James Stengram

Parabola Magazine

God as a Verb PDF  | Print |

In this deeply engaging, honest book Knitter honors and recognizes the complex differences between two traditions while showing how closely related they are in their approaches to compassion and loving-kindness. As for the seemingly very different ways they view ultimate reality—non-theistic and theistic—he reminds us that all our words about God are symbols. Language itself is composed of symbols, and when we use words for God, they are fingers pointing at the moon.

Knitter, who holds a licentiate in theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and a doctorate from the University of Marburg, Germany, passes from his own struggle with a dualistic Christian belief to how a Buddhist may deal with these questions, then passes back again to what he has learned from Buddhism, which has helped him to retrieve and deepen his own Christian belief. Professor Knitter isn’t alone in his journey. Many of us are “double belongers,” a phrase he uses for people drawn into an interfaith dialogue that embraces two faiths.

“In the future Christians will be mystics, or they will not be anything,” Knitter states, quoting his seminary teacher, the twentieth-century Christian theologian Karl Rahner. Christian mystical experiences are unitive, allowing the experiencer to begin to feel “connected with, part of, united with, aware of, one with, something or some activity larger than oneself.” God is an experience. Knitter explains: “Christian saints and mystics have described this encounter with God as putting on the ‘Mind of Christ,’ and Christian literature includes such expressions as ‘one with Christ,’ ‘temple of the Holy Spirit,’ ‘the body of Christ,’ the ‘Divine indwelling,’ ‘participants in the divine nature.’”1

This is an understanding of the non-duality of God that begins for Christians with kenosis, the Greek word for emptiness. It is a way of understanding Christ as the “Incarnate Word.” The second chapter of Philippians, known as the Kenosis Hymn, describes the kenosis of Christ:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”

This is an encouragement to empty ourselves, to become as servants to one another, and to enter into the fullness of our humanity, and our full human potential. This practice of kenosis, of putting on the “Mind of Christ” and emptying our self, is one way a Christian may come to understand Jesus as redeemer, revealer, reconciler, and to accept him as savior. Knitter touches on kenosis when he explains that the “ideal of Christian life is to lose one’s own self-centered identity in the wider activity of the risen Christ-Spirit. It is to step back and let this Spirit live in and as us.”2 This stepping back or emptying ourselves of ourselves resonates with the Buddhist bodhisattva, who develops universal compassion and a spontaneous wish to attain Buddhahood not for his or her own sake but for the benefit of all sentient beings. It is also in the Bible, in Romans 8:26-27, 38-39 (RSV):

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.

27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.


38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,

39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Stepping back, letting the Spirit live in us, allowing the Spirit to pray in and through us, practicing meditation as a “Sacrament of Silence”3 as Professor Knitter suggests, emptying and letting go of the self,4 offers a way to nurture and grow within ourselves the graciousness of spirit that God gives to each of us in ways that are known only to God. Knitter’s work offers a way in which the mystery and light of Christ may become known through dialogue and practice with other sacred traditions; here the Holy Spirit of the Christian Trinity becomes boundless, without boundaries, without limitations, infinite in love, infinite in acceptance, infinite in potential, endless in compassion and wisdom.

The thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart expresses kenosis often in his writings: “God must act and pour himself into us when we are ready, in other words when we are totally empty of self and creatures. So stand still and do not waver from your emptiness.”5 Elsewhere the great German master writes: “Therefore discard the form and be joined to the formless essence, for the spiritual comfort of God is very subtle.”6 And famously: “Only the hand that erases can write the true thing.”7

On the Buddhist side, there is the experience of nirvana—Snyat or emptiness—and the related concept of dependent origination or arising. Knitter affirms that God is best understood as the “Ground of Being,” an idea introduced by the twentieth-century theologian Paul Tillich, and through our relationships. He points out that the contemporary Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh “translates Snyat more freely and more engagingly as InterBeing, the interconnected state of things that are constantly churning out new connections, new possibilities, new problems, and new life.”8

Understanding God through relationships is critical to Knitter. The source and power of our relationships are driven by the presence of the “Holy Spirit.” The importance of this concept ?is summarized by his statement that “behind and within all the different images and symbols Christians use for God—Creator, Father (Abba), Redeemer, Word, Spirit—the most fundamental, the deepest truth Christians can speak of God is that God is the source and power of relationships.”

Knitter continues: “To take this concept even further, up to the next level if you will, God as a verb 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. If we’re going to talk about God, God is neither a noun nor an adjective. God is a Verb! God is much more an environment in which ‘we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:29), or God is ‘above all things, through all things, and in all things’ (Eph. 4:6).”

To this reader, it seems that the more awake we are to this presence and this mystery, the more we will come to know God is here in this very moment, in the eternal now. This to me is the central message of Jesus when he teaches us that his relationship with God the Father (Abba) is intimate, eternal, and within.

This presence “above, through, and in” constantly calls us into relationships of knowing and loving one another all through our lives, filling us with the deepest joy when we empty ourselves (kenosis) for the sake of others, seeing and finding ourselves in others. This presence is what we feel when we are loved and accepted, when we love and accept others, and when we open and give of ourselves selflessly. As it says in Luke 17: 20-21:

And when the Pharisees had demanded of Him when the Kingdom of God should come, He answered them and said, “The Kingdom of God cometh not with outward show. Neither shall they say, ‘Lo, it is here!’ or ‘Lo, it is there!’ For behold, the Kingdom of God is within you.”

Knitter tells us, “A better image of creation might be a pouring forth of God, an extension of God, in which the Divine carries on the divine activity of inter­relating in and with and through creation.” This pouring forth of God is the engine or fuel of creation, but we as a “People of God,” created in the “Image of God,” are also a part of this pouring forth. How this all works is also part of the mystery.

Another way to say this might be: God as the Trinity is the silence and the stillness before all things, out of which all creation arises from the nothingness and emptiness that is without form and void, an image taken from the first chapter of Genesis—when there was nothing except God. It is out of this nothingness (no-thing) or emptiness that we all arise.

As a lifelong Christian, I have been taught my whole life that “the way of Christ” is a way that calls me to love others unconditionally with great compassion and loving-kindness. For myself, this is a call that I must answer by loving others in all their diversity of beliefs and ethnicity, even in all their suffering, and in showing them through that love how Christ lives and dwells within my own being.

In the sermon Jesus, The Way That is Open to Other Ways, Knitter quotes John Cobb, another Christian theologian, stating: “Jesus is not the way that excludes, overpowers, demeans other ways; rather he is the way that opens us to, connects us with, and calls us to relate to other ways in a process that can best be described as ‘dialogue.’

“If Jesus really is the Way that is open to other Ways, then dialogue with other religions and other believers, should be part of what it means to be a Christian. As many Asian bishops and theologians are saying, today dialogue is a new way of being in church. Today we are called to be religious interreligiously. Committed to Jesus and the Gospel we must also be open to other religions and believers.”9

As a Christian—even a Christian-Buddhist—someone grounded in Christ and intimately involved in this interfaith dialogue, I couldn’t agree more. Learning to value the truth and teachings of other faiths while sharing our own is another way for a Christian to be embraced by the risen Christ and to encounter the Holy Spirit at work in the world.

Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian
Paul F. Knitter. Oneworld (www.oneworld-publications.com),
2009. Pp. 336. $22.95 Paper

1 Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), p. 14–23.
2 Ibid., p. 88.

3 Ibid., p. 153.

4 See Roger Corless and Paul F. Knitter, eds., Buddhist Emptiness and Christian Trinity: Essays and Explorations (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1990).

5 Eckhart Society–His Teachings–Letting Ourselves Go–Sermon 4: http://www.eckhartsociety.org/ eckhart/his-teachings; see Maurice O’C. Walshe, trans., The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 2010).

6 Karen J. Campbell, German Mystical Writings (Continuum International Publishing Group, 1991), p. 91.

7 Urban Tigner Holmes III, A History of Christian Spirituality: An Analytical Introduction (New York: Seabury Press,1980) p. 151.

8 See Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1988).

9 Knitter, “Jesus, The Way That is Open to Other Ways,” http://www.tcpc.org/library/article. cfmlibrary_id=518, sermon.

A Conversation with Paul Knitter

Ron Starbuck: From a Christian perspective, how can an interfaith dialogue open us up to God?

Paul Knitter: Dialogue is necessary in order to be open to and learn evermore about the divine mystery that we call God. The whole purpose of the Christian church, the purpose of any religious community I would say, is to receive and to live the very life of that which we call “Ultimate Mystery.”

There is an awareness that this mystery of God, revealed for Christians through Jesus of Nazareth, whom we call the “Son of God” as a strong, powerful, saving, and transforming image of God, is always going to be greater than anything we can comprehend. As Jesus said, the Father is so much greater than I. In other words the Ultimate Mystery is always more than we can imagine. It is clear, therefore, that dialogue, opening our hearts and minds to others, is simply essential. Being a religious or spiritual person means realizing that there is always more to learn, always more to respond to, always more to be surprised by, and that those surprises can be provided for us in our dialogue with persons of another religion.

RS: In your role as a teacher at Union Theological Seminary, how do you see a new generation of graduate students and church leadership approaching religious pluralism?

PK: Union is an example of a growing awareness within Christian seminaries that other religions must be included in various ways in the curriculum and in the whole educational philosophy of the school. Christian seminaries are beginning to recognize that in order to teach Christian theology it is no longer sufficient to teach only the Bible, only the history of the church, only the teaching and doctrines of the church. All of that, of course, remains essential.

When other religions are included, and the dialogue is expanded to include other traditions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, and Native American spiritualities, it has two primary effects. For some students this engagement with other religions becomes an eye opener and a heart opener that calls them to do some further theological homework about how they have understood themselves. For other students this is an opportunity to answer so many of their own nagging questions about their Christian beliefs and identity, especially beliefs that hold up Jesus as the only savior.

To summarize, there is growing awareness among future Christian leaders that one can continue to be fully committed to Jesus of Nazareth as savior, as someone who can bring about profound changes for the good in life, and at the same time be truly open to what God may have to say and reveal through other religions and traditions.

Full commitment to one’s own identity, and true, authentic openness to the identities of others—this balancing of commitment and openness, this is something that is clarifying for many students. As it clarifies, it encourages their explorations. It makes theology an all the more exciting and life-giving experience.

RS: Is there a way for a Christian to be in a relationship with God as three distinct Persons found within the Trinity, but also in a more non-theistic transformative way, in a Sacrament of Silence?

PK: If we accept that God is beyond all our conceptual understanding, then we have to look at all our traditional ways of speaking about God, including the Trinity, as symbolic. My predecessor at Union, Paul Tillich, used to say that if you understand what a symbol really means you will never say it’s just a symbol. A symbol reveals, a symbol makes known, always suggestively. Our Trinitarian language is trying to express the way the Christian community came to experience the mystery of the divine that was communicated and embodied for them in Jesus of Nazareth. It is how they came to talk about the mysterious way in which this one reality of the divine is present in very different ways in our lives.

It includes God as the incomprehensible source of all reality as well as the expression of God as Word, God going out to communicate God’s self. And then there is the experience that the early community had of God as this abiding inherent spirit within our very being, that animates us, that reveals things to us, that calls us to love. So, there is the father, the son or word, and the spirit or animating energy.

Yet we have to remind ourselves that while these ways of speaking are very important for forming Christian experience and nurturing Christian experience down through the centuries, they are symbols. The mystery that they are indicating is beyond those symbols. We have to remind ourselves that the reality of God is more than can be caught and captured and stirred up in us with the image of a father, with a theistic image. The great Christian mystic Meister Eckhart realized this. He said we must give up God in order to open ourselves and experience the reality of God beyond God, the divine reality beyond all of our concepts of God.

I think Christians can still hold to their images of God by recognizing that they are symbols. At the same time, they can be open to the experience of the divine reality that is beyond God imagery, beyond our way of talking about the divine mystery as God. We need to get beyond symbols into silence. So, yes, I think there can be a kind of dual practice, which is especially called forth by the dialogue between Christians and Buddhists. Some Buddhists stress silence, and some Christians may stress symbols and images, and doctrines. Yet doctrines call to silence, silence gives life to doctrines. I think it can be a very enriching way of carrying on one’s spirituality—

double belonging, double practice, exploring various forms of practice.

RS: John 14:26-27 and Romans 8:26-27, tell us: “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” ... “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

When we enter into a practice of prayer and meditation, into a Sacrament of Silence, do you think the Holy Spirit is waiting for us in that space as comforter and counselor, to teach us all things, and remind us of what Jesus taught, and to give us his peace, God’s peace, the peace that passes all understanding?

PK: My simple answer to your question is a definite “Yes.” This is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit that is present, that is active, that is moving in ways that we cannot understand or foresee, and which are beyond our comprehension. When we do follow these forms of contemplative prayer, prayer in which we open ourselves to the Spirit, without necessarily thinking, without holding on to any image, when we open ourselves in profound radical openness and acceptance of what our faith tells us, we have the opportunity of deeply and personally coming to the realization that the Spirit is part of us, that the Spirit is given to us.

As a theologian I have read that section from Romans often enough, but I can also hear it within the context of our discussion on Buddhist-Christian dialogue. As I try to explain in Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, when I read those words from Romans with, as it were, Buddhist glasses, the words become all the more revelatory, all the more engaging. Paul is talking about the reality he calls Spirit. I call Spirit the reality my Buddhist teacher speaks of when he calls me to let go of all concepts. To let go and to open myself utterly to the present moment, in the trust that this present moment contains all that I need, that all that I need is given to me in my very being, in my very being lived right now, in this moment, in this particular context. That is the Spirit.

I hope that I’m not being too quick here but Buddhism has helped me to appreciate and be grateful for this wonderful, powerful image of the divine that we have been given as Christians: This setting aside of words and imagery and opening oneself to what St. Paul calls God as Spirit, letting that Spirit make itself (or herself or himself) felt within us, grow within us, to lead us. That is a beautiful passage, and I think it is a passage whose richness can never be fully appreciated. But I think Buddhism is a way of helping Christians possibly appreciate it a little bit more.

RS: Are the Buddhist concepts of Nirvana-Snyat and the Christian concept of Kenosis-Self-emptying two sides of the same coin?

PK: I would not want to say that Nirvana/Snyat and Kenosis/Self-

emptying are two sides of the same coin. That might be a little too neat and give the impression that there are no real differences between them. I would prefer to say that they are two different, but similar, fingers pointing to the same moon. In their different ways—

Buddhists emphasizing the practice of meditation that leads to prajna or wisdom, and Christians emphasizing the practice of social engagement that calls for compassion and justice—both of them attain basically the same goal of a radical personal self-emptying that brings about the realization that our true identities are not to be found in our selves. 



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