Old Dog Docs: How has Buddha and your practice within the Buddhist tradition informed your understanding of who God is or what God is?
Paul Knitter: First of all, Buddhism made clear something that I had learned in my Christian study, when I was in the seminary, in the priesthood, that God has to be a personal experience. It has got to come out of who I am and what I find myself to be.
If God is not an experience–this I got from my teacher Karl Rahner–then I don’t know what I’m talking about when I use the word G-O-D, God. Buddhism stresses that, primarily. That is central to Buddhism. That for me has been a powerful challenge and a powerful reminder which picked up so much of what I had been taught in my study of Christian theology.
Where Buddhism then helped me to discover or how I might more deeply experience the reality of God was in the Buddhist insistence that truth–they don’t use the word “GOD”–but that truth, ultimate reality, the way things are is to be found, is to be found within myself and within this world.
In other words, what I call God is not an entity out there that has to step in to my life. Buddhism stresses, or affirms, that truth is that which we find within this world. So that it is not something that has to intrude, intervene, but something that has to be discovered.
It just answered so many questions, difficulties I had with what is often times an exaggerated Christian teaching, and talking about God as if God is this supreme entity out there. You know, God as this infinite father being, this super person. I feel that distracted you. You are looking out there rather than looking into yourself. Rather than looking around you and the world around you. So that was a tremendous help.
In the language of Paul Tillich, whose chair I have here at Union Theological Seminary, the ultimate concern of Buddhism is enlightenment. They talk about enlightenment as waking up to the fact–this is going to sound rather strange–waking up to the fact that all is profoundly interrelated. Nothing exists unto itself. Nothing has its own individual or individualized being. We are all part of an interconnected reality that is vital, alive. That functions primarily through compassion or what Christians would call love.
These are the primary characteristics that I think all Buddhist would recognize as adjectives that you would use when you talk about becoming enlightened or getting a little bit closer to enlightenment. That ultimate reality consists of wisdom, awareness.
Awareness of what? Of the interrelatedness of all and compassion. And when that interrelatedness is alive and well and when I am connected with it, I will feel. Not because I am told to, but because it is my very nature. I will feel as Buddha put it – Compassion for all beings, for all sentient beings especially.
So, taking these Buddhist teachings and discoveries, I went back to the Bible. I went back to the question of tradition. I went back to what my teacher Karl Rahner talked about. And, discovered with this Buddhist flashlight, looking at the ultimate as interconnectedness, this interconnectedness that is alive, this interconnectedness that by its very nature operates through compassion and love. I started going back and looking at some of the central teachings or symbols of my Christianity and one of them that just leapt out was spirit. This means that God is spirit. What is spirit? Spirit is that which animates. Spirit is that which fills us. Which moves in ways we can never truly perceive or forecast. But spirit is alive.
The symbol of spirit from my Christian tradition became alive with meaning, not just for my head but for my prayer, for my meditation. To feel or to imagine the ultimate God as this beautiful interconnecting spirit.
I am not a New Testament scholar but my colleagues tell me that there are very few definitions of God in the New Testament. Maybe there are only two or three where it says, “God is…”. Those instances come from the writings attributed to John. “God is love.” “God is spirit.” Those are the two: love and spirit. Love is the compassionate energy of the interconnecting spirit. So you see this is where God is no longer an entity out there.
I am not saying that Buddhism is the only way to discover this, certainly not. But Buddhism is a way of helping Christians to perhaps come to a deeper and I would say more personal, more mystical experience of God. That reality, that inspirits us with interconnectedness–another word for love–and that can hold us in its vitality and sustain us.
Buddhism has been a great help. And I have found it can speak to many Christians in this way.
If you’d like to hear more of Prof. Knitter’s thoughts on Buddhism and Christianity, purchase our documentary Jesus & Buddha: Practicing Across Traditions.