]. One could prefer the term “absolute” to “ultimate” ; the latter leads to the representation of a dynamic procession, the ultimate being understandable as that which lies at the origin as an original source, or as that which is reached at its end, while the absolute seems to refer to a static opposition between that which is “connected” (the relative) and that which is not (the ab-solute). In the former case, the accent falls upon continuity, in the latter upon rupture. It seems to us that these two aspects should not be understood as mutually exclusive, but rather as calling upon each other in dynamic tension.

[4For a description of five modalities of the experience, see Antoine VERGOTTE, Religion foi incroyance, étude psychologique, Pierre Mardaga éditeur, Bruxelles, 1983, p.113-118. That which we call “existential experience” combines the second and third modalities :

  • this is an experienced connected to a transformative event that has arisen in the subject’s history : the Erlebnis, the “saisie (..) affective, d’une réalité surnaturelle qui, en se dévoilant dans sa nouveauté, surprend le sujet, l’interpelle dans son existence personnelle et le transforme” (ibid. p.117).
  • here the humain subject has allowed the effects of the transformation to be deployed over time (he has acquired a habitus, as the scholastics would say), which brings us to the third modality of the experience according to Vergotte : the “connaissance qui est le fruit d’un contact personnel et prolongé dans lequel on s’est engagé” (ibid. p.117).

[5] Homo sum : humani nihil a me alienum puto. - TÉRENCE, Tome II, Heautontimoroumenos – Phormion, ed. and French trans. J. Marouzeau, Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 1947, p. 23. Augustin refers to this passage in his letter to Macedonius, no. 155 : “One says that at this reply, there was a thunder of applause in this theater filled with ignoramuses and featherbrains. The feeling of the community of human souls took such a hold of all the spectators that there was no one who did not feel himself to be the neighbor of someone else.” The preceding is based upon the French translation appearing in Sœur DOUCELINE, Saint Augustin, ces frères que tu m’as donnés, lettres, Le Centurion, 1983, p.108. Worth drawing upon here is the category of the form of human life (Lebensform) as understood by Wittgenstein – we note that he employs this category in the plural.

[6On the question of twofold membership, see : Vivre de plusieurs religions. Promesse ou illusion ? Dennis Gira et Jacques Scheuer (dir.), Paris, Éditions de l’Atelier (« Questions ouvertes »), 2000.

[7The doctrine of the Pure Land maintains, however, that at other epochs it is possible to attain Illumination without passing by birth through the Pure Land of Amida.

[8Please see the Buddhist part of the master’s thesis starting with :
Pure Land - I. What the school of Pure Land says about itself

[9“secundum analogiam, idest proportionem”, Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I, q. 13, a. 5, co.. For a discussion of the analogy of proportion and the analogy of attribution, see JÜNGEL, Eberhard, Dieu Mystère du monde, Fondement de la théologie du Crucifié dans le débat entre théisme et athéisme, translated from German to French under the direction of Horst Hombourg, 3° édition revue, Tome II, Cerf 1983, p. 75-76.

[10It would be necessary to continue this discussion, particularly with authors such as Claude Geffré for whom the comparative theology of religions seeks for an analogy of structure between religious systems. See De Babel à Pentecôte, Cogitatio Fidei, Cerf, 2006, p. 132. Geffré recommends the practice of what he calls analogical imagination (l’imagination analogique) after the fashion of David Tracy (ibidem, p.165).

[11That is to say, the possibility of hacking our way out of our language and beliefs in order to measure them against something which can be known independently of them. See Richard RORTY, Objectivisme, relativisme et vérité, French trans. Jean-Pierre Cometti, Puf, 1994, p. 16. See as well, ibidem, p. 26, 40.

[12It would be necessary to enquire about the second character – from the chronological point of view – of the theological act.

[13Theology speaks of “self-communication”.

[14See Jacques DUPUIS, Vers une théologie chrétienne du pluralisme religieux, op. cit., p. 200-215. Dupuis takes up the theory of fulfillment by saying that while non-Christian religions could be considered a preparation for the Gospel before the event of Jesus Christ, they have been rendered obsolete by this event, and are therefore deprived of any positive role in the salvation of their members : “alors que ces religions pouvaient être considérées comme une ‘préparation à l’Évangile’ avant l’événement Jésus-Christ, elles sont devenues obsolètes avec cet événement et, donc, privées de tout rôle positif dans le salut de leurs membres” (ibidem, p. 239). See also in the same work, p.254-257. See also Claude GEFFRÉ, De Babel à Pentecôte, Cogitatio Fidei, Cerf, 2006, p.124-125

[15Here we restate our debt to Ernst Troeltsch and his concept of “hypothetical empathy”, “L’absoluïté du Christianisme et l’histoire de la religion” in Histoire des religions et destin de la théologie, Œuvres III, French trans. Jean-Marc Tétaz, Éditions du Cerf – Paris, Labor et Fides, 1996, p.63-177. The concept of hypothetical empathy appears on p. 66, 79, 85, 116, 118,123, 124, 137, 176. (Note particularly p. 123).

[16Cf. Col 2, 9.


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