The Lotus Position

In 1997, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger predicted that the threat to the church posed by Marxism would be exceeded by the threat of Buddhism. Paul Knitter’s new book will do little to assuage any lingering fears Benedict XVI might harbor in this regard. (I, for one, do not share in this concern about Buddhism.) Nevertheless, Knitter has written a book about his Christian faith and his embrace of Buddhism that is challenging to say the least.

This is a remarkably personal book. Knitter has included comments on his working-class Catholic youth, his studies for the priesthood in Rome and Germany, and even citations from his personal journal. He does not tell us much about his subsequent intellectual itinerary, however. In Germany, studying with Rahner, he decided that a Muslim friend was not, as Rahner would have it, an “anonymous Christian.” Later, he would follow John Hick to a pluralist theology of religions. Given his commitment to social justice, Knitter was sensitive to the charge of relativism being leveled at the pluralists. With this in mind, he then went beyond Hick by claiming that all religions share a common truth, soteria, defined as “eco-human well-being.”

In the past, I have speculated about Knitter’s next step in this journey. Soteria, in my view, favors some religions while marginalizing others—very bad manners in the pluralist scheme of things. Religions that emphasize the devotional or mystical need a tune-up. Religions with strong “prophetic” traditions, like Islam and Judaism, to say nothing of Christianity, do better in the soteria department. To my surprise, Paul Knitter’s next move has been to Buddhism, and the more mystical, contemplative form of Buddhism at that.

In the preface to his book, Knitter asks if he can still be a Christian given his many struggles with his faith. He contends not only with what he calls the “pelvic” issues in Roman Catholicism, but with the “big stuff” found in the creed. His effort to remain a Christian provides a format for the subsequent chapters: first, he discusses a particular “struggle” he has with Christian belief; then he passes over to Buddhist teachings; and finally he returns to Christianity with new insight. These struggles include the existence of a transcendent and personal God; the nature of religious language, especially Christian doctrine; Jesus as Incarnate Word of God; prayer (especially petitionary prayer); and peacemaking.

Looking at Buddhist tradition, Knitter is much impressed with what the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh calls “InterBeing,” a neologism for the Buddhist belief in the unhindered interrelatedness of all things. InterBeing is the ultimate reality of all things, but not a reality that lies transcendently beyond the world of appearances as in Platonism, let alone Karl Barth’s Wholly Other. InterBeing has to do with the concrete here and now of things as they arise in the present moment. And InterBeing becomes the basis for Knitter’s rethinking of Christian doctrine. The reflection on the personhood of God is a good example. “God is not an almighty, loving somebody,” according to Knitter. Rather, God is “the Mystery of InterBeing that surrounds me and animates me.”

Knitter’s reflection on social activism is his best chapter. This is because Buddhism poses a significant challenge to Christian social activists and Knitter is unwilling to take his Buddhism straight, no chaser. The challenge arises because Buddhism has no eschatology. InterBeing is going nowhere. There is no eschatological hope in the kingdom, nor any sense of divine judgment in Buddhism. Justice is a foreign concept to Buddhists, as strange as karma is to Christians. Instead of activism based in eschatological hope, Knitter finds that Buddhists call for the priority of awakening over acting. Most Buddhists refuse to take sides in conflicts (presumably, this would include any preferential option for the poor). This is Buddhism at its most difficult for a man like Paul Knitter, who has dedicated so much of his life to bringing about justice in this troubled world. In passing back in order to rethink his Christian belief, he argues that Christians have stressed the “not-yet” character of the kingdom of God too much and need to recover the “already” aspect. The struggle for justice must be tempered by what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “being peace.” This chapter is full of provocative insights.

The material on social activism is Knitter at his best. The reflections on Christology are not. In the chapter “Jesus the Christ and Gautama the Buddha,” Knitter struggles with “one of the most worrisome clots in the circulatory system of Christian faith”—the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. To address this issue, he passes over into the Mahayana Buddhist notion of Siddhartha Gautama as a savior figure and returns to Christianity, recasting Jesus as a kind of Buddha. This means that Jesus was a rabbi who was awakened completely to the reality of InterBeing. Knitter goes on to argue that we should not continue to think of Jesus as the crucified messiah who has redeemed a fallen universe. He is a revealer, not a fixer, and what Jesus reveals is the truth of InterBeing. Moreover, recognizing Jesus as an Awakened One (or Buddha) means that Jesus is not unique. There are other “enfleshments” of InterBeing as well. Whom does Knitter include among these enfleshments of ultimate reality? Siddhartha the Buddha belongs to this group, as would be expected. Readers (especially Muslim readers) will be surprised to learn that Muhammad makes the grade as well. Of course, Knitter recognizes that the preaching of Jesus and the teaching of the Buddha are not the same. The Buddha and the Christ are different fingers pointing to the same moon, if I may paraphrase Knitter’s favorite Zen aphorism. Therefore, Jesus can be said to be unique in the same way one looks on one’s spouse as unique.

Knitter concludes by asking if what he has been up to is promiscuity or hybridity. He settles on hybridity. All identity is hybrid, he argues, including his religious identity. His embrace of Buddhism is an example of the “double-belonging” which will be increasingly common in the future. In fact, Knitter has “taken refuge” with Lama John Makransky and the Dzogchen Buddhist Community. His dharma name is Urgyen Menla (Lotus Healer).

Knitter’s extended reflection on his struggles with Christianity, guided as it is by his Buddhist belief, can be taken as an example of doing theology comparatively. In this respect, I believe that Knitter has written his best book. There is relatively little pleading for a pluralist theology of religions. This is not to suggest that I agree with his conclusions. The problem I see in his comparative method has to do with his relationship with Buddhism: all take and no give. Christianity has a seemingly endless number of problems for Knitter, and Buddhism generously supplies all the solutions. Nowhere are we given to believe that there are some respects in which Buddhists and Christians are simply baffling to one another because their religious visions are incompatible. I also worry that the more Buddhism is enlisted into service of Christian faith as an ancilla theologiae, the less it seems like Buddhism. Even with these difficulties, I wonder, gratefully, what Knitter’s next move will be.

 


Related: No Easy Answers, by James L. Fredericks
Praying to the Buddha, by Peter C. Phan

Published in the 2010-04-09 issue: 
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James L. Fredericks is an emeritus professor at Loyola Marymount University.

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