Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian

Honest and unflinching, Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian narrates how esteemed theologian, Paul F. Knitter overcame a crisis of faith by looking to Buddhism for inspiration. From prayer to how Christianity views life after death, Knitter argues that a Buddhist standpoint can encourage a more person-centred conception of Christianity, where individual religious experience comes first, and liturgy and tradition second. Moving and revolutionary, this book will inspire Christians everywhere.

Paul F. Knitter is Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, Union Theological Seminar, New York. A leading advocate of religious pluralism, he is author of over ten books on the subject.

“A compelling example of religious inquiry.” New York Times

“Knitter’s rich book should be a source of fascination and guidance for seekers of all sorts. One of the finest contemporary books on the encounter between religions in the heart and soul of a single thoughtful person.” Library Journal

“This is a fascinating book … accessible to anyone in the pew, not without a touch of quiet humour … a book to be read and reflected upon.” Journal of Theological Reflection

“Radiates wisdom and warmth. Is it possible to become more fully Christian by taking most seriously the Buddhist path — becoming Buddhist in order to live more fully the Christian life? Agree or not with Paul’s answer, we can be most grateful to him for pressing the question and making so very clear the possibilities and risks along the way.” Francis X. Clooney, Professor of Divinity and Professor of Comparative Theology, Harvard Divinity School, Harvard University

“A moving story of one man’s quest for truth, this is also a ground-breaking work of inter-religious dialogue, comparative theology and social ethics… the rarest combination of theological acumen, humility and humor. A must read for anyone who wants to renew their faith and rediscover their humanity in intimate dialogue with the faiths of others.” John Makransky, Associate Professor of Theology, Boston College and author of ‘Awakening Through Love: A Buddhist guide for Unveiling Deepest Goodness’

Review & Commentary

One thought on “Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian

  1. Review


    A review of Paul F. Knitter’s book Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, and a conversation with the author.Reviewed by Ron Starbuck

    In his book Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian, Paul F. Knitter, the Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, helps Christians and Buddhists participate in an interfaith dialogue, expanding their spiritual vocabulary. He does so by placing into words, ideas, and concepts many of the thoughts running through our own hearts and minds, and opening up for us new ways of understanding “God as a verb.” In this process, he helps us feel truly comfortable engaging in an interfaith dialogue and practice.

    In this deeply engaging, honest book Knitter honors and recognizes the complex differences between two traditions while showing how closely related they are in their approaches to compassion and loving-kindness. As for the seemingly very different ways they view ultimate reality—non-theistic and theistic—he reminds us that all our words about God are symbols. Language itself is composed of symbols, and when we use words for God, they are fingers pointing at the moon.

    Knitter, who holds a licentiate in theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and a doctorate from the University of Marburg, Germany, passes from his own struggle with a dualistic Christian belief to how a Buddhist may deal with these questions, then passes back again to what he has learned from Buddhism, which has helped him to retrieve and deepen his own Christian belief. Professor Knitter isn’t alone in his journey. Many of us are “double belongers,” a phrase he uses for people drawn into an interfaith dialogue that embraces two faiths.

    “In the future Christians will be mystics, or they will not be anything,” Knitter states, quoting his seminary teacher, the twentieth-century Christian theologian Karl Rahner. Christian mystical experiences are unitive, allowing the experiencer to begin to feel “connected with, part of, united with, aware of, one with, something or some activity larger than oneself.” God is an experience. Knitter explains: “Christian saints and mystics have described this encounter with God as putting on the ‘Mind of Christ,’ and Christian literature includes such expressions as ‘one with Christ,’ ‘temple of the Holy Spirit,’ ‘the body of Christ,’ the ‘Divine indwelling,’ ‘participants in the divine nature.’”1

    This is an understanding of the non-duality of God that begins for Christians with kenosis, the Greek word for emptiness. It is a way of understanding Christ as the “Incarnate Word.” The second chapter of Philippians, known as the Kenosis Hymn, describes the kenosis of Christ:

    “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”

    This is an encouragement to empty ourselves, to become as servants to one another, and to enter into the fullness of our humanity, and our full human potential. This practice of kenosis, of putting on the “Mind of Christ” and emptying our self, is one way a Christian may come to understand Jesus as redeemer, revealer, reconciler, and to accept him as savior. Knitter touches on kenosis when he explains that the “ideal of Christian life is to lose one’s own self-centered identity in the wider activity of the risen Christ-Spirit. It is to step back and let this Spirit live in and as us.”2 This stepping back or emptying ourselves of ourselves resonates with the Buddhist bodhisattva, who develops universal compassion and a spontaneous wish to attain Buddhahood not for his or her own sake but for the benefit of all sentient beings. It is also in the Bible, in Romans 8:26-27, 38-39 (RSV):

    26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.

    27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

    38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,

    39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

    Stepping back, letting the Spirit live in us, allowing the Spirit to pray in and through us, practicing meditation as a “Sacrament of Silence”3 as Professor Knitter suggests, emptying and letting go of the self,4 offers a way to nurture and grow within ourselves the graciousness of spirit that God gives to each of us in ways that are known only to God. Knitter’s work offers a way in which the mystery and light of Christ may become known through dialogue and practice with other sacred traditions; here the Holy Spirit of the Christian Trinity becomes boundless, without boundaries, without limitations, infinite in love, infinite in acceptance, infinite in potential, endless in compassion and wisdom.

    The thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart expresses kenosis often in his writings: “God must act and pour himself into us when we are ready, in other words when we are totally empty of self and creatures. So stand still and do not waver from your emptiness.”5Elsewhere the great German master writes: “Therefore discard the form and be joined to the formless essence, for the spiritual comfort of God is very subtle.”6 And famously: “Only the hand that erases can write the true thing.”7

    On the Buddhist side, there is the experience of nirvana—Snyat or emptiness—and the related concept of dependent origination or arising. Knitter affirms that God is best understood as the “Ground of Being,” an idea introduced by the twentieth-century theologian Paul Tillich, and through our relationships. He points out that the contemporary Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh  “translates Snyat more freely and more engagingly as InterBeing, the interconnected state of things that are constantly churning out new connections, new possibilities, new problems, and new life.”8

    Understanding God through relationships is critical to Knitter. The source and power of our relationships are driven by the presence of the “Holy Spirit.” The importance of this concept ?is summarized by his statement that “behind and within all the different images and symbols Christians use for God—Creator, Father (Abba), Redeemer, Word, Spirit—the most fundamental, the deepest truth Christians can speak of God is that God is the source and power of relationships.”

    Knitter continues: “To take this concept even further, up to the next level if you will, God as a verb is the activity of giving and receiving, of knowing and loving, of losing and finding, of dying and living that embraces and infuses all of us, all of creation. If we’re going to talk about God, God is neither a noun nor an adjective. God is a Verb! God is much more an environment in which ‘we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:29), or God is ‘above all things, through all things, and in all things’ (Eph. 4:6).”

    To this reader, it seems that the more awake we are to this presence and this mystery, the more we will come to know God is here in this very moment, in the eternal now. This to me is the central message of Jesus when he teaches us that his relationship with God the Father (Abba) is intimate, eternal, and within.

    This presence “above, through, and in” constantly calls us into relationships of knowing and loving one another all through our lives, filling us with the deepest joy when we empty ourselves (kenosis) for the sake of others, seeing and finding ourselves in others. This presence is what we feel when we are loved and accepted, when we love and accept others, and when we open and give of ourselves selflessly. As it says in Luke 17: 20-21:

    And when the Pharisees had demanded of Him when the Kingdom of God should come, He answered them and said, “The Kingdom of God cometh not with outward show. Neither shall they say, ‘Lo, it is here!’ or ‘Lo, it is there!’ For behold, the Kingdom of God is within you.”

    Knitter tells us, “A better image of creation might be a pouring forth of God, an extension of God, in which the Divine carries on the divine activity of inter­relating in and with and through creation.” This pouring forth of God is the engine or fuel of creation, but we as a “People of God,” created in the “Image of God,” are also a part of this pouring forth. How this all works is also part of the mystery.

    Another way to say this might be: God as the Trinity is the silence and the stillness before all things, out of which all creation arises from the nothingness and emptiness that is without form and void, an image taken from the first chapter of Genesis—when there was nothing except God. It is out of this nothingness (no-thing) or emptiness that we all arise.

    As a lifelong Christian, I have been taught my whole life that “the way of Christ” is a way that calls me to love others unconditionally with great compassion and loving-kindness. For myself, this is a call that I must answer by loving others in all their diversity of beliefs and ethnicity, even in all their suffering, and in showing them through that love how Christ lives and dwells within my own being.

    In the sermon Jesus, The Way That is Open to Other Ways, Knitter quotes John Cobb, another Christian theologian, stating: “Jesus is not the way that excludes, overpowers, demeans other ways; rather he is the way that opens us to, connects us with, and calls us to relate to other ways in a process that can best be described as ‘dialogue.’

    “If Jesus really is the Way that is open to other Ways, then dialogue with other religions and other believers, should be part of what it means to be a Christian. As many Asian bishops and theologians are saying, today dialogue is a new way of being in church. Today we are called to be religious interreligiously. Committed to Jesus and the Gospel we must also be open to other religions and believers.”9

    As a Christian—even a Christian-Buddhist—someone grounded in Christ and intimately involved in this interfaith dialogue, I couldn’t agree more. Learning to value the truth and teachings of other faiths while sharing our own is another way for a Christian to be embraced by the risen Christ and to encounter the Holy Spirit at work in the world.

    1 Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), p. 14–23. 2 Ibid., p. 88. 3 Ibid., p. 153. 4 See Roger Corless and Paul F. Knitter, eds., Buddhist Emptiness and Christian Trinity: Essays and Explorations (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1990). 5 Eckhart Society–His Teachings–Letting Ourselves Go–Sermon 4:http://www.eckhartsociety.org/ eckhart/his-teachings; see Maurice O’C. Walshe, trans., The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 2010). 6 Karen J. Campbell, German Mystical Writings (Continuum International Publishing Group, 1991), p. 91. 7 Urban Tigner Holmes III, A History of Christian Spirituality: An Analytical Introduction (New York: Seabury Press,1980) p. 151. 8 See Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1988). 9 Knitter, “Jesus, The Way That is Open to Other Ways,”http://www.tcpc.org/library/article. cfmlibrary_id=518, sermon.

    “Reprinted by permission of Parabola magazine.” 


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