Saturday, April 13, 2013

Response to Panikkar I

Scott Bradley


Raimon Panikkar (A Dwelling Place for Wisdom) makes the following statement in the context of a consideration of wu wei: "Nevertheless, it is not mere passivity, not quietism, because it is part of Man's dignity of being commissioned to bring the universe to perfection." (p.62) What's wrong with this statement?

Everything. And nothing. In truth, there is nothing 'wrong' with this statement unless it is intended as a faithful representation of what wu wei actually means in the context of Daoism. Panikkar was a great religious syncretist; his scholarship, particularly in his remarkable knowledge of the Indic, Buddhist, and Christian traditions and the original languages in which they were first formulated, is sweeping. The difficulty with syncretism, however, is that in borrowing the thoughts of others in order to create one's own grand synthesis one must necessarily rend the original contextual garment of the traditions from which it borrows. Christianity as theology, for instance, does not lend itself to incorporation into a wider, more inclusive point of view. This is because Christianity is 'historically true': This man here is god incarnate. ("I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no man comes to the Father except by me." Whether or not Jesus actually said this is debatable; whether or not it is a cornerstone of Christian theology is not.) We are certainly free to pick and choose as we wish and to even declare Christianity (or any other religious philosophy) to be something other than what it has traditionally been, but honesty would seem to require that we acknowledge that we have rent the original fabric in having done so.

It might be argued that every bit of philosophizing (or theologizing) is necessarily syncretic in that it is always a new, personal response, and thus interpretation, of what has gone before. In this regard, I am most certainly a syncretist; I wouldn't have it any other way. I often speak of "philosophical Daoism" as if it were some pre-existent, fixed philosophy and not simply what I make it to be. It is not. I'm making it up as I go along. It's mine. In sharing it with you, besides articulating it for myself, I simply offer more grist for your own syncretic mill.

There are two considerations that have prompted this post. The first has to do with philosophical content: Does the statement quoted above correctly reflect the Daoist understanding of wu wei and the Daoist perspective generally? Secondly, why does it bug me that it does not? From a Daoist perspective, it is the latter that is the most fertile ground for investigation.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

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