Perennialism or Primordialism or Ancient Wisdom

The following is an excerpt from New Thought: A Practical American Spirituality, pp. 89-92.

Are we left with nothing but despair in this postmodern world? Far from it! There are at least two alternatives to choose from. The first is a return to what is called by such names as the primordial tradition or the perennial philosophy or the ancient wisdom, which is part of the foundation of transpersonal psychology and other New Age thinking, and is adopted by much of New Thought. [The second is a process approach.] [Huston] Smith summarizes [the first] in terms of:

1. a metaphysics maintaining that reality is arranged in tiers, with the higher levels more full of beingūmore realūthan the lower ones. In other words, there are gradations of reality, a little bit like different grades of automotive oil, ranging from thick to thin;
2. a philosophical psychology claiming a similarity or identity of the soul and divine Reality. We are divine, although most of us have little or no realization of it; and
3. an ethics emphasizing human purpose as the discovery of our place in God, with the goal not simply knowledge but a new state of being. This means that we should be aiming at personal transformation that makes the presence of the divine a living reality, rather than simply something that we affirm intellectually.

Perhaps the best known repository of such an outlook is Hinduism, and we have seen that this outlook is commonly accepted in New Age circles, and in much of New Thought.

A noted expositor of primordialism, Ken Wilber, emphasizes the paradoxicality of the Ultimate: it is and is not whatever one may say about it. He stresses that "all propositions about reality are void and invalid." This is very convenient if one wishes to discredit the views of one's opponents. If we were to take primordialism with full seriousness and accept the Ultimate as beyond words and reason, we would discard philosophy, and say nothing about the Ultimate. But the eloquent supporters of primordialism ignore this and press on to claim that the Ultimate is impersonal, which probably tells us more about supporters of primordialism than it does about the Ultimate. From the standpoint of traditional Western thought, this is the most objectionable claim of primordialism. Theism takes a personal God to be ultimate, but primordialism claims that a personal God could be no more than an emanation or outflowing from the Ultimate. Like other overflowings from the superabundance of the One, a personal God, subordinate to the Ultimate, never really becomes separated from the One, and is only a muddled notion of human beings who picture the Ultimate as somewhat like themselves, according to primordialism. Well, when it comes to muddled notions, they ought to know.

The Ultimate Reality of primordialism is the World Woofer, whom we have already met in the Divine Kennel [a system of classifying concepts of God, presented earlier in the book]. The major objection to this view of God is that it robs us of the reality our very existence as unique, permanent perspectives within the Whole and of the significance of our choices of all sorts, especially in ethics. As part of his unsuccessful attempt to wean New Thought from pantheistic tendencies, Horatio W. Dresser wrote in The Arena in 1899 about the form of primordialism known as the Vedanta:

If we say with Vivekananda, "you are all God . . . Is not the whole universe you?" what ground is left for righteous conduct, the basis of which is responsibility to a superior Power, to a high moral ideal or sense of duty? The Vedanta replies that one ought not to injure one's neighbor, because one would be injuring one's self. . . . But this is egoism. The essence, the beauty of love is to love another, to deny one's self for another, . . . to rise above myself. It is a duty, an obligation. The existence of the moral law implies that there are at least two beings in the world. It implies that individual, ethical man really exists, not merely seems to exist; that he possesses powers of choice and will; that he acts separately; that his acts are right or wrong, not in maya, but as judged by an eternal law, or by the higher Being who imposes the obligation.

Albert C. Knudson similarly emphasized the importance of our understanding of the ethical nature of God. He maintained that religion is "primarily interested in his ethical character":

The bare absoluteness of God might awaken the sense of wonder and his metaphysical personality might elicit a spirit of inquiry with reference to the ultimate meaning of life; but these mental states belong only to the ante-chamber of religion. In its essence religion is trust in the goodness of God. If God were a nonmoral Being, either intelligent or nonintelligent, he would not be a proper object of religious faith. It is only insofar as he is morally good, and so worthy of being trusted, that he is truly God in the religious sense of the term. . . .
Faith in the responsiveness of the superworld to human need has always been the heart of religion, and the development of religion through the ages has consisted largely in the increasing clearness and thoroughness with which men have moralized this responsiveness. . . . The biblical revelation was in its essential and distinctive nature a revelation of the moral character of God, a revelation of his righteousness and love, or, in the broader sense of the term, a revelation of his goodness.

A valuable exchange of views on the above topic is David Ray Griffin (who represents process constructive postmodernism) and Huston Smith (who represents perennialism), Primordial Truth and Postmodern Theology (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989).

See New Age and the New Thought Movement.

To Persons: Human, Divine, and Other.

To New Thought Movement Home Page, which has links to related writings.

Created February 9, 1997, by Alan Anderson

Latest update June 23, 1998

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