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Book Review

The Immanent Divine: God, Creation, and the Human Predicament. By John J. Thatamanil. Fortress Press, 2006. 231 pages.

Review by JM

Review by JM

The Immanent Divine by John J. Thatamanil offers a refreshing contrast to the stereotypical religious dialogues between the east and the west. The novelty of Thatamanil’s work may spring from his selection of deep dialogue partners: both Sankara and Tillich offer unique perspectives within their own traditions. Or this new perspective on a stale conversation may come as a result of Thatamanil’s methodological care and rigor. Regardless of the cause, he effectively opens up this conversation to reveal new understandings of the divine and human nature.

Thatamanil’s commitment to careful and respectful analysis is apparent from the beginning of this work. He opens with a discussion of the potential dangers inherent to comparative work. Among the many pitfalls is the nave conclusion of identity which becomes likely when casually examining different symbols for the inexpressible. To avoid nave identity and the resulting distortion of a tradition, Thatamanil follows the theologian Robert Neville’s method of employing comparative categories. Using vague categories distinct from either tradition, one can more clearly compare differing traditions.

The comparative categories that Thatamanil employs are one of the most significant advances of this work. He creates a four part medical model to understand different religious traditions. This model treats illness as a primary metaphor for the human predicament. Different theologies therefore offer a diagnosis, an etiology, a prognosis, and finally a treatment. This comparative model is a powerful analytical tool for engaging distinct traditions.

Having established and justified his comparative tool, Thatamanil turns to the Hindu philosopher Adi Sankara. Sankara’s diagnosis of the human predicament arises from his Hindu anthropology. In a traditional non-dualistic fashion, Sankara asserts that the true Self is in fact Brahman. Ignorance of this fact is the human predicament; all suffering springs from this fundamental ignorance. Thus, via the medical model, Thatamanil is able to effectively distill Sankara’s understanding of the human predicament.

Given this understanding, the treatment for ignorance is to realize the true non-dual nature of the Self. Sankara is an exegetical philosopher and believes that this knowledge comes primarily through the scriptures with the assistance of a teacher. So Thatamanil effectively dispels the common assumption that eastern traditions are inherently mystical. Instead he asserts that treatment consists of becoming grounded in the Vedic scriptures. From this understanding of treatment springs a deeply optimistic prognosis for humans; once one grasps the truth of non-duality, one cannot forget this transformative knowledge.

Thatamanil is diligent to also explore the inconsistencies and difficulties of Sankara’s thought. Since Brahman is taken to be unchanging and the Self is taken to be identical to Brahman, Sankara cannot give an etiology for ignorance. To do so would imply that ignorance is a part of Brahman. Rather than resolve this difficulty, Sankara refuses to explain the origin of ignorance: he rejects the question outright. Thatamanil is not overly critical of this inconsistency; instead he acknowledges that other religious teachers employ similar arguments to avoid attributing faults to the divine.

From the analysis of Sankara, Thatamanil moves to the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich. The exploration of Tillich’s theology is done in tandem with a comparison to Sankara’s thought. This could be a clunky maneuver, but Thatamanil elegantly compares the two while giving Tillich his full due.

Thatamanil begins by recognizing that Tillich’s understanding of the human predicament largely depends on his ontological structure. Thus, Thatamanil gives a brief, but thorough, synopsis of Tillich’s system. One could get lost in this description but Thatamanil keeps the analysis relevant by describing the predicament that existence (according to this system) creates for humans: we are subject to the polarities and tensions described in this system. Since God is the ground of this ontological structure, the structure also mediates our relationship to God. This ontological framework gives a shape to Tillich’s diagnosis, etiology, treatment and prognosis.

Thatamanil recognizes that he could frame Sankara and Tillich as diagnosing the same predicament: humans turn away from the divine and take themselves as the centers of the world. But such a gloss would ignore essential differences. One primary difference is that Tillich inserts separation into his system. Separation gives Tillich the room to describe human finite freedom. But this separation also means that humans are separated from their essential nature and each other due to estrangement from the ground of being. By exploring Tillich’s idea of separation, Thatamanil is able to reveal both the diagnosis and etiology of human suffering while also revealing some essential differences between Tillich and Sankara.

From here, Thatamanil explores the prognosis and treatment plan provided by Tillich. He correctly argues that since separation is built into Tillich’s system, the prognosis is dim. The best humans can do is have faith, which Tillich redefines as ultimate concern. By shouldering the mantle of our ultimate concern we come into contact with our essence and the ground of being. Nevertheless, separation intrinsically remains part of existence. Thatamanil siezes upon Tillich’s idea of ecstatic experience as the closest one gets to mending this gap. An important characteristic of the ecstatic experience, especially for comparison to Sankara, is that it is an “inbreaking” of the divine into existence: not vice-versa.

After elaborating this similarity with Sankara’s emphasis on the divine initiative, Thatamanil moves to examine Tillich’s prognosis through an analysis of sanctification. Here Thatamanil draws the final significant distinction between Sankara and Tillich: Tillich does not offer hope of a sustained transformation. While ecstatic experience may bring people into union with the ground of being, this union is always limited.

Having thoroughly explored and compared each system, Thatamanil closes the book by initiating a constructive project. The concept of immanence roots his constructive work, which aims to remediate the problems he sees in Sankara’s and Tillich’s thought. The foundational problem in Sankara’s thought is a commitment to an unchanging Brahman. This belief generates the commitment to understanding the world as illusory and creates problems with giving an etiology for ignorance. He proposes that these issues would be solved by a dynamic understanding of God. The primary problem embedded in Tillich’s thought is the idea of separation. Thatamanil argues that Tillich errs by thinking freedom requires separation which then creates a grim prognosis for human beings. Instead Thatamanil argues that a stronger non-dualism would allow for freedom without separation.

This syncretic version of the divine is augmented by appeal to the contemporary theologians Joseph Bracken and Robert Neville. Rather than asserting a ground of being, Thatamanil argues along with Bracken and Neville that viewing being-itself as ontological creativity allows one to avoid many of the conundrums found in Sankara and Tillich. Drawing upon these theologians is a wise rhetorical move, because Thatamanil lacks the space to fully develop the dynamic apophatic non-dualism he is promoting. While this model may suggest resolutions for the problems he sees within Sankara’s and Tillich’s works, it is not obvious that it avoids even more egregious errors.

Here Thatamanil runs into the problem that he so delicately navigated in the comparative portion of his work. He astutely recognized the nave tendency to assume equality of referent between different symbols pointing to the ineffable. In a similar manner, it is risky to take the problems of dualism and an unchanging ultimate to be proof of non-dualism and dynamism. Simply because Tillich ran into troubling implications by asserting an ontological separation does not mean error is avoided by asserting an ontological unity. Unfortunately, Thatamanil cannot fully engage these questions.

But this shortcoming does not significantly detract from the value of the work. The Immanent Divine is first and foremost a book of comparative theology and as such it remains a paragon for the field. The successful use of the medical model revives the conversation between east and west and helps to shed light on the nature of the ultimate and its bearing on the human predicament.
 

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