I’m sort of relieved to see Egypt strike back against ISIS and its recent slaughter of Christians. And I wish we would stop referring to them as “ISIS” or “ISIL.” It’s as if this “Islamic State” doesn’t know one thing about Islam: Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Parthians were all “dhimmi,” or “Protected Peoples,” all the way back to the time of Muhammad (PBUH) (see Qur’an 3:199). (Treatment of polytheists is a topic for another day, but even Hindus and Buddhists were sometimes given this status as well). ISIS has about as much right to call themselves “Islamic” as the KKK has a right to call themselves “Christian.”
Isn’t it funny that we refer to storms by personal names such as “Katrina” or “Octavia,” or “Neptune”? We even assign agency to them, as when we say “Neptune really caused havoc for Boston today.” We are even allowed to name systems that recur, such as “El Nino.” But if we assign a name to the whole of the weather, or to the wind, or to the sky, then we would be thought of as perverse, primitive polytheists. I don’t really see the difference! Although I suppose I haven’t seen any meteorologists making sacrifices to these gods:
I don’t think there will ever be a unified theory of everything in physics. This is because this everything is rooted in something that eludes theory, a spirit that is unpredictable, unmanageable, that defies formulation and theory. It is pure potentiality and creativity. When we number all of its emanated dimensions, it will just create ten more. It is not an it, and there can be no complete science of it. But there are some things that can be said…
To those who are disparaging professors:
I have been deeply disturbed over the last year or so by the small but vocal number of people—colleagues, friends, family (many of them teachers!)—who have disparaged tenured professors, basically saying in one form of another that they produce “nothing of value.” The latest of these criticisms came from Nicholas Kristoff who, while not exclusively critiquing their output, chastised these intellectuals for not being “public” enough. This charge may be taken as an implicit critique of their work, at least that portion of their work that does not lend itself to the 140 character tweet or the 30 second sound bite.
The value of this kind of work cannot be measured in the moment, perhaps cannot be measure at all. This does not mean that it has no value. Would anyone question the importance or relevance of the 20th century revolutions in Latin American countries? And yet many people question the practicality of studying psychology, philosophy, literature, and religious studies. Do they not realize that it was Gustavo Gutierrez’s study of these things that, along with his experience living among the poor, led him to the creation of liberation theology, which inspired all of those revolutions? Whether one agrees with those revolutionaries or not, you cannot doubt their relevance, nor the relevance of the intellectual work that inspired them.
Would anyone question the relevance of the American Civil Rights movement, or of Dr. Martin Luther King, jr.’s leadership in it? And yet how many times did I endure my father-in-law’s jokes (“What kind of food cart do you open up with a degree in philosophy?”) when I followed Dr. King as a student of religious studies at Boston University? (For the record, the only thing my father-in-law truly respects more than my religious studies and philosophy teaching is fodder for a good joke.)
If your son or daughter wanted to study ancient languages, as a philologist does, you might not see the utilitarian value in this. And yet would anyone deny the impact of Friedrich Nietzsche’s thought on so many millions of people? One need not look past his influence on the music of Bob Dylan, who voraciously read Nietzsche while he writing the songs the whole world sings.
I realize these are just three examples. If I could take any more time away from my own reading, writing, and teaching about irrelevant work that has no value, I would provide 300 examples. For now, suffice it to say that when someone disparages the work of the academic as having no value, (s)he does not prove that the work has no value; (sh)e only proves that (s)he do not understand its value.
Everything looks sad to me today.
That building, that doorway is sad.
That parking lot looks sad.
That person is sad. That car is sad.
What is it about that apartment
that makes it look so sad?
It is not terribly unkept!
It could use some paint on the railing
Look!—there is a broken window pane up there.
But overall it is good. The brick looks good.
So what is it that is sad?
Am I sad? Is Pittsfield sad? Just what is it
That all around me I see sadness?
This all reminds me of Jean-Paul Sartre. His philosophy is sad to me. There is something sad about a world with no God. And I know full well Sartre would not want me to feel sadness for his world. He was right about so many things, but God has accomplished so many great things in my life that it doesn’t make sense that there is no God. “No God” does not jibe with my life experience. I have accomplished things that are beyond me. There are days and hours and moments through which I would not have been able to make it without God. But what does this mean, if Sartre is right that God does not exist? I know for Freud it would have meant that I was weak and I needed to invent a God in order to fulfill my needs. I sense Sartre is different, though. Even though I can’t speak for him, I get the feeling he would be more gentle. “God doesn’t exist,” he would say, “But you choose to create a God for yourself in order to accomplish great things. Perhaps you could have also accomplished these things without God, with a different mindset.”
Again, I ask, what does this mean? Either Sartre is wrong and God exists and works in us and through us, or else Sartre is right and we can accomplish things beyond our wildest dreams.
Either God is natural or we are supernatural. And, either way, I’m floored. This is all a miracle.
And yet, today, all I see around me is sadness.
(N.B: I am fully ready to admit that “God” here might mean “God” or “gods” or “Spider-grandmother” or “Wakan Tanka.” All of it has made sense to me at one time or another. The only thing that does not make sense is that it is all luck, or that it is all from myself.
N.B: When I say “great things,” know that I am not full of myself regarding any kind of artistic or career accomplishments (the problems with this piece are proof of that!). The “great things” I am talking about, the things that are beyond my own efforts, are much more mundane: the ability to be fully present to someone, the courage to be at a crowded event, the stamina to make myself do something I have to do but do not want to do, the restraint to not erupt in anger at a certain situation, etc. You know.)
I know the reason for our obsession with the apocalypse. It has nothing to do with the millennium, or the supposed end of the Mayan calendar, or certain Christian groups’ obsession with the Book of Revelation and the “Left Behind” series. It doesn’t even have to do with the horrifying cannibalism-inducing LSD plaguing Miami. These are not the causes of our apocalypse-consciousness, they are the symptoms. We are obsessed with the apocalypse because of the psychological phenomenon known to many of us as projection: When we are unconscious of something about ourselves, but, knowing it to exist on some deep level, we acknowledge its existence by imagining that it exists outside ourselves. We see this when our hopelessly disorganized boss recommends that we start using a calendar, or when a friend, yelling and making a scene, informs us that we are “such an attention-whore.” Projection is what prompted Tolkien’s observation, “The treacherous are ever distrustful.”
The apocalypse is not coming; it is already here–but not for us. We are in the midst of a long string of apocalypses of other species, apocalypses orchestrated by us. They are the result of our building projects and our environmental habits. Remnants of our fellow species resurface from a state of shock, initially relieved to find their homes intact. Moments later, they experience the angst-inducing sounds of the after-effects of the apocalypse. They get up the courage to look and see if any of their neighbors have survived. Horrified, they find that where once stood a tangled grove of trees and vines is now desecrated by the pile of rubble and concrete we call a “highway.”
We are the architects of these apocalypses of our fellow species. We rarely take the points-of-view of these sentient beings, and so we are unaware of our actions as apocalypses. But there is a part of us that perceives the whole, and this part of us is ever aware of our actions and their consequences. We force this part of ourselves to remain unconscious, and so we only feel its emotional state bubbling up in our consciousness. This existential angst scares us half to death. Not knowing that it is our friends who are really in trouble, we hypothesize that it is our impending doom that must be the cause. Whether by God, alien, or zombie, we know an end is near. What we cannot imagine is that an end is here, but not for us. We are the monsters.
I am not saying there isn’t room for human building, human projects, human creativity. But until we operate from the mind set that “I and the land are one,” we will always overstep our bounds. As has been pointed out ad infinitum, and has fallen on deaf ears in perpetuum, the biblical charge to have “dominion over the earth,” refers to stewardship, not domination. Once we start behaving in an earth-centric way, I guarantee the apocalypse will no longer hold sway. Sorry, Hollywood!
And we don’t have to wait for the entire world to change its ways for this transformation to occur. As soon as I started car-pooling, recycling, and behaving in an earth-conscious way, almost all of my anxieties about the environment disappeared. It’s about our own personal relationship with the universe. Heal your world, and the world at large will follow.
Religion is a game. I do not mean this in any kind of a reductionist or derogatory sense (e.g., “Catholicism is just a game—play by the rules (the Ten Commandments, the sacraments) and you win.”) I mean it in a deep sense; religions are systems that, if understood and interpreted correctly within context, can provide us with the means of personal development and transformation. There are tools, rules of discipline, and boons of hope and encouragement. Some of these elements can even be transferred to other religions, just as elements of some games can be added to other games. But we cannot just borrow the pleasant things from each religion, no more than we should adopt just the self-sacrificing practices. We need to adopt one of them games wholeheartedly (customizing it within reason), or else create a balanced and complete mixture of needed elements from many religions, or we can create our own religion— which would be reinventing the wheel, so to speak.
Just as Wittgenstein illuminated language as a “game” that we play, so too is religion. Languages are games that are very different in their look, their sound, their feel, and their rules, but they are all games that, when played, generate meaning for their players, meaning within the games themselves and meaning in relation to the world “out there” to which they refer. No language can perfectly refer to the world out there, but the inner coherence of the whole allows it to refer to the world as a whole in some useful and meaningful way. Religions, too, are games. Each has its own look, sound, and feel; each generates meaning within itself for its players; each generates meaning in relation to some reality “out there,” whether natural or supernatural. Just as with languages, people can have more than one religion. But, just as with languages, people must keep the games somewhat separate. One can intermittently insert a word or phrase or even borrow a grammatical idea; however, just as one can only speak one language at a time, so too can one play only one religion at a time.
This insight into religion as game came to me when I attended an Episcopal mass in the St. Joseph of Arimethea chapel in the belly of the Washington National Cathedral. I had been to mass at the cathedral and had never been much moved by it. However, a friend of mine invited me to attend the mass in the chapel one Sunday to hear her sermon. This mass moved me greatly, and for many reasons: It was in the crypt of the Cathedral, a crypt containing two special people (the bodies of Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan). It was just the kind of place early Christians practiced their rituals in secret. It was candlelit, dark but warm, circular, with amphitheatre-like steps leading down from all sides into the alter area. The backdrop was a massive fresco of Joseph retrieving Jesus’ body, the whole thing glowing in its golden palette. It was underneath the Cathedral, in the belly, the ground, inside of Mother Earth. Emerging from the mass into the crisp spring air was like being reborn again from the womb, similar to the experience Native Americans create with their sweatlodge ritual.
One can imagine the ambience, the feeling, the meaning of such an experience, and even the reasons why it might have been preferable to the magnificent, awesome, light-filled, airy experience of the main nave. But none of those reasons, none of that meaning, none of the specialness of that crypt would have been possible without the existence of the gigantic structure on top of it. The chapel simply could not exist without the cathedral. Nor the cathedral without the chapel. They are integral parts of the game I was playing, the game called Christianity, in which I preferred to play the apophatic, underground, contemplative rebel.
This is how we create access-points to religious meaning. I recognize that the same meditative state can be entered through Roman Catholic rosary beads, Islamic prayer beads, Tibetan meditation beads. It is the repetitive motion and chanting that creates the space needed for contemplation. But I cannot just hand my kid a string of glass beads and tell her to rub them until she is awakened. We need the context of the “Hail Mary’s,” of the immaculate conception, of the story of Jesus’ conception and birth, of Mary’s assumption into heaven. Or the context of the ninety-nine names of Allah. Or of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The access points are not easily identified in thin-air (although I am quite sure the Divine leads people to such invisible access points quite often). It is helpful to have signposts. It is helpful to know where the game is being played.
Again, in Christianity: There is one level of meaning that is created in a Methodist church that breaks bread together, somewhat informally, one Sunday a month. There is another level of meaning created by the weekly ritual of the Episcopal mass, culminating in the breaking and sharing of bread by all. There is still another level of meaning created by the Roman Catholic mass that demands that only those who have attended a year-long First Communion class may partake of the bread at the end of mass. And still another level of meaning for one who has grown up the Catholic way and who is therefore touched and humbled by the liberal sharing of bread at the Methodist service. Meaning, meaning, and more meaning, all created by these games we play.
Students have been fond of asking me, “Why do you choose to be Catholic? How can you choose to be Catholic, when you have learned about and practiced all of these great religions? How can you settle for Catholicism when you at the same time affirm the truth of these other religions and even practice Buddhist meditation, Hindu Yoga, Native American sweatlodge?” My answer is always this: All of these religions are games. Each of them has its own inner logic, and each of them approaches the truth. None of them is perfect, just like no language can perfectly describe the world. Each of them provides a road map to the truth, but you need to pick one. “Why can’t we just pick and choose what you like from each of them, like you do?” they ask.
My reply is that I do not just pick and choose what I like. I do select practices and beliefs from other traditions that augment my spirituality, but I believe that we should still pick one main thing to follow, one main game to play. Why? Because this will help to protect us from picking just the things that are easy, just the things that are agreeable. It will also protect some of us from focusing too much on the self-denying things, from overdosing on an ascetic path in an attempt to reach our goal (too) quickly. I do not yet trust myself to select a balanced set of practices, rituals, and beliefs! Each religion is a different road map to the same place. Each has different mountains to climb and valleys to rest in and rivers to cross. We cannot just take the valleys from each religion, and leave out the mountains. We need to play the whole game. So, being forced to choose one game out of many, I chose the one that was the most comfortable, the one that I grew up with. I do liberally borrow from the other games. And I do recognize that they are all “just” games. But not so much “just.” The reality which they approximate, which they imitate, is not “just” anything. It is all.
I encourage everyone to explore all the different games we can play, to make a commitment to one of them, and to customize this game in the ways that are most helpful to one’s spiritual, psychological, and physical health. Play this game with all of your heart, mind, body and soul. But, at the end of the day, know that it is just a game. Shake hands with your teammates and with your opponents, for they are opponents no longer. The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon, as a Zen master once said.
“When you are art gone forth wholly from the creature [human], and have become nothing to all that is nature and creature, then you are in that eternal one, which is God himself, and then you will perceive and feel the highest virtue of love. Also, that I said whoever findes it finds nothing and all things; that is also true, for he finds a supernatural, supersensual Abyss, having no ground, where there is no place to live in; and he finds also nothing that is like it, and therefore it may be compared to nothing, for it is deeper than anything, and is as nothing to all things, for it is not comprehensible; and because it is nothing, it is free from all things, and it is that only Good, which a man cannot express or utter what it is. But that I lastly said, he that finds it, finds all things, is also true; it has been the beginning of all things, and it rules all things. If you find it, you come into that ground from whence all things proceed, and wherein they subsist, and you are in it a king over all the works of God.” -Jakob Boehme, The Way to Christ, 1623
“Behold the One in all things; it’s the two that throws you off.” –An Islamic Mystic
I have gone back-and-forth, back-and-forth, back-and-forth about whether to use the term ‘Perennialist’ as a noun or as an adjective. For example, am I a “Catholic Perennialist” or a “Perennialist Catholic”? Or “Perennialist-Catholic,” the double-noun, which still presents the problem of whether to place the ‘Perennialist’ designation first or last. I recognize the power and importance of words, and so this discussion doesn’t come down to merely a matter of style or aesthetics, but to the different meanings these arrangements of words represent, however subtle those differences may be.
When a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Humanist, Yoruba, Aborigine, or other person decides to add the word ‘Perennialist’ to her description of herself, does she consider herself to belong primarily to the group of “Perennialists,” with her traditional religion being secondary? If so, she might prefer the term “Jewish Perennialist,” for example. Or does she consider herself to be primarily a member of her religion, but with the qualification that she understands all valid paths to truth to be valid paths to truth? In that case, she might prefer to be called a “Perennialist Jew.” So which should it be? Or, should it depend on the person and her relationship to her religion and to Perennialism?
I am completely in favor of leaving the nomenclature up to the individual person. But having thought through this a bit, I thought I might share with you my reasoning for choosing the designation “Perennialist Catholic.” First of all, there is the fact that Perennialism is a meta-religious idea, an idea that strives to see all religions and philosophies from some bird’s-eye view. Now this perspective may not be possible for a human being to attain, but it is certainly approachable for the learned human being who possesses reason, imagination, and inspiration. (It may also be possible through a mystical seeing, but that is a conversation for another time and place; despite the fact that such mystical experiences are responsible for my forays into Perennialsim!) As Perennialism is a meta-religious idea, rather than another religion among religions, I did not think it proper to use it as a noun. “I am a Catholic Perennialist, and I hope you will someday become a Perennialist, too” sounds too much like I am trying to start my own church. This is not another movement among movements. It is a movement beyond any one religion. It seeks to transcend the problems of religion while retaining all of their wisdom and truth. It would be a tragedy to throw-out tens of thousands of years of collected wisdom, not to mention all the good institutions and communities that arose with it. So, I place ‘Perennialist’ as an adjective, a particular way in which I belong to the community of Catholic Christians.
Secondly, and following from that, I do not think Perennialism is a way to truth, at least not by itself. Perennialism does not provide religious practices and myths that will guide a person to truth, not unless you recognize all the valid rituals and myths of all the religions of the world to be Perennialism’s myths and rituals. Instead, the myriad religious and philosophical traditions are ways to truth that can be better understood and deepened through a Perennialist interpretation. I say “interpretation” because I do not think there is one ultimate Perennial philosophy. I think it is the work of trying to be a Perennialist that is important, not whether we succeed at it. All of this points to a better use of ‘Perennialist’ as an adjective.
Finally, I want to sincerely recognize and honor the truth and beauty of the diversity of religions and philosophies, not to mention the benefit gained by the fact of their multiplicity. There is a multiplicity of religious and philosophical traditions, and within each of these is a multiplicity of viewpoints, beliefs, practices, and myths. Using ‘Perennialist’ as an adjective seems an appropriate way to unite all of the members of these various traditions while still acknowledging each person as being grounded in his “Roman Catholic Christian-ness,” “Lutheran Christian-ness,” “Baptist Christian-ness,” Zen Buddhist-ness,” “Pure Land Buddhist-ness,” “Orthodox Jewish-ness,” “Reform Jewish-ness,” etcetera.
Further, without this diversity, the comparative work that led to the Perennial Philosophy would not have been possible or necessary. And what a beautiful idea it is! More importantly, what a wonderful and transformative journey it is. Without diversity, this transformative process would not be available for all of us. Perhaps someday it will not be necessary, but from my limited, year-2012 human perspective, it is a beautiful and worthwhile process of development for all of us to engage.
So, for now anyway, I use the term ‘Perennialist’ as an adjective, ultimately recognizing the truth of Gandhi’s insight that there are as many religions as there are men and women. I cannot name even two Roman Catholic Saints whose paths to God or even whose prayers were exactly the same. If we are as unique as snowflakes, with ourselves—our very lives—being our deepest prayers, it follows that there are no two prayers that are alike, nor two paths to God. I guess, in the end, we are all Perennialists, but to claim so would be too dangerous. I would be wary of anyone who did. From our human perspective, it would be safer to leave “Perennialist” as a secondary term, quietly doing its job of letting others know how we strive to see the world, not demanding any kind of allegiance to itself, letting us be and letting us become, giving as only God can give.