Void and Fullness, Part II

So we started to do this discussion and reflection on this book, Void and Fullness, a collection of papers given at an interreligious seminar in Varanasi back in 1999. I won’t go over the ground I covered in Part I; in fact, as I kept thinking about these papers and gathering, I may have changed my mind about some of the things I said earlier! Suffice it to say that it all is interesting but inevitably the presentations are not all of the same depth or of the same clarity, and the conference also inevitably shows up some of the weaknesses of such gatherings even as they are so essential for our spiritual growth and understanding. I will also refrain from commenting on the non-Christian contributions simply on the basis of not having the educational background to evaluate the content of a particular scholar’s contribution coming from his/her background. This is not to say that I didn’t sense the truly varied nature of these contributions, some being clear, apparently very knowledgeable in their field, and thought-provoking; others, alas, much less so. All the participants seem intent on informing the others what their tradition says about “void” or “fullness,” but there is little attempt to get beyond their own technical expertise–though several participants seem to call exactly for that. I would have loved to be at this gathering and asked them some questions! “Exactly what do you mean by this…..?” “What are you saying when you say this….?”

In this part I would like to touch base with Panikkar’s introductory talk and the four very different Christian contributions to the gathering. Panikkar makes some interesting and important points. Panikkar says, ok, we are going to focus on three words and “the power hidden in these three words”: sunya, purna, and pleroma. Pleroma is the Christian Greek word for “fullness,” sunya and purna are Sanskrit, sunya a Buddhist term for “void,” or “emptiness”; and purna is from Hinduism and is also related to “fullness.” Now Panikkar is very correct in pointing out that they will not be discussing three different concepts, but three different words:

“A concept is only valid there where it has been conceived, and not outside that particular field. And we are precisely here transgressing the different fields of the different human traditions of the world. A concept is a construct, it is our creation. A concept is not an object of experience, is an object of rational abstraction. I cannot experience the concept of horse. I can experience my horse or a particular horse. We want to stress the experiential level.”

Truly! However, in my opinion, I don’t think the conference got very far in that direction–unlike the Merton-Suzuki encounter–but there certainly were some illuminating moments when the richness of experience behind these words began to shine through. But there is very little “transgressing the different fields….”

Panikkar continues: “Not three concepts are the objects of our discussions, but three symbols. The word is not only a sign, it is not only a concept, it entails a concept and we can draw from the word many concepts. The word is a symbol, and therefore polysemic. A symbol is not an objectifiable reality. A symbol is not an object. A symbol includes the subject for whom the symbol is symbol as much as the object which we may somewhat point out as a part of the symbol…. Now to explain a symbol is to explain it away. The symbol reveals the symbolized in the symbol itself, not outside, transcending thus the dichotomy between subjectivism and objectivism. The symbol is a matter of experience. And the three words have the power to symbolize precisely the most profound experience of the three great religious traditions.”


So far so good. It is helpful and fruitful to consider these three words not as strictly defined concepts but as “symbolic nests” which contain an awareness of the Ultimate as each tradition experiences it. But then Panikkar raises the inevitable question: “Do they symbolize the same? The question is unavoidable. Allow me to say ‘yes,’ to say ‘no,’ to say ‘neither.’” Here Panikkar hits a bullseye. He brings to the fore that this is actually a very hard question even to raise and truly impossible to answer in any intellectual way–without doing violence to the whole symbolic matrix of each tradition through syncretism or reductionism to an “all is one” kind of thing. But he doesn’t leave us hanging there. He points to the fact of listening to the “other,” to the whole matrix of language and ritual within which these critical symbols are found–thus the point of such a gathering–and the listening is not a looking for some universal language where everything reduces to one thing, but rather the proper metaphor is a symphony, with varied symbols, rites, concepts, notions, intuitions etc. We have to learn how to listen to this music within the language of the “other.” Panikkar again: “But we have to attune our intellectual ears to the music–and each language is amusic–of the other person’s language. And then fecundate, deepen and criticize the shortcomings of what we thought was almost ultimate and definitive. And then we discover that the so-called Ultimate is relatively ultimate, and in a relatively delimited field of experience and historical religion.”

This is “strong medicine” for anyone coming from any of the major traditions, but I think it is a well-articulated presentation of the underlying dynamics of a true interreligious dialogue. If one goes away from such a gathering with an enhanced sense of the Ultimate, we can say “mission accomplished.” But we first have to be attentive to how pleroma(fullness), purna(fullness), and sunya(emptiness) resonates within each tradition.


The first Christian contribution is titled “ The Pleroma of God, Jesus Christ and the Christian” by Paddy Meagher. If you have formally studied the New Testament in a seminary or college, then the material presented here will be nothing new. The author goes over the meaning and significance of this term, which is usually translated as “fullness,” within the New Testament roots of Christianity. He is quite right in pointing out that this term does not have the central and essential role in Christianity that purna does in the Hinduism of the Upanishads or that its counterpart, sunya, has in Buddhism. Nevertheless it is an important notion that points us in the direction of the Ulltimate if we follow it. Pleroma is examined in the person of Jesus Christ and then the individual Christian (and so the Christian community). The Fullness which is of God, the Ultimate, is present in Jesus Christ and is a gift to every human being through him–such is the message of the New Testament. The centrality of this Jesus is essential in the Christian perspective for the knowledge and experience of this “Fullness.” Now if this is all he said we would have a dilemma–how to make this language accessible to non-Christians for any kind of reasonable grasp so that it does not alienate them. But Meagher has prefaced all his New Testament scholarship with some notes that play off the Panikkar approach and reflect an important current in Catholic theology itself.

Meagher: “All language about transcendence…is symbolic or analogical in character. What is said is not what is meant. We need to respect the nature of language to grasp what is signified. This implies that each affirmation must be followed by and bound to a parallel denial. The truth or the meaning is to be found in the tension created by the paradox and this meaning emerges from the permanent tension between the two aspects of the statement. When I state ‘God exists’ I must immediately state ‘God does not exist’ and the reality of God is beyond both of these statements. A grasp of the reality about which I am attempting to speak will emerge beyond both statements. When I say God is Mother, Father, creator, provident….I am not using normal language. I am attempting to point to a reality, which has some relationship to the meaning of the terms within human experience and yet so radically surpasses this experience that I must add a full denial.”

Very well put. This is the kind of thing I have been alluding to in my various entries on the Mystery of God. Human language is necessarily limited and when we address the reality of this Mystery in language we necessarily bring that limitation. So we say God is good…..but then we have to realize that God is NOT good in the same way that we use this word in our experience but transcends it totally. There is a connection, but we must be aware of a transcendent meaning that is beyond any understanding.

But Meagher also points to another limitation inherent in our religious language: “All religious language is also conditioned profoundly by culture, tradition and world-views. The challenge is to be faithful to the culturally conditioned discourse and yet to transcend it and search for the reality about which various religious traditions speak and which is rooted in the commonality of the human.”

Yes, of course, but this is a lot harder than it sounds. Most Christian theologians engaged in the interreligious thing would agree with this statement and many adherents of the other great traditions would also agree, but inevitably we come to a point where we privilege our own context and try to fit the “other” somehow into that context. This is what Abhishiktananda railed against in the last years of his life. He did not believe that the Christianity of the Semitic-Hellenistic context would speak to the Indian. This meant a lot more than putting on some different clothes or changing some rituals. We again return to what Panikkar said and learn to listen to the “music” of religious language, both our own and the “other’s,” and so perhaps hear a harmony or a symphony instead of a debate or argument.

Consider that word Meagher was writing about, pleroma, “Fullness,” just meditate in one’s heart about this “fullness” that is in Christ, from Christ, by Christ, and you may begin to sense the reality that is hidden deep in this symbol. The treasure hidden in the field.


The next Christian contribution to the seminar I found much more interesting: “The Nothingness of God and its Explosive Metaphors” by Alois M. Haas. It is a helpful review of various figures in the Christian tradition who described the Ultimate Reality as “Nothing,” the path of negation, the apophatic approach. This is a problematic approach for ordinary piety, but it is an essential understanding of the mystical tradition as it emphatically underlines the fact that the Ultimate Reality is not just another “something” among the entities of this world–ourselves included. So, to be sure this “Nothing” is not used in its usual empirical sense, but to designate what is totally and unspeakably beyond all consideration as a “part” of this world.

The first figure Haas touches upon is Dionysius the Areopagite, whom I had discussed here some time ago. It is with Dionysius that Christian mysticism really establishes its own language, moving on from the great non-Christian Hellenistic mystics like Plotinus, Proclus, and Porphyry, the great neo-Platonists.  It is Dionysius, who at the risk of seeming almost non-Christian and at risk of losing the Christocentric orientation of the Fathers, insists emphatically upon the “Beyondness” of God. Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus, for example, might be deeper theologians, but there is no greater or more important voice in the Christian tradition than Dionysius for the establishment of a profound line of Christian mysticism both in the East and in the West. For Dionysius, God is “beyond even being,” and so this Reality which we call God is also Nameless. Beyond all comprehension. Here is Dionysius in his own words:

“We see God not only through knowledge but also through ignorance. Although there is spiritual comprehension of him, understanding, knowledge, contact, sense perception, opinion, concept, naming and so on, nevertheless he is neither comprehended, nor explained, nor named. He is nothing existing, but he is also seen in anything existing. He is ‘all in all’…and yet he is nothing anywhere. He is seen in all by all and yet he is seen in nothing by anyone. With good reason we say this about God, and on the basis of all existence he is praised as in harmony with all of which he is the cause.”

And Dionysius goes on with considerable power in laying the groundwork for this “negative way” to God which will then be taken up by even other non-Christian writers in Islam and Judaism. But here Haas is mostly interested in pointing out that Buddhist scholars, especially among the Japanese, have found this a congenial point of contact with Christianity. And one can also see all kinds of possible links to the Hindu Upanishads.

The next great figure to carry on this tradition, according to Haas, is Meister Eckhart and the whole world of what came to be termed as “German mysticism.” Then come the Spanish mystics and especially John of the Cross. Here something interesting happens–the focus is not on God as a “Nothing,” but on the “way” to God as a way of negation in the most profound sense. Here is that most famous poem:

“To come to enjoy everything

Seek enjoyment in nothing.

To come to possess everything

Seek to possess nothing.

To come to be everything

Seek to be nothing.”

To come to know everything

Seek to know nothing.


To come to what you do not own

Go to where you own nothing.

To become what you are not

Go to where you are nothing.”


As Haas puts it: “…an inner nakedness and humility is a necessary condition of fulfillment in everything; nothing and everything are mutual conditions in a single inner movement.” What Haas proposes, and in this I think he is right, is that John of the Cross invites the would-be mystic to plunge into this Zen-like emptiness in order to know this God who is also Nameless and “Nothing.”

Haas then touches on lesser known figures such as Angelus Silesius and Georg Simmel. The apophatic tradition is carried on by a continual recourse to the “explosion” of this metaphor in profound paradox.


The third essay from a Christian perspective is by John R. Dupuche, who at times has collaborated with Bettina Baumer: “The Themes of Light and Dark in the Greek Fathers.” At first glance this seems like a very traditional treatment, but Dupuche moves in a much more bold way. He first tells us: “…the purpose of this conference is to set side by side in telling paradox, the two seemingly contradictory terms ‘void’ and ‘fullness’ and to hint that their apparent incompatibility points in fact to a transcendent Reality, which is called Pleroma.”

He then tries to connect these terms with some traditional Christian Patristic terms like “light” and “darkness.” Can’t tell if he is really successful in this—would require a lot more study, but it is interesting. Dupuche: “It would seem more natural, therefore, to develop a short study on the terms ‘light’ and ‘darkness,’ which provides the same paradoxical contrast as the terms ‘fullness’ and ‘void.’ The term Pleroma will be understood to refer to the Reality which the paradox intimates.”


The last essay I want to mention I found the most interesting and most cogent: “Purnam-Sunya-Pleroma as Communion of Beings” by Antony Kalliath, a well-known Indian Catholic priest and author of spiritual studies. Here I want to quote more fully from him because I think he is so right:

“’Fullness’ is an archetype as well as an ideal in the religious traditions of the world. It is understood as the source from which the whole of reality is generated. Being estranged from the source, owing to sin, ignorance or suffering (dukkha), reality finds itself in an existential situation of alienation. In this predicament, fullness is conceived as the ideal or destiny towards which reality is moving through the contingencies of time and space. In this context, salvation is conceived as a return to this fullness which thus becomes simultaneously both Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End. However, the understanding of fullness varies according to the cultural insights of different religious traditions. At the same time we sense that there can ultimately be only one fullness, otherwise it becomes a contradiction in itself. It is a fact that, though we are born and brought up in different cultural and social situations there is a unity and harmony in our experience of fullness through our ‘connatural knowledge.’ In this regard scholarship does not count and even an illiterate person has the ontological competence to know fullness. Indeed the bedrock of our universal fellowship and solidarity beyond the boundaries of belief and ethnic identities is the collective participation in this fullness. Then fullness is, therefore, the ontological communion and confluence of beings. It is not a monolithic and absolute abstraction, but rather a web of life leading to ‘unity in diversity’ and ‘harmony in plurality.’”

Very well put and the best words in the whole book. On that good note we shall end.