Richard T. Nolan
GOD OR ULTIMATE REALITY
With the assumption that ultimate reality is the non-physical (the ontologically wholly other), perennial philosophy in its various versions interprets divinity as non-personal (e.g., Brahman) or analogically personal (e.g., the "supra-personal"). The most philosophic forms of major Asian religions most clearly choose the former,1 while Judaism, Islam, and especially Christianity, under the influence of Greek philosophy, have utilized the latter as a mainstream of their theologies.2 Uniting both the Oriental and Hellenized Jewish, Christian, and Muslim systems of thought, the conviction is maintained that true reality (whether called "the One" or "God") is supersensible or non-physical. The shared ontology has been interpreted by Cherbonnier as a primary motif of mystical religion (or perennial philosophy). For Cherbonnier, this perspective applied to Hebraic religions is a mistake. (See the Cherbonnier subsite.)
With the establishment of the nature of ultimate reality as non-physical, the problem of the physical (visible and invisible) world requires a solution. Perennial philosophies have developed the following possibilities: (1) The everyday world is unreal, an illusion; (2) physical reality is a lesser reality than the One, separate from It; and (3) the world is a participating emanation of the non-physical, less real the further it goes down the scale toward the physical. History, in fact time itself, being an aspect of the physical, is insignificant, and, for some mystics, unreal.
Humans, trapped within an alienated existence, separated from the One, consist of body and soul. The finite body perishes at death, thereby releasing the soul to an eventual union with the One. In various forms, the "soul" has been utilized in most of the world's religions. Among the Asian religions that view themselves within this context, however, the notion of personality as an attribute of the immortal soul was not an emphasis as it has been in religions of Hebraic origin.3 To the extent that the physical is regarded as evil, the body is likewise judged; consequently, the separation from the One has been interpreted as involving the individual person in "original sin"; that is, he has been born into an inherently evil or alienated condition.4
Human reflection and language are limited to the finite world. Consequently, religious knowledge on the human level is limited to silence (for the pure mystic) or the use of analogical language. In either case, humans are incapable of using symbols that refer directly and literally to ultimate reality. Because truth is known only when one finds union with ultimate reality (in ecstatic moments or possibly at physical death), words are at best poetic hints of the divine. The paradox is acceptable, because eternal truth cannot be put into wards, and the absurdity of the divine to the human intellect is illustrated well by the contradictory.5
CONSEQUENCES FOR LIVING
The pagan world, despite its vaunted humanism, regarded the very conditions of finite existence as a stigma. From Homer to Marcus Aurelius, it was haunted by the refrain, "Better never to have been born." Humility therefore consisted in the acknowledgment of the wretchedness of the human condition .
...The best known illustration is his (Augustine's) ascribing to citizens of the heavenly city a "love of God to the contempt of self."6
Consequently, perennial philosophy in its various forms regards human existence, the very process of living, as alienation and tragedy. Hope is rooted in the expectation of liberation through death, the gateway to union with ultimate reality. Until that union comes, one is able to be sustained by understanding the insignificance of the temporal, maintaining an orientation toward the non-physical, realizing that death will provide liberation of the real self from the physical, and yearning for union with Oneness.
1Harold H. Titus, Living Issues in Philosophy (5th ed.), pp. 398-416.
2Edwin Hatch, The Influence of Greek Ideas on Christianity (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1957), pp. 116-138.
3James Robson, "Soul," Dictionary of Comparative Religion (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970), pp. 587ff.
4S. G. F. Brandon, et al., "Sin," Ibid., pp. 578ff.
5Douglas Steere, "Mysticism," pp. 236ff. Also, Stanley R. Hopper, "Paradox," in A Handbook of Christian Theology, pp. 261ff.
6Edmond La B. Cherbonnier, "Humility," Dictionary of the Bible, pp. 406-407.