Sample Chapter from my new book, The Lost Way to the Good

Steps up the sacred mount of Dewa Sanzan, Japan

“But th’holy men of God such vessels are, 
As serve him up, who all the word commands: 
When God vouchsafed to become our fare, 
Their hands convey him, who conveys their hands. 
O what pure things, most pure must those things be,                          Who bring my God to me!”                                      

George Herbert, The Priesthood

Ordained Deacon in the Church of England in 1624, George Herbert spent four years in prayerful deliberation before he accepted the gift of priestly orders. The responsibilities of the priest were awesome: to bind or remit sins, to preach and expound the Holy Scriptures and, above all, to administer the sacraments. As a priest, he could not dare defile those hands which would “serve up” God under the species of bread and wine. They must become vehicles as fit for the purpose as the pure and spotless host itself. Even so, Herbert was under no illusion that the gifts of Holy Communion could be impeded by the dirt of his hands or, for that matter, augmented by their cleanliness. True to Augustinian theology, as long as the minister was validly ordained, his personal unworthiness could not hinder the effect of the sacraments which, as the Church of England’s 26th Article of Religion has it, “be effectual, because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.” Here, then, is the root of Herbert’s paradoxical verse: even as the priest’s hands “convey” God, it is God himself who “conveys their hands.” 

Herbert’s poem beautifully expresses the tenor of Dionysian theurgy, a development in the late Platonism of the pagan Syrian philosopher-priest Iamblichus. For Dionysius, if theosis – oneness or, as he sometimes expresses it, “Communion” with God – is the salvific purpose of all reality, then theurgy is the vehicle for its realization. Vitally, while this theurgy is the work of human hands, it is as its name suggests no less Theou ergon, the “work of God.” 

Dionysius’ ten Letters are among the least studied of his works, which is a shame because they, above all, connect his Platonic teaching on theurgy most directly with the Eucharist and so with the work of Christ. Coming back to the ninth letter, in which we read of the “divine drunkenness” above, Dionysius describes Wisdom mixing her bowl with solid food and sacred drink.[1] The sacred drink represents the flowing of God’s providence as overflowing source of all existence, and the solid food stands for the stable nourishment which gives strength and goodness to beings. He extends the metaphor to apply it to what he calls the “tradition of the theologians,” making the drink stand for cataphatic exposition of the divine revelation, and the solid food stand for theurgic elements (sunthēmata) used for apophatic, sacramental union with God in his hiddenness. Taking the figure of Christ as Wisdom Incarnate, Dionysius then makes the ‘drink’ the teaching of Jesus, including his parables, and the ‘solid food’ becomes the Eucharist. The divine revelation in Scripture – and in the material elements of the cosmos by which God lifts us into theurgic union with himself – are united in what Dionysius calls in Epistle 4 the “theandric,” divine-human work of Christ. It is through Christ that theurgy becomes the consummation of theology,[2] and when bishops and their priests celebrate the Eucharist, they are not doing so merely in imitation of Jesus as an historic figure but, rather, are participating in the work of the living Word and Wisdom of God, by which he offers the entire cosmos to the Father through his sacrifice on the Cross. 

Theurgy had been controversial even among pagan Platonists. Porphyry wrote to Iamblichus asking how he could believe his magical incantations might affect the will of the gods. Iamblichus replied with a letter of his own, now known as the De Mysteriis, in which he makes it very clear that in no way does theurgy involve mortals manipulating the divine. On the contrary, the divine goodness expresses itself in a myriad ways as “symbols” in the physical matter of things, and theurgy is the practical means of participating in the higher realities which they represent. In Platonic terms, theurgy is the vehicle by which the higher spiritual causes have their effect in the material realm. Ritual practice is not a bending of those causes to the will, but a surrendering of the will to them, as it were, opening the latent channel of their grace. Without theurgy, Iamblichus argues, we risk leaving the material realm as a “desert, without gods,” a disenchanted realm. We risk, in short, denying the goodness and therefore the reality of creation. 

In the West, S. Augustine firmly resisted this development of eastern Platonism. In The City of God (Book X.9-10), he equates theurgy to necromancy and reviles it as a discourse with demons. Augustine builds his argument against theurgy by citing the letter of Porphyry to Iamblichus, written on Plotinus’ behalf. So, Augustine reveals himself as the inheritor of that more intellectualizing strand of Platonism, in which the divine is experienced through an intellectual ascent towards the unknowable One; not so much through things as through words. We saw this in the mutual religious experience he enjoyed with his mother as they looked out on the garden in Ostia, an experience which resulted from conversation; and elsewhere in the Confessions, we read of how his conversion to the Christian faith was provoked by a voice, like a child’s, telling him to pick up the Bible and read. Conversation, voices and reading are Augustine’s primary vehicles of salvation – words and images guiding one’s spiritual progress to the Word beyond words and the invisible image. It is not hard to see how Augustine’s very verbal strand of Platonism would later inspire the Protestant Reformers, especially Calvin, and give strength to their call for a Church guided by “scripture alone.” 

Augustine’s Eastern coreligionist Dionysius, on the other hand, keenly adopted the theurgical thought of his fellow Syrian Iamblichus. He used it as the basis for a sacramental theology of participation in a divinely-graced world which was both more thoroughly Platonic and more thoroughly Christian. More thoroughly Platonic, because it resolved the tension [Gp1] in Plotinus’ thought between the spiritual and material realms; more thoroughly Christian, because it treated the material realm with the due dignity that the Incarnation of Christ in matter necessitated. Augustine is one of the greatest and most influential theologians, pastors, biblical commentators, homilists and Platonic philosophers of Western Christendom, and Dionysius’ output is negligible in comparison with the sheer volume of his work. Nonetheless, we can see in Augustine a hangover of the soul-body dualism which sometimes appears in Plotinus, and which Augustine had once found attractive in the Manichean sect with which he flirted before his conversion to Christianity. It would be unfair to pin all the western problems of disparagement of the body and its urges on Augustine (as some do), but without doubt the division he maintained between the physical and the spiritual has had harmful repercussions which persist in the West to this day. It also led Calvin to declare more or less what Iamblichus had feared: that the world, in the end, is of itself evil, utterly reprobate and fallen, incapable of communicating the divine nature save by the addition of God’s grace which is added, arbitrarily and almost as an afterthought. Dionysius’ theurgy, conversely, sees the physical as participating in the spiritual, and as the vehicle of salvation rather than an impediment to it. As such it offers a valuable corrective. 

Nonetheless, Dionysius faces the same charges even to this day from his fellow Christians: that his sacramental adoption of theurgy is a kind of magical manipulation of God’s will. This is to misunderstand the Platonic makeup of his thought and subject his world to the unfortunate divisions of the modern Western mindset. I am actually not averse to describing sacraments as a kind of magic: a specifically chosen and inducted individual wears special clothes to speak inherited words over sacred objects in order to effect an objective change. That sounds a lot like magic to me. However, the source of that “magic,” which Christians would better name “grace,” is not the will of the priest, for Dionysius any more than for Iamblichus. Rather, it is God’s work – the literal meaning of “theurgy” – being effected through the priest, the people and the material objects of the ritual. Coming back to Herbert, their hands convey him, who conveys their hands. Take any element away, and the sacrament is incomplete: one cannot baptize without water, marry without a betrothed, consecrate the Eucharist without bread and wine, or without a validly ordained priest. Nor, Canon Law rightly insists, can one substitute any of the elements: say, cola for the water in baptism, rice for the bread of the Eucharist, or a webcam for the physical presence of the priest. Whatever the chagrin of avant garde pioneer ministers, this is not a matter of tedious Church legalism, nor a bigoted disregard for “inculturation,” but a longstanding resistance to the nominalist instinct which says, like Humpty Dumpty to Alice, that things mean only what I decide they mean. The ancient law of the Church rather shows a latent, if sometimes forgotten, commitment to the realist, more Platonic view, that things symbolize a greater reality in which they participate, and that they do so objectively, not merely as a matter of human custom. 

We saw earlier that critics of Dionysius accuse him of a solipsistic mysticism, as though he taught that one could achieve salvation by meditating all the names of God away. A proper focus on the roots of his theurgic teaching discredits that view conclusively. There is nothing individualistic about theurgy. A contemporary scholar of Iamblichus, Gregory Shaw, describes theurgy as “divine activity communally shared,”[3] and quotes Iamblichus himself saying that “it is impossible to participate individually in the universal orders, but only in communion with the divine choir of those lifted up together, united in mind.” Oneness with God, theosis, comes only through full engagement with the multiplicity of the spiritual and physical realms of existence. Surprisingly, if anything, Augustine’s Platonism is the more individualistic and intellectualizing. In theurgy, God conveys his salvific nature not through words to individuals, but through matter, in communal actions. 

Nor can salvation be achieved by one’s own meditative power. On the contrary, writes Iamblichus, we do not “draw down the gods” with our rituals; rather, the “felicitous accomplishment of divine works is imparted by the gods alone.” Western readers may be concerned that theurgy smacks of Pelagianism, yet even the pagan Iamblichus robustly rejects any sense of salvation by works: neither right knowledge nor bodily purity, he writes, can attain to salvation. Proponents of “synergy,” the doctrine of the Eastern Church which makes us “co-workers” with God – a phrase which despite its Pauline scriptural authority, thanks to Augustine raises hackles in the West – will find little support for it in Iamblichus, who insists that “nothing which is human cooperates anything to the end of divine actions.” Even when someone speaks wisely, he says, “this is not a human, but a divine work.” You could not ask for a more robustly non-dualistic identification between the divine work of salvation and the created order. The interrelationship between the divine salvific will and its human agents, especially the priests appointed as vehicles of the theurgic mysteries, is neither one of simple obedience to an external will, nor one of mindless absorption into an undifferentiated divine morass. Rather, Iamblichus construes it as one of “possession” or “mania,” a sort of divine madness: and so we are brought back to Dionysius’ metaphor of getting drunk with God. Through participating in the sacraments, we come to realize that the exercise of our will in responding to the divine call is in fact none other than the divine call itself, echoing through creation. Like drunks in some midnight choir, we hit harmony despite ourselves, neither quite willing nor entirely out of control. Theurgy is the opium of the mass. 

Enchanted with a drunken ecstasy, God pours out being for the sake of its return to him. Dionysian theurgy is the ritual outworking of that return, which assumes the fundamental goodness of created things thanks to their participation in God and their orientation towards reunion with Him. This could not be much further away from the privatized meditative approach to salvation of which he is sometimes accused: it is so communal that it embraces not just the Church, nor even just the whole of humanity, but the entire cosmos. Through the sacraments, and especially in Baptism and the Eucharist, the human will loses itself in drunken play with the divine goodness, bringing it into harmony with the entire graced order of Being-as-salvation.

Theurgy is the practical outworking of the idea that the whole universe is enchanted with the divine goodness, and every aspect of it calls us into communion with the One in whom it lives and moves and has its being. Through it, our will is conformed to God’s goodness, our work to his work. In this, we find an analog to Shinran’s refinement of the doctrine behind the nembutsu.

“In other-power, no-working is true working.”

Shinran, quoting Hōnen, Lamp of the Latter Ages 2

Recent decades have seen the growth of something called “Applied” or “Engaged Buddhism,” particularly under the aegis of the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, whose 1963 book bears the latter title. In the Francophone realm of pre-War Indochina, engagé was a Marxist and revolutionary term used by those who resisted the imperial regime. In this, it shares common roots with the Christian Liberation Theology of South America. Yet like Liberation Theology, Engaged Buddhism’s Marxist historical and cultural analysis has enjoyed considerable influence outside its homeland among the “progressive” elites of the West, and especially in the academy. Engaged Buddhism tends to focus on ethical concerns, issues of social justice and human rights, and the beneficial psychological effects of meditation. 

Engaged Buddhist academics point out that this is nothing new. Marxist influences on Shin Buddhism arrived in Japan with Christianity in the late nineteenth century. We find examples of contemporary Shin Buddhist clergy like Kiyozawa Manshi (1863-1903) embracing socialist thought, and of Japanese socialists and communists discovering in Shinran a proto-Marxist liberator within their own cultural and historic milieu. Hayashida Shigeo, for instance, was imprisoned as a communist by the military state during the Second World War and, as some prisoners in the West find Christ in jail, Hayashida came out in praise of the nembutsu. Psychiatrists synthesized the work of Freud and Jung with Shin Buddhist teaching, replacing the Greek and biblical mythical types with analogues from Buddhist tradition, in one case to the extent of forming an entire Shin Buddhist psychotherapeutic movement called Naikan therapy. Japanese Buddhists innovated on western developments in sociology and psychology as much as they have, more famously, in technology. 

For all its fruits, such an emphasis on Buddhism’s ethical and meditative elements raises the question of whether, really, Buddhism needs to continue to exist at all. We have seen the same problem with demythologized Christianity. If, in the end, Buddhism and Christianity can be reduced to ethical systems identical to those of social democracy, and their spiritual elements pared down to mindfulness meditation with no metaphysical strings attached, then we should not be surprised to see adherence to them diminish. In the West, this is obviously what is happening to liberal Christianity, which appears to be on the verge of extinction. Yet it is happening with Buddhism in Japan too, where adherence nowadays means little more than paying very expensive funeral fees to whatever sect one’s family happens to belong to when someone dies. Many Japanese do not know what school of Buddhism they belong to until they have to organize a funeral. The younger Japanese are increasingly moving away even from this minimal participation, as new all-in-one funeral venues offer a similar service to temples at a fraction of the price. Buddhism seems to have little future as a funeral provider or advocate of liberal social mores. The Japanese people have little need of Buddhism to answer their social needs, let alone their ethical or spiritual questions. There are more people in Japan practicing yoga and Flamenco than Zen meditation. 

Shin Buddhist priest John Paraskevopoulos is wary of this tendency to reduce Buddhism to a system of ethics and meditation. He argues in his book Call of the Infinite[4] that Shinran’s thought undercuts any such analysis. Shinran is utterly dismissive of human ethical efforts for the same reason as he eschews meditation. This often surprises Westerners, who assume that all Buddhists meditate. Yet we can see, in Shinran’s controversial approach to the nembutsu, that Shin Buddhism is not about meditation at all. 

Shinran so firmly resisted the salvific power of meditation that he disavowed even the recitation of the nembutsu as a saving act. His master Hōnen had taught that self-power, jiriki, could not effect Birth in the Pure Land. One had to rely on the other-power (tariki) of saying the nembutsu, taking refuge in the inconceivable working of Amida’s Name. Repeating the Name should become one’s sole practice. But, argued Shinran, does the recitation of the nembutsunot then become just another act of self-power? His solution to this problem was the doctrine of “Once-Saying.” One could not be “saved” by repeating the Name meditatively. All that was needed was to say it once with absolute shinjin, deep trust in the other-power of Amida Buddha, and that would suffice. You would not necessarily know when that efficacious Once Saying had occurred, so you would continue to say it nonetheless. So, in outward form, there was nothing to distinguish the practice of the nembutsu between Hōnen’s followers and Shinran’s new True Pure Land daughter sect. Philosophically speaking, though, Shinran’s stress on other-power was unprecedented. Hōnen had understood the saying of the nembutsu as the practitioner’s own work but Shinran denied this, to the extent of calling the nembutsu a “non-practice.”

Rather, Shinran taught, when it is said with shinjin, the nembutsu is Amida’s Name speaking itself throughsentient beings. Ironically, it is the very otherness of Amida’s power which makes Shinran’s nembutsu the pinnacle of the Mahāyāna teaching of no-self. It is by losing one’s self that one truly finds it, so that one’s own work is none other than the Buddha’s. Only by our ceasing to work does Amida’s Vow work within us to effect salvation, which is none other than truly seeing reality as what it is: the outworking of the Vow. Like Dionysius’ theurgic model of reality, we have here a ritual act which is properly understood as a participation in the salvifically-oriented goodness in which reality subsists, and which is simultaneously the consummation of human existence.

Nor should Shinran’s nembutsu be seen, any more than theurgy, as an individualistic act of mystical union. For while one may seem to be saying the nembutsu alone, metaphysically speaking, it is the Buddha, which is to say the infinite realm of reality, that speaks through the nembutsu. When you stop saying the nembutsu and, as it were, the nembutsu speaks through you, the Buddha’s “mind of great love and compassion” (daiji-daihi shin) enables one freely to benefit all other sentient beings. Your voice becomes one with what Shinran calls the “Music of Purity” which reverberates from the Pure Land:

The delicate, wondrous sounds of jewel-trees in the jewel-forests
Are a naturally pure and harmonious music, 
Unexcelled in subtlety and elegance, 
So take refuge in Amida, the Music of Purity. 

Shinran, Hymn of the Pure Land 39

Shinran’s claims are metaphysical rather than meditative or moralistic. Shin Buddhism is grounded not in the meditative practice of self-power, but, like Dionysian theurgy, in participation in reality. That reality, Paraskevopoulos insists, is subject to metaphysical claims. When Shinran says that Amida Buddha’s infinite light and wisdom permeates all things, when he uses metaphors such as the “ocean of compassion” and writes of the glory of the Pure Land, when he speaks of a Vow which unfolds in “Music of Purity” and speaks through all sentient beings, he is saying that all this is true, good and beautiful. Paraskevopoulos cites the Buddha himself telling his disciple Ananda that “communion with the beautiful … is the whole of the holy life.”[5] Dionysius would surely have concurred. 

Shinran’s participatory metaphysics differs from Dionysius’ in that the nembutsu is the saying of a word rather than the offering of a material thing. In this a difference is exposed between Christianity on the one hand, and Shin Buddhism and Iamblichean theurgy on the other: in Christian thought, the Incarnation happened historically in the Lord Jesus Christ and is extended in history through the physical bodies of Church and Sacrament; whereas, for Iamblichean theurgists, one might say that everything – as an incarnation of one divine soul – bears sacramental significance. Shin Buddhism is perhaps more readily analagous to the latter sense. 

This is not to say that Dionysius rejects the divine presence in all things: far from it, he understands all things as expressions of the divine theophany, with Christ as their culmination. And so, Christians might see Shin Buddhism as participating in that theophany, without compromising on our insistence that Christ and the sacraments he has ordained remain its normative and ultimate means of fulfilment. Without presuming to speak for Shin Buddhists, I submit that they too may recognize a far closer kinship to Christianity than the dualistic metaphysics for which we are sometime impugned, and may even see our religion as an outworking of Amida’s Vow, even if they reject the specificity of the Incarnation in Christ, his sacraments and the Church he established to perpetuate them.

Despite our considerable and irreconcilable differences, there is enough conceptual overlap in our ways of seeing reality as the salvific, self-emptying unfolding of goodness in truth and beauty to help us articulate a common resistance to the disenchanted realm of modernity. At present, the masters of that realm mine our spiritual traditions, Christian and Buddhist, for elements they find useful. They demolish the metaphysical struts which held the cave mouth open and try to replace them with the scaffolding of disenchanted materialism, whether of the Marxist or capitalist brand. In the former case, they try to extract tales of conflict and rebellion to foster new and perpetual revolutions; in the latter, ethical systems and meditative methods, “lifestyle choices” which will help workers and consumers to cope with and perpetuate the profitable status quo. They will take Christian “values” or Buddhist “mindfulness” but do not see that without God or Buddha, neither can stand.

Much of my pastoral work as a priest, whether among non-Christians or lifelong believers, starts with dispelling the notion that Christianity is a moral system. This is particularly difficult work for a chaplain in historic church establishments, such as schools, hospitals and universities, which have recently become more or less secular. Such institutions are cautious of appearing partisan and do not want non-Christians, who are most likely the majority of their clients, to feel excluded by their ethos; yet, they are either bound by their statutes, or simply historically minded enough, to pay some homage to the intentions of their founders. This usually emerges in a commitment, hidden somewhere in a mission statement on a subpage of their website, to “Christian values” along with a hasty disclaimer that all are welcome, regardless of their religion. 

It is hard to tell the leaders of such institutions that “Christian values” do not exist. Any values extracted from the Christian religion are no longer Christian. Christianity is not a value system. The import of Christ in the Christian mythos is not that he was a great moral teacher who gave us a code to follow, or even an example to copy. What makes Christianity Christian is the recognition that Christ is God Incarnate. This is a theological and metaphysical claim, and simultaneously a soteriological one. Christ saves not because of his teachings, but because of who and what he is. We are saved not by copying him, not by following any rules, but by his free gift of himself. This gift outworks itself in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, for which Baptism is a prerequisite. To put it Platonically, we are made good by our participation in God; and theurgically, our participation in God is effected by God himself, who draws us into his divine work of the Crucifixion and Resurrection by the gift of himself in the matter of bread and wine. Outside this economy of salvation, it is not just that we cannot properly understand God, or that we cannot act morally. Rather, outside it, there is no truth, goodness or beauty. The Eucharist does not show us reality: it is reality. It does not show us how to be good: it is the Good, working through us. It is not a sign accessible to voyeurs, but an act which has to be experienced as “truth beyond wisdom.”[6] No “values” can be discerned from it, because the true value of the Good cannot be discerned and cannot be emulated: it can only be participated. Christianity is a way of salvation, not an ethical system. 

Shin Buddhism has historically not seen itself as an ethical system, either. According to Shinran, Amida’s other-power expressed in the Vow is the sole true reality, inconceivable in its goodness: 

The directing of virtue embodied in Namu-Amida-butsu (the nembutsu)
Is, in its benevolent working, vast and inconceivable. 

Shinran, Hymns of the Dharma Ages 51

Amida’s goodness is so absolute that it renders any merely human ethical efforts null and void. Shinran insisting that we bonbu, foolish creatures, afflicted by “blind passions,” can achieve no good whatsoever by our own merit. We are not even in the position to judge between good and evil. “To abandon the mind of self-power,” he wrote, is “to abandon the conviction that one is good … and further, to abandon the judging of people as good and bad.” He went so far as to say that even the recitation of the nembutsu should not be understood as a “good” act. Rather, it brings us into the mind of compassion which alone is good and enables goodness. That goodness does not emerge, directly, in the elimination of material poverty and impediments, but in the compassionate gift of bringing fellow sentient beings to awareness of their oneness with the true and lasting reality of the Vow, whatever their material circumstances. 

Are we left, then, with two irreducible alternative realities, the reality of the Eucharist versus the reality of Amida’s Vow? It might seem so from a Shin perspective as much as a Christian one. One can take refuge in the reality of the Vow, writes Shinran, only if one avoids the worship of gods: 

“The Nirvana Sutra states: If one has taken refuge in the Buddha, one must not further take refuge in various gods.”[7]

This should no longer present Christian readers with any problem. As we have seen, Dionysius’ God is no god, and has more in common with the Nameless Name of Amida Buddha than many contemporary Buddhists might like to allow. Neither Dionysius’ God nor Shinran’s Amida Buddha is defined primarily in terms of being, but of goodness. To live truly is not to emulate that goodness as something external, but to participate in it and realize one’s latent oneness with it and all other things. 

Does the doctrine of creation get in the way of this irenic view? We have discussed the problems it raises in relation to the divine will and the disparity between God and creation. However, for Dionysius, this is a secondary concern. According to his teaching, there is being only because God is primarily good, and the purpose of being is its own salvation, namely its return to the Good in which it always and already inheres. Dionysius’ drunken God is at once utterly spontaneous and yet acts always in accord with his good nature. This brings him closer to Shinran, who in his Notes of Essentials of Faith Alone[8] explicitly, but more cautiously, refers to the working of Amida’s Vow as the “good.” God’s creative spontaneity finds an analogue in Shinran’s teaching of jinen honi, the “dharmic state of nature.” The word for nature, jinen, usually read as shizen in modern Japanese, is made up of two ideographs which Shinran explains as meaning “self” and “being made so.” In other words, “nature” is things as they are in and of themselves. Honi, or “dharmicness,” means that this nature of things is effected through the “dharma,” which means law or teaching. Shinran understands the dharma as Amida’s salvific Vow. So, the nature of things (jinen/shizen) is inseperable from their dharmic ordering towards salvation in the Vow (honi). Amida’s Vow is to rescue sentient beings[Gp2]  from their otherwise inevitable suffering in this samsaric realm of change, decay and death; yet, salvation is woven into[Gp3]  reality, and thenembutsu is the means by which we recognize this truth and participate in it. There is a marked ontological difference between Dionysius and Shinran here, in that for Dionysius, God is unambiguously the source and origin of existence, as well as its redeemer, where for Shinran, things have arisen as they are without a creator. To be born in this world is, for Buddhists, the result of negative karmic ties to past lives, which would make for interesting comparison with certain pagan Platonists, but for the Dionysius, this cannot be the case: both as a Christian and as an heir to Proclus, he sees creation as fundamentally good, however corrupt it may have become. Even so, the fact that this kind of inter-traditional discussion is even possible shows that Christians and Buddhists are engaged in a common endeavor to pursue the truth about reality, and can frame that endeavor in mutually intelligible terms of a universe metaphysically ordered towards salvation. 

The nembutsu links the naturalness and spontaneity of jinen, things simply being what they are, with shinjin and tariki, other-powerThe attempt to exercise jiriki, self-power, only gets in the way. Any attempt to define good and evil by our own calculation will lead only to error. It is only by utter trust, shinjin, in the other-power of Amida’s salvific Vow that things can be truly seen as they are[Gp4] : namely, the unreality of so much that we consider reality is exposed to our view. The nembutsu is the direct opposite of calculation, to the extent that the Tannishō describes it as higyō-hizen, “not-action, not-good” (that is, not our good but that of Amida). [9] It is only once all that calculation is abandoned that our karmic ties to the impure land, Shinran writes in a surprisingly Platonic turn of phrase, are transformed into the good. [10]

The nembutsu, said by Amida through the practitioner in shinjin, is the non-calculative means by which sentient beings can “see” and so share in the spontaneous naturalness of things as they really are. Compare this with the theurgy of the Eucharist, an action carried out by Christ through the community of believers in a way which lifts them beyond intellection into the creative self-emptying of God. The nembutsu is no more a mere recollection of Amida’s Vow than the Eucharist is a mere memorial of Christ’s New Covenant by his sacrifice on the Cross: rather, the nembutsu is the Vow making itself known, analogous to how Dionysius’ theurgic Eucharist is the enacting of divine goodness. In neither case does evil and suffering emerge from the work of God or the Vow of Amida; rather, the evil we perceive in the world is a provisional and ultimately unreal, a lack of true reality rather than an instantiation of it. Both the Vow of Amida and the New Covenant of Christ reveal a fundamental goodness from which all that is truly real flows, all derives true meaning, and towards which all is oriented. 

Theurgy and the nembutsu are analogous means by which ritual action unites sentient beings with transcendent goodness beyond name and comprehension. Together, both speak of an enchanted world, the meaning of which is inexpressible through anything other than a love beyond words. There are differences, to be sure, and there is a greater gap in Shinran’s thought between the metaphysical origins of things and their salvific goal than there is in Dionysius’. Even so, with their analogous senses of participation in a transcendent, salvific goodness which bestows both the fullness of life and intelligibility, despite coming from radically different philosophical and spiritual traditions, Dionysius and Shinran are in far greater agreement with one another than with the Western materialist philosophies and the value-based, emulative ethical systems which emerge from them. Both Amida’s Vow and Christ’s sacrifice are expressed in terms of a will to save. However, that will is identical respectively to the nature of Amida or God as good. Goodness is not imposed by any will, whether of man or god. It is not discerned from afar and emulated by the power of human wills. Rather, it is imbibed by participation in the transcendent love which eternally empties itself for the sake of beings. 

The truly liberating message in both Dionysian Christianity and Shin Buddhism is that we become good, and start to do good, not by exhausting, frenetic acts of will, not by emulating a revolutionary Jesus or activist Shinran, but by letting the Good beyond Being work in and through us. As Shinran says, this is the easiest way, but also the hardest: again, a bit like getting the camel through the eye of the needle. If we can achieve this – or rather, if we can allow this to be achieved in us – then finally, we will find that what we want and what we do are perfectly aligned in spontaneous, natural, graced freedom. 

As Westerners enter the Agora and see the empty plinths of Islam, Taoism or Buddhism, we need also to look within and rediscover the self-emptying One at the heart of reality whom our own Christian tradition proclaims. We need to re-establish the lost way which grants us communion with the wider world and with our common origin and end, the Alpha and Omega of all things, the self-giving One who has revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ. The West will rediscover its identity and its tradition only in him, but will rediscover him only by walking the road we used to share with the East. We will not find him in isolation, so bitterly divided is our own house. But together with Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and surely others besides, we can uproot the overgrowth, carve out the old path and make straight the way to the Good.

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[1] Epistle 9.5, 1105D.

[2] Ecclesiastical Hierarchy 3.5, 432A-B

[3] Shaw, Theurgy and the Soul, xx.

[4] John Paraskevopoulos, Call of the Infinite (San Francisco: Angelico Press, 2017).

[5] Paraskevopoulos, p.75.

[6] Epistle 7.3.

[7] Kyōgyōshinshō 6-2.82.

[8] Shinran, The Collected Works of Shinran, 453.

[9] Shinran, 665.

[10] Notes on Essentials of Faith Alone 1 in Shinran, 453.

 [Gp1]Perhaps this is less of a conflict and more of a tension.

 [Gp2]This wording might suggest that the raison d’etre of beings is the Vow which isn’t quite correct. Sentient beings appear in this world as a result of unfavourable karma, not because of the Vow. Encountering Amida’s saving grace is assuredly the result of good karma but his Vow is not responsible for our existential plight; rather, it seeks to free us from it.

 [Gp3]The word ‘being’ is ambiguous in a Buddhist context and is best avoided in most cases.

 [Gp4]I think this may be confusing the ontological with the soteriological import of the teaching.

 [Gp5]This claim might need to be nuanced a little. The horrors of samsara, for example, do not ‘flow’ from the ‘fundamental goodness’ of Amida’s Vow. Again, this arguably blurs the distinction between metaphysical cause and salvific action.

Theurgy, Reenchantment and the Music of Purity