“The Perennial Philosophy has spoken almost all the languages of Asia and Europe and has made use of the terminology and traditions of every one of the higher religions. But under all this confusion of tongues and myths, of local histories and particularist doctrines, there remains a Highest Common Factor, which is the Perennial Philosophy in what may be called its chemically pure state. This final purity can never, of course, be expressed by any verbal statement of the philosophy, however undogmatic that statement may be, however deliberately syncretistic. The very fact that it is set down at a certain time by a certain writer, using this or that language, automatically imposes a certain sociological and personal bias on the doctrines so formulated. It is only in the act of contemplation when words and even personality are transcended, that the pure state of the Perennial Philosophy can actually be known. The records left by those who have known it in this way make it abundantly clear that all of them, whether Hindu, Buddhist, Hebrew, Taoist, Christian, or Mohammedan, were attempting to describe the same essentially indescribable Fact.” –Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy
Aldous Huxley came from a prominent family of scientists and skeptics. His grandfather, the renowned zoologist Thomas “Darwin’s Bulldog” Huxley, coined the term “agnosticism” to describe his aversion to both theistic and atheistic certainty about the “insoluble problem of existence.” Aldous always identified with this term, even later in life as a student of Advaita Vedanta. Yet he clearly also saw something of universal value in the religious beliefs and traditions of his fellows, regardless of whether he shared them.
It seems that I have always been naturally drawn to this kind of devout study of agnostic spirituality, and to thinkers like Huxley, Alan Watts, and Joseph Campbell who fashioned eclectic and autodidactic religions of one from their faithful observance of the faiths of others. To paraphrase Empedecles, we observe a religion whose orthodoxy, the Highest Common Factor, is everywhere and whose creed is nowhere. Agnosticism toward the letter which killeth, and gnostic trust and openness toward the spirit which giveth life.
If we begin an inquiry into the meaning of theological ideas by assuming that all religious thought is wooly-headed and superstitious wish fulfillment—an assumption for which there is no empirical evidence— we arrive at a very different place than when we agnostically presume it to be a distorted perception of something very real and true. The former will involve some degree of antipathy for the perhaps well-intended but ignorant cretins who cause these delusions to persist long after superior forms of knowledge should have replaced them. The latter allows for a more humble and inquisitive approach; it looks for patterns and concordances that help the observer in the search for a deeper meaning than what is immediately apparent; it asks “what aspects of Truth do these symbols signify that a literal reading obscures, but which intuition can seize and bring to light out of the blind spots in my mind?”
Pan-Perennialism is the study of this Highest Common Factor wherever it can be found –in cutting edge science and philosophy as well as theology and spirituality–so as to better assimilate the modern intellect with the timeless knowledge of our essential unity of Being, which is hidden in the metaphorical language of all the major faiths of the world.
It is not a new religion; let us make sure that is clear from the start. What it actually is may be even less endearing to devout followers of old exclusivist religions, but for those of us waiting for a jolt of Avant-God energy for this dying institution, it may be the last great hope for keeping religion vital in the post-spiritual world.
Essentially, pan-Perennialism is an intellectual sifting tool for finding the wheat of wisdom among the chaff of cultural history, behavior modification prescriptions, and –let’s face it– supernatural gobbledygook in most of the faiths handed down to us. The result is not a panoply of separate religions chopped down to size by superior sciences or neutered like humanism –it is the direct understanding of a single, simple, complex nugget of mystic wisdom at the heart of every one of them.
It is an idea that lifts us beyond the confines of our divisive thoughts and concepts of God, and into a branch of spirituality that encompasses the unitive end goal of each path: awareness of the eternal ground of being that is both our source and destination, and from which we are not and cannot ever be separate as we exist.
Pan-Perennialism is a mashup of two distinct but very symbiotic theological ideas: Pantheism and Perennialism. Pantheism is a monist mode of thought that is not specific to religion but stands as a philosophical synthesis of theism and atheism, while Perennialism stands apart from religion and addresses it as a whole, attempting to replicate what it might be like to look from the mountaintop of Truth to see the wide array of conflicting beliefs and philosophies leading to its single, sublime peak.
As a term for the intellectual discipline of exploration of this unity, pan-Perennialism is closely related to Metatheology. One could say that the relationship is like that between meditation and the state of mind achieved through meditating. The difference is that pan-Perennialism is not akin to a specific kind of meditation, but rather, it is the integrative study of how all specific kinds lead to the same state.
To venture into metatheology is to go beyond our ideas of theos, into the higher non-dual awareness to which our religions are designed (yet sadly ill-equipped) to lead us. Each wisdom tradition has its own springboard into metatheology, so neutrality is not a requirement for using pan-Perennialism. But seeing one’s own tradition as one of many fingers pointing at the same moon (eternal ground) definitely is.
“If pantheism is the synthesis of the dialectic between theism and atheism, then it shares more than an etymological root with both concepts. There is something huge and essential in the antiquated notions of God that is missing in the modern iteration of the philosophy. It is something we consciously ignore, surely without the perils of damnation from above, but at the cost of a broader understanding of ourselves and a richer view of the interior landscape. In short, the mind matters, and it isn’t reducible to brain activity, any more than music is reducible to the mechanics of a radio.”
“The important difference –and this is absolutely crucial to understanding everything that pan-Perennialism stands for– is that the mystic writes to be a jumping-off point for you to make your own journey to Truth, not in a vain attempt to present Truth on a platter of words. The mystic knows that words can only be a framework for understanding a portion of Truth, so the words themselves are never given a God-like status.”
“More than twenty-five centuries have passed since that which has been called the Perennial Philosophy was first committed to writing; and in the course of those centuries it has found expression, now partial, now complete, now in this form, now in that, again and again.”
An ongoing series of articles that will go into deep detail about the evolution of our religious, metaphysical, philosophical, and scientific mythoses regarding ontology, the single thread of Truth running through their collective development, and what they say both about us now and where we may be headed as a species.
“The fundamentalist wants to tell us exactly what reality is, and on his own terms; he wants to subvert our direct experience of Reality and replace it with a subnatural overlay of his own creation (or the subculture with which he identifies).”
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