Book Review: "Without Ceasing to Be Christian": A Catholic and Protestant Assess the Christological Contribution of Raimon Panikkar
Ranstrom and Robinson have produced a significant book that is both a review, or revisit, of Raimon (Raimundo) Panikkar (1918-2010) as a Christian theologian of religions, and an introduction to this central element of Panikkar’s life and work for those comparatively, if not totally, new to him. Indeed, since his death, interest in the life, vision, and thought of Panikkar has been growing. This volume offers a descriptive and critical assessment of Panikkar’s life and extensive writings about Christ. It traverses the intellectual and ecclesial development of Panikkar, offering a sympathetic but not uncritical evaluation of his legacy and influence.
There are three chapters written by Ranstrom, a younger American Catholic scholar; two by Robinson, a seasoned New Zealand evangelical theologian, and a jointly written sixth and final chapter. Both evince their enthusiastic interest in Panikkar and his relevance for today, noting the increase in interest in his work, and addressing the “ecclesial” identity of Panikkar “that stands in tension with the ethereal and intangible quality of the universalistic mysticism” (xiv) that is often associated with Panikkar, especially in his later years. The authors ask of contemporary Panikkar scholarship whether it adequately acknowledges, let alone has yet sufficiently explored, this tension.
While the field of Panikkar’s work has, among other things, a focus on Hindu–Christian relations and dialogue, there is certainly much in his writing on this that applies more widely. Perceived by many as something of a radical who left behind his intense Opus Dei Catholic beginnings to become a champion of religious pluralism, in the process moving on from Christian theology as such – he has been labelled “post-Christian” – our two authors recall, and invite the reader to appreciate, that Panikkar was ever a Christian theologian engaging theologically with the fact and presence of the diversity of religions, and especially Hinduism, the religion of his father. As the Introduction aptly notes, “Panikkar’s complexity of thought and wide-ranging experience is remarkable, and his influence extends far beyond the Catholic, and even broader Christian world” (1).
In chapter one, Ranstrom explores and evaluates Panikkar’s Christology as applied to the fact and presence of other religions up to the first (1964) edition of Panikkar’s Unknown Christ of Hinduism. Here Panikkar is wrestling with the question of the proper relationship of Christ to other religions. In effect, Panikkar was an early exponent of Christian inclusivism, but this was not without difficulty and challenge. Ranstrom steers the reader through a complex issue in a very clear and helpful fashion, noting two broad approaches of the early Panikkar. These are “inclusivist and salvation-historical” on the one hand, and “a cosmic Christology with pluralist tendencies” (2) on the other. Ranstrom himself seeks to discern “a postpluralist retrieval of Panikkar’s Christology of religions”.
In the second chapter Ranstrom examines some lesser known of Panikkar’s “comparative theological study of Hindu and Christian worship” (35) initially written in German and presented at a conference in 1960; later published in French, then English. Ranstrom here refers to the French text. In concert with some other early work, Panikkar here links salvation history to the incarnation in such a way as to regard the relation of the religions to the incarnate Christ as “worthy of Christological reflection, for the Incarnate Christ has cultural and religious ancestries beyond the Abrahamic lineage” (36). Panikkar advocates a theological dialogue, for there is a possibility of mutual enrichment as each religion finds points of resonance with others. Panikkar himself gained theological enrichment, even in his Opus Dei phase, with his study of Hinduism: the “Hindu emphasis on sacrificial orthopraxy brought Panikkar back to his own Christian tradition and helped him understand more fully that the mystery of Christ and the church is primarily a mystery of sacrifice” (71). The very substantial third chapter by Ranstrom engages a systematic and critical reading of Panikkar’s later ‘Cosmotheandric Christology’ while yet taking account of his “wider personal and socio-historical context” (73) including his break from Opus Dei. Throughout much of his later work, Panikkar “simultaneously reveals and conceals important but painful moments of existential conversion” (76). This chapter offers helpful summary insight into formative elements of Panikkar’s developing theological perspectives.
Bob Robinson has contributed chapters four and five. In the first he presents a distinctive protestant appreciation of Panikkar while also engaging with Panikkar’s theological thought. Robinson argues that, for evangelical Protestants, “Panikkar’s Christology is an obvious starting point for his thought” (123). Robinson then traverses, among other topics, Panikkar’s radical Christocentrism and his cosmic and immanentalist Christology together with his re-evaluation of other faiths, particularly Hinduism. Robinson concludes this chapter with a discussion of three areas of commonality between protestant and Catholic assessments of Panikkar, namely that theology is always in a process of reforming and reformulating; second, that Panikkar attends closely to issues of context; and third that many share Panikkar’s “theological assessment of religion and faith beyond the boundaries of Christianity” (159). Robinson’s second chapter takes a more critical line, observing that in his later writings Panikkar embraces “a principled dislocation of Christology from the historical particularity of Jesus of Nazareth” (163). On the one hand, much of Panikkar’s own critical perspective in respect to traditional Christological perspectives is endorsed; on the other hand, Robinson judges as inadequate Panikkar’s “reductionist Christology deployed in existential and perspectivist categories” (213). Yet the abiding assessment is that Panikkar never lost a Christocentric focus; he rather radically re-conceptualised it.
In their individual chapters Ranstrom and Robinson probe richly and deeply into the thought of Raimon Panikkar. Their final chapter is a dialogue, between the two authors, in which they respond to each other’s sole-authored chapters about Panikkar and his thought. This is a lively discussion that allows for a wider contextualising and situating of Panikkar in respect to contemporary interests and concerns. Overall, this unique book provides an excellent overview and ready resource to a major dimension of the work of Panikkar. The current world of theological scholarship on Panikkar and the issues he addressed is thus well-served.
Douglas Pratt is Honorary Professor, Theological and Religious Studies, University of Auckland, NZ, and Adjunct Professor, Theology and Interreligious Studies, Faculty of Theology, University of Bern, Switzerland. He is an editor and Research Team Leader with the University of Birmingham based Christian-Muslim Relations: a bibliographical history project (www.birmingham.ac.uk/cmr1900).