As I was reading this book for review, news of its author’s death at Tavernet, Catalunya on August 26, 2010 at the age of 91 was spreading through the Internet. The news did not catch me by surprise as I was privy to Panikkar’s brief letter last December announcing to his friends that he was going to observe absolute silence and that he did not wish to be disturbed by communication from anyone in order to prepare himself for death. I thought to myself what a blessing it was for Panikkar to have such a long and productive life and at the end enjoy the rare opportunity to prepare for the final passage in full consciousness and constant prayer. I also recalled with deep gratitude his graciousness and generosity in sending me out of the blue a note, in indecipherable handwriting, soon after the publication of my essay on interreligious belonging, in which he pointed out where he agreed with my lines of reasoning and where I could (and should) develop them further. That a scholar of his stature would take time to write unbidden to an inconsequential theologian is indeed a mark of spiritual greatness and a gesture of intellectual generosity, which I will always treasure.
At first it seems ironical that a man who has written literally hundreds of thousands of words about God would vow absolute silence in the last days of his life. Upon careful consideration however such posture is perfectly consistent with Panikkar’s theology as presented in The Rhythm of Being. The book began its life as the 1989 Gifford Lectures, and it took Panikkar twenty years to revise them for print. In many ways it is Panikkar’s summa theologica, a handy (which is not the same as accessible!) one-volume compendium of the Catalan theologian’s scholarly labors. Introduced by Joseph Prabhu’s illuminating foreword, The Rhythm of Being contains Panikkar’s fundamental philosophical and theological ideas, especially his “cosmotheandric” vision, according to which God-Man-World (Panikkar insisted on the use of “Man”---with capital M—in spite of its possible sexist overtone) form a whole and relate to each other “rhythmically.” Readers of Panikkar’s earlier works (and they are multitudinous!) need no reminder that he never shied from bending old words and coining new ones to express his thoughts and from prefacing chapters of his books with Greek, Latin and Sanskrit quotations to hint to the ancient roots of his ideas.
As lucidly summarized by Prabhu, four fundamental theses undergird Panikkar’s philosophical and theological system: (1) Reality has a “trinitarian” structure (“God-Man-World”); (2) It is neither “one” nor “many” but non-dual (advaita), that is, it exists in differentiated unity; (3) It is open-ended, that is, its three components exist in radical relativity with each other (pratityasamutpada or creatio continua); and (4) It is “rhythmical” in character, that is, time is not to be conceived as linear, moving toward an eschatological end but “tempiternity,” the temporal and the eternal co-existing with each other.
The last thesis has radical consequences for how this book is ended. Originally Panikkar had intended it to be composed of nine chapters, with the last chapter entitled “The Survival of Being” and dealing with what is traditionally known as eschatology. Panikkar finally decided to allow his work to be published only if the last chapter were omitted. Panikkar’s reason for his decision is given in the terse epilogue: “I must admit that all ultimate questions cannot have final answers.... How can human thinking grasp the destiny of life itself, when we are not its owners? This is my humble conclusion to much presumptuous research. It has taken me twenty years to admit this, and I apologize” (405). Apology gratefully—but reluctantly—accepted. At the very least, it is highly fitting that these are Panikkar’s last published words. But no doubt Panikkar’s “last will and testament” sends a shiver down the spines of those who have the audacity (the “audacity of hope”?) to produce “lucubrations” (his word) on the “Survival of Being.” I for one (who have been repeatedly guilty of this sin) shall however pester my dear friend William Burrows for a copy of the deleted Chapter Nine, just to know what Panikkar’s lucubrations on the so-called “afterlife” have been. (Of course, for Panikkar there is no such thing as afterlife.) Meanwhile Panikkar’s words remind me of the answer of the world-renowned Roman Catholic biblical scholar Raymond Brown who, when asked whether he intended to write about the resurrection of the Messiah after producing hefty volumes on his birth and death, responded that he preferred to learn about it in heaven. Panikkar, we can be sure, is now enjoying the certain knowledge about the “Survival of Being.” Would that he could reveal it to us!
It is presumptuous to “review” a book such as The Rhythm of Being. There will no doubt be conferences and symposia on it in the near future, and Panikkar’s thought will again be the object of profound admiration and severe criticism, both of which have occurred abundantly during his lifetime. For now I am deeply grateful to Panikkar for that note he took time to write to me and am greatly honored to introduce his last work.