A Question

Christianity seems to make some pretty explicit claims about being the only true path to God. Within Christian theology there are some concessions made for “virtuous pagans,” and there is always and above all the reminder that no one can know the mind and the ways of God. So there is (correct me if I am wrong) no explicit claim that the only people in heaven are practicing Christians.

Nevertheless, those virtuous pagans and others would just be — within Christian theology — the exceptions that prove the rule. Generally speaking, one might squeak into heaven as a result of ignorance of Christ, but never through a rejection of Christ.

Now there are syncretists like Steiner, Guénon and Schuon, who seem to want to say that all religions are a path to God, each one suited to a particular people. I don’t wish to argue the truth or falsity of this point today (it seems to me at least to be a non-absurd notion). But in modern times, how does one make this claim without then immediately falling into relativism?

And then, if one has a relativistic view of the truth-value of the various religions, how can one square this with the explicit claim of Christ? How can a syncretist say, “All religions are potential paths to God, including this one that claims to be the only path to God”?

Either the syncretist is not thinking very hard; or he must claim that Christ never said any such thing and the Christians just made it up after; or Christ did claim that but there’s some other mitigating factor (perhaps some gnostic initiation claimed by syncretists?).

This is, as far as I can tell, a dilemma that only comes up for Christianity. Pagans, Hindus, and Zen Buddhists can presumably get signed on to the syncretist project without any such trouble.

32 comments on “A Question

  1. bgc says:

    (Presumably there are other exclusivist religions than Christianity – Islam for instance?)


    This is a tricky matter for intellectuals to discuss.

    I think what must be avoided is the common implicit goal of asking: “What is the minimum that I absolutely have to do to gain salvation – because that’s what I intend to do: just enough”.

    Salvation is not an examination, where it is an option to do just enough studying to scrape a bare pass.


    For me, the breakthrough came when I discovered the Eastern Orthodox concept of theosis. This makes salvation a quantitative matter, or a probabilistic matter, or an hierarchical matter (according to various conceptualizations).

    The job on earth is to take the heavenly perspective (rather than the worldly perspective) as intensely and for as much of the time as possible.

    A great ‘mystical’ Saint, such as St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, has a life during which their perspective becomes more and more heavenly, until such Saints are living with their head in heaven and their feet on the earth, and serve as intermediaries between heaven and earth, and sources of revelation for the rest of us.


    The traditional Orthodox concept of what happens to the soul at death is expressed in Fr Seraphim’s Soul after Death – it is expressed in terms of the soul being escorted through the aerial regions and subjected to various temptations from demons which attempt to persuade the soul to choose Hell. Then there is a later second judgment, at the end of the world.

    The life led on earth, the perspective attained, seems to determine the probable choice the post mortem soul makes – the ability to resist temptation, and also affects the second judgment.


    My understanding of the various Christian denominations and also non-Christian religions, is that Christ’s salvation (the only salvation) is probably available universally, but chosen by some smaller number – and making the right choice is helped by first of all being a Christian and acknowledging Jesus Christ as Lord in your life, by prayer, then by all the other Laws and revelations, then by the sacraments (especially Baptism and Holy Communion), and so on (the fewer of these helps a person has available or accepts, the harder the path and the lower the chance of success and the lesser the theosis).

    Beyond Christianity the process does not stop, since the same choices are offered – but the soul has (apparently) even more odds stacked against it making the right choice.


    My understanding of ‘time’ is that divine time is a simultaneous now of past, present and future – so that Christ’s revelation always was available in heavenly time (when the soul has made the transition from serial earthly time to eternity). And that this was the meaning of Christ descending into Hell to save the souls of virtuous pagans.

    This principle may be extended into the present and future – with salvation being ‘offered’ to everyone of all religions or none at all.

    But it seems likely that – without a Christian life, that salvation would often (or more often) be refused. It is always a choice.


    But I have shifted metaphor – the Eastern Orthodox typically explain things only using earthly serial time, and it is more of a Western tradition (from Boethius, at least) to use the philosophically more complex idea of contrasting eternity with serial time.


    The above is a rather pathetic effort to explain a metaphorical level of understanding which is itself rather pathetic – I merely offer it in the hope that it is not too misleading or wrong, and might give you a hint or two that you could take further. I am also aware that genuine spiritual fathership from a genuinely holy person is very hard to find, and we must share to make the best of what we have.

    • outofsleep says:

      Thanks, there is a lot to digest here.

      One question, though. You said, “The traditional Orthodox concept of what happens to the soul at death is expressed in Fr Seraphim’s Soul after Death.” But I have read that this work is very controversial within Orthodoxy and that of all Fr. Seraphim’s writings, this was considered the *least* traditional.

      • bgc says:

        I thin the people who say this are probably wrong – since most of the book is simply a compilation of extensive excerpts from the writings of major Saints and Holy fathers. Some of the criticisms I have seem are simply inaccurate.

        The Orthodox church is, so far as I can make out, riven by conflict between traditionalists and modernizers and ultra-strict factions and all manner of inter-ethnic disputes… This seems to be endemic in the world, and of course makes it much harder for us (as, presumably, is the intention).

        But it means that there is no clear answer to your question/s – and I suspect those who try to suggest that there is a clear answer (“just believe x, just do y”) may be a part of the problem.

        Perhaps there never was a time when Christianity was simply a matter of following a Church united in its practice of the truth; but if there ever was such a time then it is not now.

        On the other hand, we do not have infinite time to brood on these matters – and I think we need to push on to an answer (even if the answer is provisional and subject to revision) and get on with it as best we can – especially prayer, which there is no excuse for shirking!


        (My advice on that – relating to an earlier post – is pray whenever you think about it and immediately. Make up in frequency what you lack in fervency. Learn simple prayers eg. the Lord’s prayer, those from Orthodoxy related to the Jesus Prayer, Hail Mary, fragments of the BCP or psalms – so you are never at a loss for something suitable to pray.)

    • outofsleep says:

      ((Addressing your first parenthetical comment)):

      Good point… I’m no expert on Islamic theology, but from what I can tell it makes claims every bit as universal as those of Christianity. Both Islam and Christianity make very strong claims to be the T R U T H.

      The only difference I descry — and this goes in Christianity’s favor, from the Martians-eye-view — is that Christianity has no need for Islam, whereas Islam has no choice but to recognize Christianity. A secular historian of religion who has no interest in the actual truth of the objects of his study can point out, obviously, that Islam came 600 years after Christianity and therefore had to recognize it. So of course Christianity has a leg up on Islam from a purely historical point of view. But, looking past the extremist and hate-driven Islam we see embodied in the various terrorist factions and their supporters, an honest and truly God-oriented Islam still considers the Virgin Mary to be the most excellent woman in history, and considers Christ to be the greatest of all the Hebrew prophets. Whereas Christians might respect the God-loving fervor of peaceful Muslims, but still have no theological need for Mohammed (who was, after all, a warlord and not a carpenter).

      • Peter S. says:

        But this argument, that Islam recognizes (has to recognize?) Christianity, whereas Christianity does not (has no need to?) recognize Islam can be quite simply turned on its head. As per the quote from Ibn’ al-Arabi in my prior post, the comprehension of Christianity by Islam and the absence of the same in the converse case can just as well be taken as evidence of the superior comprehensiveness of Islam over Christianity, and thereby its superiority as a religion. Of course, no Christian would accept this – obviously – but it pulls the teeth from the same line of argumentation taken the other way.

  2. Peter S. says:

    It would seem inaccurate to label Steiner a syncretist – who is more naturally understood as a somewhat idiosyncratic Christian-oriented esoterist – and it is certainly inaccurate to label Guenon and Schuon as syncretists, who would – and have – rejected the term out of hand. Rather, the latter figures are – accordingly to their own lights, and in view of their writings – to be understood as perennialists, representatives of the Perennial Philosophy, or philosophia perennis. The best brief answer to your general question, which will address many of the points you have raised, would be to direct you to the Epilogue of James Cutsinger’s “Advice to the Serious Seeker: Meditations on the Teaching of Frithjof Schuon”, titled “Perennial Philosophy and Transcendent Unity”. (this may be reviewed in part through Google books) Dr. Cutsinger, an Orthodox Christian, Traditionalist and expert on Schuon, may be of more general interest to you as well. His books, articles and blog may be perused at http://www.cutsinger.net/. Of further relevance is the edited volume by Cutsinger, “The Fullness of God: Frithjof Schuon on Christianity”, which situates and treats Christianity in the context of a perennialist perspective.

    • outofsleep says:

      Thanks for the information on Steiner, Guenon and Schuon. I’ve read quite a bit of the former two, and just getting into the latter, as I said. I should not be so sloppy with the terminology.

  3. zhai2nan2 says:

    ‘to want to say that all religions are a path to God, each one suited to a particular people. I don’t wish to argue the truth or falsity of this point today (it seems to me at least to be a non-absurd notion). But in modern times, how does one make this claim without then immediately falling into relativism?’

    As the Sufis have said, the paths to God are as many as the souls of men.

    An analogy would be as follows: religion is like strong medicine for the disease of sin.

    In religion: One man might avoid sin by feeding the hungry, but verbal prayers would drive him mad. Another man might make progress by praying verbally, but to work in a soup kitchen would drive him mad.

    One man needs the experience of raising children. A different man needs the experience of celibacy.

    In medicine: penicillin is good for many patients, but some patients are allergic to it. Amphetamines might save the life of an obese patient, but are too dangerous to hand out to everyone. Analgesics are good for inflammation, but not good for patients without inflammation.

    Every religious exercise is a specific remedy to a specific spiritual illness. Thus some people really ought to be Catholics, but if they were raised as Hindus or Buddhists they could still make some progress.

    • zhai2nan2 says:

      Pyrrhonistic skepticism is strong medicine. It should not be prescribed to some patients. For example, consider the following patient complaint:

      I believed that human reason and investigation had not discovered any link between human subjectivity and objective reality – indeed I believed that we moderns had discovered there was no such link, in the sense that the rational default inference was no meaning – and anything else was to pander to wishful thinking.’


      Now, that patient might be successfully treated with a course of Pyrrhonistic skepticism, but it might be dangerous. It might kill the patient!

      Conversely, consider the following patient complaint:
      ‘Buddhist meditation, pursued with vigor and discipline, really does reveal the ugly nature of the ego. It can be quite a painful thing to see, but ultimately it’s good to do so.
      Meditation can also reveal something like a glowing brightness, a general goodness, that pervades the human being. Essential goodness, one might call it. (This is a dangerous one, because the dilettante can easily mistake it for some sort of godhead originating in one’s own self.’


      A meditator who can barely sit down and chant a mantra without opening up to visions of the demoniac ego and the divine godhead within would be very well advised to practice Pyrrhonistic skepticism! If you see angels and demons every time you say your mantra, by all means, do not believe and do not disbelieve. Eugene Rose will call you a nihilist, but persist in Pyrrhonistic detachment.

      Eugene Rose would call Douglas Adams’ “Ruler of the Universe” a nihilist. But imagine how that “Ruler” character would react to temptation by a demon:

      Demon: If you invite me inside, I will gain vampiric powers over you.
      Ruler: If you feel that rain makes you wet and warmth makes you dry, you had better come in.

      Demon: Will you say that I am God? Will you say that you are God? Will you say that I am you?
      Ruler: I think I say whatever occurs to me to say when I think I hear people say things to me. More than this I cannot say.

      Demon: Sign your true name on this pact in your own blood, and I will grant you power.
      Ruler: Why should I have a name? Why attach a name to a bundle of thoughts and impressions?

      Demon: Bow down and worship me and I will grant you all the kingdoms of the earth.
      Ruler: I already have a bottle of whiskey, a cat, and fish for the cat. I don’t need anything else.

      • outofsleep says:

        I don’t understand this comment, but it is interesting.

      • outofsleep says:

        On further thought, I still don’t understand. But I like how you bring in disparate elements for a discussion. Mashing together worlds, if you will. Do you know what it reminds me of? Prompted by your blog handle (I assume), I was put in mind of the drawings of the various planes of existence in the back of the first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. I remember looking at that when I was 13 and intuiting that all those worlds (Gehenna, Hades, Inferno, Limbo, Gladsheim) belonged to different mythologies, but I also remember thinking hard about how they might all be part of some even larger totality.

        This one: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_atygFQxSFD0/TK3UAEvn4BI/AAAAAAAAAEU/cM5FO1viKO4/s1600/alumni_planes1.jpg

        I don’t have a coherent thought about this. I was just charmed by the memory and thought you would appreciate it.

        • zhai2nan2 says:

          Let me try to be very explicit:
          1. It is possible to undertake mental exercises such as meditation.
          2. These mental exercises often lead to strange experiences that seem to have some connection to reality but also seem to be largely subjective. For example, a meditator might see a vision of a fiery demon that is clearly not part of physical reality, and then one hour later the meditator might see a very unusual sight related to fire, such as a burning automobile, that is clearly part of physical reality.
          3. Meditators are tempted to ascribe objective, philosophical truth or religious meaning to their visions. E.g. a meditator might believe that his vision of a fiery demon is Satan himself, or perhaps an allegory for the most important philosophical truth since Buddha articulated the Four Noble Truths.
          4. Meditators who are tempted to believe in their visions often get huge ego problems. For example, a meditator who believes he has seen Satan might well start a cult, and might start accumulating more fire-related experiences, until he is genuinely crazy.
          5. To avoid the ego problems, meditators can deploy Pyrrhonistic skepticism. Pyrrhonistic skepticism allows the meditator to cope with normal reality and with the world of his visions.

          • outofsleep says:

            Okay. Your points 1 through 4 I follow. As for point 5, I know nothing about Pyrrhonistic skepticism (aside from what I just gleaned from wikipedia). Is it a philosophy of radical openness? (Who shall I read to give me a good grounding in this school of thought, please?)

            Forgive me if I’m way off the mark, but if it *is* radical openness, then I already ascribe to it and yet immediately have questions. For instance… what would be sufficient evidence to end the openness? Presumably the whole point of radical openness is to keep oneself from being prematurely shut off to the Truth. But that presupposes that there *does* exist a real Truth to which we should all aspire. So it seems to me to be a sophisticated form of begging the question. Of *course* one should be skeptical… of course one should use ones mental faculties to ascertain reality.

            Again, I’m totally ignorant. I rebut your comment not in the spirit of rebuttal but, truly, in the spirit of questioning. What is special about Pyrrhonistic skepticism that sets it apart from common skepticism (which, I assure you, I possess in spades)?

          • bgc says:

            @Daniel – You perhaps already know it, but the CS Lewis essay ‘Man or Rabbit?’ (one of his very best) may speak precisely to your condition:


          • zhai2nan2 says:

            ‘As for point 5, I know nothing about Pyrrhonistic skepticism (aside from what I just gleaned from wikipedia). Is it a philosophy of radical openness? (Who shall I read to give me a good grounding in this school of thought, please?)’

            I use the term “Pyrrhonistic” to mean “extremely skeptical, beyond the bounds of normal skepticism,” rather than to indicate some lineage of sages and philosophers. In the ancient world, you can look at Sextus Empiricus; in the modern world, you can look at 20th century philosophy of science, namely Quine (“Two Dogmas of Empiricism”), Lakotos, Kuhn, Feyerabend, and the various philosophers who came after Logical Positivism was sunk by Godel.

            ‘Forgive me if I’m way off the mark, but if it *is* radical openness, then I already ascribe to it and yet immediately have questions. For instance… what would be sufficient evidence to end the openness?’

            In my experience, “evidence” falls into different categories. For example, the “evidence” of mystical experience cannot be ignored, but it often cannot be put into words. Thus one needs a different sort of approach for it.

            The “openness” regarding knowledge that can be put into words does not have to be very radical. The Logical Positivists and their successors have a good philosophy of science, but they exclude the mystical a priori.

            ‘Presumably the whole point of radical openness is to keep oneself from being prematurely shut off to the Truth.’

            I don’t know that one can be shut off from the Absolute Truth. I suggest extreme skepticism as an antidote to the tendency of mystics to start cults and ego-fixations. I don’t apply radical skepticism to all problems equally. I don’t guarantee that my radical skepticism will keep me open to Truth – I don’t even guarantee that it will prevent me from starting a crazy cult. But it seems to have worked so far.

            ‘But that presupposes that there *does* exist a real Truth to which we should all aspire.’

            Well, if we’re willing to delve into a bit of mathematical logic, I can define some formal systems in which truth is well-known. In propositional calculus, the most basic “atoms” have truth values assigned by some formal interpretation, either true or false, and the truth-value of any sentence depends on the interpretation. There is a finite number of interpretations: 2^n where n is the number of “atoms.”

            Of course, that formal system is defined within a hazy cloud of natural language. Formal logic only applies to a universe of discourse that consists of well-formed formulas. Natural language is much hazier. I can define “truth” in a logical system; I don’t know that any kind of “truth” can be found in natural language. The mystics, such as Plotinus, who discover TRUTH by mystical means don’t seem to be able to put it into words.

            ‘What is special about Pyrrhonistic skepticism that sets it apart from common skepticism (which, I assure you, I possess in spades)?’

            Again, I’m just using “Pyrrhonistic” to mean “a skepticism so intense that one doubts even that one doubts.” I just use that terms because when I talk like Douglas Adams’ “Ruler” character, people call me “Pyrrhonistic,” so that’s the term I’m in the habit of using. So I don’t know that there’s anything special about my style of skepticism.

  4. […] https://outofsleep.wordpress.com/2011/10/24/a-question/ Christianity seems to make some pretty explicit claims about being the only true path to God. Within Christian theology there are some concessions made for “virtuous pagans,” […]

  5. Bob says:

    I’m so glad that you decided to blog about this. I have been struggling with this very issue.

    In the book “Christianity: Lineaments of a Sacred Tradition” by Philip Sherrard, he basically expresses the Perennialist view of “many paths lead to God” etc., yet he himself was an Orthodox Christian. The books Forward is by Bishop Kallistos Ware (a big name in Orthodoxy) who has nothing but glowing words for the author. This was surprising to me.

    The following excerpt from a letter Fr. Serpahim Rose wrote to one of his followers:

    “I look back fondly now on René Guénon as my first real instructor in Truth, and I only pray that you will take what is good from him and not let his limitations chain you. Even psychologically, “Eastern Wisdom” is not for us who are flesh and blood of the West; Orthodox Christianity is clearly the tradition that was given us—and it can be clearly seen in the Western Europe of the first ten centuries, before the falling away of Rome from Orthodoxy. But it also happens that Orthodoxy is not merely a “tradition” like any other, a “handing down” of spiritual wisdom from the past; it is God’s Truth here and now—it gives us immediate contact with God such as no other tradition can do. There are many truths in the other traditions, both those handed down from a past when men were closer to God, and those discovered by gifted men in the reaches of the mind; but the full Truth is only in Christianity, God’s revelation of Himself to mankind. I will take only one example: there are teachings on spiritual direction in other traditions, but none so thoroughly refined as those taught by the Orthodox Holy Fathers; and more importantly, these deceptions of the evil one and our fallen nature are so omnipresent and so thorough that no one could escape them unless the loving God revealed by Christianity were close at hand to deliver us from them. Similarly: Hindu tradition teaches many true things about the end of the Kali Yuga; but one who were merely knows these truths in the mind will be helpless to resist the temptations of those times, and many who recognize the Antichrist (Chalmakubi) when he comes will nonetheless worship him—only the power of Christ given to the heart will have strength to resist him. ”

    Its weird that he thought like this considering his reputation as an ultra-hardcore quack.

    • Peter S. says:

      With regard to the quote from Fr. Seraphim Rose above, his experience with the philosophia perennis, as mediated via Rene Guenon’s writings, is a perfectly valid choice and possibility: to leverage the philosophia perennis as a transitory means whereby one may break free of the worldview of modernity and ground oneself in a specific religious tradition, in the subsequent consequence of which the perspective of the philosophia perennis is abandoned. Fr. Seraphim’s legacy – both his many translations and other written work, as well as the savor of his quite evident sanctity – is extremely precious, and not only to Orthodox Christians, but his understanding with respect to other religious traditions is in many respects deeply unsatisfactory. Perhaps the most notable example is his work “Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future”, where he ascribes the origin of every religion apart from Orthodox Christianity as being due to demonic influence!

  6. Kristor says:

    Nulla salus extra ecclesiam. But there’s lots of room in the ark; room for two at least of every sort of creature, and for more than two of each sort of creatures that are instruments of ritual sacrifice – such as men. To get into the ark, one must be baptised, in the Name. But there is the baptism of water performed by the Church, and then there is the baptism of fire performed by the Holy Spirit without intermediation. It was the baptism of fire by which the first intermediary baptisers were first themselves baptised. The baptism by fire, which is both sacramental – a sign – and straightforwardly actual, concrete purgation – the signification – is therefore prior to baptism by water, which is its derivate and type. Baptism by water salves by signifying, and thereby invoking, the salvation; baptism by fire signifies salvation by salving. The baptism by fire is not limited by space, time, or any other thing than the will of God and His Providence, and the will of the patient creature. Thus the pales of the church are set, not by the church itself – this would be as if the universe could either bound or explain itself, a plain absurdity – but by the context and final end toward which the Church is ordered. I.e., by God. God knows, before the Church, who has been properly baptized. Theosis being the proper end of man, any man may attain it; that attainment just is the concrete completion of the process of baptism. Where theosis has happened, baptism by fire has been completed, and salvation achieved; and the Church, the fellowship of the saints and angels, the body of Christ, is there. Tota salus intra ecclesiam (Daniel, please check my Latin! I can’t remember whether “intra” takes the ablative.).

    The Heavens themselves tell the Glory of God; so do the lilies of the field. So no one who gazes upon them aright can fail to see Him there reflected, or at least a piece of Him, if but as through a glass, and darkly. All religions that were useful enough to spread beyond the occasion of their origination, then, had to have been somehow at least a bit true, and importantly so; no one adopts a creed they can see is useless or stupid. To gain credence, a religion must at least credibly appear to be a pure expression of the highest truth; and must at least seem to explain everything in life, or – to put it another way – to accommodate in good order, and thus make sense of, everything in life. And even that appearance carries some truth (in just the way that the appearance of beauty is really beautiful). So all the great religions express truths, albeit not perhaps the truths they understand themselves as best expressing. So also may a man through any religion find his way to the baptism by fire. The process is the same in any tradition: as Pascal said, it suffices to eliminate everything, including doctrine. Nothing less will do, for any one at any time, no matter how well or poorly equipped by his religious heritage, choices, or environment. Any doctrine, then, may form the altar of a fiery illumination that calcines everything, including the altar itself, to dust.

    But some ideas are better than others; some are more comprehensively true than others. The best idea of all includes all the other good ideas, by implication. So there is one truest religion; and it expresses, necessarily, all the truths expressed in other less comprehensively true religions. So if there is a truth in Buddhism, or neo-Platonism, or Hinduism, we may be sure that it is expressed also, and more completely, in Christianity, which is the religion of Adam, the first Great High Priest. All religions are departures from and heirs of that religion, all truths members of its truth, all saints its saints, all holiness and righteousness its holiness and righteousness – even those that understand themselves as inimical to Christianity. The only way to fail completely to grasp the truth is to fail completely at being.

    • bgc says:

      What Kristor said.


      But another take on this comes from the Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis – the idea that although the truth is a middle way the demons always push hardest that direction in which things are already too far slanted.

      So modern society is the least racist ever therefore the demons push anti-racism as the primary morality. Ditto equality, democracy, lifestyle freedom &c.

      I would say the same applies to syncretism and the perennial philosophy and multiple personal paths to Truth – our society is less devout, less zealous, more worldly, more eclectic and relativistic than any before, so these ideas work like poison on us.

      What we need is more of the opposite kind of ideas (moderated only after the general concept has been put across) – which is presumably why the best religious teachers have tended towards some kind of narrow single path exclusivism.

      • outofsleep says:

        Yes, Bruce. Lewis touches on this theme elsewhere too, in “Surprised By Joy” and in “Mere Christianity.”

        We never feel very tempted by outlandish propositions. They seem obviously false to us. But the vaguely true-seeming propositions are seductive insofar as they let us *feel* like we are heading towards truth even as we aren’t asked to make any truly tough decisions. Like someone on a diet eating a pizza because at least it’s not a Twinkie.

      • Peter S. says:

        To follow on Dr. Charlton’s thoughts here, if “the best religious teachers have tended towards some kind of narrow single path exclusivism” – a statement we will treat as fairly noncontentious – the crucial question nevertheless remains: “which ‘narrow single path exclusivism’ is one to cleave to?” He would no doubt – quite reasonably – assert some flavor of Christianity – whether Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox or some fruitful admixture of the three – but the crucial problem is precisely that this is an assertion, one that those who have cleaved to their own exclusivisms, whatever they might be, will find perfectly unconvincing.

        The question is not between relativism and exclusivism, as posed above, but rather between relativism and exclusivism A, exclusivism B, exclusivism C, and so forth – this is the problem to be resolved or, failing that, to be borne. The typical resolution has been to cleave to exclusivism A (or B, C, …) and reject both relativism and the other exclusivisms. There is no question that sanctity, sagacity and salvation can be attained through precisely such an orientation – indeed, this is the typical way. The question necessarily remains, however, whether sanctity, sagacity and salvation can be attained through exclusivism A (or B, C, …) only, or whether these might also be attained through other exclusionary possibilities and, if so, whether exclusivism A (or B, C, …) is really as exclusionary as it claims. The allied concern is whether a certain degree of blinkered perspective – or, more charitably, selective loyalty – is necessary in order to properly cleave to exclusivism A (or B, C, …), for the wisdom, truth, sanctity and beauty inherent in other exclusivisms is, quite typically, readily apparent if one cares to examine them closely.

        The suggested connection between the Perennial Philosophy and syncretism or relativism is valid insofar as syncretism or relativism are potential risks associated with it, just as narrow dogmatic zealotry is a potential risk associated with exclusivism A (or B, C, …). The most important question to ask, however, is whether the Perennial Philosophy is defensibly true: here, I would suggest close study of the exhaustive structured anthology by Whitall Perry, “A Treasury of Traditional Wisdom” (republished as “The Spiritual Ascent”); Aldous Huxley’s “The Perennial Philosophy”, while better known, is somewhat less valuable although still well worth perusal. Such a demonstration will, of course, not convince all comers – nor should it, for it is not for all takers – but the comprehensive understanding laid out in such a demonstration is simply not subject to trivial exclusivist denial.

        A key point in conclusion, however, is that the Perennial Philosophy is not itself a religious tradition or spiritual path; rather, it is precisely a valid, orthodox, traditional religion – with its accompanying possibility of a spiritual path – that one stands in need of if one is to work out one’s salvation – and possible sanctification – “with fear and trembling”. The Perennial Philosophy is a kind of encompassing perspective, but it is not itself a path or way. For one who would accept its evidence, the appropriate stance is a kind of “double-mindedness”: keeping the broader perspective in view while cleaving to and pursuing one’s particular religious tradition or accompanying spiritual path. In part, this is a question of temperament: there are those – no doubt the many – for whom such a broader perspective would by spiritually destabilizing, and for whom a given exclusivism acts as a Divine mercy; there are also those – no doubt the few – for whom such a broader perspective is not an option, but a necessity if a given exclusivism is to be cleaved to at all – here, too, a Divine mercy is at play.

        • zhai2nan2 says:

          ‘In part, this is a question of temperament: there are those – no doubt the many – for whom such a broader perspective would by spiritually destabilizing,’

          Each individual aspirant has a unique temperament. Matching spiritual exercises to the student is much like matching medicines to patients. No single patient should swallow every medicine in the pharmacopeia. Each patient should take only the medicine appropriate for his unique bodily needs. Likewise each aspirant should undertake only those spiritual exercises that match his needs.

    • outofsleep says:


      Your Latin in “Tota salus intra ecclesiam” is well-formed. Only your question is off the mark. “Intra” takes the accusative (not the ablative). But you have declined it properly in the accusative properly… “ecclesiam.”

      I’m still very much a novice at Latin, but the catch-all nature of the ablative is already causing me problems. I constantly defer to the ablative when actually the proper declension is the dative or the accusative, only because *usually* the ablative is the right declension.

      The obvious uses of the dative and the accusative (as indirect and direct objects of a verb) are so easy, and the proper uses of the ablative are so obscure, that any time I encounter an obscure preposition I am tempted to force the attached noun into the ablative. But, as you know, very often it’s the accusative (for no intuitive-to-the-native-English-speaker reason). Ha ha. So easy to mock the image of a Victorian English schoolmaster drilling his bored students in Latin declensions. And yet… there’s a reason for the drill! In some cases only drilling works!

      Ask me another Latin question in 6 months and see if I can answer better! 🙂

    • Peter S. says:

      With regard to Kristor’s last para in particular, I am struck by how similar this line of argumentation is to one employed rather more effectively by the Muslim sage Ibn al-`Arabi, (see http://www.ibnarabisociety.org, for instance), but in support of Islam as the most comprehensive and complete religion, rather than Christianity as is argued here. I would recommend perusal of the third section of William Chittick’s “Imaginal Worlds: Ibn al-`Arabi and the Problem of Religious Diversity”, a taste of which is given below (pp.125-6):

      “The Shaykh [Muhyiddin Ibn al-`Arabi] sometimes criticizes specific distortions or misunderstandings in the Qur’anic vein, but he does not draw the conclusion that many Muslims have drawn–that the coming of Islam abrogated (naskh) previous revealed religions. Rather, he says, Islam is like the sun and other religions like the stars. Just as the stars remain when the sun rises, so also the other religions remain valid when Islam appears. One can add a point that perhaps Ibn al-`Arabi would also accept: What appears as a sun from one point of view may be seen as a star from another point of view. Concerning abrogation, the Shaykh writes,

      “‘All the revealed religions (shara’i’) are lights. Among these religions, the revealed religion of Muhammad is like the light of the sun among the lights of the stars. When the sun appears, the lights of the stars are hidden, and their lights are included in the light of the sun. Their being hidden is like the abrogation of the other revealed religions that takes place through Muhammad’s revealed religion. Nevertheless, they do in fact exist, just as the existence of the light of the stars is actualized. This explains why we have been required in our all-inclusive religon to have faith in the truth of all messengers and all the revealed religions. They are not rendered null (batil) by abrogation–that is the opinion of the ignorant.’”([al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya,] III 153.12[16])

      “If the Shaykh’s pronouncements on other religions sometimes fail to recognize their validity in his own time, one reason may be that, like most other Muslims living in the western Islamic lands, he had little real contact with the Christians or Jews in his environment, not to speak of followers of religions farther afield. He had probably never met a saintly representative of either of these traditions, and he almost certainly had never read anything about these two religions except what was written in Islamic sources. Hence there is no reason that he should have accepted the validity of these religions except in principle. But this is an important qualification. To maintain the particular excellence of the Qur’an and the superiority of Muhammad over all other prophets is not to deny the universal validity of revelation nor the necessity of revelations appearing in particularized expressions”

      • zhai2nan2 says:

        ‘one reason may be that, like most other Muslims living in the western Islamic lands, he had little real contact with the Christians or Jews in his environment, not to speak of followers of religions farther afield.’

        If those wacky occultists are right, then ibn al-`Arabi had all sorts of paranormal knowledge, and lots of contacts with other sages who could fill in gaps in his personal knowledge.

        Of course, very few folks trust those wacky occultists.

        • Peter S. says:

          One wonders of what wacky occultists you speak. As for your presumption below, Ibn al-`Arabi had, by his own admission, numerous spiritual unveilings and encounters, but not particularly – as I recall – with mystics and sages outside the Islamic universe. (Can one find a contrary example among the Christian mystics?) The best source text is Claude Addas’s “Quest for the Red Sulphur: The Life of Ibn ‘Arabi”. Stephen Hirtenstein’s “The Unlimited Mercifier: The Spiritual Life and Thoughts of Ibn ‘Arabi” is somewhat less scholarly and also very valuable. A point worth mentioning, in this regard, is that Ibn al-`Arabi’s short spiritual masterpiece, the “Fusus al-Hikam” – of which the best translation is Caner Dagli’s “The Ringstones of Wisdom” – treats the wisdom specific to numerous prophetic figures, conceived within an Islamic understanding, including Adam, the Hebrew prophets and Jesus.

  7. outofsleep says:


    “@Daniel – You perhaps already know it, but the CS Lewis essay ‘Man or Rabbit?’ (one of his very best) may speak precisely to your condition:”

    No! I have never read this essay before! Thank you.

    When one truly loves an author, coming to the end of his works is painful. Even now, when I re-read Tolkien, I read more slowly when I get to The Return of the King, because it pains me to come to the end of it. I love, love, LOVE, also Patrick O’Brian’s novels. I recently finished his last Aubrey/Maturin book, the 21st in a series of books each 300 pages in length, and it was for me a private funeral. I will go back and read them again, of course, but the discovery of the neophyte is over forever for me. I will never read them again for the first time.

    Some authors who mean less to me have written reams and reams. Some who mean much more to me have written precious little. Lewis, bless him, wrote so much and every thing I read is worth reading. So thank you for pointing me in the direction of that essay. New horizons!

    • Peter S. says:

      In honor of Patrick O’Brian, and in keeping with the religious character of the discussion, let me quote Jack Aubrey quoting from The Book of Common Prayer, the prayers for the burial of the dead at sea:

      “We therefore commit his body to the deep,” said Captain Aubrey, “to be turned into corruption, looking for the resurrection of the body (when the Sea shall give up her dead) and the life of the world to come, through Our Lord Jesus Christ; who at His coming shall change our vile body, that it may be like His glorious body, according to the mighty working, whereby He is able to subdue all things to Himself…” and Harding, the first lieutenant, gave the watching bosun a barely perceptible nod. As all hats whipped off, the hatch-cover tilted, shooting its burden into the advancing roller, which swallowed it with barely a sign; and Henry Wantage, master’s mate, sank instantly, sewn into his hammock with four round shot at his feet.
      “I went through those words not ten days out of Freetown,” said Jack in the cabin, “and I have said them after many an action, God knows: yet they move me every time, so that I am like to stumble towards the end.”

      – Patrick O’Brian, “Blue at the Mizzen”, pg.134

      The audio of the same, from the film: http://www.entertonement.com/clips/yydbvcsxfj–When-the-sea-shall-give-up-her-deadRussell-Crowe-Master-and-Commander-The-Far-Side-of-the-World-Capt-Jack-Aubrey-

  8. zhai2nan2 says:

    As a side comment on the “Man or Rabbit?” issue, C.S. Lewis wrote:
    ‘Here is door, behind which, according to some people, the secret of the universe is waiting for you. Either that’s true or it isn’t. And if it isn’t, then what the door really conceals is simply the greatest fraud, the most colossal “sell” on record. Isn’t it obviously the job of every man (that is a man and not a rabbit) to try to find out which, and then to devote his full energies either to serving this tremendous secret or to exposing and destroying this gigantic humbug?’

    I claim it’s a bit more complicated than that. There is enlightened Christianity, as practiced by Newton, Berkeley, Cusanus, and their ilk; and then there is ignorant Christianity, as practiced by C.S.Lewis and his ilk. The enlightened sort is indeed a “tremendous secret,” but it can be reached by various doors, not just one. The folks like Lewis, who want to insist that there is just one door appropriate for our time, are pushing a gigantic humbug.

    Lewis’ humbug was IMHO smaller and more innocent than the humbug perpetrated by the Council of Nicea, which was IMHO a lot more cynical and self-serving than Lewis.

    The problem is to explode the errors of Lewis without denigrating the things that Lewis got right, and without prejudicing people against Cusanus, Berkeley, Newton, etc.

  9. Sal says:

    “an honest and truly God-oriented Islam still considers the Virgin Mary to be the most excellent woman in history, and considers Christ to be the greatest of all the Hebrew prophets. Whereas Christians might respect the God-loving fervor of peaceful Muslims, but still have no theological need for Mohammed (who was, after all, a warlord and not a carpenter).”

    Very commendable, but prophet does not equal Incarnate Word, the Son of God made flesh.
    There’s the rub- for Islam, Buddhism, the perrenialists, et al.
    Jesus either is, or isn’t and efforts to stuff Him into a convenient mold for theory’s sake – I’m thinking of Schuon here, whose description of Christianity worked for his purpose,but had little actual relation to reality- fail.

  10. […] also more loaded, due to to long use. For example, I mentioned “syncretists” in a recent post. Commenter Peter S. pointed out how I was using the word inaccurately, at least in reference to […]

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