Perennialism: The End of Ecumenism & The Transcendent Unity of Religions
Protopresbyter Peter Heers, D.Th, Lecturer in Ecclesiology, Holy Trinity Seminary, Jordanville, NY
Introduction: The Devil’s Dichotomies and Their End
A tried and constant tactic of the enemy of mankind’s salvation in Christ is to limit man’s choices to two options, which are seemingly opposed, and to block from view any other possibility, or rule it out as impractical or untenable. For example, one is either rational or irrational, supra-rational not being an option. Or, one must be either blindly obedient or self-willed and rebellious, true obedience being rejected. Or, on a larger scale, to the Africans he presents a terrifying black magic and then for escape a “good” white magic. Or, for the impoverished masses, the greed of capitalism is countered and corrected by the “equality” and “fraternity” of communism. Or, for those who suffered under the authoritarian rule of papal Protestantism there is the self-rule and individualism of reformed Protestantism. And one could go on and list many other such false dichotomies in which both options are the enemy’s inspiration. Even today, with our current “Covid crisis,” the accepted narrative states that the only solution to a deadly virus is an experimental and potentially more deadly “vaccine” — early treatment with existing medicines being largely ignored.
In this way, the enemy has successfully manipulated Western man for many generations, from the time of the Great Schism until today, keeping him within a constant series of actions and reactions, like a pendulum which ceaselessly swings from one extreme to the next. All spiritual balance, the divine perspective, discernment of spirits, and the royal path of the Fathers was lost. In this chaotic state, for those who do not have the eternal perspective or see the A and Ω of history, it is impossible to determine where we are in the flow of history or where these events are leading us. For one who can see, however, this is a process of advancing dissolution, which is bringing mankind step by step closer to the fulfillment of the mystery of iniquity, to the inversion of Salvation in Christ and his supplanting by the Antichrist.
This dissolution of Christian tradition and unity in the West and the resultant caricature of Christ and His Church in Protestantism, whether of the papal or reformed brand, constitute the basis for the birth of the monster of modernity. By the end of the 19th century, the more robust minds in the West which were searching for a way out of the dead end of the modern, secular West looked to the tradition of the east, but alas not the Orthodox East, but the Far East. These Traditionalists thought to save the West from collapse by means of injecting oriental “tradition” and “metaphysics” as expressions of the “Perennial Philosophy” or sophia perennis. The juxtaposition of the straw man of modernist, nomalist “Christianity,” a la Protestantism, with the traditional cultures of the East, is yet another example of the enemy’s long list of false dichotomies which serve to keep man from communion with Truth Incarnate. Yet, unlike the previous extremes on the pendulum which served to confine and manipulate a Head-less, fragmented West, perennialism promises to bring an end to the extremes and to provide the final, “universal” answer to the problem of divisions, providing a “unity” which is found at once both beyond all Revelations and through them.
What is Perennialism?
Generally understood and referenced, perennialism is the idea that at the core of all the great religions is found the same mystical experience of Ultimate Reality. The Perennial Philosophy has its historical roots in the syncretism of Renaissance humanists like Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, who suggested that Plato, Jesus, the Kabbalah and Hermes Trismegistus were all pointing to the same Divine Reality. Versions of Perennialism are also found in the transcendentalism of Emerson, Coleridge and Thoreau. Free Masonry, the Theosophical Society and Aldous Huxley’s 1945 book, The Perennial Philosophy, further popularized a universalist version of perennialism, and in the 1960s it became a cornerstone idea of the New Age.
What is of particular interest for us, however, is the development of perennialism in the 20th century, and in particular as it was presented through the Vedanta inspired Traditionalist School, especially by Rene Guenon, who most likely met perennialism during his years in the Masonic Lodge.
Whereas Huxley and others embraced a “mystical universalism,” the Traditionalist School, as represented by Guenon, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Frithjof Schuon, and later by Titus Burckhardt, Martin Lings, Huston Smith, among others, is oriented to orthodox traditions and rejects modern syncretism and universalism. It is this school that this paper will reference for the reason that their works have clearly gained more attention and traction among certain Orthodox academic theologians and clergy.
According to the Traditionalist School, the perennial philosophy is “absolute Truth and infinite Presence.”1
“As Absolute Truth it is the perennial wisdom (sophia perennis) that stands as the transcendent source of all the intrinsically orthodox religions of humankind...As Infinite Presence it is the perennial religion (religio perennis) that lives within the heart of all intrinsically orthodox religions...[I]t is precisely this “sole religion” that Frithjof Schuon has called the “underlying religion” or “religion of the heart” (religio cordis), which is the heart of all religion...[and] which is of an essentially supra-formal, universal, or spiritual nature...In other words, the “underlying religion” remains transcendent vis-a-vis the religions, even while being a vivifying presence within them.”2
Thus, for the perennialist philosopher “Christianity is,” as Clinton Minaar writes, “very clearly different from Islam or Buddhism qua form; but it is one with them qua essence (or qua perennial philosophy).”3
It should be immediately apparent what potential this understanding of the religions holds out for the “unity” of mankind, but also for the lot of those who will reject this “unity” and insist on remaining with the unadulterated, Incarnate Christ. But I am getting ahead of myself.
It is very important that we understand the perennialist vision of things so we can spot it and discern when it is being promoted even among some in the Church. It can, perhaps, be better understood through a diagram:
Picture the image of a circle with the absolute at the center (the esoteric domain — mysticism, gnosis, union), several radii flowing outward to the circumference, its radii being various revelations of God, with paths also returning to Him, in Whom they are transcendently united. The religions, although united at the core, are posited around the edge of the circumference (the exoteric domain — forms, dogma, ritual), each separate and distant from the other.
From this diagram one can see that central to the perennialist theory is the question of esoterism and exoterism in each religion. Perennialist doctrine teaches that each religion has a formal, institutional aspect, which is the respective religion's exoteric aspect, where they differ most profoundly; and each religion has an esoteric aspect, which exists in the spiritual methods of the religions, where they seem to draw closer together, and may even reach a point of identity. We will examine this idea further on, after first briefly presenting other aspects of the perennialist outlook.
The perennialist view of religion turns on the axiomatic notion of multiple and diverse Revelations, “which ‘crystallize’ and ‘actualize’ in different degrees according to the case, a nucleus of certitudes which...abides forever in the divine Omniscience”4.
But, this begs the question: what is the compelling reason that God wills multiple revelations of Himself which are manifestly divergent and apparently opposed? For Schuon, the reason is that humanity’s divisions require it. Humanity “is divided into several distinct branches, each with its own peculiar traits, psychological and otherwise, which determine its receptivities to truth and shape its apprehension of reality.”5 To these diverse branches, then, God addressed diverse revelations which were shaped by the peculiarities of each grouping of humanity:
“...what determines the differences among forms of Truth is the difference among human receptacles. For thousands of years already humanity has been divided into several fundamentally different branches, which constitute so many complete humanities, more or less closed in on themselves, the existence of spiritual receptacles so different and so original demands differentiated refractions of the one Truth.”6
Therefore, the Perennialists hold that God has assigned each of the “great world religions” to a specific sector or race of humanity, and “each is fully true in the sense that it provides its adherents with everything they need for reaching the highest or most complete human state.”7 Islam for the Arabs; Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism for the peoples of the Far East, Christianity for the peoples of the West; Judaism for a selection of the Semitic peoples, and so on.
This idea of God distributing revelations of Himself tailor-made for subsections of humanity, so crucial to the entire perennialist outlook, comes into contradiction to the plane witness of salvation history, beginning with the Day of Pentecost, at which the curse of Babel was overturn and the unity of all the races of men was actualized in Christ. In Christ the “dividing wall” was overcome and “so many humanities” were united, sharing as they do the one human nature which Christ put on and now sits at the right hand of the Father. As Fr. George Florovsky writes,
The Church is completeness itself; it is the continuation and the fulfilment of the theanthropic union. The Church is transfigured and regenerated mankind. The meaning of this regeneration and transfiguration is that in the Church mankind becomes one unity, “in one body.” The life of the Church is unity and union. The body is “knit together” and “increaseth” in unity of Spirit, in unity of love. The realm of the Church is unity. And of course this unity is no outward one, but is inner, intimate, organic. It is the unity of the living body, the unity of the organism. The Church is a unity not only in the sense that it is one and unique; it is a unity, first of all, because its very being consists in reuniting separated and divided mankind. It is this unity which is the “sobornost” or catholicity of the Church. In the Church humanity passes over into another plane, begins a new manner of existence.8
Prominent Ecclesiastical Leaders Expressing Perennialism
From the religious studies departments to the departments of State, and increasingly to the departments of theology and hierarchy, the “respectability” and “acceptability” of the Perennial Philosophy has in many ways made it the ruling spiritual philosophy of our time. Well known intellectuals have either been heavily influenced by it or have joined its ranks; everyone from Ken Wilber to John Tavener to Prince Charles, that famed pilgrim to Vatopedi.
The view, that God wills multiple revelations, was once found only among the scholar-devotees of the perennialists; it is now being expressed and shared by the most senior representatives of Christianity and Islam. In February of 2019 Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb, signed a Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, during a Global Conference on the topic in Abu Dhabi. In this common declaration a major tenet of perennialism was stated:
“The pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom.”9
The influence of perennialism, however, is not at all limited to the leaders of the heterodox. Orthodox hierarchs have expressed themselves in identical terms, practically quoting from the works of Schuon and Coomaraswamy. To quote a well-known Archbishop of the Ecumenical Patriarchate who recently spoke to an inter-religious gathering:
“When you elevate one religion above all others, it is as if you decide there is only one path leading to the top of the mountain. But the truth is you simply cannot see the myriads of paths that lead to the same destination, because you are surrounded by boulders of prejudice that obscure your view.”10
It is hard to conceive of a statement more in-line with perennialism and the spirit of the age and more baseless and at odds with the phronema of the saints of God, the true initiates into the life of the Holy Trinity. The equality of religions, and their esoteric unity, and their salvific paths leading from the exoteric to the absolute — the hallmarks of perennialism — are all here. What is, however, of even more particular interest for us is the identification of fidelity to Christ, as the only Way to the Father, with bigotry and prejudice. This brings to mind the the judgements of two well-known Orthodox apologists: Fr. John Romanides, in his response to the Balamand agreement, and Fr. Daniel Sysoev, and his prediction of the future for Orthodox mission and persecution.
After the Orthodox at Balamand fell into delusion and extended full recognition of Latin sacraments, Fr. John perceptively recognized that, going forward, the only plausible explanation for the continued refusal by the Orthodox of inter-communion and con-celebration would be bigotry.
Even more insightful are Fr. Daniel’s statements. Fr. Daniel was a great missionary and his experience in preaching and teaching the faith to many heterodox, including the more than 80 Muslim converts which were made through his work, led him to see clearly the nature of the approaching persecution. The challenge coming will not be for Christians to deny the Divinity of Christ outright. The demand will be, rather, for Christians to accept the non-Christian religions as equally salvific paths to the One God. The Christians will be divided, with those accepting the proposition uniting in this way with the religions, and those refusing being persecuted as bigots and dangerous to societal peace and security.
A Brief Orthodox Analysis of the Perennialist Vision
What can one say, in the limited time allotted us, about the perennialist outlook? Firstly, with regard to the question of knowledge, gnosiology, it can be observed that although it is held that esoteric insights must be gained a posteriori, they are assumed a priori. What is essentially pure, rational speculation on the part of the writer - since he cannot, by definition, have a personal experience of every religion - is posited with exceptional, but unjustified, confidence (pride). Moreover, the religious perspectives represented by perennialist apologists are almost exclusively non-Christian, and especially non-Orthodox. This does not prevent them from assuring their readers that essentially, esoterically, the way of prayer, purification and communion are really similar if not identical across the religious landscape. It is very convenient for perennialism that the “unity of religions” lies beyond the esoteric-exoteric dividing line and thus is a reality that can never be empirically confirmed since each adherent must remain within his own religious tradition. It is, ultimately, then, a matter of trust in the perennialist “masters“ and one observes that even high profile converts to Orthodoxy retain high levels of trust in them, such that Orthodoxy is viewed through the prism of perennialism and not the other way around.
However, we should ask: is the sharp contrast between exoteric and esoteric even legitimate? From the Orthodox Patristic Tradition and experience of God do we have any basis to make such a sharp distinction between the forms and the Spirit? Orthodox realism does not allow us to separate the Flesh the Logos put on with the Spirit the Logos sent and which descends upon the forms of bread and wine to transform them into the Body and Blood which sits now at the right hand of the Father. Indeed, the transformation of these exoteric forms by the Spirit into Life Eternal takes place beyond the esoteric-exoteric “dividing wall,” where we, still in the flesh, ascend. It is precisely this “scandalous” particularity of the Incarnation and the Eternal Identity of the Logos with the Flesh He assumed that is a “stumbling block” for the religions of the world and sets the Body of Christ apart as Heaven on earth and no religion at all. In the Person of Christ the esoteric Absolute was made manifest in exoteric form, for “he that hath seen Christ hath seen the Father,” (John 14:9), and “through Him we...have access by one Spirit unto the Father (Eph. 2:18).
We have no eye-witnesses of the Logos who attest to His being in the form of a book, let alone the Koran, but rather, He, “being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:6-7). Contrary to the theories of the perennialists, the experience of the religions, especially Islam, is not that of a kenotic God, Who “being found in appearance as a man,...humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:8). Contrary, likewise, to the perennialist idea of a limited economy of salvation in Christ to one sector of humanity and to limitation of the Name of the Incarnate Logos to the “exoteric” sphere, and even to only a portion of it, we preach a Crucified Christ Who “God also has highly exalted” and given “the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2: 9-11)
In Christ’s Body, the Church, we have the unity of the earth and the heavens, of time and eternity, of the origin of Revelation and the manifest Truth, of the absolute and finite. Since the Logos became and remained sarx, the “exoteric” Personal mode of God is at once the “esoteric” “higher mode” of God. Since the Logos became flesh and the flesh put on Christ, the “exoteric world” ceased to be a qualified reality. The Logos which became flesh and sits at the “right hand” of God came, and will come again, to judge all men, and not just a sector of humanity, not on the basis of an esoteric, mystical, hidden spiritual law but on the basis of His Commandments which have been given for all to live by and in, for they are not created forms but uncreated divine energies.
Why does the Rise of Perennialism Signal the End of Ecumenism?
By now, it should be apparent that, with Perennialism we do not have ecumenism in the usual, popular sense, for the unity these philosophers speak of exists only on the transcendent plane - that of God, Who is the Transcendent Unity Himself. Hence, they are not working toward a manifest unity in truth, as does [supposedly] modern ecumenism, for the simple reason that they already recognize this unity as existing on the esoteric, transcendent plane and do not wish for, let alone see any need for it on the manifest exoteric, immanent plane.
The impossible task of creating a divinely beautiful mosaic of the Body of Christ from the many shattered pieces of Protestantism will shortly, finally be abandoned. The end of ecumenism as we know it is in sight. The “unity” the world seeks will be found in Perennialism’s trancendent unity of religions.
And this unity will be experienced as a grave temptation, which will visit the church worldwide, for it will obscure, in order to set aside, the Theanthropic Person of Jesus Christ and His Body, the Church. This will be the last temptation of history. It has been prophesied by Christ Himself in the Book of Revelation. He says, “thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth” (Rev. 3:10). As the great Elder Athanasius Mitilianaios tells us, “because this temptation will affect the entire world it will be the great adulteration of faith in the Theanthropic Person of Christ.”
Apocalyptic events are on the horizon. Just as the last generation of men will cry out for peace and security precisely due to their lacking it (and then the sword will fall), men who are now crying out for unity (indeed universal unity) — precisely because they lack it — will find it in perennialism, which gives them this unity almost effortlessly (without the Cross and crucifixion of the mind). Like communism, which could not satisfy the longing of men, due to its negative, repressive orientation, modernism’s syncretistic ecumenism does not satisfy men’s longing for a deeper, mystical unity of each man and mankind as a whole. Mankind will demand a robust, traditional and universally acceptable explanation (appealing to orientals) of how religion does not divide but unites mankind. Perennialism is poised to be the theoretical justification of many Christians (even “orthodox”) for the essential, if transcendent and esoteric, unity of religions under the Antichrist.
Finally the pendulum has ceased its swinging, for we are arriving at the 12th hour of history, the heart of the night of this world, when disciples sleep and traitors betray, and the Incarnate Christ, the Crucified One, is set aside for a cross-less Savior.