Monday, May 25, 2015

Frithjof Schoun, Perennialism, and Christology

An interesting read on the Christology of Perennialist author Frithjof Schoun. Schoun's Transcendent Unity of All Religions put him on the map among Perennialist devotees and made him something of an avantgarde favorite among Christian groups that had grown weary of the increasing modernization of the mid-late 20th century.

Perennialism more often than not proves itself to be an attractive yet difficult medicine to swallow for more traditional Christians. Perennialism's staunch rejection of modernity as a signature of the West's intellectual, metaphysical and spiritual decline immediately resonates. It's Christology forces most traditional readers to their limits.

Schoun, like so many of his ilk, was seemingly well versed in Patristic theology and was capable of dialoging with orthodox Christology. The instance that all religion is, ultimately, one seems totally disconnected to the Christology that many such Perennialist authors were well versed in.

To understand how this apparent contradiction was readily demonstrable in Schoun and other Perennialists, one has to appreciate the historical context of the movement and its authors. Despite its rejection of modernity, Perennialism is a product of it, perhaps an unintended bi-product, but produced nonetheless. Perennialism responded to the scientific critique of religion by attempting to find the points of confluence between the great religious traditions in the hope of discovering Religion, conceived as the primordial revelation of the divine that gradually took on culturally specific manifestations.

This was in no small part influenced by the late 19th and early 20th century waves of Hinduism that sought to present the religious tradition of the subcontinent as a scientifically rational religious system that was capable of finding a place for every religious tradition. This perspective was colored by the confessional perspective of its authors. The place at the table set for Christianity, Judaism and others was decorated in the colors of Vedanta Hinduism - everything was filtered through this spectrum.

Perennialism is perhaps a bit more honest with the differences among religions. Schoun clearly delineated what is often times presented as Perennialism's view: all religions are represented by an exoteric particularity, however, they all demonstrate an esoteric uniformity. In the areas of ritual, doctrine and  practice (the exoteric) every religion is a disctinct system. However, when one begins to analyze the higher purpose or goal to which the exoteric distinction point, one should find a uniform vision of the God, the nature of reality, and the purpose of humankind and how to integrate the supernatural with the natural (the esoteric).

Perennialism settled upon the idea that one must cultivate both exoteric and esoteric observance. It insists that one must have one of the major religious traditions as one's exoteric practice and that the serious seeker of any exoteric tradition will gradually seek out the esoteric tradition of that religion and discover the unity among the religious traditions.

Schoun himself was convert to Catholicism (from Protestanism) before adopting Sufism as his exoteric disciple. Schoun was a Sufi teacher. He insisted, however, this did not contradict the esoteric truths contain in Catholicism, a major one being the Immaculate (Virgin Mother). Schoun believed that the esotericism captured in the development of Mary Immaculate was a clear manifestation of the esoteric truth the binds all of the great religious traditions. In Schoun's letters, one can find a handful of attestations to this, including one where he famously notes that he feels no divorce from "the Immaculate" and she knew quite well why he had to become a Sufi teacher. Schoun, like Rene Guenon before him, grew disillusioned by what he perceived was a burgeoning metaphysical crisis in Catholicisim, one that was galvanized by the very persons who were in roles which should have functioned to restore a deeper appreciation for metaphysics. Rather, both men saw Catholicism as becoming increasingly anti-metaphysical, such that it could not offer a serious counter to modernity.

Traditional Christianity will fault Schoun, much as the article I linked to does, for the bold contradiction that seems to appear in his writings. Christainity claims that Jesus and Jesus alone is God Incarnate. Therefore, there is no unity among religions. Again, we have to point out the Schoun, despite contemporary traditionalists finding much food for thought in his writings, is never really teaching, writing, or arguing within Christian categories. Schoun, and I may be mistaken, considers the Incarnation to constitute part of the exoteric aspect of Christianity. While it is important to understand the Incarnation so one can successfully practice an exoteric tradition, Schoun would not necessarily take the Incarnation up into this idea of universal esoteric truth that is independent of cultural specifications.

With the above in mind, I have to fault Custinger. To force Schoun into the category of a Christian author, thinker, or theologian does a disservice to both Christianity and Perennialism. Schoun appreciated Christianity for what he identified as the great esoteric truths revealed in the religion, truths which were united to similar esoteric truths derived from other religions. As noted above, Perennialism, for all of its rejection of modernity, is a decidedly modernist impulse. It fundamentally embraced one of the early modernist critiques of religion (especially Christianity), namely the number of clear parallels between religions which were taken to argue against any particular claims for a divine revelation. Perennialism not only accepts these parallels, it embraces them as proofs of a primordial revelation from which all religions are derived. Perennialists are themselves the practitioners of the very modern discipline of comparative religious/cultural studies, only they go one step further by claiming that the data drawn from such study yields important clues into the nature of God, soul, spirit and reality itself.

It is against this backdrop of having identified a mystical unifier among all the religious traditions that Perennialism justifies its rejection of modernity. Modernity's crime is its determination to streamline, flatten and thoroughly nominalize reality to the extent these esoteric truths are either unrecognizable or mercilessly oppressed.

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