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The Experience of God, Icons of the Mystery.

Raimon Panikkar

The Experience of God, Icons of the Mystery

tr. Joseph Cunneen

Knopf, 2007, xxiii + 534pp. $30

Christophany, the Fullness of Man

tr. Alfred DiLascia

Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2004, 214 pp., $30.

Author of The Vedic Experience, The Unknown Christ of Hinduism, and The Silence of God: the answer of the Buddha, Raimon Panikkar has offered steady criticism of our largely parochial, mediterranean Christianity. Growing up in Spain as the son of a Spanish mother and an Indian father, he was told at his Jesuit grammar school that his father was surely going to hell because he was a Hindu. This had a strong effect, motivating him in later years, after being ordained a Catholic priest, to spend at least half the year in India in order to become steeped in the Vedas. Retired from his position as professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, he lives in a small village near Barcelona, while continuing to write and lecture.

Panikkar has a deserved reputation as a demanding writer, largely because he draws on his extensive linguistic skills in presenting his ideas. This should give The Experience of God, a book without footnotes, a special appeal to readers who are not scholars. Its four chapters--"Speaking of God," "The experience of God," "Christian Experience of God," and "Privileged places of the experience of God"--present a reader's guide that proceeds through the stages of consciousness with clarifications needed to initiate the reader into the experience of God, an experience including both God's experience, and one's own human and cosmic experience.

Panikkar's primary audience is Christian, but philosophers, scientists and all who seek to understand connections among the major religions of the world will benefit from this book. His is an apophatic or negative approach to God, as beautifully shaped as its classical predecessors, but based on the pluralist foundations of religious traditions around the world and including many affirmations that engage the experience of divine mystery.

At the outset Panikkar reminds us of the etymology of the name or symbol "God"--who is neither a concept nor an idea, neither object nor idol. Correcting the reader's false assumptions, the author's non-dualist method allows the mind to focus on the meaning of his message. Nine steps make up the short first chapter, introducing Panikkar's method of refining our speech about God. It requires a preliminary silence to activate the "inner eye" of faith. God-talk is not reducible to scientific method. It involves our whole being, not just reason, but language, feeling, and consciousness. As symbolic, such speech reaches another order that uproots human absolutisms, expressing the contingency of all human enterprises, including political and religious agendas.

There is no primary analogue for God, no super-concept or abstract definition. Even though we compare different ideas of divinity in the study of religions, what is under consideration is a relationship with a symbol. We should accept pluralism rather than seek a universal theory about God because the divine is a dimension of reality itself. Eventually, as the last chapter emphasizes, God-speech "leads back to a new silence."

Next Panikkar offers guidelines to quiet one's mind, memory, sense, and desires, in order to open the inner "third eye" to prepare our experience. Overall, experience is structured by four "moments": 1. immediate, pure, instant life; 2. memory of a pure experience; 3. the interpretation of the experience as sensitive, spiritual, loving, of Being, God, etc.; and 4. reception of our experience in a resonant cultural environment. These moments can be seen in the experience of Jesus, the Christ. It was preserved by strong memories among his contemporaries, by spoken words and written documents which were interpreted by different communities. The reception progressed by tradition and eventually affected a "whole civilization". Experience writ large is the process of an initial mystical experience, followed by its memory, interpretation, and reception. Knowledge of this fourfold process is urgent because it allows us to relate to the religions of the world with an "ecumenical ecumenism".

Panikkar distinguishes faith, the capacity for God, which is deep in every human being, from belief. Stereotyping people into "believers and infidels" is insulting. God nourishes all people, though human institutions present difficulties. We should protest abuses of power, but we live in a human condition of disharmony, a kingdom of disjointedness, which requires maturity to negotiate. Structures need to adapt and become transparent, but they are needed as human social processes to provide wide access to the experience of God.

The mystery of divinity has three horizons, cosmological, anthropological, and ontological. The first provides the space and time metaphors common to classical views of the divine as it relates to heaven and earth. Anthropological horizons touch our inner sense of freedom and destiny, which is realized in Atman-Brahman, the Christ, Purusha, or symbols of justice and the perfect society. The ontological horizon opens to the divine beyond nature, the origin of all reality, the relation between immanence and transcendence.

Finally, the experience of God is fragmented. It calls for integrity, and requires solitude and detachment, such as Abraham showed in leaving his homeland and personal ambitions. Panikkar emphasizes "initiation", the personal path to arrive at the experience of God. We do not get there by desire or will. Many traditions require initiation, and provide persons to mentor the beginner. Today we need genuine masters who can lead fellow creatures, especially the young, into the experience of God.

The Neoplatonic tradition teaches that we each shape our own image, forge our own humanity. Although the Christian sacraments are initiations, we still need a guru, Jesus. Not as slaves of a master, but as free and responsible servants of the divine mystery. The experience of God requires a "passive attitude: yin". Truth searches us and must overcome our resistance and illusions. "The experience of God is not my experience of him ... To make God fall into my experience seems blasphemous to me."

Panikkar emphasizes the experience of Christ as fully divine and fully human. He emphasizes the non-dualist dogmas of Christians, incarnation and Trinity, since duality is negated in these foundations of faith. The challenge for our third millennium is to rediscover the Trinity in our personal lives and find the non-dualist dynamic at the heart of the world's religions. He believes Theocracy began to replace Trinitarian faith when the Roman empire became Christian. Christianity is not a religion of the Book, but "of the Word, of the living word that is heard and perceived in its transforming force by those who have "'ears to hear.'"

A central need is to overcome "tribal Christology", permitting Christians to recognize the work of Christ everywhere, without pretending to monopolize the mystery. Though doctrines and religious systems may be incompatible, "mystical communication" can cut across many frontiers. Christians are capable of participating in the ultimate adventure of the universe through Christ, in the Spirit, but without excluding other religious forms of a similar project. Such "ecumenical ecumenism", of course, requires a dedication to search for Truth.

Three New Testament texts illustrate the new, post-modern challenge to articulate the experience of God. 1. "It is in him that we have life, and move, and exist" (Acts 17:28); the emphasis is on the three verbs. 2. "No one has ever seen God" (John 1:18). Seeing is possessing and our Christian reality is non-possessive, self-emptying. With Meister Eckhart, Panikkar writes, "the eye with which we see God is the same eye with which he sees us." 3. "So that God may be all in all" (1 Cor. 15:28). We are part of a new creation groaning to be born (Rom. 8), part of the departure and return to God, of the Trinitarian dance.

Since God is everywhere, like the air we breathe or the water surrounding fish, a sense of place is an apt metaphor for the experience of God: "Every place is propitious for experiencing God if we know how to live in its depths." Panikkar's purpose in this book is "to liberate God from specialists and specializations", to make "the good news accessible to children, the humble, and the poor-to the people."

In his Epilogue, he writes, "The man of God does not consider himself identified or limited by any given label: Spanish, Indian, academic, philosopher, believer, Catholic, priest, or male." With these labels as with many superficial assumptions, one has to say, not this, and discover depth by letting go of what one clings to, practicing non-action, and detachment. Ultimately, Panikkar believes that the experience of God in all things and all things in God is cosmotheandric--the universe with God and humanity in a mutual indwelling.

The twelve woodcuts of Richard Kathmann draw on outdoor images that are suggestively appropriate to the text.

In Christophany, the Fullness of Man, Panikkar seeks to sharpen and deepen his reflections on the meaning of Christ. Seeking to uncover the spiritual foundations for the global mission of Christian theology, he reminds us: "God is always God for the world, and if the conception of the world has changed so radically in our times, there is little wonder that the notion of God is undergoing a corresponding change."

Such a change applies to Christology as well, because scholars of eastern religions are engaging in intense dialogues with western understandings of Christ and western theologians are attempting to explain the encounter with Christ for eastern cultures. Panikkar's personal history and scholarly career testify to the possibility of integration and a wholeness of faith within these diverse world views. The intent of the book, he writes, "is to lead to a personal experience of that mystery which can guide one's entire life."

He divides the book into three major components: 1. The Christophanic experience; 2. The mysticism of Jesus the Christ, the experience of Jesus; and 3. Christophany, the Christie experience. The conscious mystical experience of Christ in part 2 takes up more than half the book.

In Christophany Panikkar rotates his wonderful command of languages to help us see and hear all the facets and beautiful colors. Christian biblical texts often appear in Greek, transliterated Greek, Latin and English. Sanskrit, Hebrew, Spanish, French, Italian and German words and phrases illuminate almost every page. In reading Panikkar we hear the languages of many world religions in chords that create a world symphony of meaning.

The subtitle, The Fullness of Man, refers not to a gender bias but to each human being and the goal of all humanity. Christ opens each person to the challenging presence and power of the Trinitarian mystery, not fully given because we "remain free to construct our nature and thus become the image and likeness of Him 'who unites and gathers in himself the entire perfection of the true substance of things.'

The humanistic goal of Christophany is not an already-present divinization, but the challenge, task and summons to respond to our deepest potential, to discover the rich resources of divine action within us. To tune into the Christophanic experience within requires a deep sensitivity that allows absorption of the words of scripture addressed to us as hearers and disciples who enjoy the opening of a beautiful, living gift. Phenomenologically, "every being is a Christophany," a divine manifestation to humans. Our soul-selves are not the product of an ideological, bioneurological evolution but are the "aspiration for the infinite" that desires to "enter into communion ... with divine nature ... Christ 'divinizes man' only within the sphere of the incarnation and the Trinity ... the humanization of God corresponds to the divinization of Man." This profound relationship requires new words to express the cosmotheandric experience that expresses the interrelations between God, humans, and the universe.

The search for the mystical consciousness of the person and identity of Jesus Christ is frequently interrupted by glimpses of the empirical evidence regarding the historical Jesus. But the Christ "showing" to us is not the historical past, not the kerygma, creed or conciliar conclusion, which could lead to logical absurdities, but a spiritual vision of the third eye, an inner knowledge, the inmost reading of faith seeking cosmic understanding.

Panikkar tries to explain the incommensurable. Christophanic experience has few models or analogues because it is a real relationship that constantly moves between objectivity and subjectivity. Paraphrasing the question of Nicodemus in John 3:9, the author asks, how it is possible to remain, be immanent in another? This begins a deep probe into Johannine uses of the Greek verb "remain." Nine passages out of John's 68 uses of this expression lead to a new perception, the fruit of an experience of Christ's presence. Christophanic experience is not a physical light as much as an "ontological touch."

In John's texts, this experience, like Paul's Damascus conversion in which the spirit reveals the risen Jesus, is non-dualist, blending immanence and transcendence. It is not a "manifestation of God, not a meeting with the human beloved," not the conceptual algebra of western scholasticism, nor simple poetry or metaphor. It is an intercultural perspective in the language of mysticism, framed in a system of symbols that combine objective and subjective dimensions of reality with knowledge factors that possess multiple levels of consciousness.

Panikkar draws on many patristic and medieval theologians, quoting both classic and lesser-known passages from Aquinas. He cites Sankara with the familiarity western scholars quote Augustine. Moving from Hegel to St. Teresa of Avila to Psalm 62:12a, "One thing has God said, two things I have heard," the author points the way to the Christ created by the Holy Spirit and received in us to true conversion, the path to the life of inner freedom, liberation, and salvation.

Part 2 on the mysticism of Jesus Christ was written as a fuller response to a seminar Panikkar attended in 1990 on "Shivaitic and Christian mysticism," held in an ashram at the foot of the Himalayas. The seminar focused on the mysticism of the disciples of Jesus Christ. For the purpose of that discussion, Shiva's self-consciousness and Jesus' self-consciousness are incommensurable because "the homeomorphic equivalence of Christ would not be Shiva but his sakti ('energy, power')." One achievement of this foundation for the interfaith understanding of the mystical experience of Christ is the approach to Christ's mystical consciousness in a context wider than semitic history, or ancient mediterranean, Levant and hellenistic civilizations, in that it relates this dialogue with eastern world cultures and religions familiar to students of world religions.

While bridging cultural and religious languages, Panikkar also finds deep and wide meanings of Jesus behind New Testament texts that include the social, political, and economic situations of oppressed peoples. He addresses the dalits of India, for example, as representatives of the world-wide consciousness of Christophany that is opposed to structures of oppression and violence.

In his 1970 course on "Hindu and Christian Theology" at Union Theological Seminary in New York, Panikkar summarized his interpretation of the Upanishads with five mahayakyani (great sayings). He employs three mahayakyanis, or expressions of the divinity of Christ, from clusters of Gospel texts that are part of the mystical consciousness of Christ. Each of these texts is cited in Greek, followed by the Latin Vulgate, then by an English translation, and then by as many as eight alternative translations, usually 3 more English, 1 German, 1 Spanish, and 3 French in the footnotes. In addition to close exegesis Panikkar employs biblical paraphrase and soliloquies, finding analogies in eucharistic prayers and liturgies of the hours.

His analysis offers a brief application of three expressions, Buddhist and Hindu, to the Christ experience--Eva Me suttam, "This I have heard," Itipasyami, "This I see," and Sat-purusa, the expression of Christ as universal human being in his kenosis within the depths of our humanity and his.

Panikkar concludes with "nine sutras," threads that prepare a Christophany for the 21st century and interfaith understanding: 1. Christ is the Christian symbol for the whole of reality; 2. The Christian recognizes Christ in and through Jesus; 3. The identity of Christ is not the same as his identification; 4. Christians do not have a monopoly on the knowledge of Christ; 5. Christophany transcends tribal and historical Christianity; 6. The protological, historical, and escatological Christ is unique and self-same reality; 7. The Incarnation as historical event is also inculturation; 8. The Church is considered as a site of the incarnation; 9. Christophany is the symbol of the mysterium conjunctionis of divine, human, and cosmic reality.

Athough his book calls for philosophical reflection in regard to I and thou, self, and other terms, it has the capacity to set the agenda for interfaith conversations on the meaning of Christ for some time to come. Panikkar proposes a Christophany that leads to a vision of the identity of Jesus Christ in which one gets an insight into the mystery of oneself, others, the world and God. As Ewart Cousins wrote recently in America, "Panikkar is the greatest global theologian of the 20th-21st centuries."
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Title Annotation:BOOKS
Author:Lounibos, John
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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