Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Thoughts of a Buddhist Christian theologian


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 up with his study of other religions, and contact with other faith communities. This led him to question Christianity’s exclusive claims on truth and salvation. He first expressed this publicly in his 1985 book, No Other Name? It caused a furore. (Its title was inspired by Acts of the Apostles 4:12 ‘There is no other name by which human beings can be saved outside the name of Jesus’).

While remaining Christian and Catholic, he found himself increasingly drawn to the insights and truths of other religions, particularly Buddhism. He now practices Zen Buddhist meditation, and his latest book, published in 2009, outlines his path towards Buddhism, and the crucial role it has played in his spiritual life. Called Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, it’s become a bestseller in America.  

Another of his books, Introducing Theologies of Religions is widely used as a textbook, and is regarded as an authoritative, clear and concise summary of different Christian approaches to other religions. He now lives in New York City, and is Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture at the prestigious Union Theological Seminary.

Peter KirkwoodPeter Kirkwood is a freelance writer and video consultant who worked for 23 years in the Religion and Ethics Unit of ABC TV. He has a Master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity.

Topic tags: Paul Knitter, interreligious dialogue, Christian Buddhist theologian, Union Theological Seminary, Pa



submit a comment

Existing comments

Slowly but surely, Christianity is throwing off the chains of the Roman Catholic Church.

Ray O'Donoghue | 26 March 2010  

I have spent the last 8 years in Perth, and gained a very different viewpoint of Spirituality from the one I learned at Xavier College back in the 1960's.

I don't believe that God is sitting there, ready to throw thunderbolts at us if we 'do the wrong thing', or don't obey His or Her rules.

Rather, I believe we were created to have Fun and Joy, and Create our lives on the planet, and Evolve ourselves and the Planet. And, if we don't make mistakes, then we are not trying hard enough to experiment.

I suspect that God woke up one day, and wanted to twiddle his thumbs, and then said "Oops, I haven't any thumbs". And so He or She created a world with billions of twiddling thumbs! And eyes and ears through which we can feed back to God what is happening on the planet.

It is taught that "God is Everywhere". That means in us, and the trees, and everything. And, if God is Everywhere, it means that We are in God. We are PART OF GOD.

And Quantum Science is saying we are all ONE.

Let us work together for the good of the One.

Clement Clarke | 26 March 2010  

I feel sorry for people like Paul Knitter. He reminds me of the man who sleeps with his neighbor's wife so that he can better appreciate his own.

Nathan Socci | 19 April 2010