Walking Toward the Common Ground of Faith
In 1945 Aldous Huxley penned THE PERENNIAL PHILOSOPHY. He is best known as the author of BRAVE NEW WORLD.
The date of THE PERENNIAL PHILOSOPHY is significant; World War II was over, and people sought new ways to escape the horrors that produced it. In the book Huxley outlined a concept earlier philosophers and theologians said, but renewed through his writing. The concept is simple: all religions are the developed expressions of insights into reality that are, at bottom, basically unified. That’s not all there is to it, but it’s the kernel. Huxley maintained, thus, that all religions stem from a set of insights that exhibit certainly commonalities. Please note that this is not the same thing as saying “all religions are the same, so take your pick.”
Around the same time, the philosopher Karl Jaspers coined the term “the Axial Age” for the period of religious ferment between 800 and 200 BCE. It was a time of new and deep insights, now considered the era of human intellectual flowering. Jaspers asserted that in this Axial Age “the spiritual foundations of humanity were laid simultaneously and independently in China, India, Persia, Judea, and Greece. And these are the foundations upon which humanity still subsists today.” The axial age is our intellectual past.
To return to Huxley, the way into his perennial philosophy is rigorous: only through consistent spiritual practice can we discern these common core insights. This discernment does not come easy; it has a price, and not everyone can pay that price. One of his sayings is, “knowledge is a function of being.” That is, sages and saints are born, not developed. If you can’t know it (because of incapacity), you won’t. Some people get it and some don’t – and those who don’t are unable to get it experientially. They understand through the reports of others, they grasp the truth of the encounter, but do not have direct experience. They are, apparently, not wired for it, like the sages of the Axial Age Abraham, Moses, Socrates, or Buddha.
When you examine religious traditions you see that Huxley and Jaspers stand on firm ground. Nobody “got it” like Jesus, and his disciples followed him precisely because he got it. Even those who do not view him as the divine Son of God recognize his spiritual insights. Across the pages of the gospels the disciples are constantly missing the point, often expressed in a cryptic epithet like “those that have ears to hear, let them hear.” Jesus knew some people would “get it” and others would not.
The religions these founders inspired grew up in particular cultures at particular times. Buddha’s idea of craving, so central to his understanding of human psychology, while similar to the Jewish concept of sin, is expressed in ways difficult to translate across the cultural divide. This is true of many concepts like forgiveness or salvation. We must listen acutely to others to comprehend how these ideas are similar enough to one another to reckon that they come from common ground.
Lastly, religious teachings harden over time, and thus some adherents will regard as opponents those with whom they would, on better thought, share common ground. In our age, many people want to pierce the hardened surfaces of particular religions to find common ground. Persons of different faiths are willing to explore the depths of faith their religions teach, and share them with others. This does not at all mean you have to change religions, but it does offer a way to greater peace, stability, and concord among humans. We may yet come to appreciate the gift Huxley offered us in THE PERENNIAL PHILOSOPHY. (June 2013)