March 29, 2022
Even the mention of peace has now seemingly left our world. We have gone from wishing for a peace we doubt we can have, to no longer even wishing for peace. Yet if we still desire peace, there are few greater guides to that journey than Raimon Pannikar. His work has been a consistent source of inspiration to me. A Catholic priest and a philosopher, he became a crucial figure in the interfaith dialogue that prospered in the twentieth century. Upon visiting his father's homeland of India, he wrote: “I started as a Christian, I discovered I was a Hindu and returned as a Buddhist without having ceased to be a Christian.”
It is not solely a wry joke about our obsession with box-ticking categories that I identify as a Zen Sufi Hindu Christian Discordian. On the contrary, like Pannikar, I found a path between religions that brought me to a deeper truth than I could ever have attained from within one tradition. Still, at a time when it is fashionable to deny the relevance of any religious tradition, those like Pannikar and myself who have found wisdom within many religions are all too easily dismissed. This presents a substantial barrier to sharing any of Pannikar's philosophy today: the religious are trapped inside the limits of their faiths, and the non-religious are wedged inside their box of non-belief. Small wonder we can no longer find a role for peace!
In the case of Cultural Disarmament, a 1992 book originally published in Spanish, Pannikar's insistence on treating the question of peace as a religious matter will seem to instantly disqualify his philosophy of peace from further consideration for a great many people. Yet his arguments are sound, his intuitions persuasive, and his programme represents the only plausible path to peace that could be taken seriously. It is harder now to make a call for the kind of disarmament he espouses: so many view themselves as 'outside' religion, and thus beyond any thought of being swayed by religious reflections. Yet there is an illusion here. The religious communities Pannikar was writing for in 1992 were no more open to his case than the non-religious. In fact, both the religious and the non-religious share the same mythos that Pannikar sought to challenge.
Peace, for Pannikar, is precisely a question of our mythos. It is a symbol rather than a concept, and symbols are "the building blocks of myths". With a good symbol, one can build many myths, which is to say, mythos for different cultures, regardless whether these are religious or non-religious cultures. Since the awareness of the role of mythology in human thought has declined along with religious practice, attempts at peace may have become more difficult. The non-religious, after all, are even more blind to their mythos than the religious, and as Pannikar points out, no one is fully aware of their own myth. Yet this situation is not so different in practical terms, since no culture can claim a monopoly on peacefulness and the name 'religion' changes nothing of importance. Regardless of which culture we are talking about, the meanings of the term 'peace' rest upon what each culture evokes with this term. This is why Pannikar insists that peace is always a symbol rather than a concept. Cultural disarmament, therefore, necessarily refers to an intercultural striving for peace.
What's more, cultural disarmament, although it is a call to everyone, is especially a call to us, to anyone who reads this and thus certainly belongs to the predominant world culture, where a veneration of scientific thought and technology is taken for granted. This culture, Pannikar attests, originates in Europe, for all that it is now global in reach. We who belong to it see our values as indisputable and not open to negotiation - even though, as the last few years have made clear we do not agree on the meaning of these values at all. Pannikar was writing in 1992 about the need for the conceptual disarmament of the technocratic culture we all belong to, in order that we might foster peace with all cultures. Today, the same disarmament is also a requirement for peace within our own technocratic culture. The 'culture wars' that journalists report on with lurid glee reveal that the problems which prevent dialogue between us and the other nations of the world now also prevent dialogue within our own nations.
We deceive ourselves when we take up a cause, such as social justice, and then believe we must be fighting for peace. Pannikar is explicit: "One cannot fight for peace. One fights for one’s own rights, or, in a particular instance, for justice. But not for peace. To fight for peace is a contradiction." This is particularly so because "the regimes that we ourselves impose are not peace for the one who must endure them, be that one a child, a pauper, a foreigner, a family, or a nation." We might add to that all those suffering from racial disparities and those suffering from the attempts to enforce a rebalancing of these disparities. We might add to that all those suffering from the imposition of gender regimes, whether the terrible old version, or the dreadful new one. We might also add those unvaccinated pariahs who have been made into scapegoats by a medical empire that long since parted company with scientific discourse.
Dialogue is precisely that which we have lost touch with as we have given up on the wish for peace. Yet it is only through dialogue that peace has any hope of attainment. Whether we are talking race, or gender, or vaccines, we have given up on equality, and thus made dialogue impossible. Pannikar writes:
One must realize that dialogue, concerning which so much is presumed, is utterly impossible without conditions of equality. Indeed, it is insulting to speak of dialogue to someone who is starving to death, or has been stripped of all human dignity, or who does not even know what we are talking about because his or her suffering or difference in culture generates an incapacity for doing so.
This tendency for us to "treat others as enemies, barbarians, goi, mleccha, khafir, pagans, infidels, and the like" is precisely the problem to which the symbol of peace is a potential solution. Attempting to defeat the enemy is fruitless, because all we will do is enforce some new regime on the vanquished. "Victory leads to victory, not peace. And we all know the lethal effects of prolonged 'victories'...". Neither does Pannikar see any aspect of peace as lying with the restoration of a lost past, or indeed in defence of the status quo. Indeed, he sees peace as requiring emancipation from the current order and the acceptance of what he calls a fluxus quo, which is never settled outright.
What Pannikar calls cultural disarmament does not mean that we have to give up our own values - it means that we learn to recognise when we are wielding "reason as a weapon", as happens whenever we force our own technoscientific biases upon others. To Pannikar, this issue was primarily about the enforcement of economics and technology upon so called 'developing' nations, presupposing in the very name that we ought to be making them more like us. I have argued from the opposite direction: we have much more to learn from these cultures that have not yet fallen into technocracy than we ever presume.
It is even easier than ever to see this problem today. When the colonial programme occurred elsewhere, in places far from us, we were unlikely to witness it, and thus it tended to pass unnoticed. In the last two years, however, we have resorted to forcing our colonial technoscience onto each other. In so doing we have created an incredible opportunity to finally understand that 'science' was never the secret name of absolute truth, but rather that of a fragile method of exploring possible truths through experimentation and discussion. Authentic scientific practice cannot be deployed to police the truth without falling back into our colonial arrogance, and it is a farce to talk about 'decolonising curricula' without first accepting cultural disarmament - all this can possibly mean is imposing new dogmas, new regimes. Peace will not be found on such a path.
Rather, Pannikar warns that we require "a critique of current technoscience," and stresses this does not mean "destruction" or "reform", but rather "an intellectual demythologization". The myths of technocratic rule are so widespread now that we utter them without ever noticing. "Sustainable development" is something oft spoken of, for instance, but Pannikar cautions that even the concept of 'development' entails a presupposition, it is a kind of "cultural colonialism" (he optimistically suggests this was finally coming into question around the time he was writing). Our technocratic values are deployed "as weapons for invasion with the excuse that it is the natives themselves who seek entry into the technocratic club." A greater lesson for Bill Gates has never been written.
Pannikar builds a figurative emblem out of the peace symbol created by Gerald Holtom (pictured right). This originally represented a desire for nuclear disarmament, but it came to be incorporated into the civil rights movements in the United States with a broader meaning. Pannikar assigns to the three divisions of the sign the meaning of 'freedom' (left), 'justice' (right), and 'harmony' (below), suggesting that these are the components from which peace can be built. He thus remarks:
...in the ensemble of the elements that make up peace, each of them seems to tend to invade the terrain of the others, that is, to destroy what medicine calls “homeostasis.” Countries overly concerned with justice restrict freedom. And vice versa: where freedom is sacrosanct, justice frequently suffers. And with too much harmony, “your neighbours invade you.”
He remains resolute that "freedom is an essential ingredient of peace", but stresses that while there can be no peace without freedom, liberty should not be confused for mere freedom of choice. It is perfectly possible, Pannikar persuasively argues, to have a wider range of choices and yet suffer a severely diminished freedom. True liberty requires that our decisions are not shaped by dependencies and influences from the outside. "Neither a car nor its driver is a free being." He invokes the supermarket as symbolic for those situations where an immense range of choices do not entail authentic freedoms (in particular since we are dependent upon the supermarket, and have limited capacity to influence what it stocks). Likewise, "to be able to vote for this candidate or that, along a limited spectrum of possibilities, means a very relative freedom, and sometimes merely an apparent one..." The wisdom of this remark will not be lost upon those whose political landscape is so one-dimensional that elections can be determined primarily by who it is that we wish to prevent from winning.
The inclusion of justice is an important part of his symbolism, since Pannikar does not mean by this simply obeying the law: "lawfulness is not justice, many dictatorships are perfectly legal." He engages especially on the question of terrorism, where he wisely observes: "If violence is not the solution, still less will state or legal violence be." Rather, violence persists whenever two sides are unable to share in the same mythos, because "the parameters are different". Therefore, throughout his discussion, Pannikar returns to this same point: the need to discover or forge shared mythologies that can foster peace. It is a theme that is recurrent in my own philosophy of imagination, and in this respect Pannikar and I have always been firm allies.
In a novel conception unique to Pannikar's philosophy, he asks not for autonomy (self-government) but ontonomy. He develops this idea from the premise that "the ultimate structure of reality is harmonious", and therefore concludes that the potential forms of existence available to any one being must have a relationship with the potential perfection of the whole they belong within. Neither is this some permanently determinable circumstance. Quite the opposite. He argues that there is no way to legislate for peace in some permanent and unchanging manner. Indeed, to attempt this would not be any kind of peace "any more than love can be commanded - it would not be love." Rather, peace must be continuously created and re-created.
This dependence upon an image of reality as harmonious will perhaps provide a significant stumbling block for many people today, yet most religious practitioners are honour-bound to accede to this presumption. Pannikar's knowledge of the dharmic traditions of the East is clearly an influence in presenting this view, for dharma in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain philosophy has precisely this character. Exporting this wisdom to the Abrahamic religions would require a certain leap of faith - and finding a way to mount such an argument for the non-religious is perhaps impossible. Pannikar does not try. The entire book presupposes a religious reader (but not a specific religious tradition), which is arguably its greatest limitation, for all that having taken this path empowers him to explore some quite remarkable philosophical spaces.
The three elements of his annotated peace emblem also serve to draw attention to the obstacles to peace, for according to Pannikar whenever freedom, justice, or harmony are undermined, peace becomes unobtainable. But in an unexpected elaboration on this idea, he proceeds to demonstrate how this also applies to our veneration of the sciences: our adoration for the scientific can also become a barrier to attaining peace. When we yield scientific authority as "the privilege of a few", a "moral inequality" becomes struck in the heart of humanity, and Pannikar remains insistent that true dialogue requires equality:
Precious little good it will do for scientists to declare that they do not possess the universal panacea, and that they know perfectly well the limits of scientific knowledge. The fact remains: science’s unshakable successes, and its symbiosis with modern technology, have persuaded the people that “outside science is no salvation.” And indeed, unless you have a career in science, there is little to “eat” today in the First World and its satellites. If the fundamental thing for humanity is knowing, and if this becomes (except for the elementary necessities of life) the specialty of a few, then we are implanting in the human heart one of the causes of a lack of peace.
Our elevation of expertise into elitism is linked by Pannikar to the philosophical legacy of Descartes, which he calls 'the culture of certitude'. He further suggests that the logical consequence of this is a 'civilization of security', which has become our prevailing ideology - and this from an author writing in 1992! How much more have we seen this in the three decades since. Yet he challenges this obsession with safety by suggesting that while uncertainty and insecurity is something intolerable for human reason, it is something that perhaps may even be experienced pleasantly, if it can be pursued in love.
Pannikar draws against Saint Augustine's name for peace, 'the uncertain good', and contends that if we place our trust in the powerful to protect us, we will run into impossible contradictions. After all, he says (invoking the famous Latin phrasing): Who will watch the watchers? Against this, he suggests that we must place our trust in reality, which means placing trust in ourselves. It is a revolutionary proposition, yet it is also surely one which the civil rights campaigners of the twentieth century understood, and which we have since lost. As long as we are counting on an elite few to provide security and certainty for us, peace is rendered pragmatically unobtainable. Rather, we must be willing to undertake the call to peace ourselves.
Drawing once again from Hindu wisdom, Pannikar talks of what is required to "shatter the law of karma", which is to say, the cycle of violence. And in this, he maintains that forgiveness, reconciliation, and ongoing dialogue are a requirement to break through and open a path to peace. More than this, he makes it one of his central propositions that only reconciliation leads to peace. And here, he is keen to stress that the very etymology of this word requires the convocation of others - which is to say, to speak with them, to open a dialogue, which "is a science as well as an art". In a striking metaphor of how difficult it is to accept cultural disarmament and open discussion, Pannikar writes:
Humanity has known since prehistoric times that it is more painful to extract an arrow than to drive it deeper. If the social body is wounded by many arrows, there is nothing to be done but withdraw them. And that is no easy task.
The desire for peace must be, and can only be, the desire for dialogue - which requires us to accept something most of us find unthinkable: that those we must reconcile with might have something to teach us. We are so certain that we are right. Thus, when others cannot accept what we insist we know with certainty, any hope of dialogue is removed from possibility. It is thus in our own hearts that the path to peace must be opened. In concluding his vibrant reflection on peace, Pannikar rewrites the famous words of Flavius Vegetius Renatus ('Would you have peace? Prepare for war'). Against this, Pannikar counters: "Would you have peace? Prepare yourself."
Cultural Disarmament: The Way to Peace is published by Westminster John Knox Press, ISBN 9780664255497
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