“The Deep Truth is Imageless”: Reflections on Studying Religion

by Sam Buntz

“If the abysm
Could vomit forth its secrets… But a voice
Is wanting, the deep truth is imageless.”
-Percy Shelley

In an earlier era, the greatest scholars of comparative religion searched for a unity underlying the world’s faiths. Mircea Eliade, probably the major figure in 20th Century religious study, argued that there were real universals to be found cross-culturally in religion. According to Eliade, religion is the search for an eternal reality that can interact or interpenetrate with our own, causing life in the world of time to become dyed in the colors of eternity—the profane world makes contact with a sacred world, becoming sacred itself, in the process. That’s the shared purpose behind individual, mystical practices, in which one seeks contact with eternity personally, and in social, ritual practices like receiving Holy Communion and Hindu Puja. Put far too shortly, this was Eliade’s big idea. It’s amazing how many scholars have tried to dismiss it—shaky guns that should’ve been trained on beer bottles sitting on backyard fences end up setting their sights on King Kong.

Closely related to Eliade, though not exactly the same, is another approach to religion, the “Perennial Philosophy” or Perennialism. One of its major proponents, Aldous Huxley, defined it as, “the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical to, divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being.” The difference is that, while Eliade stated that there were universals in religion, he stopped short of claiming in his scholarship that these universals were determined by the “transcendent Ground of all being”—God, Brahman, or what you will (though that seems to be what he actually believed in his personal life).

This view is also widely out of fashion. A great number of scholars today argue that there isn’t really a shared commonality underlying religious thought and practice—religions don’t all say “the same thing” (as opposed to what Gandhi once said: “All religions are true). Stephen Prothero at Boston University is a good example, having authored the guide to world religions, God is Not One—kind of the antithesis of Huston Smith’s popular and famous The World’s Religions. Prothero basically points out the obvious: of course, Christians typically believe that Jesus was an incarnation of God, and Muslims typically deny it; that kind of thing… But that was never the kind of claim that Perennialists or followers of Eliade were interested in disputing. They were looking at religions to find deeper patterns of universality—not shared, specific doctrines. They wanted to find the relations between things, while analyzing the structures of myth and belief and praxis. It’s not that the particulars of Jesus’ and Buddha’s lives are all the same—it’s that the greater shape of those narratives share numerous commonalities (a miraculous conception and birth, a period of withdrawal from the world and temptation, a final apotheosis, etc.). As the literary theorist Northrop Frye put it, while religions often differ drastically in terms of theology, in terms of mythology they’re remarkably similar.

Consider Joseph Campbell, whose classic study of mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, inspired Star Wars (probably one of the reasons certain joyless scholars dislike him so much and disagree with him so vehemently). Essentially, Campbell argues that the great heroic narratives of all mythologies and religions—from Maori and Native American legends to the stories of Buddha and Christ—encapsulate certain universal truths and themes about human experience. What you actually find in Campbell’s writings isn’t some mad attempt to reduce all religions to the exact same story, which is what his critics (who’ve evidently never read him) always seem to imply. Obviously, Jesus has his moment of triumph through the Resurrection, and the Buddha finishes the hero’s journey with enlightenment under the Bo Tree. That’s a blatant difference—and not one that Campbell ever would’ve denied in the slightest. His books explode with variety—yet he traces out shared depth patterns within that miraculous variety. It’s not that the particulars of religious belief are always the same everywhere—it’s that the power within humanity, which creates or projects those religions, is the same everywhere. And since we all have, in a biological sense, the same kind of brain, and since we all have, in a deeper sense, the same kind of imagination, it stands to reason that, beneath what society and biology condition, there’s some kind of commonality. Eliade, Huxley, Huston Smith, Fritjof Schuon, Ananda Coomaraswamy, and many other scholars and writers (though almost all of an earlier age) agree.

In Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Masks of God, you actually find a celebration of diversity, with the persistent acknowledgement of an underlying unity—but this is a unity that is always implied, hinted. It’s never made crassly visible as a whole. (Perhaps that’s the implication of the adage, “No man can see God and live.”) The power that creates and animates all religions can be labeled—whether as God or The Self or the Absolute or the Great Void or even just, from a secular perspective, as Mind—and beguilingly suggested, but ultimately proves impervious to verbal definition or conceptual delineation. The human imagination can provide a battery of symbols for it, can dance around it, but can never really say, in one formulation, what it is. In John Keats’ phrase, it “teases us out of thought.” We have words that stand for the Eternal, and beyond that—a sublime silence. This is the territory of mystics—though scholars can take the intellectual journey up to the edge.

As Campbell recognized, we don’t live in a world of mere fragments—which is how the die-hard opponents of The Perennial Philosophy tend to view the human race’s spiritual and intellectual creations. They think that the random vagaries of socialization and circumstance are really all there is—there’s nothing beyond them. (A comparable counter-strain exists in the study of English, where professors like Stephen Greenblatt deny that there’s such a thing as a universal experience or truth in literature; millions of readers of Shakespeare, from Japan to Nigeria to Kansas would disagree). Although scholars often argue about this as if the Perennial and Eliadean positions have somehow been disproved, it should seem fairly clear to anyone with an ounce of common sense that the stance one takes on this question is ultimately just a matter of taste, or, in a deeper sense, one’s feeling for life—one’s essential attitude regarding the world. Whether one can trace correspondences in the world’s religions and mythologies depends more on whether one wishes to look for them in the first place. You can either dismiss those correspondences as chance coincidences or embrace them as “signs and wonders”—but both paths are, at least as far as academia should be concerned, valid. (Clearly, I only think that the position that insists on questing for unity within diversity is actually right, however. Also, seeing the world as a collection of fragments probably isn’t just wrong, but dangerous and hazardous to one’s own mental health, in a very real way. But there are just too many professors in the humanities who share that perspective to say it’s not legitimate… I’m compromising as tactfully as I can, basically.)

At present, the skeptics probably have the upper hand—but the pendulum of history continues to swing. I wouldn’t be surprised if a revived interest in the human spirit and its universals—in the Soul, to bundle it all into one unpopular term—within the University were to correspond with a broader revival of interest in the same. The human race can only endure being reduced to a mechanical object, can only put up with the trivialization of its motives and aims for so long. More and more people will eventually assert that human beings aren’t just products of socialization, biology, and chance, and hopefully, some Inner Revolution will overthrow this stale philosophy of fragments, which takes humanity piecemeal while always forgetting E.M. Forster’s great motto: “Only connect.”


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