Books Theology of religions

A unitive pluralist approach to other religions

In chapter 2 of  Only One Way? Three Christian Responses to the Uniqueness of Christ in a Pluralistic World, Paul Knitter presents his thoughts, which fit within the fifth alternative in my typology of positions regarding other religions, unitive pluralism.


Paul Knitter’s theological method

For Paul Knitter, theology is an “open-minded conversation between the ‘two sources of theology’ – that is the ‘text’ of the Christian message and the ‘context’ of one’s place in the world” (48). God speaks to us on both sides of this conversation. The Bible has an authority that is “much more reliable than what I think God is making known through my own experience,” but its truth and authority become real and powerful only when the Bible makes contact with our experience (48). All of our talk about God is symbolic, and symbols should not be taken literally because there is always more to say, and different ways to say it, than is heard in the statements of the Bible or a church council (50).

The two most pressing theological issues for Christians in our time, says Knitter, are the many religions and the many poor. With these two critical issues in mind, Knitter calls us to do theology that is both liberative and dialogical (51). Knitter’s dialogue with other religions has enabled him to understand his Christian faith more deeply, and he is convinced that a world of global peace with justice can only be achieved through “globally co-operative dialogue of religions” (52).

Knitter’s understanding of God

Knitter identifies himself as a “double-belonger,” a Buddhist-Christian, because both Christian theologians (Rahner, Tillich and Panikkar) and Buddha have helped him to understand the Abba who guided Jesus’ life (52-53). In the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, Knitter discovers that the divine nature is a unity which absolutely requires diversity (53). After Jesus’ death, Christians realized that the God they had encountered in Jesus is a creating Mystery (Father), a communicating Mystery (Word or Son), and an animating Mystery (Spirit), that is, that “the one divine Mystery acts, and therefore exists, in these three really different but essentially related ways” (54).

This confession of God entails an assertion of mutual immanence or co-inherence between God and the world, in a way that process theologians have called “panentheism” (54-55). This is a two-way relationship through which God takes shape within the processes of history, and all reality is a “cosmotheandric process” (55).  The Buddha has helped Knitter to grasp this non-duality between God and finite reality (56) through their concept of “Inter-Being” (57). As such a being, God can only be known through mystical experience, both in the form of service and of meditational and prayerful silence (58). This Mystery “animates other religions as it animates Jesus and Christianity, enabling ever greater unity without being reduced to one religion (59).

Knitter’s concept of Creation and Fall

We must “engage creation not as a product of God but as an outpouring of God” (59). Because God is love, he had to create, so “there was never a time when God was not pouring out God’s self in creation;” both are eternal (60), but there may have been other creations or universes before this one (61). Creation is therefore best understood in evolutionary terms, in which God and everything else are co-creators, producing out of the “bewildering mess of chance happenings, . . . surprisingly new creatures that weren’t there in the beginning” (61). Thus, both God and the world are evolutionary (62).

“The truth of the story of Adam and Eve and of the serpent and the apple lies not in its historicity but in its message that from early on in the history of humanity, something went wrong” (62-63). Selfishnes was at the heart of what went wrong, and this has grown into social selfishness. So we should understand original sin as “a corrupting social or cultural reality,” something akin to what contemporary Buddhists call “social karma” (63). Buddhists can help us by identifying the cause of our selfish actions as ignorance, from which enlightenment will enable us to change, not because acting selfishly is sinful, “but because it is silly” (64).

Our focus, however, should not be on original sin but on original blessing – “we remain God’s children no matter what we have done. Divine love and divine grace are at our disposal” (64). We must change society, but “Jesus assures us that we can,” that evil need not have the last word (64-65).

Knitter on Jesus the Christ

For Christians, “Jesus is the transforming embodiment of the holy Mystery of love and Inter-Being that pervades all of creation” (65). We can speak of him in four ways:

  • Jesus  is the Son of God, but this is language that expresses the experience of Christians that to meet Jesus is to meet God (67). “Jesus as symbol participated fully in the divine reality he symbolized” and, since his divinity was the fulfillment of his humanity, we can expect “that others have also achieved this fulfilment so that they, too, can serve as symbols for the majority of us struggling to figure out who we are” (68).
  • Jesus is also savior of the world, but Knitter takes a dim view of the Atonement or Satisfaction model of Christian soteriology, which portrays, he proposes, “a God who sacrifices his own Son in order to satisfy his sense of justice,” like a “petulant and even an abusive father” (69). He prefers the Sacramental model, in which Jesus does not fix anything because there is nothing to be fixed, but he makes a difference by revealing the God whom he called Father (69). What appeals particularly to Knitter about this model is that “it also makes room for others, for other saviours in other religions.” Indeed, since salvation “comes through a revealer of something that is already to be found within creation,” there is a need “for other revealers for other cultures and other historical periods” (70).
  • Jesus is the risen one, which Knitter prefers to confess as a spiritual event, the key truth being that the Spirit of Jesus lives right now in the Christian community. This reading of the resurrection, rather than a physical one, has the advantage that it makes room for others, allowing for confessions such as the “continued power and presence of Buddha or Krishna in the lives of their devotees” (72).
  • Jesus is unique in that “no other saviour saves like Jesus,” but there may be other saviors who bring abundant life to people in different ways. Like Jesus, they are distinctive, and the religions associated with them “might enhance or clarify or correct the way we have understood the message of Jesus” (71).

Knitter’s understanding of salvation

Christian salvation is “both a mystical and a prophetic experience” (73). Its mystical dimension was expressed by Paul’s concept of being “in Christ,” an “experience of transformation by unification,” of being “empowered by a Power that is both beyond and within oneself” (73). To know Jesus in this way is to follow him, and so this mystical experience is “lived out as the prophetic experience of working toward the Reign of God,” which entails a concern for social justice (75). Salvation will have different meanings at different times and in different cultures, but its primary focus today must be working “for a more compassionate and just world order” (77).

Knitter on the purpose of the church

The church’s central purpose is “to carry on the mission of Jesus,” and this requires a community whose life and dynamic is centrifugal (79-80). But the mission of God “is bigger than Jesus and the Church. It has multiple expressions, throughout history, especially in the religious traditions of the world” (81). Consequently, mission must be dialogue, both proclaiming or teaching and listening or learning (83), particularly from  the marginalized in society (84).

Knitter’s hope

Paul Knitter concludes his position paper with an expression of his Christian hope, but it is open-ended, “an eschatology of ends that are beginnings” (86). He affirms the true presence of the Reign of God, and he acknowledges that it is also coming but, drawing another lesson from Buddhism, he proposes that we can beast realize the future by being fully mindful of, and responsive to, the present. When Knitter does express his final thoughts about the future, however, though he cites Jesus (on losing our lives to find them) and Paul (who no longer lived “because Christ lives as him”), Knitter’s vision sounds more Buddhist than Christian: “We will live on, not in our body-bound individuality but in the limitlessness of the divine life of Inter-Being” (90).

Knitter has approached these issues very differently from D’ Costa, and I’ll follow up in another post, with a report on the responses his proposal elicited from D’ Costa and Strange, plus any thoughts I want to add myself, after the three authors have all had their say.

Earlier posts in this series: Part 1, Part 2,


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

One reply on “A unitive pluralist approach to other religions”

If you are interested in some new ideas on religious pluralism, the Trinity, and panentheism, please check out my website at It previews my book, which has not been published yet and is still a “work-in-progress.” Your constructive criticism would be very much appreciated.

My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or “Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the “body of Christ” (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

* The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

After the Hindu and Buddhist conceptions, perhaps the most subtle expression and comprehensive symbol of the 3rd person of the Trinity is the Tao; involving the harmonization of “yin and yang” (great opposing ideas identified in positive and negative, or otherwise contrasting terms). In the Taoist icon of yin and yang, the s-shaped line separating the black and white spaces may be interpreted as the Unconditioned “Middle Path” between condition and conditioned opposites, while the circle that encompasses them both suggests their synthesis in the Spirit of the “Great Way” or Tao of All That Is.

If the small black and white circles or “eyes” are taken to represent a nucleus of truth in both yin and yang, then the metaphysics of this symbolism fits nicely with the paradoxical mystery of the Christian Holy Ghost; who is neither the spirit of the one nor the spirit of the other, but the Glorified Spirit proceeding from both, taken altogether – as one entity – personally distinct from his co-equal, co-eternal and fully coordinate co-sponsors, who differentiate from him, as well as mingle and meld in him.

For more details, please see:

Samuel Stuart Maynes

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