This is an important book, and not just for Buddhists, feminists and ecologists. Both authors are devoted practitioners of their faiths, as well as feminist historians of religion with long experience in interfaith dialogue. They raise issues of concern to all Western Buddhists who have not wholly shed their Christian or Judaic background.
As the title indicates, the book is organized around a practical application of religious values to ecological awareness. Beneath Buddhism and Christianity’s theological differences the authors discern a global ethic denouncing greed, conversion to which is an essential ingredient of any formula for saving our threatened planet. In Ruether’s words, “Both Christianity and Buddhism share a monastic tradition in which renunciation of wealth is the highest ethic. . . . We are just starting to ask how Buddhists and Christians can begin to work together for peace, economic justice and environmental harmony.”
But to focus on the book’s practical utility is an injustice to the richness and complexity of its dialogue. The book is organized into five parts: 1) Life stories: how the authors came to this dialogue; 2) “What Is Most Problematic about My Tradition?”; 3) “What Is Most Liberating about My Tradition?”; 4) “What Is Most Inspiring for Me about the Other Tradition?”; and 5) “Religious Feminism and the Future of the Planet.” At every stage each author supplies, in addition to her own position, a response to the other’s.
At first glance I feared that this approach would become either repetitive or unduly fragmented. In fact, the book presents a coherent dialogue of increasing subtlety, with numerous insights of great relevance to everyday practice. There is a fundamental asymmetry to this dialogue: Ruether has always been a practicing Catholic, whereas Gross was by turns a serious practitioner of Christianity and Judaism before settling on Buddhism. Their personalities are also different: Gross airs her grievances with all three faiths, whereas Ruether seems more tolerant of worldly imperfection.
But these differences only render more remarkable the convergence and synergy of what these two learned and active women have to say. As Gross notes, “I find it intriguing that our chapters on what is most liberating about our own tradition and what we most admire about the other tradition are almost mirror images of each other.” Feminism of course is a unifying factor. But the authors are able to use their religious backgrounds to critique feminism (above all for its Eurocentrism) as well as vice versa.
Perhaps the most penetrating insights come as each author explores how her preferred religion, despite its cultural limitations and indeed oppressions, is nevertheless a necessary vehicle for both personal and social liberation. Here I find the parallels between their arguments even more arresting than the two writers admit. They are undoubtedly right in searching for religious unity primarily on the level of a global ethic rather than searching for some illusory esoteric commonality on the theological plane.
But one could say more about an unvoiced commonality on the level of personal and social practice: how both traditions help extricate us from one stream (the stream of everyday consciousness) in order to enter another. This paradox of self-renunciation does not altogether reduce to the dimensions of a secular or sacral planetary ethic.
Peter Dale Scott’s book Minding the Darkness is reviewed in “A Mindreader’s Briefing” in this issue.