Raimon PANIKKAR, The Experience of God; Icons of the Mystery. Translated by Joseph Cunneen, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006, 143pp. $16, ISBN 0-8006-3825-5.
Reviewed by John LOUNIBOS, Dominican College, Orangeburg, NY 10962

Raimon Panikkar has given us yet another important book, a unique integration of fundamental insights into the major religions of the world. He has developed a language for religious pluralism that expresses a core faith in a time of globalization; its synthesizing element is "the experience of God." The four chapters of his book present a pedagogy that proceeds through the stages of consciousness that can initiate us into an experience that is both God's and our own.

Although Panikkar's primary audience is Christian, any philosopher, scientist, or non-specialist who wants to understand connections among the world's religions will benefit from this book. He employs a negative approach to God, as beautifully shaped as his classical apophatic predecessors, drawing on the pluralist foundation of world religions. But his method is not exclusively negative, since he makes many affirmations that draw on the reality of divine mystery.

In the first chapter, Panikkar reminds us of the etymology of the symbol "God." God is not a concept or an idea, neither an object nor an idol. Practicing a non-dualist method, he offers nine "propositions" aimed at refining our speech about God. Such speech requires preliminary interior silence to activate the inner eye" of faith—I think we need an inner ear as well. To speak of God "involves our whole being," not just reason, but "language, feeling, and consciousness." It aims at another order that uproots all human absolutisms.

God talk "needs the mediation of a belief" because the religions of the world are systems that differentiate the mystery of God by using their own cultural languages. Though we compare different ideas of divinity in the study of religion, what is under consideration is a relationship with a symbol. God talk "does not exhaust the divine." Panikkar proposes that we accept pluralism because we find the divine a dimension of reality itself, rather than seek a universal theory for God. He likes the terms immanent and transcendent for the divine because they lift the mind out of the tyranny of time and space categories, and help us rediscover a word, logos, that emerges out of the matrix of silence and to embrace time and eternity.

Chapter two, "The experience of God," opens with guidelines to quiet one's mind, memory, sense, and desires in order to open the inner "third eye" 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, of Being, with memory through language; and 4. reception of our experience in a resonant cultural environment. These four moments can be seen in the experience of Jesus, the Christ, which was preserved by strong memories among his contemporaries, and by spoken words and written documents, which were interpreted by different communities. Experience writ large is the process of an initial mystical experience, followed by its memory, its interpretation, and its reception. Knowledge of this process allows us to relate to the religions of the world with an "ecumenical ecumenism."

Panikkar distinguishes faith, which is deep in every human being, from belief. It is insulting to stereotype people as "believers and infidels." God nourishes all people despite the difficulties presented by human institutions. Structures must adapt and remain transparent but are needed as social processes to provide access for others to the experience of God.

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

The experience of God is fragmented. At the root of all experience, its depths make us human. Drawing on the Gita, John of the Cross, the Upanishads and Gregory of Nyssa, Panikkar stresses that it is ultimately mystical, beyond ego, narcissism and fear. Emphasing "initiation," the personal path for arriving at the experience of God, Panikkar refers to eight traditions that require initiation, or prior steps for the beginner. "To achieve the fullnes of our humanity in the world" we need guides, not as slaves to a master but as responsible servants of the divine mystery. This helps us understand that the experience of God requires "a passive attitude: yin." It is something that must be received: "the experience of God is not my experience of him...To make God fall into my experience seems blasphemous to me."

Christian experience of God ultimately derives its meaning from its non-dualist dogmas, the incarnation and the Trinity. Today's challenge is to rediscover the Trinity in our personal lives and find non-dualist dynamics at the heart of the world's religions. We need to remember that theocracy began to replace trinitarian faith when the Roman empire became Christian.

In distinguishing between Jesus and Christ, we distinguish the historical Jesus from the risen Jesus. The Eucharist is communion with the risen Jesus Christ, who lives here and now. Historical knowledge of Jesus provides identification, but "to know a person's identity, one needs love...Christianity is not a religion of the Book; it is a religion of the Word, of the living word that is heard and perceived in its transforming force by those who have "ears to hear." Christians must overcome a "tribal Christology," recognizing the work of Christ everywhere, not pretending to monopolize the mystery. Religious systems may be incompatible but "mystical communications" cut across frontiers. Christians can participate in the ultimate adventure of the universe through Christ, not excluding other religious forms of a "similar project."

Three New Testament texts illustrate the 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 Christian reality is non-possessive. Panikkar quotes Eckhart: "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 the new creation groaning to be born (Rom. 8), part of the Trinitarian dance, the perichoresis.

The final chapter discusses "Privileged places of the experience of God." Nine such places are explained as privileging this experience: love, the Thou, joy, suffering, evil, pardon, crucual moments, nature, and silence: "Every place is propitious for experiencing God if we know how to live in its depths." Each place is explained thoughtfully and poetically; they are like points in our human contingency at which God touches us.

In the epilogue Panikkar insists, "The man of God does not consider himself identified or limited by any given label: Spanish, Indian, academic, philosopher, believer, Catholic, priest, or male." As with many superficial assumptions, one has to discover the depth by letting go of what one clings to, practice non-action and detachment. The experience of God "in" all things and all things "in" God is cosmotheandric—the universe with God and with humanity in a mutual indwelling. The book is enhanced by eight illustrations of trees and woodland scenes by Richard Kathmann.


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