Archive for February, 2009

Esoteric Ecumenism

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

I agree that esoteric ecumenism is “necessarily elitist”, though I would be quick to add that “learned” is the wrong word to describe the elite in question. After all, an esoterist need not be a Ph.D.’d scholar who has read many books. But I disagree with your claim that this form of ecumenism could not have existed before the “modern age”: esoterism is a matter of spiritual temperament or type, and as such it does not depend upon period or place. I expect you’re correct in assuming that Saint Seraphim of Sarov would not have accepted Ibn Arabi’s teachings on the incarnation, though do see my post “Unlimited Limitation“. On the other hand, I believe Meister Eckhart—who like the Shaykh al-Akbar was a medieval and not a modern man—would have accepted them, or rather that he would have been able to see that the Akbarian formulations were pointing in their own way to the same Reality as were his own. In support of this claim, I recommend you read my friend Reza Shah-Kazemi’s excellent book Paths to Transcendence: According to Shankara, Ibn Arabi, and Meister Eckhart (World Wisdom, 2006).

As to the “main aim of esoteric ecumenism”, your question reminds me of a published interview in which Schuon was asked why, if religion saves us, there is also a need for metaphysics, and his rapier-like response was to say, “Because there are metaphysicians! It is because metaphysics satisfies the needs of intellectually gifted persons.” The same thing can, and should, be said about esoteric ecumenism. This mode of ecumenism is not, or at least is not necessarily, designed for ecumenical conferences and interfaith gatherings; on the contrary, it serves a priori private and not public ends—namely the ends, aims, or needs of esoterists, precisely. And yet in fulfilling these aims it will necessarily have a deeper and broader radiation. As you’ll doubtless remember, it was Saint Seraphim himself who famously taught: “Acquire inner peace, and thousands around you will find their salvation”. The same thing could be said about acquiring, or better actualizing, intellection or intellectual intuition. Esoteric ecumenism helps to promote intellection in those who are temperamentally qualified and experientially prepared, but the “witness” and existential impact of their resulting certitude cannot but have indirect consequences for other people as well. This of course is but one application of the principle nemo dat quod non habet.

Now of course to say that esoteric ecumenism is not a “modern” perspective doesn’t mean its value for our time is not distinctive. No doubt there is a kind of cosmic, or rather chronological, compensation at work in the promulgation of traditionalist or perennialist teaching in the modern and postmodern world. To quote Schuon again:

“We live in an age of confusion and thirst in which the advantages of communication are greater than those of secrecy; moreover, only esoteric theses can satisfy the imperious logical needs created by the philosophic and scientific positions of the modern world…. Religious theses are certainly not errors, but they are cut to the measure of some mental and moral opportuness; men come in time to see through the adapation as such, but meantime the truth, for them, is lost. Only esoterism can explain the particular ‘cut’ or adaptation and restore the lost truth by referring to the total truth; this alone can provide answers that are neither fragmentary nor compromised in advance by a denominational bias. Just as rationalism can remove faith, so esoterism can restore it” (Esoterism as Principle and as Way [Perennial Books, 1981], 7-8).

I’m to give a talk at an upcoming Common Word conference at the University of South Carolina (26-27 March 2009)—my title is “Who Do I Say That I AM?”—and I hope to press precisely these advantages to the full in that context.

They May See and Not Perceive

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

I’m currently teaching my “Introduction to Religious Studies“—an essentialized approach to the key doctrines and spiritual practices of the world’s major orthodox religions—and I gave the students an opportunity last week to pose questions for an open discussion session. They could ask these during the class itself, but they could also submit them in advance if they preferred their classmates not know where the question was coming from. One young evangelical Christian took advantage of this option because, she said, she did not wish to “offend” her peers, and especially the Hindus in the class.

We had just finished a unit on South Asian religions, and the students had been asked to read a selection from In Quest of God by the Hindu sannyasin Swami Ramdas. On the assumption that Christ was right when he said, “By their fruits ye shall know them” (Matthew 7:20) and that the fruit of a true religion is sanctity or spiritual wholeness, the course includes an exploration of the lives and teachings of four twentieth-century figures regarded by their respective traditions as saints. For in them—as I note on the syllabus—”one sees embodied the deepest meaning of religion”. Ramdas is the first of these figures the students encounter; the others are the Zen Buddhist master Soko Morinaga, the Sufi shaykh Ahmad al-Alawi, and the Crow medicine man Thomas Yellowtail.

Here was this young woman’s question:

As I was reading In Quest of God, I couldn’t help thinking how spiritually prideful and self-seeking Swami Ramdas was. I realize that others may read the same thing and take comfort in his way of life, but I was utterly disturbed. God, or so Swami thought, told Swami to leave his worldly way of life behind to come follow him. I don’t believe God would ever ask any man to leave his wife and his child behind to do so. Swami betrayed his family for a lie.

After nearly thirty years in this business, I’m seldom surprised, but I confess this took me somewhat off guard! Of course there’s nothing astonishing about the fact that the first reaction of a Christian, especially a conservative Protestant, to Hindu doctrines and contemplative disciplines would be largely negative. And it’s by no means uncommon for such students to raise numerous objections as to the validity of a religion that seems to undercut many of their most precious beliefs. But it was startling to realize that such a person could actually read the life of this extraordinarily humble and self-effacing bhaktic saint, and see only pride.

Perhaps the most striking thing of all, however, was how blind the student seems to be to her own sacred texts. How else could she have failed to see that for every religion, Christianity included, the Absolute necessarily takes precedence over every relative good, including the good of social and familial responsibilities?

Teaching in the Bible Belt as I do, I find it’s best—whenever possible—to respond to my Christian students’ concerns by pointing them back to their scriptures, leaving it to God to address their questions! In this case I suggested that my questioner might wish to meditate on the following passages:

“If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26).

While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:46-50).

A certain man said to him, “Lord, I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” And he said to another, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their dead: but go and preach the kingdom of God.” And another said, “Lord, I will follow you; but let me first go and say goodbye to those who are at home at my house.” And Jesus said to him, “No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:57-62).

Christianity may not demarcate a specific ?shrama for the v?naprastha as does the Hindu tradition; the Biblical authors may not be as explicit as Lao Tzu in teaching that “high virtue is non-virtuous, and therefore has virtue, while low virtue never frees itself from virtuousness, and therefore has no virtue” (Tao Teh Ching, 38); and the Gospel may contain no figure—apart from Christ Himself, of course!—quite so shockingly scandalous to the Moseses of the world as the Koranic al-Khidr. Nonetheless is it not overwhelmingly obvious to anyone with eyes to see that the “faith that moves mountains” presupposes a radical detachment from the world, including—perhaps especially—the world of social relationships?

One can only conclude that “seeing they may see, and not perceive” (Mark 4:12).