The West’s Four Ideologies and the Perennial Wisdom Tradition

[This paper on the West's Four Ideologies and the Perennial Wisdom Tradition is an excerpt from Our Religions’ Future (from Chapter 1: Biases & Basic Issues in Spirituality), © Copyright 2006 by Timothy Conway, Ph.D.]

A Perspective Beyond the West’s Four Competing Ideologies

Our modern Western society is now seriously fragmented into four embattled ideological camps, each vying for the minds of the people, each trying to have its views become normative for society as a whole. These four camps are: 1) mainstream theist religion (with its sub-camps: Christianity, Judaism and Islam—each of which is further split into different denominations); 2) an amorphous New Age movement; 3) scientific/rationalist secularism; and 4) postmodernism (in both its secular and quasi-spiritual forms). Each ideological camp possesses certain virtues and certain limitations.

For instance, the mainstream Western religions have instilled into adherents a lovely sense of the all-powerful Divine, the benevolence of God’s Will, the purposefulness of creation, and the immortality of the soul. These religions have also promoted a strong sense of community and belonging. They have mobilized considerable resources to create a wide array of social services—schools, youth programs, child care facilities, hospitals and clinics, job training, soup kitchens, services for the elderly, shelters for the homeless, and so on. They have provided meaningful ceremonies and support-systems as their adherents undergo various joyous or traumatic rites of passage associated with birth, adulthood, marriage, illness, and death.

Yet these Western mainstream religions are flawed by the fact that their theologies as presented by non-mystical religious leaders too often tend to be rooted on a merely mythic level that accords neither with the depths of formless mystical experience (see my earlier discussion in this book of Robert Forman’s “the Pure Consciousness Event”) nor with current scientific knowledge of the cosmos and the history of life and homo sapiens on this planet. These religions suffer from a tendency to anthropomorphize the Deity, who then sometimes appears only too human and not very transcendent in “His” jealousy, wrath, and partiality to a chosen people. Moreover, these Western religions have a muddled notion of the afterlife, with mediocre conceptions of heaven and a dualistic separation or gulf between God and soul, “I” and “Thou” (subject and object) that is contradicted by the direct, nondual experience of God-Realized mystics within these very same traditions. Finally, these Western religions are often flawed by institutionalism, and, especially within the ultra-conservative forms of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, seriously flawed by oppressive patriarchalism, rigid dogmatism and anti-ecumenicism—that is, a lack of genuine appreciation for the beauty of other religious traditions (sometimes this bias becomes an ugly form of prejudice and xenophobia).

The New Age movement has opened the door to fresh and often more enlightened forms of thought, practice, and group dynamics, and has helped renew interest in alternate states of consciousness and intermediate realms or “psychic planes” of existence and their denizens (angels, spirit guides, etc.). On the downside, many (certainly not all) New Age circles are rife with hucksterism, irrationality, careless thinking, magical thinking, apocalyptic "end times" obsession, unsound theologizing (engendering, for instance, an uninspiring, anemic pantheism in many New Age groups), attachment to exotic psychic experiences and dubious entities, excessive fascination with quirky ideas, and, last but not least, titanic narcissism or megalomania.

The third major ideological camp in the West, scientific and/or rationalist secularism, the crux of the European Enlightenment, has brought us, among other things, the scientific method—the most powerful form of objective knowing in the history of the world. This has ushered in greater emphasis on logical and critical thinking and a better understanding of the physical universe and psycho-physiological processes in humans and other species. Besides achievements in technology, this camp has liberated us to a great extent from superstition, magical and mythical thinking, and dogmatic, tyrannical religious-political structures.

The fourth camp, postmodernist secularism, has developed in recent decades as a “post-Enlightenment” or “New Enlightenment” corrective to scientific rationalism and religious dogmatism. It would pull the rug out from under the culturally-conditioned and often smug, arrogant, “totalizing” or even totalitarian conceptions of “truth” that science and religion attempt to impose on others (violently, in the case of certain religions and sects and atheistic totalitarian systems like Stalinism and Maoism).

However, the ideological positions of both scientific-rationalist secularism and postmodernism in its extreme secular form (different from the deconstructing “messianic faith” of Jacques Derrida, the leading postmodern philosopher), have effectively stripped the kosmos of meaning, purpose and depth. They have removed from our lives a sense of God, multiple levels of reality, a death-surviving soul and infinite Spirit—the transcendent principle at the heart-core of the human being and the world. Consequently, these two secularisms tend to promote widespread alienation, malaise, despair, materialism and hedonism.

In its excessive fascination with “objectivity” (Ken Wilber: “it”-language, at the expense of “I” and “We”) and its reductionist tendency to explain away higher realities in terms of lower or mechanistic processes, the scientific / rationalist mindset loses touch with subjectivity, especially inter-subjectivity, and so can become monstrously non-empathic. The tragic result: humans are treated as biochemical machines; animals’ rights are routinely, needlessly, and cruelly violated in agribusiness and sadistic medical research experiments; and countless numbers of entire species are callously wiped out in the name of “progress” and “economic development.”

Too many postmodernists, for their part, ignore the call for greater empathy by leading postmodern proponents like Derrida and Richard Rorty, and wind up in the same kind of mere objectivity, lack of compassion, and nihilism by reductively deconstructing everything to “language games” and “anything goes” relativism. They would do well to consider Derrida’s turn toward faith, in his case, a quasi-Jewish faith in a messianic “undeconstructible” beyond all determinate forms. This rejects the anti-religious stance of most postmodernists while encouraging “religious traditions to reread ancient texts in new ways, to reinvent ancient traditions in new contexts… [and save] religion from … fanaticism and triumphalism.”[1]

Nevertheless, even this postmodern faith advanced by Derrida and others is insufficiently deep, for it is a “religion within the limits of reason alone,” as he terms it. Thus, it fails to realize supra-mental, transpersonal realms of spirituality—namely, subtle planes of soul and the absolute domain of Spirit.

So... which of these four basic ideological camps am I favorably biased toward? All and none. I see advantages and disadvantages to each position. I want to completely affirm what is positive about each of these camps, but, because of their serious limitations, I prefer a way beyond all of them, the Perennial Philosophy/Psychology or Primordial Tradition. This is that esoteric or mystical way of enlightened adepts, found within all the sacred traditions, who live and teach from the context of authentic God-Realization. I want to celebrate and proclaim what these greatest sages and saints have discovered and so beautifully exemplified. We can be enormously enriched by their virtuous life-examples and inspiring wisdom-teachings, which comprise the real gold shining in a glitz-darkened world.

Anyone who resonates with the mystic Traditionalist / Perennialist view will not be enamored of scientism (scientific reductionist materialism), though a mystic-traditionalist will appreciate the scientific method and careful thinking. Nor will a mystic go along completely with the postmodernists, though appreciative of their Zen-like sense of “indeterminancy,” “non-knowing,” emptiness and “this-ness” (haecceitas—Derrida)[2] and deconstructive stance toward phenomena, dogmas and institutions. Nor will a mystic be enthused by non-mystical, institutionalized religions, though appreciative of their many exceedingly positive contributions for the individual and the commonweal. Nor will a mystic be impressed by New Agers who invent their own religions or sects based on a few “peak/peek” experiences, fancy thinking and garish gimmickry, though a mystic will appreciate the new, open attitude that New Age circles have catalyzed in our society.

Mystic-traditionalists cherish excellence and find themselves being critical of mediocrity, especially in the fields of psychology and spirituality, where mediocrity often runs amok. A mystic clearly sees the potential in each and every person for so much joy, fulfillment and beatitude, and yet so much of this potential goes unrealized, especially when people explore unfruitful or limited psychological and religious paths.

Though I align with the Traditionalist camp of the Perennial Wisdom, like the mystics in whose footsteps I endeavor to follow, I also tend to be a pragmatist. My attitude: whatever truly works or gets results in wholeness/ holiness, then use it. This might consist in devotional surrender to the Beloved, selfless service to one’s community, detached mindfulness or witnessing of the flow of experience, formless contemplation, penetrating self-enquiry (“Who Am I?”), radical stillness/relaxation, group chanting, vision quests in nature, pilgrimage to sacred sites, or “letting go, letting God.”

It seems to me that the world’s religious traditions must be evaluated, not in terms of their membership numbers—it would be better to use percentages of authentically holy people, if that could ever reliably be determined—nor the lavishness of their pageantry and pomp, nor the impressiveness of their architecture and artwork, nor the cleverness of their theological or philosophical schemas. Rather, the traditions need to be evaluated on how effectively they free people from the trap of egotism and liberate them into godliness.

All else, to my mind, is ultimately irrelevant.

Let’s face it: religions can trigger everything from the very worst qualities in a human being to the very best. From terror to rapture, violence to serenity, banality to beatitude—religions have manifested the entire range over the millennia. Unless a spiritual tradition or group deeply transforms people into spontaneously good, virtuous, free, peaceful, compassionate, service-oriented souls who empathetically feel the pain and happiness of other beings as their own pain and happiness, and who enjoy a trans-egoic realization of God—transcendent Spirit and immanent Love—then, in my not so humble opinion, that tradition or group is essentially worthless. If not dangerous.

Accordingly, I believe we must look to the instrumental value of the sacred traditions, their ability to liberate and inspire people (their “soteriological capacity”). And when we see exploitation, narcissism, dogma, dysfunction, distraction or mere entertainment masquerading as religion or spirituality, our prophetic nature must critique it. Various sections of this book do just this.

For instance, many religious sects only get people pumped up on adrenaline and a frenzied scapegoating of “the Evil One” in the guise of the outsider. The flock is misled to think that this is the “work of the Holy Spirit” or “a sign of God’s fiery presence.” Other forms of religion sell a limited psychic visionary state as “complete God-realization” or “enlightenment.”

There is so much more to the depths of Spirit than the cheap array of goods often being sold in the spiritual marketplace.

As Ken Wilber astutely noted years ago, certain religious expressions may be legitimate on a “horizontal” level—that is, they fulfill social or psychological needs. But their degree of authenticity, entailing spiritual transformation or higher structural adaptation on the “vertical” level, is quite limited: these religious movements are not fully liberating paths to God-Realization.[3] Thus, with Wilber, Frithjof Schuon, Huston Smith, other Traditionalists and Perennialists and the great mystics themselves, we can accept the fact that the spiritual world is hierarchical (Wilber: “holarchical”), including less spiritually mature, more mature, and extremely mature individuals. This may sound heretical in our postmodern age, but only a nitwit can see no difference in spiritual realization between Francis of Assisi and David Koresh, between Gautama the Buddha and L. Ron Hubbard, between Vedanta sage Ramana Maharshi and Hitler.[4]

I love the diversity manifesting in and across the world’s religions (see my model of the twelve different temperaments that I find in these traditions). I have no desire to see the global triumph of any one religion, nor the dawn of a single, syncretistic “one world religion,” a shallow mish-mash combination of rituals and beliefs from several religions.

And here, in answer to a basic question, “What will the future hold for the major religions?”—I’ll make an easy, fail-safe prophecy: barring some strange new holocaust, they will continue to flourish and thrive, just as they have for hundreds and thousands of years. Those religions with robust educational institutions, sound teaching literature, effective outreach programs and high birth rates will, sociologically speaking, fare best, but all will continue to attract adherents. My own sense is that each major religion, despite its flaws, is being surcharged with a blessing force of “ancestral power” and liberating Divine Grace, making them helpful vehicles for coming Home.

Yet, behind the diversity of religions I, along with the Perennialists and Traditionalists, sense a unity at their deepest levels of expression. I base this conclusion on meetings with the most highly acclaimed and truly exceptional holy people around the world and upon my own experience as a participant-observer and a trainee within several major sacred traditions. I am utterly convinced that, beyond the significantly differing languages, theologies, faith-claims, dogmas, myths, rituals, institutions and cultural expressions of the outer, exoteric aspect of religions, there is indeed an inner, esoteric “perennial wisdom” of quite similar spirituality—though expressed in differing spiritual temperaments—to be found at the core of the world’s sacred traditions. That is, in the lives of the most illustrious mystics.

These liberated men and women have undergone the radical transformation from egoism to God-realization, awakening to Buddha-Nature, returning to Tao, disappearing in Allah. Thereafter they lead spontaneously virtuous lives from the context of Spirit or enlightened Awareness. They are genuine spiritual adepts, outshining the multitude of religious teachers, ministers and scholars in the mainstream. Their majestic virtue, freedom and purity of consciousness shine as the very crux of religion or spirituality, highlighting with laser-sharpness the true end, function or essence of authentic religion.


1 See John Caputo (Ed. & Commentator), Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida, NY: Fordham Univ. Press, 1997, p. 159; see the entirety of Chapter 6, “The Messianic: Waiting for the Future,” in Caputo’s commentary on Derrida’s postmodern form of religious thought.

2 John Caputo, a major interpreter of Derrida (the leading postmodern theorist today), claims that thus far there is little of Buddhism in Derrida’s thought; yet Dutch Catholic philosopher Ilse Bulhof has shown clear parallels in Derrida’s work (especially his 1987 essay on Plato’s notion of chora/khora, “space” or “emptiness,” as it appears in the Timaeus) with the 20th century Zen Buddhist Kyoto School. See Ilse Bulhof, “Towards a Postmodern Spirituality,” Studies in Interreligious Dialogue (published by Kok Pharos, Kampen, The Netherlands), Vol. 5, No. 1, 1995.

3 Ken Wilber, in A Sociable God: Toward a New Understanding of Religion, Shambhala New Science Library, 1984, pp. 59-63, makes a crucial distinction: whereas religions and many cults may be legitimate (i.e., functioning on the “horizontal level” by integrating people socially and promoting a meaningful worldview, immortality symbols, and avoidance of taboo), not every religion or cult is authentic, i.e., functioning on the “vertical level” by promoting transformation of deep structures of consciousness and adaptation to higher levels of spirituality—the hierarchical transpersonal realms of psychic, subtle, causal and ultimate/nondual—beyond archaic, magic, mythic, and rational structural levels of conventional development. In other words, authentic religion is able to truly edify and liberate humans into the deepest stages of spiritual development.

Hence, Catholic Carmelite mysticism, Vedanta Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, fundamentalist evangelical Christianity, and Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church may each achieve legitimacy, but Zen, Vedanta and Carmelite mysticism tend to be far more authentic (spiritually liberating) than the Moonie cult and the fundamentalist evangelicals, which are stuck primarily at the mythic level in Wilber’s scheme. In Wilber’s analysis, Maoism, Soviet Marxism/Leninism, and American civil religion (“a mixture of exoteric, Protestant, Biblical myths and nationalistic immortality symbols”) all possess “essentially the same legitimacy and au-thenticity ratings”: perfectly legitimate but wallowing at the mythic-rational levels in terms of their authenticity (pp. 62-3). Wilber also points out a sad fact: “In the West, ... most esoteric spiritual tenets, no matter how authentic, never gained much legitimacy (witness Eckhart, al-Hallaj, Gordano Bruno, Christ’s esoteric-causal message itself [‘I and my Father are one’]).” (63)

4 Something of the lives of St. Francis and David Koresh will be known to readers in the West. For the life of Siddhartha Gautama, see Thich Nhat Hanh, Old Path, White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha, Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1991; Sherab Chodzin Kohn, The Awakened One: A Life of the Buddha, Boston: Shambhala, 1993; and many other works. On the seriously disturbed L. Ron Hubbard, who actually thought he was the Buddha come again, see courageous exposés including Bent Corydon, L. Ron Hubbard, Messiah or Madman? Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books, rev. ed. 1992; and John Atack, A Piece of Blue Sky: Scientology, Dianetics and L. Ron Hubbard Exposed, Lyle Stuart, 1990. On Sri Ramana Maharshi, one of India’s most beloved sages of the modern era, see, among many other works, Arthur Osborne, Ramana Maharshi and the Path of Self-Knowledge, NY: Samuel Weiser, 1970; and David Godman (Ed.), Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi, London: Arkana, 1985.