by Pastor Doug Kings
Are all religions simply different paths to the same destination? People committed to one particular religion usually dismiss such an idea as spiritual pablum for the weak minded. For the openminded, this has been a popular way to reconcile a major source of division in the world. More recently, and especially since 9/11, a growing number have come to see all religion as nonsense and the cause of much human misery.
There is another alternative, however, which I found expressed especially clearly recently. This alternative understanding is usually called perennial philosophy or perennial wisdom. This view says that there are a few core beliefs shared by the world’s religions, though the religions themselves often obscure them with their specific traditions and practices.
In a daily meditation, Cameron Trimble, a pastor and church consultant, says that perennial wisdom “basically boils down to four big ideas:”
1) There is only one Reality (we have many names for it – God, Allah, Tao, Brahman, Great Spirit, Divine Feminine, Dharmakaya, Sophia, Obatala, Universe…).
2) We are each a manifestation of this Reality, though most of us believe in a smaller, ego-based vision of ourselves.
3) This identification with a smaller vision of ourselves brings unnecessary suffering, anxiety, violence, and the illusion of separation.
4) Peace, compassion, and justice naturally replace these when we realize our truest manifestation of the Divine Reality.
As I said, for people strongly identified with a particular religion, this summary would almost certainly be viewed as inadequate. For them, religious truth is contained in theology, doctrines, commandments, rituals, scriptures, etc. Perennial wisdom does not dismiss any of these things but does insist that their value is in how they help teach and instill the “big ideas.”
Perennial wisdom seeks to answer four fundamental questions: What is reality? Who am I? Why am I so often miserable? How do I find true happiness? It’s called wisdom or philosophy because these are not answers that you regurgitate on a test. Rather they are teachings which take a lifetime to understand and put into practice.
I find these ideas very much in harmony with the teachings of Jesus. Yet they look little like what the church has taught down through the centuries. The difference, I think, is that the church has been mostly concerned with providing a method for salvation, usually defined as life after death, while Jesus was concerned with how to live here and now. Thus, religion, in comparison, is relatively easy, while following the teaching of perennial wisdom is a life-long challenge.
Surprisingly, however, it is the latter that now seems to have more appeal. The idea of belonging to a church, with its promise of an otherworldly salvation, is not attracting much interest these days. Yet a growing number are seeking, for a variety of reasons, a basic philosophy to guide their lives, often in contrast to the values of popular culture. And that doing so may be “hard work” is not a turn off, but in many ways part of its appeal.
This change in attitude is likely due to the growing awareness that we live in a world in peril. Humanity is askew, both at the macro level of national and international politics and economics, especially regarding the climate crisis and growing economic inequality, but also at the personal level, where people are questioning the values of materialism and success. A change in direction, however difficult, is looking to many as increasingly appealing.
Despite his teachings, Jesus did not seem very optimistic about their reception. “The gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it,” he says in the Sermon on the Mount. Yet it may be that in his elliptical way of speaking, Jesus was simply underlying the inevitable challenge in living a life at odds with the values and assumptions of the world-at-large. Today, however, perhaps the inadequacies of that world are becoming so obvious that people are willing to set out on the “hard road” that leads to real life.
Blessings in your life and ministry.