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What is perennialism?


The term perennialism is sometimes applied to education or to philosophy of religion. The two uses are related but not identical. In both contexts, perennialism refers to something enduring and universal. In education, this means focusing on broad, collectively valued principles and major themes, rather than specific facts or narrow interests. In spirituality, it suggests all religious ideas share a common truth. This approach to religion is most often referred to as perennial philosophy.

Religious pluralism typically comes in two granular approaches. The first presumes every religion has a mix of true and false components; those individual ideas, not the religions themselves, can be either right or wrong. The other suggests each religion has an overall view that is true, but limited. This second view is exemplified by the analogy of several blind men describing an elephant by touch, each in turn comparing the animal to a tree, a rope, a snake, or a spear, depending on where he touches the animal. In this analogy, each man’s experience is true, but incomplete.

Another form of religious pluralism is the suggestion that all spiritual views share a core truth; therefore, differences between religions are due to blurred perspectives. This “perennialism” implies a single starting point from which all spiritual beliefs have grown and suggests that each religion is simply an adaptation to a particular culture or person of universal, eternal truths. Of course, this approach collapses when one realizes that necessary aspects of different religions create irreconcilable contradictions with one another.

Aldous Huxley, writing in the mid-20th century, explained this concept in his book The Perennial Philosophy. Modern adaptations of New Age belief and recent expressions of syncretism are rooted in perennialism. Looking back through history, closely related ideas can be seen in Theosophy and Neoplatonism. As one might expect, perennial philosophy heavily emphasizes personal experience over objective ideas. “All roads lead to God” is not a sure sign of perennialist thinking, but perennialism almost always includes a vague version of that sentiment.

Taken in the broadest sense, some aspects of perennialism are true. A biblical worldview agrees that diverging religious beliefs stem from misunderstandings about universally applicable truths. That is, the Bible teaches that most of humanity has drifted from an accurate understanding of God (Romans 1:18–23; Hebrews 2:1). Like perennialism, biblical Christianity summarizes the history of religion as a series of branches from a universal starting point (Isaiah 53:6; Jude 1:3–4). God’s Word endorses the idea of approaching certain disagreements with tolerance (Romans 14:1–10).

However, perennialism suggests most disagreements between faiths are irrelevant or unimportant, while the Bible indicates some issues are of eternal importance (John 3:36; 14:6). God’s Word indicates that eternal truths have not changed, nor have they been lost. Scripture says good versus evil, right versus wrong, and truth versus lies are meaningful and objective distinctions (Isaiah 5:20; Romans 12:9; Hebrews 5:14; Revelation 20:11–12). Neither perennialism nor The Perennial Philosophy is biblical or compatible with Christian truth.

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This page last updated: January 4, 2022