If we think of religion as a tree, then we can appreciate how its essential nature is rooted in mystical experience, channels this experience into an organizational structure, and expresses it outwardly in the distinctive virtues of ethical life. In a condition of systemic health, religion serves the vital function of integrating these mystical, institutional, and ethical priorities.
The problem is, religions haven’t been healthy for a long time.
Approaching the eighth century BCE, religions throughout the higher cultures were growing more concerned over maintaining control of their populations, mandating what devotees believed, how they behaved, and where they belonged. Enforcing conformity became a near-preoccupation, with an increasing number of heretics, apostates, and freethinkers persecuted and killed under their regimes.
The standardization of religion had begun, and orthodoxy (“correct opinion” or true belief) came into prominence. As a consequence, many religions were cut off from their life-source and succumbed to disorders of complacency, dogmatism, division, and violence.
This is also when a transformation in culture and religion began, continuing into the second century BCE and comprising what the philosopher Karl Jaspers named the Axial Age, capturing the idea of a “great turning” or revolution in the way many people engaged with life and its deeper reality. Taking up a term coined by G.W. Leibniz in the 17th century and popularizing it for the 20th, Aldous Huxley published an anthology (1945) of stories, teachings, and insights from this “perennial philosophy” (philosophia perennis).
With this ancient yet timeless (perennial) love of wisdom (philo+sophia) reintroduced to popular consciousness, a similar critique of institutional religion as had inspired its founders millenniums earlier provoked a “New Age” in the spiritual adventure.
The perennial philosophy represents a deliberate breaking-through the floor of institutional religion – or, to invoke my earlier image of a tree, an intentional and disciplined descent of the soul’s inner life to its mystical ground of being. As the tradition developed, however, it began to take on features of institutional religion: hierarchies of authority, secret ceremonies, inner circles of initiation and membership, along with an esoteric orthodoxy of its own.
The 20th-century New Age movement was a kind of “thought carnival” in new revelations and strange cults, where anyone feeling bored or oppressed by conventional religion could find excitement and escape.
With traditional religions and mainline denominations in rapid decline these days, as far as their memberships and cultural relevance are concerned, our time is ripe for the transformation of a second Axial Age. The anticipated outcome will not amount to an updated remodeling and fresh face on the same thing as before. Our question is not about how religion today can recover itself and get back to what it once was.
This crisis of change is only a crisis as it concerns the institutional structure of religion, to what ought to be the living and flexible form that makes every religion recognizable (as a tree) yet distinct from others of its kind. Another turn along the axis of transformation demands more than a new reading of ancient texts or a contemporary (psychological) engagement with the great myths of our world cultures.
Insofar as the first Axial Age tended to lose focus and muddled around in otherworldly speculation and esoteric metaphysics, leaving religion essentially unchanged though more defensive and dogmatic than before, today religion needs to truly transform if it has any hope of speaking to our real spiritual and existential concerns.
I should pause here to reissue my running apology for religion and its crucial contribution to the health of culture and to our progress in self-actualization as a species – that is to say, when it is fully aligned and doing its job. If it happens not to be, this is no reason to reject religion outright, apart from all its dysfunctional examples and merely on principle.
In its essential work of linking (religare) the individual to his or her own inner ground, individuals to one another in community, and their community to the larger world as a force for social change, religion is properly regarded as the very substance of culture (Tillich) and not merely one of its passing forms.
Following that definition, it should be clear that the sickness and decline of religion is more likely a cause than a symptom of cultural decay, and that any attempt to surgically remove it will almost certainly result in the death of culture itself. Our challenge, then, is to cultivate the conditions for the flourishing of a mystically grounded, structurally sound, and ethically relevant religion today.
The irony is that many religions and religious believers renounce the very world they are supposed to redeem, and would prefer to escape this life rather than wake up before it’s over.
For this new Axial Age we need a fresh touchstone of awareness. No doubt, we will continue to find inspiration and refreshment in the timeless wisdom of the perennial philosophy, but a contemporary and timely restatement is in order. For my reader’s consideration I offer what might be called Sophia Perennis 2.0 – a deceptively simple image and archetype (a generative form) that can prompt our deeper reflection, guide our creative dialogue, and empower our collaborative efforts as a spiritual community-in-formation.
Instead of beginning our critique with some religion or other outside of us, the important work needs to start with ourselves first, looking closely at the presence or absence, strength or weakness, coherence or confusion of religion (religare) in our own daily life.
Is our life deeply rooted in the grounding mystery of being? Are we able to release our judgments, beliefs, and thoughts – even our identity as “the one who” thinks, believes, and forms judgments? Can we descend contemplatively to that deep space within and be silently present to the mystery of our existence in this moment? Are we willing to relax into being and rest in solitude, surrendering ourselves completely to the Spiritus Vitae (the breath of life) in us?
Are we able to translate that mystical experience of our grounding mystery into constructs of thought, belief, and meaning? Can we keep the trunk, limbs, and branches of our personal life strong yet supple and flexible at the same time? Is our worldview and philosophy of life sensitive to the deeper mystery manifesting in all things? Are we thoughtfully engaged with questions that stretch us to grow and include more of reality in our horizon of concerns? Can we hold our beliefs with an open mind and not become a prisoner to our own convictions?
And finally, as we mindfully cultivate inner peace in the ground of our being and allow it to rise and fill us with the joy of life (joie de vivre), are we willing to pour our joy into the world as love? As surely as a healthy fruit tree will bear good fruit in season, is it even possible for us to hold back our inner peace and pure joy from expression in selfless acts of kindness, generosity, and goodwill? Can we accept creative authority for the positive change we hope to see in the world? (Does the fruit tree hesitate over who is deserving of its cool shade and nourishing produce?)
Inwardly grounded and mindfully aware, what is there to be afraid of? What are we pretending not to know?