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JAARM/4 (1976)721-724

Frithjof Schuon's The Transcendent Unity of Religions: Pro


HAVE not seen Richard Bush's review, but he has informed me of the points he intends to make. I welcome the invitation of the Editor of the JA AR to respond to these points, and for a specific reason. Schuon's position polarizes. Part of me regrets this, for I enjoy togetherness as much as the next man. But if the togetherness is not going to be on my side which is to say, if it isn't going to happen polarization can be useful in throwing differences into sharp relief. In the almost diametrically opposite responses of Bush and myself to Schuon's book I see a window onto the central theological divide, not of our time only, but of all times. The divide is between spiritual constitutions; spiritual types or dispositions, if you will. And because it is fundamental to the book in question, I shall summarize it before remarking on Professor Bush's critique. In Schuon's vocabulary, the types are esoteric and exoteric. Esoterics are persons whose key meanings are more abstract than are those of exoterics. "Abstract" here is not, however, opposed to concrete if the latter means that which is fully real. Or to be precise, for esoterics it is not thus opposed, this being precisely the divide. For esoterics, universals with their generality and "abstractness" are more real than are the particulars that embody them. For exoterics they are less real. The distinction arises in Christianity to cite the case closest to home because theologically it can stabilize at a number of points along the concrete-to-"abstract" continuum. Where in fact it does "dig in" depends on the spiritual type (exoteric or esoteric) of the Christian in question. For the Disciples the focus was originally Jesus of Nazareth; later it became the Risen Christ. Still later Christ was identified as the Logos, while for certain mystics the Logos itself derives from the Godhead which exceeds it categorically. The meanings in these several specifications flow into and to some extent condition one another, but this does not alter the fact that minds differ in the point on the continuum where they find reality centering and from which, consequently, meaning ultimately derives. As theology works its way from particulars toward universals, from the specific toward the general, exoterics arrive earlier than esoterics at a point where they feel that meaning is becoming attenuated. Why attenuated? Because the longer the ladder of abstraction the shakier its grip on the ground from which meaning for exoterics rises: the terra firma of concrete particularity. In Christendom this terra firma is the historical Jesus. From this fundamental distinction a number of corollaries follow: 1. Exoterism, planted firmly in the spatio-temporal world which is at once (a) H USTON SMITH IS Professor of Religion at Syracuse University He has authored the textbook, Religions of Man, and a recently published book entitled Forgotten Truth.




the world we are in most obvious touch with and (b) the one most riven by distinctions, inclines toward dualism. By contrast, esotensm's appetite for generality and the universal boundlessness points it toward the complete Universal, the Infinite or Absolute which, because it includes everything, annuls distinctions and is non-dual. Dvaita \s.advaita. The test case is whether the soul is distinct from God. Buddhism's anatta (no-soul) doctrine (precisely duplicated by Spinoza); Hinduism's "Atman is Brahman"; and Sufism's ana'l-Haqq ("lam the Absolute Truth," Hallaj) are esoteric For exoterics such assertions "commit shirk." They constitute the ultimate sin of ascribing to God a rival. 2 Affirming as it does the permanent reality of the individual soul, exoterism tends to be individualistic. It views things more from the standpoint of the separate and separating self. Does God love me?, e. g., is an urgent if not the urgent religious question. 3. Exoterism tends to be sentimental in the non-pejorative sense of taking its last-ditch stand in feelings (sentiments). For esoterics, on the other hand, it is Truth that holds the final key. Sentiment vs. intellection; bhakti\s.jnana. All men possess both; the question is which, in a given personality makeup, is stronger. 4. Closely allied to the preceding point, exoterism inclines toward moralism, esotensm toward contemplation. The way of Martha vs the way of Mary; Tillich's "prophetic faith," which extols the holiness of the ought, vs. his "ontological faith" which stresses the holiness of the is. 5. Because definitions for the most part delimit the defined pulls against the ///finite esoteric metaphysics tends to proceed apophatically (in terms of what God is not: neti, neti and the via negativa generally). But this route lands exoterics precisely nowhere. Leaving them with nothing they can get their minds around, it leaves them with nothing, period the whole debate over whether Nirvana is a positive or negative concept comes in here. Balancing the apophatic theology of the esoterics, exoteric theology is couched in positive assertions and is kataphatic. With this summary of the esoteric/exoteric distinction in place, I proceed to Professor Bush's criticisms of Schuon's book as he has alerted me to these in advance of actually writing his review. I do not know enough about his theology to say flatly that it is exoteric, but searching for an explanation for our opposite responses, the hypothesis of an esoteric/exoteric difference looks like it might serve. If Bush is of exoteric disposition and I of esoteric, I can be at peace with our differences, otherwise I must track his points to showdown or leave the issues unresolved. Bush noted four concrete points he intends to make. A. The transcendent is more closely related to the world in which we live than Schuon allows. My reply: For the exoteric, the Cloud of Unknowing so veils the Infinite that it seems alien, remote, and discontinuous with our daily experience. For the esoteric it is otherwise. Logically the Infinite could not be such if anything our world included lay outside it, experientially this fact "outs" in the way Schuon recounts in his latest book. The first spiritual phase is isolation, [but] the summit is to "see God everywhere," for the world is God. In other words, there is one spiritual perfection in which the contemplative sees God only inwardly, in the silence of the heart, and there is another that is superior to this and derives from it . . . in which the contemplative perceives God equally in the outward, in phenomena (Islam and the
Perennial Philosophy, p 205).



B It is difficult to engage in the discussion of a thesis claimed to be comprehended only by a limited spiritual elite My reply. Esoterics do not constitute a moral or even a religious elite. As a group they are not more righteous or holy in the sense of maximizing the spiritual potential that is theirs. Only with respect to truth can it be claimed by them; exoterics will naturally resist the claim that they see more. Following this clarification of the phrase "spiritual elite," two observations are in order. (1) In the absence of direct intuitive discernment of the Infinite, it is indeed difficult to discuss it,1 and the difference between esoterics and exoterics lies precisely in the relative strength of such discernment. (2) If the reader were to introspect for a moment and ask himself how he responded to Bush's word "elite," this might provide a clue to ascertaining his own spiritual type If his instinctive response took a moral turn "the notion is undemocratic and is sure to lead to abuses" the chances are that he is an exoteric, for to exoterics moral and interpersonal considerations tend to be primary. For esoterics, those considerations, important as they are, run second to issues of reality: the way things are. The first question an esoteric raises about a notion, the notion of "elite" included, is, Is it true? Questions relating to its implications or consequences come later This leads directly to Bush's next point C. Schuon underplays the ethical, he seems to consider it an earlier level to be transcended. My reply: "Underplay" is a relative term It is certainly not the case that esoterics consider the ethical unimportant. They will be the first to join exoterics in insisting that if one thinks that he is growing in his love of God but is not in fact growing in his love of man, he is deceiving himself; as for their behavior, it would be difficult to fault the Spinozas and Dogens of the world on charges of misconduct. But here again there is something in Bush's perception that is accurate and revealing, he is on to something. It is true that for the esoteric the ethical is not a//-important, for he is privy to a respect in which everything that happens is in keeping with God's will and everything that is, is perfect precisely as it is as the Buddhists would say, it is the Buddha-nature. This respect is less evident to the exoteric, and because it is less evident he fails to perceive the way in which it presupposes morality With this last perception missing, it seems to the exoteric as if the vision of Total Perfection annuls morality "cuts the nerve of moral action" is the standard phrase. This adds up to making the ethical all-important, or nearly so, in 'The reasons the Absolute must be approached largely apophatically are (a) It cannot be assumed that persons who understand the common sense meanings of words will
understand the meanings they intend when "gestalted" to symbolize the Absolute which is a categorically different kind of existent (b) Because this is so l e , because in this case no oneto-one relation between form and content, symbol and meaning, obtains no depiction of the Absolute can be permanently or inter-subjectively satisfactory in every respect, (c) Accounts of the Absolute must be paradoxical that the Absolute contains everything but is without distinctions, is but one example In this third respect the language of the Absolute is like that of quantum physics These difficulties in discussing the Absolute do not deter esoterics from reasoning about (and explicating) it as best they can That his One could not be confined within formulae did not affect Plotinus' passion for conceptual precision One of the counts on which he faulted the Gnostics was "their refusal to put forth their . views by reasoned arguments instead of myths" (R. T Walhs, Neoplaionism, [New York Charles Scnbner"s, Sons, 1972], p 12)



the exoteric's purview, and compared to this positioning, the esoteric does underplay it.2 To put this point in more familiar terms, Bush's charge of ethical neglect is the familiar cry of the prophet against the mystic, prophet/mystic being roughly synonymous with exoteric/esoteric. The mystic regularly answers with a countercharge: the prophet forgets that time and evil are absorbed in God's infinity.31 am not concerned here with who is right; the question is why good and reasonable men perpetually disagree on the point, and again I find in Schuon's notion of spiritual personality-types the most helpful answer. Some persons live predominantly in the concrete while others have their heads in the clouds, as the saying goes. As history and social problems are more down to earth than are being and eternity, it must be expected that prophets will find preoccupation with the latter unhelpful if not escapist. More unrelievedly immersed in the world than the prophets, are persons who cannot see that philosophers are talking about anything their mouthings "bake no bread," as the saying goes but among philosophers themselves the difference emerges in high-octave. "Ideas" were more real (self-existing) for Plato than they were for Aristotle, and for Plato the infinite was actual whereas for Aristotle it was potential only. It is a matter of degree; a sliding scale, a continuum. D. Schuon shows little sympathy for other points of view My reply. This opens onto the general question: Assuming that truth matters and one is not a total relativist, what should be one's stance toward what one sees to be error? It's the age-old problem of the balance between tolerance and conviction, and what new can be said about that in a paragraph? Possibly something; namely, that esoteric and exotencs incline toward opposite ends of the seesaw. For one thing: jnana or bhakti, intellect or affect, truth or love we have already noted that, though both are indispensable, proportionally speaking the esoteric is more seized by the first term in the pairs. To this must be added that the exoteric tends to see things in more immediate context wherein the feelings (hurts, sensibilities, abrasions) of the parties involved loom larger than they do in the cosmic and trans-cosmic contexts the esoteric's eye is on. It has been said that a Saracen would have had greater respect for a Crusader who was bent on killing him out of conviction than he would have had for a Christian ("Christian"?) who came preaching a togetherness that came easy to him because he had only opinions, not convictions, to be compromised.
! For more on the difference in the way ethics figures in the esoteric and exoteric perspectives, see Tage Lindbom's essay, "Virtue and Morality" in Studies in Comparative Religion, a journal I consider the most underrated theological forum on the current English-speaking scene. 3 Here is one of Schuon's formulations of the mystic's answer: "Exotencism . . in man chiefly envisages the . . . social individual, in the universe it discerns only what affects that individual, in God it hardly sees anything more than what has to do with the world creation, man and his salvation Consequently . . exotencism takes no account either of [what] extends beyond the human plane and opens out on to the divine, or of pre-human and post-human cycles or of Beyond-Being, which is beyond all relativity and thus also beyond all distinctions; such a perspective is comparable to a skylight, which gives the sky a certain form, round or square maybe; through this the view of the sky is fragmentary, though certainly that does not prevent the sky from filling the room with light and life The danger of a religious outlook based on the will [exotensm in Judeo-Chnstian guise] is that it comes very close to insisting that faith should include a maximum of will and a mimmum of [contemplative] intelligence" (Understanding Islam, [Baltimore- Penguin Books, 1972], p. 110)