A Matter of Course: Buddhism and Christianity

By Betsy Davis  |  Illustration by Margaret Zivkovich


CREATED AND TAUGHT BY:

R. Trent Pomplun, Ph.D., professor of theology

FOCUS:

The master’s level course provides a comparative theological survey of Christianity, with a special emphasis upon the Jesuit Ippolito Desideri (1684-1733). Pomplun’s passion and experience with comparative theology in his study of Jesuit missionaries in Tibet provides a strong structure for the coursework. The course highlights Fr. Desideri’s mission to Tibet, his interpretation of Buddhism, its doctrines and meditation practices, and concludes with Christian philosophy and proof for the existence of God.

STUDENTS:

The inaugural cohort for the Master of Theological Studies program includes nine scholars from a range of educational and professional backgrounds. Pomplun’s class is set up in a small, intimate circle to encourage debate, discussion, and enlightenment.

ON TEACHING THE COURSE FOR THE FIRST TIME:

“Master’s level students require me to be flexible with the material, class discussions, and the ability to allow students to weave material from my course into broader theological research. One student, for example, is using her research in Sanskrit and Hinduism to serve as another point of comparison in Buddhism and Christianity,” Pomplun said.

COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT TIBET:

“The most common misconception of Tibet is that it is a nation that has been free of all the troubles that beset other nations, such as civil war, religious persecution, and social injustice,” Pomplun said. “The truth is that Tibet is much like any other nation: it has many great men and women, but it has had its share of scoundrels, too! In fact, Ippolito Desideri was in Tibet during a period of great political unrest and bloodshed.”

WHAT ROLE DID THE SOCIETY OF JESUS HAVE AS MISSIONARIES?

Pomplun uses the class to not only study comparative theology between Buddhism and Christianity but also to highlight the role of the Society of Jesus in missionary work. A hallmark of the course is comparing Buddhist meditation with the practices of the Spiritual Exercises. “I have several students who teach in area Jesuit secondary schools. They know many of the Jesuit concepts and are familiar with the Exercises. They contribute to the class discussions in real and surprising ways.”

HOW IS FR. DESIDERI VIEWED?

Fr. Desideri’s narrative is the main vehicle through which the students learn about and interact with the texts. Throughout time Fr. Desideri has been seen in a number of often polarizing roles, such as a missionary and a spy. Fr. Desideri can also be seen as a visionary. He recognized the possibility of God’s grace being present in non-Catholics centuries before this was discussed in Vatican II. The challenge Pomplun gives to his students is to evaluate Fr. Desideri in the context of his time, social and political pressures, and the audience to which he writes.

ANOTHER PURPOSE OF THE CLASS:

Pomplun’s mission for this class includes more than exposing students to Fr. Desideri or Tibetan history or even comparative theology. He works to prepare his students for the profession of academia. He challenges his students to begin carving an identity for themselves in the projects and research they pursue. Current student Philip Porter says, “Professor Pomplun’s dedication to helping us weave our current research into the curriculum of the course is one of the best parts of the class.”

A STUDENT SAYS:

“The most challenging piece of the course material is trying to understand the historical and societal context of the material we are reading,” said Ben Horgan, director of Ignatian service at Loyola Blakefield, a Jesuit high school in Towson, Md. “It is difficult to make judgments on the theological and comparative moves that others have made, not living in their time period or context. The nature of our coursework asks us to critically examine cultures and their religious, and challenges us to justly engage each in dialogue. As a lay Catholic living in the United States, it is difficult to place myself in the position of an 18th century Italian Jesuit, or a practitioner of a 3,000-year-old eastern faith tradition…but we are trying our best!”

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