A comment appeared a few days ago here on Anamn?sis. Written by someone operating under the alias “Thurbolt Smagg”—my first thought, I confess, was that one of the diabolical legion in C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters had begun reading this weblog—it was tagged to a post of mine from last November entitled “Too Much Perennialism“.
Mr (or could it be Ms?) Smagg opines that perennialists should get over their “us vs. them” mentality and realize that the problems they face in academia are the same as those facing all religious studies professors, and in fact everyone in the humanities: namely, how to justify a discipline that fails to “offer scientific discoveries” or “innovations in health care” in an era when “the value of higher education” is increasingly linked to its “career possibilities”. He (or she) advises perennialists to take the temperature of the times and exploit the culture’s “passionate interest in matters of value and ethics”, the university’s “preoccupation with diversity”, and the “emergence of (or return to) the notion of interdisciplinary study”, the goal in each case being “to find a basis for cultural critique that does not simply fall on deaf ears”. In short “we must mine current trends in education for traces of the perennial wisdom, and build upon those traces”.
What this means, however, is that perennialists need to extract their heads from the sand and resist what Smagg perceives as their tendency to eschew other disciplines. “If we have quarantined ourselves from interdisciplinary discourse, it should come as no surprise that our viewpoint is considered irrelevant”. My correspondent concludes: “If perennialism can indeed claim for itself a future, it will not be because a professor—such as Dr Cutsinger—finally succeeds in explaining perennialism to his department chairman. It will be because a fully engaged scholar—such as Dr Cutsinger—sees the deep game and understands the territory in which the battle for the future is fought.”
Justifying the discipline. Exploiting public interest. Mining current trends. Battling for the future. It’s difficult to know quite what to say in response, especially since Thurbolt—if I may presume such familiarity—seems to have nothing but my best interests at heart, or at least the best interests of those academic perennialists among my readers who aspire to be deans or grants officers, or who perhaps are simply praying for tenure. Since I have tenure and don’t want to be a dean, I suppose I’m in a rather different category, and maybe it’s for that reason that the first thing to come into my mind was a passage from Gai Eaton’s wonderful book The King of the Castle:
To bring religion to the people is a fine and necessary undertaking, but this is not a situation in which the proposed end can be said to justify the means. The further people have drifted from the truth, the greater is the temptation to water down the truth, glossing over its less palatable aspects and, in short, allowing a policy of compromise to become one of adulteration. In this way it is hoped that the common man [here we might substitute: the typical funding agency or tenure and promotion committee] will be encouraged to find a small corner in his busy life for religion without having to change his ways or to grapple with disturbing thoughts.
It is a forlorn hope. Standing, as it were, at the pavement’s edge with his tray of goods, the priest [Smagg’s perennialist?] reduces the price until he is offering his wares for nothing…. And still the passers-by go their way, sorry over having to ignore such a nice man but with more important matters demanding their attention…. Had they been offered a real alternative, a rock firm-planted from the beginning of time, they might have been prepared to pay a high price. It is even possible, had the priest [or perennialist] turned his back upon them, attending only to the divine sun which seizes and holds his gaze, they might have come up quietly behind him, knelt down—looking where he looks—and forgotten all their care and all their troubles (London: The Bodley Head, 1977, pp. 17-18).
I’m under no illusions, or not at least on this count! I’m fairly sure that anyone likely to become my chairman will never really understand what I’m up to, and I’ve no doubt at all that carving out a space in academia for a fully funded Center of Perennialist Studies is—well, just the sort of absurd fantasy one of Screwtape’s minions might be expected to try and tempt me with! But that’s not why I’m in this job, never has been and never will be. I’m in it for the students, and I’m delighted to say that once again this semester I’ve been blessed with a few who seem drawn to the Sun.