Rethinking the Trinity, Religious Pluralism, and Augustine 6—Raimundo Panikkar (By Keith Johnson)

Rethinking the Trinity, Religious Pluralism, and Augustine 6—Raimundo Panikkar (By Keith Johnson)

Post Series 
2—Augustine’s Trinitarianism
3—Mark Heim’s Trinitarian Theology of Religious Ends

4—Amos Yong’s Pneumatological Theology of Religions
5—Jaquees Dupuis’s Christian Theology of Religious Ends
6—Raimundo Panikkar’s Theandric Spirituality
7—Conclusions and Reflections

Today we wrap up an examination of four Christian theologians who are compromising the doctrine of the trinity in their attempt to make it jibe with modern day polytheism. Among the various perspectives is one common strand: a conviction that the doctrine of the Trinity provides the basis for a positive appraisal of non-Christian religions. This common strand has been traced using one of the most important books to come out in a while, which is Keith Johnson’s book Rethinking the Trinity and Religious Pluralism: An Augustinian Assessment.

This final perspective is from Raimundo Panikkar, who suggests that there is a trinitarian structure to religious experience. This common experience to every religion on earth comes in three irreducible forms of spirituality: iconolatry, personalism, and mysticism. Iconolatry is the religious exercise of worshiping a projection of God, what ever that may be, yet is only one form of religious experience. Personalism is the religious exercise of personalizing that projection of God simply because we ourselves are persons. Finally mysticism apparently solves for problems inherent in the personalist concept that makes God too much like one of us; the mystic form of religious expressions emphasizes the divine immanence. According to Panikkar, these three forms of religious experience apparently correspond to Father (iconolatry), Son (personalism), and Holy Spirit (mysticism).

Johnson points out, however, that Panikkar really isn’t interested in expounding on the doctrine of the Trinity per se, but rather to show how in the light of the Trinity these three forms of religious experience are reconciled. (145) As Panikkar himself says, “a trinitarian understanding of Reality [allows for] a synthesis between these three apparently irreducible concepts of the Absolute.” (The Trinity and the Religious Experience of Man, 23) A student of Schleiermacher or romantic spirituality will note how God is an idea that’s replaced with concepts like Absolute, Reality, World-Spirit, etc…, which is exactly what Panikkar does.

For Johnson, Father is not the same as the Nicaea-Constantanopalian definition of Father, but rather the recognition that the Absolute as ineffable is common to all religious traditions. (146) One may call that Absolute Brahman, Tao, or Father, but these are merely human designations of this ultimate ground of existence.  Likewise, Son is simply a symbol and representative of the Absolute in active, personal terms. (147) Therefore, Jesus Christ isn’t the only one true God, but merely a symbol who “represents one manifestation of a broader Christ principle,” mainly the embodiment of the mediation between divine and humanity. (149) Finally, “Whereas the revelation of the Father is an unveiling of divine transcendence, the revelation of the Spirit is an unveiling of diving immanence,” (149) which as Panikkar says essentially “signifies the ultimate inner-ness of every being, the final foundation, the Ground of being as well as of being.” (TandRE, 58-59) A student of Tillich and other forms of existential theology will note the obvious parallels.

In the end, “On the one hand, Panikkar claims that each of the spiritualities previously outlined represent legitimate responses to the triune God. On the other hand, he argues that no single spirituality is sufficient in and of itself.” (151) Only a trinitarian understanding of religious experience can provide the unity of the different spiritualities that is needed, all without doing violence to them in their individuality. Johnson notes how others have noted traces of the so-called vestiges tradition in Panikkar’s proposal. In short, vestigia Trinitatis is the belief that there are traces of the Triune God within the structures of creation. (152) This belief is most acute among Medieval theologians, like Bonaventure and Bernard of Clairvaux, but also Augustine. What Panikkar and others, like Catholic theologian Ewert Cousins, do is suggest that the religious experience of mankind is one such aspect of creation in which the trinitarian structure is found. They universalize the trinity in order to accommodate modern day polytheism. As Johnson explains, “Cousins suggests that Panikkar’s three forms of spirituality (iconolatry, personalism, and mysticism) represent a vestige of the Trinity. By explicitly linking Panikkar’s proposal to the vestige tradition, Cousins provides an important clue to understanding Panikkar’s proposal.” (156)

Well how does Johnson understand and evaluate Panikkar’s proposal? How should we? Particularly in light of Augustine? Johnson begins with Augustine’s understanding of vestige Trinitatis. He points out that for Augustine, three elements provide the backdrop for his quest to find the Trinity in highest functions of the human soul: his quest to know God, scriptural teaching about the Trinity, and the redemptive work of Christ. (157) These three provide a far narrower, more particular Panikkar’s, which is a universalizing scope in the interest of allowing for diverse, broad religious experiences. Furthermore, unlike Panikkar et al, Augustine’s quest to understand the Trinity, even rationally, is not an attempt to do so unaided by revelation, as if humanity could simply “find” the Trinity through a naturalistic mode as Panikkar seems set on doing. (157) Instead, on Augustine believes God is triune because of Scripture and wants to understand this belief, rather than on the basis of religious experience and human intuition of that experience. (158) It is in this light that Johnson levels his critique.

First, Johnson rightly rejects Panikkar’s and others appeal to the vestige tradition as flawed, most particularly because Panikkar reinterprets the doctrine of the Trinity in light of non-Christian religious experience. This is a fatal flaw, indeed! Panikkar simply identifies three modes of religious experience, novelly interprets the Trinity through the lens of these three apparent experiences, and then simply declares there to be constitutive ground for them in light of the Trinity. (167) Furthermore, in appealing to the vestige tradition Panikkar “fails to take into account the epistemic implications of Creator-creature distinction,” which means nothing within creation (i.e. human religious experience) could ever adequately reflect the Trinity. (169) Johnsons further explains that when Augustine believed there were vestiges of the Trinity in creation, he and others like Bonaventure believed that, read by the faithful through the lens of Scripture, those vestiges bore witness to the actual being of God in trinitarian form, not simply some religious experience categorized in triplets!  (173) In one final critique among many more, Johnson reveals how Panikkar’s understanding of the economic Trinity tritheism, a trithesism that completely bypasses the redemptive work of Christ in favor of several redemptive missions embedded in several religious experiences. (181) What’s more: “[Panikkar] seems to imply that the Spirit is leading people away from Jesus Christ.” Johnsons goes on to rightly note that this is fundamentally at odds and completely incompatible with Scripture regarding the Spirit’s role in bearing witness to and glorifying the risen, exalted Christ! (181)

In the end, the innovation of Panikkar falls far outside the boundaries of anything remotely Christian. There is no epistemic warrant for revising our understanding of the Trinity based on a surmised triadic structure of religious experience. Furthermore, there is not epistemic warrant for remotely considering any salvific quality or experience in non-Christian religions from a so-called trinitarian vestige. While theologians like Panikkar, pastors like Desmund Tutu, and populists like Rob Bell seem to suggest saving activity in through multiple religious experiences in light of trinitarian structure, outside of humanistic naturalism there is no epistemic warrant to suggest the salvific activity of the Trinity  (i.e. the economic Trinity) exists in non-Christian religions.

Again, I am very thankful for this book, not least of which because I see these ivory tower conversations making their way in to street-level conversations founding such books as Rob Bell’s Love Wins. This is why such a book is needed, why such a solid rebuttal is needed. This is why this book is one of the most important books to come out in a while! I’ll conclude this series in a few days with his conclusions, as well as some of my own.