“God is the activity of giving and receiving, of knowing and loving, of losing and finding,of dying and living that embraces and infuses all of us, all of creation.”
– Without Buddha I Could not Be a Christian, Paul Knitter
2010 marks the Fifteenth Anniversary of the Seton Cove as well as my tenth anniversary as Executive Director of the Cove. Both of these anniversaries have provoked me to think about what a treasure the Seton Cove is to our community. I think those of us who work at the Cove feel particularly blessed by all the thoughtful and loving people who come through our doors. And of course I think with gratitude and love about our founder, Sr. Mary Rose McPhee. For it was Sr. Mary Rose’s particular vision to insist that the Cove be interfaith. She is a great admirer of Pope John XXIII and the work of the Second Vatican Council, which called upon Christians to be protectors of all the major wisdom traditions, for without any one of them our lives would be immeasurably poorer. Sr. Mary Rose embraced this value, understanding that we learn from each other, and in the process our own faith is deepened.
Certainly this has been my experience and I know the experience of many of you as well. For example, working with my Buddhist colleague, Flint Sparks, has allowed me to internalize the teaching of Jesus in a much more spacious way. The study of Buddhism opened the box of my somewhat stale understanding of the Gospels and let my sometimes cramped and narrow image of God out into the fresh air of interfaith dialogue.
This is exactly what the Christian theologian Paul Knitter has done in his provocative book, Without Buddha I Could not Be a Christian. This book can be immensely helpful to those of us who find ourselves stuck with an image of the Divine Mystery that has turned to stone and become the “unknown god” St. Paul speaks to the people of Athens about in Acts 17:23. This is not the living God but a god that has been stuck in a niche somewhere and forgotten about.
It is a commonplace in spirituality to assert that the biggest obstacle to a deepening relationship with the mystery we call God is our current image of God. In my work as a spiritual director and teacher I find that in many cases individuals think that they no longer believe in God when all that has really happened is that they have outgrown their current image of God. In our “can do,” problem-solving society we can sometimes forget that God is Absolute Mystery. We can say things about this Mystery but it can never be defined. If you can define it, then it’s not God.
Dr. Knitter takes issue with the image of God as wholly transcendent other. His own experience of the divine has been one of relationship. He says, in fact, that our experience of God will always take precedence over creeds, laws, and church attendance. He concludes that this personal experience “may be mediated through a community or church, but it has to be one’s own.”
He turns to the Buddhist concept of Interbeing to breathe new life into his understanding of the Divine. Interbeing is ”the interconnected state of things that is constantly churning out new connections, new possibilities, new problems, new life.” Interbeing helps Knitter to see God as Divine Energy rather than an anthropomorphic figure in the sky. As he looks more deeply at his own Catholic tradition he finds that this is not so different from the Christian concept of the Trinity–the eternal energy of giving and receiving love–an energy which we too are part of as a result of the Incarnation. In fact the Buddhist concept of Interbeing brings him full circle again to St. Paul’s statement about the Divine in the Acts of the Apostles: “Indeed he is not far from us. For in him we live and move and have our being.”