The writings and thoughts of the Perennialists of the last Century, in particular Rene Guenon, Julius Evola and Frithjof Schuon, seem accurately to diagnose much that is pathological in Modern and Post-Modern society. We have an increasingly dispersed and disintegrated world, in which the profane science of the particular rather than the metaphysical universal is our focus, Perennialism identifies our progressive disengagement from metaphysical truth as the cause of our decline. This seems convincing. Furthermore Perennialism does much to challenge a simplistic positivism that assumes an inevitable Progress towards something unidentified but assumed to be better.
Only on its own materialistic and individualistic terms have we seen the positivist goal of Progress being achieved. By any normal and more humane perspective this is surely a story of decomposition and disintegration. Science has made leaps and bounds in its analysis of the world of becoming, thereby luring away human focus from the world of Being. As a consequence men have become slaves of the technology that they created and evermore attentive to the transitory world of meaningless becoming, meaningless when without the metaphysical context of Being. We are now on the cusp it seems of a dark era of trans-humanism.
The advances trumpeted by the Progressives, such as feminism, equality, the open borders causing mingling of peoples and nations, trans-rights, consumer choice – all are only advances from within the Progressive perspective, which gives no account of Being or Telos for Mankind. On the other hand, the account given by Guenon and others of a progressive detachment from the metaphysical that had given meaning to the world of becoming is a very compelling alternative perspective.
In many ways we can learn from the school of Sophia Perennis, but nonetheless in important ways there are fundamental problems with their outlook. Perhaps in the most profound sense there is something Manichean, an unspoken hostility to Creation, that is the major concern. As much as we can understand the Perennialist Golden Age as a way of speaking about Eden, we must also realise that the narrative of continuous decline, while matching some understanding of Christ’s teaching that faith would not be found on the earth and that the AntiChrist would reign in the End Times, also omits the central and ultimate meaning of the Incarnation. If the Edenic Golden-Age were better than the postlapsarian condition of Man, it is surpassed by the Incarnation, which reunited God and Man in a new way. For the Perennialist the Incarnation is in the era of the Dark Age and that era continues towards the Kali Yuga notwithstanding.
Furthermore, just as God is willing to be comingled with the temporal world, so the world as God’s creation is, in a fundamental way, good. And through the Incarnation the world of becoming is reunited with the world of Being, in a specific and new way.
In a schematic way, for the Perennialist, the Incarnation is one manifestation of a general trend found in all of the world religions. For Christians the Logos, universal and divine, becomes specific in time and space, albeit not limited because divine, as the miracles demonstrate. For the Perennialist, reliant on the mysteries of a universal religion (however respectful of tradition to avoid the shallowness of theosophy) the Incarnation is one specific example of many such manifestations. In that sense the Perennialist doctrine inevitably falls into Gnosticism. The outward and exoteric practices of each traditional world religion are contingent upon a hidden and esoteric mystery. This is not acceptable from the perspective of the Church. Christ was incarnate once and only once in First Century Judaea, He called simple fishermen, not the sophisticated and esoteric wise ones. There were no hidden mysteries to be accessed. The mysteries of the Church – the liturgy, baptism, marriage, ordination – are potentially open to all, not through gnostic and secret wisdom, but through faith and love.
We can understand the cyclical story of a decline to the end of the age, but the Trinity reigns from ages to ages. Thus the Perennialist belief in cyclical time is not true. Instead there is only one pattern that culminates in the ultimate event of the Second Coming.
The problem with Perennialism is that it relativises Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity. Indeed the personal nature of the Trinitarian Godhead is not accepted. Buddhism, Islam and Paganism are equally manifestations of the same Truth in the Traditionalist’s eyes. Beyond the personal manifestations is a divine that is impersonal – more like the Platonic “One”. We thus see again that Perennialism is a continuation of pagan religion without any acknowledgement of the cosmic and ultimate event of the Incarnation.
Now it is of course true that Western Christianity has fallen and that Guenon is right in much of his specific criticism of Western Christianity. Nonetheless the modernisation of Christianity in the West is a decline from the true form of Christianity, as Guenon himself asserts. The trouble is that Guenon goes too far in asserting there is a truth beyond Christianity. The conventionalisation of Western Christianity to the temporal values of the world does not mean that the Church itself is corrupted by the spirit of disintegration – for the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. (In this context it is more helpful to speak of the Church as specifically embodying the true Tradition, in a vertical sense, rather than “Christianity” in all its various denominations).
Guenon was simply looking in the wrong place for the Church. As was his wont to look East, he should have looked more closely at the Eastern Church, which as he himself acknowledged was the truly Traditional Church. Unfortunately Guenon went further in seeking some mysterious pagan truth beyond all traditional religion, while asserting only traditional religions manifested this deeper mystery.
In the West we saw the philosophy of nominalism that detached Western Christians from the universal and eternal. This is indeed where the problem lay and Western Christianity can rightly be singled out as a culprit for the decline into what Traditionalists would consider the final stages of the Kali Yuga. This nominalism was only another stage in a process of thought that went as far back as the addition of the Filioque to the Creed. The Filioque being a step towards the idea of created grace, detaching the West from the transcendental. William of Ockham’s theories were almost an inevitable development after the Filioque, moving us further and further away from participation in the transcendent and towards a focus on the temporal in its mechanical and broken-down state – the spirit of profane science as Guenon would see it.
Now it is true, as expressed famously by Schuon, that the Traditionalist School is not relativist and that is of course highly in its favour. The problem is not relativism, because it holds to a higher mystery lying behind the authenticity of the traditional practices of the major faiths (which to its credit it defends from liberal relativisation). The problem is that higher mystery is really something pagan. It is placing something esoteric above the Trinitarian God of three Persons, hypostases that manifest the energy within which we may participate. It treats the teaching of the Church in a schematic way as simply one manifestation of many. Christ is one manifestation of the Word, not the ultimate manifestation of God in the flesh, so that flesh might be redeemed and transformed.
In this sense Traditionalism is akin to the old mystery cults, Neoplatonism, the ideas underpinning freemasonry – all of which are inimical to the Church. Furthermore, its is akin to the Gnosticism of the non-canonical gospels, such as that of Thomas and Mary Magdalene. These writings were Gnostic and not Christian.
There are of course advantages in engaging with Traditionalism. It effectively refutes the Positivist and Materialist idea of inevitable Progress. It points out the error of nominalism in the West by emphasising the metaphysical Transcendent. In every case where it contributes something though, it goes too far. It is an over-correction. It ends up denying that the world of the New Testament is a fundamental improvement upon the Old Covenant. It also places so much emphasis on the immaterial as to paint the material as somehow irrevocably fallen.
The Incarnation is the answer to the Perennialist. It is evidence that the universal and the particular meet, that the temporal has been pierced by the eternal, that the metaphysical and the physical become one, that matter, never originally evil, is redeemed, that the universal does not abolish the particular in some form of Nirvana.
This is the heart of the matter: divine love is the solution. This is not the sentimental statement of a belief that there is no sin or fallen-ness, no need for change in us. It is instead the point made by Jonathan Pageau that love is where the universal does not dissolve the particular. Where this happens is in the event of the Incarnation and behind the Incarnation the idea of the relationship of Three Persons in the Godhead, not an impersonal “One” as in Neoplatonism. In reaction to nominalism, a corrosive heresy in the West, Traditionalism overcompensates for the first error. It is therefore devoid of love in the fullest sense. For that reason its advocates have been somewhat cold towards their fellow humans, as can be found particularly in the work of Evola, but it is also latent in the work of all the Traditionalists. For the Traditionalists, like the Muslims, there is a greater emphasis on the power of God, rather than His love. Like the Buddhists, there is no personal God, but something eternal that is of greater power than the personal. This means that the dissolution of the personal is acceptable and not problematic.
For Christians God is not an abstraction that can be manifested symbolically by various personal divinities. He is three Persons in One and the second of those three divine Persons became incarnate once in a specific place and time. The metaphysical Tradition is only manifested vertically into the one Church through the third Person of the Holy Spirit. God is not so distant and abstract that he dissolves the irrelevant person in a higher level of transcendental existence. On the contrary, through love He grants that very transcendental divine existence to us as persons, because we are infinitely precious in His eyes. The human being is the icon of Triune God. “God became Man that men might become gods”.