Perennialist Catholic or Catholic Perennialist?

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.

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4 Responses to Perennialist Catholic or Catholic Perennialist?

  1. Chris says:

    Justin,

    I, too, have struggled with this question. I “returned” to the RCC via my exploration of perennialist tenets. And, I agree with your conclusions. Making “Perennialist” the noun, not the adjective, seems to betray what Perennialists are really saying- (at least the Traditional understanding of Perennialism.)

    Recently, I’ve been somewhat vexed by the arguments against the Perennialist view from exoterics and also from “defected” Perennialists. “Holding the center” is not easy. Thoughts?

  2. Justin says:

    Chris,
    Thanks for assenting to that one! I wonder what is the percentage of people who would consider themselves to be R.C. and Perennialist? I’m always overjoyed to hear of one! And I share your reaction to those who take issue with the Perennialist view. I am not sure what their issues are. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by the exoterics; the former Perennialists are the ones who I have the most trouble understanding. I wonder if it is a result of the “Post-Modern” condition, as defined by Lyotard, of being suspicious of any metanarrative? I imagine most Perennialists are at least somewhat educated, which means they probably are destined to come into contact with this Post-Modern mindset in the course of their development. I hope that it, too, is just another passing stage in their development! Not that it isn’t an important stage; I am sympathetic to that Post-Modern view, as I too am suspicious of the metanarratives of those who are powerful, and I am constantly being humbled by and am learning from other worldviews and narratives. I actually see Perennialism as a forum for doing that, but I understand that in the hands of some–possibly even some of the seminal thinkers on it–Perennialism could become just one more metanarrative, closing us off to other ways of seeing the world. But if we can “hold the center” as you say, and understand that center as vast enough and mysterious enough, I think Perennialism can be both all-encompassing and indeterminate. I tried to be Post-Modern and to deny Perennialism for as long as I could, but it just kept beckoning to me as something that I knew to be experientially true. I still often wear the Post-Modern “hat” in the classroom, as I want my students to come to their own conclusions. But I also take some time to talk to them about Perennialism. I tell them it’s so that they will know what my bias is as I present information to them, but my ulterior motive is because I think it is true. I’d like to hear more about your thoughts and experiences. Thanks for writing.

  3. Chris says:

    Justin,

    Thank you for your speedy response. I writing this rather late, so I’m sorry if I sound rushed and comment without development. I, too, was pleasantly surprised when I discovered another Perennialist RC. If you’ll indulge me, a little personal background.

    Up until a few years ago, my view was staunchly post-modern. For me, the only absolute truth was that there wasn’t one. I was a relativist and an authentic agnostic. But, being inclined to introspection and somewhat antagonized by philosophical materialism, I ultimately became skeptical of skepticism. My position on traditional religion at this time was very much in line with the Wilberian view. The theistic religions, Christianity in particular, represented the “mythic” levels of spirituality that one proceeds through in the spectrum of consciousness.

    Eventually, I discovered the Traditionalist school, starting with Huston Smith, whom Wilber often referenced. Ultimately the RCC made sense for me. My intellectual landscape had always been, on so many levels, rather Catholic. I really shouldn’t have been surprised- to this day I still regard Tolkien as the “old master. ”

    But, on to the matter of ex- Perennialists. There can be no doubt that Christian writers have been generally opposed to the Perennial Philosophy, seeing it as a part of the New Age. For them (exoterics), the notion that esoterism transcends doctrine from the inside is just another fancy way of rejecting orthodoxy. The main points of contention ,as I see it, center on the matter of the Supreme Identity, the Trinity, and the status/significance of Jesus Christ. First, a traditional Christian insists on the unbridgeable chasm between God and man. “Thou art that ” is off the table. Second, most Catholics would reject the notion that the Trinity is not absolute- that it is part of the “relative absolute” (the personal God) and merely an “upaya”. The charge is that Perennialists are “biased against love.” And finally, the Perennialist position is regarded by conservative Catholics as a demotion of the historical Jesus. The Transcendent Unity of Religions states that each of the Divine Revelations are God “saying I.” This just won’t do for most Catholics. To put a sacred text, whether it be the Koran or the Torah, on the same “level” as the living
    Jesus, is simply untenable. If Jesus Christ is not absolutely unique, than Christianity loses its raison d’etre.

    I guess the question is whether or not monotheism and non-duality are really compatible.

  4. Justin says:

    I am always amazed when someone can boil things down to one essential question, and you think you have done it. I wonder if I do not make it there because I am afraid of what the answer might be! I think that has been my unconscious state of mind in the past; now I am more positive about the answer, but more skeptical about how much success any of us can have in conversing with others about it. People get so testy. You are right that the question is whether or not monotheism and non-duality are really compatible. I like that the one can fit inside the other, but I understand, as you explained so well, how monotheists and particularly Christians would find this untenable. So what do we do? This is the part in my thought-process when I usually wish that Thomas Keating were here to give me an answer, or at least to make me laugh about it. Since he isn’t, I will just go back to watching “The Fellowship of the Ring” until I hear from you…

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