Saturday, November 27, 2010


At the suggestion of a Catholic priest/Zen teacher (!) who will be visiting my "Religion in Dialogue" class next week - as a living embodiment of interreligious dialogue) - I've been reading his friend Paul Knitter's newest book, the provocatively titled Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian (Oxford: OneWorld, 2009).

Knitter, a Catholic theologian (and a priest for 25 years until he left the priesthood and married), is one of the guiding spirits behind the Buddhist-Christian Dialogue, and in this autobiographical work he explains the interesting place to which four decades of this dialogue have taken him. He's disarmingly honest, to the point of posing the question whether he's a Buddhist Christian or Christian Buddhist, and his deliberate use of clichéd phrases grates on me a bit. But his argument that most Christians' religion is stuck at a grade school level, hard to take seriously as they grow into adulthood without further religious development rings true. It's a bit uncomfortable as he names things he has difficulty believing: a transcendent God, a personal God, and all the exclusivist "only" claims of Christianity, among them.

He suggests that Buddhist understandings of Emptiness (which is really a readiness for fullness, not a void) resonate with trinitarian ideas as well as with the experiences of Christian mystics, and appropriates Thich Nhat Hanh's translation f emptiness, "InterBeing," as a name for God (18). God seems to him more the energy field of all that happens than a distant unmoved Mover. And yet, having "passed over" into Buddhism, in each of his discussions he "passes back" to Christianity. The Buddhist interludes enables him to see with new eyes, often discovering and reviving neglected Christian traditions, and also a new sense of what's central to Christianity - like that God is love.

[F]or me God is no longer a Person, but God is definitely, and all the more engagingly, personal. … When I say “personally present,” I mean that I have sensed that this Mystery touches me and affects me in ways that I can, and must, describe as personal. The kinds of experiences that have stimulated my awareness of being part of the energy field of InterBeing have also made me aware that this energy is not blind, and its field is not inanimate. The energy is, as it were, up to something. There is something personal about it, even though I can’t call it a person. … The two principal fruits or characteristics that Buddhists discover in Enlightenment, wisdom and compassion, have enabled me to focus the two most fundamental experiences by which I know that the Spirit, while not a person, is a personal presence in my life: a sense of groundedness that produces peace within myself, and a sense of connectedness that produces caring for others. (41-42)

It's been a while but I've been moved by many of the same mainly Mahayana Buddhist ideas as Knitter, and have felt in an inchoate way that they are harmonizable with Christianity... but haven't gone beyond that. Haven't had to - my conversations on religion are with other Christians, and with religious studies scholars and students. Risking inter-religious dialogue, as Knitter has done for so long, might take me where it has taken him. Let me read some more and get back to you!

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