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A Review Essay on "Transcendence and the Sacred" and "Knowledge and the Sacred, the Gifford Lectures, 1981" Author(s): Thomas Dean Source: Philosophy East and West, Vol. 34, No. 2 (Apr., 1984), pp. 211-226 Published by: University of Hawai'i Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1398920 . Accessed: 04/08/2011 11:52
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Feature Book Review
ThomasDean Primordial tradition or postmodernhermeneutics? and A review essay on Alan M. Olson and Leroy S. Rouner, ed., Transcendence the Sacred (Notre Dame, Indiana, and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Knowledgeand the Sacred, TheGiffordLectures, 1981 (New York: Crossroad, 1981). The volume of essays edited by Olson and Rouner, selected from the annual series of lectures sponsored by the Boston University Institute for Philosophy and Religion, has two goals. It attempts, first, to define and give examples of an approach to philosophy of religion that is cross-cultural. As Olson says in his introduction, the term "cross-cultural" refers to "a self-conscious attempt to disavow any and all privileged positions and perspectives, whether cultural, confessional, ideological, or methodological" (p. 2). Second, by drawing on "the various meanings of transcendence and the sacred in multi-cultural contexts," it addresses itself to a concern shared by all the contributors, "that if the symbolic terms transcendence and the sacred no longer have 'cash value', ... then human existence is much less than we have understood it to be traditionally" (p. 2). The volume is organized in three parts. The first is methodological and features three essays offering quite different approaches to cross-cultural philosophy of religion and its contribution to a renewed sense of transcendence and the sacred. Huston Smith proposes to reconnect the mystical/Platonic tradition of Western philosophy, viewed as itself a religion, to thej]dna strand of Indian (primarily Vedantic) thought. Peter Slater, drawing on early Christianity and Buddhism, suggests that we redefine transcendence as a process of transformation rather than a metaphysical entity or state of being. Edith Wyschograd, drawing on the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, emphasizes the contextual determination of all models of transcendence and the sacred by the civilizational perspectives that "constitute" them. The second part presents four specific views of transcendence, mostly drawn from Asian traditions. Two essays are apologetic in nature:J. G. Arapura argues for the superiority and universal applicability of the Brahmanic model of transcendence in the Vedantic tradition, while Robert Thurman, in opposition, argues for the superiority of a Mahayana "Emptiness" model in "the arena of worldcircle philosophy." The other two essays are historical-descriptive: Robert Lee analyzes the sociological function of different models of transcendence in the Kamakura period of Japanese Buddhism, while Pheme Perkins explains why Gnostic models of transcendence proved unable to meet the criticisms of thinkers like Plotinus.
Thomas Dean is in the Department of Religion, Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The second of the two books reviewed herein was also reviewed by Huston EDITOR'S NOTE: REVIEW Smith in the January 1984 issue of thejournal. Readers will see that the scope, thrust, and conclusions of the reviews differ substantively, and I hope that the readers therefore, will, concur in the decision to publish both of them in the interests of promoting scholarly dialogue.
Philosophy East and West 34, no. 2 (April, 1984). © by the University of Hawaii Press. All rights reserved.
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The final part consists of four essays on different modes of transcendence ("Will, Mind, and Praxis") and refers mostly to Western traditions. Leroy Rouner confronts the dualist model of transcendence in Calvin with William James' attempt to break through dualism by appealing directly to religious experience. J. N. Findlay, following Huston Smith, argues for the superiority of "the Hindu-Buddhist-Pythagorean" cosmology over against both the otherworldly eschatologies of the Judaic-Christian-Islamic traditions and their thisworldly counterpart in Marxism. Hans-Georg Gadamer reports on "the religious dimension" in Heidegger's work, both early (where time is experienced as "that which comes" as in St. Paul) and later (where he finds in Nietzsche and Holderlin resources for a "thinking on Being" that is no longer onto-theological). Frederick Lawrence looks to Johannes Metz for a political model of transcendence as "interruption" and critique of the secular ideologies, liberal and Marxist, which have dominated our scientific, technological, and progressworshipping era. As this brief overview perhaps already suggests, several difficulties emerge when this volume is measured by the initial definition and statement of goals provided by Olson. First, the individual contributors for the most part do not seem interested in doing cross-cultural philosophy of religion the way Olson defines it. There appears to be little dialogue (as opposed to polemic or apologetic argument) either within or among the various essays. The two historical pieces by Lee and Perkins do reflect a methodology sensitive to cross-cultural issues, but they are not essays in philosophy of religion. The essays by Slater and Wyschograd more clearly suggest a method appropriate to cross-cultural studies, but only Slater's reflects the outcome of that "fusion of horizons" (Gadamer) we might expect from genuinely cross-cultural conversation. (In Slater's case, this is seen in his very fruitful and original use of the term "nondualism" to express the nature of the transcending process.) Second, though in his introduction Olson is aware of the chief issues raised by these essays and frequently indicates where he stands on most of them, he does not present these issues in a systematic or even in a summarizing way. The reader is left to figureout whether the volume as a whole exemplifies the phenomenon of cross-cultural philosophy of religion even if the individual essays do not, and, if so, what its overall contribution is to the spiritual problematic it addresses. Here two observations may be made. There is a surprising amount of agreement among the contributors on several points: they agree that the contemporary world has lost its sense of transcendence and the sacred, and that the blame rests on the scientific-technological character of modern Western civilization. Further, they agree that any solution must recognize that knowledge of the sacred, unlike knowledge of things secular, is at once cognitive and transformative. Finally, they agree that the metaphysical resources of Western religious thought, as traditionally understood, are inadequate for recovering the transcendent, since this tradition is itself partly responsible for our contemporary
spiritual malaise ("because philosophy and relgion, transcendence and the sacred, have suffered a series of radical demarcations one from the other in the West" (Olson, p. 11)). When we turn to their proposed solutions, however, we discover two rather differentresponses emerging in this volume-responses which, though agreed in opposing the traditional metaphysics and theology of the West (what Heidegger calls "onto-theo-logy"), are deeply opposed to one another as alternative strategies of spiritual renewal, and which may thus be taken as presenting us with a fundamental philosophical and religious choice. The first position, represented by Smith, Arapura, Thurman, and Findlay, rejects the dualist assumptions of the Western religious tradition. It appeals instead to a transcendent referent nondualistically conceived (with the help of language drawn from Hindu, Buddhist, or mystical traditions), in which all culturally derived religious differences are ultimately transcended. (Smith calls this the "PrimordialTradition.") This transcendent reality is what is already and always there, and our knowing of it, which involves a mode of thinking that transcends our ordinary mode of cognition, is similarly a knowledge (gnosis) that is "already there." Knowing is primarily a matter of clarifying, of "removing the veil of darkness that obscures," this primordial truth (Arapura). Questions about this transcendent reality or primordial truth are therefore better understood as "alreadyanswered questions" and "as needing no further existential engagement other than review and re-enactment" (Arapura). As a unitive reality and truth that transcends the culture-bound categories of our respective traditions, this Primordial Tradition is universal and therefore universally available as a cross-cultural foundation for recovering a sense of the transcendent and sacred. The second position, represented most clearly by Slater, Wyschograd, Lee, and Gadamer, seeks not the rejection but "the deconstruction or demontage" of the Western tradition. It appeals to a counter-ontology and a distinctively postmodern (post-Nietzschean) mode of thinking for which Being involves "a dialectics of absence that is a strange kind of presence." If ontology or theology are thought to require a reference to some fixed entity or state of being-"the myth of the stable origin" with its "proper word and unique name" (Derrida), "the irremoveable reality of something or other" (Wyschograd), "some single great fixture" (Findlay)-then this alternative way of thinking can no longer be considered "onto-theo-logical" in any of the traditional senses. As Gadamer points out, it is neither "atheism" nor "theism," neither "negative theology" nor "positive theology." By thinking of Being in temporal rather than eternalist terms-not as "pure presence" but as "that which comes," as that which is thus "present"in the mode of "absence"-such thinking sees the events of revelation as dialectical events of "concealment and disclosure," "trace and origin," in which the "traces" of the gods or God are disclosures of the divine not only as "fugitive" or "absent" but as that of which "we have yet more" (Holderlin), that
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which is still (and ever) "coming."The sort of thinkingappropriate "that to which is coming"(as distinctfrom thinkingabout that which "is alwaysand mustdifferentiate itselffrom "traditional as alreadythere") waysof thinking" a mode of thinking that expresses the fundamental "questionableness" (or of one "question-worthiness," Fragwiirdigkeit) Beingandthedivinethatdelivers over to a sense of "religiousmystery"(Lawrence)ratherthan "absolutecerIt tainty"(Arapura). is a kind of thinkingthat takesits rise withinthat fragilemomentwhenthe questionis not yet determined enoughfor thehypocrisy an answerto havealready of initiated itselfbeneath maskof the the question,and not yet determinedenough for its voice to have been already withintheverysyntaxof thequestion.(Derrida,Writing articulated fraudulently
and Diference, p. 80)
As might be guessed,equallydivergenthermeneutical follow from strategies these two positions. For the first position, modern (Western)thinkingis an of "epistemology prometheanism" (Smith)thatresultsfromour havingbecome of Being"and that issues inevitablyin the nihilismof Nietzsche's "forgetful of proclamation the death of God. The "zenith"of the Westerntraditionwas achieved thevocabulary grammar its Platonicstrand,a tradition in of which and task has sincebeen"systematically abusedand denigrated." hermeneutical Our is accordingly one of getting "beyond-or behind-the dogmatic today overlay"-not of "importing" somethingthat "is not there already,"but of of the recovering answersthat have alreadybeen given. Such a hermeneutics recoverycannot be "confinedhistorically"since it consists in a "far more of primordial apprehension Truth." For the "deconstructionist" on hermeneutic, the other hand, if Being and or truthare seen as temporal,as involvingan historical primordial revelatory dialecticof "disclosure concealment,""traceand origin"(therebeing no and "firstor primal trace";Wyschograd,citing Derrida),then there can be no of of hermeneutics recovery conceivedof as "a returnof the same,"a recovery a Primordial Truth.And indeed,the workof suchmastersof unitive,unchanging thehermeneutics suspicionas Nietzsche,Freud,and Marxpromptsus to ask of of about the hidden motivationsof contemporary efforts at a hermeneutics To advocates of the highly cultivated spiritualityof the Hindurecovery. version of the PrimordialTradition, the thought of Buddhist-Pythagorean sicknessof the is of Nietzsche,Marx,and Heidegger an expression the spiritual modernworld.On an alternative reading,however,it is rathera radicaltherapy dis-easethat lies behind designedto unmaskand cure the "onto-theo-logical" this aristocratic for a returnto the spiritualcentersof civilizations past longing of and "thoselife-giving centers civilization beautywhicharemainlyto (Findlay: in be foundin France,in Germany, Italy,and in Greece,"and whichare in turn "cultural Antioch,Athens,and Alexandria"). replicasof Rome, Carthage, of Instead regarding moderninsightinto "therelativism eachsuccessive of the of as and world-view conceptof transcendence" an expression nihilism ("signsof
to insteadof surrendering the temptationto call for "a returnto decadence"), or more traditionalconcepts of transcendence," to "a cosmology to end all somefavoredpictureof the "sacred canopy,"insteadof tryingto cosmologies," a strandor religioustradition absolutizeor universalize singlespiritual (whether this or "Hindu-Buddhist-Pythagorean" "Judaic-Christian-Islamic"), alternative hermeneutic findsa positivevirtuein the fact that of The interplay text and Ourimagesboth revealand concealwhatis emerging. of contextin the articulation truevision is neverwhollyfixed.... Some images of sense,they But,in Gadamer's maybe classicalin theaccumulation a tradition. must be re-presented each new generation. to (Slater,p. 53) As Slaterurges,the hermeneutical processshouldnot be viewedas strivingfor or "simplya repetitionof its predecessors' a replicaof some eternalpattern." Nor is it a "straightforward Ratherit shouldbe seenas "a spiralof progression." evermore comprehensive concerns."For this position,too, therefore,the hermeneuticalprocessis closely bound up with a concernfor the renewalof our senseof the transcendent the sacred.But this renewalis to be accomplished and that neverwas,butby going not bygoingbackto a Primordial Tradition perhaps forwardtowardthe emergingglobal communityof our future."Onlythrough the interesecting overlappingof our symbolsand storiesdo we evoke its and presence" (Slater,p. 54). Whenwe turn from these conflictinghermeneutical strategiesto the understanding of cross-culturalphilosophy of religion associated with them, we find
It once againa fundamental disagreement. would seem that the view of crossTraditionis culturalthinkingput forwardby the advocatesof the Primordial definition. Thus it close to the positionrepudiated Olsonin his introductory by would seem that for Smith,for example,the task of cross-cultural philosophy involvesthe apologeticadvocacyof one particulartradition,or of one strand within several traditions,as the privilegedperspectiveon truth "culturally, It of ideologicallyand methodologically." is a "generalization" confessionally, into "theso-calledHinduor Buddhistpoint of view,"and involves"collapsing the of and formulae" variousmeanings transcendence the sacred comprehensive in differenttraditions.In other words, cross-cultural philosophyof religionis of construedhere as the apologeticactivityof arguingfor the superiority one particular spiritualstrandor tradition,and claimingin additionthat this positionis capableof beinggeneralized universalized as to be representative and so or paradigmatic all. for This view has a powerfulemotional and spiritual/intellectual appeal, but it ultimately restson an appealto nostalgia,on whatOlsoncalls"a romanticism of the primordial." is the ideologicalexpressionof a spiritualattitudetaking It of of the formof a "radicalcritique" the "prometheanism" "nihilism" the and modernworld, and standingin profoundestantipathyto the story which the modernworld would tell of itself-from the Renaissanceand Enlightenment downto the revolutionary of therearecertain movements our day.Accordingly,
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questions which must be asked of this "primordialist" strategy, not only by the postmodernist hermeneutics of suspicion, but by anyone interested in the crosscultural approach to philosophy of religion envisaged by the editors of this volume: (1) Can any strand, let alone tradition, serve as a "controlling paradigm" for cross-cultural philosophy of religion? Should we be engaged in arguments about the "superiority"or "universality"of one strand or tradition at all when we are trying to achieve genuine cross-cultural understanding? (2) What is meant when a particular strand or tradition is called "primordial"? Heidegger, too, sees in ancient philosophical and poetic texts "sayings" that are "primordial"(urspriinglich,"origin-al"). But for Heidegger Its originality, its beginningness, has its force not so much in the prestige of a timeless arche as in its inaugural power to effect and make claims upon us, its or Wirkungsgeschichte historical efficaciousness.... Since these inaugurals are beginnings ratherthan primordialities, their creative fundaments must be understood in a dialectical-historical manner, in virtue of which there is a history of the world. (Michael Murray, in Papers on Language and Literature 17, no. 1 (Winter 1981): 57, 61.) What makes the great revelatory events "primordial" is not that they are "different ways of regarding the same reality" (Findlay), but that within their respective civilizational settings, they each constitute "origins," "beginnings," "inauguralevents" that call into being and set in play new historical "worlds" in which gods and mortals, sacred and mundane, enter into new relations with one another. This suggests a different view of the task of cross-cultural philosophy of religion-not as the attempt of one tradition or strand to legitimize itself as the one universal truth that always was, but as an invitation to dialogue among the many revelational traditions in the name of that which yet may come. Such dialogue is not the one-sided advocacy of the absolute certainty to be found in the "already answered questions" of one particular tradition or type of spirituality; it is a shared community of questioning, a co-thinking on Being, that is "not an invitation to aggression or attacking; rather it invites one to abide" (Gadamer, on Heidegger)-to dwell close to, protect, and preserve the abiding mystery of Being in an ongoing dialectic of disclosure and concealment. Such an approach to cross-cultural philosophy of religion does not mean we cannot bear witness to the truth of our own tradition, or go back and rethink what was said by Nagarjuna, Sankara or Plotinus. The hope of cross-cultural understanding, with its singular contribution to a renewal of our sense of the transcendent and sacred, is that by "understanding other traditions" we may be assisted in "rethinking one's own tradition" (Rouner). But what is of crucial importance is the way we go about "rethinking" our own tradition. For according to Heidegger, "the traditional ways of thinking are not sufficient." Not what
we thinkabout,buthowwe thinkaboutit is theissueat stakein the confrontation of the Primordialist the Postmodernist and hermeneutics. Herethe hermeneutical modelof Heidegger's "deconstructive" of, rethinking and dialoguewith, the Westerntraditionis instructive an understanding for of cross-cultural as well. "By this model Heideggertried to think all philosophy overagain,but not in the senseof metaphysics" (Gadamer)-that is, not in the mode of thinkingof "something that once was"but in the mode of thinkingof "something coming."Thus Heideggerthoughtof Nietzschenot as a "nihilist" but as the discovererof human being as "everwaiting" Being;he thought of Holderlin as "merely poet"butas thediscoverer "adialecticsof absence not a of that is a strange kind of presence"-in short, Heideggerdid not think in "traditional but of ways"aboutthetradition allowednew"sayings" Being,fresh disclosures transcendence the sacred,to speakto us fromthefutureof our of and tradition.In a similarway, cross-cultural and of understanding the rethinking ourowntradition thebasisof an understanding othertraditions be seen on of can as an opportunity or even an embodiment the renewalof transcendence for of and the sacred.For suchunderstanding itselfa processof transcendence, is an eventof spiritual civilizational tradior renewal,alwayslocatedin a particular tionalperspective at the sametimetransforming extendingits horizons but and in whatonehopesis "aspiralof evermorecomprehensive concern" leadingto an evermore comprehensive of traditionsin a sharedworld. community For thisreader, then,thoughthe individual essaysin thisvolumefor the most partdo not seemto engagein cross-cultural philosophyof religionas the editor defines it, the volume as a whole, if read as a vigorous and clear-cut betweentwo philosophically spiritually and Auseinandersetzung importantbut and cross-cultural divergentpaths in ontology, hermeneutics, methodology, achievesboth its goals: it introducesus to the problemsinvolvedin tryingto formulate approachto philosophyof religionthatis genuinely an cross-cultural, and it initiatesus into the searchfor solutions to the spiritualproblemsthat confrontus in our late twentieth-century world. S. H. Nasr is not only the firstMuslimbut the firstOrientalto havegiventhe Gifford and Lectures, he viewsit as his taskto opposetheideasof thosewho have precededhim in the series. Specifically,he advocates that we reject those "modern ideas which have characterizedthe Western world since the Renaissance whichhavebeenspreading the Eastsincethe last century" and into and that we returninsteadto "thattruthwhichlies at the heartof the Oriental and as it tradition, in fact of all tradition suchwhether be of the Eastor theWest" (p. vii). Nasr's special concern is with the loss of knowledgeof the sacred in the modernperiod.Suchknowledgefeatureda senseof permanence, certitudeand a hierarchy levelsof beingand knowing;and a transformation of immutability; of the knowerin a stateof blissor ecstaticunionwiththe sacredreality.Theloss
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of this knowledge began with the separation of human reason from the divinely illumined Intellect and from Revelation at the rise of the modern era. The subsequent "fall" of human reason is the story of the gradual "reduction" of our capacity for knowledge of the sacred to one which is "limited to the realm of profane knowledge" (pp. 3-4). The modern academic study of religion has not reversed this process; rather it contributes to it "by interpreting ... sacred teachings through historicism, evolutionism, scientism, and the many other means whereby the sacred is reduced to the profane" (p. viii). In fact, for Nasr this process of desacralization through the separation "of philosophy from theology, reason from faith, and mysticism from gnosis" (p. 40) began already with the ancient Greeks. This suggests that the metaphysical resources of the entire mainstream Western tradition, even before the modern period, are fundamentally inadequate to redress the situation. Hence the task of a thinker from the Orient invited to address the West must be not simply "to present the traditional perspective of the millennial civilizations of the Orient" (p. vii), but to help the West rediscover"the millennialtraditionof the West itself," that is, "that perennial wisdom, or sophiaperennis, which is both perennial and universal and which is neither exclusively Eastern nor Western" (pp. viii-ix). I shall focus on the implications of Nasr's exposition of this "perennial wisdom" for our selected topics of ontology, hermeneutics, and cross-cultural philosophy of religion (all of which he addresses at length, though he also has substantial and illuminating chapters on anthropology, cosmology, science, art, and soteriology). The first thing to be said is that Nasr is quite consciously an apologetic advocate of the Primordial Tradition. He opposes Modernism because he views "the total world-view, the premises, the foundations" upon which it is based as "wrong and false in principle" (p. 84). He proposes instead a return to traditional metaphysics, to scientia sacra, without which, he says, the concept of Tradition would itself collapse. It is a metaphysics that refersto a transcendent or ultimate Reality nondualistically conceived ("the Absolute ... remains beyond all duality and relativity" (p. 142)) in terms drawn from the Neoplatonic and mystical traditions of the West together with their Indian (Advaita Vedanta) counterparts. Knowledge of the sacred shares the ontological features of this ultimate, nondual Reality: unlike our ordinary (dualistic or separative) mode of cognition, it is "unitive" and involves "the dissolution of all limited and separative knowing" (p. 20); it is not indirect or mediated but involves "the presence in him of knowledge of an immediate and direct nature which is tasted and experienced" (p. 130); and it is "primordial," that is, it contains already at the beginning the potentialities of all things, it is knowledge of that which is always and already there. Here we touch on the relation of the Sacred to becoming and change, the relation of the Eternal Reality to time. For Nasr the Sacred, as Origin, " 'was' at once the source of cosmic reality 'at the beginning' and is the origin of all things in this eternal 'now', in this moment that always is and never becomes, the 'now'
which is the ever-recurring the beginning'"(p. 2). What is strikingis that 'in or Nasr'sinterpretation the Sacredas a nontemporal "eternal" of Beingseemsto of reality in terms of the be groundedin an implicit temporal interpretation priorityof thepast. For it is the past, UltimateRealityas Origin,whichalready of containsall thatis or evercan be. Hence,for Nasrthe manifestation timeand of the worldof becomingis an unfolding what is alreadyand alwayswas there: "theunfoldedrealitywas alreadyat the beginning nothingcan be addedto and of its pureunconditional state by any processwhatever changeand becoming" of the sacred, similarly,is immutable,permanent, (p. 127, n.58). Knowledge of to certain, impervious the changesof fashionor ravages time.By contrast,it is "thereductionof realityto the temporalprocess,of beingto becoming,of the immutablecategoriesof logic, not to mention metaphysics,to ever-changing that thoughtprocesses" marksthe loss of the sacredin the modernworld(p. 43). Undersuchguisesas "historicism, secularutopianism, the ideaof progress and andevolution... timehas,for modernman,triedto devoureternity usurpits and place"(p. 234). Whenwe turnto hermeneutics, findthatfor Nasr,as for HustonSmith,our we situationis the outcomeof a "historyof forgetfulness," a presenthermeneutical forgettingof Sacred Being which becomes especiallyprominentin and acceleratedby the processof modernism,which, by definition,represents "rea bellionagainst H. tradition" 3, 85;compare Smith,Forgotten Truth, ix-x). pp. (pp. Thiseclipseof the Sacredis summedup and epitomizedby Nietzsche'snihilistic of outcome proclamation the "deathof God," whichin its turnis the inevitable of the secularism humanism and initiatedby the Renaissance. hermeneutics The of modernism(in Ricoeur's phrase, the "hermeneutics suspicion")is an of and of and example expression this skepticism nihilism.For moderntheologians hermeneutics been"reduced the desacralization theHoly Book itselfby has to of a mentalitywhich [has] lost the sense of the sacred"(p. 18). At their hands to and "scriptural exegesisbecomesreduced archaeology philology,not to speak of theextrapolation the subjective of errors thepresent backintothe ageof of era revelation" 149). (p. The responseof Traditional Primordial or to hermeneutics this moderncritiof traditioncan only be one of "unrelenting que opposition"(p. 84) and must therefore in preciselythe opposite direction.It will be a "questof the proceed of rediscovery thatwhichhasbeenalwaysknownbutforgotten,not thatwhichis to be discovered" 309).As the title of one of Nasr'schaptersindicates,"The (p. of the Sacred"must take the form of "TheRevivalof Tradition" Rediscovery hermeneuticsof recovery (revival,restoration) (chap. 3). This "traditional" not by modernscientific the proceeds exegesis,but by uncovering innerspiritual or "sapiential" meaning-the "esoteric"or depth significance-behind the literalor "exoteric" surfacemeaningsof the text. But becauseof this, it is not a hermeneutic to all. It canbe undertaken by "apersonwhoseintellectis open only alreadysanctifiedand illuminatedby the Logos" (p. 18). And this is made
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of possibleonly to those who have receivedthe oral and "secret"transmission Traditionitself,for which "spiritual masters"are required 17). That which (p. comesto be knownthroughsuch esotericinterpretation, sapientialcontent the of textsand tradition, of course,thatsophia that "innertruthwhich is, perennis, lies at the heart of differentsacredforms and which is unique since Truth is of one" (p. 71). Herehermeneutics enablesus to uncovera "universality revetruthwhich has lation"that goes "handin hand with the idea of a primordial alwaysexistedand willalwaysexist,a truthwithout (p. history" 72, italicsmine). As noted,Nasr'sappealto an "esoteric" is hermeneutic in partmotivatedby an "unrelenting opposition"to the spiritualsituation of the modern world. Another way of expressingthis, Nasr tells us, is to say that it arises from "a for of whichis also nostalgia, nostalgia thatimmemorial tranquillity an Orient the Origin"(pp. 96-97). But thoughthis "esoteric" of hermeneutic "recovery" the seeksits originsin the Orient,in thiscenturyit has beenexpounded "through pen and wordsof those who livedin Europeor wrotein Westernlanguagesbut who had been transformed intellectuallyand existentiallyby the traditional world view" (p. 100). (Nasr has in mind primarilyRene Guenon, Ananda master,"FrithjofSchuon and, Coomaraswamy, aboveall, his own "traditional
(pp. ix, 100-109).) Nasr devotes an entire chapter to cross-culturalphilosophy religion (chap. 9), of
the doingso, of course,fromthepointof viewof scientiasacra,which"provides and for criteria distinguishing wheatfrom the chaff,the truefromthe false, the especiallythe counterfeit" (pp. 120, 282-283, 292). He uses this criterionto of of for evaluatea number rivalstrategies dealingwith "themultiplicity sacred forms." Again, he proceedsfrom the premisethat there is a "fundamental differencebetween the evaluationof the sacred by a sanctified[traditional] "the intellect bya secularized and one"(p. 304,n.1).Reviewing spectacle [modern] to the modernworld,"he criticizesin turn that 'comparative religion'presents (1) the positivismof the scientificstudyof religion,(2) the evolutionismof the historicalstudy of religion,(3) the "sterilefossil collecting"of the phenomenologyof religion,(4) "themodernsyncreticand eclecticreligiousmovements" that out Hinduism," recentscholarship emphasizes (5) growing of "modernized of religions,and, finally(6) the differences ratherthanthe "transcendent unity" which of "thesentimentalist approach" "manyof the ecumenicalmovements" of a tradition" above the total integrity appearto "placemutualunderstanding within are and (forNasr, "ecumenism" "dialogue" code wordsfor "modernism the church"). solution to the multiplicityof or Nasr's own "traditional" "primordial" forms is found in Schuon's doctrine of "the transcendent unity of religious solution draws on some religious religions."Nasr willinglygrants that this traditions strandsratherthanothersto articulatethe particular or metaphysics of universes to required supportthe thesis.Theseare "thethreemajorspiritual the the Eastcomprising Far East,India,and the Islamicworld"(p. 85), and the
"sapiential" ("gnostic,""wisdom")strandratherthan the "exoteric"dimento sionsof the world'sreligions.Prominently absent,becauseunsuitable expresand singthis "esoteric" solution,tothe unityof religions,are,of course,Judaism in their "exoteric" (that is, their-in the normal senseChristianity It "traditional") theologicalself-understandings. is the seers,sages,and thinkers of these favored traditionsor strandswithin traditionswho supply the key for unity"thesis.In the Westthinkers conceptsand doctrines the "transcendent such as Pythagoras, Plato, and Plotinus"aregnosticswhose teachingswereto the schools provideprovidentially doctrinallanguagefor manyof the sapiential of Islam,Judaism, Christianity" 35). It is fromthesethinker-seers we and that (p. receivethe conceptualdistinctions("the Principleand manifestation, Essence and form,Substance accident,the inwardand the outward")-the scientia and sacra-on the basis of which "Tradition studiesreligions"(p. 292). It is clear,
however, that for Nasr scientia sacra is not simply the basis upon which
Tradition studiesreligion,it is identicalwithwhatis meantby Tradition (pp. 69, of religionsis not somethingto be discoveredor 107).The transcendent unity itself; it is "found proven,it is an a prioripostulateof the notion of "tradition" in the definitionof tradition"suppliedby such authors as Guenon, already and Coomaraswamy, Schuon(p. 304, n.2). Nasr follows Schuon in applyingthis doctrineof transcendent unity to the of religions(more precisely,religiousforms). He sees "in the multiplurality whichrelativize, a confirmation but forms,not contradictions plicityof religious of the universalityof Truth" (p. 281). By using the bridge concept of the between"the Absolute"as such and absolute,"Nasr distinguishes "relatively "eachmanifestation the Absolutein the formof a revelation" of whichcreatesa "world"within which certain forms appear "as absolute without being the Absoluteitself" (p. 294). Thus, "Thetraditionalmethodof studyingreligions, while assertingcategoricallythe 'transcendent unity of religion'... is deeply of each particularuniverse,and "does not try to cast aside these respectful" elementsor to reducethem to anythingother than what they are within that distinctuniverse meaning" 293).To accountfor similarities differences of and (p. at the penultimate levelof truth,Nasr invokesanothermediatingconcept,that of "archetypes" which represent"metahistorically" "total realityof each the whilerendering similarities the tradition," amongreligionsintelligible througha of complex "interpenetration reflections"that takes place in a way "totally of independent historicalinfluences" (pp. 294-295). Nasr concludes that the traditionalistthesis of the transcendentunity of religionsconstitutesthe only valid approachto cross-cultural philosophyof are exclusivreligion.Apartfromit the only alternatives "religious disputation, and on ism,particularism, finallyfanaticism," the one hand,or the varioustypes of "comparativereligion" already criticized as examples of "a relativizing processand in itself an antireligious activity"(pp. 290, 303). "Onlya scientia
sacra of religion ... can make available to contemporary man the unbelievable
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beauty and richnessof other worlds of sacred form and meaning without the of destroying sacredcharacter one's own world"(p. 303). In evaluating Nasr'scontribution immediately we face a difficulty. Criticism of it couldbe rejected an example thatmodern"rebellion of as tradition" against thatNasr'sproposalis intended overcome.For Nasrcontendsthatthosewho to have had no firsthand"taste"of that "esctasyand bliss" which characterizes fail the knowledgeof the sacredmust necessarily to understand Primordialist view.Hencea "modern" criticmaybe stoppedbeforehe or she starts.Thereare severalreasonsfor Nasr's position. First, "only the like can know the like." on Thus,commenting R. C. Zaehner's attemptto criticizeSchuon'sthesis,Nasr observesthat "those who have no intellectualintuition of the supra-formal or essence... should not be legitimately concernedwith tryingto understand discernthe supra-formal unityof whichSchuonspeaks"(p. 125,n.34). Second, esotericknowledge by definition is confinedto the initiated,who are,moreover, few (p. 317):"suchknowledge... is not attainableby everyonebecause always but not only does it need preparation can be taught only to the person who possessesthe capabilityand natureto 'inherit'such knowledge"(p. 220, n.5). There is, in the very nature of the case, "an unbridgeablehiatus between sanctified revelationand the intelligence... atrophiedinto that by intelligence as truncatedand fragmented faculty which is consideredscientifically intelliand gence"(p. 149).Third,the esotericcan comprehend, criticize,the exoteric,
but not vice versa (see Schuon, Transcendent Unity of Religion, pp. 36, 44).
Hence, criticismthat does not originatefrom withintraditionrunsthe risk of It being irrelevant. would seem at the outset, therefore,that the Primordialist thesisis methodologically unassailable. Faced with this methodological impasse,what are we to do? One might try to "go around"the Primordialist position, observingthat by its own simply But strictures has removeditself from furthercriticalconsideration. it logical is correct,it is even if this initialcharacterization the Primordialist of position still possiblethat thereare questionswhich are not dependenton havinghad to certain sortsof experiences to which,thus,it is fairto askthePrimordialist and Let us look more closely, therefore,at Nasr's exposition of the respond. it Traditionalist thesisandask (a) whether containsany internal inconsistencies, it work,and(c) whatit might (b)whatexternal problems posesfor cross-cultural way of proceeding. suggestabout an alternative The firstquestionwouldbe this:is it possiblethat Nasr'sadvocacyof (A). is the Primordial Tradition itselfan instanceof a way of thinkingthat he would Thatis, doeshe present be committed rejecting the basisof his own theory? on to a particular doctrineas if it were absolutelyratherthan simply metaphysical relativelytrue? If so, would such a presentationnot contravenea guiding of of principle hisownposition,thenotionof theprovisionality everyformof the of remindsus of the relativity all religiousforms;but formless? Nasr frequently this questionconcernsthe relativityof his own metaphysicalformulationof
the relativityof religious forms. This first question is promptedby several considerations:
1. Nasr's scientia sacra does seem to be a (relative) form itself. As Nasr himself
strands, pointsout, he drawsonly on certainphilosophical conceptsor spiritual not on others:for example,he employsnondualist,not theistic,categories.He furthernotes that the expositionof this sacred science in the modernperiod was "completed" certainthinkers,most notablySchuon,and not by others by (pp. 104, 107). 2. It is not alwaysclearthathe presents formprovisionally, to put it the this or, other way around, it sometimesappearsthat he is absolutizinga particular metaphysics.This is suggested,for example, by the rhetoric of "only" and "alone" suchphrases "only"esoterism, esoterism in as: or "alone,"cansolveour "the methodof Schuonand other traditional problem(pp. 300, 301, 303), or, authorsis in factthe onlypossibleway"(p. 125,n.34).Again,the assertion the of thesisof the "transcendent unity of religions"is, he says, advanced"categorically." Such languagecould suggest,unless carefullyqualified,that esoterism has itselfbeen transformed an ism-possibly as a doctrineput forwardby into converts(for example,by such thinkersas Guenonor Schuon,men who, says and to Nasr, had been "transformed intellectually existentially") expresstheir newfound,passionatelyembracedcertitudeand to distinguishit from the ism ("modernism") had left behind. they 3. Thereis in fact a strongpossibility thatthe conceptof "tradition" have may beenconceived thisexclusivistic in way,for as Nasrtellsus, the term"tradition," nevertheless its moderncoinage in thoughin a certainsenseit is an "anomaly," andusagehas been"defined an exclusivemanner" 66; comparep. 87, n.2). in (p. Thedanger either"esoterism" "tradition" of or a becoming position,an ism,that standsin a relation simplyof difference of exclusionto thatof othersis, of not but formthe course,that it mightpreventone fromseeingin anotherphilosophical of an equal claim to truth,and from seeingany point to a dialogue possibility of Thiswouldat forms,religiousor philosophical. amonga plurality alternative leastseemthe outcomeof presenting Primordialist the positionin an absoluteor unqualified way. to (B).Whenwe turnmorespecifically the relationof Nasr'spositionto other of view,several relatedquestions points maybe posed.First,is it possibleto state theesotericist to viewsan positionwithoutnecessarily ascribing other"exoteric" overlyrigidattitudeof theirown?For it is sometimesclaimednot only that the exotericis unableto comprehend highertruthof the esoteric,but also that it the can neverunderstand own positionin any otherthan a dogmaticway. Thus its remarks: exotericperspective Schuon,forexample, claims,by definition, "Every to be the only true and legitimateone" (Schuon, p. 15). But is this a fair or accurate characterization every attempt at theistic self-understanding of in exotericstrandsand/ortraditions? of Second,is therenot a dangerthat the characterization otherviewpointsas
224 Feature Book Review
"exoteric" leadto overlystrong aboutotherscholarly, may judgments philosophand theologicalalternatives, diaecumenicaland interreligious ical, including in on to logue,as for example Nasr'scomments Zaehner? is interesting note in (It this regardthat Nasr savessome of his strongestpronouncements positions for that might,to the outsideworld,seemmost nearlyakin to his own, and which thereforestand most in need of repudiation:for example, the "vague and emotional universalism" bhakti-inspired of movements,"which is in fact a parodyof theuniversalism by envisaged tradition" 287),andtheevolutionist(p. of Teilhard Chardin, de whichis nothingless than "idolspiritualist cosmology atry"and "a parodyof the divinecreativeact itself" (pp. 241-242).) form"withtheaidof a Third,maynot theattemptto interpret every"religious reduction" its own in which of scientiasacrarunthe riskof fosteringa "reverse "allreligious seenas so manyrepetitions... of the doctrineof [transcendent] are to a abstraction "penetrate" unity"(p. 71)?It requires good dealof philosophical thesereligious forms,butmaytherenot be a loss of someimportant, maybeeven level? similarities differences, andespecially the "absolute" and even at essential, Is it true,for example,that theismis always "comprehended" nondualism, by and nevervice versa? in Fourth,from time to time thereis expressed the book what, borrowinga phrasefromNasr'steacher,one mightcall "thecontemptof the old Eastfor the modernWest"(Schuon,p. 77). Numerous judgmentsare madewhich,though motivatedby the deepestspiritualconcernand groundedin fundamental spiritual reasons,nevertheless appearto reflectan attitudeof strong repugnance toward"modern Westernbarbarism." concernhere is whether,despiteits My the resulting tone mightnot be excessive,morelikelyto rhetorical justification, impedethan advanceNasr's own cause. Nasr alludes to the fact that many Orientals have developedan "inferiority complexvis-a-visthe modernWest" authorsin tone (p. 111).Butthe "superior" adoptedby someof the traditionalist an overcompensatheirattemptto reverse tideof modernism the mayrepresent out couldhinderthe successfulcarrying tion, one which,whileunderstandable, of theirproject. Nasr notes that his and his fellow traditionalists' viewpoint is that of a He speaksoften of "theneglectin officialacademic,and minority." "cognitive vieweven theologicaland religious,circlesin the West" of the traditionalist as "one of the most amazingphenomenain a point, and refersto this neglect world which claims objectivity"(p. 281), "one of the remarkable aspects of intellectuallife in this century"(p. 67). It is importantto acknowledgethe of validityof this minoritycomplaint.But givenNasr'snegativeassessment the of the modern West and its institutions,academic or religious,to attempts whether of the understand phenomena otherreligions, historically, scientifically, phenomenologically, philosophically,theologically,ecumenically,or dialogithat the modern West has until now apcally, it is perhapsunderstandable failed to take his views any more positivelythan he appearsto have parently
takentheirs.This is of coursean unfortunate situationfor both sides,for once againit seemsto land us in a dialogicalimpasse. It seemsto me, therefore,that at this point our primarytask as readersis to separateout and attend to those aspects of the book which are primarilyan wisdomembodiedin the great religious expressionof wisdom,the primordial traditions humankind, of Orientaland Western,as our authorintendsfor us to of do, and to put to one side those aspectsof the book which are expressions understandably negativefeelingsat havingbeen passedover or ignored-as a region,as a culture,or as a pointof view.For if the latterareallowedto intrudeit can only complicatethe book's reception.For then, exceptfor those who have already"fallenunderthe sway"(p. 110) of the Schuonianvision, the response could well be an initialenthusiasm followedby a gradualdisenchantment. This kindof reactionon the partof the "modern Western" wouldbe sad,for it reader would mean a limitedreceptionfor a point of view which, if put differently, to could, perhapswithoutcompromise, speakpowerfully our day and age. or issue,as I havetriedto suggest,is whether not Nasrsees (C).Thesubstantive his own scientiasacraas simplyone more provisionalform for understanding and expressing transcendence the sacred.I thinkhe may be temptedto view and of the it, as seemssuggested his criticisms opposingviews,as if it wereliterally by only true position-a truth,moreover,that is knowableor liveableonly when embedded a traditional in world.But if suchtraditional worldsare,as I believe, thenthe questionariseswhethertheremay not be alternative irretrievably gone, to waysof responding the truthof traditionin the postmodern world,responses whosegoalwouldbe otherthanthatof "restoring" traditional a world.Onesuch alternative wouldbe for Nasr, like Tillichor Ricoeur,to view his metaphysical doctrines as themselvesmyths or symbols, more specifically,as a "broken truth,butnot the onlywaynor myth,"thatis, as one important of expressing way evennecessarily only truth.The Primordial the Traditioncouldthenrecastitself as an invitationto furtherthoughtwhichat the sametime leavesroom for and even invites dialogue rather than polemic debate with other "relativelyabeven "opposing", doctrines-exoteric as well solute,"thoughdiffering, perhaps as esoteric. Thiswouldrequireseeingthe modernand postmodern worldsmoredialectiless oppositionally,as part of a positive destiny, part of an ongoing cally, disclosureof Sacred Being (encompassingeven its apparent "forgettingof Being").In fact,Nasrhimselfgrantsthat it is the modernworldthathas opened for up a newpossibility traditionthat did not and could not haveexistedbefore, encounterof religioustraditions namely,the possibilityof a genuineworldwide see also pp. 282-283). At one point Nasr quoteshis TempleUniversity (p. 292; as colleague,LeonardSwidler, sayingthat throughdialogue"wetogetherbegin to explorenewareasof reality,of meaning,of truthwhichneitherof us hadeven been aware of before.... We may thus dare to say that patiently pursued of dialoguecanbecomean instrument newrevelation" 306,n.23).Nasrseems (p.
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to imply that he himselfdoes not see dialogueas a possiblevehicle for fresh he as revelation; sees it only as a processthat views "understanding an end in itself," becausefor him, as for Schuon, earlierrevelations(Hinduismas the "primordial" Islamas the "final"one (Schuon,p. 83)) have already revelation, disclosedall the truththereis to disclose.At most the only point to "dialogue" would be "the preservation one's own tradition"(p. 289). But, as I have of alreadysuggestedin my commentson the Olson and Rounervolume,given a it different a hermeneutics, mightbe possibleto ontologyand therefore different see interreligious and cross-cultural philosophyin the very way that dialogue could Swidler suchencounters Ratherthanbeing"endsin themselves," suggests. of have another,equallyfate-fulldestiny-not the "recovery the Sacred"that has been disclosedalreadyand completely,but the disclosureof a new truth which, without sacrificingour respectiveidentitiesand traditions,we could and arriveat together. Thisdistinctive"fusionof horizons,"saysGadamer, not is all thesettingup of mutually exclusive boundaries, whatcharacterizes genuine of understanding otherpersonsor traditions. of Theseconsiderations temporalinterpretation the suggestthat Heidegger's elaboration such thinkersas Gadamer of Being,and its hermeneutic by history or the and Ricoeur,may offeran alternative basisfor expressing "universalist" truth tradition-transcending containedin Nasr'sposition.For Heidegger,too, but the that Beingalwaystranscends wordsin which it is expressed, he grants of does so in a waythatdoes not leaveout the positive"experiences Being"that shapedthe Greek, the European,and the Modern worlds. (If I may reverse Nasr's and Schuon'sargumenthere, it could be said that the Heideggerian of Nasr's,whereasNasr'sreading reading thathistoryof Being"comprehends" does not comprehend truth of Heidegger's the ontology-seeing it rather,as "existentialist of late twentieth-century does Findlay, as simply an example of on Thusa postmodernist perspective the experience transcendence despair.") to andthesacredwouldseemto callfor listening andfusing,not opposingto one (in another,both the primordial Heidegger's sense)wisdomof the "old East" the "old West"),and the equallyprimordial (and sense) (againin Heidegger's of disclosures truthand Beingthat makeup the Westernstoryfromthe ancient Greeksto the postmodernWest (and, we may hope, that might embracethe Orientas well!).At the veryleast, these considerations suggestthe postmodern need for furtherconversationamong these various primordialexperiences, ancientand modern,Orientaland Western. to us approaches transBy presenting withtwo clearlydefinedcontemporary as theirareasof agreement well as some of cendenceand the sacred,indicating the issuesbetweenthem, these two books, each in theirrespectiveways, have whichis increasingly conversation contributed the cross-cultural to significantly world. to constitutethe horizonwe sharein our late twentieth-century coming
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