Review: Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian, by Paul F. Knitter

I could have written a book with this title, and meant it quite sincerely. (But, I hasten to add, it wouldn't have been nearly as good.)

Paul Knitter, presently the Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture at Union Theological Seminary in New York, is well known for his work on the subject of religious pluralism. This book is not like his other books, at least not the ones that I've read, or read from. Knitter has never been one to try to hide his authorial presence behind dry academic prose, but here we find him writing very personally, sharing his struggles with elements of the Christian faith, and relating how his study of Buddhism -- and his own Zen practice -- have helped him through the struggle. Indeed, he describes himself as a "Buddhist Christian" (which is a little bit further than I'd go myself).

Knitter, who was a priest from 1966 to 1975, and whose teachers included such luminaries as Jesuit Frs. Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan, admits that he has struggled for much of his career with what many would insist are essential Christian beliefs -- "not the ethical teachings of Jesus and the New Testament witness," or "the controversial ethical or practical teachings" of the Catholic Church:1
No, when I say I'm struggling, I mean with the big stuff -- the stuff that applies to all Christians, not just my own Roman Catholic community. I'm talking about the basic ingredients of the Creed, the beliefs that many Christians proclaim together every Sunday and that are supposed to define who they are in a world of many other religious beliefs and philosophies. I'm talking about "God the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth," who as a personal being is active in history and in our individual lives, whom we worship and pray to for help and guidance. I'm talking about "his only-begotten Son" who "died for our sins" and will "come again at the end of time" and who will grant eternal life and personal immortality to the body and souls of all those who answer God's call, while those who reject the call will be dispatched to a hellish punishment that will never, ever end.2
Knitter claims that the traditional sources of Christian theology have proven inadequate to the task of helping him through his struggle. He has come to realise, he says, that he has "to look beyond the traditional borderlines of Christianity to find something that is vitally, maybe even essentially, important for the job of understanding and living the Christian faith: other religions."3 Following the example of people like Raimon Panikkar, Aloysius Pieris, Bede Griffiths, and Thomas Merton, Knitter says he has come to realise that he has to do his theology dialogically. "Or," he says, "in current theological jargon: I have to be religious interreligiously."4

Each chapter in this book follows a similar pattern: First, Knitter describes some traditional Christian belief that he finds problematic. Second, he "passes over" into Buddhism, explaining some aspect of Buddhist thought that might be relevant. Third, he "passes back" to Christianity, and explores how the Buddhist ideas might help to provide a solution.

The chapters are as follows:
Preface: Am I Still a Christian?

1. Nirvana and God the Transcendent Other

2. Nirvana and God the Personal Other

3. Nirvana and God the Mysterious Other

4. Nirvana and Heaven

5. Jesus the Christ and Gautama the Buddha

6. Prayer and Meditation

7. Making Peace and Being Peace

Conclusion: Promiscuity or Hybridity?
I won't say too much about the contents just yet, as I intend to blog about this a fair bit in the near future. I will say that I found it to be quite a satisfying read.

The book is clearly aimed at open-minded Christians willing to consider how another religious tradition might inform their own religious perspective. Knitter does not presume that the reader will know very much about Buddhism (I kind of wonder, though, how many people without a considerable prior interest in Buddhism will actually bother to read this book).

I expected it to be somewhat predictable, and I occasionally found myself thinking that I already knew exactly where he was going to go with each chapter. Sometimes I was right, but more often I was pleasantly surprised.

Towards the end Knitter discusses some of the elements of Christianity that, at least on the surface, would seem to be in stark contrast with Buddhism. One is Christianity's emphasis on history and eschatology, found most significantly in Jesus's teachings about the kingdom of God. For Buddhists, as Knitter puts it, "the world isn't going anywhere."5

Another difference is the traditional Christian commitment to social justice. Actually, this was one of the more interesting things in the book, at least for me. Buddhism, Knitter says, has long been concerned with peace, but not justice, which is not something I had given much thought to before (although I'm certainly aware of the relatively recent emergence of "Engaged Buddhism," as exemplified in the work of people like Thich Nhat Hanh, Maha Ghosananda, and Sulak Sivaraksa, among others). Knitter, who in addition to being a theologian is also a social activist, shares some wonderful insights into the relationship between contemplation and action, which was one of the many rewarding aspects of this book.

It is often noted that Buddhism poses an intellectual challenge to Christianity. This is true, but there is no need to take a defensive posture. Paul Knitter has shown that engaging with Buddhist thought can greatly enhance Christian faith. Knitter finds that "the more deeply one enters into the core experience that animates one's own tradition, the more broadly one is enabled and perhaps moved to enter into the experiences of other traditions."6 Whether one is finally interested specifically in Buddhism or not, Knitter has provided a very compelling, personal, and accessible account of how fruitful this engagement with another tradition can be.


[1] Knitter, Without Buddha, x. Of the latter, Knitter mentions "matters such as birth control, divorce, the role of women, homosexuality, clerical celibacy, episcopal leadership, and transparency." He adds, "Certainly these are matters of grave concern, but with many of my fellow Catholics I've realized that, as has often been the case in the history of our church, on such issues the "sense" or "voice" of the faithful has a few things to teach the pastors. It's a matter of time."

[2] Knitter, Without Buddha, x.

[3] Knitter, Without Buddha, xi.

[4] Knitter, Without Buddha, xii.

[5] Knitter, Without Buddha, 180.

[6] Knitter, Without Buddha, 216.

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Growing lettuce is poetry...

Everything we do is an act of poetry or a painting if we do it with mindfulness. Growing lettuce is poetry. Walking to the supermarket can be a painting.

When we do not trouble ourselves about whether or not something is a work of art, if we just act in each moment with composure and mindfulness, each minute of our life is a work of art. Even when we are not painting or writing, we are still creating. We are pregnant with beauty, joy, peace, and we are making life more beautiful for many people.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step, 40.

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Stages of Faith: Stage 5 - Conjunctive Faith

James Fowler says that reaching Stage 5, which he calls "Conjunctive Faith," is "unusual before mid-life" (Stages, 198), although it should be noted that a significant minority of people in their thirties, even some people in their twenties, are best described as Stage 5.1

"The name of this stage," he writes in Faithful Change, "implies a rejoining or a union of that which previously has been separated" (64). One moves into Stage 5 when one moves beyond the "either/or" dichotomizing logic of Stage 4, and begins to think more dialectically or dialogically (Stages, 185). He says that the name was inspired by Nicolas of Cusa's notion of the coincidentia oppositorum, "the 'coincidence of opposites' in our apprehensions of truth" (Faithful, 64). Someone at this stage grasps the interrelatedness or interconnectedness of things.

"In dialogical knowing," Fowler writes, "the known is invited to speak its own word in its own language... The knower seeks to accomodate her or his knowledge to the structure of that which is known before imposing her or his own categories upon it" (Stages, 185).

In Stage 4, one sees the emergence of what Fowler calls the "executive ego" (Stages, 179). This is when the individual begins to take responsibility for his or her beliefs, commitments, values, etc. Authority, which had always previously been external, is now located internally. This does not change in Stage 5, but now the executive ego "must come to terms with the fact that its confidence is based at least in part upon illusion or upon seriously incomplete self-knowledge" (Faithful, 64). Whereas the Stage 4 individual has great confidence in the conscious mind, the Stage 5 individual begins to see this as overconfidence, begins to appreciate the reality and the influence of the unconscious mind, and grasps the need to integrate the conscious and unconscious (Stages, 186).

Stage 5 also brings a different relationship with religious symbols. In Stage 4, the individual is preoccupied with "demythologizing":
Stage 4 is concerned to question symbolic representations and enactments and to force them to yield their meanings for translation into conceptual or propositional statements. As such, Individual-Reflective faith wants to bring the symbolic representation into its (Stage 4's) circle of light and to operate on it, extracting its meanings. This leaves the person or group in Stage 4 clearly in control. The meaning so grasped may be illuminating, confronting, harshly judgmental or gently reassuring. But whatever its potential impact, its authentication and weight will be assigned in accordance with the assumptions and commitments that already shape the circle of light in which it is being question. It will not be granted the initiative. (Stages, 187)
The Stage 5 individual does not abandon this critical approach, but moves beyond it. Stage 5 does not regress to the pre-critical approach of Stage 3 (and earlier), but moves forward into a post-critical phase, which Fowler identifies with Paul Ricoeur's notion of the "second naïveté" (Stages, 187). Here the individual develops "a readiness to enter into the rich dwellings of meaning that true symbols, ritual and myth offer" (Faithful, 65).

These need not be the symbols, rituals or myths of one's own tradition, either. Someone at this stage, Fowler writes, "is ready for significant encounters with other traditions than its own, expecting that truth has disclosed and will disclosed itself in those traditions in ways that may complement or correct its own" (Stages, 186).2

Conjunctive Stage by Aspects:
Form of Logic (Piaget): Formal Operations (Dialectical)
Perspective Taking (Selman): Mutual with groups, classes and traditions "other" than one's own
Form of Moral Judgment (Kohlberg): Prior to society, Principaled higher law (universal and critical)
Bounds of Social Awareness: Extends beyond class norms and interests. Disciplined ideological vulnerability to "truths" and "claims" of outgroups and other traditions
Locus of Authority: Dialectical joining of judgment-experience processes with reflective claims of others and of various expressions of cumulative human wisdom
Form of World Coherence: Multisystemic and conceptual mediation
Symbolic Function: Postcritical rejoining of irreducible symbolic power and ideational meaning. Evocative power inherent in the reality in and beyond symbol and in the power of unconscious processes in the self (Fowler, 244)

[1] See the age distribution chart in Stages, 318. It shows that 14.6% of the Fowler's subjects aged 31-40 were solidly at Stage 5, and 3.3% of those aged 21-30 were in Stages 4-5. This reflects his research done in the 1970s. I suspect the number might be somewhat higher today, although my reason for suspecting this owes more to my reading of Ken Wilber rather than Fowler. I intend to touch on that in the future, when I get more into Wilber's ideas.

[2] For a quite brilliant example this, see Paul F. Knitter's recent book, Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian.

Next: Stage 6 - Universalizing Faith

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John Hick and "Multiple Resurrection"

I came across this on John Hick's website:
I found what John Polkinghorne had to say in his interview in the March Reform extremely interesting, particularly when he was speaking about resurrection. He believes not only that Jesus rose from the dead in a bodily form but also that we will also be resurrected in bodily form. He suggests that 'in some way the soul might have, in an extraordinary, elaborate sense, doors into the information bearing patterns of the body, which of course dissolve at death. But God remembers it all and God will re-embody it when I am resurrected. That will be the continuity between life in this world and life in the world to come.' Or as he has put it elsewhere, the body has a code or formula expressing its entire nature and structure, and this formula is reembodied as a resurrection body in the resurrection world.

This is a fascinating idea. It goes beyond the belief of the process theologians that we all exist eternally after death in the divine memory by adding that God uses that memory to re-embody us – which is much closer to traditional Christian belief. It is not unlike the 'replica' theory that I myself once proposed.

There does however seem to me to be a problem in it. Some people die in infancy, some as the result of an accident or war in early adulthood, some in middle age, most in old age. Whatever the age, the information or code or formula is that of the person at that age and in that condition. So a resurrected woman in her eighties dying of cancer will be the same woman in her eighties dying of cancer. And likewise with everyone else. But this cannot be what Polkinghorne intends. Are we, then, in our resurrected state suddenly miraculously to be cured of all diseases, and do we suddenly grow younger or older to some ideal age? All this is no doubt possible, but it complicates the theory to a point at which it ceases, to my mind, to be attractive or even plausible.

The older idea that at death we go to either heaven or hell is even more implausible. For at the end of this life few if any are good enough for heaven or bad enough for hell. We almost all need to develop and change, which means that we must live longer. And this must be in an embodied state in which we interact with one another, making moral choices and thus becoming better (or worse) people. This in turn seems to require another finite life, also bounded by birth and death, for it is these boundaries that make life serious and urgent. Because of life’s finitude we must get on with whatever we are going to do – we are not going to live for ever.

But one more such life will not be enough for most of us. This suggests a series of finite lives, each beginning, morally and spiritually, where the last left off. In other words, some form of reincarnation, or re-embodiment, or indeed multiple resurrection.
The article continues with an elaboration of this idea. I'm not sure how "multiple resurrection" would differ from reincarnation. Perhaps Hick feels that the terminology will be more acceptable to a Christian audience, though I suspect that if a Christian is willing to consider the concept of reincarnation as a possibility, they won't be scared of the traditional term for it.

I don't typically find ideas about the afterlife to be particularly interesting, and I don't have any particularly strong beliefs on the subject. Reincarnation is the only idea that could conceivably be empirically verified (to some degree, via past-life memories, for example).

I haven't written much on the subject in the past, but I might do a little bit in the near future, when I review Paul F. Knitter's terrific recent book, Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian. I imagine I could write a dozen posts on that book alone, as it was quite thought-provoking.

You can read the whole article by John Hick here.

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