Sunday, 29 January 2012

Comparative religion from a Christian perspective - Kristor writes

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From an e-mail by Kristor:

Comparative religion is useful to me in that it helps me limn the Religion of Adam, the religion naturally proper to natural man, which I take (and the Fathers took) to be Christianity.

The key thing is this.

If as a scholar of religion you approach Christianity as but one errant creature among many, as rather a taxonomist than a metaphysician, then you are on the road to Hell, or at least to nowhere (is there a difference between nowhere and Hell?)...

But if on the other hand you approach other religions as defective/partly successful & right approximations of the True Religion you are trying to discover and comprehend and practice, as rather a metaphysician than a taxonomist,

...why then you are almost bound in the course of your studies to arrive at the conclusion that orthodoxy – traditional Christianity, of whatever lobe of whatever “lung” – is the historical instantiation of that True Religion, and is thus the True Church...

(understanding the Church as extending throughout the cosmos (and indeed beyond it),

...and thus ipso facto throughout all human history, so that Christianity simply must be present incipiently in shamanism and animism, and in high paganism of the Neo-Platonist/Pythagorean sort, as in high Hebrew polytheism (El & His Son YHWH plus his pantheon of angels);

...and so that it is present at least partially in any religion that succeeds at informing a virtuous life of true human flourishing, or at fostering wisdom (however “merely” practical that wisdom).





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13 comments:

  1. Peter S. said…

    The following considerations are given with due respect to Kristor, with whom I have no quarrel, and also with the recognition that he may not have intended his private reflections for a broader readership.

    I fully agree with Kristor that to view the religions from an attitude of secular detachment and “objectivity”, assuming the particular and various religious forms to be so many anthropological curiosities or specimens of error, does nothing to free one from the nihilistic trap that is modernity. I also agree that the proper stance to take in this context is a metaphysically open one, in which “you approach other religions as defective/partly successful & right approximations of the True Religion you are trying to discover and comprehend and practice.” So far, so good. How he then passes from this to, “...why then you are almost bound in the course of your studies to arrive at the conclusion that orthodoxy – traditional Christianity, of whatever lobe of whatever “lung” – is the historical instantiation of that True Religion, and is thus the True Church...”, is utterly lost on me.

    A few examples may suffice to illuminate the point: how exactly is one to view a Ramanuja, Honen or Chuang Tzu as bearing witness to an incipient Christianity, of whatever partial expression? To ask the question is to answer it. Each religion is a kind of closed or semi-closed universe of understanding, characterized by its own particular genius and stamped with its own particular civilizational integrity. Each also, and this certainly applies to Christianity, has a right and necessity to assert and defend its particular religious genius and civilizational integrity. Two typical moves by which this is done are: a) rejection and b) assimilation. In a Christian context, “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus” characterizes the first move, while Rahner’s notion of the “anonymous Christian” – to which Kristor’s reflections appear to closely cleave – characterizes the second.

    Kristor’s reflections are, of course, quite generous toward other religious, recognizing them as not completely false and evil, their adherents not necessarily destined for Hell, in contrast to too many fideistically exclusivist co-religionists, who view them in precisely these terms. What is one to make, however, of the Hindu who assimilates Christianity to the ‘Sanātana Dharma’ or “eternal religion”, identified with Hinduism? By what logic is the first assimilation to be accepted and the second to be rejected? I do not make this observation to be abusive to Christianity – far from it, and Heaven forefend – but rather not to be abusive to the evidence on the ground.

    Kristor’s intuition of “religions as defective/partly successful & right approximations of the True Religion” goes very deep, but where I would specifically and critically differ is that this “True Religion” – what has been termed the ‘sophia perennis’ or ‘sophia cordis’ – is, far from simply being identical with Christianity per se, not to be found on this earth. Yet the intuition of this “True Religion” is remarkably universal, with closely related terms for the same conception found across various civilizations, including the Greek ‘prisca theologia’, ‘prisca sapientia’, ‘theosophia’ and ‘hagia sophia’, the Latin ‘lex aeterna’, the Arabic ‘din al-ḥaqq’, ‘ḥikmah `atīqah’ and ‘al- ḥikmat al-khālidah’, the Persian ‘jāvīdān khirad’, the Sanskrit ‘ṛta’ and ‘sanātana dharma’, the Pali ‘akālika dhamma’ and the Chinese ‘li’ and ‘tao’.

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  2. Peter S. said…

    (continued from above)

    Let me conclude with a handful of pertinent passages from Frithjof Schuon, who addresses this matter with particular cogency:

    “The essential function of human intelligence is discernment between the Real and the illusory, or between the Permanent and the impermanent, and the essential function of the will is attachment to the Permanent or to the Real. This discernment and this attachment are the quintessence of all spirituality. Carried to their highest level or reduced to their purest substance they constitute, in every great spiritual patrimony of humanity, the underlying universality or what may be called the ‘religio perennis’. It is to this that the sages adhere, while basing themselves necessarily on divinely instituted elements.”

    – Frithjof Schuon, “Echoes of Perennial Wisdom”, p.84

    “A civilization is integrated and healthy to the extent that it is founded on the ‘invisible’ or ‘underlying’ religion, the ‘religio perennis’; that is to say, to the extent that its expressions or its forms are transparent to the Formless and are turned towards the Origin, thus providing a vehicle for the recollection of a lost Paradise, but also, and with all the more reason, for the presentiment of a timeless Beatitude. For the Origin is at once within us and before us; time is but a spiroidal movement around a motionless Center.”

    – Frithjof Schuon, “Light on the Ancient Worlds”, p.143

    “The ‘religio perennis’ is fundamentally this, to paraphrase the well-known saying of St. Irenaeus: the Real entered into the illusory so that the illusory might be able to return into the Real. It is this mystery, together with the metaphysical discernment and contemplative concentration that are its complement, which alone is important in an absolute sense from the point of view of gnosis. For the gnostic (in the etymological and rightful sense of that word) there is in the last analysis no other religion. It is what Ibn Arabi called the ‘religion of love’, putting the accent on the element of ‘realization’. The two-fold definition of the ‘religio perennis’, discernment between the Real and the illusory, and a unifying and permanent concentration on the Real – implies in addition the criteria of intrinsic orthodoxy for every religion and all spirituality. In order to be orthodox a religion must possess a mythological or doctrinal symbolism establishing the essential distinction in question, and must offer a way that secures both the perfection of concentration and also its continuity.”

    – Frithjof Schuon, “Light on the Ancient Worlds”, pp.120-1

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  3. In his valuable comment, Peter S. asks, “how exactly is one to view a Ramanuja, Honen or Chuang Tzu as bearing witness to an incipient Christianity, of whatever partial expression?” I didn’t say that they did. I said that shamanism, animism, paganism, and the religions of the Greeks and Hebrews are incipiently Christian. What I meant to indicate by that, in passing, was that shamanism and animism are both confluent in the high religions of the Greeks and the Hebrews, which both in turn fertilized each other – one should really include Babylon, Persia and Egypt, and the other Canaanite religions in this mix – and were then integrated in various ways in the religious sects of first century Palestine, which gave rise both to Christianity and to rabbinical Judaism. To this very day, the insights and methods of all its precursors – its forerunners – are to be found vibrantly alive somewhere in Christianity. The Christian inheritance from Athens and Jerusalem are explicitly recognized in the Creed, which is couched in their terms. Less often noticed is the legacy both to Athens and Jerusalem of their pagan, animist, and shamanist antecedents; yet this does not make the inheritance less real.

    Of the high religions of China and India, by contrast, I would say rather that they are partial than incipient participations in the True Religion. As compared with orthodox Christianity they are less complete expressions of its Truth. I don’t for a moment think that Christianity has yet discovered all the implicate doctrines of that True Religion, nor does the Church; this is why she holds that doctrine can develop – can enlarge and enfold – without essentially changing or contradicting antecedent doctrinal discoveries. E.g., Aquinas does not contradict Dionysius, but amplifies and ramifies him. But I do think that Christianity has encompassed more of the True Religion than either India or China. Hinduism and Taoism both exemplify the sophia perennis, albeit with differing emphases, and to the extent that they do – a very great extent – they are coterminous with the True Religion, and therefore agree with Christianity. But Christianity expresses truths that the other high religions do not. All the truths of Hinduism and Taoism are therefore expressed in Christianity, but not vice versa. So, the Christian intersection with the True Religion is more extensive. It is as if the other high religions of the world each employs many of the available stops, while Christianity employs all of them. All the high religions run the gamut, but only Christianity does so using the diapason.

    And this may be why India, Africa and China are all going Christian. Christianity doesn’t contradict them, anymore than it contradicts Athens or Jerusalem. To the extent that they are true, and in the ways that they are true, it includes them. Thus a Taoist – or a Hindu, or a Jew – may become Christian without contradicting his previous creed, but not vice versa.

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  4. Peter S. said…

    I am struck once again by the remarkable generosity of Kristor’s conception and am appreciative of his further clarification. In reviewing both his original and following statements, I note a subtle yet important distinction of emphasis that – I am pleased to observe – renders a large portion of my initial response superfluous. In his original statement, he affirms that “orthodoxy – traditional Christianity, of whatever lobe of whatever ‘lung’ – is the historical instantiation of that True Religion.” In his subsequent statement, he affirms that “…Christianity has encompassed more of the True Religion than either India or China,” and further that “the Christian intersection with the True Religion is more extensive.” In the first, Christianity is understood as the sole instantiation of the True Religion – what I would term the “religio perennis” – while in the second, it is understood as the most extensive or complete instantiation of it.

    The distinction is critical, as – in Platonic terms – the first articulation veers dangerously close to simply identifying a Form with a specific instantiation, while the second maintains a proper distinction between the Form and its instantiations, even while judging between them. I have stated above, and most crucially in my view, that the True Religion – apart from its instantiations – is to be found ‘nowhere on this earth’. In light of Kristor’s following statements, I believe that he would agree with this understanding. I recognize this as a decisive point of agreement, one overweighing less central considerations.

    If one were to simply identify Christianity with True Religion – what might conceived of as the collapse of metaphysics into theology – it would be as if one confused a Form for its instantiation, as if one pointed to a chalkboard triangle and baldly claimed that it was ‘the’ triangle. Kristor’s understanding might be conceived as reasonably analogous to a comparison among various chalkboard triangles, noting that some are drawn well, others drawn poorly and a particular one drawn best. Let me offer for consideration a slightly distinctive analogy, the regular polygonal Form, in instantiation of which one may find a blackboard triangle, square, pentagon and so forth. A given square may be well drawn or badly, but its ‘genius’ is nevertheless distinct from that of a given triangle, and no reducible comparison of which shape best cleaves to their originating Form may be made. Both analogies are, of course, merely suggestive in character.

    Kristor broadly presents three different lines of demonstration for the superiority of Christianity – what might be termed its superior comprehensiveness, superior inheritance and superior universality. Superior comprehensiveness: “…Christianity expresses truths that the other high religions do not. All the truths of Hinduism and Taoism are therefore expressed in Christianity, but not vice versa.” Superior inheritance: “To this very day, the insights and methods of all its precursors – its forerunners – are to be found vibrantly alive somewhere in Christianity.” Superior universality: “And this may be why India, Africa and China are all going Christian.”

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  5. Peter S. said…

    (continuing from above)

    With respect to the first, Christianity certainly expresses truths that the other high religions do not – who can doubt it? – but to claim that all the truths of other religions are expressed in Christianity and not the reverse appears dubious on its face. Where, to name but one example, may one find a close adumbration of Nagarjuna’s four cornered negation in historical Christianity? If we relax this statement to simply claim greater general universality for Christianity, it is not obvious that its universality of religious form and conception exceeds that of, say, Hinduism, which is remarkably variegated in historical expression. With respect to the second, the obvious counter-example would be Islam, which might claim as its historical inheritance not only all that Christianity does – certainly including Athens and Jerusalem – but also Christianity itself. With respect to the third, to tie such a claim to a narrowly specific historical period is to render it immediately suspect. Further, the remarkable spread of Buddhism across the Far East and the remarkable spread of Islam from Spain to China serve as obvious counter-examples, while to apply a measure based on degree of world extension to specifically ethnic religions such as Hinduism and Judaism seems quite evidently misplaced.

    Having said all of this, let me undo much of what I have said by clarifying that I both understand and am broadly sympathetic to the view that Kristor has articulated, for, to state again, Christianity has both a right and a necessity to assert and defend its particular religious genius and civilizational integrity, and that is the work he is about here. That I have found his arguments lacking is, somewhat paradoxically, no necessary judgment against his project. Curiously, if he had asserted a simple fideism – “Christ is my Beloved Lord and Savior, to whom I look in hope for my salvation and in service to whom I have dedicated my life” – what could I do but bless him and wish him well? To quote Schuon once more, “We do not seek to convert anyone who is at peace with God, if he is so really.”

    Let me conclude with a final analogy, one perfectly prosaic and familiar: a man meets a woman and falls in love, admiring and cherishing certain qualities – her beauty, kindness and graciousness – that set her apart, for this man, from all other women. His neighbor, who knows this woman, may recognize that, indeed, she is possessed of the qualities the first man loves her for. Yet this neighbor is in love with an entirely different woman, one whose intelligence, wit and zest speak to his heart. Should this first man criticize his neighbor for not loving the woman he loves? Is this first man wrong to love the woman he does in preference to all other women? Can this first man, in an exercise of sympathetic imagination, see how his neighbor might love this second woman even though he does not and could never prefer her to the woman he loves?

    I will leave the matter there.

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  6. Hieromonk Damascene, the spiritual heir of Fr. Seraphim Rose, in "Christ and the Eternal Tao", places Lao Tzu and philosophical Taoism as a "natural religion" completed in Christianity, thereby avoiding the trap of syncretism.

    In this view, natural Taoism is understood more completely when one realizes that the Tao by which the world was made ("In the beginning was the Tao" say Chinese translations of John) became a man, Jesus, who died on the Cross for our salvation. The natural Tao is not replaced by Christianity, it is incarnated and therefore, unexpectedly (at least to me) *transcended* by becoming something more than a principial and impersonal ground of nature, by becoming *in addition to that* a man with a name.

    "The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao," said Lao Tzu, the great natural sage.

    Yes, it can. "It" has become "He", and "He" is more than "It". And He has a name. In this sense, I believe, Christianity is more complete than philosophical Taoism.

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  7. "Where, to name but one example, may one find a close adumbration of Nagarjuna’s four cornered negation in historical Christianity?"

    In the attempts to clarify the (non)dual mystery of the God-Man. Most of the Christological heresies can be seen as a collapse into one of the four corners: man only, God only, man and God added together but not integrated, man and God integrated falsely by being "averaged out" into a third thing that merely splits the difference.

    P.S. Peter, I am enormously respectful of Schuon, but I confess I still do not understand how he addresses the issue of the relative fullness of revelation in one religion rather than another.

    I look forward to further comments from you that quote Schuon, because you seem to have a much deeper understanding of him than I.

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  8. Dear PatrickH,

    I have Hieromonk Damascene’s book, "Christ and the Eternal Tao", but confess I have not looked at it in some time. Perhaps your mention of it will encourage me to take it up a properly read it. It strikes me that an article of James Cutsinger’s, “The Mystery of the Two Natures” (http://www.cutsinger.net/pdf/mystery_of_the_two_natures.pdf) dovetails quite closely to your observation and may prove an answer to it. As to your reply to my example of Nagarjuna’s four-cornered negation, well done, and I wondered at the time of writing if something like that might be forthcoming. I don’t believe my larger point is invalidated, however, if only because the strong form of Kristor’s first argument for Christian superiority requires but a single counter-example to break it.

    With respect to the relative fullness of revelation in one religion rather than another as addressed by Schuon, this is a critical point. Cutsinger’s article may help, but there is a great deal that might be said, little of which I have time at the moment to articulate – perhaps I may add some thoughts or quotes later, as time permits. I would like to add, however, that, in a profound sense, the mutual unintelligibility of the religions is not accidental, but in the nature of things, as is the assertion of each to be ‘the’ or ‘the best’ religion in comparison to all others. I state this from the perspective of what might be termed ‘the view from nowhere’, for of course, in a normative context, a given individual is ‘embedded’ in a given civilization and faith and can only speak from its perspective. I will be the first to admit that there is something deeply paradoxical in even articulating this first perspective in a forum such as this, and that I am frequently of half a mind to simply say “bless you” and shut up. Again, the last thing I wish to do is to undermine anyone’s faith in Christ – far from it. In a sense, Kristor’s conception may be about as far as a typical Christian may reasonably go toward the understanding of other religions while maintaining the sensibility that he has not thereby betrayed his own – taken in that sense, I would find it perfectly reasonable and acceptable.

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  9. I highly recommend Christ the Eternal Tao. A fascinating book, if only for the historical background it provides on the history of Christianity in China (extremely ancient), and in particular of Russian missionary efforts there.

    The upshot: Taoism is a highly evolved, practical application of the Stoic doctrine of the Logos to spiritual work, quotidian life, and politics. So is Christianity, of course. As Patrick H says, the difference between the two is that in the latter the Logos is incarnate in the world, not just generally, but particularly in the person of a man. The Christian revelation enables us to understand that the general revelation of the Logos in every moment of the creation discerned by Taoism and Stoicism is effected by virtue of the Incarnation; that the Incarnation in particular and incarnation in general, and indeed also revelation, creation, redemption, and inspiration, are not different procedures, but the same procedure under different aspects. Incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth, the Logos is ipso facto incarnate in the whole cosmos, from beginning to end; for no body is an island; the world is, rather, a coherent, integrated whole. That’s the only way we could be parts of it. Jesus then is the whole of the Divine influx, and is thus the source of Natural Law, from before the very beginning. This is not to cheat other created beauties of their own participation in the Divine flux, but just to point out that, the Church as the Body of Christ being coextensive with the whole created order in Heaven and Earth, when we notice the beauty of some creature, we notice her Creator.

    Peter draws an analogy between devotion to a creed and devotion to a particular woman. Point taken; but the analogy falls apart when we consider that while there are many beautiful instantiations of Woman (hurrah!), there is only one instantiation of God. Worshipping anything but God – idolatry – is therefore analogous, in the terms of Peter’s analogy, to adultery. Indeed, the prophets repeatedly recur to the analogy of religious to sexual infidelity. NB however that idolatry is a far deadlier problem than adultery, for it constitutes an error about the very First Thing; inasmuch as all the Law and the Prophets depend upon the utmost love of God, such an error cannot but redound to every department of life, depraving the whole shooting match – subtly perhaps, but nevertheless lethally. So it is uniquely, crucially (as it were) important to get religion right; the stakes are ultimate, and total, and permanent.

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  10. I should clarify the difference Peter rightly notices between my statement in my first comment that Christianity *just is* the historical instantiation of the True Religion, and my statement in my second that its intersection with the True Religion is more comprehensive than that of other religions. The statements do not differ in substance, but only in their temporal perspective. To wit: sub specie temporalis, Christianity is at any point in its history (including those points BC) but a partial expression of the True Religion. But, sub specie aeternitatis, and considered over its whole history out to the eschaton, Christianity *just is* the True Religion. In other words, I would say, with the Church, that Christianity has not completely expressed the True Religion *so far* (so that there is much room still for the development of the Church’s understanding of its own doctrines); but this is not to say that it will not ever do so. Indeed, Christianity will have achieved its own perfection only at the eschaton; only then will Christian doctrine reach its own completion, by virtue of a complete and total revelation, that spells everything out to the last jot. But, also, when that completion is achieved, so ipso facto will the explicit expression of the doctrine of the True Religion be also completed (and, not superfluously, enacted)(at that point, our world’s participation in the Sanctus will be made whole)(i.e., we will participate fully, and without defect, in that love that binds together the communion of all the saints and angels, and that echoes the love internal to the Trinity)(this full participation is what Paul means by saying that at the eschaton, Christ will be all in all).

    So, while Christian doctrine does not yet exhaustively express the doctrines of the True Religion, Christianity is nevertheless the True Religion, and sooner or later it will. We could equivalently say that while shamanism does not yet exhaustively express the doctrines of the True Religion, even in its Christian implementation, shamanism is nevertheless, like Christianity, an approach to the True Religion, and will sooner or later, as it is carried forward in the Church, exhaustively express – conform itself to – the True Religion. Like shamanism, all other religions will in the fullness of time be revealed as partial expressions, not just of the True Religion, but of Christianity, period full stop. In this they will be, not repudiated, but completed, and transcended, and fully, rightly implemented – as the Church has always insisted that it is the fulfillment and correction both of the religion of Israel, and of the philosophical paganism of the Greeks, and as Hieromonk Damascene insists it is the fulfillment of Taoism.

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  11. Considered then as permeating the whole history of the world, Christianity is ubiquitous in time and space, and every fact expresses its truths, even if only to dispute them (thus is sin essentially a disagreement with Reality, and with the true nature of its effective agent). This is what is meant by the Christian doctrine that the redemption of the whole world – i.e., of the whole of cosmic history – in Christ has been prepared by the Father from before all worlds. So that, when in the order of human history there was as yet no religion but animism, or then animism plus shamanism, still nevertheless Christianity, in its fullness, was then completely present, however partial its explicit expression. Christianity is, by implication from mere being, necessarily everywhere fully present, and making itself felt. For, Truth is necessarily implicit in its fullness at every instance of existence. But different instants differ in the fullness of their explication of that Truth, which forms and provides for them all.

    The True Religion natural to man, then, just is Christianity. It’s just that, for now, the manner in which its full revelation reconciles all religious feeling, and all religious truths, is still hidden from our sight. Thus while today it may be true that, “to claim that all the truths of other religions are expressed in Christianity and not the reverse appears dubious on its face,” we must remember that for now we see but darkly, and eventually we shall see clearly just how it is so.

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  12. Peter S. said...

    Well, bless you, sir.

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  13. This thread is extremely interesting and insightful. I'm not sure, but it seems to me that the Perennialist position, in a way, subordinates doctrine to spiritual method. If there is indeed a Transcendent Unity of Religions, doesn't that make Truth relative and therefore only a means to an end? I think the term that Frithjof Schuon uses is an "upaya" or a "saving mirage"?

    If each of the Great Revelations are "paths to the same summit", then the Traditionalist's view strikes as being utilitarian and/or consequentialist.

    Does metaphysics "trump" theology?

    Is Christianity a non-dual tradition?

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