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A masterly lover of three religions

By Raimon Panikkar
Paulist Press, 160 pages, $19.95


This revised classic is about the art of communicating one’s religious faith. With footnotes and references in Greek, Latin, Sanscrit, English, French and German and scattered references to Arabic literature, this is not dialogue for dummies. This is the master speaking. He is speaking from his own pilgrimage from Christian to Hindu to Buddhist without ever ceasing to be Christian.

It isn’t the story of his journey, though. It is what he learned. He codifies his learning into attitudes, rules for discourse and areas that must be explored. He is keenly aware of the difficulty of the task he addresses. His philosophical models encapsulate moral and intellectual (especially epistemological) principles.

He compares talking to someone of another religious belief system to talking to someone who speaks another language. The principles of discourse apply to both with some symmetry. Any religion is complete as a language is complete. Most likely you can say everything you really need to say in your native tongue.

Your language is co-extensive with your understanding. If you learn new things, you learn them in your language; you can grow, change and be fulfilled in your own language. The same is true of your religion. It has everything you need. You don’t need another religion to express your belief or work out your salvation. You are, at first blush, self-contained.

Sometimes hints of inadequacy creep in. With Time’s man of the year having a French title -- entrepreneur -- we might realize we have little gaps, but tinkering will suffice.

It isn’t until we love someone with whom we wish to share our deepest soul and who doesn’t speak our language that we run into trouble. It is the other that draws us out of our language, our self. Our language may be obviously superior to hers in our estimation (English has half a million words, French only 185,000, for example) and we may be specialists in our language, but if we love her, we will learn her words. And we will learn what her words mean to her, how they function in her life, what references, nuances and conclusions support and are supported by her words. We will enter into her world.

To enter another’s world is a religious experience. Pannikar calls the talk between religions “intra” religious partially because the real dialogue ends up being within our selves as well as between selves. To enter another’s world is to relativize our own.

There are obviously more ways to say stick or red, and we can both prove it by merely pointing. The task deepens and grows richer when we talk of friendship, beauty or wisdom. It requires the kind of erudition and humility that learning another language does, especially if we go into any depth and learn the history, mythology, culture and cosmology in which the language or religion functions.

Pannikar has written a treatise on how to communicate with other religions. It is a treatise on dialogue, with all the effort, sensitivity, erudition, imagination and especially humility that real dialogue requires.

I’ve borrowed one of his fine models above, but he has five of them, ending with the mystical model: silence. He is as careful as the mountain climber he uses for one of the models (everyone approaching the summit by a different path, and no one fully realized at the top). He explains with erudition and clarity the philosophical, cultural and linguistic problems involved. He deals with the problem of pluralism and cultural hegemony.

He even has a lovely description of how a parish can be thought of as a subculture. It has its own history, its own dynamics and is unique. It also fits into and is shaped by but not totally assimilated by the larger culture. Parishes of every stripe must deal with these contexts and pressures daily on some level with varying awareness.

Pannikar, while an obvious academic with intimidating scholarship, places a great deal of emphasis on the moral and religious attitudes that are necessary to understand the other. He makes it “religiously” clear that to understand the other, we must share their viewpoint. We must enter into their world and experience their truth. Then, after taking the chance that we will be swallowed by their world, we discover our own truth more deeply in a way that sometimes appreciates and sometimes appropriates their truth.

With an educated leader, this could be a fine resource for a group trying to understand one another or two groups trying to reach out to each another. His models are clear and helpful, and his learning inspires confidence.

And perhaps most of all, the learned courtesy of this man who loves three religions, and in them, all religions, is as refreshing as love.

Clarence Thomson is a freelance writer and theologian who teaches scripture in an ecumenical setting.

National Catholic Reporter, February 11, 2000