Are all of the major religions different layers of the same reality or universal truth?
From the outset of my studies in transpersonal psychology, I was challenged by a specific aspect of the transpersonal: the tension around the ideas of perennial philosophy (that postulates the theory of universal truth at the core of major religions) and that of pluralism. In exploring these perspectives, I came to see them as approaching the same goal of reducing the detriments of tribalism and increasing feelings of allegiance and equanimity among different religions/cultures from "opposite" approaches.
Throughout my studies, I gained a deeper understanding of why I felt such tension over these two philosophies. For decades I had unconsciously operated from an assumption of and a bias towards the perennial -- of course there is a common denominator among the world’s religions and they each flow out from the same central, universal truth! I had never really examined this assumption until challenged to do just that in a class dialogue addressing our thoughts on the two being compatible. I recognized some cognitive dissonance I had been experiencing while engaging in the pluralistic work of Cultural Proficiency as an educator.
Examining this dissonance and sitting with that tension was uncomfortable, but it allowed me to make some interesting discoveries. In my pondering, I realized that I wasn’t all that interested in debating the “reality” or “truth” of the perennial. At one point, I expressed it in these terms: “maybe there is and maybe there isn’t a universal truth – the more I thought about it the less sure I became about it, and the more sure I was that it really doesn’t matter to me…”
What I found to be much more significant was the goal of this philosophy, which seems to be coming to understand and respect our spiritual commonalities as strongly as we do our differences, so as to free ourselves from the detriments of tribalism. Rather than debating if there actually is a "universal truth," it felt more important to me to discuss the implications of peoples exploring their commonalities with other peoples, especially ones of a spiritual nature. As Wilber (2017) stated, “In many ways the appeal to recognize sameness in others, harmony in diversity, is also a call to a kind of federalism. That is to say such a recognition will enable the people of the world to hold an allegiance to the whole as well as the particular...”
Looking at it from this perspective, then of course there will be allegiance to the whole (all is one) as well as one's particular religion/spiritual belief system. However, if there is no universal truth, such an allegiance becomes more challenging, though not impossible to attain, to the “other.” I say not impossible because I believe that by engaging in such challenges in good faith, we may come to find ourselves at the deepest levels of equanimity.
Religious pluralism offers opportunities in facing such challenges. Pluralism focuses on actively engaging along the lines of differences rather than similarities as a way of deepening understanding and appreciation of those differences as well as our commonalities. By “holding our deepest differences not in isolation but in relation to one another” and by “speaking and listening to uncover and understand commonalities as well as real differences,” (Eck, 2006), we can work toward that goal of coming to understand and respect our spiritual commonalities in a way that also deepens our understanding of and reverence for the differences. You don't need to believe what I believe, but how wonderful it is for you to hold my relationship with the Divine with as much respect as you give others who believe as you do. I appreciate such grace and look to offer such graciousness to others. How wonderful it is to deeply respect another's pursuit in working towards the highest good!
I believe that at this time in history, we as a collective are being called upon to engage with each other in such pluralistic ways rather than hold differences in tolerance at best and in contempt at worst. I appreciate and value the beauty in the perennial philosophy even as my practices and work often bend toward the pluralistic.
I believe that now is the time for us to have, respectfully but also quite candidly, these difficult conversations across many realms, not just the spiritual. And these tough conversations seem to be cropping up in all arenas more frequently lately. I don't think this is by accident, nor is it something to avoid, which we tend to do. On the contrary, I believe that it is through having such difficult conversations that we begin to heal the wounds of tribalism and emerge with greater allegiance to each other, seeing and honoring our individual differences while feeling a sacred duty to honor and protect our shared humanity and divinity, moving forward into a new way of being together as one.
“I came to the conclusion long ago that all religions were true and also that all had some error in them, and while I hold by my own religion, I should hold other religions as dear as Hinduism. So we can only pray, if we were Hindus, not that a Christian should become a Hindu; but our innermost prayer should be that a Hindu should become a better Hindu, a Muslim a better Muslim, and a Christian a better Christian." ~ Mahatma Gandhi
Eck, D. L. (2006). What Is Pluralism? President and Fellows of Harvard College and Diana Eck. Accessed from http://pluralism.org/what-is-pluralism/.
Prentice, R. Perennial Philosophy – Two Views / A) By Ken Wilber and B) By Deb Platt. (2007). Accessed from https://sunwalked.wordpress.com/2007/08/12/perennial-philosophy-two-views-a-by-ken-wilber-and-b-by-deb-platt/.