NINE WAYS NOT TO TALK ABOUT GOD
The author has a precise idea not of what God
but of what God is not --
and even that idea falls under his
- 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
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
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 your house."
- 2. Speaking about God is a discourse that is sui
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
- 3. Discourse about God is a discourse of our
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
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
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
- 6. It is a discourse about a symbol, not about a
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
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
- 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
- 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
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Source: Cross Currents, Summer
1997, Vol. 47 Issue 2.