This article appeared in Sacred Web 21. To order this issue of Sacred Web and other back issues, click here.
“A Single Principle”: On Faith and Pluralism
by M. Ali Lakhani
Your creation, and your resurrection, is but as a single soul.
Qur’an: Luqman, XXXI.28
We live in that decadent age foretold of by the Prophet of Islam, where, according to a hadith, “He that keepeth hold upon true faith will be as one that holdeth in his hand a coal of fire.” In our times, orthodoxy is ridiculed as anachronistic when it is not being parodied or maligned. While atheism and radical secularism are on the rise, genuine religion is giving way to its two counterfeits: hard-hearted fundamentalism and mushy pseudo-spiritualism. We have, on the one hand, the hardening of hearts accompanied by the petrification of religion, and, on the other, a gullible thirsting for “spiritual experiences” accompanied by the growth of various diluted forms of quasi-religions—New Age trends, occult practices, and pseudo-spiritualist experimentation. Religion is not only at war with the dominant ethos of the modern world, it is also at war with its own parodies, and, in these wars, it is frequently exploited for political ends: religious groups, displaced from their principial bearings, are suspicious and intolerant of each others’ ideologies and outward differences, and are easy prey for divisive manipulation, with the result that internecine and communalist strife is prevalent among religious groups in many parts of the world. Religious leaders are in greater need than ever to re-assert within their respective faith traditions those unifying and universal metaphysical principles that transcend the theological and exoteric differences that divide—principles that constitute the underlying universal “orthodoxy” of Tradition.
The Vedantic adage that “Truth is one, though sages call it by different names” is a timeless message whose import is of great urgency for our own strife-torn times. The recognition of this Traditional basis of orthodoxy is hampered in part by the post-modernist legacy which, by radical deconstruction, would oppose hierarchy and verticality in the name of equality, and, out of an anti-normative wariness of orthodoxy, would privilege relativist subjectivism in the name of freedom. This is one of the “philosophical” impulses behind radical secularism. The error of this approach is epistemological: by denying knowledge its ontologically objective roots, knowing lapses into the anchorless subjectivism of relativism.
In the face of these challenges, how, then, is modern man to construct
a legitimate foundation for orthodoxy, and how are the faith traditions
of the modern world to find a pluralistic approach consistent with the
Traditional view that “Truth is one”? If pluralism is to be more than the
relativistic subjectivism of “laissez-faire,” or the tolerance of diversity for
the sake of a homogenizing equality that panders to the “lowest common
denominator,” its true meaning must be sought in the objective archetype
of the principial source of Reality—in the archetype of the “single soul”
or Spirit, and in the metaphysical transparency of visionary faith that
such an archetype epistemologically implies.
An illustration of the meaning of visionary faith is found in the Qur’anic parable of the four birds (Surah al-Baqarah, II.260ff.). In this narrative, Abraham asks God: “Show me how Thou givest life unto the dead!”, and God chides him with the question: “Hast thou, then, no faith?” Abraham responds: “Yes, but (show me the miracle) so that my heart may be at peace.” And God then states the following parable: “Take, then, four birds and teach them to obey thee; then place them separately on every hill (around thee); then summon them: they will come flying to thee. And know that God is almighty, wise.”
To interpret this passage, it is instructive to recall the Traditional doctrine that creation is a continuing process. Yet the ordinary consciousness of man is unaware of God’s active Presence in this process—of how, in each moment, existence is remade anew. When Abraham asks God to demonstrate “how Thou givest life unto the dead”, he is failing to perceive the ever-present and ceaseless miracle of creation (of how, in each moment, everything has to be remade so that the dead are indeed brought to life) and of God’s active Presence in this process. Abraham, like Everyman, reflects the ordinary consciousness, and he wants ocular evidence of the miracle of creation—to witness with his outer eyes the dead being brought to life. God then questions Abraham’s faith, thereby inviting him to perceive reality with the inner eye—the Eye of the Heart. When Abraham repeats his request for a miracle to calm his heart, God responds, not with the outer demonstration demanded of Him, but with the parable of the birds.
The winged creatures of the parable are free spirits—and are therefore, like the soul of man, which they symbolize. However, just as one can train a bird to “incline to one,” to heed its master’s call and to fly to its master when summoned, so too there is in our soul something that can be trained to respond to God when summoned—something nascent in us that can “incline to the Spirit”, and respond to the Call of Life so that what is dead within us can thereby be resurrected and brought to spiritual life. This element—faith, or spiritual vision—is the very faculty that God invites Abraham to employ in response to his heart’s desire for certainty. Faith is “in-sight”—an inner receptivity to, and consciousness of, the “evidence of things not seen”—the potential to envision the invisible Reality or “Divine Face” that is present within us—and is everywhere. It is the “grain of mustard seed” that can grow into the parabolic tree of the “Kingdom of Heaven,” whose broad-canopied Presence is everywhere. It is through faith that man sees God at work in the world, and can thereby respond to His calling. The Qur’anic parable ends with the words, “know that God is almighty, wise,” signifying that faith, which is the natural predisposition of the soul to the spiritual Presence, is also the empowerment of the spiritual self through innate wisdom. For this knowledge is what enlivens us, binding us to God and thereby to our fellow creatures. It is by our awakening from our ordinary fragmentary consciousness into a unitive spiritual consciousness that our souls are “brought to life.”
Faith, then, is the “insight” or spiritual consciousness of Presence. And once this higher consciousness is awakened and its light glimpsed, it must not be allowed to lapse back into the shadows of ordinary consciousness, but must be tenaciously cultivated through attentive invocation and prayer—and by integrating our lives with the higher Spirit that our faith has glimpsed. Through this process, a consciousness grounded in visionary faith can become the means of perceiving spiritual Presence at work in ourselves and all around us.
This theophanic awareness of Presence as a spiritual and intelligent unitive dimension of life has profound implications. The deep awareness of our ontological interconnectedness as spiritual beings—the sense of the sacred, of the spiritual fragrance in all things—is the very foundation of traditional morality. For “whatsoever ye do to the least of these, my brethren, ye do unto Me.” Knowledge entails virtue for to know is ultimately to love, to be impelled to live in harmony with all things. The eyes of love look, beyond the outward and fleshly differences that can stale and draw us apart, to the abiding inner heart that we share with all things—the “dearest freshness deep down things” (Hopkins). To know deeply is therefore, to perceive the core of our own being, and thereby to perceive its spiritual Presence within and around us. To be aware in this sense is to look into the mirror of love, and to be transformed by such love. Thus, according to a teaching of Meister Eckhart, “We love God with his own love; awareness of it deifies us.” It is through faith, prayer, virtue, and love that the soul achieves its “resurrection” as the “single soul” or Spirit that alone, by the grace of God, can ascend to the Kingdom of Heaven.
The pluralistic implications of this esoteric approach to faith are obvious: the individual soul’s ability to discern the universal Spirit (“He who has seen Me, has seen the Father”), and its predisposition to heed the summons of the Spirit by offering itself, in an act of egoic death and spiritual resurrection, as “a virgin soul into the embrace of transcendency,” is not unique to any particular faith tradition, but is common to all such traditions. It is this foundational metaphysical principle of our common spiritual patrimony that radially connects us all—of whatever faith traditions—to the one and the same Spiritual Center. This is the true “orthodoxy of pluralism.”
The authentic forms of a religion, which are the providential means of its expression through revelation, and of its transmission through tradition, are also the sacramental and efficacious vehicles of effecting, through grace, the spiritual transformation of its followers. It is therefore, incumbent upon each follower to be faithful to his or her own religious forms and sacraments. One cannot journey from the circumference of our religious tradition to its universal Center without committing to a particular formal path. To this extent, the particular forms and sacraments of a religion, and their theological doctrines, are indispensable and are unique to each faith tradition, and constitute the orthodoxy of the particular faith tradition.
But the very outer forms and doctrines that distinguish a religion can also become the barriers by which they exclude others. It is therefore, crucial to understand that, though each religion will differ in its particular doctrinal and practical expressions, including its forms and sacraments, these formal expressions need to be respected and celebrated by all religions as the providential, unique, and efficacious means for the universal journey that each religion seeks to make, though by different pathways, to the same spiritual Center—that is, the journey to the Divine Heart.
Rather than focusing exclusively on the “outer orthodoxy”—that is, the different formal expressions of Truth, and the apparently irreconcilable theological differences that set the different faith traditions apart, it is wiser instead to focus as well on the “inner orthodoxy”—that is, the universal metaphysical principles from which each religion stems, and to see how all religions share a common understanding of faith as the spiritual consciousness of the one Truth that is our Presence, in which we live and move and have our being.
Then, like the great Sufi mystic, Mansur al-Hallaj (d. 922), we might proclaim:
I have meditated on the different religions, endeavoring to understand them, and I have found that they stem from a single principle with numerous ramifications. Do not therefore, ask a man to adopt a particular religion (rather than another), for this would separate him from the fundamental principle; it is this principle itself which must come to seek him; in it are all the heights and all the meanings elucidated; then he will understand them.