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Universal Wisdom

The Perennial Tradition

Universal Wisdom
Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Perennial Wisdom Tradition . . . offers ancient wisdom for contemporary living that is relevant to all of us, not just to a few. —David G. Benner [1]

The Perennial Tradition encompasses the constantly recurring themes in all of the world’s religions and philosophies that continue to say:

  • There is a Divine Reality underneath and inherent in the world of things;
  • There is in the human soul a natural capacity, similarity, and longing for this Divine Reality;
  • The final goal of existence is union with this Divine Reality.

The “perennial philosophy” or “perennial tradition” is a term that has come in and out of popularity in Western and religious history, but has never been dismissed by the Universal Church. I was trained in Catholic systematic theology and Franciscan alternative orthodoxy; these and the whole Judeo-Christian tradition taught me to honor the visibility and revelation of God in all the world traditions and not just my own.

In many ways, the Perennial Tradition was affirmed at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) in forward-looking documents on ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio) and non-Christian religions (Nostra Aetate). These affirm that there are some constant themes, truths, and recurrences in all of the world religions.

In Nostra Aetate, for example, the Council Fathers begin by saying that “All peoples comprise a single community and have a single origin [created by one and the same Creator God]. . . . And one also is their final goal: God. . . . The Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true and holy in these religions.” [2] Then the document goes on to praise Native religions, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, and Islam as “reflecting a ray of that truth which enlightens all people.” [3] You have got to realize what courage and brilliance it took to write that in 1965, when very few people in any religion thought that way. In fact, most still don’t think that way today.

One early exception was St. Augustine (354-430), a Doctor of the Church, who wrote: “The very thing which is now called the Christian religion was not wanting among the ancients from the beginning of the human race until Christ came in the flesh. After that time, the true religion, which had always existed, began to be called ‘Christian.’” [4] St. Clement of Alexandria, Origen, St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Leo the Great all held similar understandings before Christianity turned to the later defensive (and offensive!) modes of heresy hunting, anti-Semitism, and various crusades. When any religion becomes proud, it also becomes dualistic and oppositional.

In some crucial ways, we have actually gone backward from the deep thinkers and writings of the Perennial Tradition. As Ken Wilber often repeats, good religion is made to order to serve as a “conveyor belt” forward through all the stages of human consciousness. How sad when we get stymied at one self-serving stage.

Gateway to Silence:
All truth is one.

[1] David G. Benner, “Ancient Wisdom for Contemporary Living,” “The Perennial Tradition,” Oneing, Vol. 1, No. 1 (CAC: 2013), 24.
[2] Nostra Aetate, Vatican II, 1965, #1, 2.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Augustine of Hippo, Retractions, 1:13.3, emphasis mine.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, “Introduction,” “The Perennial Tradition,” Oneing, Vol. 1, No. 1 (CAC: 2013), 11-12. (This issue of Oneing, a limited edition publication, is no longer available in print; however, the eBook is available from Amazon and iTunes. Explore additional issues of Oneing at store.cac.org.)

Image credit: Tree with visible roots in Kiental, between Herrsching and Andechs, Germany, Wikimedia.org.
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