I’m in the midst of reading several books to help me learn about buddhism. One book is “outlines of mahayana buddhism” by d.t. suzuki. This book was very helpful to provide a good foundation for my very limited previous knowledge of buddhism. I have now started “zen and western thought” by masao abe. I wanted to learn more specifically about the zen buddhism of japanese buddhist dogen, which abe covers in his book.
I thought it would also be a good idea to read paul knitter’s “without buddha i could not be a Christian.” I liked knitter’s initial goal in his book to understand christianity better through a knowledge of buddhism. I really like quite a bit of what i read in buddhism, and i seek to see what i can incorporate from buddhism into my own beliefs.
But while i thought reading knitter’s book would be helpful, i found it to be quite disturbing. In fact, with each page i was more and more unsettled. Knitter began his analysis of christianity in the light of buddhism by talking about the “God” of classical christianity. Not surprisingly, knitter expresses his discomfort with the transcendence, self-subsistence, and rigid dualism of the orthodox view of God.
He then examines buddhism and its concepts of nirvana, impermanence, dharmakaya, and emptiness, among other concepts. As knitter explains these buddhist concepts, he is laying the foundation for his next step, which is to look at the “christian” idea of God through the eyes of buddhism.
As knitter attempts to address his original concerns about classical christianity, he begins to rework the symbolic “God” of christianity as an “energy field which pervades and influences us all, calling us to relationships of knowing and loving each other” (20). God and humanity “exist through relationships of knowing and loving and giving […]” (19) this God becomes a spirit that “merges with what it energizes in a manner that is much more a matter of interpenetration than indwelling.” Finally, knitter puts forth that creation is a “pouring forth of God, an extension of God, in which the divine carries on the divine activity of interrelating in and with and through creation.” (22) in making this argument, knitter asserts that “the Spirit had to create the world.” (22)
Knowing that the classical theist would counter-argue that “God’s love is already satisfied within the Trinity” as an attempt to protect God’s attributes of “perfection” and “self-sufficiency”, knitter responds by saying, “if we humans can’t be happy as rugged individualists, neither can God” (23) It was at this point that i could no longer suppress the question that had been rising within me since i began knitter’s book.
Why go through all of the machinations that knitter seemed to be attempting? To me, it seemed as if knitter was saying, “here’s the christian God. Here’s what i don’t like about the christian God. Here’s what i think the christian God “should” be like, because i like the things that this other group is saying about cosmology and teleology, so, as a result, here are the scripture citations, the words of theologians, and logical arguments that can allow me to employ the desired cosmology and teleology to christianity.”
At what point should one say to herself, “it’s much more work to try and make a certain paradigm fit within christianity; why not just keep the desired paradigm apart from a rather unwieldy traditional theology? At what point does it just not make sense to try and keep “fixing” christianity?
I realize that this question is not a new one. But it is a question that is very important for me and my personal struggles with christianity. I consider myself to be a christian. I want to stay within the christian tradition, as i believe knitter does also. But, like knitter, i also have more and more concerns, doubts, problems, and now, increasingly unacceptable positions with which i am dealing as it pertains to crucial christian tenets.
There is a part of me that wants to learn from knitter; after all, i got his book so that i could see his way of seeing christianity through the eyes of buddhism. I want to see the ways in which he develops his arguments for his positions so that i can feel more confident in developing my own arguments and positions.
There is another part of me, however; the part of me asking the question that is the basis of this post. Why should i have to become a contortionist? If there are cosmologies that i believe better fit the universe at large and the beings that make up that universe, why should i force those cosmologies to be, at best, conducive to, and at worst subservient to, christianity? At what point should i say that it no longer makes sense to be a christian?
This question becomes even more complicated and nuanced from the standpoint that i cannot see myself embracing religious/philosophical traditions other than mahayana buddhism and christianity. From my studies of the other religions/philosophical traditions, no other faith system captures my sensibilities, as well as my mystical leanings, in the way that these systems do.
Perhaps this situation is the same for knitter. I know that i greatly appreciate his candor as he asks himself, “am i still a christian?” He goes further and is more specific in his query. He asks, “am i a christian who has understood his own identity more deeply with the help of buddhism? Or have i become a buddhist who still retains a stock of christian leftovers?” (xiii) While i love knitters questions, and while i also love and admire his desire to work out his struggles in writing for fellow christian strugglers to read and digest, i still have to step back ask myself what i consider to be “the” foundational question:
Why do those of us who struggle with our christianity maintain our struggle? If we find it mentally and existentially difficult to walk within the confines of our tradition’s structure, why do we remain within? This is not to say that there is any structure that should not be questioned and open to reinterpretation, re-exploration, and revision. Those who believe in reformation, and who are fit for the fight, should stay, engage, destroy, and recreate to the extent that it is needed. More power to those for whom change from within is paramount.
But for those of us who are struggling to survive, should we be so afraid of what lies external to what has been, for many, the foundational structure of our lives, that we are condemned to slay ourselves at the door way of our tradition? Is it better to risk death from within, or death from the outside?