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Thoughts of a Buddhist Christian theologian

  • 26 March 2010

This interview with Christian theologian, Paul Knitter, continues the series recorded for Eureka Street at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne in December 2009. It is sponsored by the Asia-Pacific Centre for Inter-Religious Dialogue at the Australian Catholic University. He speaks about the importance of forums like the Parliament that promote inter-religious understanding, the increasingly common experience of dual religious belonging where believers follow more than one religious tradition, and the need for practical collaboration among people of different faiths.

Paul Knitter is one of the world’s leading theologians of inter-religious dialogue and religious pluralism. Perhaps more than any other prominent scholar working in this field, he has laid himself bare in his writing. In a clear and forthright way, through a series of books he has outlined his personal journey towards openness and fruitful engagement with other faiths. 

Born in 1939 in Chicago into a devout Catholic family, from an early age he wanted to become a missionary priest and to convert people to Christianity. He joined the Divine Word Missionaries, studied for the priesthood in Rome at the time of Second Vatican Council, and was ordained there in 1966. (Continues below)

So he experienced at close quarters the excitement and optimism of Vatican II, and was inspired by the Church’s increasing openness to other faiths brought about by the Council. This was expressed in its document on other religions called Nostra Aetate. While upholding Christianity as the height of revelation, it acknowledged for the first time that other faiths ‘often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.’ After completing doctoral studies in Germany he returned to the US in 1972 to teach at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. In the mid-1970s he left the priesthood, married, and moved to lecture at the Jesuits’ Xavier University in Cincinnati.

In the late 1970s and 1980s Knitter and his wife became involved in the Christian struggle for liberation in Central America. They travelled a number of times to El Salvador and Nicaragua, and became activists on this issue in the United States. But this brought unexpected notoriety. They were investigated by the FBI for alleged links to terrorists, and this made the headlines in the local papers. Though there was no substance to the claims, they caused a scandal in the mid-west community of Cincinnati.  Alongside this interest in liberation theology and social justice, Knitter kept