A New World Spirituality, Part Four: Transcending the Perennial Philosophy

Editor's Note: This article is the last part of a four-part series on the emergence of World Spirituality. Read Parts One, Two, and Three here, here and here.

In our last article, we introduced the Integral stage of development as one in which a significant post-mythic and post-rational notion of genuine obligation is reclaimed. Said slightly differently, World Spirituality = Perennial Philosophy in an Evolutionary Context, with all that this implies. To spell out all of the implications would take more space than we have available in this communication. But let us at least make some key points on this utterly essential issue.

It might be fairly stated as follows. To suggest that World Spirituality consists of the perennial philosophy—that is to say, of the shared truths of the great traditions—is to be almost certain that World Spirituality will be rejected as an evolutionary emergent.

And this is so for two very different reasons.

First, if this is what World Spirituality is, the traditions themselves will roundly reject it. If the prerequisite for an emergent World Spirituality is the abandonment of the traditions in the form of reducing their distinctions to a set of common shared truths, then the traditions themselves will be the fiercest opponents of World Spirituality. Again, for two reasons. First, no one likes to be put out of business. Second and more profoundly, the greatness of the traditions often lies in each one's unique insight, and not in the common truths they share with the other great religions.

Often the perennialist writers and the interfaith proponents of religious perennialism posit as their essential distinction the difference between the depth structure and surface structures of a religion. The argument goes somewhat as follows. The religions differ only in their surface structures, which are determined by the contextual factors of culture and language. Surface structures might include rituals, laws, and specific forms of worship.

Underneath, however, are said to be depth structures, which the religions share in common. Depth structures might include the core worldview of the religion, as well as its ethical and mystical core. This argument is absolutely true, but partial.

There are indeed highly important depth structures that are shared, to some significant extent, both by the mystical and ethical strains of virtually every great religion. And the gathering of the shared depth structures of the religions was one of the great spiritual projects of the latter half of the 20th century. Writers such as Frithjof Schuon, and those influenced by him, including Aldous Huxley, William Stoddart, Gerald Heard, and many others put forth the core shared tenets of the perennial philosophy of religions.

However, and this is a huge however, the differences between the religions are not only rooted in the surface structures of the religions. It is more accurate to say that the religions contain surface structures, on the one hand, and two distinct forms of depth structures, on the other hand. There are, for sure, the depth structures that are shared by all the religions, to which the perennialists correctly pointed. However, there are also the depth structures that are singular and distinctly rooted in the deepest well of revelation and contemplative insight that nourishes and sustains the tradition. The distinction between these insights might well be termed the Unique Self of every religion. Unique Self = True Self, which is enlightened consciousness, plus perspective, which is the irreducibly unique perspective of every significant culture.

Buddhism, for example, made huge contributions in understanding and training mind states. Talmudic Judaism made a huge contribution to ethics and social activism in the form of Tikkun Olam, the responsibility to heal and repair the world based on the infinite dignity of every unique self. Christianity made a huge contribution to the evolution and propagation of the biblical teachings on forgiveness. While each of these traditions dealt with significant depth in all of these three areas, it is fair to say that each of these religions was also a specialist, with a highly evolved and unique area of excellence.