NINE WAYS NOT TO TALK ABOUT GOD
by Raimon Panikkar
The author has a precise idea not of what God is,
but of what God is not --
and even that idea falls under his attack.
- RAIMON PANIKKAR, who grew up in Spain, the son of a Hindu Indian father and a Roman
Catholic Spanish mother, is a living embodiment of interreligious dialogue. Professor
emeritus of Religious Studies of the University of California at Santa Barbara, he now
lives in retirement in a small village near Barcelona. Among his major books are The
Vedic Experience; The Unknown Christ of Hinduism; Myth, Faith, and Hermeneutics; The
Trinity and the World's Religions; Worship and Secular Man; The Silence of God: The Answer
of the Buddha; The Cosmotheandric Experience; and Blessed Simplicity. Orbis Books will
shortly publish his Gifford Lectures, The Rhythm of Being. The present article
represents the first pages of a new book.
The following nine points are intended as a contribution to resolving a
conflict that tears many of our contemporaries apart. It would seem, in fact, that many
people do not succeed in resolving the following dilemma: whether to believe in a
caricature of God that is nothing but a projection of our unsatisfied desires; or to
believe in absolutely nothing at all, and, consequently, not even in oneself.
At least since Parmenides, the major part of Western culture has been centered
on the limit-experience of Being and Plenitude. A large part of Eastern culture, on the
other hand, at least since the Upanishads, is centered on the consciousness-limit of
Nothing and Emptiness. The former is attracted by the world of things as they reveal to us
the transcendence of Reality. The latter is attracted by the world of the subject, which
reveals to us the impermanence of that very Reality. Both are preoccupied with the problem
of "ultimacy," which many traditions have called God.
The nine brief reflections I am presenting say nothing about God. Instead, they
would simply hope to indicate the circumstances in which discourse about God might be
adequate and show itself to be fruitful, if only to help us live our lives more fully and
freely. This is not offered as an excuse but as perhaps the most profound intuition: we
cannot speak about God as we do of other things.
It is important that we take into account the fact that the majority of human
traditions speak of God only in the vocative. God is an invocation.
My nine-faceted reflection is an effort to formulate nine points which, it
seems to me, should be accepted as the basis for a dialogue that human conversation can no
longer repress, unless we accept a reduction to being nothing but completely programmed
robots. On each point I have added only a few sentences, concluding with a Christian
citation that serves as an illustration.
- 1. We cannot speak of God without having first achieved an interior silence.
Just as it's necessary to make use of a Geiger chamber and mathematical
matrices in order to speak knowledgeably about electrons, we need to have a purity of
heart that would allow us to listen to Reality without any self-seeking interference.
Without this silence of mental processes, we cannot elaborate any discourse on God that is
not reducible to simple mental extrapolations.
This purity of heart is equivalent to what other traditions call emptiness --
maintaining oneself open to Reality, with neither pragmatic concerns nor expectations on
one hand, or resentments or preconceived ideas on the other. Without such a condition, we
are only projecting our own preoccupations, good or bad. If we are seeking God in order to
make use of the divine for something, we are overturning the order of Reality. "When
you wish to pray," the Gospel says, "go into the deepest and most silent part of
- 2. Speaking about God is a discourse that is sui generis.
It is radically different from discourse about anything else, because God is
not a thing. To make God a thing would be to make God an idol, even if it were only an
idol of the mind.
If God were simply a thing, hidden or superior, a projection of our thought, it
would not be necessary to use such a name. It would be more precise to speak about a
superman, a supercause, a meta-energy or thought, or I don't know what. It would not be
necessary, in order to imagine a very intelligent architect or an extremely powerful
engineer, to use the term God; it would be enough to speak of a super-unknown behind those
things we have not come completely to know. This is the God of the gaps, whose strategic
retreats have been revealed to us during the last three centuries. "You will not take
the name of God in vain," the Bible says.
- 3. Discourse about God is a discourse of our entire being.
It's not just a matter of feeling, reason, the body, science, or academic
philosophy and/or theology. Discourse about God is not the elitist specialty of any class.
Human experience in all ages has always tried to express a "some thing" of
another order, which is as much at the basis as at the end of all that we are, without
excluding anything. God, if God "exists," is neither at the left nor the right,
neither above nor below, in every sense of these words. To want to place God on our side
like other things is simply a blasphemy. "God is not a respecter of persons,"
St. Peter says.
- 4. It is not a discourse about any church, religion, or science.
God is not the monopoly of any human tradition, even of those that call
themselves theistic or consider themselves religious. Every discourse that would try to
imprison God in any ideology whatsoever would simply be sectarian.
It is completely legitimate to define the semantic field of words, but to limit
the field of God to the idea that a given human group makes of the divine ends up by
defending a sectarian conception of God. If there exists "some thing" that
corresponds to the word "God," we can't confine it through any apartheid.
God is the all (to pan); the Hebrew Bible says this, too, and the
Christian Scriptures repeat it.
- 5. It is a discourse that always takes place by means of a belief.
It is impossible to speak without language. Similarly, there is no language
that does not convey one or another belief. Nevertheless, we should never confuse the God
we speak of with the language of the belief that gives expression to God. There exists a
transcendental relationship between the God that language symbolizes and what we actually
say about God. Western traditions have often spoken of a mysterion -- which does
not mean an enigma or the unknown.
Every language is conditioned and linked to a culture. In addition, every
language depends on the concrete context which provides it with its meaning and its
boundaries at the same time. We need a finger, eyes, and a telescope in order to localize
the moon, but we can't identify the latter with the means we make use of. It is necessary
to take into account the intrinsic inadequacy of every form of expression. For example,
the proofs of the existence of God that were developed during the period of Christian
scholasticism can only demonstrate the nonirrationality of divine existence to those who
already believe in God. Otherwise, how would they be able to know that the proof
demonstrates what they are looking for?
- 6. It is a discourse about a symbol, not about a concept.
God cannot be made the object of any knowledge or any belief. God is a symbol
that is both revealed and hidden in the very symbol of which we are speaking. The symbol
is a symbol because it symbolizes, not because it is interpreted as such. There is no
possible hermeneutic for a symbol because it itself is the hermeneutic. What we make use
of in order to interpret a so-called symbol is the true symbol.
If language is only an instrument to designate objects, there could be no
possible discourse about God. Human beings do not speak simply in order to transmit
information, but because they feel the intrinsic necessity to speak -- that is, to live
fully by participating linguistically in a given universe.
"No one has ever seen God," St. John says.
- 7. Speaking about God is, by necessity, a polysemic discourse.
It cannot be limited to a strictly analogical discourse. It cannot have a primum
analogatum since there cannot be a meta-culture out of which discourse is constituted.
That would already be a culture. There exist many concepts about God, but none
"conceive of" God. This means that to try to limit, define, or conceive of God
is a contradictory enterprise: what is produced by it would be only a creation of the
mind, a creature.
"God is larger than our heart," St. John says in one of his
- 8. God is not the only symbol to indicate what the word "God"
wishes to transmit.
Pluralism is inherent, at the very least, in the human condition. We cannot
"understand" or signify what the word "God" means in terms of a single
perspective or even by starting with a single principle of intelligibility. The very word
"God" is not necessary. Every attempt to absolutize the symbol "God"
destroys links not only with the divine mystery (which is then no longer absolute -- i.e.,
beyond any relation) but also with men and women of those cultures that do not feel the
necessity of this symbol. The recognition of God always proceeds in tandem with the
experience of human contingency and our own contingency in the knowledge of God.
The Christian catechism sums this up by saying God is infinite and immense.
- 9. It is a discourse that inevitably completes itself again in a new silence.
A God who would be completely transcendent -- in addition to the fact that it
would be contradictory to hope to speak about such a God -- would be a superfluous, if not
perverse hypothesis. A completely transcendent God would deny divine immanence at the same
time that it would destroy human transcendence. The divine mystery is ineffable and no
discourse can describe it.
It is characteristic of human experience to recognize that it is limited, not
only in a linear sense by the future, but also intrinsically by its very foundation, which
is given to it. Unless wisdom and love, corporeality and temporality, are united, there is
no experience. "God" is a word that pleases some people and displeases others.
This word, by breaking the silence of being, permits us to rediscover it once more. We, we
are the ex-sistence of a sistence that permits us to be stretched out (in time), extended
(in space), substantial (with the rest of the universe) when we insist, in order to live,
on going on with our search, while resisting cowardice and frivolity, and by subsisting
precisely in that mystery that many call God and others prefer not to name.
"Be silent and know that I am God," a Psalm declares.
Some will complain that, despite everything I have just said, I have a very
precise idea of God. I would answer that I have, rather, a very precise idea of what God
is not -- and even that idea falls under the attack of this nine-pointed critique.
Nevertheless, this does not constitute a vicious circle, but rather, a new example of the
vital circle of Reality. We cannot speak of Reality while remaining outside of it, or
outside of thought, any more than we can love without love. Perhaps the divine mystery is
what gives a meaning to all these words. The simplest experience of the divine consists in
becoming conscious of that which shatters our isolation (solipsism) at the same time that
it respects our solitude (identity).
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Source: Cross Currents, Summer 1997, Vol. 47 Issue 2.