Greetings of Peace. This blog contains selections from my correspondence and other sources on a variety of subjects related to religion, philosophy, and spirituality. I hope that they may be of benefit to the interested reader. Concerning the title of the blog, read this entry.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Clarification of the Transcendent Unity of Religions

While I do not feel that it is necessary that you adhere to the doctrine of the transcendent unity of religions, I do feel that it is necessary to emphasize that syncretism is not the inevitable result of this perspective nor do the world’s religions become meaningless or otherwise somehow depreciated thereby. In the former instance, it would be impossible for Frithjof Schuon, himself the champion of this doctrine, to pen the following words if syncretism was a natural result of his perspective. He wrote, "Syncretism is never an affair of substance: it is an assembling of heterogeneous elements into a false unity, that is to say, into a unity without real synthesis." I personally feel that the common perspective of exclusivity protects against the possibility of a false synthesis of elements of the various religions that may come about when they are viewed as equally valid and intrinsically legitimate but without taking into consideration their formal disparity. It is also for this reason that many of the traditionalist writers have gone to great lengths to express the necessity of adhering to one religious framework only and rigidly denouncing any attempt at mixing their various forms.

The doctrine of the Transcendent Unity of Religions can be summarized according to the following formula provided by Frithjof Schuon in his book of the same name:

"Pure and Absolute Truth can only be found beyond all its possible expressions: these expressions, as such, cannot claim the attributes of this Truth; their relative remoteness from it is expressed by their differentiation and multiplicity, by which they are strictly limited."

Much has been made of the term "relative" in your objections. It is important to understand that the characteristic of relativity pertains to the situation of viewing something in relation to something else and does not necessarily imply the perspective of relativism which is commonly associated with radical relativism or subjectivism, a philosophical position that negates the existence of absolute truth. According to radical relativism the quality of truth is derived from the position of the human subject rather than through the quality of the Divine Object. In the context of the Transcendent Unity of Religions, to state that the religions are relative is to situate them "in relation to" the Absolute of which they constitute so many expressions in the world of forms. They are not the Absolute, which, according to the formula, is beyond all of its possible expressions, but they do derive their existence from it and so reflect the quality of Absoluteness in their nature through the qualities of both uniqueness and comprehensiveness. Each religion is a way that is both unique and sufficient unto itself. Moreover, it derives its unique characteristics through the will of the Divine Object, not that of human subject. Syncretism would only be permissible under the opposite condition in which it would be the human will from which these unique characteristics derived.

It is perhaps impossible to better convey the appreciation of the uniqueness of each religion in all of its aspects and the respect that is afforded to them from the metaphysical vantage point of the transcendent unity of religions than has Seyyed Hossein Nasr in Knowledge and the Sacred. He wrote:

"The traditional method of studying religions, while asserting categorically the ’transcendent unity of religion’ and the fact that ’all paths lead to the same summit, ’ is deeply respectful of every step on each path, of every signpost which makes the journey possible and without which the single summit could never be reached. It seeks to penetrate into the meaning of rites, symbols, images, and doctrines which constitute a particular religious universe but does not try to cast aside these elements or to reduce them to anything other than what they are within that distinct universe of meaning created by God through a particular revelation of the Logos ... It also opposes firmly every form of reductionism or the sentimental unification or even rapprochement of religions, which would do injustice to the existing differences and the unique and particular spiritual perfume and genius of each tradition willed by God, to the necessity of discernment and acceptance of all that comprises a particular religion as coming from God and therefore not to be cast aside for any reason of a human order."

To reiterate what I wrote at the beginning, while I do not believe that it is necessary for you to adhere to the doctrine of the transcendent unity of religions, I do think that it is necessary to realize that the phenomenon of syncretism or the "assembling of heterogeneous elements into a false unity" and the depletion of the meaning and value of religion does not follow as a necessary consequence of adhering to this perspective as is amply demonstrated in all of the writings of the traditionalist school.

* * *

The subject of equality among religions is complex such that it cannot be reduced to the consideration of one dimension only. Let us first begin by restating Schuon’s formula which summarizes our position. He wrote,

"Pure and Absolute Truth can only be found beyond all its possible expressions: these expressions, as such, cannot claim the attributes of Truth; their relative remoteness from it is expressed by their differentiation and multiplicity, by which they are strictly limited."

The unifying principle of religions is the transcendent Principle which, according to the formula, "can only be found beyond all its possible expressions." In examining the nature of religious expressions, particularly as they pertain to your specific objections, it is necessary to differentiate between three domains, specifically, proximity to the Principle, essential and formal composition, and soteriological value. Upon examining these domains, it becomes apparent that all religions may not be considered uniformly equal in all respects due to the fact that equality within one domain does not necessarily imply equality within others. Similarly, an equality of value does not necessarily imply an equivalence and therefore interchangeability of elements.

As limited expressions of the Absolute within the realm of the relative, each religion may be said to possess an equal degree of proximity to or relative remoteness from the Principle. Due to the fact that you expressed the possibility of considering the merit of this perspective and that it was not your primary concern, we can refrain from further comment upon it.

As regards their constituent elements or composition, each religion is intrinsically or essentially identified with the religio perennis. In its simplest formulation, it may be defined as discernment between the Real and the illusory and a unifying concentration on the Real. Extrinsically, the formal expression of these elements differs according to a multitude of diverse mythological and doctrinal symbols expressing the fundamental discernment as well as the different forms of spiritual practice and other conditions perfecting concentration upon and conformity to the Real. The equality of religions as pertains to their essential composition identified with the religio perennis does not imply thereby an equivalence between their unique and differentiated formal characteristics. Any potential equivalence among such characteristics does not provide for the possibility of syncretism among incompatible elements but neither does any potential disparity negate the possibility of a genuine synthesis among compatible elements, that is to say, among those elements that are susceptible to legitimate assimilation within another traditional framework.

Concerning the third domain, and in spite the fact that you seem to have used these terms interchangeably, it is important to make a distinction between what you have called salvific merit and soteriological utility. The former may be said to designate the capability of a religion to provide salvation for all men indiscriminately while "utility" implies the capability of a religion to provide salvation for the particular group that constitutes the majority within any given civilization. In the former instance, and objectively speaking, each religion is equally capable of furnishing the conditions of salvation for all types of men. Subjectively, however, a particular man, and by extension a civilization composed of such men, may be subject to certain conditions or inclinations, psychic (internal) or environmental (external), which either incline him toward or exclude the possibility of a specific religious form.

When considering the manner in which religions are equal, it is important to distinguish between an intrinsic equality of value derived from essential identity with the religio perennis and the different modes and degrees of expression which may or may not be equal depending upon what is being considered and in what manner. Thus, it is possible to acknowledge that an equality of "relative proximity" to the Principle does not necessarily imply a similar equality of or equivalence between the elements of formal expression. Neither does the inequality of the soteriological utility of religions as subjectively considered negate the equality of salvific merit or capability as objectively considered. Ultimately, I think that it is safe to say, in terms of the dimensions that we have explored here which are by no means exhaustive, that each religion is intrinsically equal as regards its value, essence, and relative proximity to the Principle, while outwardly differing with respect to its formal expression, individual emphasis or perspective, and suitability for a particular person, civilization, or "cosmic sector" of humanity.

The metaphysical perspective that gives rise to the doctrine of the transcendent unity of religions is distinguished by the comprehensiveness of its vision, the fact that it takes into consideration all of the factors that we have mentioned here, and others of even greater significance, all without either confusing or ignoring the different dimensions and perspectives. As Dr. Nasr said, "It seeks to penetrate into the meaning of rites, symbols, images, and doctrines which constitute a particular religious universe but does not try to cast aside these elements or to reduce them to anything other than what they are within that distinct universe of meaning created by God through a particular revelation of the Logos." Some of the most useful writings for developing a greater understanding and appreciation for this perspective are those concerning the typology and morphology of religions, particularly as they pertain to the various operations of the Logos and perspectives concerning man and his salvation within the different religious universes. Perhaps we will have occasion to discuss these and other issues at greater length in the future.

* * *

You wrote, "Equality should not be complex, lest its mere human sophistry."

It appears that our exchange on this topic has come to an abrupt conclusion. To press on with further explanations would amount to a transgression for as I stated previously, I do not feel that it is necessary for you to accept the doctrine of the transcendent unity of religions or the metaphysical perspective which gives rise to it and neither do you seem inclined to do so. I would, however, like to address what I feel is a serious problem inherent in the above statement, one that is likely to pose as an insurmountable obstacle in any attempt to understand Schuon’s writings on metaphysics, particularly as they apply to religious traditions. Whereas just about everything else that you wrote can be further examined, when confronted with this statement I can only maintain a respectful silence, for it dismisses a priori as mere sophistry, any attempt at examining religions beyond the single dimension wherein they may be reduced to a uniform equality. Metaphysics, on the other hand, requires that we penetrate deeply into a given subject so as discern its various subtleties and nuances, in short, that we perceive it in its ontological totality. Metaphysical discourse may sometimes manifest itself in formulations and perspectives of great complexity but only when the occasion makes this a necessity, never to dishonestly confuse and evade an argument through unnecessary complications as is the way of the sophists. Ultimately, I do not think that I am a qualified expositor of Schuon’s teaching such that it is oftentimes best to let his words speak for themselves. He wrote,

"One point which needs to be brought out here is that the criterion of metaphysical truth or of its depth lies, not in the complexity or difficulty of its expression, but in the quality and effectiveness of its symbolism, allowing for a particular capacity of understanding or style of thinking. Wisdom does not lie in any complication of words but in the profundity of the intention; assuredly the expression may according to the circumstances be subtle and difficult, but it may just as well not be so."

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