Q: How does Universalism/Perennialism* reconcile the vast differences between religions?
*These terms aren’t identical, but there is a great amount of overlap, and I identify as both.
A: Perennialism, to a large extent, and Universalism to a lesser one, are not distinct theological statements that can be contrasted with other religions. They are, in a sense, metatheologies that examine the world’s body of theological thought as a whole and parse out what we can know or confidently suspect based on what they have in common.
The most important of these commonalities, and the one that has the greatest potential to transform the way human beings view their existential plight, is the idea of salvation — aka. liberation, enlightenment, moksha, daigo–tettai, attainment of Nirvana etc. (I’ll stick with the most commonly used term in the Judeo-Christian West.)
Perennialism recognizes salvation and theology as two different classes of things. The former is an experience that is the goal or desired product of the mental and emotional guidance provided by the latter, similar to how optimal health is the goal of biology and the various nutrition sciences. And just as informed dietary choices are not a one-size-fits-all solutions for optimal health, neither are religious practices.
A clue as to how deep this comparison goes can be found in the original Greek word for salvation, σῴζω (sózó). Strong’s Concordance defines this nuanced word in several ways: to save, deliver, make whole or restore, heal, and to be whole. The word ‘sózó’, or one of its grammatical forms, is used over 100 times in the New Testament to mean all of these things at various times. Clearly it covers the entire package of what Christian belief purports to offer, not just a Get Out of Hell Free card. Salvation is immediate and profoundly changing to the way in which we experience this world while we are in it.
So, to re-emphasize, salvation is the existential state that is experienced by someone who has been delivered, restored, healed, and/or made whole by some kind of spiritual process. Theology lays out that process as understood by a specific culture or subculture. The perennialist observation of the commonalities of salvation across diverse theologies gives us reason to suspect that “all paths lead to the same mountain peak.”
Perennialism, then, is a metatheological observation that all theologies are different processes for achieving the singular optimal state of spiritual health, known as salvation or by any name. Universalism goes further and posits that, in one way or another, salvation is coming to all, or at least that there are no “dead ends” and that all beings will find their way to it, perhaps through divine guidance and/or over multiple lifetimes. Love overcomes all obstacles.
This is what I believe. I am a Perennialist by vocation, and the results of these studies made me a devout Universalist of temperament and nature. My next book, The Peasant and the King (awaiting the final proofread before publication, release date TBD), is to my knowledge the first deliberate attempt to offer a Perennialist “gospel” — a tradition-neutral, fictionalized exploration of the path of salvation itself — and a direct look at the metatheological template on which all theologies are built.
The salvation of Pez King is an unforced, unachieved recognition of one’s ontological wholeness. It is (for temporary lack of a better term that will be resolved by the book) a free gift of God that involves the revelation of what one truly was all along. Its Universalism, then, is an ontological statement, not a matter of hope or speculation. For the simple fact is that I cannot be whole and exclude anyone else from that wholeness. The idea that I can achieve salvation while others face unending torment or isolation is prima facie absurd, and Pez King lays this plainly on the table along with receipts.
I believe it is very important that the world be given access to understanding the state of salvation by ways that utilize mythic themes and language but are not theological constructs themselves. Mythic language loosens the grip that theology has on its particular flavor of salvation, making it more universal in nature. Theology without mythic language is, at best, a second-hand account of the workings of salvation in a fractured world; at worst, it’s an erroneous account of who isn’t saved, who isn’t whole because they failed or neglected to use this particular path. This type of doctrinal exclusivity is spiritually self-defeating, like trying to get somewhere by sprinting on a treadmill. Pez King addresses this by telling a deliberately mythic tale about events much closer to home than the reader will initially suspect, then giving a peak behind the curtain to show why this drama must repeat itself ad infinitum.
Some paths, like Advaita Vedanta and Zen Buddhism, eschew the mythos and focus entirely on salvation, but most focus more on theology or a mixture of both. (“Soteriology,” derived from the same root word as sózó, is a ten-dollar word for this mixture, the aspects of theology that deal with salvation.) It is the latter that defines the differences we see in world religions, not the experience of salvation itself. And as Universalism purports to say, all are saved nonetheless, because lack of salvation is a theological issue, not an ontological one. We all get sózóed in the end.