Where East and West meet – beyond dualism


Jesus Christ in meditation

The theologian Paul F Knitter in his book ‘Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian’, picks up the idea of dualism as a problem that particularly plagues Christianity. Dualism is where there are two distinct parts which are often opposites – and where there is a tendency to take the distinctions too seriously. The distinctions tend to lead to separation, and this then leads to ranking: matter and spirit, East and West, nature and history, male and female, God and the world, infinite and finite.

‘That’s the problem with dualism: it so stresses the difference between two realities, it so separates them, that it cannot then get them back together again and show how the two belong together, complement each other, need each other, form a genuine relationship with each other.…Christian dualism has so exaggerated the difference between God and the world that it cannot really show how the two form a unity.’

There are parts of Christian tradition and experience such as contemplation and meditation that do of course take us beyond dualism, where the God within – a God who lives and moves and has being within us and the world is not separate. However, the dominant voices and standard teachings instead still stress ‘the God coming down to me’ or ‘above me’, ‘the God out there’.

Knitter found that what the Buddha gave was what Buddha discovered in meditation under the Bodhi tree (the Tree of Awakening): an experience of what life is all about – the Four Noble Truths – suffering comes up in everyone’s life; suffering is caused by craving; suffering ceases when craving stops; the Buddha’s Eightfold Path stops our craving. The reality is of impermanence and the interconnectedness of everything. This insight is similar to what Christian mystics have experienced.

It was Karl Rahner who said that ‘In the future Christians will be mystics, or they will not be anything’. In other words, “God” must be an experience before “God” can be a word:

‘If you want to use words for God, make sure that these words are preceded by, or at least coming out of an experience that is your own. And it will be the kind of experience, that, in some way, will touch you deeply, perhaps stop you in your tracks, fill you with wonder and gratitude, and it will be an experience for which you realise that there are no adequate words.’

This is the shift from self-centredness to Other-centredness. Buddhists might use words like: Emptiness, Groundlessness, InterBeing, to describe what they are connected with. Christian mystics might rather emphasise what they are connected with: ‘one with Christ’, ‘the Body of Christ’, ‘Divine Indwelling’. Knitter explains the term ‘InterBeing’ as similar to the Trinitarian God where God, if we use the word at all, is a verb and not a noun or an adjective:

‘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.’