A Secular Age? Reflections on Taylor and Panikkar

Here's an interesting essay by Fred Dallmayr, comparing the thought of Charles Taylor and Raimon Panikkar (attached below).

Michael Schwartz shared this on the Facebook IPS site.  I wish I had read it earlier!  Dipping in now, I find a lot of points quite resonant with, and relevant to, issues I addressed in a paper I just finished on Bhaskar, Wilber, and religious pluralism.  It's too late to include these new references now, I expect, but this will be a great resource for a follow-up paper at some point.

Here is an excerpt from Dallmayr's discussion of Panikkar's book, The Rhythm of Being:

Along with other ruptures and dichotomies, The Rhythm of Being also refuses to

accept the split between the “vertical” and “horizontal” dimensions of reality. In fact,

despite its basically philosophical and meditative character, the book elaborates more

explicitly on present-day social-political ills than does the Canadian political thinker.

For Panikkar, dealing with the “rhythm of Being” cannot be a mode of escapism but

involves a struggle about “the very meaning” of life and reality—a struggle which has

to be attentive to all dimensions of reality, even the least appealing. “In a world of

crisis, upheaval, and injustice,” he asks, “can we disdainfully distance ourselves from

the plight of the immense majority of the peoples of the world and dedicate ourselves

to ‘speculative’ and/or ‘theoretical’ issues? Do we not thereby fall prey to the powers

of the status quo?” In language which becomes ever more urgent and pleading, he



Can we really do “business as usual” in a world in which half of our fellow-beings suffer from man-made causes? Is our theory not already flawed by the praxis from which it proceeds? Are we not puppets in the hands of an oppressive system, lackeys to the powers that be, hypocrites who succumb to the allure and flattery of money, prestige, and honors? Is it not escapism to talk about the Trinity while the world falls to pieces and its people suffer all around us? ... Have we seen the constant terror under which the “natives” and the “poor” are forced to live? What do we really know about the hundreds of thousands killed, starved, tortured, and desapericidos, or about the millions of displaced and homeless people who have become the statistical commonplace of the mass media?


For Panikkar, we cannot remain bystanders in the affairs of the world, but have to

become involved—without engaging in mindless or self-promoting activism. In a dis-

jointed and disoriented world, what is needed above all is a genuine search for the

truth of Being and the meaning of life—which basically involves a search for justice and

the “good life” (or the goodness of life). “We are all co-responsible for the state of the

world,” Panikkar affirms. In the case of intellectuals or philosophers, this responsibil-

ity entails that they “ought to be incarnated in their own times and have an exemplary

function,” which in turn means the obligation “to search for truth (something that has

saving power) and not to chase after irrelevant verities.” Genuine search for truth and

life, however, proceeds from a lack or a perceived need which provides the compel-

ling motivation for the quest: “Without this thirst for ‘living waters’,” Panikkar writes,

“there is no human life, no dynamism, no change. Thirst comes from lack of water.”

On this level, we are not dealing with epistemological, logical, or purely academic

questions. Quest for life and its truth derives ultimately from “our existential thirst

for the reign of justice,” not from a passing interest or curiosity: “We are dealing with

something that is more than an academic challenge. It is a spiritual endeavor to live

the life that has been given us.”


The quest for life and its meaning, in Panikkar’s presentation, is not simply a human

initiative or an individual “project” (in Sartre’s sense); nor is it an external destiny or

a fate imposed from on high. The reason is that, in the pursuit of the quest, the human

seeker is steadily transformed, just as the goal of the search is constantly reformulated

or refined. This is where Panikkar’s “holistic” or non-dualistic approach comes into

play, his notion of a constantly evolving and interacting triadic structure. As he writes:

“I would like to help awaken the dignity and responsibility of the individual by provid-

ing a holistic vision,” and this can only happen if, in addition to our human freedom,

we remain attentive to the “freedom of Being on which our human and cosmic dignity

is grounded.” From a holistic angle, the different elements of reality are not isolated

fragments but interrelated partners in a symphony or symbiosis where they are neither

identical nor divorced. “Each entity,”Panikkar states, “is not just a part, but an image 

or icon of the Whole, as minimal and imperfect as that image may be.” Holism thus

stands opposed to the Cartesian dualistic (subject/object) epistemology, without 

subscribing to a dialectical synthesis where differences are “sublated” in a universal  

(Hegelian) system. Importantly, holism does not and cannot equal “totalism” or

“totalitarianism" because no one can have a grasp or overview of the totality or the 

“Whole.” “No single person,” we read, “can reasonably claim to master a global point of

departure. No individual exhausts the totality of possible approaches to the real.” For

Panikkar, the most adequate idiom in which to articulate such holism is the Indian

language of Advaita Vedanta: “Advaita offers the adequate approach ... [because it]

entails a cordial order of intelligibility, of an intellectus that does not proceed

dialectically.” Different from rationalistic demonstration, the advaitic order is

“intrinsically pluralistic.”

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awesome - thanks for sharing this, I look forward to reading it

I like this:

"Holism thus stands opposed to the Cartesian dualistic (subject/object) epistemology, without subscribing to a dialectical synthesis where differences are 'sublated' in a universal (Hegelian) system. Importantly, holism does not and cannot equal 'totalism' or 'totalitarianism' because no one can have a grasp or overview of the totality or the 'Whole.'”

But I seriously question this one:

"For Panikkar, the most adequate idiom in which to articulate such holism is the Indian language of Advaita Vedanta."

I'll have to read the article to get more on this.

You're welcome, William.  Nice to see you here.

Here are some of the initial comments from the FB thread:

BRUCE: Thanks for this, Michael. In it, Dallmayr quotes one of Panikkar's sayings that has been impactful for me: “Only worship can prevent secularization from becoming inhuman, and only secularization can save worship from being meaningless... Now, what is emerging in our days, and what may be a ‘hapax phenomenon’, a unique occurrence in the history of humankind, is -- paradoxically -— not secularism, but the sacred quality of secularism.” ~ R. Panikkar


MICHAEL:  Thanks, Bruce -- beautiful quote, you have focused this for me and its transmission force. I find Dallmayr especially interesting in that he is juxtaposing Taylor as still advocating a transcendent realm or direction of sorts, whereas the claim is that Panikkar is "non-dual" to the extent that immanence is not other than "trascendent" or better perhaps, if not quite right, "transcendental." For FD, this ends up for Taylor as a stress on the vertical over the horizontal and a bad dualism or binary cleavage. Indeed, these issues of transcendence, immanence, transcendental, etc. are at the heart of many Continental philosophy discussions as regards metaphysics and the like,where there aresaid to be more than philosophical consequences to the articulations of ontology and epistemics, or so the story goes. Whatever the merits of such discussions in Continental philosophy - Agamben wrote a paper on "Absolute Immanence" although the current discussions are wider than what is captured in his short essay - FD shows how such articulations can make a difference in how we relate spirituality to the everyday, as your quote makes so clear.


JOHN: Thanks Michael. I'm going to enjoy reading this. Fred was one of the speakers at a symposium on Panikkar last Friday in Baltimore. I'm also interested in knowing more about Taylor's thought. I may have more comments later.


JOHN: Thanks very much, Michael, for sharing this article which I’ve just finished reading. I haven’t read Taylor’s book although it had been vaguely on my radar, so I found Dallmayr’s summary very interesting. After reading Dallmayr’s characterisation of it, I’m not inspired to read it. I expected Taylor’s book to be less diagnostic and to take a more appreciative view of secularity than Dallmayr found, although Dallmayr’s is only one perspective. Maybe I should read the book and see what I find in it.
On the other hand, I have read Panikkar’s great book, “Rhythm of Being”, a few times and am now reading it again, each time finding more philosophical depth, wisdom and relevance in it. I think Dallmayr has done a terrific job of summarising some of its main themes, especially how a cosmotheandric view of reality, which includes the divine, the human and the cosmic or material as a rhythm of reality, is able to support and encourage a kind of sacred secularity able to speak urgently to the needs and searches of our times.
I very much like Dallmayer’s concluding remarks:

Rather than pursuing the contrast between the two thinkers, however, I want to
emphasize here a commonality. While differing in many ways, neither Taylor nor
Panikkar shows sympathy for theocracy or for any kind of religious triumphalism.
Being turned off by the megalomania and massive power plays of our world, both
thinkers are sensitive to new modes of religiosity—quite outside impressive spectacles
and miraculous events. As it seems to me, one of the distinctive features of our
age is not so much the “death of God” or the lack of faith, but rather the withdrawal
and sheltering of the divine in recessed, inconspicuous phenomena of ordinary life.
I think it is a really good article.

with peace, John

In the first section on Taylor DT accuses him of a dualistic formulation of immanence versus transcendence. I cannot comment on Taylor, not being that familiar with him. But in footnote 11 on p. 195 DT notes Taylor  privileges the transcendent and gets this from, of all places, later Derrida under the influence of Levinas. Whoa Nellie! Derrida's transcendental metaphysics completely by-passes the transcendent/immanent dichotomy, and is non-dual in ways I've expounded at length in the forum.

And not like the metaphysics of presence in Vedanta, which ironically is a paradigm par excellence of exactly the type of dualism DT criticizes. I've also expounded at length in the forum on how that form of dualism shows up in the Lingam's use of Vedanta, and Vedanta-influenced Buddhism. But I've yet to get to DT's interpretation of Panikkar's supposed Vedanta non-dual argument, so will comment on that forthcoming.

On 197 we get an idea of Panikkar's nondualism, which as previously quoted above has to do with "a constantly evolving and interacting triadic structure [...] the different elements of reality are not isolated fragments but interrelated partners in a symphony or symbiosis where they are neither identical nor divorced [...] without subscribing to a dialectical synthesis where differences are 'sublated' in a universal (Hegelian) system." One couldn't get more Derridaean and less Vedantic, at least the Vedanta I and kela have explored.

The Panikkar's quotes DT uses do seem to indicate the former sees his trinitarian vision as originating in, or at least consonant with, Vedanta. From all of my research I don't see Panikkar's notions in Vedanta, so I'm wondering if this isn't P's innovations being retro-read?

Panikkar's ideas are strongly influenced by Nagarjuna's Madhyamika philosophy, as well as some classical Christian mystic-theological concepts such as circuminsession/perichoresis, so I think it is certainly possible that his gloss of "a-dvaita" (not-twoness, non-dualism) is colored by these influences as well.  Panikkar's book, The Silence of the Buddha, offers a pretty philosophically rigorous unpacking of the emptiness doctrine, which he compares to Christian Trinitarian perichoresis/circuminsession.

So perhaps Panikkar is playing on the word "advaita" instead of making a direct connection with Advaita Vedanta, as DT claims?

Note: FD is the author and I've been erroneously referring to him as DT.

I haven't read The Rhythm of Being yet (beyond the introduction), so I can't say for sure (in the context of this particular book), but doing a quick search through it, I find as many references to Buddhism and Nagarjuna as I do to Vedic Hinduism and the Upanishads. 

As we well know, Buddhism arose in direct response to the metaphysics of Hinduism, including Vedanta. Madhyamaka particularly criticized its 'essential' nature, and Panikkar is also highly critical of such essences.

I did a quick search and from other references it does appear Panikkar did specifically cite Advaita Vedanta as FD claims. Given P's penchant for finding confluences or homeomorphic equivalencies between various religions I'm going to credit him with creating these resonances rather than them being there in the first place. And/or if there was some resonance it was through individual differences within those traditions rather than the traditional dogma from any of his cited religions.

Re-reading kela's post on Wilber and Advaita Vedanta:

"For Shankara, the teaching that 'Brahman is the world,' as found in the Chandogya and Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, is merely a propaedeutic teaching. This is to say that it is preliminary to the final teaching that Brahman and the world are absolutely distinct (vivikta)."

"Vivekanananda offers us three 'great sayings' (mahavakya) of Advaita:

'You are Brahman (tat tvam asi).'
'I am Brahman.'
'Brahman is the world.'

"The last saying is presumably a reference to the Chandogya Upanishad, which says in the third chapter, 'all (sarvam) this (idam) is brahman.' And yet, this saying is not one of the 'great sayings' of classical Advaita. Vivekananda has made that up. He derives this idea about Brahman and the world from Ramakrishna's tantricized version of Vedanta."

"But what about Ramana? [...] My own sense is that the teachings of Ramana are themselves heterogenous. This is to say that they are a mixture of the classical Advaita of Shankara, as well as elements from tantricized forms of Advaita. Ramana also made use of Tamil Shaivism in his teachings, as is well known."

Hi everyone!

I just read Dallmayr's review of Panikkar and Taylor - two thinkers I'm relying a lot upon for my thinking and research.

I generally like the piece, but Dallmayr definitely short shrifts Taylor; his preview of Taylor casts quite a restrictive and even shadowy gaze on A Secular Age; ironically, I myself try to read A Secular Age in continuity (nondual connection??) with Taylor's other works, thus taking his corpus as a whole into account -  and this has the effect of a far more sensitive, nuanced and constructive reading of SA than Dallmayr.

In particular, it has enabled me to differentiate in Taylor's thought between two crucial entwined but distinctive dimensions of this magnum opus: his A) "historical ontology" as Peter Gordon calls it (which has been critiqued by various historical specialists, not surprising and most welcome given the vast scope of territory the meta-story tries to cover) and his B) philosophical argument, which draws very much from 'holistic' epistemologies with an emphasis on embodiment via Merleau-Ponty  Heidegger, et al, and certain ecological sensitivity.

I think it's true that the outcome for the typical reader is to dualize, but that's what has made SA stick beyond the intellectual tower, and that's a basically inevitable consequence of historical narratives that compromise the complexity of philosophical insight by telling a plausible/persuasive story. That's the effect of the reception of the historical ontology, namely, to see things crudely, to meld it all together in ultimately highly problematic ways.  But that's where close reading is indispensable and we would do well to separate the more popular or hasty streams of reception from the more intellectually sound readings of this sort of giant text.  

Anyway, Dallmayr in this article is quite negligent of the philosophical depth and nuance that indeed informs Taylor's SA, even as the historical narrative complicates deciphering these different strands. Dallmayr is obviously favorably disposed toward Panikkar both personally and spiritually, so that shows itself, to me at least,  in reading the comparative reflection (I won't be able to consider his treatment of Panikkar here)

Also, Taylor is a realist in the sense that he holds that we can account for what actually has happened in intricate connection to 'lived' and 'felt' experiences and interpretations of the world. Moreover, if this gives the impression of dualism, well that's because most of the world for a thousand or so years in the west has believed and lived in such dualized forms of life and knowledge - again, him emphasizing this is primarily a historical move to capture the actual sense of how 'it has been', not a gesture of defending such dualizing poles (which as I said are inevitable for historizing broadly the way he does). 

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