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Book Review

edited by Martin Lings and Clinton Minnaar

Review by Wendy Mason

Source: Studies in Comparative Religion © World Wisdom, Inc.

The Underlying Religion: An Introduction to the Perennial Philosophy is co-edited by Dr. Martin Lings (1909-2005) who has authored 19 books on Islam, Sufism, Religion, and Spirituality. He wrote the article on Sufism in the latest edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, a chapter on Sufism in the Cambridge University Publication Religion in the Middle East, and many articles for the journal Studies in Comparative Religion. In addition, he was Keeper of Oriental Manuscripts and Printed Books at the British Museum. Co-editor Clinton Minnaar is a professional editor in the field of religious studies.

This book is a compilation of writings authored by the leading minds in the “Perennialist” or “Traditionalist” school of thought in comparative religions. The book is divided into seven sections exploring essential features of the Perennial Philosophy, which is the transcendent unity of religions, or the idea that religions are varying paths, all of which lead to the same summit. This compilation consists of works by Traditionalists, such as René Guénon, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Frithjof Schuon, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, and other leading scholars in the field of comparative religion. The historical birthing of the Traditionalists is attributed to René Guénon, whereupon Ananda Coomaraswamy expanded the understanding and Frithjof Schuon wove the complex tenets of the two prior philosophers together with his further insights. The Traditionalists expound that the Absolute must be accessed through traditional orthodox routes such as Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism. The underlying premise is that the exoteric structures of these religions arose from revelations which also include esoteric dimensions, and that only through the exoteric structure might one appropriately access and comprehend the implicit esoterism or mysticism within the long-standing traditions.

The first section of the book is titled “Tradition and Modernity,” consisting of three chapters by Lord Northbourne. In this section Lord Northbourne sets the stage for the features of the Perennial Philosophy to be revealed and explored throughout the remainder of the book. He expounds the importance of traditional religion, and the necessity of doctrine, ritual, and virtue in pursuit of union with the Absolute. Further, he explores the effects of “progressive” modernism and scientism on religion and the perspective of the Absolute within today’s world. He illustrates how through scientism, and subsequently observation, we have come to seek and rely on outward proof versus inward experience of the Absolute. He concludes with the poignant statement that opens the door for section II: “The ideology of progress envisages the perfectibility of man in terms of his terrestrial development and relegates it to a hypothetical future, whereas Tradition envisages the perfectibility of man in terms of salvation or sanctification, and proclaims that it is realizable here and now” (p. 32).

The second section of the book, “Traditional Cosmology and Modern Science,” explores the debate between creationism and evolution. Although the polarity that exists between the two philosophies of thought is far from new, Lings slices through the complexity of the debate and places the contrasting views abruptly on the table with his statement that religions teach devolution in contrast to evolution (p. 37). Describing the historical descent of the world throughout the Golden, Bronze, Silver, and Iron ages he reveals the compatibility of science and religion in the mutual perspective that the “universe is like a clock that is running down” (p. 46) and the point of divergence in that only religion offers a way out of this “downstream drift” (p. 46). The remainder of section II provides uncommon and deeply thought-provoking explorations regarding the polarity of creationism and evolution and the implications of each. For example, Titus Burckhardt describes the evolutionist thesis as an absurd attempt to replace the study of the origin of the universe, making the greater derive from lesser, whereas the scriptural symbolism of the “Miracle of Creation” in the Bible illustrates the opposite; thus the lesser derives from the greater (p. 63).

Section III, “Metaphysics,” contains essays on the esoteric foundations and transcendental features of religion. It is particularly within this section that the clarity of overlapping elements within and between religions becomes clearer. Guénon illustrates that wherever true metaphysics exists, that the truth is one, despite the appearance of diversity via exterior forms of religion (p. 95).

Concurrently, there is exploration of the variations of the role of religion in different cultures, for example the peripheral role of religion in the West versus the integral role of religion in the East. Guénon describes how the metaphysics of the Western world has been neglected and lost, while in the East metaphysics has continued to be the guiding form of knowledge (p. 95). I found the essay on “Scientia Sacra” by Seyyed Hossein Nasr included within this section to be the most complex in the book. Nasr presumes a fairly sophisticated ability of his reader to incorporate terms from varying traditions and their application to comprehend the principles within his written text. Nasr offers translations of words in a number of languages and then proceeds to expand his philosophical discussion based on the universality of the concepts he describes. For example, on page 135, Nasr provides four different translations of the word “heart” while demonstrating their connection to the root in common with the Egyptian Horus. He continues by describing the heart as being the “locus” of the Intellect (earlier he had explained that the Intellect is the source of inner illumination and intellection). Nasr’s work is brilliant and requires a focused mind to attend to the pearls he offers. Rene Guénon opens this section and appropriately, Frithjof Schuon concludes this section. Schuon states on page 144,

One can spend a whole lifetime speculating on the suprasensorial and the transcendent, but all that matters is the “leap into the void” which is the fixation of spirit and soul in an unthinkable dimension of the Real; this leap, which cuts short and completes in itself the endless chain of formulations, depends on a direct understanding and on a grace, not on having reached a certain phase in the unfolding of the doctrine, for this unfolding, we repeat, has logically no end.
“Symbolism,” section IV, consists of elaborate descriptions of symbolism found within religious traditions that provide consistent patterns in support of the Perennial Philosophy. Lings informs us on page 153,
Symbols are in fact none other than the illusory perfections of creation which are guides and incentives to the traveler on his journey, and they have the power to remind him of their counterparts in higher worlds not through merely incidental remembrance but because they are actually related to them in the way that a shadow is related to the object which casts it.

Rene Guénon describes the use of birds in the Quran to symbolically denote angels in his essay “The Language of the Birds.” The language in which the birds speak is described as the angelic language (p. 174). Thus the constitution of spiritual hierarchies is reflected as is the conflict between demons, the infernal powers. This is also illustrated in the Peridexion, a medieval symbol of a tree in which doves roost, circled at the bottom by a dragon. The tree in which the birds roost is symbolic of the axis that passes through the hierarchies, connecting each together (p. 172). Historically, the doves in the tree have also been envisioned as members within the Christian church, safe above the dragon, the beast, or Satan. Some pictures have been illustrated with a few doves hanging from their beaks on lower branches of the trees, and occasionally a dove will be seen within the jaws of the dragon, suggestive of what happens to those who leave the church. On page 174, Guénon describes the language of the birds that is revealed in Hindu hymns and Islamic esoterism through rhythmic formulas:

The repetition of these formulas aimed at producing a harmonization of the different elements of the being, and at causing vibrations which, by their repercussions throughout the immense hierarchy of states, are capable of opening up a communication with the higher states, which in a general way is the essential and primordial purpose of all rites.
Guénon’s words also stimulate reflection on the language of the birds and on the rhythmic formulas of indigenous peoples of varying areas and traditions.

The exploration of the “Perennial Philosophy” in section V is introduced, essentially, by confronting the present-day conundrum: which religion is the “right” one? Lings clarifies that the purpose of religion is to recognize the Glory of God and states that the tension resulting from the search for the one valid religion defeats this purpose (p. 205). Thus, the transcendent unity of all religions as varying paths, all of which lead to the same summit, is explored.

“Beauty,” section VI, contains writings in which the aesthetic dimension of esoterism and the relevance of this dimension in relationship to the Absolute are described. Schuon suggests that beauty is a spiritual means that serves to stimulate deep thought and remembrance to connect us to God (p. 251). Of particular interest, Marco Pallis, in his contribution “Do Clothes Make the Man? The Significance of Human Attire,” describes the important role of traditional dress that implies a “symbolic participation” in a religious tradition. He illustrates the negative psychological effects that have been employed historically and politically through strategic maneuvers (e.g. Russia and China) and how “progressive” modernity has catalyzed a symbolic division from the Absolute. Today, we might contemplate the impact in the shift from traditional dress, for instance in the habits of contemporary nuns and monks, to modern Western attire in their participation in the secular world.

It is in section VII, “Prayer and Virtue,” that the importance of ritual and virtue, as stated initially by Lord Northbourne in section I, are examined in depth. The concept of morality, which depends on context and contributes to the risk of fanaticism and narcissism, is contrasted with the universality of virtue and the implicit humility and grace. The practice of prayer and the varying degrees in which one prays is also explicitly described. Emphasized, again in this section, is the importance of a religious tradition in pursuit of union with the Absolute. Finally, an afterword composed by Whitall Perry, summarizes the history of the work of the Traditionalists while reviewing the essential features of the Perennial Philosophy.

The beauty of this book is that it provides an introduction to the essential features of the Perennial Philosophy in an understandable and digestible depth and format, enabling us to meet the Traditionalists as we are beginning our journey. Historical atrocities, political misappropriation, and the insidious creation of superimposed dogmas layered on the doctrines of religion have contributed to great unrest in regards to orthodox religion. Thus, in our postmodern times, tradition is being abandoned in exchange for passionate fulfillment of individual rights. Subsequently, movements for social justice have become increasingly exclusive and narcissistic. Philosophy has been thinking the Absolute out of our existence. Science has been reducing our existence to matter. Even theology has participated in this reductionistic foray for years now. The claim, “I’m spiritual but not religious” is echoed more and more frequently, throughout the day, everywhere. Spiritual implies “of the Spirit” yet to deny the religious elements, which are derived from the revelation of the Absolute, or the Spirit, simply reduces our relationship with the Absolute to the connection of self. In a time where our cosmic future, globally, is threatened by misunderstanding, war, and all-out hatred, there is no better way to reunite with one another than by joining hands to ascend the different pathways, all of which lead to the same summit. I highly recommend Lings’ and Minnaar’s book as an introduction to the wisdom that will enable us to do this together.

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