Saturday, June 18, 2011

Retrospection and Introspection: Theology, the Perennial Philosophy and Our Existential Challenges

In the attached videos, a panel of spiritual teachers and philosophers - from the 'dean' of comparative religious studies, Huston Smith, to noted Islamic scholar, Professor Sayed Nasr and author/film-maker, Peter Russell - discuss theology, mysticism and how the 'Perennial Philosophy' that underpins the world's great wisdom traditions may help us to cope with the existential problems that humanity faces today.

Professor Nasr traces the use of the term the 'Perennial Philosophy' back to the 16th Century, and from there to Leibniz and a host of later philosophical writers. Sayed calls the 'Perennial Philosophy' a body of "non-historical truths that has survived over the ages concerning the nature of reality, of the ultimate divine reality, of cosmic reality, and of microcosmic reality . . . and which (has) manifested . . .  in various great religious traditions in all their suppletive aspect, whether it be the Vedanta, or Islamic philosophy, or Mahayana or neo-Confucian philosophy in China, or Augustinianism and Thomism in the West."

Yet, it was Aldous Huxley who popularized the term in the modern West, writing his master work "The Perennial Philosophy," in which he traces the development of this recurring theme back through the writings of mystics and saints from all the world's great traditions.

While Huxley's "The Perennial Philosophy" is a comprehensive commentary on the philosophical and mystic insights into the nature of mankind's reality, it was in an introduction to another book, "The Song of God," written by his friends, Christopher Isherwood and Swami Prabhavananda, where Huxley pithily summarized the 'Perennial Philosopy' in the following four points:
"At the core of the Perennial Philosophy," Huxley observes, "we find four fundamental doctrines.
First: the phenomenal world of matter and individualized consciousness - the world of things and animals and men and even gods - is the manifestation of a Divine Ground within which all partial realities have their beginning, and apart from which they would be non-existent.

Second: human beings are capable not merely of knowing about the Divine Ground by inference; they can also realize its existence by a direct intuition, superior to discursive reasoning. This immediate knowledge unites the knower with that which is known.

Third: man possesses a double nature, a phenomenal ego and an eternal Self, which is the inner man, the spirit, the spark of divinity within the soul. It is possible for a man, if he so desires, to identify himself with the spirit and therefore with the Divine Ground, which is of the same or like nature with the spirit.

Fourth: man's life on earth has only one end and purpose: to identify himself with his eternal Self and so come to unitive knowledge of the Divine Ground."
Commenting on the development of the 'Perennial Philosophy,' author and film-maker, Peter Russell, notes that "(f)or the first time in history we have access to all the world's spiritual traditions. If you had been born 200 years ago," he points out, "you would just have access to those in your particular culture, and the only teachers you would have would be any wise people that happened to be in your community. That was it, and perhaps reading books, but even then the books would have been from your own particular culture."

"Now we have access to the world and all its spiritual traditions," he points out, noting "(t)hat is what is going to take us into our next evolutionary phase." The idea of such an evolutionary shift is supported by a host of writers and philosophers, from the Jesuit paleontologist, Telihard de Chardin to Huston Smith, to cutting edge spiritual teachers Ken Wilber and Andrew Cohen, who teaches what he calls "Evolutionary Enlightenment."

Professor Nasr points out that "it is a time to pay attention to what the 'Perennial Philosophy' says about the nature of reality, because surely the present understanding of the nature of reality (and) post-modernism is presenting us with with immense challenges to put it mildly."

"It is strange," he notes, "that now we have only a few years to live on the earth if we do not change our relationship to the environment, that what we have been saying all along (in the 'Perennial Philosophy') is now taken much more seriously with a lot of people.

Yet ironically, while not wishing to be an alarmist, Professor Nasr points out that "the ambience is such that it is now much easier not to talk about these matters than it was fifty years ago." Nevertheless, he notes, discussion of what our ultimate purpose is, seems more than ever necessary if we are to face and overcome the challenges we have brought upon ourselves, if we are going to continue to evolve as a viable species here on Earth.

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