The Unified View of Spiritual Wisdom

By G. Dale Meyer
, May 2012

religions_unityThis Unified View is based on two essays by Dr. Huston Smith who is considered by many religious scholars to be the preeminent scholar in the 20th and early 21 centuries on the unity of current world religions. The two sources that I use in this review are:

Huston Smith. 1993. Introduction to the Revised Edition of the Transcendent Unity of Religions by Frithjof Schuon. Wheaton, Ill.: The Theosophical Publishing House.

Huston Smith, 2008. The Lecture. In Henry Rosemont and Huston Smith, Is There a Universal Grammar of Religion. Chicago: Open Court Publishing.

A short bibliography is included at the end of this paper.

Basis and Inquiry on the Unified View

When I was a child growing up in Mingo Junction, Ohio I remember my parents and other adults agreeing to never bring up in conversation “religion or politics.” It didn’t register with me why this was considered a “given.” Had I been a student of religious history, perhaps I would have understood. Opinions on religious beliefs are greatly schismatical.

During The Axial Age (approximately 800 BCE to 200 BCE) humankind transitioned from fearing and worshiping gods of nature (sun, rain, earth, fertility, et al.) to gods that/who taught us ideal ways to behave with and towards each other. The Axial Age (named by philosopher Karl Jaspers) spawned ancient Greek philosophy, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucian thought, Lao Tzu’s Taoism, and ancient Judaism (which later precipitated Christianity and Islam – the triad now labeled the Abrahamic religions.) An example of a moral standard originating in early antiquity is what is labeled “The Golden Rule” in the West. A similar prescription has been traced to ancient Egypt as long as 3000 BCE, and Zoroaster and Confucius in 500-600 BCE are known to have used this guide. This prescription on how to treat our fellow human beings and this “Rule” is common to most of the world’s trans-historical religions. The Golden Rule prescription presents at least a partial unifying value that many scholars and spiritual human beings deliberately seek. Another standard that is found in the four sages (Confucius, the Buddha, Jesus Christ, and Muhammad) whose spiritual and religious prescriptions have and continue to guide billions of people worldwide. This unifying principle for spiritual behavior is for each person to diminish “self-centeredness” – e.g. selfishness, separateness, bombast, hubris, narcissism, etc.

Little evidence is available for scholars to trace communication (particularly written) about religious beliefs throughout the wide geographic region of the Axial Age. However, we know that the Abrahamic religions have common origins that begin with ancient Judaism. One might conclude that these three religions would find unity rather than competition. Not so. The discordant animosity between these three religions has resulted in disastrous wars and uncivil brutality throughout ancient and modern history. From the horrors of the Crusades, the Inquisition, up to the Arab/Israeli conflicts, 9/11, and seemingly into the future, the Abrahamic religions precipitate deep enmity and hostility. Fundamentalists in all three of these religions find no basis for unity among themselves or with other wisdom traditions and religions. A little-known book authored by Frithof Schuon undergirds my reasoning on how religions both divergent while unified.

The Transcendent Unity of Religions

Frithhof Schuon, an eminent scholar of world religious traditions, is not a “household name” other than among intellectuals who praise his contributions and basis for finding a unity of religions. His classic book titled The Transcendent Unity of Religions was first published in 1984. A revised Quest Edition was published in 1993. Schoun asked Huston Smith, another preeminent scholar of comparative world religions, to write an Introduction to this revised Edition. Much of my analysis is built upon Smith’s Introduction and is liberally quoted from that source. Smith is my friend and spiritual mentor as he is to a multitude of truth seekers who have read his many books and articles.  Dr. Smith’s name and the page numbers throughout refer to his Introduction in 1983 to Frithjof Schoun’s revised edition of his The Transcendent Unity of Religions. Smith begins his Introduction by stating:

“Of the first edition of this book, published in 1957, T. S. Eliot
wrote: ‘I have met with no more impressive work of the comparative
study of Occidental or Oriental religions.”

And Smith writes:

“As I would myself raise his estimate to the superlative, one wonders
why  the book is not better known.” (Smith, P. ix)

In his Introduction to Shoun’s Revised Edition Smith wrote:

“I propose in this Introduction to do two things by way of 
propaedeutic (preparatory teaching): to summarize the author’s
thesis and to relate it to alternatives that are being proposed [by
other thinkers].” (Smith, P. xi.)

The Relation between Religions: Schoun’s Thesis

“It is a priori evident that everything both resembles and differs from everything else: resembles it at least in existing, differs or there would be no multiplicity to compare. Pari passu [proportionately] with religions: had they nothing in common we would not refer to them by a common noun; were they undifferentiated we would not speak of them in the plural and the noun would be proper. Everything turns on how this empty truth is filled with content. Where is the line between unity and plurality to be drawn and how are the two domains to be related?” (Smith, pp. xi-xii)

One way of distinguishing religious understanding is to examine the way beliefs and practices originate and are applied in institutional frameworks and hierarchies. At this point I introduce the concepts of exoteric and esoteric ways of knowing to frame Schoun’s unique contribution to the conversation about the unity of wisdom traditions and religions.

Esoterism versus Exoterism

First we need some definitions of terms.

The term exoteric is mostly used in conjunction with religions and spirituality . . . in which the teachings shift the believer’s focus away from the exploration of the inner self and towards the adherence to rules, dogma, ritual, iconology and an exclusive individual God. The term exoteric may also reflect the notion of divine identity outside and different from the identity of a human; exoteric can also embrace the pantheistic notion that the divine and the material world is one and the same.
 Esoteric knowing or understanding is more obscure, hidden, inner, inscrutable, impenetrable and even mystic (cannot be put into words). In terms of formal definition, esoterism signifies the holding of beliefs and derives from the Greek word for “within”, thus “pertaining to the more inward”, mystic. Its antonym is “exoteric“. In perennialist usage, esoterism is a metaphysical concept referring to a supposed “transcendent unity” of all great religious traditions. Esotericism is the metaphysical point of unity where exoteric religions are believed to converge. Frithof Schuon states that “Our starting point is the acknowledgment of the fact that there are diverse religions which exclude each other. This could mean that one religion is right and that all the others are false; it could mean also that all are false. In reality, it means that all are right, not in their dogmatic exclusivism, but in their unanimous inner signification, which coincides with pure metaphysics, or in other terms, with the philosophia perennis.” (F. Schuon, 1995). Perennial philosophy is the view that there is a recurrence of philosophical insight independent of time period or culture. In other words, there are universal truths about the nature of reality (ontology), humanity, consciousness, or religions. This recurrence is explained by asserting that the Cosmos is an all-encompassing unity and that Nature is sacred. Smith explains Schuon’s unique contribution to the debate on whether religions have a unifying basis as follows.

“Schuon draws a line between esoteric and exoteric. And immediately we begin to suspect that we are in the presence of something different. The fundamental distinction is not between religions; it is not . . . a line that . . . divides religions’ great historical manifestations vertically, [exoteric to esoteric], Hindus from Buddhists from Jews from Muslims from Christians, and so on. The dividing line is horizontal (organizations, canons, dogma, ritual, etc.) and it originates in structures of belief from exoteric to esoteric (Smith, P. xii).

Unity Religious Dogma, Practices, Rituals, etc.


Schuon’s claims about a fundamental unity of religions (esoteric-basic truths) have been argued by many theologians and theological scholars throughout history. This argument is coupled with the assertion that what divides religions is in the form and structures that MEN [Meyer’s emphasis] have created exoterically. However, Schuon goes beyond this fundamental unity versus irreconcilable differences debate. He claims a generic essence or “transcendent unity” of religions with God (or other nomenclature) at the apex. At this apex revealed religions converge but below the apex religions begin to diverge. As history and modernity show consistently, these divergences are exoteric and too often create devastating ravage of belief groups and civilizations.

A careful examination Figure 1 above shows esoterism is required to understand the fundamentals of religions and their unity at that level of higher understanding. Sometimes this esoteric understanding is direct without the constraints of language. Just as the most creative human beings in the state of “flow” (Cziksentmihali,1996) receive nonlinguistic understanding, deep esoteric understanding of the meaning of spiritual truth is often intuitive rather than analytic. All religions have masters who are greatly mystical in the sense that they understand many truths that they cannot express through language. These masters or sages simply understand at a highly esoteric spiritual level.  Once religions and consequent rules of conduct (exoteric canons) are created to carry the masters’ messages (exoteric canons), the unity of the various religions diverge often irreconcilably. Throughout history these dogmas, processes, and iconology have been created after conflicts between males. History shows that contesting dogmas have often resulted in there being “winners” and “losers” and often these losers are labeled “heretics” and sometimes put to death.

Schuon’s argues that the truth about religions is that there exists an absolute, categorical, undifferentiated Unity. His position precludes any ultimate distinction between human and divine, epistemologically between knower and known. (Smith, p. xiii.) All is One. I am. Schuon states his position as follows.

“The Absolute Unity that is God defies visualization or even consistent description, but is nonetheless required . . . The Unity must, however, be of an exceptional, indeed unique, kind, for it must include everything; if anything possessed reality apart from it, this would reintroduce the division that Absolute Unity by definition precludes. . . [however] Man’s mind cannot imagine a Something that excludes nothing save distinctions, any more than [from physics] it visualizes light that is simultaneously wave and particle, electrons that jump orbit [quantum leaps] without traversing the intervening space, or a particle that travels alternate paths simultaneously without dividing. Physics transcends the paradoxes nature poses for human imagery and the ordinary language that derives from it by means of mathematics: nature cannot consistently provide material images but it can be consistently conceived, through equations. Metaphysics in the etymological meaning of that which lies ‘after’ or beyond physis, or nature, transcends by means of the Intellect the parallel paradoxes that Reality poses for language and visualization.” (Smith, pp. xiii-xiv.)

In other words, the universe (or perhaps multiverses) does not provide conveniently observable material that the human being can understand through the five senses. How then do the great masters receive their wisdom that provides other human beings with actionable guidelines for living with others? Often this wisdom is direct, without words, mystical.

A Short Précis on Mysticism or Direct Knowledge

Often the word “mysticism” creates negative images of some kind of magic. The World English Dictionary defines mysticism as a positive process: 1. “a belief or experience of a reality surpassing normal human understanding or experience; 2. a system of contemplative prayer and spirituality aimed at achieving direct intuitive experience of the divine.”

Smith speaks of mystic understanding as intuition.

“The Intellect is not reason. Reason proceeds discursively, through language, and like a bridge, joins two banks, knower and known, without removing the river between. The intellect knows intuitively and (as noted above) identifies the knower with what he knows, causing one to become the other. Or rather, to invoke again the point about time, the Intellect is the Absolute as manifest in the human soul: Meister Eckhart states the case precisely when he writes: ‘There is something in the soul that is uncreated and uncreatable: . . . . this something is the Intellect.’ What appears from the mundane perspective as the Intellect coming to know the Absolute is in actuality the Intellect as Absolute-in-man becoming perceptible to phenomenal awareness.  Atman is Brahman from the beginning, ‘Wonder of wonders, all things intrinsically are the Buddha-nature.’” (Smith, P. xiv – xv).

As a result of his lifetime of study AND practice of extant religions Huston Smith published his still best-selling book The World’s Religions. He adheres to his “perennialist” view of the unity of religions to explain religious throughout history.

In the 2008 book by Henry Rosemont and Huston Smith Is There a Universal Grammar of Religion, Smith summarized his lifetime scholarship with a complex diagram on the trans-historical unity of religions. Most of the rest of this paper will focus on the Rosemont and Smith book which will be a classic. Figure 2 on the following page shows Smith’s diagram and this will focus the reader on Smith’s comparisons of world religions and the varying terminologies that state similar concepts. Following Figure 2 is a glossary of the terminologies that have been utilized in Hinduism, Buddhism, Chinese religions (Dao and Confucianism), Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These terminologies all show what Smith shows as a unity. The diagram will make even more sense when I review both Smith’s 14 principles that determine this unity and Henry Rosemont’s critique of Smith’s viewpoints.


Click to view graphic larger – Diagram 2

Glossary for Diagram 2 – Terminologies

Sfmyatéi. Emptiness as essence of all things.
 Nirvana. State of perfect tranquility.
 Dharmakaya. One of the bodies of the Buddha.
 Bodhisattvas. Those who have awakened to the aspiration
of enlightenment. Sambogakaya. The “enjoyment body” considered to be the
reward of Buddhahood.
 Apsaras/Devakanyé. Goddesses in general; female devas;
attendants on the regents of the sun and moon; wives of
 Ghandhawas; the division of sexes throughout the _
 Nirmanakaya. The manifest, or body that transforms.
The appearance of the Buddha that takes the form of those
whom he teaches.
 Buddha-Nature (Buddha Gotra). The capacity of all
sentient beings to attain to Buddhahood; gotra means
Alayawijiana. Storehouse of consciousness, the eighth
consciousness, or sensory perception.
 Manowijiana. The seventh consciousness, the
consciousness of the mind, the mind realm-a subtler type
of mental functioning. Sad Vijiiana. The six senses, or the sensory perceptions.

Nirguna Brahman. Gunas are the three composites of nature. Nlr-gunas is nature without the three composites: sattva. The first of the three composites; the luminous aspect of nature, pure and pacified light that dominates over the being that has attained knowledge. rajas. That which represents activity and produces movement. tamas. The twilight that dominates animal nature, it connotes ignorance and inertia.
 Saguna Brahman. Sa-gupas is mature with the three composites Brahman is the most used term for the Absolute in the Hindu tradition. It denotes pure being, pure conscience, the limitless. 
Devas in Lokas. Loka, world, is the region of the universe distinguished by those who live in, or rule over it.
 Prakrti. Nature; materiality.
 Turiya (Atman) Atman is the personal pronoun that denotes the reflexive of the third person singular: himself. It also denotes the eternal principle that animates the empirical individual. It is the eternal principle which is inside each the human being and asks one to give up all that is material, in order to harmonize with Brahman. It is “human,” since only human beings have the possibility of deliverance.
 Causal body (Iiva). in the Katha Llpanishad “The individual soul . . . the jiva is one with the universal”
 Subtle body (Manas). The mind, subtle body, both an intimal organ and the “common sense” that assures the relation between lltman with all that is empirical.
 Gross body (Rupa). The physical body, or the four
elements (earth, air, fire, water).

 Huwiya Ghaiba. The unmanifested suchness. The term is often translated as He-ness, it-ness, or quiddityIzzah. The inaccessibility of God due to his sovereign power, the strength of possibilities due to the fact that they have no opposites.
 al-Iabbarut. The sphere of domination, invincibility, or imaginal world.
 al-Malakut. World of dominion, or spiritual world.
 al-Mulk. The kingdom of God, or corporeal world.
 Note: The standard texts following three terms denote the basic worlds of both the macrocosm (universe) and the microcosm (human, individual). Some Sufis reverse the
order of the last two: al-mulk-the kingdom, or corporeal world; al-jabbarut-the invincibility, or imaginal world; al-malakut-world of dominion, spiritual world).
 qalb. The heart as a place of transformation, change,
variableness, inconsistency. The heart is His Throne and not delimited by any specific
attribute, it brings together all the divine names and attributes (Quran 17:11O).
 fitrah. The primordial nature of every human being.
 ruh. Soul.
 nafs. Psyche.
jinn. Beings of fire.
Note: According to Ibn ‘Arabi and his teachings, the microcosm reflects the macrocosm in two ways: as a hierarchy of existence and as a divine form, a theomorphic entity. Three subsets of the macrocosm are represented in man as: ruh, the spiritual; nafs, imaginal; jinn, corporeal. The human spirit is also God’s spirit, al ruhal idafi, i.e., attributed to God. It is a term which suggests its ambiguousstatus: both divine and human at once.

: Unspeakable Tao. The Way; underlying order of things which cannot be named.
 T’ien. Heaven; what is given by Nature.
 Shen/kuei. Heaven and Earth.
 Shen. Spirits, the gods, deities; supernatural beings.
 Kuei. Ghosts; disembodied spirits. 10,000 Things. The myriad phenomena; “all things under heaven.”
 Shen-ti. Physical body; material human body. ling. Soul; soul o fthe departed; spiritual world. 
hsin/xin . Mind; the heart (as repository of feelings, intelligence, and thought).

Huston Smith, Henry Rosemont and the Universal Beliefs of the World’s Religions

In 2008 Henry Rosemont, Jr. and Huston Smith co-authored their book Is There a Universal Grammar of Religion? Rosemont, the progenitor of this book, wrote in the Preface  the following:

“In 1958, with the publication of The Religions of Man, later Revised as The World’s Religions, Huston Smith brought before The American public a new way of thinking about religion. He was not the first Christian scholar to have studied the various scriptures of the great religions and among them to have found deep consonances that far outweigh the differences. What Professor Smith added to this was a courageous open-mindedness that allowed him to go beyond merely literary comparisons and to actively participate in the daily observances and the esoteric practices of other religions. Having grown up in China as the son of missionaries, he traveled to Muslim countries and sat at the feet of Sufi masters; he lived in Japan and joined Zen monks in their practice of still meditation; he studied Vedanta in India. . . . he was able, in his groundbreaking book, to describe the world’s religions with a fresh authority. . . he was able to get to the heart of what religions actually mean to the people who practice them. His conclusion was that all religions can servetheir adherents in the same ways. Each is based on underlying propositions that reappear in others. . . it isplain, he argued, that all religions have validity and deserve equal respect.” (Rosemont, 2008, p. viii).

In other words, Smith has deduced through his exceptional scholarship and direct study with masters these religions and finds a unity at the esoteric level.

Smith’s countless books, essays, recorded lectures, and a series with Bill Moyers point to a unity of religions and other trans-historical wisdom traditions elucidated by the true sages of human history. In this sense, Huston Smith can be included with those scholars who study “perennial philosophy” that was introduced in 1945 in the now classic book by Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy in. In addition Smith’s viewpoint coincides with Joseph Campbell’s arguments for a unity of mythology.

In March of 2005, Professor Smith presented a talk titled the Universal Grammar of Religion as the fifth annual Venerable Hsuan Hua Memorial Lecture at Cal-Berkeley. This paper was later published in the journal
Religion East and West. Henry Rosemont, a student of Professor Noam Chomsky, argues that Chomsky’s “universal grammar” and Smith’s “perennialist” viewpoint are functionally comparable.

Now I will provide a quick summary of the points made in Smith’s lecture in 2005. My intent is to tie Smith’s conclusions about Schoun’s exoteric versus esoteric dichotomy. In addition, the 14 “fixed points” in the religious world according to Smith provide a substance that unifies major religions throughout history including both exoteric dogmas and esoteric mystical viewpoints. These beliefs are, akin to Chomsky’s claims about native languages, hard-wired and perennial. So. Smith’s conclusions about a unifying content of all religions are based on the following 14 fundamental premises.

1.Reality is infinite.

2.The infinite includes the finite. Augustine describes it well when he referred to God as a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.

3.The contents of finitude are hierarchically ordered. The “great chain of being” is the idea of a universe composed of an infinite number of links ranging in hierarchical order from the most meager kind of existence through every possible grade up to the boundless Infinite.

4. Causation is from the top down. It extends from the infinite down through descending degrees of reality. This assertion requires some extended attention as written in Smith’s own words in the paragraphs below (gdm).

“For three centuries science challenged this claim, but it is beginning to change its mind, and this requires some commentary.

Science is empirical; everything within it, except for mathematics, spins off from our physical senses. The fact that those senses connect only with physical objects and that the entire house of science if founded on our physical senses has led scientists to assume that matter is the fundamental stuff of the universe. Their familiar scenario begins with the Big Bang which issued in the smallest conceivable entities – quarks, strings, what have you – that continuously grouped themselves into progressively more complex entities until, in the latest nanosecond of cosmic time, life consciously emerged. It’s upward causation all the way.

What is causing scientists to reconsider that scenario is their dawning realization that it contains no explanation of why complexity increases. To say that it rides the Big Bang’s momentum is no good, for no one knows what powered the Big Bang in the first place. And to say that complex forms emerged is a descriptive, not an explanatory concept. (gdm: See Stuart Kauffman, The Invention of the Sacred, 2009).

All this is leading scientists to think that the foundational feature of the universe is not matter but information. (See Seth Lloyd, Programming the Universe: A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes on the Cosmos, 2006.) This changes the job of science, which scientists have assumed was to identify underlying structures that have to obey certain equations no matter what. Now, however, the world is seen as a hierarchy of nested systems – holons – that convey information, and the job of physical theory is to extract as much information from  those systems as possible. This frees science from the reductionist project of forcing nature into its procrustean, empirical bed and turns scientists into inquirers who
ask nature questions, obtaining answers and always remaining open to the possibility that nature has deeper levels to divulge. Nothing of substance in mechanist science is lost. The thing that does give way is that physics is a bottom-up affair in which the knowledge of a system’s parts determines knowledge of the system as a whole. In the informational approach the whole is invariably greater than the sum of its parts, which the religious worldview asserts in its top-down causation.) (Smith, 2008, pp. 7-9.)

5. The One becomes the many. In descending to the finite, the singularity of the infinite splays out into multiplicity. . . the parts of the many are virtues; they retain in lesser degree the signature of the infinite. . . It is good simply to exist. As for virtues other than existence are, India begins with sat, chat, ananda – Being, consciousness, bliss. The West’s ternary is the good, the true, and the beautiful, and these beginnings open out into creativity, compassion, and love until we arrive at Islam’s Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names of God. The hundredth name on the Muslim rosary is absent because it is unutterable.

6. As virtues ascend the causal ladder, their distinctions fade and they begin to merge. At the top of the pyramid . . . differences, which symbolize separation, completely disappear in divine simplicity. . . We might speak about distinctions without differences, but no amount of verbal legerdemain of that sort can more than paper over the profound paradoxes when we try to understand God with our finite minds. . . God is the conventional English for the Infinite, but the Good, the True, the Real, the Almighty, the One, and so on, are equally appropriate.

7. At the top of the pyramid, absolute perfection reigns.

Absolute perfection is indeed a staggering concept, for it seems flatly contradicted daily with the horrors we read about every day.
. . . Of course we must come face to face with the problem of evil. Human beings are capable of great nobility and horrendous evil. Our primary mistake is to put ourselves ahead of others. We cannot get rid of that error, but we can work to restrain it. We must remember that in the eyes of all the religions, the physical universe is transitory and there is always the possibility that we are progressing toward the ideal world that sages and religions prescribe.

8. As above, so below. Everything that is outside us is also inside us – “the Kingdom of God is within you.” We intersect, inhabit, all the echelons of the chain of being. . . The complete picture shows the ineffable, unutterable, apophatic which is to say unspeakable – God . . . Mind is more important than body, our multiple souls more important that our mind, and Spirit, which is identical in us all, is more important than the soul.

9. Human beings cannot fully know the infinite. Intimations of it seep into us occasionally, but more than this we cannot manage on our own. . . Nature does the same thing by building this Universal Grammar of languages in our heads. We did not create that. It came from outside. . . my ontological (nature of being) claims are that there is a world independent of us; that we are in the world; But, I must underscore my belief that the world is there first, and there objectively.

10. Revelations have to be interpreted. We have the science of exegis, which is the critical interpretation of religious appearances and texts. . . to discover their intended meaning. . . the four stages ascending importance and interpretation are the literal (meaning of text), the ethical (how are we to behave toward others) , the allegorical (e.g. parables, mythologies), and the analogic (capacity of a text to inspire).

11. All of these factors were once taken for granted. This changed with the twentieth-century fundamentalism and the literalism it fixes upon. . . Just as scientists recognize that their domain cannot be described in everyday language still we can get to their domain – we know about it from them but they must use mathematics, numbers, and equations that most of us cannot understand. The same goes for religion. The only way we can access the upper levels of reality leading up to God is through our text’s technical language which consists of symbols, stories, koans, etc. But we can also grasp meanings of the sacred through poetry, music, dance, art, and meaningful prose. That is how we can be helped to grasp the meanings of God as a higher power.

12. There are two ways of knowing; the rational and the intuitive (or mystical). Blaise Pascal’s famous aphorism “The heart has reasons the mind know not of.”  He was thinking of his scientific mind here. The “heart” was his word for the organ through which burst the epiphany that turned his concern from only science to science-and-religion. . . But he never intended to dismiss his interest in philosophy and learning about the fundamental problems of human existence. . . All of the religions of the world spell out the distinction between the sacred and intuition. In the West there is intellect (intellectus, gnosis, sapentia) and reason (rational). In Sanscrit, buddhi is not manes; in Islam ma’rifah, situated in the heart, is not aql, situated in the brain. In Hinduism, the knowledge that effects union with God is not discursive: it has the immediacy of direct vision, or sight. Every religion has a branch that emphasizes mystic (direct) knowing.

13. Religions have outsides and insides. As walnuts have shells that house kernals, outer, exoteric forms house the interior, esoteric cores. . . Esoterics are comfortable with abstractions while exoterics need ideas to be concrete and representational to be clear. It follows that exoterics like to think of the infinite in personal terms, whereas esoterics, while subscribing to the idea of infinite-clothed-in-human-attributes, are at the same time aware if the danger that can easily turn into anthropomorphism, into making God too human. . . We need God to be both like us – or we have a hard time connecting with her/him – but we also need God to be unlike us, because we cannot worship ourselves with awe.

14. What we know is ringed about with darkness. To cognition a darkness remains.. We are born in ignorance, we live in ignorance, and we die in ignorance. In relation to the infinite we stand as less than a simple protein in a single cell on a human finger. Though it is alive the protein cannot know the cell in which it lives. . . So much less are we in this mass of the universe and in the Infinite beyond it. Again, we are born in mystery, we live in mystery, and we die in mystery.

Henry Rosemont’s Reply to and Critique of Smith’s 14 Unifying Standard Beliefs

Intimations of the Infinite

Huston Smith was a colleague of Noam Chomsky at MIT from 1958-1973. During this time Chomsky’s concept of Universal Grammar revolutionized the study of linguistics. Chomsky argued that a Universal Grammar is built into the human mind and creates the structure of every human language. But only recently did Smith begin to think that Chomsky’s concept might also be applicable to the study of religions. Henry Rosemont arrived to MIT in 1969 as a student of Chomsky. Much later (2007) did Rosemont suggest to Smith that they might cooperate on the book The Universal Grammar of Religion which was published in 2008. Rosemont makes it clear in the Introduction of this book that “I am not a Christian, do not believe in God or gods, am terrified at the possibility of surviving in any way the destruction of my body, and believe that the idea of a transcendent reality is not only false, but mischievous, to the extent that is causes us to lose sight of the splendor, majesty, and spiritual significance of this world – the only world I believe we will ever know”. (Rosemont, The Universal Grammar of Religion, p. xiv).

Nevertheless, Rosemont praises Smith’s work in this book which is:

“a final distillation of Smith’s lifetime of study, practice, and insight. He describes a Universal Grammar of religion, in which
he claims fourteen points of substantial identity among the great traditions. Since these points, he argues, are universals, it is evident that a capacity to respond to them must belong to the
innate psychophysical makeup of human beings.” (Rosemont & Smith, p. viii).

Rosemont also praises Smith’s updating of his original Master Hsuan Hua Memorial Lecture given in 2005:

“In his lecture Huston Smith has given us, as he always does, much to reflect upon. I believe it is fair to say there are “intimations of the infinite” in it, to use a phrase of his I will return to several times, and I therefore want to follow him on his tenth point, where he says that intimations of the infinite (and revelation as well) have to be interpreted, hence the science of exegesis, which is how his response will be best read. (Rosemont and Smith, 2008, p. 22) [exegesis defined: a critical explanation or interpretation of a text or portion of a text, esp. the Bible and the Koran).”

Rosemont studied with and was greatly influenced by the work of Noam Chomsky’s theory of language. Rosemont is a believer in and follower of Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar [grammar defn: the study of the way the sentences of a language are constructed; a set of rules accounting for these constructions;  syntax:  prescribed forms of language and the rules or patterns of grammatical sentences in a language; morphology: the study of the word formation in a language – composition.] Rosemont argues that Smith and Chomsky have much intellectually in common.

“Huston Smith has long demonstrated a particular genius for finding analogies that illuminate, usually in comparative perspectives, dimensions, dimensions of religion and religious experiences that are of value to students , scholars, adherents,  and adepts (experts) alike. There are, however, some other features of Chomsky’s Universal Grammar which do not, in my opinion, fit well with Huston Smith’s account. . . Linguistic experience and religious experience are very different, to the extent that some scholars of religion  even deny that the expression ‘religious experience’ is meaningful, which no one would be inclined to say of the world of language.” (Ibid., pp. 22-23).

This short critique of Smith’s Master Hsuan Lecture in the quoted paragraph above is rather nitpicking .(gdm comment). Otherwise, Rosemont tends to agree with Smith’s arguments comparing Chomsky’s views of global linguistics with a natural unity of religious beliefs by human beings over time and space. Rosemont provides an overview of Chomsky’s linguistic theory.

“Chomsky’s reasoning is straightforward:

If there are principles that speakers of a language or dialect demonstrably follow from childhood on, but that were not or could not have been learned solely on the basis of direct linguistic experience or tutoring, then those principles must form part of the cognitive endowment that all human beings bring to bear in acquiring their native tongue.”  (Rosemont and Smith, Ibid., p. 23)  . . . for Chomsky, the interesting scientific question is how we come to learn[language] at such an early age with virtually no explicit instruction. . . how can we come to know . . . Universal Grammar that operates abstractly on structures not given in experience. . . Chomsky devoted his professional life as a theoretical linguist to studying the specific mental structures by means of which all normal human beings come to be competent speakers of their native language or dialect fairly independently of intelligence of motivation, with minimal and frequent degenerate inputs, and with no formal instruction”.  (Ibid., p. 25–26).

Rosemont describes these innate abilities as “mentally and physiologically constituted as they are” and labels Chomsky’s view  “homoversal principles”. Given this overlap, Rosemont would change Huston Smith’s lecture title from the “Universal Grammar of Religion to “Homoversal Grammar of Religion”. (Ibid., p. 27).
Rosemont does agree that Huston Smith’s comparison of the formation of trans-historical religious beliefs with Chomskyan linguistic findings is valid and useful. Rosemont’s reasoning is that

“Chomsky has postulated [that] similar mental capacities . . . [are embodied] in music, mathematics, personality discrimination, facial recognition, and other areas where human beings seem to behave quite skillfully [and creatively] . . . and where they have been exposed to little empirical data that can account for how the skill was acquired . . . across time, space, and culture. . . I have extended the Chomskyan model of the [creative] human mind to the field or ethics and aesthetics, claiming that here too, we can find evidence of homoversal principles holding for all human beings,  mentally and physiologically constituted as they are. And I believe that is exactly what Huston Smith is doing in the field of religion.  (Ibid, pp. 27-28).

Rosemont elaborates on the interconnectedness of the views of Chomksy and Smith with the following comments.

“. . . just as all human societies have abstract-underlying  principles governing the languages spoken in them, so also do their religions and religious practices – which is not as simplistic a generalization as it may appear when it is remembered and emphasized, again, that the underlying  principles of Universal Grammar are not directly given in experience[s]. In just the same way, what Smith calls, and, I would suggest that we all can understand  him – ‘intimations of the infinite’ are not directly given in experience either; yet, unless suffering from a kind of religious aphasia [loss of ability to speak as result of brain injury], almost everyone has had such experiences, across time, space, and culture”. (Ibid., p. 29).

Rosemont recognizes that he “must be careful” to include Darwinian evolution in his arguments. He does agree with Darwin’s findings that evolutionary physiology and mental capabilities developed because they confer selective advantages to species. But he points out that linguistics research finds that not all language provides advantages to the evolution of homo sapiens.

“that there are certain features of human language capacity that do not appear to aid communication in any way, or, in other cases, cannot be used at all because of interference from other mental capacities or the lack of an efficient parser (ability to utilize grammatical rules).

Rosemont supports Smith’s argument that human beings have a
“capacity” to have “intimitations of the infinite”, “to apprehend what is what is beyond and behind our normal sensory experiences (gdm: esoteric or mystical). And the evidence for this claim can be found in the sacred texts and practices of all of the world’s religions, distant from each other in time and space. I believe would call these intimations ‘religious experiences,’ and I would call them that, too, despite the arguments of many reductionists in the field of religious studies who have departed from the stance of William James in the study of religion in a way that Smith has not.” (Idid., p. 31).

Rosemont argues against the position of scientific reductionism through an autobiographical comment by William James in his classic book The Varieties of Religious Experience:

“I can, of course, put myself into the sectarian scientist’s attitude, and imagine vividly that the world of sensations and scientific laws and objects may be all. But whenever I do this, I hear that inward monitor of which W.K. Clifford once wrote, whispering the word ‘bosh!’ Humbug is humbig, even though it bear the scientific name, and the total expression of human experience, as I view it objectively, invincibly urges me beyond the narrow ‘scientific’ bounds.’ (William James, 1960, p. 391).

Although Rosemont both praises and criticizes Smith’s diagram of the “grammar of religion” (Page 7 herein) he provides a rationale for each position.

“I believe the diagram that Smith has given us here begins to flesh out his idea of the ‘grammar’ of religion on the basis of conclusions he has drawn from his decades –long study of the major religions of the world in comparative perspective. The diagram looks outward and ‘upward’ toward the heavens; it also looks inward and ‘downward’ as Smith says, to that which ‘lies deepest within us.’ He finds four similar “chains of being” in each tradition – material, invisible, celestial, and the infinite (or ineffable). . . Parallel to this upward orientation, the other arrow points us inward orientation . . . to four other “chains of being” – body, mind, soul, and spirit. . . Some scholars will undoubtedly criticize Smith’s schematization as too neat and tidy; forcing much too much that is disparate in each of the world’s religious heritages into the same procrustean boxes. I, too, would cavil (def’n: to raise irritating and trivial objections) at some of the juxtapositions, but I believe that a great may similarities he has found in this studies are there to be found, provided one looks at the deeper structures underlying the religions  (gdm: esoteric) . . . rather than looking at their surface structures (gdm: exoteric) such as rituals, myths, legends, practices.” (Ibid., p. 36).

Finally, Rosemont supports his conclusions by coupling his views with Chomsky.

“Huston Smith . . . places the mystery more outside the human realm. . . than either Chomsky or I would do, even though he makes clear in his fourth point that all knowledge of the physical world (science), apart from mathematics, comes through our senses. . . My own view, and I suspect Chomsky’s as well, is more Kantian on this score: that is the appearances are all that we will ever have, and so ontological (nature of being) statements that go beyond them, except at the level of common sense, must remain speculative, concerns of faith undoubtedly, but not of science, nor of knowledge.” (Ibid., pp. 43-44). “Not only are the metaphysical (nature of man and reality) pronouncements of the world’s religions incompatible with each other, they are all, as I argued earlier, incompatible with . . . pronouncements of physics, biology, and geology. . . In summary, I am strongly inclined to support Smith’s overall employment of Chomsky’s conceptual orientation as a means of deepening our understanding of religion, and do so for reasons that are even deeper with respect to that orientation than Huston intimates in his lecture. But Smith seems to go farther, and with his ontological (origins of life) pronouncements enters what I would take to be the field of theology, where I do not feel qualified to follow him.” (Ibid., pp. 51-52).

Meyer thoughts for future papers

There are two areas that seem pertinent for further conversation brought about by the dialogue between Huston Smith and Henry Rosemont. First are the findings of Joseph Campbell about the historical similarities of trans-historical mythological stories. The second area is to discuss complexity (chaos) theory with particular emphasis on Stuart Kauffman’s biological views of what he labels “autocatalytic self-organizing systems. I will finish this paper with a quote from Kauffman to stimulate your interest in the forthcoming paper on this topic.

“If no natural law suffices to describe the evolution of the biosphere, of technological evolution, of human history, what replaces it? In its place is a wondrous radical creativity without a supernatural Creator. Look out your window at the life teeming about you. All that has been going on is that the sun has been shining on the earth for some 5 billion years. Life is about 3.8 billion years old. The vast tangled bank of life, as Darwin phrased it, arose all on its own. This web of life, the most complex system we know of in the universe , breaks no law of physics, yet is partially lawless, ceaselessly creative. So, too, are human history and human lives. This creativity is stunning, awesome, and worthy of reverence. One view of God is that God is our chosen name for the ceaseless creativity in the natural universe, biosphere, and human cultures. We need a place for our spirituality, and a Creator God is one such place. I hold that it is we who have invented God, to serve our most powerful symbol. It is our choice how wisely to use our own symbol to orient our lives and our civilizations. I believe we can reinvent the sacred. We can invent a global ethic, in a shared space, safe to all of us, with one view of God as the natural creativity of the universe”. (Stuart Kauffman, 2008. Reinventing the Sacred).

Serious spiritual seekers have a lifetime of work on their own realizations and partial understanding of the perennial conclusions of the sages not only in the 21st Century but also in all of “big history”. This very personal pursuit is self-rewarding to the degree that it brings a modicum of spiritual completeness as each of us works within the limited time available to understand the nature of being now and perhaps beyond as our energy is released back into the universe. For anyone and all who read this 16 page document your reaction and comments are very welcome. This analysis will appear on, my unfolding webpage – dialogue is very welcome.

Dale Meyer, March 2011 (7482 words) References follow.
Suggested Readings on Trans-historical Spiritual and Religious Meanings

Karen Armstrong. 2006. The Great Transformation: The Beginnings of Our Religious Traditions, New York: Random House Anchor Books.

Karen Armstrong. 2009. The Case for God, New York: Alfred Knopf.

Karen Armstrong. 2010. Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, New York: Alfred Knopf.

Joseph Campbell. 1986. The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: As Myth and As Religion, New York: Alfred van der Marck Editions.

Joseph Campbell. 1990. The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work. Ed. Phil Cousineau. New York: Harper and Row.

Joseph Campbell. 2001. Thou Art That. Ed. Eugene Kennedy. Novato, CA: New World Library.

Aldous Huxley. 1945. The Perennial Philosophy: An Interpretation of the Great Mystics, East and West. New York: Harper Collins.

Henry Rosemont and Huston Smith. 2008. Is There a Universal Grammar of Religon? Chicago: Open Court.

Frithhof Schuon. 1993, The Transcendent Unity of Religions, Wheaton, Illinois: Quest Books of the Theosophical Publishing House.

Huston Smith. Original Copyright 1958, reissued in 1991.The World’s Religions. San Francisco: Harper
Huston Smith. 2003, 3rd Ed. Beyond the Postmodern Mind, Wheaton, Illinois: Quest Books of the Theosophical Publishing House.