Tuesday, October 05, 2004

your first real dose of Panikkar

I've mentioned the priest and pluralistic thinker Raimundo (also Raimon) Panikkar several times on this blog, but haven't provided you with any significant samples of his thought. Panikkar is a religious pluralist, to be sure, but he doesn't fit easily into any of the standard categories in discussions of religious pluralism. If I were to describe his alignment, I'd probably call him a nondualistic pluralist, for simple lack of a better term. He's not exactly a convergent pluralist, nor is he a divergent pluralist. His views don't line up neatly with people like John Hick (in fact, it's safe to say he'd reject Hick's position outright), but at the same time Panikkar isn't on the same wavelength as S. Mark Heim (who quotes Panikkar with a great deal of respect).

Panikkar is an elegant, fascinating, even poetic writer. He speaks my language, that of image and analogy. Abstract ideas are beautifully rendered by him in forms we can relate to. His thought has influenced me on a very deep level.

I'm going to quote you a lengthy excerpt from The Myth of Christian Uniqueness. The book is a compendium of papers written by religious pluralists of several stripes; Panikkar's contribution is a chapter titled "The Jordan, the Tiber, and the Ganges," with the river being a constant metaphor throughout the text. I don't know whether you'll come away as charmed by Panikkar as I've been, but it's about time I gave you some indication of what he sounds like in his own words.

In what follows, Panikkar is outlining two responses to the question of Christian claims to universality, especially in the face of non-Abrahamic religions. In brief, he feels the two responses are (1) that "Christians should not claim universality," or (2) "the claim to universality is inherent in Christianity."

So we have two possible answers, both legitimate. Which answer we favor is more than just an individual's religious decision. Which answer the Christian body as a whole will favor is a political decision of immense historical consequences. Reality is not just given once and for all. The future of religions depends also on how the different traditions understand themselves and what kinds of decisions are taken. Christianity is also what Christians make-- or will make-- of it. Politics and religion must be distinguished, but they cannot be totally separated.

The first response will say that Christians should not claim universality. Christians should let the rivers of the world flow peacefully without pumping Christian waters into them or diverting their beds to the Dead Sea or the Mediterranean. They should not cross another Rubicon and inundate every country in the world. Christianity is considered as one religion among many, and Jesus, ultimately, the savior only of Christians. The relationship with other religions will have to be dealt with as an interreligious problem, like international affairs among sovereign states. In this case Christianity preserves its identity by differentiation. Christianity is unique because it is different. And this difference should be preserved. Tolerance, mutual respect, and good neighborliness are not at stake here. At stake is only the claim to universality of a certain Christian tradition.

According to this first answer, Christians should acknowledge the other traditions each in its own right. Unlimited growth is cancer and so would be an ever growing single Christian religion all over the world. The rivers should preserve their separate identities and so should the religions. The waters of the Ganga, or of the Huanghe or the Nahr an Nil (Nile), this first answer will say, contain too many salts (or pollution, if you want) and are too far away (philosophically, theologically, humanly) to be able to mix with the Christian rivers without producing major chemical and physical transformations. It is better, then, to keep them separate.

The second, probably still the most common, answer will say that the claim to universality is inherent in Christianity. Christianity is seen here as a privileged phylum called upon to unify the world, to "convert" the other cultural and religious streams into a Christian Amazonas, watering the entire planet-- in the process of which, of course, Christianity itself will have to change into a still more universal religion. With what right, this second answer argues, should we stop the growth of this Christian dynamism? Is it not the temptation of every revolutionary movement, once its leaders achieve power, to suffocate any further evolution? Has Christianity succumbed to such a temptation? Until now Christians have absorbed syncretistically the "good things" of the Mediterranean religions. Why cannot they do something similar with other religions?

The dilemma is this: many Christians feel that they are betraying their deepest beliefs if they give up the conviction that the christic dimension of their faith is meant to be universal. On the other hand, an increasing number of Christians are becoming dimly but painfully aware that the claim to universality is an imperialistic remnant of times that should be past, and that most followers of other religions feel this claim as a threat-- and an insult-- to their beliefs.

The present study will ambitiously try to solve this dilemma by showing that the rivers of the earth do not actually meet each other, not even in the oceans, nor do they need to meet in order to be truly life-giving rivers. But "they" do meet: they meet in the skies-- that is, in heaven. The rivers do not meet, not even as water. "They" meet in the form of clouds, once they have suffered a transformation into vapor, which eventually will pour down again into the valley of mortals to feed the rivers of the earth. Religions do not coalesce, certainly not as organized religions. They meet once transformed into vapor, once metamorphosized into Spirit, which then is poured down in innumerable tongues. The rivers are fed by descending clouds, and also by terrestrial and subterranean sources, after another transformation, that of snow and ice into water. The true reservoir of religions lies not only in the doctrinal waters of theology; it lies also in the transcendental vapor (revelation) of the divine cloud, and in the immanent ice and snow (inspiration) from the glaciers and snow-laden mountains of the saints.

My contention will be that the christic principle is neither a particular event nor a universal religion. What is it then? It is the center of reality as seen by the Christian tradition. But this vision is only the Christian vision, not an absolutely universal one. It is the christic universal vision. I shall pursue this metaphor, trying to show that no religious tradition has a monopoly on the living waters of the rivers (salvation) and that we should not water down the tenets of any authentic religion in order to reach religious concord. Elsewhere I have developed the pars pro toto effect inherent in this problematic. My metaphor does not stand for the transcendent unity of all religions in an unqualified way. It goes in this direction, but I should not like to confuse the actual rivers with chemically pure water. Each water is different, as is each religion-- each river carries its proper salts and micro-organisms. Nor should we forget that the waters undergo a transformation (of death and resurrection-- into water, snow, and again water), which alone allows them to go on fertilizing the earth.

Religions are not static constructs. No religion should fear to let its water evaporate when the climate becomes unbearably hot. The clouds will restore the waters when the heat of polemics and waves subside. Put in another way: not only is each water unique, but also every river contributes its shape, taste, and beauty to the religious world, which is the entire world facing its ultimate destiny. The meanders, ghats, ports, bathing spots, quiet ponds, quick cascades, tranquil and stormy waters belong also to the religious phenomenon. Whatever the "essence" of religion may be, living and actual religions are not essences, but concrete, powerful, and dangerous existences. Religious rivers are much more than chemical H2O.


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