With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Dissertation Discussion

As, I hope, most of our readers know, many of the bloggers here are at the beginning stages of their dissertation work. While I am still waiting for my dissertation to gain final approval of CUA, others are now beginning to write their proposals. I am going to be doing a considerable amount of work and study to prepare myself for my dissertation and aspects of what I am researching will suddenly appear on this blog (although I hope to address many other things than my dissertation as I write it). This will allow me to reflect upon it while I work through it, and hopefully get some feedback which will help me as I work on it.

I doubt that posting the current version of my proposal will cause any problems, and so I thought I would put it on here today for people to read, consider, and then hopefully give some response to it so that I can think about what people have to say as I write it.

Without further adieu, here it is:

Title of Proposed Research: Eternal Perdition and Human Freedom: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theology in Dialogue with the Mahāyāna Teaching of Asanga the Yogācārin

Statement of the Problem and Background:
The question of eternal perdition is an important question in a variety of theological traditions. With it come closely related questions: What causes one to be placed among the damned? Is it possible that no human will actually end up suffering eternal perdition? There are Christian theologians who advocate the hope for the salvation of all, even if they do not know that this outcome will actually happen. One can include within this group Hans Urs von Balthasar. While Balthasar hoped that everyone would be saved, he still believed that the possibility of perdition was real and must be examined. To him, it was of great importance that we consider the possibility that we will end up among the damned. Some of the important elements in his understanding of perdition are: 1) the fact that God justly condemns us due to our sins, 2) that in his love, God desires all of humanity to be saved 3) every human person will see the justice of God’s condemnation of sin at the time of his or her judgment, and 4) the final outcome of that judgment is unknown and will be based upon how we respond to a personal God’s loving offer of salvation. Balthasar’s unwillingness to affirm absolute and certain knowledge of universal salvation was based upon several theses about God and humanity, including his belief that theology must preserve both human freedom and God’s justice.

The question of eternal perdition also arose in Buddhist thought. There was a considerable amount of debate over the figure of the icchantika (someone who lacks the capacity for salvation) in the development of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Many Buddhists believed that if there were any icchantikas, this would establish some sort of eternal, unchanging self, that is, an atman. Asanga, who lived in the fourth century of our common era and was one of the founders of the Indian school of Yogācāra Buddhism, accepted the existence of the icchantikas in his writings and explained how one might become such. Because of his importance, Asanga’s explanation of the icchantikas represents a significant but often neglected possibility in Buddhist thought.

Buddhists and Christians have a significantly different understanding of what it means to be a person and to have free will. For both religious traditions, freedom is important. How does Asanga, with his understanding of freedom, establish the possibility of eternal perdition? In what ways does this lead to a position similar to Balthasar’s on eternal perdition? In what ways does it lead to a different understanding?

This dissertation will examine Balthasar’s understanding of perdition on its own terms and through the use of comparative theology. It seeks to understand whether there are issues underlying his beliefs which could be revealed by comparing it with the thought of Asanga.

It is envisaged that there will be four sections to the dissertation.
The first, the introduction, will explain the nature and scope of the inquiry. It will introduce the topic of eternal perdition in recent Christian theology. Second, there will be a discussion of the new discipline of comparative theology in systematic theology, explaining which of its approaches and methodologies will be used to examine perdition comparatively in this dissertation: A model will be established using the approaches of Neville, Clooney, Keenan, and Fredericks. The section will end with a consideration of the importance of Balthasar’s thought on perdition and why Asanga has been chosen to be the Buddhist thinker in this work of comparative theology.

A second section will examine Balthasar’s thought on eternal perdition, that is, what he thought it was and what he thought would cause someone to suffer such a fate. It will discern the reasoning and theological sources Balthasar used to define his position as well as provide an analysis as to how his ideas on eternal perdition developed. Of special interest in this examination will be what Balthasar says about a person’s free will and how this relates to his ideas about eternal perdition. Among the works which will be examined in surveying the development of his thought will be the Apokalypse der deutschen Seele, Theologie der drei Tage and Theodramatik.

A third section will examine Asanga’s understanding of eternal perdition, i.e., what he thought it was and what he thought would cause someone to suffer such a fate. Because the historical development of Asanga’s thought cannot be fully discerned (we have very little reliable biographical information about him), what will be most important here will be the sources and reasoning he used to define his position. Of special interest in this examination will be what Asanga says about a person’s free will and how this relates to his ideas about eternal perdition. Among the works of Asanga which will be examined are his Abhidharmasamuccaya, Mahāyānasūtrālamkāra and Yogācārabhūmi-śāstra, together with their commentarial tradition and related texts in Yogācāra Buddhism.

The fourth section will undertake a comparative analysis of the thought of Balthasar and Asanga on eternal perdition. Employing the comparative method elaborated in section one, this analysis will compare and contrast what Balthasar and Asanga say about what a person is, about that person’s free will, and about how that free will is capable of being employed in a way that could lead to eternal perdition. Finally, it will summarize what the convergences and divergences of Balthasar’s thought with that of Asanga tell us about the former’s position on perdition.

Contribution and Originality:
While there is some extant theological literature in which Balthasar’s theology is brought into conversation with Eastern religions, so far no attention has been paid to the question of eternal perdition. By examining the topic of perdition in a comparative manner, this dissertation will provide a new way to examine this aspect of Balthasar’s eschatology, especially in relation to his understanding of what a person is and the pivotal role that freedom plays in determining that person’s eternal fate


  • At 6/13/2007 4:56 PM, Blogger PresterJosh said…

    This all sounds exceedingly interesting.

    Of course, I don't have the background in Balthasar I would like, but I hope that at least portions of your work will be available on the blog in the future.

  • At 6/13/2007 5:05 PM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…


    We will see what happens. I might put excerpts up as I go through it, though it is more likely, I will something based upon my dissertation here to be a bit more popular in fashion. Also, I expect that I will have other things related to the dissertation put up as I work on it.

    Balthasar is quite interesting, but quite dense. I would say I am still getting the background I want in his work (as to be expected at this stage).

  • At 7/12/2007 8:07 PM, Blogger jim klasz said…

    Question:Is your background in Easten Theology and in particular Buddhist thought strong enough to dazzle your examiners? If not,you may have real problems grabbing the "Gold Ring " of the Academic Merry-go_Round".Good Luck!

  • At 7/13/2007 2:48 PM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…


    Yes, I feel I do. Of course, as one works through the dissertation, the goal is to become even more of an expert than they are before they work on it. I've done considerable work and study of Asanga for nearly a decade now. Certainly he has been the one I've worked with primarily but not exclusively, so I've already been able to teach an Intro level course in Buddhism at the university level. However, by trying to keep it to a very particular issue, and the things related to it, many issues will be bypassed, making it also easier to focus on this work. The work will be primarily theological, though I think by the time it is done, it will have contributed to a better understanding of icchantikas, at least from a Yogacara perspective.

    Of course, there will be a considerable amount of work for this to be done properly. I know that, but I also see it is a necessary amount of work for my own enrichment and interests, but also it will help provide a solid foundation for the work I plan to do afterwards.


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