Raimon PANIKKAR, The Experience of God: Icons of the Mystery. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006. pp.141. $16.00. pb. ISBN 0-8006-3825-5. Translated from French by Joseph Cunneen.
Reviewed by Peter C. PHAN, Georgetown University, Washington DC, 2007

Readers scared by Raimon Panikkar's voluminous, multilingual, often dense and elusive writings, several of which are doorstopper-sized, will heartily welcome this slim book. Born in 1918 of a Spanish mother and an Indian father, holder of doctorates in science, philosophy, and theology, and author of more than 30 volumes, Panikkar continues to lecture and publish in his so-called retirement in his native Catalonia.

This volume originated from a series of lectures to theology professors at the Benedictine monastery of Silos, Spain, and though addressed to Christians, the book, Panikkar believes, will be of interest to non-Christians as well. Panikkar opens the book with a typical statement: "One needs a great deal of boldness, ingenuity, and innocence to publish a book today on the experience of God, especially one without any footnotes" (7). The reason for this is, paradoxically, that "there is no possible experience of God, at least in the monotheistic sense of the word"(7).

How then does not speak of God, even in a very small, footnoteless book? First of all, Panikkar reminds us that our God-talk is not about God as such but is ultimately about "the meaning of life, the destiny of the earth, and whether there is a necessity for a foundation. We ask ourselves simply: What is the ultimate question for each of us? For what reasons would we dare not to ask such a question?" (12). Secondly, for this kind of God-talk to be possible, Panikkar lays down nine rules or guidelines: God-talk requires a preliminary interior silence and a purity of heart; has its own style in not taking God as an object; involves our whole being; regards God alone; needs the mediation of belief; regards God not as a univocal concept but a multivalent symbol; includes several meanings; does not exhaust the divine; and leads back to a new silence.

But speaking of God presupposes or at least is contemporaneous with experiencing God. But Panikkar has already declared that "there is no possible experience of God." So why is chapter 2 of the book entitled "The Experience of God?" The experience of God Panikkar refers to is one that occurs not in a life of silence but in the "silence of life," that is, when we position ourselves at the source of being. This experience is made up of four constituents: the pure experience (the "instant of pure life"), the memory of it, the interpretation of this memory, and the reception of this interpretation in the cultural world. (In Panikkar's formula: E=e.m.i.r, where E stands for Experience; e for my personal experience; m for memory; and r for reception in the culture). The experience of God occurs in "faith" (which everyone has), is put into practice in "acts of faith, and is expressed in "beliefs" (which can change or be lost). The divine appears to us in three mutually inclusive aspects: cosmologically as supreme power, anthropologically as the plenitude of the human heart, and ontologically as the super-being.

But then what does Panikkar mean by saying there is possible experience of God? He means that the experience of God is not an experience of God as an object. As an objectless experience, the experience of God, Panikkar argues, is the "root of all experience" (40), coincides with the experience of contingency, leads us to prayer of praise and petition, overturns all our values, and breaks our isolation while respecting our solitude. Ultimately, it is the experience of God, not in the objective genitive, but in the subjective genitive, that is, the experience that God has of Godself, in which I participate. To discover this experience of God in the subjective genitive, Panikkar insists on the necessity of initiation.

The next chapter discusses the Christian experience of God. Panikkar begins with reflections on the Trinity (not dualism nor monism but advaita [non-dualism]), then distinguishes between "Christ" and "Jesus," makes use of three biblical texts (Acts 17: 28, John 1:18, and 1 Cor 15:18) to give an interpretation of the Christian God, and finally speaks of Jesus in terms of two other New Testament texts, John 10: 30 and John 16:7. Finally, Panikkar mentions briefly the "privileged places" of the experience of God: love, the thou, joy, suffering, evil, pardon, crucial moments, nature, silence, and propitious places, in other words, everywhere.

I may be forgiven if I end this review with a personal anecdote. A couple of years ago, after my publication of an essay on multiple religious belonging, I received a letter from Spain. I was shocked to discover that it was from Panikkar The handwriting is almost illegible, so I asked one of his former students who happened to be a visiting professor at Georgetown to decipher it for me. Thanks to his help I could understand where Panikkar agreed and disagreed with me. The letter is like manna from heaven for me, all the more precious since it came—gratuitously—from a world-renowned theologian to an unknown theological quantity. But it is not because of this that I say that The Experience of God is one of the most theologically profound and spiritually moving books you will ever read.


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