Here’s a familiar stumbling block for passionate but fair-minded God-seekers: Most faiths claim to be the One True Way. But if you dare to doubt that, say, Lutherans or Shiite Muslims are the only people on earth to whom God is listening, what do you do?
Join a liberal sect? Sure, there will be openness, but probably not much holy mystery. Conservative religion offers spiritual intensity, but also the very exclusiveness that makes many cringe. The New Age welcomes everything, but its mix-and-match attitude often feels less authentic than immersion in an established tradition.
Then there’s Perennialism, a lesser-known tendency in religious thinking that was set in motion by an idiosyncratic French writer named René Guénon (1886–1951), developed by Frithjof Schuon (1907–98), and is fostered today by a small group of writers, philosophers, and professors of comparative religion.
On the one hand, Perennialism rejects a modern world that has slipped off the rails. Yet it also embraces all variations of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish faith, as well as Asian religions and indigenous schools of thought. Perennialists believe that all religions are part of one great religion; that all wisdom makes up a great river of truth that all modern people should return to for what the Gospels call “living water.”
At first glance, this all-inclusive belief system—also known as Traditionalism—resembles the direst sort of reactionary elitism. Guénon, a prolific writer who began as an enthusiast of the occult and later converted to Islam and Sufism, hated the modern world, and contemporary Perennialists have been no happier with it. “It is as if the world were the scene of the development of a gigantic plot to turn man away from God,” wrote Lord Northbourne (1896–1982), a noted British Perennialist. Northbourne slams modernity, calling it “progressive, humanist, rationalist, materialist, experimental, individualist, egalitarian, free-thinking, and intensely sentimental”—that is, thoroughly perverse and wrong.
The trouble with dismissing Northbourne as a right-wing crank is that he was also a pioneer in organic farming and a sensitive student of comparative religion whose books strongly influenced both sustainability pioneer E.F. Schumacher (Small Is Beautiful) and spiritual giant Thomas Merton.
What’s more, Frithjof Schuon, arguably the greatest Perennialist of the past century, observed that God is One and universal, so the idea that a single religion could monopolize God is not just a spiritual error—it’s a logical absurdity. At the root of his writings, beginning with The Transcendent Unity of Religions (first translated into English in 1953 and reprinted in 1984 by Quest Books) is the idea that every religion has both an exoteric (external) and an esoteric (inner) dimension.
Exoterism is the realm of religious particularity and difference: Jesus versus Mohammed, the mass versus the Hindu puja. Esoterism, on the other hand, refers to transcendent, mystical realities that are universally true and permanent: for example, the offer of salvation, present in all faiths, and God’s oneness.
All of these symbols, the Perennialists insist, point to one transcendent God, and all of them offer mystical knowledge of God. But the spiritually mature seeker still needs to pursue this knowledge and union as a sincere devotee of a single faith —no washed-out “religion lite” or New Age mishmash. Why? Because every well-established religion is a true carrier of God’s very real revelation, and because all humans need the stability of tradition and the help of ancient symbols.
And what are sincere followers to make of their chosen religion’s claim to be the only path? Reject it from the standpoint of logic, but see it as symbolically true, like the other exoteric elements of religion. Symbolic truth is not “mere” or trivial truth, first because it helps shape the revelation we have received through our specific faith, and secondly because it is the only way we can approach the luminous mystery of the Absolute.
As for which faith to adopt, Schuon considered it a matter of background and temperament, once advising a Westerner to avoid the occult complexities of Tibetan Buddhism in favor of Japanese Shin Buddhism, whose devotional rituals resemble Christianity’s.
Despite its prejudices, including an unwillingness to see any modern ideas (human equality and gender justice, for example) as carriers of sacred truth, Perennialism presents the modern seeker with a healthy list of questions to ponder: Can you be both open and serious? Can you embrace religious diversity while rejecting the cafeteria model of religion? Can you give your heart to Christ or to Allah, taking no shortcuts, with the full knowledge that the more devoted you are to your religion, the more you are testifying to the truth of all other faiths, and the closer you are coming to a God who is within and beyond them all?
Perennialists not only believe that the answer to all of these questions is a resounding yes, they have created a set of intellectual and spiritual tools to make saying so more than an exercise in blind faith.
More reading: Frithjof Schuon’s The Transcendent Unity of Religions is the best introduction to Perennialism, but its sophisticated philosophical vocabulary makes it tough going. Luckily, there is a lot of contemporary Perennialist thought online (see in particular www.religioperennis.org, which includes a forum). The Foundation for Traditional Studies (www.traditional-studies.org) publishes a Perennialist journal, as well as books and videos on related topics. And a brand-new introductory gathering of Perennialist writings coedited by Martin Lings, The Underlying Religion, has just been published by World Wisdom, the premier American Perennialist publishing house with a worthy back catalog of Perennialist classics (www.worldwisdom.com). No matter your chosen path, these writings are likely to inspire, sometimes infuriate, and ultimately energize.