Oneworld Publications, 2009

This review was originally published in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, volume 78, issue 4, December 2010. It is reproduced here with the permission of the AAR and Oxford University Press.

“If you meet a swordsman in the street, give him a sword” (Wumenguan XXXIII, the Verse). Paul Knitter's recent book can be thatsword, seekingto penetrate the heart. Author of pioneering books on religious pluralism, Knitter is well-known as a theologian. With this new book, however, he crosses over into the genre of Catholic life-writing. Over the last ten years, only two other full length Catholic “personal histories” assimilate from Buddhism and seem comparable: Elaine MacInnes's Zen Contemplation for Christians (2003), and Luciano Mazzocchi's Delle Onde e del mare (2006). Knitter recounts how his religion has developed from the Stoff of his life and how Buddhism has transformed his Christianity: he is now a double-belonger (215), but remains, he says, a “practicing Catholic” (Interview, National Catholic Reporter, 23 June 2010).

Each of Knitter's seven chapters unfolds dialectically: an account of his discomfit with the pertaining Catholic teaching, a “passing-over” to the corrective Buddhist teaching, and a “passing-back” to his Christian (usually synthetic) solution. The root-cause of Catholicism's problems is said to be dualism, a dualism largely fabricated by the Church's magisterium and the latter's dependence on Greek metaphysics (22, 92–93).

The first three chapters treat God the Other as Transcendent, Personal, and Mysterious. Catholicism anthropomorphizes God as “up there” (3); Buddhism, on the other hand, is about “connections” (8) and the non-duality of Samsara and Nirvana (14): Christians should affirm a God who is the “Connecting Spirit” (20) of “Interbeing” (22).

Catholicism addresses God as a “Super-you” (26) said, unconvincingly, to “allow” free will and thus permit “evil”; Buddhism, on the other hand, identifies the Other Power of the Buddha as the self-power of the individual, so immorality is the result of wrong choices and can always be remedied sooner or later (sometimes via many rebirths). Catholicism should regard God's will not as “something that exists but something that happens” (47) through the non-dual interaction of grace and human freedom.

Catholicism is “wordy” and “literal” (57), so it has trouble bringing together its words and Mystery; Buddhism, having no room for language such as “one and only” (58), emphasizes that words are just fingers pointing at the moon (of reality). Catholicism should recognize that its teachings and even the New Testament words themselves are not definitive but symbolic.

Chapters 4 and 5 treat, respectively, Nirvana and Heaven, and Jesus and Gautama Buddha. Eschatological doctrine and rhetoric, their talk of eternal Hell-fire and a heaven where one can be reunited with family members, have “distorted” (75) the Mystery of the afterlife; Buddhists stress that if they properly attend to the “now,” the “next” will “take care of itself” (78), so a compassionate no-self now will continue on into the next life. Our own “ongoing life in the Divine” (88) should not be symbolized by an extension of our individual selves, and the Church's teaching on Divine Love should preempt its erroneous doctrine of an eternal Hell (86).

Jesus Christ is radically misrepresented “by the authors of the New Testament books” (92–94): “As far as we can tell,” Jesus never really “claimed divinity” (95), nor was there a physical Resurrection, a “stepping out of the tomb and talking with his followers” (103); the Buddha, when demythologized, is a searcher who becomes awakened to “Interbeing” (112). Jesus is a teacher who, awakened to the Spirit, becomes a Symbol, the “risen Christ-Spirit” real today in the bodies of Christians (128). What makes Jesus unique among (though not better than) other Awakeners is his preferential identification with the oppressed (126), and for this reason Knitter continues on as a Christian.

Bringing the book to its conclusion, chapters 6 and 7 treat prayer and meditation, and a comparison of “making peace” and “being peace.” Catholic prayer is too “worshipful” (135) and even its silent meditation is normally discursive (139); Buddhist meditation functions beyond our usual ways of thinking in order to access “reality as it really is” (143). Catholics “make” peace, so their intervention at its best is an unconscious violence; Buddhists have no rhetoric of justice but simply become peace (183). Catholics must commit to non-violence, and while opposing the perpetrators of injustice, love them even “as they are” (210).                   

I correlate Knitter's book with Wumen's sword because to function as an “expedient” (upāya), it must be given selectively—for example, to lure those who are convinced that they are too sophisticated for religion or the study of religion. Put into the hands of an ex-Catholic, the book can illuminate established Catholic teachings that should be treated as important but are woefully under-preached: negative theology (66), the en Christō einai of the Pauline epistles (117), “unitive prayer” (137), and so on. But Knitter's sword can do harm too. What of the uninformed Buddhists and the many non-religious secularists who will take this book's many gross caricatures of Catholicism at face value: that mature and soundly catechized Catholics really believe that the hypostases of the Divine Trinity are “Parent, Child, Spirit” (19), for example, or that the Divinity cartoonishly “came down” and “landed in” Christ (114) like magic cargo dropped from a spaceship?

Surely some reviewers will negatively critique Knitter's own institution-averse and cafeteria-style spirituality (often resembling Joseph Campbell's), his covert dependence on the fringe-conclusions of the “Jesus Seminar,” and the like. My focus, instead, is on epistemic concerns (in the Foucauldian sense). Though I personally respect Knitter, I surmise the strategy of his book is more calculated than he implies. No highly educated former priest can possibly think that the Church means by material resurrection a merely mundane projection to bodily perfection as we now know it (“I'll have my hair back!” p. 77), that the transcendent Divinity is humanly entitative (so ipsum esse subsistens implies a “sick” Narcissism, pp. 3–4), and so on. (Nor do I accept his attempts to legitimate his own positions by unsubstantiated allusions to what his teachers Lonergan, Rahner, etc., said “off the record.”)

It is my opinion, rather, that Knitter “dumbs down” Catholicism so he can ridicule and discard its most jarring dissimilarities from Buddhism. Meanwhile, on the Buddhist side, ignoring some basic Buddhist tenets, he highlights those that bring Buddhism most into line with his agenda: an idealized template for how authentic religions behave. In short, Knitter is not Catholic enough because he is not Buddhist enough and vice versa. While granting that there are “real differences within the one Mystery” (125), he carefully shapes the religions to be sufficiently equivalent so he can affirm “the one universal Spirit” (129).

Thus, Knitter perpetuates what is a modern approach, although history has already entered a postmodern episteme. I understand postmodernism here in the broadest sense on the Bataille > Foucault > Derrida track: the rupture of proposed wholes that ultimately account for their constituents by equi-distributed reduction to either continuity or ground/groundlessness. Equable holism, or “openness” if you will, is the modern idol, whereas reality is jagged, asymmetrical. F. X. Clooney's comparisons “that seem not to fit into a single, coherent view” (Clooney in Jesuit Postmodern, 2006, p. 165), my own starkly less competent texts showing the roles of Derridean “irreducible difference,” and the multiple and various comparative works of many other religious postmoderners—all of these reveal what is a Differential reality.

One of Knitter's main concerns is with religious equity, and Catholic inclusivism is clearly lopsided: Buddhists can achieve beatitude, but they are subtextually enabled to do so by Christ's grace. Knitter ignores that Buddhism's inclusivism is also lopsided (see the pertaining literature, building apace nowadays). Moderners want reality “to compute,” but reality “does not compute.” Actually, the reaches of Buddhism's catuṣkoṭika have been “postmodern” for a long time. In the “positive” tetralemma's fourth lemma format (neither x nor non-x where “nor non-x” is somehow x), the “somehow” represents “what cannot compute.” Further, does this format not suit Catholic inclusivism very well: sanctifying grace is conferred in Baptism but “somehow” Buddhists can be thus sacramentally graced too?

For me and perhaps many readers, only in his last chapter does Knitter emerge as true-to-the-heart, and I thank him for this gift, the reminder that Buddhist compassion and Christ's “greatest commandment” both rule out anger (204–205), even seemingly justified anger. “If you want justice, work for peace” (201). Here the differential between Buddhism and Catholicism appoints a sameness where the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa come together.

In return, I humbly offer Professor Knitter an intersecting Catholic/Buddhist gift, for both religions have “hard sayings.” He tells us that the next time an objectionable “word in the liturgy” gets “caught” in his mouth (73), he will “try to make it a delicious fragment, and then swallow” (a cryptic allusion to Rev. 10:10, perhaps?). Maybe sometimes he can try a more postmodern clue, the Zen capping phrase, “It can't be swallowed, it can't be spit out.”

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