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Issue Date:  November 17, 2006

By Raimon Panikkar
Fortress Press, 141 pages, $16
Plumbing the numinous


Writing about the numinous can be a paradoxical pursuit. The ineffable, by definition, is incapable of being expressed in words. Yet mystics throughout the centuries have attempted to do just that, while realizing the limitations of language. One of the best recent attempts to do so has come packaged in a small paperback, Fr. Raimon Panikkar’s book, The Experience of God: Icons of the Mystery.

As with most of his writings, this work might appear to be syncretistic because Fr. Panikkar draws upon his Christian-Buddhist-Hindu background to attempt to describe how humans can approach the divine. Almost every sentence and paragraph can be misleading if taken out of context. However, the careful reader will see that the scholar takes a properly humble approach, drawing back each time he appears close to making a definitive statement.

One of Fr. Panikkar’s key points, in fact, is that discourse about God is different from every other kind of discourse because God is not an object. Because there are so many ways of understanding the concept of God, he says, no one has a monopoly on its meaning. “To pretend to situate God on our side, against others, is quite simply a blasphemy,” the priest writes.

After acknowledging that part of the difficulty of discussing God is that humans are flawed receivers of divine revelation, Fr. Panikkar draws on both the Christian Bible and the Hindu Upanishads to emphasize the need for purity of heart in the divine quest. At the same time, he draws a distinction between purity of heart and dourness of spirit, ironically noting that “Christianity, which ought to be understood as the religion of joy, is so frequently considered a sad religion.”

In one of the most dangerous parts of the book, Fr. Panikkar goes where many theologians fear to tread in examining the relationship between the worship of God and the practice of evil. “Religion has not only been an opiate but a poison as well,” he writes, “and it has served as an excuse for committing the greatest crimes and causing the worst aberrations.” While examining such problems as the concept of the fortunate fall and Satan’s collaboration with God in the book of Job, Fr. Panikkar concludes that evil cannot be explained, because “if it were grounded in a sufficient reason, it would be merely reasonable.” As with much in the book, his discussion of the relationship between the divine being and ultimate evil leaves the reader with a sense of awe and humility.

At the end, Fr. Panikkar has no pat answers. His final statement well sums up the journey on which he takes his readers: “The experience of God is the experience of the Mystery that governs our lives both within and without.”

Darrell Turner writes the annual religion section for the Encyclopedia Britannica.

National Catholic Reporter, November 17, 2006

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