Paul KNITTER and Roger HAIGHT, Jesus and Buddha: Friends in Conversation: Orbis Books (Maryknoll, NY), 2015, pp. xvii, 253. $26.00.  ISBN 978-1-62698-151-5 (pbk.).  Reviewed by Joseph A. BRACKEN, S.J. , Xavier University, Cincinnati, OH 45207


In advance of my review of this book,  I should admit to the reader that Paul Knitter and Roger Height are long term friends whom I much admire for their courage in maintaining controversial positions in Christian systematic theology at no little cost to themselves. This present co-authored text, however, was deliberately conceived to be non-controversial since the book presents the equivalent of a sustained conversation between two Christians, one of whom is as much a Buddhist as a Christian.  As in a conversation, each presents his point of view on the issue in question (e.g., the teachings of Jesus and the Buddha and the roles they play in Christianity and Buddhism, the meaning of Ultimate Reality, the beginning and end of the cosmic process, human nature, word vs. silence in prayer/meditation, the relation between the quest for peace and the passion for justice as action-oriented goals in human life,  the advantages/ disadvantages of belonging to more than one religious tradition).  Likewise, they comment on one another’s position before they offer a consensus position. This is a novel approach to a book on interreligious dialogue, and it will be interesting to learn how much it will be used by teachers and how well it will be received by students in undergraduate classrooms.  It might turn out to be a benchmark for other books in interreligious dialogue.

By way of critical comment, I suggest that, while Knitter and Haight evidently want to present to the reader a spirituality that will address the urgent political, economic and ecological issues of our day, but neither in my judgement provides an objective norm or ontological ground for making responsible decisions about these same issues. Haight, for example, claims that God as Ultimate Reality “cannot be depicted as a person” but is instead “the non-dual, always-immanent presence everywhere of the Groundless Ground of Being” (86). This notion of the Groundless Ground of Being resembles A.N. Whitehead’s notion of creativity as the principle of activity or vital source of all entities, including God.  But, unlike Haight, Whitehead stipulated that God as the primordial instantiation of creativity keeps directing creatures (actual entities) toward the use of creativity for moral good and away from moral depravity.  Similarly, Knitter’s notion of Ultimate Reality as Interbeing and dependent co-origination remains abstract until exemplified in the ongoing relation between individual entities with a strong sense of personal responsibility (e.g., the three divine persons of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity who are one God in virtue of total self-giving love to one another). Only then are these abstract philosophical categories likewise normative for determining what is moral and immoral in human life. 

Underlying all these comments, however, is my conviction that one does not begin ethical reflection with sustained meditation by the self on one’s moral responsibility for others.  Rather, as Emmanuel Levinas noted in Totality and Infinity, in ethical reflection one should begin with the recognition of the Otherness of the Other (whether an individual or an entire community of individuals) and only by trial and error come to terms with the role that one should play in the life of that other individual and/or in the life of the community.  Or, as Hans Jonas argued more generally in The Phenomenon of Life, “religion, ethics and metaphysics are attempts, never completed, to meet and answer the question [of the meaning of human life] within an interpretation of total reality.”  Accordingly, metaphysics cannot be so readily dismissed as Knitter and Haight propose in this book even as they quite commendably follow the lead of the Buddha in seeking wisdom and compassion in sustained meditation and deep personal reflection.