On the Transcendent Unity of Religions

Posted on 1 January 1993

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Frithjof Schuon, a scholar and an authority on Comparative
Religion and the Sophia Perennis, has written a book called
The Transcendent Unity Of Religions. As its title
indicates, the book is about the unity of religious wisdom.
And as the use of the definite article indicates, this unity
is unique. But it is essential to observe that this unity is
also transcendent, i.e., the unity is in the spirit and not
in the letter.

Schuon uses the terms esoteric and exoteric to distinguish
the transcendent spirit of religions from their diverse
formal expressions. A useful diagram can be made which helps
illustrate the essence of this idea:

                                          _____Buddhism
Esoteric          |       Exoteric  _____/
                  |           _____/
                  |     _____/
                  |____/            __________Hinduism
            _____/|     ___________/
      _____/ _____|____/
_____/______/_____|___________________________Islam
     \_____ \_____|____
           \_____ |    \___________
                 \|____            \___________Judaism
                  |    \_____
                  |          \_____
                  |                \_____
                  |                      \_____Christianity

As Huston Smith writes in the Introduction to Schuon’s book,
“the defect in other versions of this
[esoteric/exoteric] distinction is that they claim unity in
religions too soon, at levels where, being exoteric, true
Unity does not pertain and can be posited only on pain of
Procrusteanism or vapidity.” Once we identify any
particular thought system, no matter how comprehensive, as
the truth, then we have excluded other thought
systems and denied the Truth its unity and its infinite
possibilities for expression. The unity of Truth must
therefore be a Transcendent Unity. “The fact that it
is transcendent,” Smith writes, “means that it
can be univocally described by none.” Thus, while
there is one and only one Truth, there are many expressions
of it.

The following observation provides a suggestive illustration
of the above idea. The natural numbers {0,1,2,3,…} have
many different descriptions in mathematics. They can be
described by the Peano axioms, or by von Neumann’s recursive
construction within set theory. They can also be described
by the very abstract mathematical language of Category
Theory, and in a variety of other ways.

But none of these descriptions is the description of
the natural numbers. They are all different, but equivalent,
descriptions of the same underlying unity. Nor can we ever
pin down one description of the natural numbers as
the description. The reason for this inability of
description to grasp the natural numbers is not because our
language is somehow ambiguous or imprecise. To the contrary,
our descriptions are mathematically precise and unambiguous.
The reason is that the natural numbers transcend any
particular description or expression. That is what makes
them of a universal nature.

The natural numbers themselves can not be known except
through realizing directly that to which all these
descriptions point. In particular, we can’t uniquely
describe them with some meta-descriptive synthesis of all the
various descriptions. Their uniqueness and transcendent
unity can only be known beyond any particular symbolic
representations, no matter how abstract.

In my mind, this provides a valuable illustration of how
language can fail to provide a unique description of
something, and yet nonetheless uniquely determine it
unambiguously.

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Posted in: Philosophy