Faith Without Borders

For Perennialists, all religions lead to God

| January / February 2008

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.

Kristopher Manghera
4/12/2013 7:41:47 PM

Another good Traditionalist site is Gornahoor (

Robert Johnson
4/12/2013 3:34:43 PM

One spiritual/religious philosophy this article did not mention is Deism. Deism is belief in God based on reason and Nature. Deists apply their reason to the laws and designs in Nature and believe they point us to the Designer. In Deism there is no need for faith. The French Deist Voltaire summed it up well when he wrote, "What is faith? Is it to believe that which is evident? No. It is perfectly evident to my mind that there exists a necessary, eternal, supreme, and intelligent being. This is no matter of faith, but of reason." Progress! Bob Johnson

Charles Upton
9/23/2008 9:06:12 AM

Dear Jon Spayde, It's good to see someone in the (moore or less) major media express the Perennialist/Traditionalist viewpoint clearly,simply and accurately. For some reason that's very rare. the Transcendent Unity of Religions tends not to seem all that "esoteric" to me -- simple religious believers who are more interested in relating to God than in treating their religion as a club or cadre or some other sort of idol will often express similar ideas in less sophisticated terms: "More power to other people if their religion works for them, but this is my religion and I mean to stay faithful to it." But the fact is that all the forces current in today's world are acting to separate the "transcendence" from the "unity." Those who espouse transcendence alone will become rabid exclusivists; those who seek unity alone will become syncretists on the trail of some One World Religion (and many Perennialist ideas are presently being misapplied for just this purpose. Who are you? My wife and I are (more or less) writers of the Perennialist/Traditionalist School. Our publisher is James Wetmore of Sophia Perennis, who has also brought out the collected works of Rene Guenon in a new English translation, published Lord Northbourne, etc. And he's always looking for new books. Sincerely, Charles Upton

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