New Keys for Old Doors
For if there is only one valid religion, then all the others are wrong. But if they're all true, how can any of them be? I'm sure I have some subtle disagreements with Schuon -- although I'm equally sure that he wouldn't regard them as subtle; he was a my-way-or-the-highway sort of guy, for which I don't blame him at all, being an unquestioned spiritual genius and all. I don't really believe I've earned the "right" to disagree with someone of his stature -- in the same way that, for example, lost, malevolent, and God-hating souls have no intrinsic right to criticize the Catholic Church.
Well, I suppose it's not to that extreme, since I genuinely mean well, and I place Schuon on the highest plane of spiritual attainment. But since I am aware of the distance between us, what gives me the right? My preliminary answer is that Schuon is literally a man out of time, so that some of his ideas are unworkable in practice in our day and age. But troubled times call for a trouble man.
I mean, I'm just not prepared to write off the modern world, although one is at times tempted. I'm sure part of it has to do with his witnessing of the apocalypses of World Wars One and Two from the European perspective. Life looks very different from the standpoint of genocidal or cowardly countries who got their asses kicked vs. the one nation that kicks ass and saves others from getting their asses kicked. I don't think Schuon could conceive of the providential role of the United States, without which his life and work would have been impossible (although ultimately the same providence accounts for both).
This hardly means that one compromises the truth in order to make it compatible with the passing fashions of the day. Rather, as Schuon himself wrote, it is not a question of promulgating "new truths." Rather, "what is needed in our time, and indeed every age remote from the origins of Revelation, is to provide some people with keys fashioned afresh... in order to help them rediscover the truths written in an eternal script in the very substance of man's spirit" (emphasis mine). So just think of me as an unlicensed groksmith.
It seems that this was a much bigger problem in the past, when people first discovered the existence of Vedanta, Buddhism, Taoism, and other faiths. The first impulse was to devalue them, if not vilify their practitioners. Today it's not such a big deal, but that may be due to the fact that our elites don't take religion seriously anyway. Rather, it's just a part of culture, and cultures are different, that's all.
But now that I think about it, it is odd that the multicultural left elevates culture to a kind of sacred, pseudo-absolute, even while devaluing its grounding in the true Absolute, i.e., its religion. All culture is rooted in the cultus which is its origin, ground, and justification.
Anyway, on to the post:
Schuon has written something to the effect that most people, in order to get a sense of the Absolute, must imagine that their particular belief system is absolute, instead of being an expression of the Absolute. This misunderstanding has caused all kinds of mayhem down through the centuries, and is obviously at the basis of our war with Islamist idolaters who make a god of their religion.
But it is also the basis of the left's deeply irrational jihad against religion, since they believe that belief in absolutes -- which is to say, belief -- is the problem. Therefore, no beliefs, no problems. But this simply leads to the kind of spiritual nihilism we see in a supine UK that cannot rouse itself in the face of absolutist Islamist barbarians who mock the hypersophisticated moral paralysis of the neutered EUnuchs.
Schuon's position is rather nuanced, and generally will not appeal to most religious people and to no irreligious people. First of all, his metaphysics affirms the Absolute, which puts him completely at odds with any form of postmodern secular leftism. However, he situates the Absolute beyond form, which naturally makes conventionally religious people uneasy, since people believe in and practice this or that religion because they believe it embodies absolute truth. If it didn't, they wouldn't believe it. No one practices a religion because they believe it is false, partial, or the feel-good hit of the summer.
You might say that Schuon noticed the same thing that secular extremists do -- a seeming clash of irreconcilable absolutes -- but came to the opposite conclusion. That is, the secularist rejects and even ridicules religion on the basis of its different forms, whereas Schuon observed that religions only clashed outwardly, but not inwardly -- just as there can be no real "clash" between Buck Owens and Waylon Jennings, despite the fact that each attained the aesthetic absolute. Better yet, the existence of blue or green does not clash with, but verifies, the fact of the white light of which each is an expression.
Inwardly, orthodox religious forms represent differing views of the Absolute, and in that sense are absolute. They are the highest form of the absolute that can be known and expressed on the relative plane. As such, they are "relatively absolute."
Given the necessarily hierarchical conditions of existence, the relative absolute is something which must exist, i.e., "there is none good but the One." Conversely, the "absolute relative" is an intrinsic absurdity -- and even monstrosity -- that is at the heart of all secular misosophies (i.e., hatred of wisdom).
Again, I realize this makes people uncomfortable, because when they hear the word "relative," they equate it with the relativism of the left or of the new age integralists, but Schuon would be mortified at such a conflation. Again, he affirms the Absolute, which must exist. Or, to put it another way, the Absolute cannot not be. But since it is absolute, how do we think about it? How do we engage it? How do we make it more than a philosophical abstraction, mere pseudo-intellectual deism by another name?
We do so through real religion, which you might say is the "first fruit" of the Absolute, or O. Now, you will note that there is nothing in this point of view that prevents one from personally believing that one religion does a more adequate job of expressing and reconciling us to the Absolute. This is indeed the official position of the contemporary Catholic Church, but it was affirmed as long ago as Augustine, with his crack about how that which is known as the Christian religion existed among the ancients, and never did not exist; from the beginning of the human race until the time when Christ came in the flesh, at which time the true religion, which already existed began to be called Christianity.
Again, this is very different from how the secular leftist deals with the same "problem." Such individuals have a pseudo-tolerant attitude (at best) toward religion because they don't take it seriously; I, on the other hand, have a genuinely tolerant attitude because I take it so seriously.
In the absence of its relative form -- which partakes of the substance of the Absolute -- there is no ponderable Absolute on our side of manifestation. These forms are efficacious and ontologically real in a way that mere objects or ideas from the relative plane can never be; contemplation of them will change you. As Schuon wrote, they "leave durable traces in the soul, to the point that we are no longer the same man as before; they remove one from the world and draw us toward Heaven. And there is a kind of vision or inward presence that remains."
They leave durable traces in the soul. Is this not obvious? This is why scientific and philosophical ideas come and go, but Western man -- so long as he remains man, which is a fifty-fifty proposition -- will always be haunted and shadowed by the Incarnation of the Word, which speaks to a part of us that transcends time and place. It is why the Jew -- assuming he is a Jew, and not just a Democrat -- will always be haunted and shadowed by the Torah, by the very notion of the absolute Word of God, an absolute Word that inoculates against the errors of relativism.
I could go on, but you get the point. We are either permeated by a sense of the Absolute, the Infinite, and the Eternal; or we are condemned to a horizontal teenage wasteland of relativism and materiality, and a timebound tyranny of mere existence with no essence.
It therefore seems that there are ultimately only two metaphysical positions one may take: a belief in absolute supraformal truth embodied in diverse religious forms that complement and do not fundamentally exclude one another, at least a priori; or a belief in relative truth, which ultimately redounds to the subformal intellectual blob of nihilism, given enough time. Is that clear? Perhaps not.
Let's put it this way. As my friend Joseph says, if someone -- especially someone with the wrong motivation -- wants to pry into his exact religious beliefs, he tells them this: I am a believer. For in the final analysis, there are only the Believers and the unbelievers, Absolutists and nihilists; one is the upword way of faith leading to real knowledge and salvolution; the other is the downward path of manmode ignorance and superstition leading on an individual basis to spiritual sclerosis or dispersion, and on a collective basis to cultural decadence and exhaustion.
Update three years later: I personally find that the Judeo-Christian tradition -- especially the strand that leads to and from Denys to Eckhart to Unknown Friend -- perhaps spiced with a little neo-Vedanta, furnishes me with the most adequate vocabulary to think about, discuss, and assimilate the Absolute. But that's just me. More importantly, the true Believers need to stick together in this age of malevolent stupidity.