by Richard K. Payne
Note: This post originally appeared on the author’s blog.
In the world according to Paul Krugman there are some ideas that just won’t die no matter how often refuted: hence zombies. Perennialism, the claim that all religions teach the same ultimate truth, is one such zombie, and Karen Armstrong has been carrying the infection for a long time.
In her book review of Marilynne Robinson’s The Givenness of Things (New York Times, 7 Dec. 2015), Armstrong discusses Robinson’s relation to Calvinism, and adds as a throw away:
Calvin insisted that divine wisdom was one such “given,” perceived only “within radical limits.” Robinson does not say so, but here Calvin was deeply in tune with the great sages of the past, who all maintained that the transcendence we call God, Brahman, Nirvana or Dao must always ultimately elude us.
Having not read Robinson, nor being a Calvin scholar (or even a Calvinist), I can’t myself explicate the meaning of divine wisdom being perceived only “within radical limits.” On the face of it, however, it seems entirely contentious for Armstrong to interpret this claim in such a fashion as to present it as a Perennialist claim, a claim that comprises two parts, each of which is problematic.
The first is that Calvin “was deeply in tune with the great sages of the past.” This claim could only be supported by surreptitious selection and reinterpretation—selecting only some specific religious teachers, i.e., the ones who can be interpreted as being in agreement with one another. There is something of a spectacular feat of circular reasoning at the basis of this: anyone whose religious teachings/actions could not be made to fit into a Perennialist theology (Tomás de Torquemada, for instance) would not be included as one of the “great sages of the past,” because he did not have a Perennialist theology. Circular reasoning of this kind often seems irrefutable, because one part of the circle is concealed.
The second part is the the claim “that the transcendence we call God, Brahman, Nirvana or Dao must always ultimately elude us”—this may be called the argument from ineffability. The problem with the reasoning here is that if all of these different terms point to something that ultimately and therefore necessarily eludes us, then how do we know that they point to the same thing? or even to anything at all? The claim is empty of any truth value, but does seem to have great affective appeal.
A throw-away like Armstrong’s here works in part on the basis of its being presented as if it is obviously true, not needing any discussion, argumentation or defense. The reader all too easily integrates the claim without critical reflection, since it is presented as not requiring any. It is in just this surreptitious fashion that the zombie virus of Perennialism infects others—such seemingly innocent little memes get inside your head and distort your thinking. Soon you’ll think that all religions really are just the same. And like what sense does that make?
Richard K. Payne is Dean and Yehan Numata Professor of Japanese Buddhist Studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, Berkeley. The IBS is affiliated with both the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, and Ryukoku University, Kyoto.