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  • Jesus and Buddha: Friends in Conversation by Paul Knitter and Roger Haight
  • Thomas Cattoi
JESUS AND BUDDHA: FRIENDS IN CONVERSATION. By Paul Knitter and Roger Haight. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2015. xvii + 253 pp.

This volume introduces readers to the foundations of Buddhist-Christian dialogue, bringing together the insight and reflective wisdom of two of the most prominent figures on today's theological scene: Paul Knitter and Roger Haight. Knitter, a former member of the Society of the Divine Word and until recently professor of theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati, has written extensively on the theory and practice of interreligious dialogue for over four decades, and most readers of this journal will be familiar with his works on religious pluralism and the theology of religions. In recent years, Knitter has also published and lectured on the theme of multiple religious belonging, reflecting on his own experience as someone who increasingly views himself as a Buddhist no less than a Christian. His volume Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian (2009), written after he had formally taken refuge with Lama John Makransky, is one of the most refreshing and compelling accounts of dual belonging ever to be penned by a major academic theologian, and one that will only increase in relevance as this phenomenon continues to gather momentum. Roger Haight, a priest of the Society of Jesus and a former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, taught for many years at the Weston School of Theology in Boston, Massachusetts, and published extensively in the fields of Christology and theological method. His volume Jesus Symbol of God (2000)—considered [End Page 287] a landmark in contemporary theology—and his follow-up study The Future of Christology (2005) explore key moments in the development of Christological doctrine and seek to lay the foundations for a systematic theology of the incarnation that would suit today's intellectual and spiritual imagination. In more recent years, Haight has written more extensively on spirituality and its relationship with theology, authoring Christian Spirituality for Seekers (2012) as well as Spirituality Seeking Theology (2014), and has become increasingly interested in Buddhism, as attested by his presentations at annual meetings of the Catholic Theological Society of America (2013) and the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies (2015).

For a number of years, both Knitter and Haight were based at Union Theological Seminary in New York, where Knitter was a professor of world religions and cultures, while Haight was a scholar in residence. In spring 2012 Knitter offered a course at Union bearing the title "Jesus and Buddha in Dialogue: An Exploratory Seminar," for which Roger Haight served as a resource person for the discussion of Christian theology and spirituality. The course did explore the distinct theological claims of the two traditions, but it also explored the way followers of the two traditions could influence each other's spirituality at a deep level—namely, "whether they can meet on another, deeper level beyond mutual cognitive understanding and disagreement" (p. ix). To this aim, students read essays that introduced the teaching of Jesus and the Buddha, but tried to keep them distinct from later speculative interpretations of the two figures. At a later stage in the course, they moved on to explore ways in which Jesus had been received by Buddhists and the Buddha had been understood by Christians. As a result, the students came to appreciate the differences between the two traditions, but also a number of ways in which Buddhists and Christians viewed ultimate questions analogously.

Haight and Knitter came to the conclusion that Buddhists and Christians could meet on the joint terrain of spirituality—a term that is perhaps bound to be ambiguous, referring to a "somewhat open concept" (p. x) that is constantly being revised. For the purposes of the class, Haight and Knitter agreed to work with a definition of spirituality as "essentially a form of practice that has multiple layers that include sets of beliefs and teachings but is still distinguishable from them" (p. x). The assumption that spirituality was essentially prior to doctrines entailed that in both Buddhism and Christianity, spiritual practice was "more readily accessible" than the underlying belief...


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