Those who have followed my blog for any length of time will note that I have had an on-again/off-again flirtation with the Perennial Philosophy, particularly as articulated in the Traditionalist School of metaphysics, whose greatest proponents have been Frithjof Schuon, Rene Guenon and Ananda Coomaraswamy. Other names associated with this school have included Titus Burckhardt, William Stoddart, Martin Lings, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, William Chittick, and various others. On a more popular level this form of traditionalism has influenced Huston Smith, though it should not be confused with Aldous Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy. My first real exposure came through the works of James Cutsinger, an Eastern Orthodox religious studies professor in South Carolina, and a leading authority on the works of Frithjof Schuon.
My sometimes contradictory statements over the last few years on this blog are largely a result of the fact that I never completely made up my mind on where I stood on this matter. I have read a great deal of the material on the website World Wisdom (a valuable resource) and own a few books by Nasr, Burckhardt and Schuon (the last being edited by Cutsinger). I have been impressed and drawn to this metaphysical vision and have found a great deal of wisdom in these sources-hence why I have favorably quoted Nasr and Schuon somewhat copiously in the past. I regularly corresponded with a reader on this blog (Chris) on this topic, and more recently received several responses from a respondent named Kevin, which has prompted me to go back and revisit this subject. In the spirit of clarification, this is where I presently stand.
I am NOT a Proponent of the Traditionalist School
Actually, I can’t say that I ever really was (I certainly admit to being drawn to it but I never wholeheartedly adopted or accepted it). There are a few reasons why, and in no particular order I’d make the following observations:
First, as a general note, I fail to see anything particularly profound in Traditionalist metaphysics. I readily admit the fault may be mine (“He who has eyes…”) but I simply don’t see, as our British brethren would say, what all the hullabaloo is about. The Traditionalist writings I have read are rarely distinguishable from the metaphysics of the East (in particular Vedanta). Peter Kreeft, in his Handbook of Christian Apologetics, remarked that Schuon’s approach essentially amounts to an “easternizing” of Christianity. I do not find the repeatedly invoked exoteric-esoteric distinction at all helpful here, because-as Kreeft contends-the esoteric/exoteric distinction itself is essentially Eastern and not recognized as such in the West.  Kreeft also raises the point that Traditionalism seems to posit two “levels” of spirituality-a mystical/gnostic approach for the enlightened and the exoteric confessions for the masses. This distinction (which is now quite pronounced in liberal circles) has been widely noted in recent years and has been addressed by far more intelligent persons than myself (C.S. Lewis rebukes it in Letters to Malcolm; the Pope Emeritus addressed the subject in Truth and Tolerance, and it was also a favorite subject of Jim Arraj’s).
Second, I find many aspects of Traditionalism as it is actually practiced, to be somewhat troubling. I’ve referenced an Orthodox discussion on this topic before that sketches out some of these concerns-in a nutshell, they include a tendency towards syncretism in practice even if ostensibly denied, and an unhealthy personality cult and guru-like tendencies (towards Schuon in particular). The question of whether there is such a thing as a Christian ‘gnosis’ is one that has preoccupied some folks, such as my regular interlocutor Chris. I don’t have a particularly profound response to this, other than to reaffirm the Orthodox point that those who progress along the Christian Way will certainly deepen their understanding. If one wishes to call this ‘gnosis I certainly have no objection, but this doesn’t amount to transcending the exoteric borders of Christianity towards some esoteric primordial unity.
Third, and rather intriguingly, many of the most prominent Traditionalists have been Muslims. There are exceptions of course-Cutsinger and Phillip Sherrard were Orthodox Christians, and Rama Coomaraswamy (the son of Ananda) was a Catholic, albeit a sedevacantist. I’ve noted before that Judaism is under-represented in the ranks of Traditionalist metaphysicians, though an exception should be noted for Leo Schaya-I have read his numerous writings on Kabbalah on World Wisdom before and they are by any measure powerful. Even so, it does strike me as rather telling that very, very Christians are Traditionalists.
In the last analysis, I simply do not see Traditionalist metaphysics as being compatible with orthodox Christianity. The constant invocation of metaphysics, it so often seems to me, is really an attempt to have things both ways-e.g. Christianity is 100% correct in its dogmatic claims (including the exclusivist ones) but so are the other great religions. Metaphysical intellectualism cannot dispense neatly with these distinctions simply speaking of a “transcendent unity of religions” or a “human atmosphere” and “divine stratosphere”. Though it may sound a bit uncharitable I can’t help but think that C.S. Lewis’s rebuke to pantheists who see no distinction between good and evil comes in a bit handy here as well: Don’t talk damned nonsense.
This doesn’t deny that there are primordial truths that transcend religious boundaries-the mystics of their various faiths clearly seem to be sharing the same experience, the Tao and the Logos do seem to be the same thing, etc. But Christianity is grounded firmly in the Incarnation, a fiercely particularist doctrine. The Incarnation is not simply reducible to questions of metaphysics (such as Schuon’s comment that the Incarnation was “Atman became Maya”). It may be that I am afflicted with a “confessional bias” here, but the particularity and specificity of Jesus of Nazareth and the Christ-Event is constitutive of Christianity; indeed it IS Christianity. I repeat: That the transcendent and incomprehensible Absolute was definitely and finally revealed in the person of a 1st Century Jew is Christianity. This person-what Ratzinger called a single straw in the seas of history-is the qualitatively and categorically unique revelation of God. As St. Paul put it in the Areopagus the Unknown God has become known.
This does not mean Christianity must adopt an imperialist attitude toward other faiths. It doesn’t even mean that it must deny the Sophia Perennis-Fr. Robert Barron has noted that the Roman Catholic Church acknowledges the Perennial Philosophy in some sense (see here and here)-note that Fr. Barron here is speaking of the Perennial Philosophy more generically, not the Traditionalist School specifically. Fr. Barron alludes to what seems to me to be the authentic Christian approach-one that Cardinal Newman called “assimilation”. The Church sees the seeds of the word (logoi spermatikoi, semina verbi) and can assimilate all that is good and true to itself. As Scott Hahn once put it, all truth belongs to Christ.
A few more points. I have casually mentioned on the blog in the past that Traditionalist metaphysics might be helpful in creating a sort of roadmap for a “universal grammar” of the Great Traditions, to use Huston Smith’s term. Of course, Schuon and the others would not have seen it that way (then again neither would the Buddha, Confucius or the prophets of ancient Israel have seen themselves as precursors to Christ). Again, that the Perennial Philosophy is a sort of distillate (to use Fr. Barron’s term) of universal truths strikes me as obvious. Christianity, however, asserts that the truth has to become known to us in a human person (Christ)-the “Face of God” has been revealed (Ratzinger has written well on this) and therefore the Perennial Philosophy has been surpassed/transcended/fulfilled (take your pick).
Also, on the subject of evolution: I am not a “follower” of Teilhard de Chardin, except insofar as I accept some of his insights as helpful (particularly as mediated through Henri du Lubac and Ratzinger). That evolution takes place in the biological realm is a fact-the evidence is incontrovertible, and one gains nothing by denying factual reality other than the ridicule the ridiculous deserve (I’m thinking of young earth creationists, but per the Moynihan Rule nobody gets their own facts). The reality of biological evolution has not bothered giants like C.S. Lewis or Cardinal Newman; there is no reason it should bother me. Truth cannot contradict truth, and if one’s metaphysics are contradicting physics than one should go back and think through their metaphysics again.
That being said, there is a massive distinction between evolution as a biological theorem and a “universal evolutionism”, which is a philosophical interpretation of those facts (one thinks of the absurd thesis by Dennett and Dawkins that evolution can explain everything-even Stephen Jay Gould recoiled from that one, being smart enough to see the real limits of science). This is where the true battleground lies. Exactly how evolution fits into the scheme of Christian theology is an open question, though Lewis always stressed that the Christian worldview is capable of accommodating any scientific theory. I rather like Olivier Clement’s description of evolution as an “inversion”, e.g. it is the “side” of creation that science is able to access in our fallen world (he discusses this topic in The Roots of Christian Mysticism and in On Human Being, even quoting an early and reportedly more orthodox quote from Teilhard in the latter). 
Finally, regarding the New Atheists. I adhere quite strongly to the notion that one must seek truth wherever it may be found, and that Maimonides was right when he said truth must be accepted regardless of its source. Catholic apologist Scott Hahn has approvingly noted that the New Atheists insist on objective truth, which is a far better foundation than the wishy-washiness of much contemporary “spirituality”. Moreover, Dawkins (at least) is a superb writer on the subject of science. And modernity as a whole inherited its best features from the Christian worldview-Fr. Barron’s use of Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find as a metaphor to describe the relationship between late medieval Christianity and modernity is particularly powerful on this point. 
I readily concede that spiritual blindness and a lack of discernment are the true crisis of our time. We live in an age that for all its material abundances and technological progress (at least for a few) has become blind to the wisdom of the ages. That being said, if the light of truth is ever to shine again it will come from those equipped with the weapons of humility and charity (it is one of the great contributions of Christianity to see that those wielding the weapons are bound by original sin themselves, hence leading to an emphasis on grace and divine initiative). I have always been impressed that Huston Smith, while admittedly an intellectual lightweight compared to Schuon, has always possessed a spirit of good cheer and good humor, no matter how depressing the modern world could be. As Rowan Williams once put it, truth makes love possible; love makes truth bearable.
A sage observation if there ever was any.
- As Luke Timothy Johnson helpfully noted the two really are not separate from one another, and as one Orthodox commentator remarked online “The reason why Orthodoxy does not fit with Perennialism is simply that Orthodoxy does not recognize the esoteric/ exoteric distinction. It makes no sense in an Orthodox context. I’ve tried to point this out to occultists before and they generally don’t get it. They think this just means that we have lost our esoteric content. Our “esotericism” is inextricably bound up with the “exoteric” dogmas and one leads to the other. Difference in dogma results in difference of spiritual experience. Our theology and worship are inherently mystical and there is no hidden interpretation which is reserved for initiates, except in the sense that those further on the path of deification will grow deeper in their understanding of the revelation“). In fairness, I would add that Schuon’s thoughts on exoterism and esoterism in the Christian context (as outlined in The Fullness of God edited by Cutsinger) sound very much like what the Orthodox commentator above stated. Also, the “occultist” comment does not strick me as entirely out of line-I have been struck at how Schuon’s language sometimes sounds reminiscent of the New Age (reading that line again I’m struck by how strange it sounds). I remember in of his writings he used the phrase “cosmic cycle” which, in Sesame Street lingo, is “not like the other ones.” It may be disingenuous of me to point to random snippets of his work, but that such an idea cannot be reconciled with Christianity should go without saying.
- Lewis had expressed similar ideas along these lines, see, e.g., his essay The Funeral of a Grand Myth.
- See the introduction to his book The Priority of Christ.