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Wedded to Dialogue

By Paul F. Knitter


There is a lot of talk nowadays about what a difference it makes when interreligious dialogue is based on interreligious friendship. People from different religious traditions can understand each other and respect each other much more deeply when they are friends who really care about each other than if they are just acquaintances who share common concerns. Such a claim can’t be proven; but it can be experienced.

I certainly have experienced it. That’s because I have many and valued friends who walk religious paths different from mine. But it’s especially because one of those interreligious friends happens to be my wife. You might say that I am wedded to interreligious dialogue.

Paul and Cathy Knitter – Photo: FTC-Quaker

Paul and Cathy Knitter – Photo: FTC-Quaker

About 15 years ago, my wife, Cathy Cornell, decided to move from her Roman Catholic Christian path and practice to that of the Buddhist Vajrayana tradition. To some extent, that was because of the many abuses and inconsistencies she witnessed in the Catholic Church (especially in regard to the human rights of women); but much more so, it was because the content and practice of the Dharma spoke to her more coherently and engagingly than did Catholic doctrine and liturgy.While she still has a great respect for Jesus and the Gospel, she has taken refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. – And so, I found myself married no longer to a Catholic, but to a Buddhist.

Although I certainly miss her at my side at Mass (though she does accompany whenever we’re fairly certain that the priest-presider “watches his language” and is gender-inclusive), I must say that her conversion has enriched our marriage in ways I never expected. My primary friend – my spouse, my fellow-parent, my lover – was now a “religious other.” Our relationship over the past years has made powerfully and excitingly clear to me that friendship with a religious other makes interreligious dialogue both necessary and possible. This is true, I believe, of any interreligious friendship. It is especially true of an interreligious marriage.

Because I love Cathy, I certainly accepted the fact that she was now a Buddhist. And such acceptance was much more than mere tolerance. I was happy that she was a Buddhist – because I witnessed that she was happy to be a Buddhist. So I accepted her religious otherness; indeed, I affirmed it. I did not want to change it; I did not want to try in any way to reconvert her or even to “include” her in my Christian understanding by picturing her as “deep down still a Christian.” But neither could I leave it there. I could not just accept and affirm her religious otherness; I had to engage it.

That meant I had to enter into a dialogue with her. I had to try to understand why she was so happy to be a Buddhist, what it was that moved her and satisfied her in her Buddhist practice. That was the easy part. In engaging her otherness, I also felt impelled to try to make clear to her why I remained a Christian, even a Catholic (that’s a little easier with our new Pope!). That’s what friendship between two different religious people does. It wasn’t enough that Cathy accepted or even understood intellectually why I chose to follow Jesus as a Catholic; I wanted her to see why it was good for me; I wanted her to affirm, and rejoice, that I was still a Christian, even though that was not the choice she made. So I had to talk to her about why I believed what I believe. I had to dialogue with her. Dialogue became a necessity.

But it also then became a real, enriching possibility. This is the part that’s hard to explain. Maybe here we are touching the beauty and mystery of love and friendship. In feeling the need to explain my religious experience and beliefs to her in a way that she could see how good it was for me, I found new ways, new words, new comparisons, even new connections with Buddhism by which I could express what I wanted to express. In trying to communicate why I’m still a theist, why Jesus the Christ is essential for me, what I experience the risen Christ to be – I came to what I guess I can call new symbols, new connections, new implications of my Christian faith-experience.

And in this process I realized that I was coming to understand myself, my Christian identity differently – I dare say, more deeply or more engagingly. Here, I guess, was the real fruit of dialogue: in trying to understand and communicate with Cathy, my religious other, I was being changed, maybe even to some extent transformed, in my own religious identity.

Marriage is only one way to be interreligious friends. But for me it sure has been one of the most demanding, and rewarding.