The cataphatic disagreement of religions and their spiritual disunity

Recently, Kristor Lawson posted at the Orthosphere an article called “The Essential Disagreement of Religions”. While I’ve been busy with my studies during the last few days, it caught my attention, as I have written not so long ago about the subject of metaphysics and perennialism in relation to Christian exclusivism, and the subject is still frequently on my mind. So I decided to read James Cutsinger’s article “The Mystery of Two Natures”, and I was glad to read a more detailed explanation of subjects he talked about in interviews on YouTube. Before reading my article, I advise you all to read both Cutsinger’s article and Kristor’s response.

While I tend to have some sympathies for philosophia perennis, to the very least because it teaches virtue, asceticism and a transcendent order, I think that I would be doing a disservice to my fellow Christians, just as much as anyone who is interested in the Church and/or in Perennialism, if I did not voice my objections to Mr. Cutsinger’s ideas.

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I have assembled some key passages from Cutsinger’s text that could be useful to those who want to jump right in:

The solution [to the conflict between exclusivism and modernist ecumenism] for [Schuon] lies in an esoteric ecumenism—an ecumenism which is based upon a sacred science of symbols and which is designed to reveal the inward meaning of traditional religious doctrines and rites. “When a man seeks to escape from dogmatic narrowness,” he writes, “it is essential that it be ‘upwards’ and not ‘downwards’: dogmatic form is transcended by fathoming its depths and contemplating its universal content, and not by denying it in the name of a pretentious and iconoclastic ideal of ‘pure truth’”.

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Like every aspect of his message, Schuon’s Christology must be seen in light of his metaphysics, and the place to begin is with the principial distinction he so often makes in his work between the Absolute and the Relative, or Âtmâ and Mayâ. On the one hand there is That which cannot not be, the necessary, but on the other hand there is also that which need not be, the contingent or possible. “All other distinctions and valuations derive from this fundamental distinction.” As his readers know, this is a distinction which gives rise above all to the polarity of transcendence and immanence. To know that there is an Absolute, and to understand what It is, is to know that It is the only Reality. Only the Absolute is absolute, and in Its utter transcendence It completely eclipses the Relative, which in comparison is but an illusory nothingness. And yet to know that this Absolute is the only Reality is to know also that everything else is in some fashion It, for in Its independence and freedom from limits, It is equally infinite, and by virtue of this Infinitude It cannot but give rise to the Relative, in which It is immanent. Only Âtmâ truly is, but Mâyâ is the deployment and manifestation of Atmâ. Nothing truly exists except God, and yet whatever exists truly is God.

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Schuon is therefore perfectly orthodox in explaining that “if Christ addresses a prayer to His Father, it is not solely by reason of His human nature; it is also by reason of the Relativity of the uncreated Logos”. He continues: The words of Christ announcing His subordination are often attributed to His human nature alone, but this delimitation is arbitrary and interested, for the human nature is bound by its Divine content; if it is part of the Son, it must manifest that content. The fact that this human nature exists and that its expressions manifest its subordination, and by the same token the hypostatic subordination of the Son, shows that the interpretation of the Son as the first Relativity confronting the purely Absolute Father is not contrary to Scripture and is inherently irrefutable.

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[Schuon writes:] To recognize that the humanity of Christ is the vehicle of the Divine nature amounts to saying that if the human side is in one respect truly human, it is so in a way that is nonetheless different from the humanity of ordinary men. In a certain sense and a priori the Divine Presence transfigures, or transubstantializes, the human nature; the body of Christ is already, here below, what celestial bodies are, with the sole difference that it is nevertheless affected by some of the accidents of earthly life.

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What is true for the tradition is also true for Schuon. It is evident once again, from his many references to the Incarnation, that he was thoroughly steeped in the classic sources and arguments, and that he too was prepared to emphasize a real human nature in Christ. As I mentioned earlier, some Christians appear to have concluded from the fact that Schuon was an esoterist and a teacher of gnosis that he was a gnostic in the ancient sectarian sense, and perhaps for this reason they have been unwilling to study him closely enough to see how consistent his teaching is on this point with the Church. Jesus Christ, Schuon says unequivocally, “was incontestably man”, and therefore “He was bound to have certain limits”, the claims of heretical docetists notwithstanding. “There is no doubt,” he continues, “that the Man-God is, in a certain respect and by definition, a human individual; otherwise He would not be a man in any sense, and it would be impossible to speak of Him in any way.” Being ourselves of a formal and individual order, an individual form is necessary to ensure us access to God. This in effect was the whole point of the Incarnation: God became man precisely “for us men and for our salvation” (Nicene Creed). Moreover, this “individuality—the presence of which, in some mode or other, is an obvious thing in every man, since the human state is an individual one—cannot but be what it is by definition”, namely a condition of limitation. It is in the nature of things, says Schuon, that any human being must possess “the limitative attributes which constitute his essential definition, and failing which he would not be a human individual but something else”. Man is not God, to say the least; he is one kind of creature, and his distinction both from God and other creatures will necessarily exhibit itself in his human form and his manner of being. There should therefore be nothing unexpected in the fact that Jesus was limited in various ways, whether we think of His admitted ignorance in certain situations—the episode of the fig tree has been mentioned already—or the physical hardships to which His body was subject, or His real human emotions

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Consider what the Christian exclusivist says. Salvation is impossible, he asserts, apart from a conscious, explicit, and active faith in Jesus Christ, for Jesus is the only man in history who at the same time was God, and it therefore follows that He alone can rescue men from sin and death. This reasoning can be expressed in the form of a syllogism: God alone can save; Jesus is God; therefore, only Jesus can save. Now certainly the Schuonian will not object to the first proposition, for it is undeniably true that there is no possibility of salvation apart from Divine grace and the initiative of Heaven. The problem arises with the exclusivist’s understanding of the second claim, the minor premise of the syllogism. Jesus Christ is certainly God, but the exclusivist takes the further step of supposing that the verbal copula functions like the sign of identity in a mathematical equation, and hence that the nouns in the minor premise can be reversed: not only is Jesus God, but God is also Jesus. As a result, the unique and eternal nature of the Son’s Divinity is transposed onto the plane of history; the one-and-only quality of Him who was incarnate, “the only begotten Son of God”, is confused with the temporal and spatial particularity of His incarnation in Jesus, and His singularity in divinis is conflated with an event of a strictly factual or historical order. Now of course, to affirm that God is fully present in Christ is by no means false, and there is no question as to the formula’s great rhetorical power. But the homiletic or kerygmatic value of this expression should not blind us to its dialectical weakness, for as an ellipsis it risks identifying the Beyond-Being of the pure Absolute with the individuality of a particular human being.

Such an identification is the consequence of three very serious errors, each the result of collapsing an important distinction, and all strongly condemned—as we have seen—by the Christian tradition. To use Schuon’s terms, those who thus reason have confused the relative Absolute with Its principial Essence, they have failed to distinguish between the Principle and manifestation, and they have forgotten that the manifest Principle is not the same as manifestation as such. They have not understood, in other words, that orthodox Christology is a “combination of three polarities—man and God, terrestrial man and Divine man, hypostatic God and essential God”. Or again, in the language of the early Church, they have identified the First and Second Persons of the Holy Trinity, they have failed to discriminate between Christ’s Divinity and His humanity, and they have forgotten that Jesus was no ordinary man. Reverting to the technical vocabulary used by historians of doctrine, we must conclude that the exclusivist’s point of view is the product of three major heresies: modalistic monarchianism, monophysitism, and dynamic monarchianism. Ironically enough, it is only because he is three times a heretic that he believes himself to be so orthodox!

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I have gone to considerable lengths to demonstrate that Schuon’s teachings on Christ are compatible with those of the early Church, and that his universalism is therefore—at the very least—a legitimate Orthodox theologoumenon or theological opinion. But in the final analysis it is not a question of compatibility alone; it is not just the case, in other words, that the doctrine of the double nature can be conveniently reconciled with the perennialist perspective through some sort of artificial or Procrustean adaptation. On the contrary, the mystery of Christ is at the very heart of that perspective, serving in a sense as a key to Schuon’s entire approach to the world’s religions.

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As I have noted so often, Schuon was a master not only of gnosis but of the Bible and other traditional sources, and he knew in this case that Christ is “the true Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world” (Jn 1:9)—that He who “in the beginning” was “with God” and “was God” (John 1:1), and who therefore is “before Abraham was” (John 8:58), must also be the One “from whom arise all the ancient wisdoms”. Schuon knew, in other words, that it is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity through whom are revealed “the invisible things” of the Divine Principle, “even His eternal power and Godhead” (Rom 1:20), and that it is therefore He alone who accounts for the truth in any given tradition. It follows, however—if we have understood the subtleties of the doctrine—that every orthodox religion must be regarded as a kind of Incarnation and as possessing “two natures”. For in each of the world’s orthodox traditions, the Divinity of the Logos is indivisibly but unconfusedly manifest in an individual form, becoming fully present on earth, but without compromise to either Its principial or Its celestial integrity.

I will construct my article by commenting on Kristor’s objections to Mr. Cutsinger.

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First, Kristor objects to Schuon’s doctrine that, in the Holy Trinity, the Father is identified as the Absolute. According to Cutsinger, the exclusivists who object to Schuon “have failed to distinguish between the Principle and manifestation, and they have forgotten that the manifest Principle is not the same as manifestation as such. They have not understood, in other words, that orthodox Christology is a “combination of three polarities—man and God, terrestrial man and Divine man, hypostatic God and essential God”. Or again, in the language of the early Church, they have identified the First and Second Persons of the Holy Trinity, they have failed to discriminate between Christ’s Divinity and His humanity, and they have forgotten that Jesus was no ordinary man.“ The point of the Incarnation, however, is precisely that the Second hypostasis of the Trinity, while perfectly retaining his divine essence, has also put on a completely human essence. And this divine essence is, according to the Nicene Creed (to cite the most obvious source), shared between Father and Son (the Son being homoousios to – or of one essence with – the Father). Whether the Absolute is to be identified with the Father or with the Godhood, the Absolute-ness of the Father cannot not be shared by the Son as well. Making the Father’s causality within the Trinity the same as Him being the Absolute (in contrast with the two other hypostases of the Trinity) is not historic doctrine, not as far as I know. The Son and the Holy Spirit are not contingent, because it has been revealed that the Holy Trinity is an eternal communion of self-giving love, and if the Father alone is non-contingent, then to whom can he eternally give himself with love? I admit that I may have misunderstood the two perennialists, and thus may have perceived a non-existent disagreement between them and Holy Tradition.

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The second and major of Kristor’s objections is, to my view, towards the same reasoning as the idea to which Kristor posed his first objection. Here is Cutsinger’s argument:

Consider what the Christian exclusivist says. Salvation is impossible, he asserts, apart from a conscious, explicit, and active faith in Jesus Christ, for Jesus is the only man in history who at the same time was God, and it therefore follows that He alone can rescue men from sin and death. This reasoning can be expressed in the form of a syllogism: God alone can save; Jesus is God; therefore, only Jesus can save. Now certainly the Schuonian will not object to the first proposition, for it is undeniably true that there is no possibility of salvation apart from Divine grace and the initiative of Heaven. The problem arises with the exclusivist’s understanding of the second claim, the minor premise of the syllogism. Jesus Christ is certainly God, but the exclusivist takes the further step of supposing that the verbal copula functions like the sign of identity in a mathematical equation, and hence that the nouns in the minor premise can be reversed: not only is Jesus God, but God is also Jesus. As a result, the unique and eternal nature of the Son’s Divinity is transposed onto the plane of history; the one-and-only quality of Him who was incarnate, “the only begotten Son of God”, is confused with the temporal and spatial particularity of His incarnation in Jesus, and His singularity in divinis is conflated with an event of a strictly factual or historical order. Now of course, to affirm that God is fully present in Christ is by no means false, and there is no question as to the formula’s great rhetorical power. But the homiletic or kerygmatic value of this expression should not blind us to its dialectical weakness, for as an ellipsis it risks identifying the Beyond-Being of the pure Absolute with the individuality of a particular human being.

Here is Kristor’s response:

Well and good. But the problem of the non-Christian religions lies not in their arguments that there is more to God than Jesus – as any Trinitarian would certainly agree – but in that they insist that Jesus is not God. Christianity is the only religion that asserts that Jesus is God. The other religions all say that he is not; if they didn’t, they’d be Christian. If Jesus is in fact God, as both Schuon and Cutsinger (on Cutsinger’s account) agree, then to the extent that other religions do insist to the contrary, and no matter how many truths they do indeed express, they are false. This is not to say that a Buddhist or a Platonist cannot enjoy salvation – they can – but it is to say that there cannot be such a thing as Schuon’s transcendent unity of religions when one of them asserts p, and the rest assert –p. The Law of Noncontradiction brooks no exceptions.

To start, I think I must interject that some non-Christians belonging to the religious traditions of India have confessed that they have no problem believing that Jesus Christ is a human incarnation of God, but that they can’t believe that he is the only incarnation of God. Hence the lack of exclusivism on the part of many adherents to Eastern religions (and the preference of some ignorant “cafeteria religion”-style Westerners for “tolerant” Eastern religions, whose genius they don’t actually understand). Here are a few points that I would like to make as my response to what the perennialist and the Orthospherean write.

1. The idea that the Incarnation and the Atonement are acts of God divinizing man in a superior to the pre-fallen state of Grace. This doctrine is better known among Eastern than Western Christians (although C. S. Lewis explained it once, in his “Miracles” if I remember correctly). The narrative is as follows:

God, the Holy Trinity, is an eternal communion of love. Out of love, God creates the Cosmos, and man in His Image and Likeness. Man is created to live in a state of Grace which is his proper mode of existence. Man falls from this state to a state of sin, suffering and death, a state in discord with proper human mode of existence. Because of the Fall, but not exclusively, God the Son takes on human nature and thus divinizes once and for all humanity (by being the first New Man) not only to the original state of Grace but to the unprecedented state of participation in the eternal life of love that is the life of the Holy Trinity. As the prophets of the Hebrews received the Holy Spirit, so do Christians during baptism, and it is through participation in the Church’s sacramental life that we fulfil the Athanasian saying that “The Son of God became man, that we might become god”. The Holy Spirit, by dwelling in the members of the Church, makes them participate in the divine life of self-giving love, makes them, through the shedding of bitter tears for the world, participate in Christ’s intercession for the fallen Cosmos.

If we accept this doctrine, then a previous “incarnation” would either be an inferior, pre-Christ one – that of a saintly person being inspired by the Holy Spirit, like an Old Testament prophet; or else one that would render the Incarnation of Jesus Christ just like all the others. In the first case, “incarnation” would be a misused term, less proper than “sanctification” or “temporal election”, for it is a state closer to the pre-fallen one than to the inaccessible one of sharing the divine life. In the second case, a divinization of humanity once and for all does imply of no need for further Incarnation, thus need for only one – Christ’s. All other “incarnations” can be seen as myths who prophesize the ultimate and spatio-temporally particular Incarnation.

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2. The prophets and religion of the Hebrews as the cult of the True God’s people.

I find it remarkable that the Hebrews, unlike other peoples, seemed to have resisted both dualism and monism, thus rejecting both the false idea that we live in the botched creation of a cretin demiurge, and the false idea that the Cosmos is not fallen and thus that humanity is not fallen and is capable to save itself with a lot of effort. Here comes the importance of noetic knowledge, divine revelation – for human reason couldn’t have guessed without divine help that we have fallen from a state of grace. And without a doctrine of the Fall, we’d be doomed to accept doctrines that ultimately imply nihilism (that is, doctrines that render our current earthly existence ultimately worthless) – Eastern/Pagan fatalistic doctrines like an eternal fate of cyclical reincarnations, of a dissolution of the personal soul into an impersonal whole, or humanist doctrines of eternal oblivion after this life. Some of the Hebrews, in contrast, dared hope that YHWH would resurrect us back into personal existence – as we are God’s good creation; and it is Chirst, YHWH incarnate, who not only spoke but also showed this to us.

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3. I would also address the idea of the transcendent unity of religions. When reading what Mr. Cutsinger wrote, I thought of Saint Justin Martyr’s doctrine of the logoi spermatikoi (primordial ideas), and of apophatic theology as the one touching the unmediated experience of the uncreated energies of God.

While I will not exclude the possibility that some non-Hebrews and non-Christians may have experienced the uncreated energies of God, we should not forget that apophatic theology is put to writing as correcting the statements of cataphatic theology, and that it is only in this way that it is made accessible to those who haven’t yet experienced the energies of God. The cataphatic theology of monists, pantheists, dualists, and other heathen is not as complete or as “purged” of errors as Hebrew and Christian theology. It is incomplete where it lacks a doctrine of the Cosmos as good but fallen, a doctrine of God as both transcendent and immanent, a revelation of God’s Incarnation, Atonement and Resurrection, and it is false as much as it generates a mode of existence in accordance to doctrines like monism or dualism, reincarnation or oblivion, hard essentialism or nihilism. I can make parallels between the cataphatic-apophatic distinction in Christian theology and the exoteric-esoteric distinction in Traditionalist metaphysics. But doing metaphysical philosophy remains a cataphatic/exoteric activity that has its limits, and that is exactly why it is bound to respect that which is higher, noetic, non-discursive – the unmediated experience of God. “Esoteric contemplation” often tends to mean discursive contemplation – not an activity that can truly elevate us above cataphasis and dogma.

Seeing notions of the Nous, of God, of divine impassibility, absoluteness, omnipresence, etc. in heathen philosophies and religions may be considered God leaving primordial ideas to each people so that it may, one day, be led by them to the Church of Christ. But there is a reason why we teach that “outside the Church there is no salvation”. “Lex orandi, lex credendi” – the law of praying is the law of believing: the two are interdependent, and if one is lead astray from a doctrine of the Church, and his heresy spreads, with time the heretics’ view and practice of the lex orandi will change as well. And lex orandi is the highest part of the human mode of existence, which means that false doctrines can lead us to damnation, to a life inferior to the perfection Christ wants from us.

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My final words would be that we can only hope for and pray to God to lead all those people who believe in the Logos, who have been left by Him the logoi spermatikoi, who may have had in their history men who have received noetic wisdom from God, to be led to faith in the One that fulfilled the Law and redeemed humanity once and for all, to Jesus Christ – and to His Bride, the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

3 thoughts on “The cataphatic disagreement of religions and their spiritual disunity

  1. Very thorough and interesting!

    “The cataphatic theology of monists, pantheists, dualists, and other heathen is not as complete or as “purged” of errors as Hebrew and Christian theology”

    This is what I affirm when I declare myself beholden to a Mild Christian Hermeticism. Christianity I believe is the last great revelation that fully removes all errors of prior theologies, while affirming implicitly or explicitly what truths they do hold. This was perhaps in preparation in some way for what was to come, with the destruction of Tradition at the hands of Modernity.Could any of the pre-Christian faiths have survived such an onslaught ? Christianity may have been battered and beaten, but it still stands, even if now confined to the shadows of the setting sun.

  2. I tend to find myself in agreement with the “last great revelation” view of Christianity. Man thinks that, having “killed God” and “drunken up the sea”, he can now become the man-god. The religions of old would have thought this a folly, because of the great rift between the transcendent and the world. But Christianity has beaten modern man, for the God-man has been killed, and has broken “the bonds of Death through his resurrection”, and his saints are living witnesses to this.

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