Thursday, March 12, 2015

Falling Off the Edge of Theolo

There is an old Hebrew koan: "What conclusions can be reached by doing theology with a Buddhist?"

In his 2009 book, Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian, Paul Knitter lives out this question.

Knitter's book serves first as a personal memoir. His intimate revelations--deeply candid, often anxious and sometimes tortured--will resonate with readers who have become dissatisfied with rigid and exhaustive categories for Christian faith. Knitter's self-reflective journey serves a practical theological purpose: to crack the shell of historical Roman Catholic theology with the non-theistic tools of Buddhist teaching. He does so with the expertise of a man steeped in academic Roman Catholic discipline who is at the same time well trained in Buddhist thinking and practice.

As such, for those exploring the interfaces between Christianity and Buddhism Without Buddhism will prove an invaluable resource. Knitter's deep knowledge of Christian doctrine allows for a complex and thorough comparison with the ancient Asian philosophy. The book wrestles with the big questions of Christian theology: theodicy, trinity, the effect of prayer, divine and human justice. In spite of the book's often over-apologetic tone (concerned as it is not to give offence to either Christians or Buddhists), its thinking is clear, informative, and on some points persuasive. I am certain that for many of Knitter's generation--Baby Boomers who still struggle to emerge from the perceived cocoons of pre-1970s structures--Without Buddhism will offer a breath of fresh air and a new engagement with religious thinking.

As I read this tortuous journey from Christianity to Buddhism and then (maybe) back to Christianity, I was struck by a paradox lurking largely unspoken beneath the text. The book's starting point, like Knitter's journey, is a problem with Christian theology: the water in which Knitter spent so much of his life thoroughly immersed. Buddhism, on the other hand, is at its root non-theistic. While Christian practice of emptying the self compares well with Buddhist practice, doing theology with Buddhism seems comparable to a dog asking the hemlock how to wag its tail.

In Christianity, theology is distinct from the scriptural witness, confession, and experience. The weaknesses in Christianity which this text attempts to address with Buddhism are chinks in the armor of Christian theology. As the book often admits, many (non-papal) strains of Christian theology, confession, and practice do not suffer the problems of Knitter's theological training. This is especially true of mystical sects of Christianity. The existential edge from which Knitter fell into Buddhism was not that of faith per se, but the precipice of theology.

Because of its theological starting point, Without Buddha constantly wobbles (Knitter's terms: "passes over," "passes back") between worldviews, producing difficult questions. Is there such a thing as evil, or not? Is Christ a person, or just a spirit of non-self? Does justice meaningfully exist such that it may be pursued? Of course, vacillations on such crucial points as these fit nicely into one of Knitter's persistent themes: seeking oneness in duality, that which is both one-and-not-one. In spite of Knitter's clearly positive interpretation of his journey, this reader is unsure whether the tensions in the text are necessarily creative or simply fraught.

Among the many other questions raised by the book, the reader must wonder if another book, "Without Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) I Could not be a Christian," could be written (especially if Knitter's wife were Muslim). To cast the net more widely, might we soon be reading "Without Confucius I Could not be a Jew"? Does Knitter's book suggest implicitly that, at least theologically, every religion is insufficient without all the others? Does it point us to a reductive or historical humanist position on religion?

We are told in the introduction (page xi) that Knitter feels his understanding of Christianity is necessarily incomplete without reflection on other religions. This lens shapes the entire book, and Knitter's calling as Professor of Theology, World Religions, and Culture is evident. As the title suggests, the book describes his synthesis of Christian theology and Buddhist teaching. The synthesis, for Knitter, is so complete that he finally asserts, "To have one without the other is to have neither" (227). That is a strong statement for the necessity of syncretism--at least for Knitter.

This reader, taking personal privilege here, has found that attempting to follow Jesus faithfully leads to all sorts of creative conundra around questions of oneness, duality, the nature of evil, pursuit of justice, and the nature of heaven (to name a few). Coming home to one spiritual spouse (to use Knitter's metaphor) has proven to be richer and more challenging than sharing the marriage-bed of faith with multiple partners. So, it seems to me, one of the overarching questions in Without Buddha does not suit the case.

For the challenge, and passion, and thoughtfulness of Knitter's work I am thankful. And thanks to my brother, Chris, for blessing me with this book as a gift. I thank God for you!

~ emrys