Friday, 15 September 2017

Without Buddha

Written by By Rev. Michael Barnes, Chairperson of the Relations with Other Faiths Working Group and Gordon Uniting Church Minister

As Gordon Uniting Church marks Interfaith September, I am reading, ‘Without Buddha, I could not be a Christian’ by the Catholic theologian Paul Knitter.

In his book, Knitter describes some of his struggles in faith to hold onto, and more importantly be nourished by, traditional understandings of God.

He nominates the belief that God is separate from the world, all-powerful, perfect, unchanging and self-sufficient; that God is the ultimate Being, who intervenes in the world at times of his own choosing.

Knitter is dissatisfied with these concepts because they do not adequately convey an experience of boundless love.

I highlight the word ‘experience’ advisedly. Knitter is suspicious of the words, thoughts, and beliefs required by orthodoxy but not borne out of human experience.

‘Unless God is an experience, whatever words we use for the Divine will be without content, like road signs pointing nowhere, like light bulbs without electricity, ’ he writes.

Knitter elects to ‘cross over’ to a different religion, Buddhism, to search for something new.

He discovers, across the divide, a very different set of insights into the ‘more than.’ I use this expression because Buddhism does not believe in God.

Having journeyed away from Christianity, he returns to it with insights distilled from a Buddhist framework: God is a verb, not a noun, as I John 4:8 asserts ‘God is love’. God is about relationship, God is about what happens between people, about new possibilities for becoming.

What is daring about Knitter’s insights is that while many Christians would agree that God does these activities, Knitter asserts that God is these activities. God is not a separate, divine Being, but the divine process of becoming.

I found Knitter’s insights helpful and challenging. They respond to a quest I am on to discover new ways of alluding to the Divine. Ways that both address me and speak more engagingly to this contemporary world. I use ‘allude’ because those who confidently claim to define God, in fact, lose God.

It is worth noting that the New Testament contains images and metaphors of God that fit Knitter’s concerns better than those of traditional Christian orthodoxy. For example, ‘In God, we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). ‘God, who is above all and through all and in all’ (Eph. 4:6).

More important, however, than different words and images for God are those ‘God templates’ buried deep within that can scarcely be put into words, albeit that we know and recognise very quickly when they are challenged.

Knitter’s insights burrow down to this unconscious level and confront those templates.

It certainly happened to me. I felt the ‘ground shifting beneath my feet,’ and while it was initially disorienting and challenging, it was not unwelcome.

In church last Sunday, the first day of Interfaith September, I said that ‘we need each other.’ I was referring to Judaism. Now, I wish to widen the ambit of that claim to other religions.

We need each other. We all are confronted with experiences of the Divine that defy easy description.

When we listen to others, we catch a word or a thought that expands our understanding of God.

We are blessed. We need not be afraid.


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