by Bruce Demarest
A number of attempts have been made in recent years to shape a Christian theology for the Asian experience. Efforts in this direction have tended toward the accommodation of the Christian faith to Hindu and Buddhist beliefs.
A number of attempts have been made in recent years to shape a Christian theology for the Asian experience. Efforts in this direction have tended toward the accommodation of the Christian faith to Hindu and. Buddhist beliefs. Among the many who have set out to create an Asian Christian theology perhaps the most prominent is Raimundo Panikkar, a theologian of Hindu-Christian background who has worked extensively both in. India and in the United States.
Two main traditions exist in Indian Hindu thought: one polytheistic and the other pantheistic. Working within the latter tradition, Panikkar seeks a synthesis of Christian faith with the non-dualist or Advaitist school of Hinduism represented by the Gita scriptures and Shankara, the ninth century Indian philosopher. By adapting the Christian faith to Hindu philosophy, Panikkar claims to do no more than churchmen such as Thomas Aquinas did when he interpreted the Christian faith along the lines of Aristotle.
The God of Panikkar’s Asian-Christian theology is not the living, personal God of the Bible, but the impersonal and formless worldGround, the All, or the Real. As the all-pervading Reality, God or Brahman transcends the limiting categories of existence and personality. The personal deities of the major religions- Yahweh, Allah, Krishna, etc.-Panikkar regards as symbols created for the benefit of those whose understanding of the Absolute is enhanced by human-like figures.
In an attempt to bridge the vast gulf between the Christian theistic and Hindu pantheistic world views, Panikkar claims that reality is trinitarian or "theandric" in character. His book, The Trinity and the Religious Experience of Man (1973), asserts that the principle of triunity permeates all levels of being, consciousness, and spirituality. In other words, the trinitarian concept of the Ultimate is not an exclusively Christian insight; all religions perceive the trinitarian character of things. Panikkar, in fact, argues that the trinity represents the junction where the spiritual dimension of all religions meet. Whereas the Christological model (e.g., Jesus as the sole revealer of God) possesses an imperialistic ‘ring, Panikkar’s trinitarian (or theandric) model supposedly allows for genuine religious openness. For example, the Hindu triad of Brahman (the Absolute, All, Real), Ishvara (Logos, Revealer of Brahman), and Atman (Soul or Self) is said to correspond to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit of Christian faith. Thus, for example, when the Hindu contemplates Ishvara, the agent of Brahman, he is said to acknowledge the Christ of Christianity.
According to Panikkar, God is known not by reflecting on biblical propositions, but through the existential theandric experience. That is, in a vital experience of grace, which involves the transcending of the self and the absorption of the experiencing agent, the totality of Reality is immediately grasped. Through union with the Absolute the embodied Soul becomes part of the All-Soul or Ground of everything. This mystical experience may be regarded as "the supra-rational experience of a ‘Reality’ which in some way ‘inhales’ us into himself The God of the Upanishads does not speak; he is not Word. He ‘inspires’; he is spirit. " In other words, the Hindu-Christian speaks not of a knowledge of God, nor of dialogue with God, but of union with the Absolute. The only fitting response, according to Panikkar, of those who have experienced union with the Absolute is silence, abandonment, and total nonattachment. Ramakrishna, the Hindu mystic, once sought to relate the indescribability of the theandric experience with a parable. A salt doll went down to the sea to measure the depth of the ocean. It wanted to tell others how deep the sea was. But this it could never do, for as soon as it entered the water to test the depth it melted.
All people of every religious persuasion participate in the experience of pure consciousness, or union with the Absolute. This primal experience of God as All-in-All cannot be adequately formed in words, concepts, or even in the worshipper’s thoughts. But since people inevitably try to verbalize something of the nature of their experience of God there necessarily arise the symbols and myths of religion. In other words, although there is only one experience of pure consciousness, cultural differences create a variety of different belief systems. According to Panikkar, "There is only one faith but many beliefs. Beliefs are precisely the different expressions of faith. " Thus the Hindu or Buddhist expresses his experience of the Absolute in symbols that differ sharply from those of the Christian or the Jew. On this showing, Panikkar’s Eastern adaptation of the Christian faith allows much room for doctrinal pluralism.
Panikkar laid down the principle that man’s basic religious experience is trinitarian in character. This assumption permits him to conclude that Christ is present but hidden in every man’s approach to God. Panikkar’s early work, The Unknown Christ of Hinduism (1964), appealed to Acts 17:23 to support his claim that there is a living presence of Christ in the Hindu religion. Paul in this text proclaimed to the Athenians the God whom they unwittingly worshipped. Panikkar thus concludes, "In the footsteps of Saint Paul, we may believe that we may speak not only of the unknown God of the Greeks but also the Hidden Christ of Hinduism. Hidden and unknown indeed! Yet present there, for he also is not far from any one of us." Christ is not only present in Hinduism, but he is secretly operative in Hindu piety, prayer, and worship for the purpose of completing his redemptive mission there. Christ, in fact, is savingly at work in all religions and ideologies. ”What Christ claims to be and to perform is valid for the Animist, Hindu, Muslim, etc., as well as for the Aztec, the Mongol, Greek, European, etc., as also for the Cro-Magnon man I for those who lived 15, 000 years ago as for the man of our time. ” In other words, when the Hindu, Buddhist, or Taoist is saved, he is saved through the second person of the "Trinity, even though he may be ignorant of this fact.
Since supernatural grace is mediated by Hinduism, Buddhism, etc., all religions are regarded as true and salvific. Employing the analogy of light, Panikkar argues that just as every ray of light refracted by a prism leads back to the source, so every religion is capable of leading its followers to God-realization. In fact, God normally saves the Hindu through the sacraments of Hinduism and the Buddhist through the rites of Buddhism. Moreover, through the attraction of an inner dynamic the world’s religions are slowly coverging toward a higher unity. The process of religious dialogue should continue until all people arrive at a common faith, which is destined to resemble the pantheistic religions of the East.
Panikkar’s program to effect a marriage between Christian faith and the spirituality of the East falters at the level of its philosophical foundations. The typical Hindu scheme of pantheistic monism, whereby all reality including man is an aspect of Brahman, diverges radically from the biblical visions of a Creator God who is distinct from the universe. Panikkar’s God is not a discrete personal agent with whom one can enjoy a mutual relation of trust and love. The God of Advaitist Hinduismviewed as impersonal, all pervading Reality-is far removed from the loving, free, and personal God of the Jewish -Christian tradition. Also Panikkar stretches the Hindu concept of Ishuara to accommodate the person of Jesus Christ.
Moreover, when Asian thinkers define knowledge of God exclusively in terms of mystical union with the totality of Reality, they fail to account for the cognitive dimension of knowledge set forth in the Bible. Knowledge of God in Scripture, which is both cognitive and experiential, involves an intelligent ordering in the mind of what is gained from the world of experience. The Bible enjoins man to know that God is one, that he is personal, powerful, righteous, and wise. Through objective revelation God’s character, purposes, and works are eminently knowable by man. Scripture, against Asian spokesmen such as Panikkar, inextricably links faith not so much to mystical enlightenment as to cognitive knowledge.
In addition, the monistic Hindu vision of salvation shares little in common with Christian soteriology. In the biblical scheme as the human soul enters into vital, spiritual union with the personal God through Christ his individuality and personality are raised to higher levels of authenticity. But in the Eastern scheme the consciousness of the human self is transcended as the soul is absorbed into the impersonal life-force of the universe. "I am Brahman"– the cry of the redeemed in Panikkar’s theology-is a pantheistic rather than a Christian utterance. The great diversity of religious experience, however, argues against Panikkar’s claim that all people experience ontic union with the Absolute.
In their drift toward pantheism, mystical apprehension of the Divine, and vision of truth as an endless circle, many Western theologians are moving Eastward. On the other hand, the old religions of the East are boldly venturing Westward. At this critical juncture of history thinkers such as Panikkar have undertaken to build a bridge between Christianity in the West and Hinduism and Buddhism in the East. In the days ahead such proposals will provide strong impetus to the increasing convergence of Eastern and Western religions. As mankind seeks solutions to humanly insurmountable social and political problems, he is likely to turn to a synthetic world religion not unlike the East-West model outlined above.
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