Paul F. Knitter: My Retrospective on 40 Years in Dialogue

How can we live our life in a world of many convincing truth? How can a person become both a theologian and a pluralist interreligious dialoguer? The article that published here is written by Prof. Dr. Paul F. Knitter, a professor of interreligious theology at Union Theological Seminary, New York. Narrating his life experience in doing theology and as well interreligious dialogue, Prof. Paul Knitter states how love and friendship have been enabling him to undergo life of religious diversity.


As the most prominent Catholic theologian and interreligious dialoguer, he, in this article, straightforwardly and successfully brings a pluralist Christology, a discourse that tends to be avoided by many Christian interreligious theologians to be dialogued in the last century.


He also mentions the days he spent in CRCS, Yogyakarta, as a very sweet days when his Muslim friends “add sugar, spice, and a new recipe to the dialogue.” This article of retrospective on 40 years in dialogue is marked as the best essay by the Catholic Press Association.



The Vocation of an Interreligious Theologian: My Retrospective on 40 Years in Dialogue

By Paul F. Knitter


Paul F. Knitter (

On the occasion of my retirement from Xavier University, and at the request of some longtime friendsi I have the opportunity to reflect on what has happened to me during these 40 years of trying to combine my vocation as a Catholic theologian with what I felt was a “call” (therefore, also a vocation) to take persons of other religions seriously and to dialogue with them. The “vocation of an interreligious theologian” is really the meeting and, as it were, mating of two vocations, two calls that make very real and definite and often contrasting claims on the same person. What follows is a “retrospective” on how I’ve attempted to walk one path in response to two calls – to be a Catholic theologian and to be an interreligious dialoguer.



Where/How It All Started


First, a little biographical background on how I heard both calls: it all started, seminally at least, way back in eighth grade at St. Joseph’s school in Summit, Illinois when I decided to enter the Divine Word Minor Seminary at East Troy, WI and become a Divine Word Missionary. Though taken prematurely, it’s a decision I have never regretted; among its many positive, longterm outcomes was my interest in people from other religions. I wanted to convert them. But to convert someone, I was told, you first have to know something about them. So I started a more concerted study of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam. And that’s where my dialogue with them began. The more I learned about these other ways of being religious — especially the more I saw them up close though the lectures that returning SVD missionaries would give about the religions of Japan, India, Africa, New Guinea — the more I realized that they have something to teach me. I wanted to “hear more” from them.


And as my dialogue – still rather academic – progressed, I started to feel more and more tensions with my theology. Dialogical praxis, though incipient, was raising new questions for theological theory. Just how much might Christians learn from others? Was God really speaking, maybe even saving, through other religious vehicles? Landing in Rome two weeks before the Second Vatican Council opened the doors of St. Peter’s to over 2000 bishops was for me almost a Deus ex machina in grappling with such questions. For the most part, my graduate studies – my licentiate at the Greg (the title of my exercitatio was “A Survey of Catholic Attitudes to Non- Christian Religions”), my doctoral research with Rahner in Münster, my doctoral studies at Marburg – were all efforts to clarify a theology of religions that would support a more authentic dialogue with them.


But when I returned to the States in 1970 to begin teaching at Catholic Theological Union, my hermeneutical circle of praxis and theory moved more heavily toward the dialogical side: I began teaching “dialogue with” courses. Just as importantly (or more?) I began talking with Hindus and Buddhists in the Chicago area. The dialogue deepened; but so did the theological questions.


It was during those years at CTU that I clarified the way, or method, of interreligious dialogue that I have tried to follow these past three decades. My two primary mentors were John Dunne in his The Way of All the Earth (1972)ii and Raimon Panikkar in articles he was soon to collect into The Intrareligious Dialogue (1978).iii Dunne’s notion of exploring other religious paths not just as an intellectual exercise but as an existential “passing over” and “passing back” became for me an ideal and a challenge. So did Panikkar’s insistence that our inter-religious dialogue with other religions must also be an intra-religious conversation within our own selves and our communities. Throughout my career, I have been haunted and inspired by Dunne’s provocative image of “the holy man or woman of our time” – who would include, I hope, the theologian – not as “a figure like Gotama or Jesus or Mohammed” who stays within a tradition, “but a figure like Gandhi, a man who passes over by sympathetic understanding from his own religion to other religions, and comes back again with new insight to his own.” Dunne’s prediction turned out to be true for me: “Passing over and coming back, it seems, is the spiritual adventure of our time.”iv It has also been a theological adventure.



How Did I Do It?


As I have looked back over the past years, I’ve realized that my efforts to pass over and back, or to be an interreligious (or comparative) theologian, have taken two different forms: study and friendship. The first is self-evident. To really listen to and understand another religion, one has to do one’s homework. And for a Christian theologian of my generation, such homework kept me up at night. I didn’t have formal training in other traditions; I didn’t know the languages. That meant the kind of serious, academic study of other religions that comparative theology requires was both difficult and, I have to admit, dangerous. I had to work with secondary sources; I had to be careful of jumping the dialogical gun and finding similarities too facilely. To lessen the burden and the danger, I focused my study on Asian religions, especially Buddhism.


Passing over to the study of other religious texts was demanding and then exciting. Passing over to other religious friendships was exciting and then demanding. It’s been especially with and through my Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish friends that interreligious dialogue has become an inspiring and unsettling part of my life. As James Fredericks has recently been saying, interreligious friendships do something to you.v

For me, such friendships started with Rahim, a Muslim fellow-student in the Arnold Janssen Studentenheim in Mü And they have continued through the different dialogue groups I have been part of, most recently in the Interreligious Peace Council. Very recently – in March 2003 – I was warmed and challenged by some wonderful friends among my Muslim graduate students at Gadjah Mada University in Indonesia. Locally, my close friendship with Michael Atkinson, one of the directors of our Cincinnati Dharma Center, has been very much a dialogical friendship. And even more locally, I should add, my wife Cathy has a few years back become a Buddhist (with lots of happy Catholic leftovers); surprisingly, at first apprehensively, but now excitingly my friendship with her has become interreligious. – Such friendships not only add sugar and spice to the dialogue; they often come up with new recipes.



What Happened to Me – What I’ve Discovered


In trying to summarize how my vocation to dialogue has affected my vocation as a theologian, I’ve realized that it’s not simply a matter of describing what I’ve learned, or laying out the insights I’ve come to. Rather, what I’ve learned is contained in what has happened to me.


Dialogue is something you “do,” but it is also something that “is done” to you. (Can we say the same thing about theology?) So these insights I’m now going to try to describe are both feelings born of relationships and at the same time conclusions resulting from my efforts to be attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible.


1. The sources of theology: One of the earliest, if not totally conscious, realizations I came to in trying to be an interreligious theologian was that the so-called sources of theology as they had been identified by my trusted teachers were not enough. I began my teaching career armed with Tracy’s Blessed Rage for Order and Lonergan’s Method in Theology (in that order). As a theologian I was to be a mediator between culture and my Christian religion;vii I was to carry on a mutually clarifying and mutually criticizing conversation between common human experience(the “common” of course is always “cultural”) and the Christian fact.viii Well, I came to be touched and, claimed also by “the Buddhist, or Hindu, or Muslim facts.” As certain as I was that God has spoken to me in Jesus the Christ, I came to similar certainty that God was doing likewise in Buddha, the Upanishads, the Qur’an.


What I discovered was not just a confirmation of the Christian belief in “general revelation,”or Uroffenbarung, or the logoi spermatikoi that can be found outside of Christianity in other religions. This was God speaking to me; this was saving truth pro me. What I was encountering in other religious books and friends was, I had to say, “necessary for salvation” – or, at least necessary if I was to come to a more adequate understanding of what God was up to in the world, and that meant a more adequate understanding of what God had done in Jesus Christ. Without these other revelations, I came to see, my own was incomplete; something was missing.


So in thinking about and teaching Christian doctrine – on creation, sin, salvation, church – I found myself needing to make connections with analogous – or what Panikkar would call “homologous” – teachings in other religions. These other perspectives were not just “other.” They were not just interesting (that they always were); they were often, as it turned out, “necessary” – that is, conditions for the possibility of arriving at new insights, or new questions, about my own beliefs. These other perspectives and experiences became necessary for understanding my own. They were, in our Christian language, sources of theology.


So I have come to realize that Wilfred Cantwell Smith, of blessed memory, was right when, back in the 80s, he stood before the Catholic Theological Society of America and told us, in a plenary address, that to be a Christian theologian one had to be a “world theologian.”ix I remember the muffled snickers of two young Jesuits in the row in front of me; “how postmodernly naïve,” they must have been thinking. But my own experience has verified Smith’s claim. To be a theologian in any one tradition — or, let me be more careful: to be a “relatively adequate” theologian in any one tradition — one must be, at least to some extent, a theologian of another tradition. Otherwise, we’re not doing our theological job as adequately (never perfectly) as we can. But isn’t that, also, what comparative theologians are today claiming: that to understand our texts we must be reading other texts? To understand our own questions, we must listen to those of others?x

2. The necessity of practice/spirituality: Another discovery – in this case, a sobering reminder – that has come out of my efforts to be an interreligious theologian resulted from trying to apply Dunne’s method of passing over. Dunne insists that the passing over to another tradition cannot be just a “head trip.” It has to include the whole person, especially one’s imagination and feelings, as one allows the symbols and images to entice and lead one to new experiences, new insights, new possibilities. To pass over to another religious world one must, to some extent, practice it in order to see how it looks and how it feels. Otherwise, the process doesn’t work.


Well, I came to realize that if this is true of the effort to “pass over,” it is just as true for the process of “passing back.” If I was going to make connections between my Christian identity and what I had tried to feel and practice in Buddhism, I had better be feeling and practicing my own Christian beliefs and rituals. Or more explicitly: To practice dialogue, I have to practice my own faith.


In other words, my dialogue with others has turned out for me to be a reminder of the vital link between theology and spirituality, or between what our tradition has called the lex credendi and the lex orandi. If our thinking does not arise from our praying, and if thinking does not feed back into praying, then something is probably faulty with our thinking. Trying to really connect with another tradition, trying to make links between what they say or think and what I say or think, has brought me, as it were, to my knees and to my meditation cushion. In trying to connect with Buddhists, I had to ask myself what I really felt as a Christian, what particular Christian beliefs really meant to me. And to do that, I had to shut up. I had to pray.


Maybe some examples of what I’m trying to say will help: Passing back to my Christian identity with what I felt were simmering insights into the Buddhist notion of anatta or no-self, I had to ask myself what “being in Christ” really means for me. When back at CTU in the early 70s an Indian Jesuit with whom I team-taught a course on Hinduism enabled me to feel what Tat Tvam Asi might really mean, I still remember feeling the need, and the ability, to pray or meditate about what Rahner’s teaching on the supernatural existential really means. More recently, when I first heard Thich Nhat Hanh’s admonition to liberation theologians not to take sidesxi, I had to feel and pray my way into what it means to accept and practice Jesus’ call to love our enemies. – With such examples, I’m not saying that I arrived at neat links or equivalencies between what I discovered in other religions and my Christian beliefs; but I am saying that my explorations of other paths forced me to ask just how seriously, just how coherently, I was following my own. As Pieris puts it, interreligious dialogue must be a matter of “cor ad cor loquitur” –heart speaking to heart.xii Theology done from the heart is done from spirituality.


3. A Common Practice: A third insight into what it means and demands to be an interreligious theologian, started to take shape for me during the mid-80s. Through the kinds of dialogue I was getting involved in, I found myself part of a practice that preceded (which certainly didn’t mean replaced) the practice of passing over to each other’s spirituality. It was a practice that called persons of differing traditions to act together, and then served as a basis for carrying on a religious conversation with each other.


In my Christian terms, I’m talking about the liberative praxis (Buddhists might call it engaged spirituality) by which we respond to and try to do something about the unnecessary suffering that afflicts so many humans and other sentient beings in the world around us. It’s what Mencius described as that spontaneous, pre-reflexive reaching out to the child about to fall into a well.xiii It’s what Schillebeeckx terms that immediate, insuppressible “no” that all (or most) humans feel in the face of what he calls negative experiences of contrast that take hold of us when we witness children starving to death or dead fish floating on the scum of polluted rivers.xiv Such common feelings, demanding some form of responsive action, could provide, I realized, the context, and perhaps new opportunities, for the dialogical task of passing over and the theological task of passing back.


Such insights first started to bubble up for me in my work with CRISPAZ (Cristianos por la Paz en El Salvador) during the 80s. I witnessed, both in us North Americans but especially in our Salvadoran partners, how a common concern for peace and justice can bring different Christian communities together not just for action but for genuine Christian fellowship and shared prayer and liturgies. But then I came to see that the dynamic of such Christian ecumenism was also going on, or beginning, amid the wider ecumenism between religions. More and more of the dialogue meetings that I was part of were shifting, or expanding, the topics of discussion from doctrinal issues (the nature of the Ultimate, the notion of after-life) to ethical problems (human rights, poverty, gender justice). I witnessed how other religious persons – because they were religious persons – were reaching out to the countless children about to fall into the well. And in reaching out to the endangered child, they felt the need to talk with and work with persons of other traditions.


The real possibilities and implications of dialogue that begins with a shared commitment to eco-human well-being — or in Hans Küng’s terminology, to global responsibility — have become even clearer and more demanding for me over the past six years in my work with the Interreligious Peace Council. Here is a group of religious leaders, with the trustees who coordinate their work (I’m a trustee), who have all come together mainly because each has felt the need to reach out to the children and their parents about to fall, or already fallen, into the well of violence, poverty, sexual abuse, political or economic oppression. Over the years we have tried to respond to such suffering in Chiapas, in Israel/Palestine, in Korea, in Belfast.xv My experience on the Peace Council has shown how a commitment to peace-making functions as a kind of magnet that can draw religious people, no matter their differences, together.


But it has also shown me what happens to them when they so come together. In acting together, Peace Councilors and Trustees have felt not just the opportunity but the necessity to talk together–and to pray, be silent, celebrate together. Actual religious dialogue–the felt need to pass over to each other’s traditions — resulted from such ethical practice. Why? How? Part of it certainly was because in deliberating on how to transform a situation of hatred and injustice into one of reconciliation and peace, we discovered our own differences. In Chiapas, for instance, Christians wanted to denounce the Mexican government; Buddhists wanted to embrace. In Jerusalem, Jews insisted on remembering the past; and Buddhists suggested they let go. We had to talk about such differences.


And we did talk. Or, we could talk about our differences, and learn from, them. When I ask myself further what made such dialogue possible, I think it had to do with the friendships that came out of our shared practice. In responding to and acting together for the well-being of others, we become friends in different, perhaps deeper, ways than if we only had talked with or prayed with each others. Friends not only have to, they can, understand each other.


4. The creative tension of interreligous friendships: And this brings me to a fourth way in which my dialogue has informed my theology – through friendships. To be more precise: through the tension, creative for the most part, between being a Christian and being a friend with persons of other traditions. As I ponder that, I see two ways in which such friendships have created tensions in my life — tensions that have become stimulants for my theology.


The first way has to do with how I feel in the presence of my interreligious friends: I have to watch my language. There are certain ways of talking about Christianity, or about Christian beliefs or viewpoints that I know would be not only perplexing but disturbing, even offensive, to my Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, or Muslim friends. Terms that I would use quite casually in the company of fellow-Christians get caught in my throat as I think about using them with other-religious friends. I know it would be embarrassing, for both of us. It wouldn’t be appropriate. For the most part, I’m talking about language that expressly or indirectly so extols my own religion as to put down theirs. For instance, to speak of Jesus as the perfect embodiment of humanity, or of the church as the sacrament of salvation for all others, or of religions as containing “rays of the Truth that enlightens all people.” (As a Hindu friend once commented on this oft-cited phrase from Vatican II: “Only rays?”) Or it may be a way of speaking that takes for granted one way of viewing a question and so omits or forgets about other perspectives – for instance, to carry on a conversation in which one presumes the sinful nature of humans, or the personal nature of God, or the creation of the world in time, or the historical conditioning of all revelation. I may believe personally in all these assertions, but in talking about them with my other-religious friends, I have to watch my language.


Having to do so, I have come to realize, is more than a matter of simple politeness. It’s also a theological issue. I’ve come to the tentative but nagging conclusion that if I can’t use certain language in the presence of my interreligious friends without offending them, then there’s something wrong with the language, something wrong with the way I am trying to express my Christian convictions. I’m not saying that the language, or the belief contained within it, is erroneous, as if I would have to give up the belief in order to preserve my friendship. It’s not necessarily incorrect. But neither is it right; it doesn’t express what I as a Christian want to be, or how I want to comport myself, in the presence of my other religious friends. Or to get at what I’m trying to say from the perspective of my friends: they certainly want me to be who I am in our relationship, and they want me to witness and be firm about what I believe. But they also expect me to be sensitive to who they are and to what I know about them. And for this reason, they expect me to mind my language and speak in a way in which I respect them, and make place for who they are and what they believe.


I don’t’ mean to imply that I’ve worked all this out. But I do know that my friendship with persons of other faiths has placed theological demands on me; if I’m going to speak with them as friends want to speak with each other, then I’ve got some theological homework to do. But at the same time, these caring relationships with others have provided me with new hermeneutical glasses and antennae, as it were, by which to read and hear and feel my own language and so to carry on the theologian’s job of interpreting and applying Christian tradition. In fact, I think I can formulate a working guideline or criterion for that job: for Christian language to be both faithful to the biblical witness and appropriate for our present interreligious context, it has to be language that allows for and fosters friendship.


So what kind of language will do the job? This brings me to the second way in which friendships with others have touched and stretched my role as a theologian. The actual process of carrying on a conversation with my religious friends has become for me a unexpected means of working out or discovering new ways of talking about, and so understanding, my own Christian beliefs and experience. In trying to communicate with another language game, I’ve discovered new rules for my own. In trying to translate my Christian-talk to Buddhist-talk, I’ve found that I understand my own Christian-talk differently, more satisfactorily.


What I’m trying to say is a phenomenon that any two friends can identify in their relationship: I feel the desire, which is almost an imperative, to enable my friend to understand more deeply who I am, what is going on in me; and to do this I have to explain my language, or my beliefs and convictions, in such a way that my friend, no matter how different his or her cultural conditioning may be from mine, can make sense of it all. I don’t mean that I feel the need to bring my friend to adopt my language and take on my beliefs. But I do want him or her to understand and so affirm why I believe what I do. I want to see that rise in her eyebrows that says, “Oh I get it. Yes.”


Again, it’s difficult to communicate how this works. Let me try a particular example. In my conversations with my Buddhist friend, Michael Atkinson, I really don’t want to turn him into a theist. But neither is it sufficient for me to lay things out intellectually so that he can grasp how belief in God makes sense within my Christian language-game. I want him to see how it is good for me to have such a belief, to believe in God – and how it is also good for the world. I want him to be glad that I’m a theist, though he remains a non-theist. To do this, I – really, we, for we do it together – have to search for new language, new ways of speaking that will respect and not denigrate our differences but at the same time will somehow bridge them.


What I think I’m describing – listen up, postmodernists! – is how interreligious friendships can both affirm and then bridge the gulf of incommensurability. Michael and I remain very different in our fundamental philosophical and religious worldviews, but we can talk to each other and connect those differing views of the world and ultimacy. Friends can understand each other even when they speak two different religious languages. And as this happens, their languages grow, are enriched with new vocabulary, new poetry. Here is where such conversations touch and enrich theology. In trying to communicate to Michael why it is good for me and for the world that I believe in God, I’ve had to use new words, new combinations of words, new images. And in so doing, not only does he understand me more clearly, I understand myself – and my tradition – more appropriately and engagingly.


Again, I have to refer to Wilfred Cantwell Smith. I think he was right when he said in Toward a World Theology that if something is really true in one religion, then it is possible, even imperative, to explain its truth in such a way that it will also make sense to followers of other religions.xvi Many scoffed at how naïve Smith was about the social-construction of all truth claims. Perhaps he was. But what is impossible for academics arguing around their conference tables can become possible, because it’s necessary, for friends talking over a bowl of pad thai, or working together with the Mayan people of Chiapas. As different as their social-constructions are, friends can, because they must, communicate. – Smith, I think, was right. Maybe now that Wilfred has passed on, more people can agree with him. (I actually have dreams that after I die, Jim Fredericks and Frank Clooney – maybe even Paul Griffiths – will admit how much they really did agree with me!)


5. My relationship with/understanding of Christ: With a fifth way in which dialogue has informed my role as a theologian, I come to what is for me, and I guess for all Christians, the heart of our identity: my understanding of, and my relationship with, Jesus the Christ. I think, or hope, I can say that the challenge and the experience of interreligious dialogue over these past years has enabled me to respond more adequately both to the question, “Who do you say I am”(Mark 8: 29) and to the invitation, “Come, follow me.” (Matt. 4: 19) In the beginning, for the most part in No Other Name?,I started with the first question: I wanted to come to a clearer, more dialogical, understanding of the place of Jesus in a newly perceived world of religious pluralism. But my efforts led to the second question: what is my relationship to, my following of, Jesus as I tried to relate to other religions and carry on friendships with other believers.


Trying to wrestle with such Christological questions arising from the dialogue became, I can say, hairy; it got me into a bit of trouble. Friends argued that we were at a Christological impasse(or inquisition) and urged me to focus on other, more practical and less dangerous, issues of religious pluralism and dialogue. Following their advice, but also trying to respond to the signs of the times, I turned to the pressing ethical issues facing all religions and tried to explore, as I explained above, how global responsibility might be providing an arena in which religions could arrive at a new, more fruitful kind of dialogue.


But while I was engaged in such efforts, the Christological questions would not go away. People kept asking me to talk about what all this means for our understanding of the uniqueness of Christ.xvii Also, in recent years, the Vatican keeps raising similar questions of any Catholic theologian dealing with the issue of pluralism and dialogue, as is clear not only in Redemptoris Missio and Dominus Iesus, but also in Ecclesia in Asia. The moratorium that some people are urging for a theology of religions doesn’t seem to be possible for Christology.


So because of pressures coming from without and within, my conversation with others has kept raising the question of who do I say Jesus really is. Where I’m at in trying to answer that question might be summarized in two simple sentences which, thanks to my dialogue with religious others, have become life-giving convictions for me. a. The first sentence I borrow from my friend and mentor, John B. Cobb, Jr.: Christ is the way that is open to other ways.xviii But before I try to briefly unpack what it means, let me make a confession: If he weren’t – if Christ were not the way open to other ways – I couldn’t follow him. I have to be honest about that. Because of all the particular twists and turns my life has taken, because of my cultural conditioning (which of course includes Christian-Catholic conditioning), dialogue with others has become for me what we used to call a fundamental option. Or, an ethical imperative. If I weren’t trying to enter into relationships of mutual understanding and cooperation with persons of other religious ways, I would not be able to be at peace with myself; or in Spike Lee’s terminology, I would not be able to do “the right thing.” So, although I want to always remain critical about my fundamental option for dialogue, as long as this option claims me, I have to reject, or be extremely wary of, anything that gets in the way of that option. With Luther, “Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders.” “Here I stand. I can’t do otherwise.” So just as Bishop Tutu once said that if anyone were to prove to him that Jesus favors apartheid, he would have to abandon Jesus, so if ever I had to conclude that Christ does not allow me to enter into dialogical relationships with others, I would have to abandon Christ.


But this is all pure hypothesis, what Einstein would call a Gedankenexperiment, a though experiment; for in actuality, the more I have read the Gospels with my hermeneutical, dialogical glasses, and the more I have passed back to the Word of God in Christ Jesus having passed over to what Barth called “the Words outside the walls of the church,”xix the more I have discovered that the Word made flesh in Jesus is a word that, by its very nature, has to be in conversation with other words.


My conviction that Christ is the way open to other ways has grown out of my friendships with other religious persons. One loves one’s friends. I came to love many of my religious partners in dialogue. And I realized that because I loved them, I had to respect them, truly listen to them, open myself to them, be ready to change in relationship with them. These are the qualities of what we call dialogue. I realized that to be friends with someone, to love someone, is to dialogue with them. Therefore, if the fundamental Christian law is: “Love they neighbor,” that means, “Dialogue with thy neighbor.” To follow Christ is to love and dialogue with all our neighbors.


But my insight into Christ as the way open to other ways deepened also by what went on when I did dialogue with others. I discovered that God’s Word in Christ was not only an energy that sent me out to dialogue, but that it was an energy that grew through the process of dialogue. When I passed back to Christian witness and tradition with the insights, questions, perplexities that I had gathered in my conversation with others, I realized that I was seeing, or discovering, contents or implications of Christian revelation that I could never have seen had I not talked and acted with others. This was not just a matter of identifying what I already had in Christ. I didn’t have it because I didn’t see it, or because I misunderstood it, or because it simply was not there and now was being added to and enriching my understanding and following of Christ. In all these ways – by being clarified, by being corrected, by being enhanced – God’s Word in Jesus is a Word that can and must be brought into conversation with other Words.


What does this mean for the delicate question of Jesus’ uniqueness? I have to recognize, as perhaps I have not sufficiently recognized in the past, that we Christians have good reasons for using words like “only” and “full” and “final” in speaking of what we feel Jesus is for us and the world. We cannot simply discard such confessional language. But we have to remind ourselves, I have come to see, that if Jesus is the only way to the Father, he is also a way that leads to other ways. So I have had to wrestle with a paradox that many in my church are wrestling with: to understand and follow Jesus as the only way and the full truth I have to be learning from other ways and other truths. “Only” somehow includes “other.”


If that mind-bending paradox evades my intellect, I think I have gotten a better hold on what it means through the praxis and experience as an interreligious theologian. I’ve discovered that the more committed I am to Christ, the more open I am to others. And the more I practice that openness in dialogue, the deeper grows my Christian commitment. It doesn’t always work like that. But it can, and it has. b. But if I discovered that Christ is the way open to other ways, I also recognized, somewhat later in my dialogical journey, that Christ is the way that can, and often must, challenge other ways. Such challenging can take many, varied forms. For me, it is rooted in something Aloysius Pieris in Sri Lanka and Jon Sobrino in El Salvador have helped me identify in my following of Christ and conversations with others: that in Jesus we Christians have felt with our hands and seen with our eyes God’s preferential concern for the marginalized to the point of identifying with their sufferings and deaths and so promising them new life. There are many “truth claims” that are essential to what God has revealed in Jesus; this is certainly one of them. If I am not speaking about a God who calls us to “hear the voice of the poor,” who calls us to recognize and then reconcile the world’s injustices born of greed or hubris, then I am not participating in the dialogue as a Christian.


Here, I have found, I can best talk to my interreligious friends, and to myself, about the uniqueness – or as I prefer, the distinctiveness — of Jesus. I’m not sure whether other religious traditions have come to a similar insight into the nature of the Divine or of religious experience – namely, that to be religiously transformed, to know God, includes a particular compassion for and identification with those who have been pushed to the side. My experience so far is that they have not done so with the centrality and power of Jesus’ proclamation of the Reign of God (here, Jesus’ own religion, Judaism, is the exception). Be that as it may, I do know that this concern for and identification with the little and belittled ones, this commitment to justice-with reconciliation, is what identifies Jesus and so identifies me and my relationship with my interreligious friends.


So this concern for the marginalized and this criticism of marginalizing systems, is one of the main issues I have to talk about with them. And though I will always try to do so with the gentleness, sensitivity, and humility that friends show to each other, I will have to challenge my religious friends and their communities, as I and my church have been challenged, by this God of Jesus who, as Pieris puts it, has formed a special “defense pact with the poor.”xx When I talk about the distinctiveness of Jesus in this way, I have found that my dialogue with others moves forward, even picks up speed.


So, to summarize my search for a dialogical Christology: I’ve come to understand and follow Jesus as the way that both challenges other ways by its distinctiveness and at the same time is open to being challenged by what makes other ways distinct.



Where I’m At


From this effort to look back over the past 40 years and to try to articulate how my call to dialogue with other religions has influenced my call to be a theologian, I came to a bottom-line realization that actually surprised me. My dialogue with others has not been only an undertaking that has informed and enriched my theological vocation and my “being a Christian.” It has become – I think I can put it this way –a “condition for the possibility” of being a Christian. It’s not just that as a Christian and as a theologian I have to engage in dialogue. Rather, without dialogue, I’m not sure I could be a Christian and a theologian. – That’s an existential and a theological mouthful, I know. I think I can make it more understandable by being more specific.


I can say this about my dialogue with Buddhism. At this point, it is difficult for me to imagine being a Christian without the “help” of Buddhism. My passing over to what Gautama discovered and his followers have passed on – through study, through friends, through practice – has not only enriched my Christian identity. Buddhism has also been a resource – really, another source of revelation – without which I could not have dealt satisfactorily with many key personal and theological issues that I face in trying to be an authentic human being and Christian in our world today – issues about the nature of God, the notion of the self, the meaning of redemption, life after death, the role of reconciliation and non-violence. Jesus the Christ, and his community, has been my primary, sine-qua-non, resource for dealing with how to grapple with and live out such issues; but Buddha, with his followers, have stood right behind, something along side of, Jesus.


That is why my main professional and personal goal in retirement is to write a book about this – how Buddha has helped me understand and follow Jesus. I hope the book will show what I’ve realized in preparing these reflections — that without interreligious dialogue I could not be a Christian theologian.




i These reflections were offered, at the request of Frank Clooney, S.J., to the Comparative Theology group at the Catholic Theological Society of America’s annual meeting, Cincinnati , June 2003.

ii Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1972.

iii Paulist Press. A revised edition came out in 1999, with Paulist Press.

iv Ibid., p. ix.

v James L. Fredericks, Faith among Faiths: Christian Theology and Non-Christian Religions,(New York: Paulist Press,1999), pp. 173-77.

vi For more on Rahim, see Paul F. Knitter, Jesus and the Other Names: Christian Mission and Global Responsibility, (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1996). p. 7-8.

vii Bernard J.F. Lonergan, Method in Theology (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972), pp. Xi-xii.

viii David Tracy, Blessed Rage for Order: The New Pluralism in Theology (New York: Seabury Press, 1975), pp. 43-56.

ix CTSA Proceedings 39 (1984) 52-68. x See for instance, James L Fredericks, “A Universal Religious Experience? Comparative Theology as an Alternative to a Theology of Religions,” Horizons 22 (1995) 83ff.

xi Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ (New York: Riverhead Books, 1995), pp. 79-81.

xii Aloysius Pieris, “The Buddha and the Christ: Mediators of Liberation,” in The Myth of Christian Uniqueness: Toward a Pluralistic Theology of Religions, John Hick and Paul F. Knitter, eds. (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1987), pp.162-64. xiii Mencius. 2A, 6.

xiv Edward Schillebeeckx, The Church: The Human Story of God (New York: Crossroad, 1990), pp. 5-6.

xv For more information:

xvi Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Toward a World Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1981), pp. 101, 126.

xvii Tellingly, of two recent books of mine that came out almost simultaneously (because they were originally intended to be one book!), the Christological Jesus and the Other Names has clearly outsold the ethical-methodological One Earth Many Religions.

xviii John B. Cobb, Jr. , “Beyond Pluralism,” in Christian Uniqueness Reconsidered: The Myth of a Pluralistic Theology of Religions, Gavin D’Costa, ed. (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1990), p. 91.

xix Die kirchliche Dogmatik, IV/3, pp. 40-187.

xx Aloysius Pieris, God’s Reign for God’s Poor: A Return to the Jesus Formula (Sri Lanka: Tulana Research Centre, 1998), Chapter 4.




Prof. Paul F. Knitter had written numerous of valuable and constructive books on interreligious dialogue. Prof. Knitter and CRCS have been tightening a friendship since 2003 when he came to deliver a lecture on Inter-Religious Dialogue in CRCS. His book entitled “One Earth Many Religions” had discussed in Yogyakarta in the same year. In May 2006, together with Farish Esack, a most prominent Muslim theologian, he came to address a research seminar of “Religion and Globalization” held by CRCS, Yogyakarta.




Paul F. Knitter
Paul Tillich Professor of Theology,
World Religions and Culture
Union Theological Seminary
3041 Broadway at 121st St.
New York, NY 10027
Tel. 212-280-1363

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