Are all religions basically the same?
The Perennial Philosophy is the title of a book by Aldous Huxley (1945), but it’s an idea that’s been around for a long time. It says that all religion is based on an original experience of oneness. In all its different varieties, from Protestantism to Hinduism, religion is an ineffable, inexpressible experience of one divine reality in which we all share. Not only do we all worship the same God, but we all seek to reach the one reality beyond all appearances. Most don’t succeed, a few do, and we should follow and learn from these few, who are sometimes called saints, or bodhisattvas. We are God, as the perennialists put it, in the sense that we know God only by becoming one with him.*
Christian mysticism frequently expresses this ideal.
My Me is God, nor do I recognize any other Me except my God Himself. (Saint Catherine of Genoa, in Haught).
God became man in order to make me God; therefore I want to be changed completely into pure God. (Saint Catherine of Genoa, in Haught)
In those respects in which the soul is unlike God, it is also unlike itself. (Saint Bernard)
The goal of life?
The ultimate reason for human existence, says Huxley, is “unitive knowledge of the divine Ground.” I’m not quite sure what this means, but what Huxley says it that this knowledge is available only to those who are prepared to die to the self in order to make room for God (p21).
What happens to the living? And to life? What happens to the hungry and the poor? It seems as if they hardly matter, that the goal of human existence is essentially and profoundly self-centered. Huxley says not one word about dying to the self in order to better care for others. That’s not what Huxley is about.
One can see this more clearly in a book he wrote almost ten years later, The Doors of Perception, an account of his experiences taking the hallucinogenic drug, mescaline.
Words like Grace and Transfiguration came to my mind, and this, of course, was what, among other things they stood for . . . for the first time I understood, not on the verbal level, not by inchoate hints or at a distance, but precisely and completely what those prodigious syllables referred to. (Doors, p 16)
As I understand Christianity, the goal is not unity with God. The goal is to love God, and to love each other as Christ loved us.** Christ doesn’t tell us to merge with God. Christ tells us to live as God would have us live, with love, care, and compassion for others. Merger with God sounds too much like becoming God.
Our task is not to become like God, but to be the best humans we can be. In the Eucharist we partake of Christ’s body and blood. While this represents union, it is hardly the same as becoming one with God. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” God tells us (Isaiah 55:8-9). It’s worth remembering.
About God, Augustine famously said “You were more inward to me than my most inward part and higher than my highest.” (Confessions 3.6.11) (It’s not important, but I think it sounds better in Augustine’s Latin, interior intimo meo et superior summo meo.) God is omnipresent, which means he knows me better than I know myself. But Augustine doesn’t stop there, remembering that God is transcendent, more than we can ever know or experience. Huxley forgot the second part.
One is good, two is bad?
Huxley’s assumes that one is good and two is bad.
Obscurely and unconsciously wise, our language confirms the findings of the mystics and proclaims the essential badness of division—a word, incidentally, in which our old enemy “two” makes another decisive appearance. (p 11)
I don’t understand why two is bad in the first place. It is not good for man to be alone, says God (Genesis 2:18). It takes two to create a new life. The Tao Te Ching, to which Huxley frequently refers, intriguingly characterizes the ideal as more than one, less than two. An overlap, not an identity. Two people can be remarkably close, enriching each other without either giving up his or her identity. But not for Huxley, for whom oneness is everything good. But without difference how would anything new come into the world? The “essential badness of division” idealizes a static world.
It is only be becoming supremely and merely human that we have a chance of becoming good. One does not have to be an existentialist to grasp that while being human means being part of society, each of us remains a separate person in a big and diverse world. Humility and humiliation are the lot of being human–to be radically incomplete and bound to die. We need God in order to cherish something great and grand beyond ourselves. That’s not unity. That’s awe before something so wonderful and different from ourselves that it is almost inexpressible. There’s nothing wrong with experiences beyond words. They’re just not the goal of life.
An end to attachments?
Until we put an end to particular attachments, there can be no love of God with the whole heart, mind and strength and no universal charity towards all creatures for God’s sake. Hence the hard sayings in the Gospels about the need to renounce exclusive family ties. (p 105)
Once again Huxley has it backwards. Attachments are what give human life meaning. To love God free of other attachments is to renounce full human living for merger with God. I think it’s a bad trade-off, and it’s unnecessary. We can follow God, even know God as best humans can, without merger, which is a mirage in any case.
The good society is the contemplative society?
In all the historic formulations of the Perennial Philosophy it is axiomatic that the end of human life is contemplation, or the direct and intuitive awareness of God . . . . A society is good to the extent that it renders contemplation possible for its members; and that the existence of at least a minority of contemplatives is necessary for the well-being of any society. (p 294)
Huxley has withdrawn to a world beyond this world, where poverty and sorrow do not intrude on one’s union with God. I can imagine worse ideas, but Huxley’s has nothing to do with Christianity, and more to do with Plato and Buddhism. That’s not a perennial philosophy or religion, but a particular one.
* Perennial philosophy is sometimes confused with the traditionalist school. Traditionalists, such as Titus Burckhardt, hold that there are universal and timeless truths that are shared by all religions. However, they do not emphasize union and oneness as the perennial philosophy does.
** I put it this way, and not “love your neighbor as you love yourself,” as Christ also said, because this way is even more powerful, Christ loving us more than we could ever love ourselves (John 13:24).
Titus Burckhardt, The Essential Titus Burckhardt: Reflections on Sacred Art, Faiths, and Civilizations. World Wisdom Books, 2003.
John F. Haught, What is Religion? Paulist Press, 1990.
Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy. Harper, 2009 (original 1945). All page references are to this book unless otherwise noted.
Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception. Harper, 2009 (original 1954).