By Paul F. Knitter
Reviewed by Patrice Clark Koelsch
Writing Workshop Participant ’06
New World Publications, 240 pp., $22.95
Roman Catholic theologian Paul F. Knitter’s provocatively titled book is remarkable both for its intellectual boldness and its personal humility. Knitter, who is the Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religion and Culture at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, confesses at the outset that fundamental questions of Christian belief “amplified” for him as he approached his 70s. He has no doubt about the ethical teachings of Jesus, nor is he especially concerned about the church’s current position on priestly celibacy, the role of women, birth control, and homosexuality. On such issues, he believes, the “‘sense’ or ‘voice’ of the faithful has a few things to teach the pastors.” Instead, his focus is ontological and metaphysical.
If God is the Transcendent Other, how is God’s intervention in human history to be understood? And what is the relationship of human beings to this utterly Other? Knitter identifies the problem as an exaggerated dualism, and looks to a Buddhist analysis to bridge this metaphysical chasm of opposing natures. In the Mahayana Buddhist lineage, the apprehension of ultimate reality, Nirvana, can be understood as a profound experience of emptiness completely open to all possibilities and completely devoid of all needs. Knitter is drawn to the Zen notion of a Buddha-nature waiting to be realized in all beings. He is particularly interested in the contemporary Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh’s concept of Interbeing—a recognition of the infinite mutability and profound connectedness of all entities.
Knitter interprets emptiness and Interbeing as an energy field “in which everything else is energized to interact and inter-become.” For a Christian, he suggests, the experience of being infused with the Spirit is actually a non-dualistic recognition of Interbeing. Much like the Buddhist realization of one’s “Buddha-nature,” for the Christian salvation is awakening to who one is: a being in Christ. Knitter describes the transformative power of the historical Jesus as “what his words and his deeds make known to us.” The veracity of the physical resurrection of Jesus is less important than the incontrovertible experience of the “risen Christ-Spirit” alive then and now in Jesus’ followers.
Knitter repeatedly invokes the Zen metaphor of fingers pointing toward the moon to represent language’s inadequacy to grasp the profound mystery that is God. He criticizes the literalism and wordiness of Christian ritual and prayer. As a corrective he proposes a sacrament of silence in which one abandons the role of petitioner and focuses on seeing one’s own situation—and thus one’s being in Christ—more clearly and completely.
Knitter’s adaptation of Buddhist ontology is, by necessity, partial. Historically, Nirvana is much more about absence—the extinction of greed, hatred, and delusion—than about presence. And while Thich Nhat Hanh’s contemporary concept of interbeing can be appreciated as an approach to apprehending ethical and environmental issues at the deepest spiritual levels, “Spirit”—in all but a metaphorical sense—remains alien to Buddhist understanding. However, these are relatively minor caveats that in no way detract from Knitter’s courageous and creative efforts to use the insights of another religious tradition to better embrace his own.
Patrice Clark Koelsch lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Patrice attended the Collegeville Institute’s writing workshop Believing in Writing in 2006.