The Living God
In some recent reading I ran across a reference and quotation from one of my teachers in graduate school. Just seeing his name made me smile. Raimon Panikkar was an intriguing guy for an Indiana farm boy to encounter. His class was an amazing experience, but he may have taught me even more by being himself. Panikkar was born in 1918 in Barcelona, Spain. His father was from India and was Hindu. Panikkar’s mother was a Spanish Catholic from Catalonia. Obviously, he was quickly into the interfaith movement! And this he began teaching me, even when I did not have that language.
He looked like his Indian father. He was a small man with a graceful presence that calmed every room I saw him walk into. He had a charming smile that would have disarmed any malcontent. But it was his brilliance that I found arresting. That is not to say he was strong and arrogant. To the contrary, he was entirely humble and simple. He had doctorate degrees in science and theology. He was an ordained Catholic priest.
For a few years he would show up at my alma mater to teach that semester and, then, in the summer he headed back to India to do research. It was Panikkar who put me on my own global growth journey. He was at home in worlds I did not even know existed. For example, one of my favorite lines from Panikkar is autobiographical. He quipped, “I started as a Christian, I discovered I was a Hindu and returned as a Buddhist without having ceased to be a Christian.”
And so my memories came crashing to the forefront of my mind when I saw a reference to Panikkar in a recent book by the Catholic theologian, Ilia Delio. She is an amazing thinker in her own right---like Panikkar a scientist and theologian. She is one of the most trusted thinkers I know doing work at the margin where religion and science meet. It is in this context that she references Panikkar.
Delio brings Panikkar into the picture when she writes about God. She says, “Raimon Pannikar said that when theology is divorced from cosmology, we no longer have a living God, but an idea of God.” Delio is concerned to describe God and the world or universe (theology and cosmology) in ways that keep them together. In effect she wants us to understand that religion and science are complementary. They go together. You cannot separate them---even though most of us effectively have separated them.
I like very much Panikkar’s notion that you cannot divorce theology from cosmology. If you take God out of the universe context in which we find God, then all that remains is an idea of God. In effect that is what theology is: ideas about God. That does not make them wrong. But it does mean in one sense they are not real. Panikkar, Delio and I are more interested in what he calls “the living God.” This is the real God involved in the real world.
This is the God to whom we pray and the God who somehow is both creative and sustaining of the world we know. Panikkar worries that simply doing theology---taking God out of the world---risks simply dealing with this idea of God. He puts it powerfully when he says if we do this, “God then becomes a thought that can be accepted or rejected rather than the experience of divine ultimacy.”
I shudder when I read these words, because that describes the God about which I have spent years studying. I have read many books on God and plan to keep reading those. But I also am painfully aware that an idea about God is not the same thing as the living God. I know at the deepest level no words can describe who God is. When we use the English word, mystery, to describe God, that is precisely it. God is mystery---and yet very real. That is the God with which I deal and the God who deals with me.
I am confident of this, but certainly cannot prove it. I can offer you my theology which adequately describes the God I encounter, but I also know this theology is a bit like cotton candy. You take it in big doses and mysteriously it disappears! I will keep doing theology, but more than that, I want to keep searching for and being available to the living God.
That living God is the one who calls me deeper and deeper into the beauty and truth of this world and universe. That is the God calling me and you to be healers of this vulnerable and fragile world of ours. I suspect most of us despair that we can do anything or we are oblivious of the problems our world faces. At best we have heard about global warming; at worst we think it is all a bunch of hooey.
If God is simply an idea, then the only worry we have is the harm we do to cosmology---to our world. However, if there is a living God, then we need to get on the divine agenda. Long, long ago one gospel writer started a line like this: “For God so loved the world…” This living God cares for more than you and me. The world counts, too.