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Distilled Wisdom

The Perennial Tradition

Distilled Wisdom
Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Today, as we continue to reflect on the Perennial Tradition, we hear from John Esposito, Founding Director of the Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding in the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

[The understandings of the] movement, often referred to as the Perennial Philosophy or Perennialism . . . were well described by Huston Smith, Aldous Huxley, and Gottfried Leibniz. Smith captured the essence of their belief: “If we take the world’s enduring religions at their best, we discover the distilled wisdom of the human race.” [1]

However different, all advocate the rediscovery of the wisdom traditions of the past, believing that the various visions of the great world religious traditions share the same deep truths from which all belief systems have developed. They distinguish between two interconnected planes of reality and knowing, scientific empiricism and a transcendent/immanent reality, experienced in wisdom traditions through meditation and contemplation. Religious language or discourse, theology, laws, symbols, and rituals of institutional religion, conditioned by historical, social and cultural contexts, are seen as means, as metaphors and “pointers,” to the divine, not as ends in themselves. . . .

However diverse religious traditions appear, these wisdom schools affirm a belief in the transcendent Unity of all religions and, as perennial philosophy maintains, there is a divine reality that enables universal truth to be understood. . . .

For those of us living in the 21st century—an age of globalization, mass migrations, and increasingly multi-religious and multi-ethnic societies—mutual understanding and respect, based on religious pluralism rather than religious exclusivism, are extremely critical to our survival. The insights from the perennial tradition have much to contribute in developing and strengthening multi-faith relations. Its insights help to combat religious discrimination and conflicts between and within religious traditions, and to develop more pluralistic paths of religious spirituality. Today, in the 21st century, we see scholars and spiritual teachers forging new, more inclusive spiritual paths that recognize other religious traditions as sources of insight and wisdom. . . .

While there is an underlying unity, there is also a diversity of conceptualizations of the ultimate reality, and multiple interpretations. Thus, the ultimate reality is described as at once transcendent and immanent, personal and impersonal; it is identified by diverse names (God, Yahweh, Allah, Vishnu, Shiva, Nirvana or Buddhahood) and is often experienced differently. Each religion is a unique way to know divine reality and to reach spiritual enlightenment or salvation. [2]

Does it make you nervous that I quote these teachers of perennial philosophy so openly? I hope not, but I understand why some people might be uncomfortable reading the name of God placed next to that of Allah, Shiva, or Buddha. It’s not how most Christians were trained to think! But these ideas do not threaten my Christian faith in any way. Rather, they help me live it. Through the Perennial Tradition I see even more clearly that all people are my siblings, ancestors, and descendants of the divine reality I call God.

[1] Huston Smith, Bill Moyers: The Wisdom of Faith with Huston Smith (WNET: 1996). This statement introduced each episode of the 5-part PBS television series.

[2] John L. Esposito, “The Perennial Tradition in an Age of Globalization,”

“The Perennial Tradition,” Oneing, vol. 1, no. 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2013), 33-34. No longer in print; a Kindle version is available from Amazon.

Image credit: A Moment of Prayer (detail), Frederick Arthur Bridgeman, 1877, Private Collection.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: In every historical epoch and in every cultural tradition, there are those who practice a form of contemplation that puts them in a position to receive the gift of an unfiltered divine encounter. —James Danaher
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