The 2010 publication of Raimon Panikkar’s Gifford Lectures, delivered between 1988-1989, offers a rich summation of Panikkar’s incisive and comprehensive form of theological thinking. As “the first catalan, the first spaniard, the first Indian, and, with one exception from the Middle East, the first asian” to deliver the Gifford Lectures, Panikkar attempts “to convey something of the wisdom of all those countries and continents” in the lectures’ expansive content. Though enduring a 20-year delay in publication, Panikkar’s The Rhythm of Being is a work that encompasses the span of Panikkar’s life-long project in comparative theology.
Opening with an insightful Foreword by Joseph Prabhu (California State University Los Angeles), The Rhythm of Being takes up the perennial philosophical question – what is being? – vis-à-vis an enlightening diagnosis of an abbreviated history of theism in its variegated forms and figures: monotheism, deism, pantheism, polytheism, atheism, agnosticism, skepticism. Panikkar sketches the contours of theism in order to overcome the irreconcilable differences between a traditionally monotheistic Christianity and the contrasting pluriformity of Eastern faith traditions, e.g. Hinduism and Buddhism. More precisely, Panikkar claims to “make a short incursion into another culture [viz. Indic culture]…to deepen and enlarge the meaning of the word (theology)” (182). The reader is struck by Panikkar’s facility in oscillating between language and motifs of seemingly incommensurable religious traditions. The overall strategy of Panikkar’s theological method is to invite Eastern theological traditions, especially those of Hinduism and Buddhism, to shed light on the latent wisdom of Christian theology, e.g. the trinitarian construal of divinity.
The Rhythm of Being is divided into eight Chapters: (1) Introduction – introducing the chosen method and basic concepts involved in the book, e.g. being, rhythm, trinity; (2) The Destiny of Being – primarily linking the notion of ‘being’ with that of ‘becoming’ through a theology of creatio continua; (3) Ancient Answers – a lucid analysis of the ‘theistic mythos,’ tracing the diverse forms of theism and issuing a critique of monotheism; (4) The Dwelling of the Divine – assessing the relationships between philosophy and theology, logos and pneuma, and subverting the either/or thesis between monism and dualism; (5) The Triadic Myth – linking the notions of advaita and trinity to proffer a third way beyond monism and dualism; (6) The Theanthropocosmic Invariant – presenting “a cross-cultural universal” (268), viz. the God-human-cosmos matrix of reality; (7) The Divine Dimension – relating theory and praxis in assessing the ‘divine dimension’ of reality; and (8) The Emerging Mythos – tendering a new mythos that surpasses that of a monotheistic cosmology and a scientific narrative, assuming the form of the fragmentary yet ordered.
Needless to say, The Rhythm of Being is a lengthy text with not a little repetition, in effect weaving together an interreligious theological and philosophical tapestry that advances thinking God, the human, and the cosmos beyond the monadic tendencies of the West and the polyvalent expressions of the East. Panikkar recognizes the contemporary context of religious pluralism and interculturality, and for that very reason concerns himself with the question of the Whole that “appears only within the corresponding mythos about the real in which we happen to believe” (32). Panikkar’s aim is “to present a possible orientation” (11) – what could be called an ‘orientation of recognition,’ recognizing the ‘interindependence’ of the three unified parties of the ‘cosmotheandric intuition’: God, the human, and the cosmos. For Panikkar, such recognition is achieved through a generous yet ascetic path of contemplation, silence and purity of heart – “the witness of the third eye” (241) that beholds the ‘ontonomic order’ of a sacred ‘kosmology.’ Nevertheless, Panikkar envisions a ‘sacred secularity’ wherein “we cannot locate the Divine without destroying it” (320). The divine is inextricably enmeshed with the human and the cosmic, where being is becoming, and becoming is life, and life is the tempiternal creatio continua in which every creature is a co-creator in a perpetual rhythmic becoming.
Such a ubiquitous conception of the Whole manifests “the ultimate triadic structure of reality” (55) – an ‘adualistic space’ in which no logos gives itself without pneuma, and wherein the ‘advaitic intuition’ “harmonizes the Whole and the part” (30). Drawing from his earlier work, Panikkar asserts the homology between ‘Being’ and ‘Christophany’: “without necessarily having to subscribe to a christian interpretation, one of the most powerful symbols of Man is the figure of Jesus Christ encompassing (not to say incarnating) in himself corporeality (matter), humanity (consciousness), and divinity (infinitude)” (304). Ultimately, Panikkar insists that the ‘advaitic’ and ‘cosmotheandric’ intuitions are not accessed by discursive reason, but are revealed in and through “symbolic knowledge and an overcoming (not denying) of rationality” (212).
An important note, regarding The Rhythm of Being, is Panikkar’s choice to omit what would have been Chapter nine of the volume, ‘The Survival of Being.’ Panikkar’s deliberation concerning this decision is found in the Epilogue of the book:
While The Rhythm of Being levels sharp critiques against monotheism, prevailing technocracies and narrow empirical worldviews informed by an ideology of biological evolutionism, the book opens itself to a feminist critique for its unhappy choice to use the term ‘Man’ in reference to humanity (cf. 295-296, 400-401), and its employment of virtually exclusive masculine pronouns in reference to the divine. Though this problem has more to do with the shortcomings of the English language than oversight on the part of Panikkar, it presents an obstacle that the reader must look beyond in order to discover the riches of Panikkar’s thought.
Overall, Panikkar’s The Rhythm of Being is a masterpiece, collating a lifetime’s work in a systematic series of lectures that exemplify the task of comparative theology in order to proffer an adequate and convincing response to the question of being, and to stave off the threat of cosmic ‘unbecoming’ (377). Living with one foot in the East and the other in the West, Panikkar is able to effectively bring the great religious traditions of the world into fruitful conversation.