Can Buddhism Inform the Christian Understanding of God? ~ John Ankele & Anne Macksoud

Sunrise in South Texas. Photo: Angela Alston.

Love: the compassionate energy of the interconnecting spirit.

Excerpt of an Interview with Paul Knitter by Old Dog Documentaries.

Old Dog Docs: How has Buddha and your practice within the Buddhist tradition informed your understanding of who God is or what God is?

Paul Knitter: First of all, Buddhism made clear something that I had learned in my Christian study, when I was in the seminary, in the priesthood, that God has to be a personal experience. It has got to come out of who I am and what I find myself to be.

If God is not an experience—this I got from my teacher Karl Rahner—then I don’t know what I’m talking about when I use the word G-O-D, God. Buddhism stresses that, primarily. That is central to Buddhism. That for me has been a powerful challenge and a powerful reminder which picked up so much of what I had been taught in my study of Christian theology.

Where Buddhism then helped me to discover or how I might more deeply experience the reality of God was in the Buddhist insistence that truth—they don’t use the word “God”—but that truth, ultimate reality, the way things are is to be found, is to be found within myself and within this world.

In other words, what I call God is not an entity out there that has to step in to my life. Buddhism stresses, or affirms, that truth is that which we find within this world. So that it is not something that has to intrude, intervene, but something that has to be discovered.

[Buddhism] just answered so many questions, difficulties I had with what is often times an exaggerated Christian teaching, and talking about God as if God is this supreme entity out there. You know, God as this infinite father being, this super person. I feel that distracted you. You are looking out there rather than looking into yourself. Rather than looking around you and the world around you. So that was a tremendous help.

In the language of Paul Tillich, whose chair I have here at Union Theological Seminary, the ultimate concern of Buddhism is enlightenment. They talk about enlightenment as waking up to the fact—this is going to sound rather strange—waking up to the fact that all is profoundly interrelated. Nothing exists unto itself. Nothing has its own individual or individualized being.

We are all part of an interconnected reality that is vital, alive. That functions primarily through compassion or what Christians would call love.

These are the primary characteristics that I think all Buddhists would recognize as adjectives that you would use when you talk about becoming enlightened or getting a little bit closer to enlightenment. That ultimate reality consists of wisdom, awareness. Awareness of what? Of the interrelatedness of all and compassion. And when that interrelatedness is alive and well and when I am connected with it, I will feel. Not because I am told to, but because it is my very nature. I will feel as Buddha put it: “compassion for all beings” (for all sentient beings especially).

So, taking these Buddhist teachings and discoveries, I went back to the Bible. I went back to the question of tradition. I went back to what my teacher Karl Rahner talked about. And, I discovered with this Buddhist flashlight, looking at the ultimate as interconnectedness, this interconnectedness that is alive, this interconnectedness that by its very nature operates through compassion and love. I started going back and looking at some of the central teachings or symbols of my Christianity and one of them that just leapt out was spirit. This means that God is spirit. What is spirit? Spirit is that which animates. Spirit is that which fills us. Which moves in ways we can never truly perceive or forecast. But spirit is alive.

The symbol of spirit from my Christian tradition became alive with meaning, not just for my head but for my prayer, for my meditation: to feel or to imagine the ultimate God as this beautiful interconnecting spirit.

I am not a New Testament scholar, but my colleagues tell me that there are very few definitions of God in the New Testament. Maybe there are only two or three where it says, “God is…”. Those instances come from the writings attributed to John: “God is love.” “God is spirit.” Those are the two: love and spirit. Love is the compassionate energy of the interconnecting spirit. So you see, this is where God is no longer an entity out there.

I am not saying that Buddhism is the only way to discover this, certainly not. But Buddhism is a way of helping Christians to perhaps come to a deeper and I would say more personal, more mystical experience of God. That reality, that inspirits us with interconnectedness (another word for love) and that can hold us in its vitality and sustain us.

Buddhism has been a great help. And I have found it can speak to many Christians in this way.

Originally published at OldDogDocumentaries.org.

Paul Knitter is Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture at Union Theological Seminary and has for many years been a guiding light in the development of a socially engaged interfaith dialogue that focuses both on peace making and on addressing “the realities of suffering due to oppression.” He is author of many books, including most recently, Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian: A Personal Journey of Passing Over and Passing Back.

Old Dog Documentaries: Paul Knitter was interviewed for the documentary Jesus and Buddha: Practicing Across Traditions by the filmmakers of Old Dog Documentaries, John Ankele and Anne Macksoud. They write: “We are two ‘old dogs’ worried about the state of our world and saddened by the suffering we see all around us. Since 1985, we have produced and directed documentary films about the subtleties of individual human experience and the complexities of our collective challenges. Our work encourages thoughtful responses to the interconnectedness of all life. We hope it inspires viewers to become agents of change, determined to do what it takes to create a more just and peaceful world.” Learn more about ODD and Jesus and Buddha at the Old Dog Documentaries website.


Like elephant Spirituality on Facebook.

Ed. Caroline Scherer & Brianna Bemel

You must be logged in to post a comment. Create an account.

Solomon Reuben May 25, 2013 6:25pm

The film, Jesus and Buddha : Practicing Across Traditions (produced by John Ankele and Anne Maksoud) is extraordinaily alive, vibrant and real–all the contributors who present in this film are profound and genuine people. This film deserves the widest and deepest possible hearing/viewing. Not only Jesus and Buddha (important as this is in its own right), we must build on the inspiration of this film, such that inter-spiritual and inter-national dialogue may flourish in all forms. The essence (as I see it) is the need of dialogue arising from the oneness of us all–even as we are distinctive in a variety of ways. More than anything, the world needs open and unlimited dialogue. This film –Jesus and Buddha–is a shining example of what is more generally needed in our world.

anitawbrown Apr 27, 2013 3:52pm

He who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Revelation 21:5

SherL Apr 25, 2013 9:19pm

I was inspired by this article of seeing Christianity through the eyes of Buddhism. I think spirituality is going through a huge upheaval, a wave of change so great that none of us can fully comprehend what our understanding of it will be on the other side. One of the primary ways this will happen, I believe, is the opening up to other ways of seeing, of believing, and merging them into what we already possess within. It’s not a change of mind, but rather a growing outward into a new perception, a more full knowing of the spiritual world around us, a maturing of our own spirit here on this physical plane. I adopted this kind of open philosophy/belief system years and years ago after I left organized religion behind, and, funny enough, it’s brought me nothing but more knowledge, and, hopefully, a little bit of wisdom, and a definite clarity of who I am from the inside out. Take a chance & try it yourself. You’ll never be the same, I promise, but I think you’d never want to be the same again. 🙂

Read The Best Articles of the Week
You voted with your hearts, comments, views, and shares.

elephant journal

Elephant Journal is dedicated to “bringing together those working (and playing) to create enlightened society.” We’re about anything that helps us to live a good life that’s also good for others, and our planet. >>> Founded as a print magazine in 2002, we went national in 2005 and then (because mainstream magazine distribution is wildly inefficient from an eco-responsible point of view) transitioned online in 2009. >>> elephant’s been named to 30 top new media lists, and was voted #1 in the US on twitter’s Shorty Awards for #green content…two years running. >>> Get involved: > Subscribe to our free Best of the Week e-newsletter. > Follow us on Twitter. Fan us on Facebook. > Write: send article or query. > Advertise. > Pay for what you read, help indie journalism survive and thrive—and get your name/business/fave non-profit on every page of elephantjournal.com. Questions? Send to [email protected]