That's the question that the esteemed Paul Knitter asks in a new book featured in today's New York Times. And I think it is indeed a question that many of us explore as we start to get exposed to other religions and their beliefs. In his latest book, After the Baby Boomers, Robert Wuthnow, the sociologist from Princeton claims that many people in the younger demographics today are what he calls "spiritual tinkerers," meaning that they dabble with practices from one religion or another as it suits their needs and likes.
However, isn't this somewhat problematic? After all, we run the risk of being in the Catholic Cafeteria or more appropriately stated the world religion's cafe where now people no longer just pick and choose what CATHOLIC beliefs they wish to adhere to but they also are choosing across religious lines. Does this continue to make them Catholic or something else?
Knitter and the New York Times pose exactly that question with reference to his new book
“Am I still a Christian?” he asks in his new book. It is a question posed over the years by others, including some unhappy officials in the Vatican. But the question, he writes, is also “one I have felt in my own mind and heart.”
“Has my dialogue with Buddhism made me a Buddhist Christian?” he writes. “Or a Christian Buddhist? Am I a Christian who has understood his own identity more deeply with the help of Buddhism? Or have I become a Buddhist who still retains a stock of Christian leftovers.”
The struggles Mr. Knitter is writing about are not the familiar ones about sexual ethics, the role of women or the failures of church leaders.
His focus here is on what he calls “the big stuff”: What does it really mean for Christians to profess belief in an almighty “God the Father” personally active in the world, or in Jesus, “his only-begotten Son” who saved humanity through his death and bodily resurrection, or in eternal life, heaven and hell?
However much he tried, Mr. Knitter found that certain longstanding Christian formulations of faith “just didn’t make sense”: God as a person separate from creation and intervening in it as an external agent; individualized life after death for all and eternal punishment for some; Jesus as God’s “only Son” and the only savior of humankind; prayers that ask God to favor some people over others.
Mr. Knitter’s response, based on his long interaction with Buddhist teachers, was to “pass over” to Buddhism’s approach to each of these problems and then “pass back” to Christian tradition to see if he could retrieve or re-imagine aspects of it with this “Buddhist flashlight.”
He was not asserting, as some people have, that religions like Christianity and Buddhism are merely superficially different expressions of one underlying faith.
Here's my take: I practice yoga stretching from time to time with Fr Tom Ryan's great DVD. I'm taking those traditional poses and praying Christian prayers. But I'm not Christianizing yoga. Nor am I in line with Buddhist ways of belief. I am still a Christian who employs a practice of another religion to deepen his own Christian experience of faith. St Paul writes that we should glorify God in our body and I believe that we truly say that God is closer to us than our our heartbeat. When I do the yoga pose I am indeed more mindful of those principles and can see them more clearly throughout my day.
But let's also be careful here...there are some who I don't think take this in that vein and do in fact hold more of the Buddhist, or Jewish, or Shinto religions tenets more strongly than their Catholic birth-religion. There are others who start doing yoga for the more meditative aspects without ever considering the Catholic tradition of centering prayer first (or even knowing that it exists!). A friend of mine who considers herself Episcopalian once said to me: "I mean, I think Jesus was a great guy, but did he rise from the dead? Is he God? I doubt that sincerely." But yet, she still attended Episcopal services (more out of a political or social affiliation than anything else!). Perhaps she might be more religiously comfortable with Islam or Judaisim, since she doesn't believe in Jesus, but there seems to be some hold on her own birth religion that she has as well. Who knows? Perhaps the Holy Spirit is still working on her. And me...
For myself, I see nothing wrong with seeing beauty in the practices of another faith as long as one appropriates mindfully their own faith as their guidepost.