AN INTERPRETATION OF MYSTICAL RELIGION
OR PERENNIAL PHILOSOPHY©
(based primarily on the writings of Edmond La B. Cherbonnier)
[1973; rev. 1991, 2000]
I. THE NATURE OF “MYSTICAL RELIGION” OR “PERENNIAL PHILOSOPHY”
II. THE REAL OR GOD
III. THE STATUS OF THE EVERYDAY WORLD
IV. HUMAN NATURE
V. RELIGIOUS KNOWLEDGE
VI. CONSEQUENCES FOR LIVING
THE NATURE OF “MYSTICAL RELIGION” OR “PERENNIAL PHILOSOPHY”
“Perennial Philosophy” or “Mystical Religion” is a generalized label, an “umbrella word,” designated by some scholars to categorize a great number of different religions and philosophies. The study of perennial philosophy is actually a study of major themes, of those key elements at work in any system of thought that employs its presupposi- tions. The intention of this essay (with the risk of being simplistic) is to describe one interpretation of those primary themes common to the thought patterns of perennial philosophy.
Aldous Huxley’s exposition is one popular exposition,1 although we shall present the topics according to a different sequence. Introducing the “perennial philosophy” in a journal, Schmitt has written the following:
Of the philosophical phrases which have come into popular use during the twentieth century, perhaps none is more curious than “perennial philosophy” or, in its more common Latin form, philosophia perennis. Although there is no agreement on the precise meaning of the phrase, it is usually taken to indicate that some sort of continuous theme runs throughout the history of philosophy, that certain enduring and lasting truths are recognizable in the philosophical writings of all historical periods. . . . Particularly during the past seventy years has “perennial philosophy” become a popular term, and numerous books and articles have discussed its meaning in detail. What precisely “philosophia perennis” means is not easy to determine, and the task of determining it is made more difficult by the fact that a great many philosophers of various persuasions have, as it were, appropriated the conception and so bent it that their own philosophy turns out to be perennial philosophy.2
Huxley’s Summary of “Perennial Philosophy”
Huxley has written: “. . . under all (the) confusion of particularist doctrines, there remains a Highest Common Factor, which is the Perennial Philosophy in what may be called its chemically pure state.”3 He has summed up the major motifs of perennial thought:
At the core of the Perennial Philosophy we find four fundamental doctrines:
First: the phenomenal world of matter and of individualized consciousness—the world of things and animals and men and even gods—is the manifestation of a Divine Ground within which all partial realities have their being, and apart from which they would be nonexistent.
Second: human beings are capable not merely of knowing about the Divine ground by inference; they can also realize its existence by a direct intuition, superior to discursive reasoning. This immediate knowledge unites the knower with that which is known.
Third: man possesses a double nature, a phenomenal ego and an eternal self, which is the inner man, the spirit, the spark of divinity within the soul. It is possible for a man, it he so desires, to identify himself with the Divine Ground, which is of the same or like nature with the spirit.
Fourth: Man’s life has only one end and purpose: to identify himself with his eternal Self and so to come to unitive knowledge of the Divine Ground.4
The following exposition is an interpretation of “Perennial Philosophy” or “Mystical Religion.”
Though not at odds with Huxley, we shall elaborate the themes differently.
One of the basic issues raised by any philosophy is the nature of reality. The position on this issue serves as the groundwork on which all subsequent notions build. In a general sense, a perennial system would use this rule of thumb: “the most inclusive is the most real.” This implies that ultimate reality must be that element in life which somehow incorporates all of being into its own existence. The real, therefore, is a final “receptacle” for being; it supplies each element in the universe with being, because it embodies all of being one form. The real is immaterial, non‑physical, and beyond the laws of space and time. It is the foundation for life, that object or force on which everything else must depend; the real, therefore, is not only all‑inclusive, but absolutely necessary.
Such conclusions about the real are derived statements; they are products of a logical method which begins with the first maxim “the most inclusive is the most real.” The first step to understanding the perennial concept of ultimate reality leads beneath the surface of its conclusions to the inner mechanisms that make it work. In Cherbonnier’s words, the thought process is described:
The reasoning by which so many philosophers of Platonic stamp have arrived at their conclusion concerning the nature of the real is plausible enough; if we are to know anything, then the object of our knowledge, the real, must be “rational.” It must conform to the requirements of reason; but if it is not alien to the canons of reason, it cannot be different from them. And if not different, then, according to the momentous conclusion of the idealist philosophy, reality and reason are the same. In Hegel’s formulation, “The real is the rational, and the rational is the real”; or in Parmenides’, “Thought and Being are One.”
To the further question, “It the rational is the real, then what exactly do you mean by ‘rational’?” the answer is evident: the rational is the logical. The most real is, therefore, that which enjoys the greatest logical priority.5
The first designation given to the real is its singularity. It cannot only be called being or non‑being, but is referred to as the One. Terms such as “that than which there is no other” relate to the unique status attached to the real; these terms point toward the Real’s quality of being absolutely necessary; the One is singled out as being the focus of existence, the object of universal dependence. The perennialist can coalesce the paradox of being and non‑being into one unit; beyond a compromise, they begin to speak in terms of a “Whole.” The real, therefore, has an identity; it is something more specific than just being.
This process of designating the One gives rise to what can be called its negative characteristics. Because it stands at the pinnacle of the material universe, perennial systems want to differentiate the One from the multiple objects of the natural world; and because those objects have less reality, the One must be given complete reality. It cannot include all of being unless it has the ability to do so. Mystics, therefore, apply a whole genre of quality‑words to describe the nature of the One, to separate it from any object lower on the scale of reality. There are two important factors that all of these definitive words or names have in common: first, each implies a state of perfection. This means that the One is absolutely defined; it is totally pure in nature. Secondly, designations for the One carry an implicit understanding of what it cannot do; that is, if it violates its own character, it is no longer the One; it must be “Wholly Other.”
With these two common elements in mind, the nature of the One can be implied by the “names” associated with it. In order to place them into some context, we have grouped them into three general categories:
I. The One as existing without limitation.
(a) Infinite means unbounded; it implies that the One is constant; it “exists as an eternal focus through eternity.”
(b) Immutable means changeless; the One is beyond the effects of time and cannot be measured by any historical categories.
(c) Immaterial implies that the One is not of the same substance as the finite; it is purely nonphysical.
(d) Independent removes the One from any sense of relationship with another object since that would require it to be dependent on some external being.
(e) Absolute is a general term that refers to the One as being perfect and completely above the particulars of lesser reality.
(f) Unconditioned means that no artificial or natural limits can be imposed on the One.
(g) Indeterminate implies that no force can affect the One or shape its being.
(h) “Wholly Other” is another general term which elevates the One ontologically beyond any limitations.
II. The unity of the One.
(a) Impartible separates the One from the quality of multiplicity that is characteristic of the natural world.
(b) Undifferentiated means the One has no necessary parts; there is no possibility for internal cycles of cause and effect.
III. The nature of the One.
(a) Impassible means the One is unfeeling; it cannot enter into a relationship with anything; it is beyond suffering or emotion.
(b) Ineffable leaves the One nameless since a name limits or particularizes its object.
(c) Inactive means that the One is still; it does not act since action can imply change.
(d) Mute implies that the One is silent; it does not speak to any external object.
(e) Impersonal implies that the One does not share the qualities of human emotion; as a self, it is perfect and unmoved.
(f) Without purpose means that the One does not require any reason to exist since it would then be dependent on that reason.
(g) Unmanifest means that there is no accessible knowledge of the One that can be acquired or deduced.
(h) Transcendent implies that in its entirety the One is on a completely unique plane of reality, separate from the physical world.
What perennial philosophy has done is to establish a working definition for the One; it has constructed an image of reality out of the elements of perfection and inclusiveness. These are powerful concepts in both religion and philosophy because they do not admit to change or manipulation. At best, ultimate reality can only be expanded in an allegorical sense, where the gods might be identified as the “faces” of the One in nature.
It is apparent that mystical religion has succeeded in developing a consistent approach for deriving the nature of reality; it has answered its first question with the concept of the One. But having accounted for perfection and the source of being, perennial systems must now contend with what remains, all those objects of lesser reality that comprise the natural world. It is at this point that the mystic splits reality into two halves. The result is a major theme that runs through the entire spectrum of perennial thought: the duality of existence.
THE STATUS OF THE EVERYDAY WORLD
Creation is the Fall
That the natural world exists at all is an acute issue for mysticism; it has supplied a definition for what is “really real” and has given that reality certain characteristics: ultimate reality must be unlimited, unified, and transcendent. A central issue for perennial systems comes into focus when one compares these three qualities to the world of nature; in each case it is obvious that none of the qualities are present. Indeed, the natural world is the antithesis of real reality. But if this is true, why does the universe exist at all? What explanation does perennial philosophy offer to justify a second realm? It is fair to state that mysticism has no final solution to this problem. There is no necessity for a finite world based on the assumptions already made about the One; it appears contradictory to have a perfect unity existing simultaneously with an imperfect, multiple world. Perennial philosophy can only accept the human experience of the natural world and attempt to deal with its nature.
The first view of the finite universe is that of something which has been created. The internal mechanics behind the “lower” realm presupposes a disruption of both unity and perfection (since the two are subsumed by the One). Consequently, the world of nature gains its finite or imperfect qualities because it is a composite of all those character- istics that are negative and alien to reality, i.e., space, time, and matter. At best, it is a poor copy of the original, made with inferior materials, and not very dependable.
We understand perennial thinking to claim that the physical world, in all its multiplicity, contradicts the ideal of unity and universality of the Divine. Hence, the world is in some sense a “fall” from the Divine, no matter how the ontology and cosmology are developed. Thus, the world is a somewhat deficient, though tolerable, condition in its separation or distant extension from the Divine Ground.
Ways of Relating the One to the World
A problem posed by this interpretation of reality is the precise relationship of the Divine to the world. One scholar has noted:
The Achilles heel of all philosophy of Platonic stamp, whether Oriental or Western, is the impossibility of explaining the relation of the one to the many, the timeless to the temporal, the infinite to the finite, the absolute to the relative. All attempted explanations amount in the end to what Kierkegaard calls “solution by superscription”; that is, while they purport to solve the problem, they really only state it in other terms, such as “reflection,” “participation,” “emanation,” and the like.6
From this perspective, it is not necessary to run through the list of creation narratives or myths to get the flavor of a perennial view: since there is only one, true reality, and since it has a monopoly on all affirmative (perfect) qualities, then the finite can only be a creation of negative (imperfect) particles. Not only is the raw material of the finite subject to decay, but also it is limited by space and time; because true reality is without activity or emotion, the natural world must contain them as its motivating factor. Perennial philosophy, therefore, admits to two realms of reality; it has both the One and the finite, each of which is contained by its own set of definitions. What a perennial system must develop is to bring them into a balance, to reconcile the two halves without sacrificing any of the earlier conclusions about the One. In order to accomplish this, forms of mystical religion (a synonymous designation of “perennial philosophy”) must deal with the status of the everyday world in one of three possible ways: (1) It must place all of its emphasis on the One, denying any reality to the finite. (2) It must permit the finite a small amount of reality by seeing it as the reflection of the One. Or, (3) It must speak of participation between the two realms in which the finite shares reality with the One.
The first alternative (Maya) is the logical implication of assuming that the One contains all of reality. Maya represents the natural world as only an illusion, a seeming-to-be, an appearing-to-be-real. In effect, this perspective removes the burden of proof for the existence of an imperfect world from perennial philosophy and gives any explanations over to the transcendent nature of the One. The mediation between the two realms is made by refusing to recognize the claims of one party; the balance is shifted to favor completely the original suppositions about reality. Obviously this approach leaves little room for argument concerning the status of this world, and its adherents tend to maximize the “other worldly” or mystical aspects of religion.
The second alternative (dualism) is an amendment of the first. It is not as strict in interpretation because it allows the finite a special, limited kind of reality. Whereas the concept of maya restricts all reality to the One, this second approach speaks of the world as a reflection of the One, though its reality is fragmented like light paving through a prism. What is real in this world, therefore, is dependent on the One; it is a diluted reality without substance or self‑motivation. There is, however, a closer contact between the two realms, since the images or presence of the One is somehow mysteriously in the natural world.
As a third approach, a perennial system may attempt to reconcile the duality between the One and the finite through “participation.” Under this alternative, the hierarchy of forms becomes the “Great Chain of Being.” Reality filters down through the multiple objects beneath the One; each contains a minute portion of reality in what has been called a “divine spark.” A one‑to‑one link is established between humanity and ultimate reality and, consequently, leaves open the possibility for human beings to gain some direct contact with the One. It should be pointed out that this idea of the Divine being dispersed through the finite is one of the key elements behind pantheism. [The writer has been advised that (1) in Hwa Yen Buddhism the “divine” and the finite are identical and (2) “maybe there is only a finite world (the cosmos), and the mystic senses or actually experiences his/her oneness with that finite world (cf. Chuang tze / Neo Taoist).”]
The approach taken by each of these alternatives varies, but they serve one primary purpose: they attempt to fix the status of this world as it relates to the One. They are the products of the some form of duality inherent in perennial philosophy and reflect the effort to reconcile the two realms. They also suggest the different degrees of emphasis that a perennial system places either on the One or on the nature of the finite. If a graph were drawn of perennial philosophy and its concept of the natural world, there would be three main points: At one end would be the world as “illusion” where only the One has any claim to reality; in the center is reflection, which attempts to conserve reality for the One, but also admits to the existence of another, less perfect, realm; and at the opposite extreme is participation, where the possibilities for direct contact are greatest. The three alternatives are indicative of reasonable pluralism in perennial thought as to whether existence should be narrowed to the One or expanded to accommodate the finite.
From the methodology of the perennial idea of creation, we can see a movement toward “narrowing” existence. It recognizes a disruption of being by space, time, and matter. The plurality that occurred is considered an evil, and the thrust is toward reducing the elements of real reality to their highest, single point.
The Nature of Time
These three alternatives imply that perennial philosophy moves off the foundation set down in the One in a variety of ways. The inexplicable “fact” of the everyday world forces a perennial system into the position of having to mediate between the two poles of its duality. The purpose behind formulating the status of the natural world is to set it into some kind of harmony with the One; and although the interpretations of this realm differ, there is one theme that remains constant in perennial thought: the idea of time. The quality of time has a direct influence on perennial philosophy, whatever approach or interpretation employed. By way of clarification, one can first state the two main elements at work in the perennial view of the everyday world: first, it has been reported above that although there are two realms of reality with varying levels of emphasis placed on them, the One is always considered far beyond the finite. Second, an attempt is made by any perennial system to reconcile the duality by placing the natural world into some context with the infinite. From these two points, one can see that each alternative (“illusion,” reflection, or participation) is really a method for arbitration, a means of establishing a balance in reality. But the inherent difficulty in effecting this balance is one of definition: the One is immutable (timeless), while the everyday world is restricted to operating within the laws of measurable time. This implies that humanity exists on a totally different plane from the One; we are regulated by the motion of time through the finite and, consequently, limited in attempts to enter into contact with ultimate reality. In fact, it appears contradictory to assume that any contact can be made between a limited subject (a human being) and an unlimited object (the One). For this reason, perennial philosophy considers time to be an illusion or a series of cycles; man is caught on a kind of treadmill from which there is no cannot escape. History itself is a record of change which keeps human beings from being reconciled to the One. A further implication of this view is that we are conscious of our own finitude; we realize that whatever has absolute reality must be changeless, but that our chances for entering into a communion with that reality are severely impaired by our inability to escape the passage of time. The three alternatives for arbitrating between man and God have meaning only if they can resolve the question of time and change.
The status of the everyday world, therefore, can be classified within three general aspects: (1) it is an inexplicable disruption of unity which is the antithesis to the One; (2) it is directed by the attempt to escape imperfection and enter into some larger context with the One, either as a dream, a reflection, or by sharing in the One’s reality; (3) the movement toward ultimate reality is blocked by the effects of time which produces the change that ties humanity to the finite. Finally, all of these motifs within mystical religion are products of the central duality inherent in its logic. This same quality of two halves will consistently appear in perennial thought as an undercurrent that directs and shapes many of its conclusions.
The Two Selves
Human beings are aspects of the finite. For perennial philosophy, we are affected by the laws of space, time, and matter just as is any inanimate object. In considering human nature, therefore, we are aware of the same philosophic presuppositions that were applied to the status of the everyday world. Most of all, it should be clear that perennial philosophy does not consider human beings as one, complete, finished product. Human nature incorporates duality and is a composite of two parts: the lower self and the transcendent self.
The perennial approach to human nature is very similar to its analysis of the finite realm. A distinction is made between a “lower” self which is grounded in the conditions and laws imposed by time and space, and a “higher” self which is in harmony with the One. Of the two aspects of human nature, the first is the most readily apparent. From observation and experience, a perennial thinker can assert that man is completely finite; as physical beings, we fulfill none of the requirements associated with the One; we are subject to limitations of time and space and, consequently, the antithesis of the One.
If physical humanity were left at this end of the perennial graph, i.e., in an illusory state devoid of any reality, then our nature would be singular; we would be completely finite. It is through the influence of the other two possibilities (reflection and participation) that mystical religion introduces the concept of another side to human nature. Like the world, the two alternatives give humans more reality; they suggest that there exists in us some small element of the Divine. Consequently, man is more than an object; he is animated in a special way; he is the recipient of a minute portion of true reality that stands beyond the contradictions of his reason or ego. This portion of human nature is often referred to as the “soul.”
That human beings can be credited with a soul is the positive counterbalance to his purely finite self. It is necessary, however, to make a distinction between human reason and the quality of the soul. Perennial philosophy does not necessarily equate the two. Individual human characteristics (personality, ego, intentions, mental processes, and reason) can be considered finite. They are each limited either by the external laws in the world or by the effects of misjudgment and fallibility. Moreover, they are grounded in human experience which is itself imperfect and always subject to change. Consequently, when perennial philosophy speaks of a higher, transcendent element in human nature, it is referring to the soul.
A definitive statement about the soul is difficult to formulate. It lies somewhere in the context of participation, where humanity is endowed with a unique, divine spark that is totally alien to this world. The soul, therefore, is an external acquisition; it is not an inherent aspect within physical man, because as non-physical it is not subject to change or death. At least one distinction can be made about the soul: if it exists, it is universal. There are not different types of soul for different people; as a product of the One, the human soul has the same unity and all‑inclusiveness as its source. The soul is considered to be a small portion of the One injected into the physical body of the finite world. As Meister Eckhart noted, “...I discover that God and I are one.”7 It is important to remember, however, that perennial philosophy has no final explanation as to why this occurred; it offers no general thesis to justify the One’s dispensing portions of itself through the world, nor does it consider whether, by definition, this would even be possible.
If the assumption is made that a soul does exist in men and women and that it is, in fact, a divine spark from the One, then we can begin to trace some of the concept’s effects on the perennial view of human nature. It is interesting to consider what happens to the soul once the other “half” of an individual dies. Only the soul is connected to God; it alone directly shares the higher reality; the rest of the person is perishable and restricted. It is an almost universal theme in perennial philosophy that the soul has the ability to escape the treadmill of time and history. But this places human nature in a curious situation: it has only one lasting quality, and yet that quality is, in fact, alien to humanity, since its source is the One. The question posed is simply, what intrinsic value does the soul actually have for human life? If at death the soul is released from the prison of the body, then we have forfeited what was really never ours in the beginning.
Some schools of thought argued that the divine sparks are a reservoir for human life. They are eternal but enter the cycles of birth and death in order to make it possible for humans to exist at all. Other interpretations leave man behind at death; the soul enters the body at birth, animates it for the duration of its finite existence, and then at death flies back to rejoin the One. Either way, the question remains as to the real, substantive value of the soul beyond giving man his relatively short life span. The One simply reclaims what it has given, and humanity is left on the treadmill.
Another question to consider from this viewpoint is the definition of a human being. Is an individual the finite, while the soul is always part of the One? or is there a closer connection where some part of our “self” survives with the soul? It would be unjust to presuppose any final answer for perennial philosophy, but there are some indications that would leave us in our finite state. The dualism of perennial philosophy prohibits any admixture of soul and self just as it restricts the ability of a merger between the One and the finite world. Our range of activity as humans, our freedom, is bound up by the laws of time and space. In the idea of karma, for example, men and women repeat those functions which promise another birth into a higher level in the cyclical process of eternal recurrence. Yet the only hope is to escape this process and cease to be reborn. But this means that the atman (roughly, the soul) is released from the cycle of regeneration, and the idea of the soul alone returning to the One is raised again.
Various systems of perennial philosophy speak to this issue with their own interpretations; in fact, they create a kind of philosophical language with terms such as nisus, a movement toward the Divine, or “entelechy” which is the Aristotelian term for that which realizes a cause; but essentially it can be said that an issue for perennial philosophy resides in the dual nature of humanity. As indicated above, the problem of isolating a definition for human nature or for establishing a value for the soul is constant in any perennial system and should be kept in mind when reviewing any particular philosophy or theology.
An additional motif may be used to explain the duality in human nature which may throw some light on the perennial view. This is the concept of “original sin.”8 At the core of this idea is the implicit understanding that humanity has lost something, that our nature was probably once fully in tune with the higher reality and is analogous to the concept of creation wherein an original unity was disrupted by the advent of space and time. In this context, persons are viewed as having once been motivated and determined by the quality of the soul itself. In an almost mythical sense, humans were in a state of harmony with the One.
The act or event which characterizes this loss of unity varies in its description, but the main point is that humanity’s finite nature, our imperfection and fallibility, severed our primary ties with the One. Man, therefore, forfeited his claim as a part of higher reality. Like the world in which we live, we have become a product of time and matter. Our sense of ego and the expression of purely human reason, the two completely personal aspects of human nature, eclipsed the soul and left us outside the continuity between our “higher” self and true reality. The connection between mankind and the One was broken, and the whole process of finite time blocking the path to reconciliation occurred. This breakdown in continuity carries with it a special significance: we are dependent on our powers of reasoning, our experiential‑theoretical knowledge. We are in a state of ignorance when compared to the perfect truth behind the One. Consequently, human ignorance places us on the treadmill of history as much as our corporal bodies or the laws of change.
The doctrine of original sin, therefore, is a consistent element in mystical religion. It is in keeping with the major aspects of duality that have played such an important role in the perennial view of reality, the finite world, and now of human nature. It is an explanation of why we are cut off from the One just as creation narratives attempt to explain why the world exists. And more importantly, it leaves us under the cloud of suspicion; our fallen ability to apprehend the truth or discover a method of salvation is questionable. Indeed, the only certainty available to us is the process of time itself; our hope is left in ideas such as transmigration, where individuals constantly enter the cycles of birth and death until we can reestablish the broken line between ourselves and ultimate reality. It is significant that perennial philosophy leaves human beings with so many deficits: the gulf between the One and the finite, the division of human nature, and the serious doubt about human knowledge. These same deficiencies, the products of perennial duality, will carry over into the consideration of religious knowledge. In the final analysis, we will be forced to abandon our world and make a “leap of faith” to reach the One.
In perennial philosophy, human beings are limited in a number of ways. We are restricted to the definitions imposed by the finite; we exist in a closed set of abilities and alternatives, and our actions are contained within the boundaries of time. In short, man appears to be trapped by the natural world, cut off from the One, the only measure of Truth. It is at this point that religious knowledge becomes important: it is the only method of escape from the finite open to us. In coming to understand the One, we release ourselves from the tight patterns of the finite; religious knowledge is the instrument for breaking open the shell of the natural world in order to come into contact with the source of being. Perennial philosophy, therefore, has a definite attitude toward acquiring knowledge of the One: it is a means to an end. It is a way to bring individuals into harmony with eternal truth. Religious knowledge is integrated into a perennial system in a functional manner; consequently, the thrust of perennial thought will be toward discovering the best method for making contact with the One.
Mystical systems have varying approaches to religious knowledge, but there is at least one point of common agreement: we cannot reason our way to an understanding of the One; the resources available in the finite realm are insufficient. This view is an extension of the perennial view of human nature wherein man is divided into a higher self and a lower self; what perennial philosophy implies is that the lower or purely rational nature of man is too limited to bridge the gap between the finite and the infinite. A reason offered for this understanding is that human knowledge is always relative: it depends on human experience and is hemmed in by the laws of time and change. Man, therefore, can have only an imperfect understanding of imperfect things. Thus, it may be argued that perennial uses of reason as ultimately inadequate. Through the use of reason one seeks to grasp the infinite; however, the infinite is beyond reason. Therefore, reason is inadequate to grasp the infinite. Furthermore, assuming that the infinite is what is real, one does not know truth about the finite, inasmuch as finite categories cannot grasp the real and truth. All finite knowledge, being about that which is not ultimately real, is not true nor false, but instead relative.
The perennial criticism of human knowledge, however, extends beyond practical events in the natural world. In a larger sense, it can indicate theoretical or abstract knowledge on the same basis — i.e., that the scope of human reason is equally limited. In perennial philosophy, reason is an aspect of the “lower” self. It is restricted to operating within the natural world. The function of reason, therefore, is to catalogue human experience; it labels events as either true or false and fits the pieces of human action into one, consistent form. And yet, the problem of reason is the same as experience: when something is not open to empirical tests, when it cannot be measured by some law, then the product of human thought becomes relative, its validity is open to totally subjective interpretation. This has significant consequences for perennial philosophy, because it means that all systems of thought are placed on the same plane; there can be no final word in philosophy or religion, since there is no real test to establish truth. Philosophy, experience, and reason are all open to contradiction; they are purely human activities and cannot bridge the gap between finite man and infinite God.
Thus, the case against reason has been constructed because of reason’s inherent inability to grasp what is really real. The argument has been supported further by the observations that reason divides, separates, (and) makes distinctions. Inasmuch as the really real, in the traditional metaphysical sense, is Oneness (or a variation of this concept), and because reason forms concepts, even the concept of Oneness itself, unified reality is shattered, and reason falls short of true reality. Though one reasons about God, for example, one’s rational propositions rail to grasp that which by its nature cannot be apprehended. Even the finite concept “God” violates the real God beyond conceptualization.
The case is further strengthened by the realization that reason depends upon the distinction between true and false. The very fact that this distinction is bound up with reason documents the unreliability of this tool; Oneness has again been shattered by the true‑false classifi- cations. Extending the argument, the really real is subjected through reason to a presupposed duality of subject and object; to know something involves a knower and the known, certainly not a state of Oneness. And, finally, the divine unity is refracted into the various pairs of opposites; that is, reason results in a choice between opposite concepts ‑ more duality.
One must transcend reason somehow to know the really real. To be bound to reason dooms one to ignorance of the real; this process is inadequate to the task of leading an inquirer to Truth in any ultimate sense. Some might argue therefore, that an implication of this position is that irrational creatures and objects have an advantage, inasmuch as they are not subject to the canons of rationality.
The Ladder of Ascent
It is at this point that perennial systems begin to introduce their method, the way to negate natural laws and open human consciousness to higher reality. This approach proposes that we must somehow prepare ourselves for union with the One; we must block out the external pressures of the finite in order to understand or grasp the infinite. Human beings, therefore, must abandon associations with and dependence upon the everyday world, so that we can communicate with the One on a higher level. From this general approach, perennial systems offer various ways in which a person can attain religious knowledge. The practices of meditation and self‑discipline are common methods; they intend to produce a specific state where the influence of the finite world (its desires, passions, and frustrations) are minimized and, we are left in a type of suspended animation: our senses are focused only on the One; we are ready to receive divine wisdom.
For those who reject reason, the “ladder of ascent” to the ultimate may be employed. The first step in this ladder is purgation, “the ridding of the soul of those practices which disperse it and prevent it from paying attention.”9 Second, contemplation, leads to “the final stage in which the presence (of the ultimate) penetrate the beholder.”10
It is important to note that perennial philosophy conditions man to receive religious knowledge, not acquire it. Ascetic, contemplative methods are designed only to cleanse the mind, to nullify the contact with finite reality to the point where true knowledge (often, union) can be accepted. None of these practices impart knowledge by themselves; they are only the preparations for it.
It is extremely difficult to describe this moment when knowledge is passed from one realm to another. It can be referred to as revelation, enlightenment, the moment of truth, or as a “mystical experience.” These are descriptive words and simply label that instant when an individual gains knowledge of the One. If we attempt to penetrate the experiences of the mystic, it must be done on the condition that none of the normal modes of thought sustaining us in this world are applied. Perennial philosophy considers religious knowledge as the sudden introduction of the Divine into the temporal; consequently, it is by nature a paradox. Wisdom from the One counteracts all of the limitations imposed on reason: man is the recipient of an absolute, not relative Truth. We catch a glimpse of the totality of existence where there are no limits of time or space and where finite contradictions are resolved.
The Higher Level of Knowing
The mystic has transcended the natural world. In the moment of enlightenment, he has achieved union with the One. Religious knowledge is a vision of true reality wherein an individual “steps inside” the One and “sees” Truth. Consequently, one is released from the cycles of illusory history; one becomes aware not only of his position in the universe, but the much larger ultimate reality behind it.
This “final stage” is the higher, trans‑rational level of knowing. In its most efficient and effective stage (the experience of a mystic), one crosses the bounds of reason and the rational, beyond all particulars and duality. The mood is characterized by a turning inward to reach the “moment of truth,” during which one has transcended the rational and experiences the One. Clark has described the mystical experience as follows:
Mysticism is a definite but sporadic state of the religious consciousness partly active and partly passive, involving an experience so unusually personal as to deny description in any but the most figurative and cryptic language. It involves the apprehension of a trans- cendental Presence which radically influence the individual’s point of view and way of life. The consequent passionate devotion to this Presence tends to lead to an extremely unworldly value system. These values foster extravagant behavior which nevertheless stimulates integration of the psyche centered on this devotion.11
The knowledge one attains during this experience is not rational, not about concepts, nor expressible literally by concepts. Rather, it is beyond conceptualization; it is “knowledge” in the sense of a union between the knower and the known. The mystery intrinsic to separateness is overcome. In a religious sense, salvation then is by this type of knowledge, the awareness of the eternal. Dupre’s observation is thereby confirmed for perennial view of religion: “The mystical drive to live in the experienced presence of God (in whatever degree) belongs to the core of all religion.”12
This view of divine wisdom in perennial philosophy introduces two important implications. First, it implies that religious knowledge is not subject to empirical proof. The claims of a mystic cannot be validated or evaluated by any criteria other than faith (or, as one suggested to the writer, by a very subjective appeal to a changed life.) Second, it tends to establish a fraternity among mystics; revelation is reserved for those individuals who successfully follow one method and that method can only be judged by those who have used it. Both of these aspects of perennial thought keep its claims to religious knowledge outside the reach of criticism. Any attack leveled against a perennial system’s view of the One is reduced to a circular argument: you cannot deny what you have not experienced, and you cannot use any rational law as a yardstick to measure the validity of a mystic’s claim. In the final analysis, it is accurate to say that a perennial system is insulated against contradiction; it can always fall back on the duality of existence and simply assert that its knowledge transcends the finite.
Religious Symbols and Language
There are, however, two more concrete expressions of religious knowledge that can be examined. In attempting to explain the content of its religious understanding, a perennial system may offer some indirect representation of its knowledge of God. This may take the form of a symbol, something that stands for the higher reality, or of religious language, the words used to communicate to man the special insight that any system has concerning the divine.
A scholar cited earlier has applied the following analysis to religious symbols:
A specifically religious symbol is any word or object in space and time which stands in a special relation to ultimate reality. . . .A religious symbol does not establish anything about the nature of reality but is merely points to what is believed on other grounds to be “really real” (even though these other grounds are not made explicit). . . . The specific nature of any religious symbol will therefore depend in part upon the “reality” it purports to symbolize.13
Within perennial philosophy, all symbols point beyond themselves to the inexpressible; they evoke a religious mood more satisfactory a medium than speech or concepts. All things can be symbols:
Since the everyday world, no matter how deeply infected with finitude, must have derived ultimately from the one underlying reality, any material object may upon occasion become a religious symbol; that is, it may become the bearer of its own ‘divine ground,’ a window through which the individual apprehends the infinite. Hence a modern exponent of this view can say, ‘Symbolic does not mean unreal. It means more real than anything in time and space.’ In the so‑called ‘ecstatic moment,’ the symbol evokes a state in which the cleavage between knower and known is overcome, consciousness is suspended, and the self in any recognizable sense is left behind.14
Furthermore, symbols become ambiguous, both revealing and concealing simultaneously—thus, God is both hidden and revealed equally, to the extent that “God” points to but fails to conceptualize God.
The function of symbols in religion is to serve as a visual allegory for the sacred. Where this takes the form of a single object or is an admixture of symbolism incorporated into a ritual, the main purpose is to draw man’s attention to the higher reality. To do this, many of the symbolic ceremonies within mystical religion are constructed so that they create a certain mood; their intention is to evoke a response from the observer, to place him into a frame of mind that is sensitive to receiving religious instruction. Within perennial philosophy, the mood set by religious symbolism is often “other worldly”; it is used to suggest the transcendence of the One. In fact, perennial symbolism (in art, music, or architecture) is formulated to prick the conscience of the common man, to remind him that Divinity is far removed from this realm. There is almost a dual purpose to religious symbolism: at the same time, it both represents the One and alludes to the transcendent, “wholly other” quality of higher reality. Consequently, the One is revealed to humanity, but with the reminder that we can never understand the One. As Nicholson has observed, “No one can approach the subject of this chapter - the state of the mystic who has reached his journey’s end - without feeling that all symbolical descriptions of union with God and theories concerning its nature are little better than leaps in the dark.”15
Silence is the most profound language in mystical religion. Because religious knowledge is the sudden revelation of truth, it is a very unique and singular experience. Just as the normal modes of thought cannot be applied to the mystical experience, so ordinary words fall short when trying to describe the encounter with God. Silence is preferable. One may observe that an etymology of “mystic” is found with the Greek word muein, “to be silent,” thus illustrating the relationship between mysticism and the perennial outlook on religious language. Cherbonnier remarked:
It follows that to translate symbolic expressions into literal propositions is inherently impossible. Since the words of everyday speech are the product of the “subject‑object structure” of the spatio‑temporal world, they are inadequate to the “divine ground,” and even do violence to it. The only way to avoid these paradoxes is to be silent. The mystics, therefore, regularly insist that silence does far more justice to truth than does speech.16
Adapted to religious purposes when it is “necessary” to speak about the unspeakable, the via negativa is the most helpful. One can say what God is not!
Consequently, some mystics or philosophers have contended that a person who has had such a vision can only remain speechless; he can never explain it through common language. There is, however, a special language that grows out of the perennial view of religious knowledge. Once a system has formulated its understanding into a doctrine (concepts about man and God in the framework of laws and ethics), then it can develop certain ways of referring to its religious knowledge without sacrificing the mysterious quality of the One. For example, such terms as “incarnation” or “resurrection” are part of a religious language; they describe a specific understanding in religious knowledge of some action between man and God, but they do not attempt to offer any definitive statements about how such things occur. The key to language in perennial religion is similar to its use of symbolism: it allows the mystic to speak about his knowledge of the One, but it reserves a special mystery for the realm of God. Again, religious references both represent the One and conceal its nature. This is especially true in the case of paradoxical statements about the One. It is common in perennial philosophy to have the One or knowledge concerning the divine expressed in intentional contradictions. The Tao, for example, both “is and is not.” The reason for using this form of religious language is to suggest the all‑inclusive nature of the One; by using obvious contradictions, a perennial system can represent its religious knowledge as having the same transcendent quality as higher reality itself.
Religious symbolism and language are similar: they both represent the One While consciously maintaining its mystery; they can be expressed either in one object (such as the cross) or in a single word (such as the Hindu utterance “OM”), or they can be amalgamations of symbols and words into rituals and doctrine. In fact, the relationship between religious symbolism and language is so close that the two elements of religious knowledge are combined to produce a myth. Correctly defined, a myth is a religious symbol expressed in words. Its function is the same as for its two components: it is designed to convey the understanding of the higher reality in human terms. It is representative of the One and points men toward a recognition of the divine. A myth, therefore, may seem fantastic when measured by rational standards, but it cannot be judged invalid as long as it manifests some higher truth about the nature of the One. It is not sufficient to criticize perennial myths on the basis of credibility, as real events they may never have happened, but the essential fact at work in mythology is the verbal symbolism of religious knowledge.
Though the mystic would have no use for myth for himself, as an accommodation, he grants that myths are better than nothing for those individuals benefiting from them. These words speak for the mystic:
Under no condition may their temporal structure be taken literally; that is, under no condition may their religious significance be tied to historical fact. For the more localized a given event in space and time, the more deeply rooted in history, the less divine truth it can disclose.17
The myth, then, is less than adequate for the true mystic, but if words must be used, the myth that points to the ineffable is the “best” medium; in a sense, it is “truer than history.”18
Another aspect of religious language is particular to mysticism. We have already mentioned that placing divine revelation at the core of religious knowledge gives rise to a kind of secrecy among mystics; truth becomes a possession available only to those who have practiced a certain method and found it to be successful. Now these “fraternities” in perennial mysticism often use religious language on two levels: First, they can speak in an esoteric sense, a kind of language designed for general consumption, such as the intentional contradictions in paradoxical statements. But they can also use esoteric meanings, special explanations reserved for the initiated few. Perennial philosophy is open to the formation of closed societies where revealed truth is passed on through the modes of secret symbols and doctrines. Such camaraderie has a long history in mysticism; it is a result of placing religious knowledge in the context of a revealed secret and seem to have an almost universal appeal. A difficulty is, of course, that each “society” may claim a monopoly on truth, and since none of them can be disproven on rational grounds, any conclusions about their veracity must be made on completely subjective terms.
In the final analysis, mystical religion provides the issue of religious knowledge a great deal of latitude. In the very beginning, it removes the use of human reason from testing assertions about the One by restricting it to the finite world. This places us in the position of having to prepare ourselves for divine truth through the various methods of contemplation or self‑discipline and then, when the moment of enlightenment comes, we can only refer to it through the media of symbols or symbolic language. Religious knowledge becomes a matter of inner faith: one must simply accept the validity of a revealed truth on the word of the mystic. No empirical support is available for mystical faith. This, in turn, could foster the growth of secretive mystical groups which all claim to have the best method for achieving ultimate Truth. In trying to trace the cause for this fragmented view of religious knowledge, the best source would appear to be the perennial view of knowledge as a means to an end; by making the acquisition of enlightenment a question of method, perennial philosophy opened the door for mysticism and its subjective wisdom.
CONSEQUENCES FOR LIVING
The Tragic Sense of Life and its Consequent Attitudes
In its view of the physical world, perennial philosophy asserts that the finite has “less” reality, in one sense or another, than the One. All contradictions are resolved in the unity of higher reality, but are left in a state of tension in the natural world. The duality inherent in the fragmented condition of the finite realm is active: it is motivated by the conflict between what perennial philosophy calls “the pairs of opposites.” The most concise example of these elements or forces is the symbol of yin and yang; they are the balancing polarities of male and female, love and hate, light and dark. In one sense, they may be associated with the original duality between being and non‑being. The essential quality of the pairs of opposites is that they are inherent in the finite world. They are constant “facts of life” for human existence and cannot be removed from the natural universe. They stand on the sidelines of life, waiting to be brought into play by the movement of time. The cyclical process of history, the treadmill on which humanity is somewhat trapped, is defined by this flow of opposites through time. At any moment, two opposites can come into conflict, each exerting influence over individuals like the pull of a magnet. Yet, there is no way to calculate when this will occur; the nature of human life is uncertainty. What one calls chance or luck is the sudden change brought about by time; it is the introduction of one opposite to balance or replace another. The finite realm, therefore, is not only blocked off by the limits of time and space, but subject to the active conflict between the pairs of opposites.19
The consequences for life inherent in this attitude held by mystical religion are manifest in its interpretation of human freedom and the concept of morality. In order to clarify this, one can say that man has no ability to make qualitative judgments on the pairs of opposites. Taken individually, each life force is as valid as another; they are all in a state of existence, the given principles of finitude. It is impossible, therefore, to arrange them into any system of priorities. Love is as real and as likely as hate or indifference; the movement of time is unconscious of any distinctions between these primary elements and may introduce destructive forces into life as readily as those that are creative. The labels, therefore, that we apply to any of the pairs of opposites are arbitrary. They represent a priori value judgments that have meaning only as a human convenience. The names one uses for the pairs of opposites are analogically descriptive; they are not definitive. Human thought has simply constructed artificial categories for the effects of time, but has not exercised any control over them. Consequently, human action becomes a wish fulfillment: we can hope for the effects of peace or love, but can never be certain of them. In perennial philosophy life is constantly in the hands of time, and time introduces change, and change can bring about any one of the possibilities contained in the pairs of opposites.
The result is that individuals cannot achieve stability or permanence through actions. One cannot work for the “good” and expect to succeed. Human freedom is restricted to the realm of chance: actions may be constructive for a time, but they may also be reversed by the negative influx of change. Human action, therefore, is reduced to simple activity. It is not normative or absolute, because it is always uncertain. The great imperfection of the finite world is its impermanence, and time is the only certainty in life. The problem of action becomes a question of intention or will. If we cannot exercise control over the pairs of opposites, if we can never create any lasting condition within the limits of the natural world, then we cannot speak in terms of authentic self-will. To will something is to create it, and mankind does not have that genuine capacity.
The quality of permanence and certainty is reserved for higher reality; it is an attribute exclusive to the One. The moral codes or ethical standards employed by human society become mankind’s last line of defense; they are functional within the confines of a closed set of existence, such as the finite realm, but bear no real significance in the larger context of eternal being.20 Strictly speaking, perennial philosophy may admit to the validity and value of every effort that time can produce. Conversely, it may deny the claims of any absolute standard for moral action under the indictment of impermanence and artificiality.
It should be clear at this point that mystical systems leave little room for hope to be realized in finite existence (other than in a particular kind of hope in, for example, Zen Buddhism). In recognizing the complete authority of change as the only certainty in life, perennial views embrace the human condition as being on the treadmill of history. An appropriate human response is resignation or acceptance with realistic futility. Mystical views encourage an escape from or passive adjustment to the world simply because the world is beyond control and fundamentally transitory and “unreal.” We cannot halt the flow of time and change through the finite and must therefore resign ourselves to our effects. It is here, in this feeling of resignation, that perennial philosophy introduces its methodology for religious knowledge. In that the definitive quality behind religious knowledge is its function as a means to the end, practices of meditation or self‑discipline are also aspects of resignation. Since we are unable to control our world, we might well withdraw and assume a state of mind indifferent to the effects of time. In a sense, we may escape suffering by refusing to acknowledge it. The thrust of perennial views, therefore, is toward a sublime unconcern or detachment. Supposedly, this leaves the mystic in a neutral state receptive only to the Divine. He stands in the midst of the human turmoil, unmoved and waiting for enlightenment.
One consequence for life in perennial philosophy can then be expressed in a single word: it is somewhat egocentric. By adopting acceptance or resignation, the mystic turns inward. (The writer has been advised that in Buddhism, wisdom or insight might also bring compassion.) He is not fundamentally “human,” because he ideally minimizes human activity; he remains aloof from the pressures of life, intentionally cutting himself off as much as possible from contact with the finite world. Consequently, the follower of a perennial vision cannot accept as truly real the labels associated with the pairs of opposites. He makes no distinctions between the effects of life; just as he is neutral, so are the forces in life. It is difficult to maintain a moral code in a perennial context, because such a code implies some value judgement on the effects of time. It is equally difficult for a perennial stance to justify “good works,” since no action is inherently better than another. The extreme case for religious knowledge, therefore, is a total suspension of normal modes of human action or thought. It requires the mystic to not admit to genuine human freedom or morality.
The Way of Life
Before analyzing the question of morality or action in perennial philosophy, however, it is important to clarify again what is meant by the term “mystic.” So far, it has been said that the connection between the perennial attitude toward life and its use of methodology is religious knowledge. It has also been asserted that resignation or acceptance is a key factor in the perennial living. If we attempt to combine all of these concepts into one unit, we shall get a close approximation of the logic that produces perennial methods. In fact, there are four alternative life styles within the perennial view of religious knowledge: the hermit, the ascetic, the martyr, and the cynic.
In the case of the hermit, one may choose to remove oneself from contact with the everyday world. One’s purpose is complete isolation; one’s motivation is the same effort to become indifferent or detached as we discover in mystical attitudes toward life. By denying the usual patterns of social life, the hermit intentionally interrupts his association with the ordinary world and, therefore, the effects of the pairs of opposites in society.
The second alternative, that of the ascetic, is similar: the purpose is to so discipline the body so that it loses (or minimizes) any continuity with ordinary life. The ascetic attempts to force a state of consciousness on his mind; his aim is to suppress the desires and appetites characterizing the common person and become relatively independent of the finite world.
The martyr carries the practices of both the hermit and the ascetic to the extreme: he not only denies the body but also punishes it. Throughout these modes of living, there is a definite belief in the finite as the prison of the soul; the martyr simply actualizes this belief by sacrificing the body and giving up temporal existence in order to join with the One. He holds human existence in nearly absolute disregard.
The extreme of the martyr is moderated in the life of the cynic, who continues to function within the boundaries of communal society, but he does so as an indirect discipline for his own ego. It is the task of the cynic to maintain himself apart from the ordinary concerns of living; in a traditional sense, he is the self‑exile, one man who is critical of human activity and indifferent to the consequences.21
Taken together, these are the four alternatives in the methodology of religious knowledge. They represent the practical application of perennial philosophy in human life. They each share the basic suppositions concerning the need to escape the finite realm; they each place emphasis on the futility of struggling against the effects of time and chance; and they are each operative under the assumption that divine enlightenment is the product of a method.
The portrait of life drawn by perennial philosophy is one of uncertainty. Human beings exist in the lower realm; the goal is to attain religious knowledge and free oneself from the cycles of history, but the path is blocked by the limitations as the finite world and by the endless conflict between the pairs of opposites. Consequently, the only alternative is resignation, an acceptance of the condition of the world and a subsequent withdrawal from it. This movement out of life may be actualized in one of four possible ways. There are two primary motifs at work in this process of escape from the consequences of life: non‑action and self‑sufficiency. These two factors correspond to the ideas of indifference and egocentric interest. The relationship, for example, between non‑action and indifference is a subtle form of cause and effect. Because one can make no value judgments on the sources active in life, one can never be certain of choosing the “right” course of action. In fact, there is no real action, but only activity. By resigning to this reality, the mystic can consciously refuse to perform any action based on an intention; he does not attempt to complete any work in the finite realm as an extension of his self will; instead he concentrates his energies on fulfilling his own special escape plan so that he may be free of the contingencies of life. It is in refusing to act with purpose that the mystic nourishes his indifference: he remains uninvolved. He allows the effects of time to wash over him, but he does not react to them. By severing all meaningful ties with the finite, the mystic becomes self‑sufficient; he becomes a cellular being. He has no purpose to shape his life in the natural world, no desires to hold him in check, and no concerns with the condition of mankind. In a sense, he attempts to mimic the unity of the One. If he is successful, then the process is complete—he will have fulfilled the prerequisites for religious knowledge and will achieve enlightenment. The consequences for living have forced the mystic into degrees of detachment from daily life where only the union with higher reality has any significant meaning.
It seems strange to move from the isolated mystic back into a consideration of morality. The thrust of perennial thought appears to have left little room for absolute moral codes or ethical systems. In fact, it is stated above that such approaches are considered artificial: they are the arbitrary labels applied to the pairs of opposites and have no definitive quality of their own. It is important to remember, however, that even mystical religion recognizes the functional necessity for some moral structure. At the very least, it is a cohesive element in society, a band‑aid solution to the effects of time in human life. Consequently, it is possible to speak of a code of morality within perennial philosophy if this is done under certain conditions. First of all, morality must be seen as a subset of religious knowledge. Enlightenment occurs as the end product of a method; the hermit, ascetic, martyr, and cynic are all working toward something. They reject this world in order to gain the reward of contact with the One. If morality can be fitted into the methodology of religious knowledge, then it is an acceptable part of perennial philosophy.
The mediation of morality, therefore, becomes a question of giving it a functional definition. This is accomplished in the following manner: since union with higher reality is contingent on the successful completion of a method, then performing moral activities can be incorporated into that method as one of its prerequisites. This carries with it two important factors that keep morality consistent with perennial philosophy. First, it means that morality becomes a means to an end, just as is religious knowledge. It sets up the criteria that if one achieves this, one will then receive one’s reward. Second, it retains the egocentric nature as perennial methodology. In the long run, right action will be reversed by the effects of change and the pairs of opposites, but by fulfilling the obligation to act ethically, one is actually helping oneself to gain favor with the Divine. Consequently, although deeds are all temporary, they tend to insure his chances of receiving enlightenment; it becomes more expedient to act morally than to do otherwise and run the risk of being trapped in history.
With this clarification perennial philosophy can easily incorporate morality into its systems. The mystic can, if so chosen, act with compassion, because by doing so he is really completing his method of religious knowledge. Moral conduct becomes a manifestation of indifference; it is an almost heroic act, since the results of morality in the finite realm are already negated by the movement of time.
The concept that the finite and the One share reality leads some mystics to believe that universal love is an indirect method for loving the One. Consequently, they can give up the lower self by allowing it to be swallowed up by the natural world; they embrace every aspect of life in order to lose their own identity. This form of perennial methodology stresses the careful practice of finite activity; its virtue is embodied in the “work ethic,” where daily life becomes its own method for achieving religious knowledge. It is possible, of course, for the morality within perennial philosophy to be used in a totally different sense: it can be incorporated as a perversion of normal ethical codes in which the negative or destructive elements in the pairs of opposites are used. This can be justified under the suspension of judgement; if the forces of evil and hate are as valid as those of love and compassion, then a mystic can engage in them freely. He cannot be called into account, since there is no criteria by which he can be condemned. This is another extreme case, but it indicates the pliable nature of perennial philosophy; when morality is only defined in a functional sense, the conditions morality, or those acts which constitute moral action, are open to interpretation. Each method can shape its own use of morality, even into the extreme examples cited above.
One may draw several conclusions about the perennial attitude toward life: (1) It may consider the finite world a trap from which man must attempt to escape. The walls that surround the natural world are time and space; together they limit human life to the realm of lesser reality. (2) Within the sphere of time and space are the pairs of opposites. These elements are constant principles in life; they are always in motion, carried through the finite world by time and change. Moreover, mankind has no control over them; they are beyond definition or qualitative judgment. (3) Because of the effects of the pairs of opposite, life in the finite is in a constant state of uncertainty. Human freedom of action is limited, because an individual has no criteria that can absolutely justify any act; one cannot work for the “good,” and one cannot overcome the “evil.” The only defense human beings have is their artificial codes of morality. (4) The initial reaction to the condition of finite life is despair; life appears to be what many existentialists claim ‑ an absurdity. The only alternative left open is resignation or acceptance. This sense of human impotence becomes formulated into the modes of religious knowledge which are designed as methods to create a general indifference toward life. Morality is incorporated into this methodology under a strictly functional definition; it too becomes a means to an end. (5) Ultimately, the goal of perennial philosophy is union with the One. Once one has become indifferent to life, one is ready to receive divine enlightenment. If it comes, this revelation sets an individual free from the confines of the natural world; man and God fuse into one unity, and the effects of finite time are transcended. The goal of life, therefore, which is to achieve detachment from the fortunes of change, moves directly into the final goal of perennial philosophy, which is the blending of man in the One.
The cycle is complete. Mystical religion has moved from its original critique of higher reality through the status of the everyday world until it touches the nature of human life. It experiences reality in two realms and leaves mankind without an ultimate purpose in the liquid world of time and change. The only lifeline available is a means of escape through the application of religious knowledge. The consequences for life, therefore, become the mechanics for achieving freedom from the effects of time and ultimate union with higher reality. In its broadest interpretation, this is the nature of perennial philosophy or mystical religion. The extent to which this interpretation is an accurate representation of world religions is arguable.
A contrasting world-view is offered by the convictions emerging from ancient Hebrew Civilization. However, some Jews, Christians, and Muslims interpret in whole or in part the three Hebraic religions as additional manifestations of “perennial philosophy.”
1Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy (London: Chattos and Windus, 1946).
2Charles B. Schmitt, "Perennial Philosophy: From Agostion Steuco to Leibniz," Journal of the History of Ideas, XXVII (October-December, 1966), p. 505.
3Aldous Huxley, "Introduction," The Song of God: Bhagavad-Gita (New York: Mentor Books, 1954), p. 12.
4Ibid., p. 13.
5Cherbonnier, "Jerusalem and Athens," Anglican Theological Review, XXXVI (October, 1954), pp. 254f.
6Cherbonnier, "Is There A Biblical Metaphysic?" Theology Today, XV, No. 4 (1959), p. 462.
7Matthew Fox, Meditations With Meister Eckhart (Santa Fe, New Mexico: Bear and Co., 1983), p. 68
8Cherbonnier, “Sin Misconceived as Intrinsic to Human Nature,” in Hardness of Heart (New York: Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1955), pp. 68-84.
9Cherbonnier, “Jerusalem and Athens,” P. 255.
10D. V. Steere, "Mysticism," in A Handbook of Christian Theology (Nashville: Abingdon, 1958), p. 237.
11W. H. Clark, Psychology of Religion (New York: Macmillan. 1958), p. 275.
12Louis Dupre, "Unio Mystica: The State and the Experience" in Moshe Idel and Bernard McGinn, eds. Mystical Union and Monotheistic Faith (N.Y.: Macmillan, 1989), p.7.
13Cherbonnier, "Mystical vs. Biblical Symbolism," p. 33.
14Ibid. Cherbonnier quotes this passage from Paul Tillich, "Religion and Its Intellectual Critics," Christianity and Crisis. Vol. XV. No. 3 (March 7, 1955) p. 21.
15Reynold A. Nicholson, The Mystics of Islam (London: Arkana, 1989), p. 148.
16Cherbonnier, "Mystical vs. Biblical Symbolism," p. 34.
18Ibid., p. 34.
19Cherbonnier, “Biblical Faith and the Idea of Tragedy,” in The Tragic Vision and the Christian Faith, ed. Nathan A. Scott (New York: The Association Press, 1957), pp. 26-27.
21Cherbonnier, Hardness of Heart, pp. 68-71
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