Raimundo Panikkar: Pluralism Without Relativism

by Peter Gorday

Peter Gorday, an Episcopal priest, is canon for education at the Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 6, 1989, p. 1147. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


According to the author, theologian Raimundo Panikkar addresses himself to issues of cultural and religious diversity “in a refreshingly tough-minded way” — a way that affirms pluralism without attenuating the particularities of Christian faith.

Panikkar understands what pluralism means and what it can offer us -- in his language, he is attuned to the "myth" of pluralism -- without succumbing to it as another "ism." His working proposition is that for modem persons of any persuasion "isolation is no longer possible and unity is not convincing since it destroys one of the parties." The embrace of pluralism "implies that the human condition in its present reality should not be neglected, let alone despised in favor of an ideal (?) situation of human uniformity. On the contrary, it takes our factual situation as real and affirms that in the actual polarities of our human existence we find our real being." This is the problem, so much discussed today, of the other as other, taken here with great seriousness and made the central challenge to human growth, and indeed to human survival.

Each of us represents in his or her uniqueness an irreducible quantum of lived experience. In order to claim this experience fully, however, and to discover the presence of God in that experience, each of us requires the presence of others; to be in Christ through our own experience, each of us needs the other. That statement can sound like just another call to community until one realizes how fundamentally Panikkar means it. Why such a mutual being-present with one another is so necessary, how such a presence can be brought to pass, and what it might mean for a deeper commitment to Christian faith, are questions that have absorbed Panikkar for years. He is convinced that this kind of pluralism constitutes the kairos of our times, a special opportunity given by God. Pluralism is the sociological "blessing" of the late 20th century, a true providential novum in which old forces of domination are collapsing.

Individual commitments, Panikkar realizes, can make people seem intransigent. In Panikkar’s view this happens not so much because they are obtuse or recalcitrant, but because what each has come to believe is grounded in personal experience. You can’t be talked out of that -- and Panikker’s point is that no one should try: our opportunity and obligation is to speak and to listen, so that heart will speak to heart across and by means of our differences.

This focus on experience is central to Panikkar’s thought. The unique aspect of experience is a measure of the concreteness of God for us, and is "irreducible, incomparable, incommensurable to any parameter of understanding"; it is, as Eastern and Western faith traditions all acknowledge, a manifestation of the fact that "religious truth is existential and non-objectifiable." Religious experience is ineffable since God is beyond the power of all symbolic media to express: this is why the religious traditions of the East have a special gift for those of the West, which tend to be heavily verbal and rational. Oriental culture in general can represent for Westerners a call to return to the suprarational, presymbolic, timeless and nonserial spiritual realities.

Panikkar is no obscurantist or anti-intellectualist, however, for he stresses that we must communicate what we experience. Experience must be interpreted, otherwise "myth and faith would perish the moment that the innocence of the ecstatic passes away." In fact, experience is inchoate even to the subject until it is captured first at the level of mythic expression, much of which is nonverbal, then in mythologies which cast myth into the form of narrative, then in fully conceptualized systems. where mythos, to use his term, has become logos.

Given the mythic formulations in which communication is carried on, Panikkar argues, the process must become a critical one. We must critically analyze one another’s mythologies across our cultural and religious differences in order to lay bare their roots in our experience of our differing truth claims. In this kind of dialogue, the parties must maintain their respective commitment, but they must also recognize that the ways in which they express those commitments are something less than, or a distorted picture of, the truth contained in experience itself. With this recognition comes a recovery of the humility about oneself and the veneration for the absolute transcendence of God that pluralism requires.

One assumption Panikkar makes -- one that reveals the Thomistic strain in his thought (he is a Roman Catholic priest, trained in Madrid and Rome) -- is that everyone has an experience of God (even the secularist, especially the secularist) and that everyone seeks God in the form of some absolute. This absolute is embodied in each individual’s experience in some concrete way; indeed, it can be experienced only in that particular embodiment. Thus, Panikkar insists that religious particularities cannot be dispensed with; they can be critiqued, but not discarded. Any attempt to abstract the absolute out of the concreteness of experience is doomed to fail; it is a destruction of experience itself, an intellectualizing destruction that reduces the living God to an object.

This situation sets up both an aniconic dynamic (get away from the embodiment in order to encounter what is embodied) and an incarnating dynamic (embrace God in the symbol or manifestation) In Panikkar’s project these two dynamics take the form of a hermeneutic journey: one is to strip away the mythology in order to discover the deeper myth by pushing a critical-dialectical dialogue as far as it can go -- not in order to discover what is at the center (in fact, the layers of the onion are the onion) but so reason will come up against its own limits. Having made all of our claims for the divine truth contained in this or that experience, we will suddenly discover that we are in the midst of a new experience, which is that of dialogue in the pluralistic setting.

Here, silence commences, silence which is the answer to the question pursued in dialogue. This kind of full or respondent silence is not a state of emptiness or bankruptcy; it is the fruit of a dialogue in which the parties begin to have a fresh awareness of the presence of God in an encounter that sharpens and focuses differences at the same time that it clarifies common goals and common roots in the one God. Differences are not dissolved in a mystical stew but regarded as a mutual good, something necessary to our own re-experiencing in the here-and-now of the absolute claim of the absolute God on our lives.

Hidden in Panikkar’s agenda is a post-Kantian restatement of the ontological argument: God finds us in the myth that contains our absolute aspirations, at the point where our longing is turned toward the infinite. In the pluralist dialogue where myths are critiqued, love will emerge as that absolute, and I will find "that I cannot love [my neighbor] as myself unless I take my place on the one bit of higher ground that will hold us both -- unless I love God. God is the unique locus where my selfhood and my neighbor’s coincide, consequently the one place that enables me to love him as he loves his own self without any attempt at molding him."

Much of Panikkar’s work has been devoted to clarifying the mythic structures contained in modernity (in "secularism") and in the major religious traditions of the East. With advanced degrees in the physical sciences, philosophy and theology, with personal connections to two cultural and religious traditions (one parent was Spanish and Roman Catholic, the other Indian and Hindu) , and with experience living in India, Europe and the U.S. (recently he has been professor of the comparative philosophy of religion and the history of religions at the University of California at Santa Barbara) , Panikkar is accustomed to thinking on a global scale. His books on Eastern religion deeply disciplined in their own resources; there is no slackening here of the call to communal particularity. Indeed, Panikkar thinks that religious dialogue has often been frustrated by an unwillingness to maintain one’s own position in all of its integrity, in all of its claim to absoluteness, while allowing others to do the same. But such a posture does not mean withdrawing behind the lines of a dogmatic stance, or into the confines of a sectarian life. To do that would be to ignore the reality and opportunity of pluralism. Panikkar suggests a way in which we might have our cake and eat it, a way to affirm the activity of the creating and redeeming God in all experience without abandoning the claim that is the foundation for the Christian community’s service to the world -- that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life, and that no one comes to God except through him.