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  • Dialogue and Liberation:What I Have Learned from My Friends—Buddhist and Christian
  • Paul Knitter

My co-coordinator for this conference, Kyeongil Jung, has given me a rather daunting assignment for this lecture: within no more than forty minutes, I am supposed to (1) draw some insightful conclusions for our conference, (2) bid farewell to Union Theological Seminary as I sail off into retirement, and (3) reminisce on the past fifty years of my life. The easiest and most enjoyable of these assignments will, I suspect, be the most effective in covering them all: I’m going to focus on reminiscing.

It all started for me more than fifty years ago as I stood in the Piazza San Pietro on October 11, 1962, having just arrived in Rome two weeks earlier to begin my theological studies at the Gregorian University. There, awestruck and euphoric, I watched Pope John XXIII lead some two thousand bishops into the Basilica of St. Peter to begin the Second Vatican Council. That council, especially in its revolutionary “Declaration on the Church’s Attitude toward Non-Christian Religions” (Nostra Aetate), is where for me things took off—where I first felt the challenge of religious diversity and the inspiration to take up the challenge. Vatican II opened the door and beckoned Christians to enter into a life-giving dialogue with other religious communities—and to work out a theology that would support and animate such a dialogue. That, essentially, has been the business I have been about over these past fifty years: laying the foundations for, and then trying to engage in, an interreligious dialogue that will be truly life-giving and world-healing.

But on the occasion of this conference and of this lecture, surrounded by so many old and new friends, I’ve come to realize, with a stunning clarity that I did not have before, that what has inspired and guided me in my efforts to respond to religious diversity over these past five decades has been friends much more than books. Yes, over the years, I have tried to put in my required academic hours of study: I have developed a sizeable amount of what Germans call Sitzfleisch. But tonight, as I look upon the faces of so many old friends with whom I have walked, and of so many new, younger friends with whom I try to keep pace, it is clear to me that most of the theological convictions and spiritual discoveries that have sustained my professional and personal life have become true for me—really true and trustworthy—because I have [End Page 173] seen them embodied in the lives of my friends and fellow searchers. Other people, in the kind of lives they live, have inspired me, challenged me, convinced me, more than any coherent, creative theological, philosophical, or political argument. That’s the kind of realization that becomes clear especially after one tips seventy. On some matters, you just have to get old before you can get wise.

So let me spend this time with you this evening reminiscing on some of the Christian and Buddhists friends who have guided me and formed me over these past fifty years. They have also contributed to the gifts I have tried to bring to, and hope to leave behind for, Union Theological Seminary. Clearly, too, these friends embody and confirm what I suspect are some of the principal points of consensus for our conference on Enlightenment and Liberation. With only forty minutes to speak, and with seventy-four years full of friends, I’ll have to be painfully selective.

karl rahner, john hick, stanley samartha: the theological challenge of religious diversity

Three of my oldest friends, all of them now of blessed memory, were clear-cut and beautiful examples for me of both the honesty and the courage that are required in taking other religious traditions seriously. All three of them, in differing ways and degrees, recognized that if Christians are going to be able to engage in the kind of dialogue that Vatican II and eventually the World Council of Churches were calling for, then Christians and especially Christian theologians are going to have to do some heavy...