Jesus & Buddha

Friends in Conversation

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Paul Knitter, Roger Haight
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , November
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Jesus and Buddha, each chapter gives a Christian perspective (Roger Haight) on the subject at hand, and then a Buddhist perspective (Paul Knitter), followed by a section designated “It seems to us,” where comparisons are made. Just who are these “Friends in Conversation”? Knitter is a Christian theologian, who along with John Hick, is known for his pluralist theological model of religious diversity. Knitter has argued at length in favor of an ultimate reality, that is both pan-religious, and trans-religious, as the basis for interreligious dialogue. Since Christianity is but one expression of this ultimate reality, Christians must abandon their belief in the uniqueness and universality of Jesus Christ as the mediation of salvation. Knitter has begun, in recent years, to self-identify as a Buddhist while still retaining his Christian faith. Haight is a Christian theologian well known for his controversial “Spirit-Christology.” In regard to religious diversity, Haight argues that the gift of the Spirit recognized by Christians in Jesus of Nazareth does not preclude other manifestations of God’s Spirit. The purpose of interreligious dialogue, for Christians at least, is to discern the presence of the Spirit in the other religions. Thus, Haight’s Christology—much like Knitter’s—calls into question the uniqueness of Jesus of Nazareth by making Christ one of several historical expressions of the same “Absolute Mystery” witnessed by Jesus.

Both of these theologians, as should be expected, are quite comfortable with the modernist separation of spirituality from religion. The first chapter of the book is given over to a discussion of what it means to be “spiritual.” Knitter argues that spirituality is the way in which we “stay connected” (1-6). Haight contends that spirituality is how we live our lives in light of what we see as “ultimately important or real” (8-13). Individual chapters are devoted to the practice of interreligious dialogue, the teachings of Buddha and Jesus, ultimate reality, creation, human nature, silence, and justice.

The final chapter is given to “double religious belonging,” a phenomenon that Catherine Corneille has brought to our attention. Knitter and Haight come to this issue from different perspectives. Knitter, aided by his support for a universal transcendent religious absolute, and the relative unimportance of doctrinal differences, has embraced double religious belonging: he self-identifies as both a Buddhist and a Christian (222-227). Haight reflects on double religious belonging without the existential perspective of one who experiences it “from inside” (215). He focuses instead on the need for spiritual persons to be eclectic in their religious practices and commitments (215-220). For spiritual persons, religious beliefs and values should constantly be shifting as they respond to developments in the world and within themselves. Haight’s distinction between being religious and being spiritual rests, like Knitter’s, on a transcendent religious absolute—he calls this “Absolute Mystery”—which pervades all of the religions.

At times, this book reads like a brief for the “expressive individualism” criticized by Robert Bellah in his book, Habits of the Heart (University of California Press, 2007). Both authors, however, are aware that their spiritual eclecticism can legitimate what the Dalai Lama calls “putting a yak’s head on sheep’s body” (227). Knitter, for example, counsels his readers to be aware of reducing the religious quest to a visit to the “divine deli” (227). Both authors are in agreement that the only defense in light of such dangers is serious engagement.

About the Reviewer(s): 

James L. Fredericks is Emeritus Professor of Theology at Loyola Marymount University. 

Date of Review: 
September 29, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul Knitter is professor emeritus of Union Theological Seminary in New York. He is the author of numerous books, including No Other Name?; One Earth Many Religions: Multifaith Dialogue and Global Responsibility, Jesus and the Other Names: Christian Mission and Global Responsibility, and Introducing Theologies of Religions(all from Orbis). His most recent work is Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian (Oneworld, 2013).

Roger Haight, a Jesuit priest, is Scholar in Residence at Union Theological Seminary, New York City. A former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, his many books include Jesus, Symbol of God, Dynamics of Theology; Christian Spirituality for Seekers; and Spirituality Seeking Theology(all from Orbis).



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