In the previous post I mentioned Aldous Huxley’s embrace of the “perennial philosophy” and his influence on the scholar of religion Huston Smith. Smith’s work had a big influence on me during my undergraduate years. When I was a callow 20-year-old atheist, Smith’s writings, as well as a series of interviews he did with Bill Moyers for PBS, helped show me that my understanding of religion–including the Christianity that I had so confidently rejected–was extremely shallow.
Moreover, Smith’s argument that the religions of the world were culturally mediated expressions of a “primordial tradition” (what Huxley referred to as the “perennial philosophy”) was very appealing to me. He combined a robust ontology with an ecumenical spirit that seemed superior–intellectually, morally, and spiritually–to both conservative “orthodoxy” and watered-down liberalism or materialistic atheism.
Huxley defined the philosophia perennis like this:
the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being (Huxley, “The Philosophy of the Saints,” Huxley and God, p. 61)
Huxley characterizes the perennial philosophy as a “working hypothesis” about the nature of reality that goes beyond “humanism and nature-worship” but is wary of the over-developed dogmas of organized religion. This working hypothesis can provide the basis, Huxley thinks, for experiential “research” into spiritual Reality.
Smith, being a scholar of religion, takes a more positive view of the developed traditions of the world’s religions. Like the Swiss philosopher Frithjof Schuon, who Smith has also been influenced by, he sees each tradition as an expression or revelation of the divine Mind that is complete in itself as a vehicle for salvation. Unlike some forms of pluralism, which see the various religions as gropings toward an ultimately unknowable Reality (e.g., John Hick’s), Smith’s view is that the divine Reality makes him/her/itself known by means of the various religions.
Embracing a perennial-philosophy perspective is pretty unfashionable these days. Both the scholarly study of religion and Christian theology tend now to emphasize the differences among traditions. Some Christians attack perennialism as an import of pagan metaphysics into the biblical tradition. However, others–like the Anglican theologian Owen Thomas–argue that Christianity is a synthesis of “biblical religion” and a Neoplatonist-influenced version of the perennial philosophy.
Despite its problems, I think the perennial philosophy continues to have appeal because it seems to address the problem of religious pluralism without falling into either exclusivism or relativism.
You can see at least some of the Moyers interviews with Smith on YouTube here.
The works of Huston Smith that had the biggest impact on me:
The World’s Religions
See also his Soul of Christianity for an interpretation of the Christian tradition that is heavily influenced by his perennialist outlook.
Huxley edited an anthology of mystical writings, interspersed with his own commentary, called–appropriately–The Perennial Philosophy.
Frithjof Schuon makes the case for perennialism in religion in his book The Transcendent Unity of Religions.