Editor's Note: This article is the second part of a four-part series on the emergence of World Spirituality. Read Part One here.
World Spirituality is not interfaith. It is a major step beyond interfaith that transcends and includes the evolutionary strides made and still being made by that great movement of spirit. If one were to map the stages of spirit's evolution from the pre-modern religions to the contemporary emergence of a World Spirituality in which we are participating, they might be something like the following.
- In the first stage, when the classical religions reigned supreme in the age before the Western Enlightenment, each religion believed that it was, at the very least, superior to all the other religions. This superiority created in its wake a sense of entitlement, the rationalization for massive oppression, and more often than not, a license to kill. This stage of religious development has been called mythic religion.
- The second stage emerged with the advent of modernity. Modernity weakened the authority of the religions by demanding evidence. Moreover, modernity pointed out that many of the propositions that religions had held to be dogmatic truths were, in fact, factually wrong. These ranged from the view of the universe that the church held as dogma, which placed the earth at the center of all things (and was later falsified by Galileo's telescope), to a dogmatically held belief regarding the structure of the human body (which was falsified by the dissections and autopsies of renaissance science), to the belief in the divine right of kings (which was undermined by the rise of the Western Enlightenment).
Religions were substantively weakened. Secularization began its creeping annexations of the world mind. Within the religions, more progressive voices emerged. However, those voices often sought to remake the religions in the image of modernity, and lost their authentic mooring in the core spiritual matrix of the religion. At the same time, there were those who both opened to modernity and maintained a strong and authentic connection to their core religion without formally working out the contradiction between the two commitments. This stage in the development of spirit has been called rational religion.
- The third stage is perhaps characterized by the interfaith movement and has been called pluralistic religion. The interfaith movement made a beautiful contribution in getting people to talk to each other from the different faith traditions. This movement itself has two distinct expressions. In one expression, what I will call the humanistic expression, the implicit assumption is that the religions could not be genuinely reconciled at a deep theological level, but if people could just get along at a human level beyond doctrinal difference, this itself would create a mutuality of respect and recognition that would serve to deepen love and lessen religious conflict of all forms.
In a second expression of interfaith, what I will call the shared truth or perennial expression, the core issues that separated the religions mattered less because the leaders of interfaith dialogues did not truly take the unique teachings of each of the great traditions, including their own, seriously. Someone once said that the early interfaith dialogues were between Jews who did not believe in Judaism and Christians who did not believe in Christianity—who got together and discovered they had a lot in common.
This expression of the interfaith movement, however, did make a highly significant contribution to the realization that what we have in common is far greater than what divides us. The crucial developmental insight was that the shared truths in all the religions are their essential teaching. This shared truth both overrides and undercuts the far less important doctrinal, theological, and value distinctions between the religions.
The core aspects in the matrix of this highly intelligent and profound interfaith work were and are the key insights of perennial philosophy. The perennialists, led by the like of Fritzof Schuon and his circle of students, and championed effectively and eloquently by Huston Smith, pointed to the essential shared depth structures, which existed in all the traditions. And let it be said clearly that the perennnialist camp and its highly critical insights have made a pivotal contribution toward the evolution of consciousness. The perennial insights are an important part of the emergent World Spirituality.
However, let it be understood no less clearly that the shared perennial truths found in all or most of the great religions are only the first step in the emergence of World Spirituality. Perennial Philosophy is a part, but in no way the whole, of World Spirituality.