Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Question on Traditionalism

This is a question I was asked recently which fits in with the theme of the last two posts so I include it here.

Q. In your book you briefly mention the school of religious thought known as Traditionalists who, as I understand the matter, claim that all religions are basically saying the same thing. Their exoteric husk might be different but the esoteric core is the same. A lot of people nowadays would take a similar position but where the Traditionalists diverge from the standard view is in maintaining that the esoteric can only be accessed through membership of an exoteric body. My question is do you believe this? In your post on the meaning of Christmas you seem to be saying that although mystics might be describing the same experience that doesn't mean that all religions teach the same path, and you give the example of Buddhism and Christianity which have very different approaches to the question of God. Also, the core truth the Traditionalists describe is fundamentally advaita, and you have pointed out several problems with this in various posts.

A. I mentioned the Traditionalists in my book because I think that their writings, in particular those of René Guénon, serve a great need in that they expose many of the pretensions and falsehoods of modernism. I was not so drawn to Frithjof Schuon whose writings I found rather long-winded though that may be the translation or just a lack of affinity with his mode of thinking.

However, though the Traditionalists do expose many of the problems with modernity, the loss of the sense of the sacred, the confusing of the psychic or the psychological with the spiritual, the destructive nature of egalitarianism and so on, they are not without problems of their own. In particular the idea that all religions fundamentally teach the same thing, the so called transcendent unity of religions, and that this is advaita or non-duality. This is just not true. It is one thing to maintain that the same reality lies behind all religions but quite another to claim that they are all saying the same thing about it or have penetrated equally deeply into it. As for saying that they all teach a form of Sankara's advaita, that is nonsense whether you are talking from an esoteric or exoteric point of view. Even in India advaita is by no means universally accepted. Non-dualists like to say that they include but go beyond dualistic paths but practitioners of these paths would not agree, saying that the distinction between God and the soul is a crucial one. The two are one in a certain sense, an ontological one perhaps, but in another and equally real sense they are not. This, incidentally, makes life a far richer thing than simple unqualified oneness. There is a reality in creation which non-dualistic paths completely ignore, much to their detriment and loss I would say.

So I find the Traditionalist school an interesting one and I would go along with many of its tenets but not its fundamental principle of non-duality as borrowed from Sankara. There is also an exclusivity about them as there will be about any school of thought that privileges knowledge over love which, in effect, is what they do.

You also ask whether the esoteric can be considered apart from the exoteric. The Traditionalists say that it cannot and would insist that anyone on the spiritual path must be a member of one of the main religions which for them would be Christianity, Islam or Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism being open only to people born into that religion in their view. I have some sympathy with that position, and the risks of embarking on an inner voyage without proper grounding and guidance are clear enough. But what if no outer religion truly satisfies your soul? If you can find one that does, well and good, but the reality is that religions are all, without exception, much impoverished nowadays. It is surely significant that very few Traditionalists stayed with the religion of their birth. Most of them became Muslims which seems odd but then the Islam they followed was Sufism, the mystical branch, which I think it has been shown fairly conclusively borrowed heavily from advaita for its fundamental philosophy of oneness, and from Christianity for its devotional aspects. I find a lot of good and wise things in Sufism but its major problem is that to be a Sufi you must be a Muslim and to be a Muslim you must regard the Quran to be an inspired book, the word of God. I have read the Quran and found it the least inspired of all the major scriptures. Furthermore one can't get round the fact that comparisons of Jesus with Muhammad make the latter look quite ordinary, spiritually speaking. That is just a fact. Which of the two would you rather take your spiritual instruction from?

So I would go along with some aspects of Traditionalism but accusations that it is elitist cannot be entirely dismissed. I have nothing against elitism in the sense that there really is better and worse, higher and lower, more insightful and less insightful and so on, but elitism without love is not so good and the Traditionalists undoubtedly favour knowledge over love. My teachers told me that men are by no means equal on the earth plane but also emphasised (to the point of tedium sometimes!) the primary reality and over-riding necessity of love. Not compassion or empathy but love which is not the same by any means. I don't find this echoed in the Traditionalists and I think this is because they, like many intellectuals drawn to spirituality, believe (or prefer to believe?) that impersonal reality lies behind the expression of the personal. There is a radical metaphysical difference between those who hold that ultimate reality is impersonal and those who see it as personal. I, like all Christians, take the latter position and for various reasons, but chiefly two. One, there is the teaching of Jesus that God is the Father and I don't believe this can be sidestepped or interpreted allegorically. He meant what he said. But there is also the fact that it is just not possible for the personal to come from the impersonal since nothing can give birth to what it does not contain. If you want to see the personal as a limited or stepped down or 'relativised' version of the impersonal you have to ask how that could have come about unless it was already there in the first place. Christianity, with its idea of the Trinity or three persons in one God, does that in a way no other religion or philosophy, exoteric or esoteric, can match. It alone explains how the personal can be absolute and, with its doctrine that God is love, why the absolute cannot be impersonal or transpersonal since the two are basically the same in practice. Besides, what do impersonal or transpersonal even mean except when considered in relation to the personal which implies the primacy of the latter. It seems to me that the Traditionalists don't fully appeciate this. They are not alone.


DougieFranklin said...

But what if no outer religion truly satisfies your soul? If you can find one that does, well and good, but the reality is that religions are all, without exception, much impoverished nowadays.

What I always found troubling about the religion of my heritage is its claim to exclusivity and the implication that all those outside the faith will be damned for all eternity (and a good many within to boot). While I don't dismiss the possibility Hell exists, I've long suspected that such claims come from a human political motive - fear mongering perhaps we could say. It just seems like a convenient thing to tell someone if the goal was go control him and get him to conform. What do you think about such claims?

Perhaps this seems a pedestrian question to you, but it seems to me that such exclusivist salvific claims are one of the reasons that the West has largely rejected religion and have embraced naturalism.

William Wildblood said...

This is a hard (and therefore good!) question. I think that something equivalent to hell almost certainly exists for people who deliberately and in full knowledge reject the reality of God, preferring the reality of self. But this is a spiritual state that is self-created or self-inflicted. It is not a place of punishment. So if sinners go to hell they go there because of their refusal to give up their sinful state, and it is a natural consequence of their rejection of truth (usually based on pride) not the punishment of a vindictive deity. And even in this hell they are given the chance to turn back to the light if they will take it so it's not a torment that lasts for all eternity unless that chance is not taken.

So I believe that the reality of hell is there but it may well have been given excessive prominence in certain religions and used for the propaganda reasons you say. It is not a place for people who don't believe in a certain dogma or doctrine of a particular religion but a state of being that those who refuse to acknowledge the reality of God, even in the afterlife, enter into. And maybe some people who are attached to a false idea of God go there as well until they learn better. After all Dante put a lot of cardinals and popes there didn't he?

I don't think the West has turned away from religion because of the idea of hell. That may have been a factor for some, especially if they were subjected to fire and brimstone threats in their youth, but most people now just don't seem to care much one way or the other. We are too seduced by the world.

William Wildblood said...

By the way, I should add that I don't think it's what you believe or don't believe that would cause you to go to a place or condition of spiritual desolation after death. It's the state of your heart as in 'as a man thinketh in his heart so is he'.