On “Neo-Perennialism”: A Misapplication of the Transcendent Unity of Religions
By Charles Upton
[NOTE: This article consists of two sections, excerpted from Findings in Metaphysic, Path and Lore by Charles Upton. This, the first, is an answer to those who see Traditionalism/ Perennialism as particular to Islam, and consequently accept it. The second section, Replies to Muhammad Hajji Legenhausem on Religious Pluralism, is an answer to those who see it from the point-of-view of Islam alone, and consequently reject it.]
It seems that some people are beginning to claim that Islam has a certain precedence over the other religions because it is “more universalist” than they are. But isn’t this a contradiction in terms? I’m reminded of a joke I used to tell when I was a leftist activist. The Left, of course, has been notorious for its factionalism; my joke, or parody, went like this: “We’re not the factionalists—they’re the factionalists!” This joke was routinely met with blank stares; what was humorous to me was sober fact to my comrades. No matter that it was a contradiction, demonstrating how a denial of factionalism can in itself be an act of factionalism; they just didn’t get it. It is much the same when one religion is claimed to be “more universalist” than the others; in this case, the denial of religious exclusivism is in itself an act of exclusivism.
Each religious revelation is unique and, in its deepest essence, incomparable. Moses may have struck the rock twice, but God never repeats Himself. Certainly He is the Universal, but He is also the Unique. And the expression of God’s Uniqueness in this world must necessarily be in terms of the uniqueness of each divine revelation, each animal species, each human individual, each form occupying space and each particular moment of time. If I were to say to another person, “I am more universal than you are since I include you, while you clearly do not include me,” would this not be a violation of courtesy? And would we not class the person making such a statement as a narcissist, if not a solipsist? Furthermore, would not the statement itself be a contradiction in terms, since there is nothing more exclusive than solipsism? To deny the world of relations-to-the-other by claiming that this world can exist inside oneself, or to expand one’s identity so as to embrace all others as oneself, are the essential acts of human egotism in its introverted and extraverted modes. And the ego is nothing if not an exclusivist.
Our uniqueness lies in our relationship with God, and nowhere else. In relation to others, we must necessarily deal with what is common to us, but our relationship to God, like our relationship to our human beloved, is unique and incomparable. If Abraham, the friend of God, had not chosen this unique relationship, and also been chosen by it, if he had not rejected all affinity with, as well as all opposition to, the religious worlds around him, there would never have been a Judaism, a Christianity, an Islam.
If I am only able to relate to you on the basis of what (in the realm of form) we have in common, this is the same thing as saying that all I can see in you is myself. The root of relationship, which is also the essence of courtesy, is to relate to another from the standpoint of one’s own uniqueness, which alone makes it possible for one to witness and protect and salute the uniqueness of another. Certainly this depth and intensity of relatedness could not be maintained without some sense of the things common to both parties; to always stand consciously in one’s eternal archetype is formidable, beyond most people’s capacity. Yet the fact remains that it is our “common uniqueness” which is the ultimate basis of that relatedness, not any set of definable similarities on the relative plane itself.
Each divine revelation contains all that is necessary for salvation: morality, metaphysics, ontology, epistemology, spiritual anthropology, spiritual method and the Grace to attain the End posited by that method. Therefore all revelations, in terms of the vertical dimension, the relationship of the soul or the community of believers to God, are “equally universal”, at least in their essential cores. It is true that the Qur‘an is more explicit about the universality of God’s revelations to man, more accepting of other “peoples of the Book,” than are the scriptures of Judaism and Christianity, though certainly not more so than Hinduism with its doctrine of the Sanatana Dharma. But if this greater acceptance were to become the basis for a claim of precedence—among Perennialists, that is, who claim to accept the doctrine named by Frithjof Schuon “the transcendent unity of religions”, not among believers who do not, and whose religion consequently must be the best to them, according to Schuon in Christianity/Islam: Essays in Esoteric Ecumenism [World Wisdom Books, 1985], p. 151— then it would defeat its own purpose.
I am among those who hold to the transcendent unity of religions. According to Schuon, each of God’s revelations to man is a unique rendition of the single and primordial Truth. And yet the diversity of such revelations is equally providential, each of them being, in Schuon’s terms, “quasi-absolute,” and thus mutually exclusive on the plane of form. The transcendent unity of religions, though it requires a certain degree of intellectual sophistication to understand, is a relatively straightforward doctrine. It is not difficult to understand; it is difficult to live with. The world exerts an immense pressure, both overt and insidious, in order to force anyone attempting to hold to this doctrine either in the direction of an anti-traditional universalism, such as that of Robert Mueller or Barbara Marx Hubbard, where religious doctrine is not taken seriously, or toward an increasingly militant religious exclusivism. This pressure may even split a single individual in two, intellectually if not existentially, leading him to espouse both an anti-traditional universalism and an increasingly rigid religious exclusivism, just as libertinism and compulsive morality may co-exist in the divided soul of a religious leader who is addicted to secret vice. But to attempt to make a synthesis between Robert Mueller and Osama bin Laden, and call this two-headed monster “the transcendent unity of religions,” is doomed from the outset; this much should be obvious.
As religious believers, our first loyalty, and our first attention, must be toward God. In God the uniqueness of our various religious revelations finds its true purpose, and is relieved from the burden of the hopeless attempt to establish our various “religious identities” by determining how we are like others or different from others. God only blesses the uniqueness of our chosen revelation when we understand it as a way to Him, not primarily as a way to form or assert our own identities, individual or collective; He is actually quite jealous in this regard. This is not to deny that God has willed that certain races, cultures and geographical areas should act as seed-beds for particular revelations; if this were not the case, His revelations to man would have no way of existing on earth. But once these revelations have been established, anyone who uses them primarily to assert the religious identity of his own group, and of himself (necessarily) as a member of that group, rather than as a way of knowing and serving God (Who may or may not command us to assert the rights and identity of our particular religion in a given historical situation, and Who in any case will set His own firm limits to such assertion), is in fact a unconscious idolater. Given that there is no god but God, a person who sets up his own religion as an object of worship alongside God, instead of using it as a way provided by God to draw closer to Him and enter more deeply into His Will, may ultimately be among the losers (and God knows best). Religion is the best of pursuits and the worst of idols; when a King commissions a craftsman to produce a beautifully ornamented cup, the craftsman does not present the King with his tool-chest, but with the cup itself—otherwise he will be lucky if a lack of future commissions is the worst thing that happens to him.
Those who are occupied with God are standing in their own uniqueness, with no need nor any desire to assert that uniqueness before others, or even before themselves. Those, however, who spend most of their time and energy worrying about how they are like other people or different from other people resemble men who are always comparing their wives to other men’s wives. If the comparison is negative, they have insulted their spouses; if it is positive, they have pandered to their spouses’ vanity, and insulted them as well: a man who truly loves his wife does not love her because she is better than other men’s wives, but because she is incomparable; as Shakespeare put it, “comparisons are odious.”
It is the same with religion. There is no question that the religions must relate to one another, especially in today’s world; cultural insularity, for better or worse, has become impossible to postmodern humanity. And as for the correct way for religions to relate to one another, given that insularity is no longer an option, another passage from Shakespeare says it best: “To thine own self be true, and it must follow as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”