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  • Are Buddhism and Christianity Commensurable?A Debate/Dialogue between Paul Knitter and Peter Feldmeier
  • Paul Knitter and Peter Feldmeier

Anticipating the inaugural Interest Group for Buddhist-Christian Dialogue at the Catholic Theology Society of America (CTSA), the administrative team thought it would be worthwhile to address the question on just how commensurable Buddhism and Christianity are.1 The team asked Paul Knitter to represent the position that they are indeed commensurable. Knitter had relatively recently published the well-received Without the Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian2 and has been a pioneer in religious pluralism over the past three decades. As we will see below, he is also a “mutual belonger,” identifying himself as both Christian and Buddhist. The team then asked Peter Feldmeier to argue the position that they are not commensurable. Both Knitter and Feldmeier took Roman Catholicism as an assumed Christian posture. Representing Buddhism would prove more daunting as the differences between Theravada, Pure Land, Zen, and Vajrayana, to name some major expressions, are large enough that each would dramatically change exactly what is being compared and how the comparison ought to be approached. An additional complexity is that Knitter chose to represent the Nyingma Dzogchen school of Vajrayana (Tibetan) Buddhism, while Feldmeier’s locus of expertise is the Theravada tradition.3

The following represents the dialogue/debate between Knitter and Feldmeier at the June 2015 CTSA annual conference. After Feldmeier’s response paper, Knitter was given an opportunity to respond back to Feldmeier, and we will add this to the best of our recollection. Feldmeier will offer some final comments. For the sake of space, these papers have been edited down.4 [End Page 165]

Knitter’s Paper: Without the Buddha I Could Not Be a Theologian: The Rich (Urgent?) Promise of Christian-Buddhist Dialogue

from where and to whom i am speaking

Together with all the members of this newly formed group for Buddhist-Christian dialogue, I approach our shared undertaking within the broader environment created by Vatican II for the Roman Catholic Church: We live in a church and in a geopolitical context in which dialogue with those who differ from us is no longer an option but a necessity. Nostra Aetate is a clear call to engage persons of other religions,5 and this call has been magnified in the magisterium since Vatican II. Dialogue is now officially identified as one of the requirements in the work of evangelization.6 The Asian bishops have particularly captured this new era: dialogue is a new way of being church.7

I also speak as a comparative theologian. We have come to the point at which we humbly, but also excitedly, confess that one can no longer do Christian theology with only Christian sources. Christianity is the kind of religion that can understand itself only in conversation with others. This imperative of dialogue and this call to comparative theology rests on the presupposition that there is something within the vast variety of religious traditions we can identify as “common property.” As Catherine Cornille has so eloquently and cogently argued, all efforts at interreligious exchange presuppose that there is something that interconnects all these differing, and even contrasting, manifestations of spirituality. This, of course, butts heads with the dogmas of our postmodern, postliberal academy—that our socially constructed, culturally preserved differences prevent us from identifying any kind of common or universal ground between cultures.

Finally, I speak to and from my Christian-Catholic community, trying to listen to and respond to the sensus fidelium and the quaestiones fidelium. In what follows, I’ll be reporting and reflecting on my experiences in offering Buddhist-Christian retreats to students and parishes—retreats given together with my teacher, Lama John Makransky, as well as with my Buddhist wife, Cathy Cornell.8 Also, much of what I’ll be proposing comes from another Christian-Buddhist dialogue that I have been carrying on over the past two years with Roger Haight, SJ, the fruit of which is our book Jesus and Buddha: Friends in Conversation.9

My comparative emphasis will be less on systematic theology than on comparative spirituality. The importance, or even urgency, of such a Buddhist-Christian dialogue...


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