Journal of Comparative Theology » Facing Up to Real Doctrinal Difference Book Review

Facing Up to Real Doctrinal Difference Book Review

Book Review: Magliola, Robert. Facing Up to Real Doctrinal Difference (Angelico Press, 2014; 224 pages)

by Jason VonWachenfeldt


In the opening lines of his most recent book on interreligious dialogue, Facing Up to Real Doctrinal Difference: How Some Thought Motifs From Derrida Can Nourish the Catholic-Buddhist Encounter, the Derridean scholar and cross-cultural comparativist Robert Magliola quotes Pope Francis’s address to the staff of the Pontifical Gregorian University on April 10, 2014 in which His Holiness admonished, “the theologian who is content with his complete and closed thought is a mediocre ‘theologian.’ The good theologian and philosopher has an open thought, that is incomplete, always open to the maius [the ‘more’] of God and of the truth, always developing.” This quote serves as a valuable and telling cursor for this work not only because the “development of doctrine” (as well as the “deposit of faith”) serves as a major theme and anchor for the project, but also because in it Magliola redirects the wisdom and research he has culled over his many years of scholarship in order to offer his own extended insights into the area of Catholic interreligious dialogue. As the reader ventures further into the text, however, one finds that Facing Up to Real Doctrinal Difference is not really an endeavor of interreligious dialogue or comparative theology in itself but rather a clear, competent, and confident discussion of Magliola’s own ideas concerning the possibilities and boundaries of dialogue for “orthodox Catholics.”[i]

From the outset, Magliola is direct about his major goals and intentions for the study. In the “Introduction” he openly declares that the purpose of the book is to show how “a Derridean formulation of difference, when inculturated into a Catholic frame of reference, can explain how it can be that Buddhism and Catholicism radically differ at bottom (so that each religion has its own unique ‘identity’) yet mutually edify (so that Catholics can learn and receive ‘from and through’ Buddhists, and vice versa).”[ii] Then, in one of his many quite extensive footnotes (a valuable component to the book), Magliola explains the source of this intention as a response to what he perceives as the fashionable and yet “religiously dishonest” tendency in interreligious studies to overlook, or even “spirit away,” the disparities between belief systems that “radically differ” on matters of doctrine.Hence, the tone of the book is set early on. It is in part an innovative and thoughtful formulation of a theology of interreligious encounter and at the same time a polemic against “those recent formulations of interreligious dialogue that are conventionally labeled ‘avant-garde’ or even ‘postmodern’” but turn out (from his own Derridean viewpoint) to be actually more “modernist.”[iii] Therefore, the introduction seeks to establish the trajectory of his work as coordinating the two aims of both the “cultivation of a mindset ‘prepared to learn and receive’ from Buddhism” and also the “ongoing fidelity to authoritative Church teaching (i.e., to the Magisterium).”[iv]

However, before moving on into the meat (“the pith and marrow”) of the study, Magliola first astutely recognizes that the common reader might need more background and explanation of the Derridean thought-motifs he wishes to “adopt/adapt” for a Catholic engagement with Buddhism; he therefore provides a brief and helpful “theoretical Forward” outlining Derrida’s concepts of “pure difference as ‘founding’”, “time/space double-binds”, and “purely negative reference as appointive of ‘sameness.’”[v] Although he has discussed virtually all these ideas adequately in previous publications, Magliola nonetheless patiently defines and illustrates all of these concepts with a clarity and precision that is as concise as it is accessible. For example, he masterfully utilizes Gregory Bateson’s “switch-function” metaphor—“the scenario of switching electricity on and off”—in order to illustrate how “pure difference” can still appoint a sense of “sameness without self-identity” between two mutually exclusive alternatives (i.e., Buddhism and Catholicism). As alluded to earlier, this idea of a “purely negative reference” appointing “sameness” serves as the major basis of the entire book and thus also as the impetus into the larger argument of the work moving forward.

At this point, Magliola divides his argument into two parts (followed by two brief “Annexes”); each establishes the “irreducible differences” and “samenesses” between the two traditions with regard to doctrine and practice, respectively. In Part One, he sets out to differentiate Buddhist and Catholic doctrines in such a way so as definitively to prove an irreducibly negative relation between the two worldviews. Still, in order to do this, he must first establish the perimeters and objects of the comparison. And so, for Magliola, this means finding a way “to address Buddhism and Catholicism as they presently stand” as a whole. He immediately recognizes, however, that this proves easier said than done, given that it is difficult to find a single authoritative source within the much more diffuse Buddhism(s). Nevertheless, he forges onward using the official documents of the Magisterium as the definitive voice of Catholics and a conglomerate of respected Buddhist leaders in order to build a “Buddhist” voice by consensus. Having firmly situated his methodological sources for the comparison, Magliola then believes he can proceed to exhibit the multiple irreducible differences between the two traditions.

The majority of Part One is dedicated to discussing what he claims to be the most “founding” irreducible difference between Buddhism and Christianity: soteriology. According to Magliola, any theologian looking to discover common ground between these two traditional worldviews must overlook (or negligently ignore) the fact that Buddhist liberation is fundamentally rooted in a sense of either “self-power” (Theravada) or “same-power” (Mahayana/Vajrayana),[vi] whereas Catholic salvation is unavoidably based on the “other-power” of God in Jesus Christ.[vii] After fleshing out this apparent distinction with multiple illustrations, Buddhist voices, and magisterial texts, he continues by also teasing out some other significant differences, e.g., Catholicism’s Creator/creation distinction, both views on human nature and the nature of “suffering-and-justice,” and Catholics’ understanding of one temporal birth for a soul in contradistinction to the Buddhist notion of karmic rebirth without a soul. For each of these irreducible differences he suggests a more peripheral and solely functional “sameness” that can nevertheless be discussed without threatening to puncture any of these apparently hermetically sealed differences of belief.

Similarly, Part Two utilizes the Derridean notions of chiasm, “double-bind,” “obverse overlap,” and  “waiting” in order to set up a mental site for interreligious practice where any two (or more) parties involved can practice side by side and yet “remain absolutely different” so that “they do not synthesize, merge, or ‘unify’ into ‘one.’”[viii] The end goal of this differentiation then is to enable Catholics to participate in interreligious dialogue (including joint meditation) with Buddhists, which is encouraged by the Magisterium, all while continuing to recognize that their Buddhist counterparts “may not have been sent the gift of Christian faith.” And thus, as a consequence, Catholics can maintain that Buddhist co-practitioners have “existential projects” that run “radically contrariwise” to their own, even while acknowledging that God is still working “the divine will for them in and through what is good/true in their Buddhist life-world.”[ix] Of all the thought-motifs and illustrations in this Part, Magliola’s section discussing the chiasm of “primary” and “subtextual” levels of practice (a topic on which he has extensively published before) was particularly valuable. Here he articulates how there can never be a truly “shared practice” between traditions because of the unavoidable subtextual misinterpretation of what the other is doing during a given practice (which is at the same time “the contradicting image of the other religion’s good-willed intentions for her/him”). Finally, the text concludes with two brief but illuminating and engaging “Annexes” that collectively better elucidate Magliola’s own philosophical and theological locales for doing comparison, while also supplying much more creative and even constructive suggestions for “new but orthodox Catholic meditative forms.”[x]

In the end, Magliola provides a valuable perspective on the ongoing discussion around interreligious dialogue and comparative theology and, in doing so, contributes to, and furthers numerous important trajectories within, the field of comparative theology. First and foremost, the project stakes out a methodology for comparison and dialogue that is applicable to all readers no matter where they might place themselves on the theological spectrum. In the comparison of any two traditions, the theologian will always at some point run up against what might seem to be an irreducible difference between the objects of comparison, and to this end Magliola effectively utilizes deconstructionist notions to expose numerous previously unforeseen angles through which the comparativist might still excavate meaningful insights within the interaction of even the most asymmetrical viewpoints. And even for any Catholic not versed in interreligious dialogue or comparative theology, Magliola still offers up a nuanced analysis and appraisal of the Buddhist tradition, all while proffering a careful and articulate defense of his own interpretation of an “orthodox” theology of religions. Furthermore, many of the Derridean thought-motifs he discusses have potentially profound implications on Catholic theology itself far beyond the realm of interreligious dialogue. Indeed, anyone interested in Catholic theology in general will be able to find at least one idea (whether fascinating or challenging) that will be immediately applicable to one’s own theological inquiry.

Moreover, Magliola furthers a growing trajectory within the field of comparative theology of comparing religious ideas and practices, rather than side-by-side textual analysis or simply interreligious reading. And although this approach might trip him up in achieving his primary goal at times (a point that will be addressed later), overall he conjures up yet another refreshing example of how interreligious comparison need not be simply textually based for it still to be a “close reading” of religious ideas. In the first part, he goes to seemingly great lengths to construct, responsibly and respectively, general theological principles of belief from two widely diverse traditions. The constraints of space and focus on the depth of the analysis still obviously apply, but Magliola is always judicious in his assessments and upfront about where further nuance or differentiation might be necessary elsewhere. Conversely, Part Two almost completely shakes off the burdens of theological abstractions (at least as much as applying deconstructionist theory will allow) and refocuses his observations on the more practical level of meaningful (and the meanings behind) actions. Thus, throughout both these endeavors Magliola models how comparison can, and at times must, be conducted in a space beyond simply textual comparisons, while not falling prey to a sloppy conflation of theological ideas and ritual meanings.

Despite all the successes listed above, however, there are still a few overarching critical questions that nag the reader as one explores Magliola’s project. And since these tensions seem never adequately accounted for or resolved, they threaten the potential scope and impact of the argument.

To begin with, is there a significant (and possibly unfair) comparative imbalance between the objects and sources of Magliola’s comparison? As noted above, there can be great benefit in comparing religious ideas and practices, but in order to do so the comparativist must be very careful about being clear on the objects of comparison. Otherwise it leaves the project vulnerable (whether wittingly or unwittingly) to a common theological sleight of hand in which the comparativist can selectively craft, and then reify, the objects of comparison to fit her or his own preconceived interpretation rather than being forced to wrestle with any inevitable tensions stemming from the comparativist’s hypothesis or theological commitments. Unfortunately, Magliola’s project falls prey to this problem with his demarcation of “Buddhism” as an object of comparison. Even though it is clear that he went to seemingly great lengths to buttress his interpretation of “Buddhist” doctrines, the fact that he has no specific, clearly defined source or authority on which to ground his claims makes his analysis at times unwieldy and at others suspiciously tidy. Moreover, this lack of grounding on the Buddhist side of the comparison is only exacerbated by his pinpoint focus on the Catholic side as being limited to only the pronouncements of the Magisterium. In fact, based on this premise, at one point he even emphasizes that the book is not interested in discussing (or really even acknowledging) “intra-Christian debates,” even though he constantly performs an analogous maneuver among the various Buddhists sects.[xi] Magliola attempts to address this issue by explaining that this imbalance seems necessary since “Buddhism” is inherently less “centralized” than Catholicism and, therefore, its “official teachings” are less easily located. However, he never addresses the fact that “Christianity” can also be seen as a rather decentralized entity in which Catholicism is just one group. In other words, he is doing the exact thing with Christianity/Catholicism that he refuses to do with Buddhism: focusing on one defined source as the more stable ground for constructing the voice and object of comparison. And if there is truly no singular analogous counterpoint to that source and object in the Buddhist tradition, then one must ask whether that is a comparison that can be fair and worth doing at all.

Similarly, even if Magliola could isolate a Buddhist group’s analogous counterpart to the Catholic Magisterium, who or what determines the normative readings or interpretations of those documents and pronouncements? In the first “Annex” towards the end of the work, Magliola confesses that indeed there are other possible sources for the comparison of ideas including “the more developed” discourse of theologians. However, he openly decides to forgo this avenue of inquiry for a focus on “God’s Revelation and its representation in official Church teaching.”[xii] Yet one must still ask, is that not what theologians are primarily discussing and debating—the interpreted meaning of those teachings? Or to put it differently, the “Catholic” object of comparison seems not to be “God’s Revelation and its representation in official Catholic teaching,” but Magliola’s unexplained and undefended interpretation of that “Revelation” in those teachings. It seems somewhat ironic that such a brilliant Derrida scholar would be so nontransparent and un-self-critical about his views on the normativity of meaning, interpretation, and supra-mundane Truth.

Finally, the reader is left asking, “What about the obvious ‘irreducible differences’ between Derrida and Catholic belief—especially as defined by Magliola’s clear interpretation of, and theological commitment to, those teachings?” Although Magliola is careful to speak consistently of having to “inculturate” or “adopt/adapt” Derridean thought in order to fit it into a Catholic vision, he never seems openly to question how the “irreducible differences” between Derrida’s deconstructionism and Catholicism on the issues of metaphysics and epistemology are any less problematic than the corresponding Buddhist “irreducible differences” with it. Accordingly, why is Derrida allowed to influence, inform, and instruct Catholics in any way other than one similar to the way he demands Buddhism must—solely through “purely negative” and “obverse” overlaps. In fact, rather, at one point Magliola refurbishes an argument he has made elsewhere[xiii] on how Derridean deconstruction (through the notion of “glitches”) can actually inform Catholics on how to interpret and defend the supra-mundane rationality of the Trinity. Although provocative and creative, this seems to be quite a stretch considering Derrida’s own “irreducible differences” with Catholicism on the scope of metaphysics, epistemology, and rationality. In instances such as this, the reader cannot help but wonder why Derrida is afforded so much more versatility in dialogue with Catholicism, while Magliola’s portrayal of Buddhism is damned to resist with rigidity any positive overlaps therewith.

These concerns notwithstanding, Magliola’s text does indeed provide an insightful discussion on the limits and potentials of interreligious dialogue and comparative theology that will undoubtedly have import and applications for any comparativist scholar or theologian. And even though the subject mater is quite dense, Magliola repeatedly proves himself capable of delivering even the most opaque theories in a profoundly accessible way. Still, although there are certainly fascinating moments of comparison, it most be noted that, in the end, this book succeeds much more in presenting a theology, rather than a model, of interreligious dialogue.


[i] Robert Magliola, Facing Up to Real Doctrinal Difference: How Some Thought-Motifs from Derrida Can Nourish the Catholic-Buddhist Encounter (Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2014), 11.

[ii]  Ibid.,11.

[iii] Ibid.,139

[iv] Ibid.,10.

[v] Ibid.,22.

[vi] Ibid., 43-4. This is an important “danger” and distinction he recognizes is necessary to make between some of the traditions of Buddhism. Although I applaud him for heeding the advice to differentiate them in this way, I also believe that it highlights a significant issue with his approach that I will discuss later in the article.

[vii] Ibid., 45.

[viii] Ibid., 125-6.

[ix] Ibid.,132.

[x] Ibid.,169. One great example of this is where he utilizes textual/redactional/recensional criticism as the source for creating distinctively Catholic gong’ans.

[xi] Ibid., 58.

[xii] Ibid., 143.

[xiii] See Robert R. Magliola, On Deconstructing Life-Worlds: Buddhism, Christianity, Culture, American Academy of Religion Cultural Criticism Series (Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1997), 175-192.

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