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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Blogger Mystical Seeker said...

The book sounds interesting. I may have to check it out.

1:19 p.m.  
Blogger crystal said...

Ah, now I get the posts on detachment :)

The book does sound interesting. Before I was a christian convert, I spent some time in zen sitting. Like Bede Griggiths too - have an old post about him. There's a Jesuit who writes on Buddhism also - Robert Kennedy at the Morning Star Zendo

Interesting, the part about peace and justice. I think this is one of the things that has most bothered me about Buddhism - still, there were those past Buddhists who immolated themselves because of the war.

I look forward to your posts on the book :)

3:00 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmm, quite interesting.
Love the part the he could get more faith in Christian through Buddhism.
I would love to hear more of your views on this book.
Since Buddhism is mostly about peace through one's helping all sentient beings.

8:49 a.m.  

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