As we sink deeper and deeper into the realm of religion, we find ourselves forced to face up to a core religious dilemma of the modern, globalized world, the same dilemma glossed over by Pascal in his wager: In a world filled with so many different and often contradictory religions, how would we choose one as more plausible than the others? We know that if the world is purely physical and reductionist, or emergentist, or even if it is dualist, in any of those cases, the simulator is likely to exist. We further know that the simulator has many of the traits of God; and moreover, that the simulator, in fact, cannot reasonably be denied the title God unless there does exist an entity more worthy of the title. So in either of those cases, we are justified in believing it likely God exists. But which God? A deity entirely unknown to us? Or one that human beings already worship? And if so, which one?
But is it really necessary to choose one to the exclusion of all others? Or is there some kind of consensus religion we can all agree upon? Or some common core to all religious traditions?
Although we tend to think of globalization and the pluralism that goes along with it as a purely modern condition, this is far from true. What we think of today as Ancient Greece was, in its own time, a geographical region composed of city-states each with their own, startlingly different cultures, religions, philosophies and beliefs. Similarly, Ancient China was as at one time a virtual marketplace of great philosophers, whose debates and disagreements anticipated ideas that would be rediscovered centuries later in Europe. Africa, the cradle of humanity, was likewise host to an uncountable number of different cultures and philosophies in its antiquity (and in many ways it still is, having preserved its unique cultures against the tide of globalism more effectively than many other places). The early parts of the Jewish scriptures are essentially a record of their ancestors’ (generally hostile) encounters with an unending series of other tribes and their religions, and gods, and Jerusalem, one of the world’s greatest religious capitals, has hosted not only Jews, but also significant populations of Christians and Muslims, and, at one time, Zoroastrians, for hundreds of years. Similarly, India, one of the world’s most populous regions, is also one of its most religiously diverse, where even the people who are collectively known as Hindu are in actuality devotees of any number of related, but different religious traditions, with their own rituals, beliefs and deities. In short, we of the new millennium are not the first people in history to have to wrestle with an encounter with those of different philosophies and beliefs.
One venerable response, which goes back by name as far as the 1500s (and by claim much further still) is the “Perennial Philosophy,” or philosophia perennis, which perceives a core of commonality in all the great belief systems of the world, religions and philosophies alike. First started by a group of Christian monks, during the Italian Renaissance, as they worked to further integrate Neoplatonists insights with Christian beliefs, the philosophy’s most influential recent exponent was the great British science-fiction author and student of world religions, Aldous Huxley, whose book The Perennial Philosophy additionally integrated Taoism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, and was a major influence on the development of the mystical syncretic movement that became known as New Age philosophy.1
In summary, the Perennial Philosophy is the idea that great thinkers, philosophers, prophets and other religious leaders throughout time have all grasped aspects of a single unified truth, a truth that could never be fully understood nor communicated. Because of the rarefied nature of this truth, the way it was expressed, understood, interpreted, and misinterpreted varied widely in different cultures and time periods.
One metaphor for this is that there is a single vast mountain, whose peak is lost in the clouds. Our different cultures and time periods are like little cities, scattered widely around the mountain. Because of this, each culture has a very different view on the mountain, and perceives it as having a vastly different shape and contour. And because of its height and difficulty, no one has made it up the mountain very far, although many have gone part of the way, and left records of their paths.
If you sat down and compared any two accounts or portraits of the mountain from different locations, it would seem that they were describing two very different mountains. Likewise, any two paths up the mountain would (given that they were starting from widely different origins) be utterly contradictory, with different landmarks, and twists and turns, and areas of rough or gentle ascent. If you put all the different pictures together, however, you might begin to get a sense that it is one mountain after all, even if each one of us only has a small limited perspective on it. And if you put all the paths on one map, you might see that although they all start in different places, some of the major ones merge together as they get higher up the slope.
The mountain, metaphorically speaking, is God, or Ultimate Reality, however one might wish to term it, and the different paths up the mountain are different religions and philosophies. Because we are coming from such different time periods and cultural standpoints, it seems as though we are talking about many different gods, and following many incompatible religions, but in fact there is only one mountain, and only one Ultimate Reality, and each of us is seeking after it, except in our own fashion.
The Perennial Philosophy sounds great on paper, but has been consistently criticized for going too far in glossing over the very real and significant differences between religions. While the non-exclusive nature of Hinduism allows it to easily absorb other religious traditions, and while the essentially philosophical nature of Taoism makes it amenable to being blended into other belief systems without conflict, the great monotheistic religions are not so accepting of either assimilating or being assimilated. In the Old Testament, YHWH proclaims, “Thou shalt have no other gods!”2 In the New Testament, Jesus tells us, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life, no one comes to the Father except through me.”3 And in the Islamic tradition, no one can be considered a Muslim who does not accept not only the oneness and uniqueness of Allah, but additionally the primary authority of the Quran, and the identification of Muhammad as the last and greatest prophet.4
In addition, for a tradition that claims to be the meaningful union of all religious traditions, the Perennial Philosophy has remarkably few adherents of its own. While it appeals to people at an intellectual and a mystical level, it seems to lack the vitality of a true religion, and so it remains largely a mere curiosity. The uncanny echoes it discovers across all the world’s belief systems are too significant to simply dismiss, yet at the end, it provides too little of the actual guidance we need to navigate through life.
1 Huxley, Aldous, The Perennial Philosophy, Harper Perennial, New York, 1945.
2 Exodus 20:3–5
3 John 14:6
4 Ambalu, et al.