Too Much Perennialism

Word is that administrators at La Trobe University in Australia have decided to scrap their thriving program in perennialist and traditionalist studies. Harry Oldmeadow, author of Traditionalism: Religion in Light of the Perennial Philosophy as well as a number of other important works, is their best-known scholar, but he’s been working for some years as part of a team of highly supportive colleagues, including Rodney Blackhirst, John Penwill, Roger Sworder, and Algis Uzdavinys, several of whom—as you know—have been regular contributors to Sophia: The Journal of Traditional Studies, Sacred Web, and Eye of the Heart.

I’m told the decision was ideologically, not financially, motivated, and I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if this was the case. While my own department is not at the moment in danger of being cut, this may simply be because we perennialists are in the minority and thus less a threat to those who prefer to keep the study of religion safely within the confines of history and the social sciences! Of course, from the point of view of most contemporary scholars in our field, even one perennialist is one too many. In case you doubt this—and suppose I’m merely paranoid!—I would refer you to a “Report of the External Review Committee for the Department of Religious Studies, University of South Carolina” (6 May 2008).

Academic departments at USC—and, I presume, many universities—are regularly evaluated by teams of outside scholars in the relevant fields so that administrators can make funding and other “performance-based” decisions, and this past spring it was our turn. A committee of four, which included a former president of the American Academy of Religion and a former editor of the Journal of the AAR, spent three days interviewing our faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate majors, as well looking over such things as the department’s “mission statement”, graduate and undergraduate handbooks, course offerings, and enrollment figures. They then submitted a report to our dean and academic planning committee.

Ironically, though I spent the first 26 years of my academic career as the only member of my department with an interest in the philosophia perennis; though even now there are only two of us with such interests; and though my other colleagues include a Bultmannian and a “womanist” theologian: the very first question out of the committee chairman’s mouth when I sat down for my interview was, “Don’t you think there’s too much perennialism in this department?”—a “when did you stop beating your wife” sort of question, if ever there was one!

When the department was finally given access to the committee’s report a few days ago, I was therefore less surprised than I might otherwise have been at the concern it raised regarding “the place of perennialism in the department’s future”. By the way, you’ll be amused to learn that “perennialism” is defined in this rather curious document as a “somewhat [sic!] esoteric approach to religion that is of interest primarily to a small and committed group of followers in the field”. Talk about being damned by faint praise!

While the report makes a point of insisting that “as a committee we have no intellectual issue with perennialism per se“, it’s clear as crystal they do have issues, indeed serious reservations and objections, regarding the influence—and indeed the legitimacy—of our perspective. You’ve been around academic religionists long enough to decode the following lines, and you’ll see very quickly that it’s precisely the dangerous dragon of perennialist thinking the committee members had in mind, whether explicitly named or not:

“The study of religion contains at least two fundamental components: the concreteness of particular traditions and the ways in which that concreteness is constructed, analyzed, interpreted, and understood…. In the academy, religion is what we study, not how we study…. Echoing the movement within the discipline towards perspectives that situate religions within their socio-political contexts rather than treating them as a series of texts disembodied from their cultural surroundings, students … crave greater attention to historical context…. The strategic plan should take account of both the concreteness of religions and the intellectual diversity that are essential to the first-rate study of religion in an American research university.”

Now of course, there’s nothing surprising in the fact that religionists who trained as historians and social scientists can’t see the religious forest for the trees; that they’re unable—or perhaps just unwilling—to look along, rather than merely at, the traditional forms they study so as to discern the essences; and that they’re therefore puzzled, and in fact often miffed, by metaphysical insights. What is surprising, however—though also, I confess, rather gratifying!—is how worried these politically fashionable scholars seemed to be about what amounts to a minority voice within my department. Needless to say, in today’s university, not all minorities are created equal.

Though more than once expressing their wish for greater “interpretive diversity” in our program, it’s perfectly obvious that what the committee really wanted is what most contemporary scholars of religion want: more of the same old same old—more historical criticism, more sociology, more anthropology, more gender studies, more trendy post-modernism … in short, more distractions from “the one thing needful”.

Leave a Reply