Tuesday, June 25, 2013

On the Deep Structure of Religion

Davie speaks of "a Logos-echoing depth grammar" through which we are given a "matrix for proliferating surface-grammars." This is analogous to Chomsky's theory of a universal linguistic deep structure shared by all human beings, over which individual languages are superimposed.

These are intriguing notions: the idea that there is but a single Religion, that a particular faith is analogous to a particular language (or deilect), and that Chomsky is not wrong about everything.

Thus, for example, one may use English, or French, or German to say, "pass the salt, please" -- except of course in Manhattan, where Mayor Bloomberg has banned salt. Likewise, the Yiddish word for Bloomberg is "noodge."

This was more or less Schuon's Big Idea, as articulated in his first book, The Transcendent Unity of Religions. I'm not saying I agree with him -- at least in every detail -- but let's toy with this idea. I don't think he's 100% right, but I do believe he's on to something, and that he's more right than wrong.

First of all, let's see if I can mine any intelligent comments by amazon reviewers, in order to make my job easier.

This fellow is both lucid and accurate: "Schuon's thesis is that while the great religions of the world appear to be contradictory on the surface level (the 'exoteric'), when considered according to the inner reality of the spiritual strivings they embody (the 'esoteric' dimension), they present a unity."

But Schuon is no vulgar "integralist," let alone an uppertunistic Deepakian spiritual vulture. The opposite, rather:

"This kind of reasoning is often put forward on a superficial level to say that 'all religions lead to God,' but [Schuon] has a far more profound awareness of the issues involved. A simplistic pluralism of that kind misses the point, because it is only through following a religious tradition all the way to its inner depth that one reaches the 'transcendent unity' that Schuon is speaking about" (Prof. R.E. Viewer).

Precisely. It is not as if, just because there is a deep structure of language, one may somehow speak this phantom tongue in the absence of an actual, existing language. Rather, to speak the surface language is to explicate the deep structure; it is a complementarity, not a duality.

It is quite similar to Aristotle's idea that there are forms and there are substances, but -- contra Plato -- there is no invisible realm where all these forms may be found. Rather, forms are only found in substances (and vice versa). This is a fundamental orthoparadox.

Nor is Schuon depicting religion as a useful myth that may be dismissed by self-aggrandizing "esoterists."

Again, the opposite. For Schuon, there is no esoterism in the absence of exoterism. Yes, there is spirit and letter, but again, the two are always found together. A vague and gaseous spirituality -- devoid of letter, as it were -- is approximately as useful as a pure materialism. Both are blind, but in different ways.

One especially useful implication of Schuon's approach is that "The large number of religions is often used to argue for their falsity, but Schuon would say that we only approach God through symbols which are appropriate to our time and place, and that there is a unified reality behind these various manifestations. So the most particular religion is also the most universal" (ibid.).

If one is Christian, I think it's a valid objection to ask if everyone prior to, and outside, the Christian faith is therefore damned. Doesn't sound to me like a judge with an especially refined sense of justice. And in fact, it is an orthodox belief that...

Here, I'll just look up the actual passage from the Catechism. Let's see if it can be reconciled with Schuon.

There's quite a lot on this subject, actually:

"The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God," and because this Great Attractor "never ceases to draw man to himself." What we call "faith" is none other than "man's response to God."

Note that the Catechism first speaks of these realities -- God and faith -- in generic, which is to say, universal, terms.

"In many ways, throughout history down to the present day, men have given expression to their quest for God.... These forms of religious expression, despite the ambiguities they often bring with them, are so universal that one may well call man a religious being."

Precisely. Say what you want about man, but his standard equipment includes the (↑) instinct, which is as real to us as is the salmon's instinct to swim upstream or the Solomon's instinct to winter in Florida.

In Acts it is written that "From one ancestor [God] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him..."

The search for God is just the other side of God's call to man. In my mind I picture a kind of whirling spiral that converges on the Center.

The Church has also declared that it "rejects nothing that is true and holy in these [other valid] religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men."

It got a little hectic around here, and now I've lost the thread. The point I wanted to make is that one needn't believe, with Schuon, that the deep structure of Religion is the nondualism of Vedanta. Personally, I believe the Trinity trumps nondualism every time, more on which tomorrow.


mushroom said...

As I think about this, it gives a whole new meaning to the first two verses of Hebrews. I usually look at "our fathers" as being Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and the Prophets, but it is universal. It's not just the patriarchs. It encompasses all of human history and all the ways we have tried to articulate the underlying structure.

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.

Gagdad Bob said...

Yes. I was reading just yesterday that Voegelin thought there was no distinction between history and salvation history. They are and must be the same thing.

Magister said...

Good stuff.

Is it analogous then to becoming a complete musician by working with a single instrument, or seeing the universe in a blade of grass.

You have to put the "in" in to get any insight.

Chris said...


As I understand it, the Perennialist school is saying that every authentic religion is a real appearance (a descent) of God- in a sense, an "Incarnation". As such, it seems to me that the Transcendent Unity of Religions, is, in fact, implying that there are many Christs- every genuine religion gives its adherents everything that they need for salvation.Therefore, there is a plurality of true religions reflecting the multiplicity of mankind. But, despite my Perennialist predispositions, I'm not sure if this actually works. For two reasons, reasons that you alluded to in your last two posts.

1)The absolute uniqueness of Jesus Christ

and by extension

2)the impossibility of relegating the Trinity to the level of the "relative Absolute"

If the non-Christian religions are salvifically operative, then, each of them are necessarily based on the created Logos- for example, God made man(Krishna) or God made book (Koran). I'm not sure how Buddhism should be interpreted.

I agree with you that the Trinity "trumps" Vedantin nondualism. But, if that is so, then I'm inclined to say that the Perennialist project can't really get off the ground. According to the major Traditionalists, the world religions are one in the Godhead, on the level of beyong being. But, if one is to reconcile Christianity to this, then the Trinity must be on the level of the relative Absolute- the "first determination of the Principle". But any orthodox Christian would deny this and insist that the Trinity speaks of the essence, of the Godhead.

To my knowledge, Schuon, Guenon, Coomaraswamy, Burkhardt, Nasr, and most of the Perennialist notables have claimed that Advaita Vedanta is the purest manifestation of the Perennial Philosophy. The core principle, nondualism is often referred to as "pure metaphysics" and transcends the (presumably dualistic and therefore lower) exposition of "exoteric theology"


Gagdad Bob said...

Chris: You keep asking a form of the same question over and over.

Chris said...

It would seem so.
It's like a tick.

Gagdad Bob said...

No apology necessary. But pick one or the other and dive in. Chase two rabbits, catch none.

Gagdad Bob said...

In other words, the riddle can only be solved via experience and not information, (n) and not (k).

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