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Of This and That: Essays on Religion

four titans of perennialism:
Aldous Huxley and the
Perennial Philosophy, Part 2

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August 27, 2004

 

[This is a continuation of the article started here.]

Considering all of this, and broadening Huxley's already-broad statements beyond his mystical and Eastern-leaning formulations, we come up with four simple, inclusive principles of the relationship between That and This:

  1. That is bigger than This; specifically, there is Something bigger than me.

  2. It is possible for me, through various methods, to come into relationship with That.

  3. Until I attain a relationship with That, I will experience a sense of separation and loneliness.

  4. After I attain a relationship with That, my life will be richer, fuller, and more rewarding.

Note the complete absence of any "theological" language in these statements. They could apply as well to psychology as religion; in fact, they could even accommodate sociological concepts of "group." That is, I could say, "The gang is larger than me; I can join the gang; until I do, I'll feel like a loner; when I do, I'll find a sense of belonging." Thus the "aberrations" of gang membership, premature sexual encounters, drug abuse, etc., may be symptoms of the Search for a Unitive Experience; it is simply a misdirected Search. The longing for belonging can lead in unfortunate directions, but it also allows for the possibility of redemption. Jungian Anthony Stevens calls this yearning "initiation hunger," and considers it to be "an archetypal need" (130-131).

Thus far, we have been discussing the "divine Reality" as though it were a person (or an impersonal entity of some sort). But there is an equally strong trend in religious literature to talk of That as a place, whether in this time, in a previous time, or out of time. Let us turn then to a look at That World as opposed to This World. Whether we call it Heaven, Paradise, Nirvana, a Pure Land, Valhalla, or The Happy Hunting Ground, it is naturally understood that That World symbolizes a state of mind. But it is very effective to portray it as a place in our stories and films, a place Over the Rainbow, a Laughing Place, a place East of the Sun and West of the Moon, a Magic Kingdom, a place in a dark wood, a place in the depths of our selves.

In the popular conception of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, devotees speak less of "salvation" or "justification" than they do of "going to heaven." This may be a place above the earth, or a future place ("the world to come"). The nature of That World can be apprehended from a short passage found in the Lord's Prayer, where the one praying requests that "[God's] will be done on earth as it is in Heaven." This is, not coincidentally, a prayer for the union of This World and That; but it also says of That World that it is a place where God's will is (presumably constantly) done, a place that operates on a different set of rules than this one.

Looking deeper into the Biblical story, we find that such a place is said to have existed in the past--the Garden of Eden, or Paradise. There, there was no duality: God and humans, humans and nature, God and nature--all dwelt in harmony. Even the sexes were not distinguished: Adam and Eve were naked and were not ashamed. The Garden of Eden then represents the Union of Opposites, the Oneness of all reality, which was not differentiated until after the humans obtained the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Unlike the East, from the very beginning it seems that the West has based its loss of union with divine Reality on a moral lapse. (That it was Knowledge of Good and Evil, however, leaves open the possibility that we are dealing with a way of knowing in addition to a moral condition.)

The state of undifferentiated Oneness in the Garden of Eden is a reflection of many stories of the "chaos" at the beginning. It is even more clearly related to widespread legends of a "Golden Age." The Greek version of this story, as told by the later Latin writer Ovid, gives a good summary of the general trend among world mythologies. According to Ovid, in the Golden Age, the first age after the creation of humans, they behaved perfectly "without coercion." There were no armies, and the earth produced everything people needed "freely, without the scars of ploughs, untouched by hoes…" It was always Spring, and the weather was always temperate. In the course of time, this happy state devolved into the Silver Age which, while inferior to the Golden, was better than the ages to come. The Silver Age was characterized by a shift to four seasons, with a brief Spring. Extreme heat and cold were first known; houses had to be built, and farming began. The next age, the Bronze, is mentioned only briefly, when the people had "fiercer natures, readier to indulge in savage warfare, but not yet vicious." Finally came the terrible Iron Age, when "every kind of wickedness erupted into this age of baser natures…" Personal property was held; ships sailed the seas to get more goods, and men "entered the bowels of the earth, and excavating brought up the wealth it had concealed in Stygian shade, wealth that incites men to crime." There was war, and plunder, and murder. "Piety was dead, and virgin Astraea, last of all the immortals to depart, herself abandoned the blood-drenched earth." And that terrible age, the Age of Iron, is the one in which we now live. This Astraea is the Goddess of Justice, the One with the scales; perhaps she wears a blindfold because she can't bear to see what has happened?

That Time, then, and That World, are typified by the Garden of Eden, representing the Judeo-Christian "Golden Age" as well as a view of Paradise. In the end, the Christian hopes to dwell in "a New Heaven and a New Earth" that very much resembles the state of existence portrayed in the Garden of Eden.

It would be incorrect to assume that the West is strictly interested in Paradise as a physical place or historical time, while the "mystic East" apprehends it as a state of mind. Even very scholastic Christian philosophers knew that the full apprehension of God was internal, not external. We have, for example, Augustine of Hippo's great statement concerning the Christian's relationship with God: "restless is our heart until it comes to rest in thee." More striking is the experience of Thomas Aquinas. After a lifetime devoted to the most minute of scholastic arguments, Aquinas had what the Catholic Encyclopedia calls "an unusually long ecstasy during Mass." Afterward, he stated, "I can do no more. Such secrets have been revealed to me that all I have written now appears to be of little value." Three months later he was dead. And yet, despite this inner transformation, at his death he affirmed the primacy of Jesus Christ and the power of the sacrament of Communion.

Just as the West is capable of viewing That World and That Time as a state of mind, so the East sometimes talks of the transcendent state as though it were a place. We often hear of Nirvana described as "the other shore," and of "crossing over to Nirvana." Heavens and Pure Lands abound; meditation is a "path"; and meditators are told that if they meet the Buddha "on the road," they should kill him. The localization of an abstract concept is useful for the practitioner; this may account for its nearly-universal application.

The Buddhist concept of This World and That is contained in the words samsara and nirvana. Samsara is This World of change, condition, contingency; Nirvana is That World of the absolute, unified, undifferentiated. Though different in nature from the Western "Heaven and Earth," the Buddhist idea shares a common theme. Samsara, like Earth, is a place of suffering, a vale of tears, and the realm of ignorance. Nirvana, like Heaven, is a place of peace. As we examine the various conceptions of This World and That World, we begin to see that This World embodies action and That world, stillness. This idea of a stillpoint resonates psychologically as well; the desire to look inward is often motivated by a need to escape the tsuris of This World. Not surprisingly, the person who has attained this state of quietude is sometimes referred to as being "centered."

A model for all of this can be found in a turning wheel (like the Wheel of Fortune), or an old-fashioned phonograph turntable. The closer one is to the outside of the wheel, the faster one moves. As one moves toward the center, or hub, the motion slows down. Finally, there is a theoretical point at the center that doesn't move at all: the stillpoint. This represents That World, the place of peace; and all the various endeavors to get to that center, whether religious, psychological, or social, whether well- or misdirected--all are represented by the summation of the principles of the Perennial Philosophy detailed above.

What is the nature of the stillpoint? And what have recent seekers offered to help us understand it? Having discussed and expanded on Huxley's paradigm of the spiritual quest, we now turn our attention to three great 20th-century theorists of This and That. Each in his own field addressed this seeming duality between the divine Reality and the individual Soul, between That World and This World. Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) addressed the psychological paradigm in talking about the collective unconscious with its archetypes on the one hand, and the conscious and personal unconscious on the other. Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), although a historian of religions, approached the question largely through anthropological studies. And Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) looked at the world's myths and literature to find the common features, establishing a vocabulary of story patterns manifested in various cultures. All three knew each other personally, and knew each others' work. Inevitably, we will find their efforts overlapping: both Jung and Eliade examined stories very closely; Campbell dabbled in psychology and anthropology. But as I describe the dichotomies they established, certain distinctions in their views of This and That will emerge.

Next: Carl Jung and the Two Personalities

References for Part 2: (complete references for Four Titans)

Augustine. Confessions. Book 1, Chapter 1. Found at
<http://bible.christiansunite.com/augustine/confessions/01-01.shtml>

Huxley, Aldous. The Perennial Philosophy. New York : Harper & Row, 1970.

Kennedy, D.J. "Aquinas, St. Thomas" in The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XIV. Robert Appleton Company, 1912. Found at < http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14663b.htm>

Ovid. Metamorphoses, Book I:89-150. (A. S. Kline, trans.). Found at
< http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/latin/ovid/trans/Metamorph.ht>

Stevens, Anthony. On Jung. London: Penguin, 1990.

 

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