Sound & Spirit
Occasional Posts from Our Directors
Were William James, Aldous Huxley, and Huston Smith right? Is there a perennial philosophy at the core of the world's religious traditions? Do we know by some sort of compass when we encounter a wisdom tradition? Do authentic mystical experiences all tap into the same reality at the core of our being?
Huxley did not coin the phrase, ‘perennial philosophy’. Thomas Aquinas first developed the idea in the thirteenth century, and the Renaissance humanist Agostino Steuco first coined the phrase 'perennial philosophy' in 1540. The idea is that there's a core of shared wisdom in all religions. Marsilio Ficino’s Neoplatonist school attempted to synthesize that wisdom into one transcultural philosophy. This philosophy, writes Huxley, ‘is immemorial and universal. Rudiments of the perennial philosophy may be found among the traditional lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions.’
Huxley argues that there are three main points of agreement in the religious traditions:
The mystical traditions within the western theistic religions share these points, but what about their counterparts in the east? Certainly eastern traditions are more mystical and share the goal of overcoming the ego and waking up to reality. Egoic consciousness is a trancelike sleep, a series of desires and attachments. Waking up takes daily training in meditation, detachment, and love. Cultivating selflessness leads to awakening. There are many paths up the mountain, explains a well-known Sufi story, and like in that story, Huxley proposes that the peak experience is the same in all traditions: union with the pure light of the divine.
The late Huston Smith, likewise took up 'perennialism', as it is known--a comprehensive philosophy of comparative religions--in his book, Forgotten Truth. Smith declares that despite their great external diversity, the religious traditions share a conceptual spine. Our western civilization, he says, is the only one out of step with this primordial tradition, and we have exported it around the world. Scientism is the mistaken belief that science offers a world view, like that of religion. Science is a method, a powerfully useful tool of modern civilization. It brings us vaccines and space flight, high tech gadgets and greater ease and comfort in our lives, but mistaking it for a world view "has reduced the mansion-of-being to the ground floor of what is material and measurable".
The heart of the book describes the full mansion of being beyond the first floor and articulates the 'forgotten truths' at the core of the religious traditions:
(Note: Referring to 'the apex of a hierarchy of being' may be open to cultural critique for good reason. I would rather speak of the 'ground' or core of our being and that of the material world. Its presence interpenetrates, flows in and through the self and nature. Children and indigenous peoples may more readily sense this flow. Words like hierarchy, apex, and great chain of being, are analogies of a civilization in its death throes, and can easily be replaced.)
I agree with many perennialists; we can speak of an 'empiricism of the spirit'. Science relies on the evidence of our five senses in its empirical method. Spirituality also has its methods: we can 'see' the beauty of God in the natural world, in a sunset or pristine wilderness. And we can plumb our own depths with senses we have yet to awaken. We yearn for experiences beyond those of the five senses, using the so-called 'mystical' senses.
According to William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience, mystical experiences share four defining qualities:
Yet, unlike the scientific method which shares the results of controlled experiments and advances through objective proofs as a "community", mystical experiences, given their ineffability, cannot be shared or proven in the same way. Applying this expectation is scientism and does not disprove their reality.
Likewise, mystical experiences may be spurred by life events and even chemical interference. These influences may well be real but cannot disprove the reality of transcendent perception. The amazing variety of religious traditions and the commonality of spiritual expressions across cultures belies critique.
Truth and Being are so rich beyond measure, they spill out into human consciousness and natural systems. Scientism and materialism may judge the mystic and the spiritual quest, but this reductionism does not hold sway over everyone nor does it hold back the outpouring of infinite light and love. The life at heart of reality spills out in an infinite abundance for those who 'see', enlivening our universe in ways beyond measure. Likewise, the wisdom traditions are living traditions because they express that life in ways rich beyond measure and, therefore, awaken new seekers every day.
Robert Bowler ("Beau") founded Halcyon Arts to continue doing what he loves, presenting cultural and educational programs in world music and spirituality. He majored in Religious Studies at Reed College with a focus on the western mystical tradition. He earned an M.Div. degree from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California (after a year at Oxford University studying Theology) and is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister.