Regarding the Perennial Philosophy

In Response to Quora Question: "What do you think of the Perennial Philosophy as a way of understanding religion?"

I think Perrenialism is a very useful idea to consider...but there are two potent caveats that I also think moderate its usefulness. The first, which is more of an esoteric consideration, is that we cannot fully understand or appreciate someone else's spiritual interiority - and, along the same lines, we can be further hampered in our interpretation of someone else's spiritual experience (even if it seems to resonate with our own) by our cultural differences, differences in language, differences in context, intellectual development, emotional sophistication, moral maturity, spiritual development, and so on. In other words, what we might assume is "the same experience" may actually be completely different in meaningful ways. The second, which is more of an exoteric consideration, is that we should be careful to avoid a sort of haphazard syncretism or overeager unification of all rituals, dogmas, relationships, institutions or other features of religious traditions that may seem to orbit around similar themes, but are really rooted in very different histories and often fundamentally divergent worldviews.

With that said, I would assert that there are common spiritual structures within all human beings, and that when those structures are accessed in certain ways, they will shift a person's perceptions, emotions, insights and self-awareness into a new space. Is that space identical in every person? No, probably not - and the governing intentionality and level of self-discipline used to access that space will also impact how it is experienced. Add to this that the cultural and personal contexts within which spiritual structures are encountered will have an enormous impact on how those structures are interpreted, valued and operationalized, and the outcomes will inevitably be as diverse as humanity itself. Which I think explains why there are so many different spiritual traditions, practices and belief formulations. But that core contact - that encounter with the ineffable depths of spiritual knowing (what I would describe as gnosis) - is, I believe, the common root for the esoteric origins and evolutions of most (if not all) forms of spirituality.

There are ways to simplify this discussion. For example, one fairly straightforward approach is to compare the mystical schools (via their representatives and the writings of each school's mystics) across many different religions. So Sufism with Christian contemplatives with Zen Buddhism with Kabbalah with Gnosticism with Advaita Vendanta and so on. I say straightforward...but of course this could be a lifetime's work...yet the point is that the mystical disciplines, experiences and outcomes among these different religions are shockingly similar - even though the framework of beliefs and traditions surrounding them is quite different. One hypothesis is that if we were to go back even further, to the shamanic practices that predate formalized religion, we would find even more striking similarities.

There are those who would point out that the differences between religious beliefs and practices are more important than the commonalities...but again I would say this is confined mainly to exoteric features that accumulated over time, rather than the esoteric origins. But for me, personally, the deeper I have delved into even these detailed differences, the more resonance I have found between them. That is why I am much more comfortable identifying myself simply as "a practicing mystic," than naming one tradition as the source of all my beliefs.

So this is how I tend to use "Perennialism" within my own framework, and how I think it is intersubjectively understood (with lots of variations, to be sure) among the many proponents of the philosophia perennis. I hope it was helpful.


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