Paul Knitter & 21st Century Religion
by Paul Chaffee
When non-Christian religious leaders around the world were invited to attend the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago, the letter asked them to come and share the wisdom of their traditions. It also promised that at the Parliament they would be able to perfect that wisdom through Jesus Christ. As the 20th century approached, in other words, the most open, liberal, progressive people of faith in America shared the assumption that their tradition was the truest and most important. Historically, the Catholic doctrine of “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus,” or “outside the Church there is no salvation,” makes the point categorically. But Catholics have had no corner on the notion that salvation is exclusively theirs, a claim ripe for setting peoples of faith and practice against each other.
One decade into the 21st century, pollsters tell us that more than two-thirds of religious folk in North America no longer think their truth the only truth. Shifting demographics have fueled this incredible change in attitude. But having new neighbors doesn’t make the theological task any easier. How does one journey from “my faith is the only authentic faith” to openness, respect, and engagement with people of other faiths? Paul F. Knitter is one of a handful of leaders – Huston Smith, Marcus Braybrooke, John Cobb, and Diana Eck also come to mind – who have helped us answer that question. TIO interviewed Professor Knitter last month.
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Two weeks before the October 11, 1962 opening of the Second Vatican Council, a young seminarian arrived in Rome to study theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University. Paul Knitter had joined the Society of the Divine Word, a missionary order planning to send him into the world to convert non-Christians. Unaware of the coming Council, “I was laboring under many questions. Just what is the foundation for wanting to convert them to my religion? I had been studying other religions and coming to appreciate their teachings and values, so I was confused on the role of missionary.”
Vatican II turned into an “utterly unexpected” laboratory for answering those questions. The meetings lasted three years and transformed the Roman Catholic Church, particularly regarding its relationship with other religions. Housed with 24 missionary bishops, most of whom spoke little Latin, Paul became a daily translator for his own community for three years. “The bishops would come home from St. Peter’s around two in the afternoon and then have to do their homework. Seminarians translated. (Our courses at Gregorian were all in Latin.) We saw the documents as they were taking shape.”
For Knitter, the biggest surprise was that “the Church, which had been notorious for not respecting the value of other religions, was opening up.” The Council, under the leadership of Pope John XXIII, “was writing about the value of other religions, about God’s presence in other religions, a clear statement that even if they are atheists, if they are following their ethics, they are heir to eternal life.”
Rather than become a missionary, Knitter did his doctoral work at the University of Marburg, studying Christian attitudes towards other faiths. He left the priesthood to get married to Cathy Cornell – “I think I’d go back in if they accepted married priests,” he says today. Returning from Germany, he began teaching at Xavier University in Cincinnati, where he remains Emeritus Professor of Theology.
Charting New Territory
Twenty years after Vatican II Knitter published No Other Name? (Orbis, 1985), causing an uproar amongst most Christians. By then many of the interfaith-friendly stances of the 1962-65 Council were being ignored in Rome. “Windows opened were slammed shut.” Then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now pope, had harsh words about Knitter being a “relativist,” clearly a misperception. Knitter has little use for “the pernicious dogma of relativism, which holds that differences don’t matter, and that debate, argument, study, and dialogue needed to gain truth are outdated in our postmodern world.”1
For the past quarter century Knitter has been a stalwart in study, dialogue, and activism with other traditions. “I affirm pluralism, but I prefer mutualism, mutuality, recognizing the need to talk to each other; to challenge and strengthen each other in a life-giving dialogue.” For this some have called him a syncretist, taking this and leaving that to arrive at the lowest common denominator. But the word doesn’t intimidate this theologian.
“If syncretism equals mix and match and a new religion, no, absolutely not. But if it means that religions do affect each other, and that the identity of every religion has been affected by its relationship with other religions – well of course that happens and it always has. Religious identity is not set in stone for eternity. We watch religions move and evolve. A religion can preserve its core ingredient and message while constantly growing through relationships with new cultures and new religions.”
Pluralists like Knitter suggest that there is no single “absolute truth” that applies to everyone. To exclusivists, this is the unpardonable error. To the rest of us, it is a pivot into a much more humane, interactive religious community for the 21st century, locally and globally. The controversial assumption comes with a welcome sense of humility and encourages all traditions to learn from each other.
Knitter’s most recent chapter in this exploration concerns “dual identity,” a concern he shares in a book called Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian (Oneworld, 2009). Examples abound about what he means. He tells of being a Christian social justice activist in El Salvador. But it took a Buddhist to teach him how not to hate the oppressor, to discern his spiritual connection to the enemy, who are human beings, and thereby to transform angry activism into compassionate activism. In short, the Buddhist taught him to be a better Christian. “We cannot stop death squads” which was the task in El Salvador, "until we realize our oneness with them.” In his earlier years, Knitter spent considerable time getting grounded theologically as an interfaith-friendly Christian. More recently he talks about “passing over” into other traditions and then returning to your own, renewed.
The other theme that has been strong over the years is Knitter’s concern for the world’s brokenness, a theme he ties back to the need for better, constructive interreligious relationships. “The most important influence on me has been the opportunity I have had to enter into dialogue with brothers and sisters in other religious traditions from across the globe. At another level, the plight of the world’s wretched poor, the political use of religion that impedes dialogue, and the precarious situation of Mother Earth have affected me deeply.”2
Four years ago, when he accepted the mantle of Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture at Union Theological Seminary in New York, he said, “Interfaith dialogue at Union will be, predominantly, a socially engaged interfaith dialogue.”
About the Man
Two other details deserve mentioning about this pioneer of pluralism. In the midst of writing dozens of books and papers, standing against violence in Latin America, shouldering a full teaching career, and fulfilling his editorial responsibilities for Faith to Faith books, a division of Orbis Books, Paul Knitter remains a remarkably accessible person. You’ll find him at North American Interfaith Network meetings, at Parliament of the World’s Religions conclaves, on educational panels in San Francisco or Yangon, Myanmar (where few Western religionists are welcomed). And you can find his work on the internet. Clearly, publicly, modestly, he lives his faith as he builds bridges to other traditions.
Equally important – he does all this with warmth, gentleness, and good humor. Saying so in a profile may sound like a cupcake treatment. But as a colleague recently remarked, “Paul’s a really nice guy!” In offering a new, humbler frame of reference from which to consider personal religious experience and belief, his manner is gentle, never combative. Asked how he dealt with criticism from Rome while serving as theologian at a Catholic university, he talked about his gratitude for the Catholics who stood by him, whether they agreed with him or not. “They defended me.”
Finally, I asked, where do we go from here? “We need to help each other, we need a new kind of collaboration among the religions. We need to help each other confront the reality that religions are being used to justify violence. Co-opted religion – why is that so easy? Why so easy to corrupt? Even the UN, which has shied away from religion, is recognizing the need to engage religion in making geo-political peace.” In short, now that everyone’s been invited in, let’s begin the serious work.
1 Introducing Theologies of Religions (Orbis, 2002), p. 4.
Paul F. Knitter – A Partial Bibliography
No Other Name?: A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions (Orbis, 1985)
One Earth Many Religions: Multifaith Dialogue and Global Responsibility(Orbis, 1995)
Introducing Theologies of Religions (Orbis, 2002)
The Myth of Religious Superiority: Multifaith Explorations of Religious Pluralism (Orbis, 2005)
Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian (Oneworld, 2009)
I-POD & VIDEO
Global Ethic for a Globalized World – April 13, 2005 WGBH Forum Network (86-minute lecture and discussion of globalization and religion)
National Catholic Reporter Interview on Dual Identity – July 7, 2010, with Tom Fox (31-minute interview about being a ‘Buddhist Christian’) A partial transcription of this interview can be read in the National Catholic Reporter.
Paul F. Knitter on Theologies of Religious Pluralism (five minutes on religious exclusivism)
Paul F. Knitter at the Melbourne Parliament of World’s Religions (clips about ‘the religious other’ and living in a multicultural world)