History and the Perennial Philosophy

Nothing can stay long removed from God, nor long divorced from that Ground of Being outside of which nothing exists, and history—not as a chronicle of individual or national feats, but as a movement of human consciousness—is the story of men and women's love affair with the Divine. On again, off again; loving and loathing; moving toward and recoiling from—history as the sport and play of Brahman.

Traditionally, the great problem with viewing history in theological terms has been not a confusion as to what history is, but a confusion as to what God might be. If we assume that history has some sort of meaning, then we must also assume that it points to something other than itself, which is to say, it points to something other than individual men and women. This great Other, in its grandest sense, has often been assumed to be God, or Spirit, or the Ultimate. Since God is assumed to be other than, apart from, and altogether beyond human beings, history has thus been viewed as a playing out of a pact, a covenant, or a pledge between God and his peoples.

We cannot forget that, in the West, God and history are profoundly inseparable. Jesus is absolutely significant to the Christian not just because he is the Son of God, but because he was a historical event, a token of God's intervention in the historical process, a pact between man and God. Moses brought not merely ethical commandments, but a covenant between God and his peoples, a covenant to be played out in the course of history. For the Judaeo-Christian world—i.e., the Western mind—history is the unfolding of a pact between God and man, a movement ultimately to bring man and God together.

No matter how amusing this view of history strikes the sober, scientific, and empirical mind, it is a view that weighs heavily in the background of our Western psyche—none of us, I believe, escapes its influence. At one time we saw history as a movement from paganism to Christ Jesus, culminating in the Day of Judgment, that one, far-off, divine event toward which all creation moves. Today, we see history as a process of scientific evolution, moving from the amoeba to the reptile to the ape to man. These two views are not all that different: both see a movement from lower to higher, from worse to better: both are believed in religiously; both promise a tomorrow that is better (or more "evolved") than today; both see a hierarchical movement from sin (less evolved) to salvation (more evolved). While the content is certainly quite different, the form is basically identical. And the form is historical. "Biology," says Carl Sagan, "is more like history than it is like physics." More to the point, a point scientists seem rarely to grasp, is Whitehead's demonstration that scientific laws are "an unconscious derivative from medieval theology." In essence, both see history not merely as a going, but a going somewhere.

But the scientific view—history as mere evolution—suffers one great defect, or rather, limitation: it cannot explain or even suggest the meaning of this going somewhere. Why evolution? For what purpose history? What is the meaning of this going somewhere? There is no scientific meaning of the word "meaning"; there is no empirical test for value. Thus, the positivists, who are scientists disguised as philosophers, would not even allow us to ask these questions—since they cannot be answered scientifically, they should not be asked to begin with. The answer to "What is the meaning of history?" is "Don't ask." And while there are some immensely good things to be said for logical positivism, that type of mere linguistic analysis is not strong enough to cure the soul of wonder.

Science cannot pronounce on the meaning or purpose of any phenomenon it encounters. That is not its job, that is not what it is engineered to do, and we certainly should not hold that against science, as many romantics do. The tragedy is that science moves into scientism by saying, "Therefore meaning does not exist, since science can't measure it." There is, however, no scientific proof that scientific proof alone is real. Thus, we needn't prematurely cut ourselves off from such important concerns as '"meaning" simply because a microscope does not detect them. A physician can describe the intricate biochemical processes that constitute your living being; he can to some extent repair them, cure them of disease, and operate to remove malfunctions. But he cannot then tell you the meaning of that life whose every working mechanism he understands. I doubt, however, that he would then conclude, "Your life therefore is meaningless." It's just that, as scientist, he cannot pronounce on life's meaning, cultural meaning, history's meaning.

If, then, we are to ask the question "What is the meaning of history?" we are brought back to the only major answer yet offered: the theological—history is the unfolding of a pact between humanity and God. Even if one disagrees with the view itself, it is generally agreed that it can explain the why, the whence, and the meaning of that going-somewhere which we call history: its movement is divine and its meaning transcendent.

Theology can effectively work with the meaning of history because it is willing to postulate (or, as theologians would prefer, know by revelation) a sublime Other. Since God is other than men, women, and history, God can confer meaning upon history—something that history could never do for itself. To give a simple analogy: When someone says, "What is the meaning of the word 'tree'?" the easiest way to answer is simply to point to a real tree. The tree itself has no meaning, but the word "tree" does, simply because it points to something other than itself. If there were no real tree, the word "tree" would have no meaning, because it could point to nothing other than itself. Just so, history without Other is history without meaning.

Unfortunately, the orthodox Western conception of God is not simply as a psychological Other (separated from us by unconsciousness) or a temporal Other (separated from us by time), or an epistemological Other (separated from us by ignorance). Rather, Jehovah—God of Abraham and Father of Jesus—is an ontological Other, separated from us by nature, forever. In this view, there is not just a temporary line between man and God, but an unmovable boundary and barrier. God and man are forever divorced—they are not, as in Hinduism and Buddhism, ultimately one and identical. Thus, the only contact between God and man is by airmail: by covenant, by pact, by promise. God promises to watch out for his chosen people, and they in turn promise to worship no other gods but him. God promises his only begotten Son to his peoples, and they promise to embrace his Word. God's contact is by contract. Across this gaping abyss God and man touch by rumor, not by absolute union (samadhi), and thus history was viewed as the unfolding of this contract, this covenant, through time.

But there is a much more sophisticated view of the relation of humanity and Divinity, a view held by the great majority of the truly gifted theologians, philosophers, sages, and even scientists of various times. Known in general as the "perennial philosophy" (a name coined by Leibniz), it forms the esoteric core of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism. Sufism, and Christian mysticism, as well as being embraced, in whole or part, by individual intellects ranging from Spinoza to Albert Einstein, Schopenhauer to Jung, William James to Plato. Further, in its purest form it is not at all anti-science but, in a special sense, trans-science or even ante-science, so that it can happily coexist with, and certainly complement, the hard data of the pure sciences. This is why, I believe, that so many of the truly brilliant scientists have always flirted with, or totally embraced, the perennial philosophy, as witness Einstein, Schrodinger, Eddington, David Bohm, Sir James Jeans, even Isaac Newton. Albert Einstein put it thus:
The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical. It is the sower of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger... is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center to true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only I belong to the ranks of devoutly religious men.

Or the world's first great microbiologist: "Happy is he who bears a god within, and who obeys it. The ideals of art, of science, are lighted by reflection from the infinite." That was Louis Pasteur.

The essence of the perennial philosophy can be put simply: it is true that there is some sort of Infinite, some type of Absolute Godhead, but it cannot properly be conceived as a colossal Being, a great Daddy, or a big Creator set apart from its creations, from things and events and human beings themselves. Rather, it is best conceived (metaphorically) as the ground or suchness or condition of all things and events. It is not a Big Thing set apart from finite things, but rather the reality or suchness or ground of all things.

A scientist who guffaws at the existence of any sort of "Infinite" but unashamedly marvels aloud at the "laws of Nature (with a capital N) is unwittingly expressing religious or numinous sentiments. According to the perennial philosophy, it would be acceptable to speak symbolically of the absolute as the Nature of all natures, the Condition of all conditions (did not St. Thomas say that God is natura naturans?). But notice, in this regard, that Nature is not Other than all life forms: Nature is not something set apart from mountains, eagles, rivers, and people, but something that, as it were, runs through the fibers of each and all. In the same way, the Absolute—as the Nature of all natures—is not something set apart from all things and events. The Absolute is not Other, but, so to speak, is sewn through the fabric of all that is.

In that sense, the perennial philosophy declares that the absolute is One, Whole, and Undivided—very like what Whitehead called "the seamless coat of the universe." But note that "seamless" does not mean "featureless." That is, to say that 'Reality is One' is not to say that separate things and events don't exist. When a scientist says, "All things obey the laws of Nature," he doesn't mean, "Therefore, no things exist." He means that all things subsist in a type of balanced Wholeness, a wholeness he calls Nature and whose laws he attempts to describe. As a first approximation, the perennial philosophy describes the Ultimate as a seamless whole, an integral Oneness, that underlies but includes all multiplicity. The Ultimate is prior to this world, but not other to this world, as the ocean is prior to its waves but not set apart from them.

This concept is not, as the logical positivist would have it, a meaningless or nonsensical concept—or rather, it is no more meaningless than the scientific reference to Nature, to the Cosmos, to Energy, or to Matter. Just because the ultimate, the integral Wholeness, does not exist as a separate and perceptible entity, does not mean it doesn't exist. Nobody has ever seen Nature—we see trees and birds and clouds and grass, but not some specific thing we can isolate and call "Nature."

Likewise, no scientist has ever seen Matter—he sees what he calls "forms of matter"; but nobody, no scientist, layman, or mathematician, has ever seen a pure bit of just matter. We see wood, or aluminum, or zinc, or plastic, but never matter. Yet I doubt any scientist would say, "Therefore, matter doesn't exist." All sorts of intuitive and nonscientific certainties lead the scientist to state that matter is real—and, in fact, for the great majority of scientists, matter is the only real, even though they have never seen it, touched it, or tasted it.

The same thing, of course, holds for Energy, since mass and energy are interconvertible. No scientist has ever seen energy, even though he talks of "forms of energy," such as thermodynamic energy, nuclear binding energy, and so on. Although he has never seen just pure and plain energy, he certainly doesn't say, "Thus energy isn't real." But long ago, the geologist and philosopher Ananda Coomaraswamy saw precisely the crux of this "scientific assumption": "This is the predicament of the positivist or 'nothing-morist', that in acknowledging the reality only of that which can be grasped, he is attributing 'reality' to things that cannot be grasped because they never stop to be, and is driven, in spite of himself, to postulate the reality of some such abstract entity as 'Energy'—a word that is nothing but one of the names of God."

Keeping in mind that the perennial philosophy defines God not as a Big Person but as the Nature of all that is, then Coomaraswamy is obviously quite right, and it matters not one whit whether we say all things are forms of Nature, forms of Energy, or forms of God. I am not, of course, trying to prove the existence of the Absolute—I am simply suggesting it is no more improbable than the existence of matter, energy, nature, or cosmos.

Now, when a person believes that the ultimate is some sort of Big Parent who watches after all his offspring as a shepherd over sheep, then that person's notion of religion is petitionary. That is, the aim of his religion is simply to receive protection and benediction from that god, and in turn to worship and give thanks. He lives in accord with what he believes to be that god's laws, and generally hopes, as a reward, to be able to live forever in some sort of heaven. The aim of this type of religion, quite simply, is to be saved. Saved from pain, saved from suffering, saved from evil, saved ultimately from death.

I have no quarrel with all that—it simply forms no part of the perennial philosophy whatsoever, and thus is not a view I am here advancing. For the "religion" of the perennial philosophy is quite different from salvation. Since the Ultimate is here pictured as an integral Wholeness, the aim of this type of religion is not to be saved but to discover that wholeness. And thus, to find oneself whole as well. Albert Einstein called it the removal of the optical delusion that we are separate individuals set off from the Whole:

A human being is a part of the whole, called by us "Universe"; a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must he to free ourselves from this prison.

According to the perennial philosophy, this "discovery of Wholeness," the removal of the optical delusion of separateness, is not merely a belief—it is not a dogma one accepts on mere faith. For if the Ultimate is indeed a real integral Wholeness, if it is equally part and parcel of all that is, then it is also completely present in men and women. And, unlike rocks, plants, or animals, human beings because they are conscious—can potentially discover this Wholeness. They can, as it were, awaken to the Ultimate. Not believe in it, but discover it. It would be as if a wave became conscious of itself and thus discovered that it is one with the entire ocean—and thus one with all waves as well, since all are made of water. This is the phenomenon of transcendence—or enlightenment, or liberation, or moksha, or wu, or satori. This is what Plato meant by stepping out of the cave of shadows and finding the Light of Being; or Einstein's "escaping the delusion of separateness." This is the aim of Buddhist meditation, of Hindu yoga, and of Christian mystical contemplation. That is very straightforward; there is nothing spooky, occult, or strange in any of this—and this is the perennial philosophy.

But we now return to the concept of history, and we can approach the meaning of history from our new perennial perspective on "religion." If only the notion of God can explain history, and if God is not a Big Person, but the Suchness and Wholeness of all that is, then history is not the story of the unfolding of a pact between man and God. but the story of the unfolding of the relationship between man and the ultimate Whole. Since this Wholeness is contiguous with consciousness itself, we can also say that history is the unfolding of human consciousness.

This view has no more "hidden metaphysics"—no more "unprovable assumptions"—than has the standard scientific theory of evolution, since both rest, as we have seen, on the same type of "unseeable" postulates. But we can with this view purchase much, much more meaning, coherence, and balance. We can set history in a context that is at once scientific and spiritual, immanent and transcendent, empirical and meaningful. For this view tells us that history is indeed going somewhere—it is going, not toward a final judgment, but toward that ultimate Wholeness. And further, this Wholeness is not only the Nature of all natures, but also the consummate and ultimate potential of human consciousness itself. History, in this sense, is a slow and tortuous path to transcendence.

Up from Eden, By Ken Wilber

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