04/23/2013 09:34 pm ET Updated Jun 23, 2013

Finding Common Ground Between Buddhism and Christianity


Too often we only recognize greatness in the past. We are blinded to its presence among us in a living moment. Occasionally, however, we can recognize it in its moment. So it was with the career of Paul F. Knitter, soon to be the Emeritus Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, whose career and concerns were celebrated this past weekend at the 2013 International Buddhist-Christian Conference: Enlightenment and Liberation: Engaged Buddhists and Liberation Theologians in Dialogue. Knitter will, of course, see this and respond with a characteristically Midwestern "aw shucks" humility. It's part of why his colleagues and former students would come from as far away as Thailand to see him off to retirement. It's also why we had 25 hours of programming over three days before he would assent to be directly honored. As retirement sendoffs go, it doesn't get much more fitting than that. What follows are some reflections on three packed days of contemplation and discussion.

In her opening address to the conference, the seminary's president Rev. Dr. Serene Jones framed our task for the next few days in terms of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." Before action, a kind of self-purification is necessary. We need to know and thoroughly vet our intentions before rushing into direct action. Knitter put it a little bit differently. "In listening to the voices of those who suffer, we can listen to each other." The "we" here are Engaged Buddhists and Liberation Theologians: those who feel called by religious principle to progressive social action designed to reduce and eliminate suffering in the world. While it might first appear that there is a common social program between the Buddhists and the Christians -- not to mention those who, like Knitter, claim a dual belonging -- there are important differences to parse prior to joint action.

Neither time, nor space, nor attention spans allow a full debriefing of the weekend's events. Please allow me to frame my reflections through the lens of Knitter's farewell address. The speech was a retrospective tour of the veritable "Who's Who" of his interlocutors and friends in theology. He arrived in Rome to study at the Pontifical Gregorian Institute one week prior to the opening of the Second Vatican Council. Nostra Aetate, the document produced at that council on the relationship of Christianity and non-Christian religions, lit a fire in Knitter which still burns. He longed to create a theology which responsibly and respectfully dealt with the world's many faiths, as opposed to the classical Roman formula extra ecclesiam nulla salus: "outside the Church, there is no salvation."

Both in Rome and later in Meunster, Germany, Knitter learned from Karl Rahner, who helped him frame Christian faith claims in the way he'd dreamed. After becoming active with CRISPAZ (Christians for Peace in El Salvador/Cristianos por la Paz en El Salvador), Knitter's conversations with Jon Sobrino, SJ pushed him toward Liberation Theology. It was Aloyisius Pieris, SJ, Raimon Pannikar, and John Cobb who convinced Knitter that his urges in the realms of both liberation and pluralism could be complementary. This is the theme which became apparent throughout the conference: to be liberative, Liberation Theology must be pluralistic; to be pluralistic, Dialogical/Comparative/Pluralist Theologies must be liberative. The two concepts -- liberation and pluralism -- mutually enfold each other in Knitter's thought. When he reflected on his departed friend, John Hick, Knitter sounded a note that rings true of this understanding: "Theological revolutionaries, if they are to have any success, must be hard-nosed thinkers and deep spiritual seekers."

This is, I believe, the challenge and the promise of Knitter's legacy. We must be hard-nosed when faced with resistance from entrenched and power-seeking forms of religion. We must, however, temper the urge to become only social prophets with deep spirituality. At times, the steady stream of criticism leveled against late capitalist economics seemed to belong more at a session of the Left Forum than at a seminary. Speaker after speaker thought deeply and compassionately about the real material suffering of human beings and of the Earth itself and realized a common theme: capitalism -- at least the capitalism we have now -- is at the root of this suffering.

The common ground for Buddhism and Christianity is not then found in texts or philosophical musing. It is found in the hungry, the poor, the suffering, the sick. Suffering is not an abstract principle. It is the result of too few having too much while too many have almost nothing. Sakyamuni Buddha recognized this in the First and Second Noble Truths: that life is marked by suffering and that suffering is caused by attachment. In the cases described at the conference, the suffering of the Global South is caused by the attachment to wealth of the Developed World. Jesus Christ recognized this in preaching "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of Heaven...but woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation" (Lk 6:20, 24 NRSV).

What do we do, then, when we recognize this common ground? While the conference was long on critique, it was short on constructive suggestions for positive next steps. Bearing in mind the charge at the opening -- that this was a time of reflection before action--that's not too surprising. This is what Knitter's career has left a younger generation of theologians and activists: a strong critique of suffering and injustice and a plea to work out an alternative. If we can think and write the kind of creative, pluralist, and liberationist theology Knitter suggests we must, then maybe--just maybe--we'll have a chance to make a better world. Maybe this is what the reign of God looks like. Maybe this is Nirvana. Maybe there's no difference between the two. I hope that we younger theologians are up to the task and the legacy we've been left.