© Barbara F. Meyers 2009. All Rights Reserved.

A sermon delivered at Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation on August 2, 2009

Sermon - The Perennial Philosophy

"Many windows, one light,
Many rivers, one sea,
All lifted hearts are free..."

These bars are from the Sources Cantata written about our Unitarian Universalist sources of truth. [1] They suggest that there is some central truth shared by all.

Today, I'll explore whether there is some fundamental core of religious truth that underlies all religions. Let's consider the people who originated the religions most prominent in the world today. There is something they have in common; the founding personalities of all major world religions were mystics who had visions and heard the word of God, or of a truth they took to be ultimate. As the psychologist Brent Dean Robbins says, "Mysticism is the raw material of all religion and is also the inspiration of much of philosophy, poetry, art, and music, of something which is not of the external material world."

Examples of mystics who around whom religions were founded are the following:

The fact that these experiences have many important similarities is the impetus behind the term Perennial Philosophy, which is sometimes referred to in Latin as Philosophia Perennis. It was used by the mathematician Gottfried Leibnitz to denote the common, eternal philosophy that underlies all religions, and in particular the mystical streams within them. Today, the term Perennial Philosophy has come to refer to a fundamental core of truth to be found at the heart of all religions.

So what is this philosophy?

Aldous Huxley wrote a book entitled "The Perennial Philosophy" [2] Here is his definition, with some commentary.

According to Huxley, "rudiments of the Perennial Philosophy may be found among the traditional lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions.

This is a philosophy that has been formulated by those who have experienced direct communion with God or the Ultimate. However brief the experience, it transforms the thinking mind of the experiencer, so that they are never the same again. Such revelatory experience, captured however dimly in symbols supplied by human language or by whatever artistic expression, however often repeated through the ages by people of all races, genders, cultures and religious beliefs." [3]

From this core of beliefs, are derived a number of characteristics of the philosophy as described by Huxley: Listen and see how many of them you agree with.

I can hear you thinking: Hmmm. What does this have to do with Unitarian Universalism?

Mysticism is our First Source of Religious Truth. As we say: "Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life."

What are the characteristics of mystical experience that lead people experiencing it to these conclusions?

If you were here a few weeks ago, you heard The Rev. Joy Atkinson tell of her mystic experience when preparing to go to seminary. I have also had such an experience. In my case, the experience happened when I was undergoing intense psychotherapy to discover and deal with the source of debilitating depression. My psychiatrist suggested I might try meditation, something I had never done before. Several weeks into this process, while at a meeting at work I saw halos around the heads of several people in the meeting. At that time, I hadn't gone to church in nearly 20 years, but the first thing that I thought was "God is trying to tell me something." That vision was the start of my return to religion and my eventual change of my life's path as a minister.

In her sermon, Joy identified some of the important characteristics of mystical experience. These were described by psychologist and philosopher William James in his classic book: The Varieties of Religious Experience. And, I'll summarize them here. According to James, such an experience is:

  1. Transient -- the experience is temporary; the individual soon returns to a "normal" frame of mind.
  2. Ineffable -- the experience cannot be adequately put into words.
  3. Noetic -- the individual feels that he or she has learned something valuable from the experience.
  4. Passive -- the experience happens to the individual, largely without conscious control. Although there are activities, such as meditation, that can make religious experience more likely, it is not something that can be turned on and off at will.
  5. (This last one is added by contemporary religious scholar Huston Smith) Lasting Effect -- Though the mystical experience is transient, the memory of the experience lasts and has the power to change one's life.

In my own experience, the fact that God existed and was telling me something important was the first thing that occurred to me. It instantly converted me from an atheist to a theist. Many years later at Seminary, I was fascinated and dumbfounded to learn that for some people, mysticism doesn't imply a deity. Charles Francis Potter was a Unitarian minister and Humanist in the early 1900s whose beliefs did not include in an imminent or transcendent God. But, he too had what was clearly a mystical experience as described in the book American Religious Humanism [4]. He experienced something he called the Cosmic Consciousness with the following characteristics:

  1. visual sensation as a bright light
  2. auditory sensation of a voice or music
  3. sudden sense of mental clarity
  4. sense the immensity and unity of the universe
  5. conviction that even material things are alive
  6. self-expansion to include all things
  7. disappearance of guilt, doubt and confusion
  8. joy
  9. immortality has begun

How remarkable that he interpreted this experience through his humanist lens as a confirmation of what he was doing with his non-theist ministry. He wouldn't agree with much of the Perennial Philosophy with its clearly theistic Ground of all being, but I think some of the implications of his experience have similarities. For example: the unity of the Universe and that even material things are alive led him to deeply respect our interdependent web of existence. And, importantly, he was led by his experience to help make life better for people on earth - make a heaven on earth now, rather than after death - was one of his main beliefs. This remains a core Unitarian Universalist conviction. I think Potter would have agreed with the Perennial Philosophy's view of emotionalism, the miraculous, and iniquities committed in the name of religion. I don't think he would have agreed with the negative characterization of moral idolatry. I can imagine him having a deep conversation with Huxley about the importance of science - and suspect they would end up agreeing that science without mystery is not a good thing.

Other things that are similar between religions
Others have observed similarities between various world religions that go beyond those outlined by the Perennial Philosophy. The most often mentioned is the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. There is a version of this rule, sometimes nearly word-for-word in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Taoism and Baha'i. Here are a few others that are widely shared:

I would like to suggest a topic for further study would be to explore the possibility that the values in the perennial philosophy imply these other universal similarities as well.

You might be thinking: How is mysticism different from psychotic experience? Psychotic shares many characteristics with mystical experience. People see things no one else can see and hear things not heard by others. Psychologist David Lukoff explains the difference lies with whether the person is understandable, whether the person can function in everyday life, and whether they have common sense. These are the factors that allow us to make this differentiation. [5]

The place of mysticism within UUism
Are there UU Mystics? Yes. In fact there is an organization called UU Mystics in Community. You can find them on line.

What about atheists? Can they be mystics? Again, yes. Charles Francis Potter clearly explained this as part of his ministry. It is carried forth in another source of UU truth: "Humanist teachings that heed the guide of reason and the results of science and warn us against the idolatries of the mind and spirit." Humanist teachings help us balance the over-the-top enthusiasm that sometimes comes with mystical experience - both reason and passion are necessary for a whole world view. The UU minister Rev. Tom Owen-Towle says, "as freethinking mystics we're dedicated to a reasonable faith that pushes our minds as far as they can go, then bows before the mysteries."

I'll end with quotes from two well-known scientists.

Albert Schweitzer said: "The highest knowledge is to know we're ultimately surrounded by mystery." [6]

Albert Einstein said: "The most beautiful thing we can experienced is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. ...This insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion. 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-this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness."[7]


[1] "All Lifted Hearts," the movement for the Third Source, "Wisdom from the world's religions." From the Sources Cantata by Jason Shelton and Kendyl Gibbons.
[2] The Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley, New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1945.
[3] Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy, p. vii.
[4] American Religious Humanism by Mason Olds,Fellowship of Religious Humanists, 1996 p. 141.
[5] Lukoff, David. "The Diagnosis of Mystical Experience With Psychotic Features." Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 17; 1985: 155-181.
[6] Schweitzer, Albert, The Spiritual Life, Beacon Press, 1947.
[7] The World as I See It, an essay by Albert Einstein in Ideas and Opinions, based on Mein Weltbild, edited by Carl Seelig, New York: Bonzana Books, 1954 (pp. 8-11).

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