The Transcendental Disunity of Religions
Stratford Caldecott


The following paper was given at the ‘Light Within’ conference of the Chesterton Institute in Houston in 1999, and appears in the February 2000 issue of The Chesterton Review, which is devoted to the theme of the conference, namely the issues raised for Christians by some aspects of the New Age movement.

Ever since the days of Madame Blavatsky (which were also the days of Chesterton’s youth), there have been various attempts made to assimilate Christianity to one or other model of ‘world religions’, from the fantasies of the Theosophical Society itself through Jungian and transpersonal psychology to the sociology of religious experience.  As others have noted, something very similar has been going on throughout history, starting with the mythological systems of Gnosticism in the first and second centuries.  Yet authentic Christianity has always resisted such assimiliation; for at its heart is something irreducible, unassimilable and essential.

We are called at this time in history, this millenial moment, to a very challenging work of discernment.  The cultural crisis that we are living through is unprecedented, although hardly unpredicted.  It fits quite well the traditional descriptions of the ‘Last Times’ or the end of the Kali Yuga.  The very evidence that was the basis in the last century of the optimistic Victorian myth of progress and cultural evolution can be read in an exactly opposite sense, as evidence of a degeneration that can only end in barbarism.  How are we to read the signs of the times aright, and what is to be our response?  These are questions that the New Age movement poses to us.  In this paper I want to begin by taking a brief look at two of the more notable modern assimilationist movements, one quite crude and the other extremely subtle, and in response to attempt with Chesterton’s help a sketch of what it is that makes Christianity a ‘sign of contradiction’. 

The United Religions Initiative
I will begin with an article by Cornelia R. Ferreira that was published in the January 1999 edition of Homiletic and Pastoral Review, entitled ‘The One-World Church Emerges’.  This article directs the attention of Catholics to the imminent establishment (in June 2000) of a global organization called the United Religions - a kind of more ambitious successor to the failed World Council of Churches.  The UR was devised as an equivalent to the United Nations by such figures as Bishop William Swing of the Episcopal Diocese of California, and is supported by the Gorbachev Foundation, the World Conference on Religion and Peace, the World Congress of Faiths and the Temple of Understanding.  It is to be a ‘permanent gathering center where the world’s religions engage in daily prayer, dialogue, and action for the good of all life on this earth’, where they will make peace among themselves and ‘work together for the healing of the earth’.

  The Draft Charter of the UR includes such statements as the following.  ‘We respect the uniqueness of each religion and faith tradition, value voices that value others, and believe that our shared values can lead us to act for the good of all.’  ‘We unite to support freedom of religion and belief and the rights of all individuals, as set forth in international law, and to witness together to the wondrous spirit of life which embraces all our diversity.’  ‘We unite to celebrate the joy of blessings and the light of wisdom in both movement and stillness.’  ‘Religion is concerned with the relationship of human beings with their spiritual Origin.  We believe in the universality and eternity of the Spirit.  We believe that all religions derive their wisdom from that ultimate Source.  Therefore, the religions of the world share in common wisdom, which can be obscured by differences in religious concepts and practices.’

  It is hard to object to many of the sentiments expressed here.  But a few questions might possibly suggest themselves to someone of a suspicious and dogmatic turn of mind.  For example, by uniting in support of a politically negotiated list of human rights, do not the signatories of this Charter forfeit their right to judge the secular world and the entire political order in the name of divine law?  What if these basic human rights guaranteed by ‘international law’ turn out to contain the ‘right’ to an abortion, to a genetically engineered child or to homosexual marriage?  Secondly, does not the mention of the obscurity brought about by ‘differences in religious concepts and practices’ suggest that what is really being encouraged here is a bland ‘common denominator’ wisdom, rather than the ‘uniqueness of each religion and faith tradition’ that the Charter professes to respect?

  Cornelia Ferreira certainly takes a dim view of the Charter and the organization it represents.  She sees it as in direct continuity with the aim of the early New Age leader Alice Bailey for a ‘Church Universal’, a union of occultism, Masonry and Christianity, which Bailey predicted would begin to emerge at the end of the (twentieth) century.  Ferreira ends her article by quoting her trump card, Cardinal Ratzinger (from a 1989 interview in 30 Days magazine).  Ratzinger says that the Church should not join meetings of world religions on the theme of peace because the Church ‘should not transform herself into a sort of political peace movement, in which the achievement of everlasting world peace would become her reason for existing’.  In other words, the Church must not be made a means to an end - certainly not a worldly end.  Ferreira adds that in her view war is a product not of religious differences at all, but of sin and injustice.  Uniting the religions will therefore not bring peace: it will only dilute the one true Faith that can foster the justice that could being peace.  The velvet glove of the UR, she believes, clothes the iron claw of the Antichrist, whose aim is to destroy Catholicism, preferably by mere indifferentism, but if necessary by violence against those he will soon enough brand ‘fundamentalists’ (and later perhaps ‘terrorists’?) for obstructing the greater good of world peace.

  Unfortunately for those who might wish to go along with her, Ferreira spoils her case by the slipshod way she convicts by innuendo and association.  Everyone who has ever said anything polite, let alone enthusiastic, about the UR’s aim of promoting peace through dialogue is guilty either by association or naivety, including Mother Teresa, Cardinal Arinze, Cardinal Etchegeray and by implication the Pope.  (Arinze, by the way, is quoted as denying his support for the UR, but because he does not simply condemn it outright he is still regarded as culpable.)  The Vatican is castigated for hosting the Assembly of the World Conference on Religion and Peace in 1994, because it included speeches by Gustavo Gutierrez and Hans Kung.  Milan’s Cardinal Martini, who was one of the speakers on that occasion, is crudely labelled a ‘friend of Masonry and supporter of women’s ordination and married priests’.  The Focolare Movement which helped to organize the meeting (Chiara Lubich is Honorary President of the WCRP) is dismissed with the one word ‘syncretistic’.

  Even more seriously, perhaps, Ferreira claims a close link between the UR and the Gorbachev Foundation set up in San Francisco’s expensive Presidio district.  Gorbachev’s own brains trust, the ‘State of the World Forum’, reflects the influence of Hans Kung and his so-called ‘Global Ethic’.  This Ethic consists in a set of politically correct values on which the world religions are expected soon to agree, including the idea that the ecological crisis can be solved by cutting the world’s population ‘by 90%’ (according to the published summary of one Forum meeting).  Ferreira draws attention to the close and well-known association of many UN and UN-style initiatives with the International Planned Parenthood lobby.  Less well substantiated references to ‘Masonic funding’, and long lists of speakers and attendees including Margaret Thatcher, Rupert Murdoch, Bill Gates, Matthew Fox, Shirley MacLaine, Sonia Gandhi and Vaclav Havel, all further contribute to the impression that here is a genuine and dangerous conspiracy by world leaders and financiers to prepare the reign of the Antichrist by means of a syncretistic and pantheistic pseudo-religion.  Ferreira’s style is well displayed when she writes that ‘thanks to the carefully staged “death of Communism” [this phrase is in sneer quotes], Gorbachev, operating in the world’s chief anti-Communist country, brazenly organizes Western leaders in fine-tuning the universal socialist state.’  The finance for all this is coming, she believes, from leading Capitalists such as George Soros and the Rockefellers.

  Now what are we to make of all this?  The tone is alarmist, the tone is that of propaganda rather than reasoned argument.  Nevertheless, the dangers of well-funded, syncretistic attempts to co-opt the world religions in the interests of world government seem to be real enough.  Certain links with New Age spirituality and leading New Age writers are also clear.  Ferreira might have mentioned in this connection the World Wide Fund for Nature, and its equally ‘brazen’ and manipulative attempts to engineer an alliance of world religions in support of ecological causes.  On the other hand, I happen to believe that the ecological cause is a good one, even a vital one - as is the cause of world peace and inter-faith dialogue.  Am I a dupe of the Antichrist because I am convinced that the Pope has struck the right balance here, and is engaged in his own delicate attempt to ‘co-opt’ the valid intuitions and intentions of the New Age, without compromising the Catholic tradition?  At the inter-religious prayer meeting in Assisi in 1986, he made his position quite clear in his welcoming address:  ‘The fact that we have come here does not imply any intention of seeking a religious consensus among ourselves or of negotiating our faith convictions.  Neither does it mean that religions can be reconciled at the level of a common commitment in an earthly project which would surpass them all.  Nor is it a concession to relativism in religious beliefs, because every human being must sincerely follow his or her upright conscience with the intention of seeking and obeying the truth.’  The intention, he said in his concluding address, was to pray and witness before the world, ‘each according to his own conviction, about the transcendent quality of peace’, a transcendence based simply on the universal ‘inner imperative of the moral conscience’ and on the acknowledgment that ‘its source and realization is to be sought in that Reality beyond all of us.’  ‘I humbly repeat here my own conviction,’ he added: ‘peace bears the name of Jesus Christ.’

Traditionalist Ecumenism
Now I want to examine another, more subtle perspective than Ferreira’s, which is also highly critical of the New Age, but which raises a different set of problems for the Christian reader.  I will be quoting (with the author’s permission) from an unpublished manuscript called The System of Antichrist: Truth and Falsehood in Postmodernism and the New Age by Charles Upton, an American-born Muslim and dervish of the Nimatullahi Sufi Order.  Upton’s book examines each of the major streams of contemporary New Age teaching, and refutes them in the name of a perennial metaphysics which he believes throws light on all the major religions – though not to the point of superseding their own essential doctrines.   (As he readily admits, the maintenance of this distinction is a whole spiritual labour in itself, fraught with pitfalls; for any explicit formulation of a transcendent truth separate from the formulations which are the world religions themselves can be misused by those with an interest in undermining those religions.)  Taking his cue from the title of a book by the late Frithjof Schuon, Upton calls this approach ‘the transcendent unity of religions’.  It must be distinguished from any attempt to create a new world religion or even a common metaphysical doctrine.  The unity claimed here is ‘transcendental’ in the sense that it lies through and within the religions of the world. 

  Upton writes: ‘The false ecumenism of Neo-Pagan, New Age culture is the seed-bed for that “world fusion spirituality” in which fragments of every spiritual tradition are promiscuously thrown together, to their mutual corruption.  True ecumenism on the other hand - the outer expression of the “esoteric ecumenism” of the Transcendent Unity of Religions, which understands the very uniqueness and particularity of the authentic religious traditions as the transcendent basis for their unity - is not a syncretistic amalgam or a diplomatic glossing-over of doctrinal differences, but a united front against a common enemy: that unholy alliance of scientism, magical materialism, idolatry of the psyche and postmodern nihilism which is headed, with all deliberate speed, toward the system of Antichrist.’ 

  Upton defines the polarization we have already seen between the exponents of the ‘United Religions’ and their critics, such as Cornelia Ferreira, as the manifestation of a conflict between ‘Gog’ and ‘Magog’ (Rev. 20:7-8).  The one side exalts the immanence of God at the expense of his transcendence, the other his transcendence at the expense of his immanence.  The one expresses itself in what he calls ‘the universalism of the global elites’; the other in ‘the violent self-assertion of the fundamentalist “tribes” oppressed and marginalized by those elites’.  ‘If all possible alternatives to the struggle between globalism and tribalism disappear from the collective mind, then Antichrist has won.  He can use economic and political globalism and the universalism of a “world fusion spirituality” to subvert and oppress all integral religions and religious cultures, forcing them to narrow their focus and violate the fullness of their own traditions in reaction against it.  He can drive them to bigoted and terroristic excesses which will make them seem barbaric and outdated in the eyes of those wavering between a global and a tribal identification, and set them at each other’s throats at the same time.  Unite to oppress; divide and conquer.’

  In Upton’s analysis, someone like Cornelia Ferreira would fit into the ‘tribalist’ camp, reacting against the postmodern globalism which threatens the integrity of her tradition.  What he proposes instead is a ‘middle path, or third force’.  Religions can come together, ‘not by virtue of their relative comparability, but on the ground of their incomparable uniqueness’.  On the one hand, the widely-observed fact ‘that the doctrines of all religions become more and more alike as their respective mystical centres are approached’ proves the reality of a common Origin, while the fact that the doctrines of the religions ‘never actually meet this side of the Absolute’ proves that ‘this Origin is truly transcendent, and entirely beyond conception’ (for example, Ibn Arabi remains quintessentially Muslim, Eckhart thoroughly Christian).  Upton agrees with Ferreira that the United Religions is a ploy by the Antichrist to destroy the essence of true religion.  But he claims there is an alternative ecumenism which is based precisely on the integrity and uniqueness of each faith which is threatened here - threatened by the attempt to merge them together and subordinate them to a common purpose.

  Upton’s esoteric ecumenism is made more plausible by the demonstration by modern scholars such as the Dominican theologian J.A. DiNoia[i] that the apparent doctrinal contradictions of one religion by another are often nothing of the sort: the goal and methods of Buddhism are so different from those of Christianity, for example, that to apply a common language to them (salvation, liberation, etc.) is to distort our understanding of both.  For Upton these are paths up the same mountain, not totally different mountains; but while a climber on the north face and a climber on the south face of Everest are both travelling upwards, their journeys and their experience may have very little else in common.  Furthermore, a map of the north face would be of little help to a climber on the south, and vice versa.  Even the view of the surrounding scenery from each side is very different.

  Charles Upton’s perspective is by no means a simplistic New Age one.  He analyses and carefully demolishes the whole range of New Age proposals from Carlos Castaneda to the Course in Miracles.   Just as firmly as Cornelia Ferreira, he argues that we are up against the Antichrist.  But whereas she states flatly, ‘In the eyes of God, only Catholicism is authentic’, Upton believes that all the great world religions are from God.  For Ferreira, Upton must probably be regarded as a particularly dangerous New Ager.  From his own perspective, he is simply a Muslim: a practising believer, and a mystic who respects the integrity and value of every religion.  It is worth taking a few more minutes to get to the bottom of this difference.

The Return to Metaphysics
The ‘perennial metaphysics’ which Upton refers to has been expounded by a group of writers in our century called the Traditionalists.  Apart from Frithjof Schuon - a Swiss Muslim who chose to live in Bloomington, Indiana, and became increasingly (and somewhat bizarrely) involved with the North American Indians before his death in 1998 - the leading figures of this group are (or were) former Occultist René Guénon (who was a convert from Catholicism to Islam), and the distinguished Hindu scholar Ananda Coomaraswamy.  One of the best known living representatives is Seyyed Hossein Nasr at Georgetown University, whose Gifford Lectures under the title Knowledge and the Sacred form a valuable introduction to this perspective.  There are (I should note in passing) close links between this group of largely non-Christian authors and the decidedly unecumenical followers of Archbishop Lefèbvre - an apparent paradox explained by the fact that both subordinate the authority of the Pope and bishops to the authority of Tradition, and both reject the tendency of the modern magisterium to accommodate perspectives derived from the Enlightenment and the Reformation.

  The writings of the Traditionalists transcend any single religious exotericism, while insisting that such forms can be transcended only from within: each revealed religion remains unique and precious in all its details, and must be accepted and practised as the condition for spiritual realization.  Ananda Coomaraswamy exerted a strong influence on the craftsman and writer Eric Gill and later Thomas Merton, while T.S. Eliot wrote of Frithjof Schuon’s first book: ‘I have met with no more impressive work in the comparative study of Oriental and Occidental religion.’  The English Thomist writer Bernard Kelly, a contemporary of Gill’s, wrote of another work by Schuon (Spiritual Perspectives and Human Facts): ‘The book has a fullness of light which we have no right to find in the twentieth century, or perhaps any other century.’  To Kelly, Schuon’s approach seemed to hold out the hope of a genuine dialogue with the Oriental or Asian cultures at their most profound level: ‘Neither the nineteenth century nor our own possesses a philosophical language able to render metaphysical truth with precision.  The attempt to find words for exact metaphysical terms has baffled the translators of St Thomas no less than of the Upanishads.  There is however a difference, for while the translators of St Thomas may be presumed to have one traditional intellectual discipline at their fingertips, the translators of the Upanishads who needed to have two generally had neither.  It has been said, with some justice, that they appear to have taken their philosophical language from the newspapers.  The Hindu texts are not the cause of confusion, but the occasion for its display.’  He goes on to say that while this fact was demonstrated in an incomparable way by Coomaraswamy, the necessary ‘common metaphysical language’ was developed primarily by Guénon and Schuon.  The three figures taken together - and notwithstanding what Kelly already perceived as their failure to appreciate certain key teachings of Christianity (a point I will take up below) - have played a key role in reopening the ‘luminous eye’ of each tradition ‘towards the source of its light’.  They are ‘situated far above the syncretism of an Aldous Huxley or a Gerald Heard’.

  In recent years, these same writers have continued to have a growing influence on religious studies at both the popular and the academic level, through such figures as Alan Watts, Huston Smith, Jacob Needleman and Ken Wilber.  I myself was brought by these writers to the point of conversion to Christianity.  As I understand it, the Traditionalists are what used to be called (in the Middle Ages) ‘realists’, as opposed to ‘nominalists’.  They believe in the reality of the universals, which for most of modern thought are no more substantial than verbal labels attached to the truly real things, that is, individual, material substances.  Charles Upton writes: ‘The Platonic Ideas or Names of God are often thought of as abstract categories, partly due to the fact that, on the plane of language, the most particular images are necessarity the most sensual.  Language anchors our sense of the particular to the sensual level; the words we must use for higher-than-sensual realities become more and more abstract as we ascend the Great Chain of Being.  This, however, is not true of the realities themselves: a Platonic Idea is not an abstract category, in other words, but a higher level of particularity.’  In other words, ‘Ideas are not pale abstractions but higher orders of particularity, realities which are more concrete than matter, not less’.

  This gives us the key to a great deal of what the Traditionalists say both about the modern world and about other religions, but it also establishes a serious basis for conversation with the Catholic tradition.  For this aspect of their thought is not some weird form of Sufi Gnosticism; it is in fact something very close, in some ways, to Catholic orthodoxy.  Here I will invoke G.K. Chesterton.  Read, for example, his wonderful account of the realists vs the nominalists in his book William Blake (published two years after Orthodoxy, in 1910).  ‘Metaphysics must be avoided,’ he begins; ‘they are too exciting.  But the root of the matter can be pretty well made plain by one word.  The whole difference is between the old meaning and the new meaning of the word “realist”.  In modern fiction and science a Realist means a man who begins at the outside of a thing:... In the twelfth century a Realist meant exactly the opposite; it meant a man who began at the inside of a thing.... If he saw an elephant he would not say in the modern style, “I see before me a combination of the tusks of a wild boar in unnatural development, of the long nose of the tapir needlessly elongated, of the tail of the cow unusually insufficient,” and so on.  He would merely see an essence of elephant.  He would believe that this light and fugitive elephant of an instant, as dancing and fleeting as the May-fly in May, was nevertheless the shadow of an eternal elephant, conceived and created by God.  When you have quite realized this ancient sense in the reality of an elephant, go back and read William Blake’s poems about animals, as, for instance, about the lamb and about the tiger.  You will see quite clearly that he is talking of an eternal tiger, who rages and rejoices for ever in the sight of God.... He meant that there really is behind the universe an eternal image called the Lamb, of which all living lambs are merely the copies or the approximation.  He held that eternal innocence to be an actual and even an awful thing’ (pp. 136-41).  ‘All his animals are as absolute as the animals on a shield of heraldry.  His lambs are of unsullied silver, his lions are of flaming gold.  His lion may lie down with his lamb, but he will never really mix with him’ (pp. 135-6).

  There is no doubt that Chesterton is speaking here out of the same profound metaphysical intuition as Plato and St Thomas.  (We recognize it also in our century in the writings of the Inklings: I think immediately of The Place of the Lion by Charles Williams.)  This does not mean, however, that Chesterton’s metaphysics can simply be identified with that of the Traditionalists.  Where he parts company with them is over the interpretation of the Asian religious traditions.  They read these in terms of the same universal metaphysics, albeit somewhat differently expressed.  He by contrast tends to dismiss them as so many forms of ‘Oriental pessimism’.  Now it has to be said that Chesterton’s knowledge of the East was slight.  The Traditionalists, I suspect, are more reliable as guides to the inner meaning of Indian or Chinese religions.  Nevertheless, in the hands of Chesterton, even caricatures can suggest a profound truth.  In this case, whatever one thinks of the carelessness with which he dismisses whole civilizations, the fact is that his remarks do reveal a fundamental truth about Christianity.  It seems to me that this truth points to Christianity as in some sense transcending even the so-called ‘transcendent unity’ of religions, and this brings me to the heart of what I am trying to say in the present paper.

The Scandal of the Incarnation
The admittedly heretical Blake, says Chesterton, ‘was on the side of historic Christianity on the fundamental question on which it confronts the East; the idea that personality is the glory of the universe and not its shame; that creation is higher than evolution, because it is more personal; that pardon is higher than Nemesis, because it is more personal; that the forgiveness of sins is essential to the communion of saints; and the resurrection of the body to the life everlasting’ (p. 209).  The truth at issue here is the Christian emphasis on personality, which derives ultimately from the mystery of the Incarnation and the revelation of God as Trinitarian love.  The Incarnation has always been hard to take: a ‘scandal’ to the Greeks - that is, to Gnostics and to the followers of other religions alike.  The Christian emphasis on a particular man of flesh and blood, his gruesome death and empty tomb - unless interpreted as a purely symbolic narrative - strikes them as absurd or even unwholesome.  Yet it is this emphasis on the physical Incarnation that is the foundation of all Christian mysticism.  I am convinced that the non-Christian Traditionalists, even despite their sensitivity to the different ‘languages’ of grace, do not take this all-important fact sufficiently seriously.

  Right from the start, of course, the Jewish religion attributed great importance to history.  It was after all founded on history: the Covenant and its periodic renewal; the liberation from slavery in Egypt; the giving of the Law through Moses.  The Jews also believed that history would come to a conclusion: the restoration of David’s kingdom by the Messiah.  For Christians, the life of Jesus of Nazareth was the continuation, and the beginning of the fulfilment, of Israel’s long history.  The precise Christian claim is easy to state, but difficult to grasp: that Jesus, who was the long-awaited Messiah, was a human being, a man, but also God: a divine Person, the Second Person of the Trinity.  In him, the Creator of the cosmos became (and will eternally remain) a man of flesh and blood like us.  ‘The Christian is immersed in wonder at this paradox, the latest of an infinite series, all magnified with gratitude in the language of the liturgy: the immense accepts limitation; a Virgin gives birth; through death, he who is life conquers death forever; in the heights of heaven, a human body is seated at the right hand of the Father’ (John Paul II, Orientale Lumen, 1995, n. 10).

  The paradox is scandalous because it means that Jesus is more than any Jewish prophet; more than (to use the Indian term) an ‘Avatar’ or Manifestation of God.  The Supreme Reality has not merely revealed itself on earth as though in a mirror, but has stepped, like Alice through the Looking Glass, inside the very world of the mirror.  This simple fact changes our destiny.  Our highest aspiration is no longer to be liberated from the body in order to merge our particular spirit with the universal Spirit.  There is now a higher destiny than nirvana: it is ‘salvation’, the Beatific Vision, the marriage of heaven and earth.  When the Church Fathers wrote that ‘God became man so that man might become God’, they did not mean that we will one day awaken to the fact that we were God all along.  They meant that we are not God, but may become so: God by grace not by nature.  Once divinized through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the divine nature in which we share remains undivided, and yet we remain eternally distinct from every other person, whether human or divine.  Losing ourselves in the contemplation of the Beloved, we receive an eternal identity in the Communion of Saints.

  Notice in particular how, if the cosmic relationship of Self and Other, of Subject and Object, is to be transcended, as Asian religions and the New Age believe, ‘eternal life’ must consist of extinction - the extinction of a raindrop in the ocean.  This is a unity of absorption: the Lover is absorbed into the Beloved.  But at that point love itself comes to an end: loves turns out to have been merely a longing for unity with God, which is now satisfied.  There is no Lover any more: only the Beloved, who contains everything that was of any value in the Lover.  But while a Christian may agree that duality - the separation of Self and Other - is not the end of the story, he knows a happier ending than the one proposed by Asia.  The Incarnation has revealed a distinction within the Godhead between Father, Son and Spirit.  The message is that Lover and Beloved can ‘live happily ever after’.  Love does not merge with the Self into the Other, but preserves them in relationship.  In place of the unity of absorption, Christianity places a mystery of unity without confusion, and proclaims that love need never come to an end (1 Cor.13:8).  Our relationships are the most important things about us; love is the way, the only way, to enter into eternal life.

A Christian Gnosis
This, then, is my attempt to formulate as succinctly as possible the uniqueness of Christianity among the world religions.  It is a position that I came to only after I had been baptized (as an adult) into the Church, and had dropped my allegiance to the Traditionalist writers under the influence of Newman, Chesterton, Hans Urs von Balthasar and John Paul II.  I have tried to develop it in more theological depth elsewhere,[ii] arguing that the true uniqueness of Christianity is denied by Traditionalists even as they claim to value every religion in its own sacred particularity.  The question seems to come down to this: does metaphysics transcend theology, or theology transcend metaphysics?  Of all modern Catholic authors, it is Balthasar who seems most to have thought through this question, and for him the answer is clear.  Whereas for Schuon and company, intellectual intuition must transcend theology - as it transcends all human words, and indeed the formal realm per se - for Balthasar and those who follow him, the Christian faith must transform the very first principles of metaphysics.  Without it, the highest principle we can know is undoubtedly Unity, the One - or else the Unknown which transcends the One in silence.  With faith, however, that One has revealed itself as Trinity, and the inner life of the Unknown itself is made known, not in human words but in the language of God himself (which we do not grasp but which grasps us), as an eternal Love beyond both compassion and desire.  The failure to receive this truth in faith leads the Traditionalist authors to a distorted understanding of Christianity, as they try to fit it to the Procrustean bed of a universal metaphysics that the Christian revelation transcends.

  We are challenged by our religious leaders to a ‘new evangelization’: to find new ways of presenting this vision and of opening others to its reality.  We must ask ourselves, why does the truth does not radiate to so many of our contemporaries?  In this final section of the paper I want to address that question.  And it seems to me that the challenge is increasingly similar, as many others have said, to that faced by Christians in the late days of the Roman Empire.  Despite all the changes of historical circumstance between then and now, despite the fact that a Christian civilization has since flowered, corrupted on the branch and fallen, forgetfulness of the faith is now so great and so widespread that it is almost like being once more at the beginning.  The Roman tyranny was no less tolerant and pluralistic, no less diverse in the vices and fantasies it allowed and encouraged, than our present hedonistic technocracy.  In both civilizations, the most attractive alternative to Christian belief is not, in fact, plain atheism, but rather the mystery religions with their elite priesthood (which today may pretend to be a scientific priesthood), and a Gnosticism that promises secret initiations without humility.

  In the Gnosticism of today, like that of yesterday, the great scandal of creation is explained away by emanation, or rather by the evolution of nature from itself.  The teeming mythology of cosmic spheres and powers which so fascinated the ancients ‘tried to make God into a knowable object’ (as Balthasar says in his little book Does Jesus Know Us?), as though the human mind could enfold the Absolute and understand even itself.  The same mistake is repeated today by modern Gnostics from Madame Blavatsky to Richard Dawkins.  But in fact we are not able to see so much as that in our own light.  The light with which true sight is possible, and in which we may see God and yet live, comes from elsewhere.  There is another Gnosis, a Christian Gnosis, quite contrary to the perennial heresy of Gnosticism.  It was taught by Clement and Origen, and by many other saints and mystics.  It is based on the fact, not that we discover God, but that God reveals himself, and consequently it is bought only at a ‘price’ that too many are not prepared to pay, the price of a kind of humility, a receptivity, too childlike for the ‘grown-ups’ that we have become.  For the New Age is always convinced that it has finally come of age, when to grow old in cynicism is really to have departed from Wisdom.

  We speak about ‘blind faith’, but faith is not blind; it has eyes.  The Spirit that gives us faith opens these eyes in order to reveal to us the spiritual form of Christ - first of all in the saints, in Scripture and in the teachings of the Church, and secondarily throughout the natural cosmos.  God’s light, says Balthasar, ‘which “shines in our hearts” (2 Cor. 4:6), shines so that we may know the Son; but it also shines through him who makes the radiance of this light possible by dying in the world God’s death of love and by purging through his atonement the darkness in our hearts.’[iii]  G.K. Chesterton, in The Defendant, mentions General Gordon’s speculations as to the original site of Eden, commenting: ‘Most probably we are in Eden still.  It is only our eyes that have changed.’  We know the Beatitude that the ‘pure in heart’ shall see God.  The eyes of Eden, the eyes that saw Paradise, and the eyes that will see God, or that perhaps can see him even now in the world of men, are the eyes of a pure heart, a heart not attached to anything but God, a heart that loves him.  (But purity is not the watchword of this civilization.)  Love, says Balthasar again, ‘is the creative power of God himself which has been infused into man by virtue of God’s Incarnation.  This is why, in the light of the divine ideas, love can read the world of forms and, in particular, man correctly.  Outside of this light, man remains an incomprehensible and contradictory hieroglyph.  Cross and Resurrection, understood as the love and glory of God, bleeding to death and forsaken, render man decipherable’ (ibid, p. 424).

  Balthasar calls faith born of love a creative power.  The implication seems to be that the act of seeing truth correctly is akin to the act of creation.  The true Christian Gnosis is not simply an intuitive grasp of intellectual principles, of noetic contemplation.  It follows the track of God as the One who created the world of cosmic images and then became human within it.  It is creative, original, imaginative, in its submission to reality.  The world of the soul is, after all, the world of memories and sensory experience, not just the world of pure ideas.  It is this world that the Spirit of love penetrates, functioning as a key to interpret the meaning of the cosmos.  The eye of the heart is open in the centre of the soul, in the primary imagination, transforming it into an organ for perceiving truth, interpreting symbols, recognizing divine intentions; capable, therefore, of prophecy as well as poetry.   

  Many New Age groups begin with the idea that the Christian Church lost, or suppressed, something vital in the early centuries.  This goes along with the claim to have redicovered or preserved the missing or ‘esoteric’ dimension of Christianity: to have discarded the dry husk for the kernel of living truth.  Professor Jacob Needleman in his popular book Lost Christianity (Doubleday, 1980) claims that the official guardians of Christianity have taught only what Christ wanted us to do, but without transmitting the vital intermediate teaching that would have given us the power to do these things (to love one another, and so on).  As a result, Christianity has been reduced to the promulgation of moral rules impossible to obey, hardened by a desperate stridency on one side, and softened by a vacant sentimentality on the other.  His own allegiance (somewhat disguised in the book itself) is to the ‘work’ of the Middle Eastern teacher G.I. Gurdjieff.  Others who share this view of Christianity have been caught up in something much less intellectually interesting.  But all the versions of Esoteric Christianity seem to appeal to what C.S. Lewis (in The Weight of Glory) called the human desire to be part of an ‘Inner Ring’: in other words to a kind of spiritual snobbery, which is very much a Gnostic trait.  They also ignore something rather important: the fact that what they claim to have found has never actually been lost.  It is called grace, and is available through the sacraments of the Church.

  If I may quote Balthasar once more, ‘Even so truly a “Chuch of the People” as the Catholic Church does not abolish genuine esotericism.  The secret path of the saints is never denied to one who is really willing to follow it.  But who in the crowd troubles himself over such a path?’[iv]  In fact the New Age Gnostics are quite correct: the ‘secret’ of Christianity, the secret path of the saints, is indeed hidden.  But it is hidden by being placed precisely where it is likely to be ignored and despised by those who not worthy of it: that is, in broad daylight, under everyone’s nose.  Such an ‘open’ secret will not appeal to those who want to raise themselves above the common herd. [v] What makes it so impossible to find, and to walk, is the fact that it involves a moral struggle before the intellectual one.  Every step along the path of the saints requires humility.  The various alternatives base themselves on the opposite vice – hence the almost tangible arrogance so evident in many of these groups.

With this I am at the end of what I want to say.  Chesterton once wrote (in The Catholic Church and Conversion) that ‘Paganism was the largest thing in the world and Christianity was larger; and everything else has been comparatively small.’  The heart of Christianity is a mystery that is bigger than paganism.  It is not in conflict with the other religions; it is just bigger than them.  It includes more truth.  Christianity is not, ultimately, assimilable.  It cannot be assimilated to a set of moral values, or subordinated to a ‘Global Ethic’.  It cannot be assimilated to an aesthetic myth, or a myth that embodies truth solely at the level of the imagination.  It cannot be assimilated to psychology, as though we could explain it as some kind of projection from the needs of the psyche.  Nor can it be assimilated to a metaphysics of the Logos, of the one Truth which shines at the heart of every created reality like sunshine in a cave of mirrors.  It can never be assimilated, with the best of intentions, because Christ cannot be assimilated.  In him, God has done something new and different.  Yet at the same time, aesthetics, mythology, psychology and metaphysics are not left behind.  I believe it is a task of the new millennium to reintegrate these with Christianity.  Those who have been searching for them in the New Age discover that Christ is the cornerstone of a structure that includes all these things, just as he saves body and soul along with the intellect.  Like Chesterton’s adventurer rediscovering the coast of England, those of us who have discovered Christianity in this way see it as if for the first time.  Can we yet find the words to make people realize that, for all their wisdom, for all their knowledge of history and psychology and mythology and philosophy, they have not yet understood the simplest thing about the faith of the Church that has been preached to them for two thousand years?

Good news, Chesterton wrote in his notebook in the 1890s:
but if you ask me what it is, I know not;
It is a track of feet in the snow,
It is a lantern showing a path;
It is a door set open.

[i]  See his The Diversity of Religions: A Christian Perspective (Catholic University of America Press, 1992).

[ii]  ‘Towards a Deeper Ecumenism’, Sacred Web: A Journal of Tradition and Modernity, 4, forthcoming (publication address: Suite 1750-1111 West Georgia Street, Vancouver, B.C. V6E 4M3, Cananda). 

[iii] H.U. von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, Vol. 1, ‘Seeing the Form’ (Ignatius Press and T&T Clark, 1982), pp. 156-7.  My emphasis.

[iv]  H.U. von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, Vol. 1, ‘Seeing the Form’ (Ignatius Press and T&T Clark, 1982), p. 34.