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Reviewed by:
  • Without Buddha I Could not Be a Christian
  • Peter A. Huff
Without Buddha I Could not Be a Christian. By Paul F. Knitter. Oxford: Oneworld, 2009. xvii + 240 pp.

Paul Knitter’s contributions to interfaith dialogue and Christian theologies of religions are well known and widely appreciated. Even critics of Christian theories of pluralism, most prominently Pope Benedict XVI, have acknowledged the significance of Knitter’s strategic integration of perspectives from liberation theology into what is sometimes an overly abstract field of inquiry. Colleagues active in Buddhist-Christian studies hold Knitter in especially high esteem as a writer, teacher, translator, [End Page 211] editor, self-described interreligious theologian, and unapologetic person of faith. This book, his first major publication since accepting the Paul Tillich chair at Union Theological Seminary, offers a uniquely first-person reflection on the spiritual fruits of a career profoundly and provocatively shaped by two religious traditions.

Written for a popular audience, the book, the author says, has been in the works “for the past forty years” (p. xv). The reader gains valuable insight into the professional and private life of a remarkable “dialogical theologian” (p. xv), whose experience includes a rather conventional upbringing in working-class Midwestern Catholicism, some twenty years of service as a seminarian and missionary priest with the Society of the Divine Word, graduate education in Europe with the likes of Bernard Lonergan (1904–1984) and Karl Rahner (1904–1984) during the revolutionary years of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), and nearly four decades of pioneering work as a productive scholar-activist in mainstream academic theology. At times Knitter even quotes from his unpublished journals in an effort to document fully his unscripted intellectual and spiritual development.

Though highly personal, the book is not primarily an autobiography or conversion narrative. Instead, it is an introspective analysis of the internal dialogue that virtually all participants in interreligious affairs recognize as the heart of the global ecumenical encounter. Knitter’s book serves as something of an apologia for what is known today as dual religious belonging or hyphenated religious identity. The author concludes his text with this intriguing but not surprising spiritual self-portrait: both lifelong baptized Christian and “card-carrying Buddhist” (p. 216). The challenge of accounting for this “both /and” orientation grants the book its distinctive character and its reason for being.

Knitter borrows his method from the twentieth-century minor classic The Way of All the Earth: Experiments in Truth and Religion (1978). In that work, Notre Dame theology professor and Holy Cross priest James Dunne suggested that the path to holiness in the contemporary West leads inevitably through intimate engagement with the ancient wisdom traditions of the East. Even a casual review of the spiritual history of the last century or so will confirm how earnest seekers in modernity’s secular city have renewed, rediscovered, or critically redefined their native faith commitment through life-changing contact with the ideas and values of Asian religious traditions. It is a story familiar to anyone acquainted with the extraordinary religious pilgrimages of interfaith saints such as Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968), Thomas Merton (1915–1968), and Bede Griffiths (1906–1993).

Dunne dubbed this experience the “spiritual adventure of our time” (p. 2); Knitter passionately agrees. He applies Dunne’s dialectical method and his special terminology to his own spiritual odyssey, “passing over” from Christian questions and problems to possible answers and solutions in the Buddhist tradition and then “passing back” to Christian belief and practice with enhanced purpose and a fresh sense of integrity.

The starting point for Knitter’s project is cognitive, moral, even emotional dissatisfaction with some of the fundamental structures of the historic Christian worldview: God as transcendent creator and lord of history, Jesus Christ as incarnate Logos and [End Page 212] universal savior, and salvation as the survival of human personality after death and the eschatological redemption of all finite reality. In essence, Knitter claims, traditional theism and the core myth of Christianity as expressed in scripture, creed, and liturgy appear painfully ineffective and to a large extent incoherent in the context of modern life and the international interface of world religions. What especially drives the...