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Are all spiritual traditions redeemable?
The Problem of Perennialism
This is a question of semantics. If I wanted to be pedantic about this I would also say its is a matter of semiotics, epistemology, and theology, but the real problem is the semantic question that we are struggling with today.
So many people have defined themselves as “spiritual, but not religious” that we are driving a wedge deeper and deeper between the two modes of thinking, acting, and believing. This is a form of tribalism that does not serve the question at hand, but is very much at the heart of the issues facing people of faith.
The catalyst for this post was a video by Foolish Fish about perennialism, religion, spirituality and Jesus. I need to say from the start that while I mostly agree with Denis and everything he says in this video, I cannot redeem the term Perennialism like he does, and in fact, I have similar feelings about the word Christian.
If you want to see Denis’ video before we proceed, here it is. I want to stress that my disagreement with it is a semantic one, but when it comes to faith, spirituality, and religion, semantics are vital. Since we cannot share experience with others, we have to have a common vocabulary or at the very least a stipulated vocabulary so we can discuss these issues and experiences.
I want to enter into conversation with Denis Poisson, because I respect his position, but I do not feel as comfortable with the term Perennialism as he does. Part of this is because I prefer the term Deep Ecumenism from my own Creation Spirituality practice, and because I fear that associating with perennialism might lead people into the darker sides of that movement.
I have chosen to use Denis’s name rather than the channel name because I fear that the word Foolish in Foolish Fish might distract from the points I want to make and might unfairly bias my readers. I have nothing but respect for Denis and his work and I want to be as fair as I can be.
Denis mentions the discussion between Dr. Justin Sledge from Esoterica and Dr Dan Attrell from The Modern Hermeticist. They discussed the Dark Side of Perennialism (part 1 and part 2). I will not rehash all, or even most of the points brought up for or against perennialism from any of these three videos and I would encourage you to watch the videos if you want to dig deeper into these issues.
The Problem of Labels
It is possible to identify with and use a label without accepting, redeeming, or apologizing for the harm done by people who have used that label. When I don’t want to go into a long winded explanation of my own faith I still tell people that I am a former Roman Catholic who is still Christian, because those words give a simple explanation that is mostly true. I still have to disavow the abuses of both the Roman Catholic and the Christian Churches, but the label is still useful.
When I am willing to get into it I tell people that I am a wayfarer who walks the four paths of Creation Spirituality, but that takes a lot more unpacking.
Why do I prefer to call myself a wayfarer to a christian?
I do not want to appear to endorse the long legacy of imperialism, slavery, misogyny, queerphobia, and harm that the institutional christian church has wrought on the world for the last two thousand years. I do not want to include myself in with the christian fascists that are doing so much harm to the country and world right now. I also see it as a way to connect with the earliest followers of Jesus who referred to the life Jesus taught as the Way.
Like Denis, I see Jesus as my teacher and everything else as commentary on his teachings and not even close to being on the same level as his teachings.
My disassociation with the legacy of Christianity is not a rejection of my faith or people who still call themselves christians despite all the baggage that comes with it. I don’t see the word Christian as redeemable. It is soaked in too much blood and wrongdoing, and I would rather do the work Jesus called us to do than fight to redeem a word that has betrayed its own meaning.
Is Perennialism redeemable?
For me, no. Perennialism has a colonizing tendency baked into it by so many of its early and even recent proponents that I don’t see a way to redeem it. While it is true that it does not have the bloodstained legacy that christianity does. It also doesn't have the reputation for colonizing other people’s faiths that I feel it deserves. I do not want to associate with it out of concern of accidentally promoting those aspects of it to people who might adopt it unaware of its darker history.
Like with christianity, my condemnation of perennialism is not a condemnation of everyone who finds meaning in it. I used to identify as a perennialist and resonate with all of the arguments Denis makes for it. If he wants to call himself a perennialist, more power to him. This is more of an argument for why I can’t than why he shouldn’t.
The biggest problem that I have with the perennialist approach to spirituality is the innate power imbalance at the heart of its practice which I worry can misdirect, misuse, and even abuse the wisdom it is trying to hold dear.
Standpoint Theory and Perennialism
“Standpoint theory contends that humans produce knowledge through power relations that construct and divide social groups into dominant and nondominant categories. Experiences within those categories produce different, unequal opportunities that cultivate distinct ways of knowing and being. Nondominant group members can provide more complete knowledge about reality than dominant ones because they understand the world from both perspectives.”
Perennialism is a dominant group harvesting wisdom from a nondominant one for its own use and purposes. Whether they are approaching the nondominant from a European school of philosophy, theosophy, mystagogy, or an other religious framework, they are not coming from an indigenous or traditional point of view. In such a mode, misunderstandings, misappropriations, and outright appropriation are not only likely, but to be expected.
In interacting with any faith that is not our own, this sort of dominant/nondominant framework comes into play, and must be acknowledged as a warning sign on the path.
In Deep Ecumenism, we listen to and learn from those who actually live the faith and practice. We approach and pay special attention to their mode of understanding and always defer to the the understanding of those we are in conversation with since we are visiting their faith tradition and not superimposing our own.
In my own practice of Qabalah, I root my practice in the western esoteric practice of the tradition that has grown up over the centuries. While I do pay attention to Jewish practitioners of Kabbalah since my practice has roots in theirs, but like many others, I make attributions clear through the spelling conventions that have grown up within the tradition. I know that my practice is not the same as the Hasidim, or other Jewish Kabbalists, and any wisdom I glean from them must be carefully collected and translated into the Qabalistic tradition I do practice. The important part of this process is to strive to understand their perspective and not to misrepresent my understanding or practice for theirs.
Like I said, this is a semantic problem.
In any interfaith or interspiritual practice, it is important to bring to mind the barriers that make it more difficult for us to understand or accept the wisdom of others. I was raised as a white, male, conservative, christian, capitalist, American. While I am not, and never have been male, these frameworks of understanding were embedded into my mind since birth and it can be difficult to see those biases that form the bedrock of so many of our world views.
As a nonbinary person, I see both the dominant and nondominant perspectives. As a leftist, I have not forgotten the conservative framings of my youth. The same is true for my socialist/capitalist, celtic/white, wayfarer/christian frames. I do not have this with many other faiths. I did practice Buddhism for a time, and once contemplated converting to Judaism. This does mean that I have a better understanding of Buddhism than I do of Judaism, but that will always be the perspective of a convert.
Through this life experience, I can see the difference of my understanding of Christianity or Buddhism than any other religion or faith. That difference in experience gives me a very different experience to these faiths that I would never acquire through merely reading these texts, or having conversations with practitioners of those faiths.
Deep Ecumenism invites us to enter this kind of interspiritual mode with these traditions other than our own and recognizes the distinction of the depth of wisdom we have access to through such practices and encounters.
Perennialism, as a whole, developed from a idea that to know the good is to do the good. Simply reading the texts of others can give the same understanding as the community that generated those texts. I hate to sound so defensive, but I am not saying that this is Denis’ point of view or belief. He has an understanding that wisdom needs to be embodied to be attained, but Perennialism as a whole does not.
Does any of this really matter?
Yes and no.
Do I really care if Denis or anyone else call themselves perennialist? No, especially when they distance themselves from the more harmful aspects of the tradition like he does.
My biggest concern is, as always, that we do not accidentally point people in a direction that will do harm rather than good.
I no longer call myself a perennialist for that reason and will continue to try to persuade people to do the same thing.
The Challenge Jesus made
When you pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Most certainly, I tell you, they have received their reward. But you, when you pray, enter into your inner room, and having shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. In praying, don’t use vain repetitions as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their much speaking. Therefore don’t be like them, for your Father knows what things you need before you ask him.
In the end, I want to encourage you like Denis did to take Jesus up on his challenge. When we connect to Spirit in the quiet places within us, we have access to so much wisdom and strength. Remember always, the One who sees in secret rewards openly what we seek in secret. Those who talk so much about their prayers and rituals receive the acclaim of their audience, and that is all.
Enter your secret place and pray.
Oh taste and see that Yahweh is good.
Blessed is the [one] who takes refuge in him.