Unity & Diversity
Over the last few years there seems to be a significant number of people who feel a) that there is a ‘common core’ to religious experience, b) that this is a constructive contribution towards interfaith understanding, c) that this supports a form of Perennial Philosophy or wisdom tradition, and d) that this is the result of a progressive spiritual evolution. At this point I must make my second confession. Personally, I am a sceptic (i.e. someone who requires evidence and a good argument) and I remain to be convinced about some of these aspects. I am agnostic about many things as this seems to be the only intellectually honest position I can adopt. I also believe in the proven ability of science to explain many phenomena. So, what has the ‘common core’ hypothesis or the Perennial Philosophy got to do with the politics of religious experience?
Well, I would suggest that looking for similarities between experiences and traditions can be influenced by a desire for ecumenicalism or political-correctness. A quote from Aldous Huxley (1993) makes this connection explicit:
'The Perennial Philosophy and its ethical corollaries constitute a Highest Common Factor,
present in all the major religions of the world.
To affirm this truth has never been more imperatively necessary than at the present time.'
Marianne Rankin, former Chair of the AHS, concludes her Introduction to Religious and Spiritual Experience (2008) with the words ‘However, as we are faced with an ever-growing need for mutual understanding and global co-operation, a spiritual approach to life may be our best hope for the future of the planet’. John Franklin (2006), Honorary Secretary of the AHSSSE echoes this sentiment regarding unification of world religions and the need for ecumenical concern:
'Today, it is of great importance to find a common basis for human co-operation. Much is quietly being achieved, through the Parliament of the World’s Religions, the United Nations, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation), through Ecumenical and Interfaith movements, and through the attempts to achieve a ‘global ethic’. But still the religions divide through their interpretations of scripture and tradition: seeming too bound by the weight of cultural history to look further into the idea of a possible ultimate unity behind the traditions, a vision perceived by the mystics and often revealed in contemporary spiritual or religious experience. This is perhaps where the work of the Religious Experience Research Centre might contribute – by continuing to point to the growing evidence of personal testimony; by showing and sharing with other disciplines the ways in which this relates to revelation and to the core principles of the major world religions; and by “widening the horizons” of perception.'
There is nothing necessarily wrong with this, but it should not blind us to the differences between experiences and traditions. On one side we have people such as Frithjof Schuon (1984) or Keith Ward (2005) arguing for the ‘common core’ and essential unity of religions, whilst on the other side we have people like Steven Katz (1978) and Gershom Scholem (1946) arguing for the uniqueness of experience and tradition. This could be seen politically as an interdependence/unitive stance versus an individual/diversity stance respectively. This suggests that our politics can affect our research and also that our research can affect our politics. Whilst such unitive aims may be laudable there is an inherent danger in any resulting concordance. This is the spectre of elitism or the honouring of one religion over another. For example, when Pico della Mirandola adopted and adapted Jewish Kabbalah to his Christian philosophy, he did so to convert Jews to Christianity rather than out of respect and empathy for Jewish mysticism (Wang, 2001). Similarly, some scientists who have studied religious experience have encouraged the development of an ‘experimental faith’ (Hardy, 1979) or a ‘mega-theology’ (d’Aquili & Newberg); which could be understood as forms of a universally acceptable religion. But does this run the risk that religion will lose its inner meaning, its cultural relevance, and personal impact, what has elsewhere (Daniels, 2005) been referred to as myth-mongering? Does the unitive stance risk the extinction of traditions by blending them into one homogenous whole?
I would like to emphasise that, whilst interfaith dialogue is obviously important, it is also important to preserve traditions and value their differences. Academic integrity should be sacrificed neither to the ideal of unity or an elitism of individuality.
Part three to follow...
Originally published in two parts in De Numine, No. 54 & 55, pp5-8.