“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.
“You” is a story you and others tell yourself.
If more religious institutions embraced (or at least acknowledged) perennialism, it would tremendously lesson the impression and/or reality of dogmatism, and membership would increase. Why should we care about membership? I can immediately think of a three reasons: 1. So that more people have places in which they can approach the sacred as a community, 2. Using the symbols and stories with which they have grown-up and which they find most powerful, and 3. joining in the good charity work that most of those groups do. (e.g. “I would like to feed the homeless with you, but please spare me your self-righteousness and your exclusivist vision of God!”) As it is right now, many religious groups (I am thinking here about many Roman Catholic churches, some Episcopal and Anglican churches, many evangelical churches, and some Muslim communities) are retracting and becoming less ecumenical, less perennialist, and more exclusivist. My hope and faith is that this is part of the ebb-and-flow, a minor setback on the way to a brighter future. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, at some point had to see the pendulum shift away from the progress gained during Vatican II. I wish it weren’t so, but that is the way of things. Luckily, as Martin Luther King, jr. said, “The arc of the universe, though long, always points toward justice.”
I’ve just realized that a whole slew of our country’s problems are essentially nonexistent.
As I see it, the main quarrel between liberals and conservatives is over how tax money is spent. Almost none of us likes to pay taxes, but almost all of us agrees that they are necessary. The bulk of the argument is over how this tax money is distributed. Liberals want their money spent on paving roads, education, and social programs. Conservatives want their money spent on paving roads, business-friendly programs, and the military. What no one seems to realize is that everyone is getting what they want.
The money that liberals pay in taxes is going toward education, social programs, and paving roads. The money that conservatives pay in taxes is going toward the military, business-friendly programs, and paving roads. So what is all the fuss about? You are all getting what you want for your money, and wanting to dictate how the other side spends their money is very un-American of you. Knock it off. All the roads are getting paved.
- Almost Like Being In Love King Cole Trio
- Resurrection Remy Zero
- My Sweet Lord George Harrison
- All At Sea Jamie Cullum
- King Without A Crown Matisyahu
- Upside Down Jack Johnson
- Connected Katharine McPhee
- Higher Love Steve Winwood
- Show Me John Legend
- Who Cares Bobby Sweet
- In Your Eyes Peter Gabriel
- Born This Way Lady Gaga
In so many of the religious dialogues I have with people, whether they be classes, sermons, discussions, or blogposts, there always seem to be one or two who disagree with me (which is welcome, of course) and they almost always cite the work of G.K. Chesterton. Consequently, I would like to clear up a misunderstanding of perennialism that is present in Chesterton’s work. This is not to say that Chesterton wouldn’t find some other reason to disagree with perennialism, ecumenism, or pluralism, but I think it might be helpful to those influenced by him in their encounters with these ideas.
In 1925, G. K. Chesterton wrote in The Everlasting Man:
“These Theosophists build a pantheon; but it is only a pantheon for pantheists. They call a Parliament of Religions as a reunion of all the peoples; but it is only a reunion of all the prigs. Yet exactly such a pantheon had been set up two thousand years before by the shores of the Mediterranean; and Christians were invited to set up the image of Jesus side by side with the image of Jupiter, of Mithras, of Osiris, of Atys, or of Ammon. It was the refusal of the Christians that was the turning-point of history. If the Christians had accepted, they and the whole world would have certainly, in a grotesque but exact metaphor, gone to pot. They would all have been boiled down to one lukewarm liquid in that great pot of cosmopolitan corruption in which all the other myths and mysteries were already melting.”
In what appears to me to be a highly emotive reaction to perennialist ideas, Chesterton fails to make a not-so-subtle distinction. There is an importance difference between asking Christians to place their God alongside the gods of other religions, and asking them to consider the idea that Jesus and the rest of those deities and avatars are all manifestations of the one true God.
It is true that Jesus said, “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” But what does “through me” mean? This can soundly be interpreted to mean “through the type of life I have shown you,” which means that anyone who follows the way of Krishna or Gandhi or Mohammad or Buddha is also following “the way the truth and the life.” Similarly, Christian tradition tells us, “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ has come again.” Who is to say that Christ hasn’t died, risen, and come again dozens of times, in the forms of the spiritual luminaries of other traditions?
Perennialism may seem to be asking Christians to give up the exclusivity of Christ’s salvation, but in another view it’s really just expanding the reach of that salvation. Perennialism refuses to put human limits on Christ. Perennialism may seem to be asking Christians to lower their God into a pantheon of lesser gods, but it is only asking them to entertain the idea that all of these Gods are ultimately One.
If anyone wants to continue to believe in an exclusivist form of Christianity–or of any religion, for that matter–I understand. But I would ask you to understand the perennialist view for what it is: Not a paganism offered over and against Christianity, but a transcendent theory preserving and enhancing the legitimacy of all wisdom traditions.
People do not need a church’s guidance; they need its support.
What’s all the fuss about? Muslims? Jews? Christians? We’re all just Zoroastrians anyway; let’s get over ourselves & accept it.