Toward An Orthodox Biblical Perennialism
One of the common objections to the exclusive claims of the Christian Faith is that truth exists in all the world's religions, therefore no single religion can claim to possess all truth. The proponent of this essentially Relativist point of view is rarely engaged in any serious pursuit of spiritual truth themselves, having absolved themselves from the responsibility that truth claims bring by appealing to a commonality in religion. In response to this Relativist claim, and by way of removing this excuse to avoid the responsibility to carefully consider and respond to the claims of the gospel, I will endeavor to explore the question of commonality of truth, and of the veracity of the Absolute nature of Christian truth claims. In addressing the existence of elements of truth found in non-Christian religion, the serious theologian will be led to admit to a certain perennial wisdom found therein. Perennialism, also known as Philosophia Perennis, is the position that the world's religious traditions all share a common origin at some time in human history, and thus elements of what was originally a shared religion have been preserved in the various orthodox religions, each being an equally valid means of salvation. Even those religions that emerged rather late in human history possess one or more of these elements by default, borrowing from established orthodox religious traditions. There are various philosophical approaches that branch off from this rather basic statement of Perennialism, and this author does not subscribe to any of them. However, it is helpful to briefly look at these schools of thought, as they have influenced those who make the claims of commonality as excuse to avoid responding to the gospel, whether they are aware of their influence or not. We will look at each to establish our point. First is the Traditionalist School. Proponents of this school of thought define the perennial wisdom as “absolute Truth and infinite Presence.”1 Absolute Truth is considered to be found in the common elements of all orthodox religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. While this school rejects outright syncretism, it does accept the equal validity of each of these religious expressions, and considers each to be a reliable vehicle for the salvation of Man, allowing for each to define that salvation differently. It only states that one should not borrow, or pick and choose from each, but commit fully to one. Universalism, too, is a school of Perrenialism, containing within itself Transcendentalism, and finds its roots in the work of Johann Gottfried Herder2and Friedrich Schleiermacher.3 Transcendentalists emphasized experience and inner states above what they viewed as mere blind faith or cold scholarship. Experience leads to knowledge for the Universalist, which places them squarely in the historic lineage of the ancient Gnostic heresy. The Unitarian Universalist Church grew out of this particular school.
The New Age Movement is by far the most well known manifestation of Perennialism today. Heavily influenced by Transcendentalism and Theosophy4, the New Age Movement developed in the 20th century, fueled mainly be disenchanted former counter-cultural youth of the 1960s, and taking much of its philosophy from Eastern religious expressions, paganism, and pantheism, with a strong dose of Jungian psychology, quantum physics, consciousness research, and Leftist social activism. It is the very essence of syncretism, recognizing no one religion as expressly orthodox, while encouraging adherents to borrow freely from traditions in creating a personal religion or mythos. In essence, this particular expression of Perennialism is wholly Relativist and supportive of the fallacious “my truth-your truth” approach to epistemology. These schools do not at all represent what I have termed “Biblical Perennialism”. Allow me to define what I mean.
My definition is similar, but makes a very clear distinction between elements of truth, and the fullness of truth itself. It also makes a distinction between shared principles and equivalency. Biblical Perennialism is the recognition that elements of divine truth exist in all religions, and do indeed share a common origin, but that the fullness of Truth exists only in the Christian faith. Elements of truth are simply pieces of divine revelation or of the history of God's intervention in human history preserved in various forms in non-Christian religions, in a corrupt, incomplete, incoherent, or otherwise unclear form. An example would be the biblical history of the Flood, which is found in distorted form in many of the world's religions, including the Epic of Gilgamesh. Tablet XI of the Babylonian Flood story tells of five gods (Anu, Enlil, Ninurta, Ennugi, and Ea) who decided to flood the earth, swearing to keep it a secret. Ea decides instead to warn a man named Utnapishtim to build a boat. He does so, taking all the animals he has, as well as his family, craftsmen, and gold. After the waters subside, he lands on Mt. Nimush.5 The distortion is obvious to the student of Sacred Scripture. The very basic framework of the Flood of Noah is present, but in a much distorted form. Such elements of truth are not limited to sacred history, but also to theological concepts, including the Triune deity, monotheism, efficacious blood sacrifice, divinely appointed teachers, divinely given laws, etc. The mere presence of these elements of truth in no way places Christianity on the same level as these other religions, as commonalities do not equate with sameness. For example, Islam is a monotheistic religion, yet the character and nature of Allah is strikingly different from that of the God of Sacred Scripture. While Muslims are correct in asserting that God has the right to take any life, as He is the author of all life, He did so in biblical history only as a matter of justice, and does not operate this way in the New Covenant. As John Piper writes:
“The difference now is that, with the coming of Jesus Christ, God does not relate to people like that anymore. Back then the people of God were a theocratic, ethnic, and political entity. Today they are not.”6
Allah is a monadic oneness. Daniel Janosik7writes:
“...his attributes extend from his powerful will which, because it provides no basis for relationship, often promotes capriciousness. Also, since his power is more important than his other attributes, there is an unequal emphasis on power over his other attributes.”8
Yahweh, on the other hand, is personal, and seeks relationships. Yahweh is Triune, revealed as three Persons, of one power, eternity, and substance. Yahweh provided a savior for humanity, while Allah provides nothing by way of salvation except submission to his will, and even then there is no guarantee. These points from just one of the world's religions demonstrate that commonality in elements of truth, does not equal sameness nor equivalency. Christian Perennialism recognizes the reality of the existence of only one, absolute, objective truth. There can not be many truths. When we examine world religion, despite the many shared elements of truth, each of these religions contradicts the other, and quite significantly. The Law of Non-Contradiction is a guiding principle of Christian Perennialism, as it preserves the integrity of truth, rather than eroding its integrity by placing it on the same level as error. The Law of Non-Contradiction simply states that two opposing statements can not both be true; either one is false and the other correct, or both are false. A simple example would be the afterlife. Hinduism generally teaches that after the soul leaves the body it is either absorbed in the Brahman effulgence, or has a continuing existence in a place called Vaikuntha, or is reincarnated in any one of the forms of life on our planet. Christianity, on the other hand, teaches that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. (2 Corinthians 5:6-8) Sacred Scripture also teaches only two eternal destinies for Man; either heaven or hell. (2 Corinthians 5:8; Phil. 1:21,23; Luke 16:19-26; 1 Thess. 4:15-17; Rev. 6:4-6; 20:12-15) These are clearly two very opposing views of the afterlife. Either Hinduism is correct in its assertions, or Christianity in its assertions. There is no way to reconcile these without damaging the integrity of either. Another example is the Person of Jesus Christ. Islam teaches that Jesus is a mere human prophet, who did not truly die on the cross. The Quran states:
“And they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him; but another was made to resemble him to them.”-Quran 4:157
Christianity asserts that Christ is God, the 2nd Person of the Trinity, who truly suffered on the cross and died for the salvation of all men. (Rom. 3:25; 1 John 2:2; 1 Cor. 15:3) Again we have two very opposing statements that are not reconcilable in any sense. One of them must be true, or both are lies. Christian Perennialism does something the Syncretist schools do not. That is, it recognizes that since the common elements of truth found in the various world religions share a common origin, this strongly indicates that the spiritual errors contained therein also share a common origin. When we examine closely the similarities in these shared spiritual lies, we find remarkable consistency that could not exist simply as a matter of chance. For example, emphasis on ancestor worship, worship of nature, a pantheon of gods who descend to mountains to initiate contact with Man, half human, half divine beings sired by these same gods, idol worship, the use of mind altering substances to induce trance states, and many others.
It is important then to identify the common origin of both the elements of truth, and the spiritual deceptions, as both are of vast importance on the soteriological level. This means we have to have a reliable starting point- a reliable history. For the Christian Perennialist this starting point is the canon of Sacred Scripture, both the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament gives us a very concise and clear history of the beginnings of Man, and of the corruption of Man's original state. In this beginning point Adam apparently had daily interaction directly with God, as Genesis 3:8 tells us that God walked in the garden. This indicates a level of intimacy between the first man and his Creator. This intimacy must have included some elements of what we understand as spiritual instruction, since after the fall we do see elements of formal religion, such as that recorded in Genesis 4:3-4. It can be reasonably surmised that Abel know to offer sacrifice to God because he had been taught to do so. Abel had a concept of not only sacrifice, but what was an acceptable sacrifice, and what its purpose was. (Heb.11:4). On the other hand, Cain's sacrifice was not acceptable, as it violated the religious conditions and principles established for sacrifice. From this we can deduce that there were principles of religion passed on from Adam to Cain, Abel, and Seth, and from their descendants (with the exception of Abel), down to Enoch. Enoch was Seth's great-great-grandson. Enoch, in addition to having received religious instruction from his father Jared, is said by Sacred Scripture to have “walked with God”. (Gen.5:21) Interestingly, Enoch is the first person since Adam Sacred Scripture tells us had such an intimate relationship with God. In the New Testament epistle of Jude, Enoch is specifically said to have prophesied and not to have tasted death. (Jude 1:14-15; Heb.11:5) In other words, Enoch was a highly esteemed prophet. Undoubtedly Enoch's deeply meaningful relationship with God came with certain revelations regarding the character and nature of God and His desire for His people, which Enoch would have passed on to his son Methuselah, who in turn would have passed it on to Lamech (Gen. 5:12-25), the father of Noah. From Noah these principles would have been passed on to his sons Ham, Shem, Japheth, and Yam, who then repopulated the earth after the Flood. Thus we have a direct and unbroken line of religious truth through which these principles could be spread throughout the then known world accounting for commonalities. The common origin of error can likewise be traced back to the beginning of human history. Accepting as history the account of the Garden of Eden, and of the serpent deceiving Eve (Gen. 3:13; 2 Cor. 11:3), and Adam's subsequent willful disregard for God's instruction (Gen. 3:6-7), we find the seeds of all future spiritual deception. In fact, Christ Himself refers to the Adversary as “the father of lies”. (John 8:44) Sacred Scripture explains how the Adversary puts on masks in order to deceive man (2 Cor. 11:14), that he is a “deceiver” (Rev.12:9), and that the Adversary is “wicked”. (2 Cor. 6:15) Because the origin of lies is a spiritual being, those lies can be renewed without a line of human agency, but by direct interaction with fallen and sinful man.
The Fullness of Truth
Biblical Perennialism recognizes the necessity of a restoration of all truth in order for man to properly engage in a relationship with his Creator, and render Him due worship. While man can pass on elements of truth, as we have demonstrated, he cannot restore the fullness of truth, as he is susceptible to the corruption that comes from inherited depravity. Anything man attempts to establish on his own, without specific divine assistance, is doomed to corruption, confusion, and misunderstanding. Thus the one to restore the fullness of truth must be the Origin of all truth. As the first man, Adam, fell, introducing spiritual deception and sin into the human equation, and sin holds infinite punishment, again, only an infinite being could make an efficacious sacrifice for such punishment, restoring man to a right relationship with God. Christian theology informs us that Jesus is both God and Man, and in this incarnation of the Origin of all truth, that very truth is restored in its fullness. Christ Himself tells us, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:16) It is important to note that Jesus did not simply say He is “a truth”, or “one of a number of truths”, but the truth. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines truth as “that which is in accordance with reality”. In this one statement recorded in the Gospel of John Jesus is claiming to be the reality of spiritual life; the Absolute Reality. He does not leave room for any religion simply because it might have elements of truth contained within it. In Christ is the restoration of all truth to man. He is further described as “the Word”. (John 1:1) Sacred Scripture records Jesus as having prayed, “Sanctify them by the truth; Your word is truth.” (John 17:17) Our expected response to this fullness of truth is also explained in Sacred Scripture. We are to walk in truth (3 John 1:3), love and believe the truth (2 Thess. 2:10-12), and speak the truth (Ephesians 4:32).
The Relativist claim that truth exists in all the world's religions, and that these truths share a common origin is one the Christian Perennialist can accept. Where we must part ways with the Relativist is in their erroneous conclusion that, as this is the case, no single religion can claim to possess all truth and that all religions are equally valid. By examining logically the contradictions in these religions, applying the Law of Non-Contradiction, and through deductive reasoning finding a common origin for both elements of truth and falsehood, the Christian Perennialist can remove this excuse to avoid the responsibility of carefully considering and responding to the claims of the gospel.
1Lings, Martin, Minnaar, Clinton (2007), The Underlying Religion: An Introduction to the Perennial Philosophy, World Wisdom
2 (1744-1803) German philosopher, theologian, poet, and literary critic influential in the Enlightenment.
3 (1768-1834) German theologian, philosopher, and biblical scholar best known for his work in trying to reconcile the Enlightenment with Protestant Christianity.
4 An occult organization founded in the Nineteenth century by Helena P. Blavatsky.
5 Kovacs, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet XI, pp. 95-103
6 John Piper, How Are Yahweh and Allah Different?, Article, December 8, 2008, Desiring God
7 Adjunct Faculty (Apologetics), Columbia International University
8 Daniel Janosik, Is Allah of Islam the Same as Yahweh of Christianity?