Raimon Panikkar vs. The New Atheists: The Ultimate Smackdown


In honor of Fr. Panikkar's recent passing, I am resurrecting an old blog on his work that I wrote several years ago. I wrote the blog in the context of an ongoing blogosphere debate, at the time, around the work of the so-called New Atheists and the role and value of religion in the modern world. The original discussion took place on the Gaia website, which has been closed, so you will not be able to follow the links that were in my original blog to the other discussions mentioned, but I believe you will still be able to follow the main points of the piece -- which was to honor the work of a remarkable inter-religious pioneer and multi-tradition contemplative, and to look at what Integral practitioners might draw from his approach to deepen our understanding of cross-tradition and cross-level communication and exploration, and to refine and improve our rhetorical skills. (If you'd like to read the comments posted to the original blog entry, they are archived here...)


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Several months ago, reflecting on the discussions about the New Atheists I've been involved in with members of the Gaia website, and thinking back also on my earlier blog series on intersubjectivity and Integral Deep Dialogue, I decided it was time to write something in honor of the work of Raimon Panikkar. I first came across his work about four years ago while researching and writing on interfaith dialogue, and I was immediately impressed by his erudition, his prodigious intelligence, and his ability to masterfully navigate different worldspaces and to draw deep nourishment from them without (it seemed to me) compromising their integrity or merely appropriating them for ulterior aims. What wasn't immediately apparent to me, especially in his scholarly works, were his equally impressive warmth, humility, and humanity, all of which shine through in the video below.


Raimon Panikkar 1996


Panikkar, as a Catholic priest who considers himself equally a Hindu, Buddhist, and postmodern secularist, exemplifies the new dialogical, transcultural consciousness that is emerging in our age. His appreciation for the demands (and limitations) of pluralism; his belief that we are urgently called, at this point in history, to create new forms of consciousness, and new forms of spirituality, through deep dialogical encounter with individuals and cultures who are truly Other; and the fact that he sees this not only as politically necessary but as imbued with the potential, spiritually, to be truly revelatory and transformative, put him in stark contrast, in my view, with the Four Horsemen of the new atheism (and, of course, with apologists for most traditions, religious and secular). To explain why I think so, I will first quote from myself (this is something I first posted on Hokai's blog): 
 
Panikkar has been working for quite some time on a hermeneutics of interreligious dialogue. In particular, he has developed what he calls diatopical hermeneutics, which he sees as the foundation of dialogical dialogue. Diatopical means "across places" or "across spaces" and is to be distinguished from more common forms of hermeneutics -- morphological, i.e. taking place within the same overall tradition or cultural space; and diachronical, taking place within the same overall historical stream (of a particular tradition or culture). In either of the latter cases, there is a natural hermeneutic circle that is available for parties to enter into. But in the encounter between very different cultures and traditions, there is no such circle; in essence, it has to be created anew, and this is facilitated by what Panikkar calls the imparative method. The imparative method, according to Panikkar, is "the effort at learning from the other and the attitude of allowing our own convictions to be fecundated by the insights of the other." E.g., pursuing truth together, in dialogical dialogue. There is a sensitivity to the presuppositions of our own interpretive tradition, and a willingness to suspend them or hold them lightly enough that we are able to enter into the other's "circle," to see it from within, rather than imposing our particular interpretive categories upon them.
 
The imparative method is to be distinguished from the comparative method, which is what we find quite commonly in the current atheist-theist debates: an entrenchment in particular positions, an investment in argumentation, an effort to discredit the other's positions, a tendency to impose the categories of our thought onto the other, to "colonize" them with our assumptions. While I do believe there is a place for this sort of combative debate, it is insufficient and obviously one-sided. Really, it strikes me as a pre-Green artifact (both Orange and Blue use it, in different ways); and in the case of those who argue the New Atheist agenda, I have a sense that they have not really digested the lessons of post-modernism, much less moved beyond them into integral dialogical territory. 
 
This is not to say that the insights and criticisms of atheists and secularists are without value, or that they do not, in fact, serve a powerful corrective function, helping to dismantle mythic-level fixations and compensatory beliefs. Panikkar himself refers to the secular movement as a sacred one: he finds great value in the secular critique of traditional religions, agreeing with their diagnosis that these traditions have tended historically to exacerbate human alienation, fragmentation, and pathology. Theologically, as well, he believes the West took a wrong turn when it identified God, the depth dimension of reality, with a particular personality or entity. Panikkar's theology moves in the direction of non-theism, or what Wilber would call evolutionary panentheism. As Gerard Hall writes, "The mistake of Western thought was to begin with identifying God as the Supreme Being (monotheism) which resulted in God being turned into a human projection (atheism). Panikkar moves beyond God-talk to speak of the divine mystery now identified in non-theistic terms as infinitude, freedom and nothingness..."
 
(If you are interested in a more detailed discussion of what Panikkar means by God, see Nine Ways Not to Talk About God, published in Crosscurrents. And a good overview of his theory of multi-faith dialogue and interculturality, which includes a discussion of the Cosmotheandric Vision which informs his approach to postmodern, postmetaphysical spirituality, can be found here: Multi-Faith Dialogue in Conversation with Raimon Panikkar.)
 
Getting back on topic: When I criticize the rhetorical style of the New Atheists as a pre-Green artifact, I also do not intend to say that there is no occasion, from an Integral perspective, on which one might not legitimately use this approach. Ideally, Integralites have a whole pallet of tools to draw from, to employ as part of our skillful means. This would include the confrontational, strongly challenging rhetoric of someone like Harris (or even of my Integral friend, Julian). What I intend to suggest with this blog entry (despite its tongue-in-cheek title) is rather that, if Integralites are to enter more deeply into the current theist-atheist debates that the Four Horsemen have stirred up -- and I think it is actually a timely and vitally significant discussion to have -- then Raimon Panikkar can serve as a helpful guide in this endeavor, particularly if we intend to move past polarized positions into a fuller integral embrace of perspectives. Rather than simply bashing New Atheists for not being sensitive or nuanced enough, or condemning religion altogether because the majority of its practitioners are Amber, can we -- in the spirit of a critical and sensitive Integral Methodological Pluralism -- facilitate a meeting across places that allows for transformation and fecundation on all sides of this debate?
 
I believe Integral can play a powerful role here, if Integral thinkers -- on all sides of this issue -- decide this is, in fact, a dialogical encounter worth having, a process worth midwifing. And I am suggesting that Panikkar's ideas can vitally support Integral discussions of this nature, allowing us to enter more deeply into authentic intersubjective / interobjective encounters -- where Integral Methodological Pluralism is understood as an open process, a door to existential encounter and a creative unfolding of perspectives, not simply as a pre-generated, pre-digested map we impose on those we encounter.
 
As I mentioned above, some of the tools that Panikkar brings to the table are the notions of diatopical hermeneutics, dialogical (as opposed to dialectical) dialogue, the imparative method, and his cosmotheandric vision which is the basis for his faith in the possibility (contra many postmodernists) that transcendental truths may be discovered within and between multiple cultural perspectives: "The cosmotheandric principle could be stated by saying that the divine, the human and the earthly--however we may prefer to call them--are the three irreducible dimensions which constitute the real, i.e., any reality inasmuch as it is real... What this intuition emphasizes is that the three dimensions of reality are neither three modes of a monolithic undifferentiated reality, nor are they three elements of a pluralistic system. There is rather one, though intrinsically threefold, relation which expresses the ultimate constitution of reality. Everything that exists, any real being, presents this triune constitution expressed in three dimensions. I am not only saying that everything is directly or indirectly related to everything else: the radical relativity or pratityasamutpada of the Buddhist tradition. I am also stressing that this relationship is not only constitutive of the whole, but that it flashes forth, ever new and vital, in every spark of the real" (Panikkar, 1984). 
 
In addition to these ideas and tools, Panikkar also introduces the notion of homeomorphic equivalence. If we are to avoid simplistic comparisons between key elements of different world views (say, God and Brahman), such as have often been made in overly hopeful studies in comparative religion; and if we are to similarly avoid the simplistic, sweeping dismissals of powerful, deeply nuanced terms like God because of mythic associations, such as we find in the case of New Atheist rhetoric, then Panikkar's insight seems potentially very helpful. In simple terms, homeomorphic equivalence suggests that, instead of a one-to-one correspondence in terms of content (something we are never likely to find), there may be a functional correlation between particular beliefs, symbols, or concepts across cultures and religious traditions. 
 
Recognizing the homologous functions of key elements of different traditions, discovering them in deep dialogue with traditions through a process Panikkar calls topological transformation, we are able both to preserve the real differences that exist between religions or cultures (instead of ignoring or whitewashing them) while also allowing for the possibility of meaningful contact and transformative encounter. As Gerard Hall writes, "Although religions and cultures are profoundly unique, they may represent transformations of a more primordial experience that make each tradition a dimension of the other. If this is the case, then diatopical hermeneutics not only uncovers hidden meanings within another religious or cultural system; it also discovers hidden or repressed meanings within one's own." 
 
What awaits discovery in a theist-atheist (and -nontheist) encounter of this nature remains to be seen, but through Panikkar we have an invitation to move past the polarized dynamics that currently predominate in public debates of these issues (in the national media and the blogosphere) to a meeting which I believe has the potential to be fruitful and transformative for all parties involved. The New Atheists are interested in raising consciousness, as some bloggers have argued, and I agree with this and support their aim; but to truly raise our consciousness beyond the norms that prevail in scientism or even relativistic Green postmodernism -- in the war of words that is raging right now -- I believe we have to hold ourselves to a higher level of discourse, and enter into a more vulnerable and open existential encounter, than has been ventured thus far.

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Comment by xibalba on October 31, 2010 at 1:10am
Hi Balder

This is en excellent presentation of Raimundo´s work.
I like his view of secularism as sacred. In my own case I turned a secular very early in life because of the absurdities of the mythic religions. But a intuitive spark of our divine nature still remains in my depths. I could sense it when I wrote poetry and later in my reading of St John of the Cross. A good example of a secular manifest leading to a deeper analysis of the mystery of life is Erwin Schrödinger´s book "What is life?". In this book, I found a kind of answer to my interrogations. I liked the humility of his position,
The issues raised by the new atheists are of course very legitimate and they should be honored as true inquiry in the nature of cosmic order or chaos. It is good in this sense to go and elaborate on where they stop less their naive arrogance of course.
cheers
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