Here are some extracts from one of the most interesting books written on religion in the 20th century, The Transcendent Unity of Religions, by the metaphysician Frithjof Schuon.
Schuon is the founder of the Perennialist school, which, as his book suggests, believes in the unity of all religions.
Unlike many religious scholars who have argued against promoting esoterism to the masses – out of fear that people might be misled – Schuon believed it was necessary for a society to understand both religion’s outward and inward dimensions. If a religion’s intellectual, esoteric tradition isn’t known about, the inevitable result, according to Schuon, is atheism.
“The exoteric aspect of religion is thus a providential disposition that, far from being blameworthy, is necessary in view of the fact that the esoteric way can only concern a minority, especially under the present conditions of terrestrial humanity.
What is blameworthy is not the existence of exoterism, but rather its all-invading autocracy – due primarily perhaps, in the Christian world, to the narrow precision of the Latin mind – which causes many of those who would be qualified for the way of pure Knowledge not only to stop short at the outward aspect of the religion, but even to reject entirely an esoterism that they knew only through a veil of prejudice and deformation, unless indeed, not finding anything in exoterism to satisfy their intelligence, they be caused to stray into false and artificial doctrines in an attempt to find something that exoterism does not offer them, and even takes it upon itself to prohibit.”
It is here, in a footnote, that Schuon cites a verse from the Bible, in which Jesus says: “Woe unto you experts in the Law. You have taken away the key to knowledge. You didn’t go in yourselves, and you kept out those who were trying to go in.”
“The exoteric viewpoint is, in fact, doomed to end by negating itself once it is no longer vivified by the presence within it of the esoterism of which it is both the outward radiation and the veil. So it is that religion, according to the measure in which it denies metaphysical and initiatory realities and becomes crystallized in a literalistic dogmatism, inevitably engenders disbelief; the atrophy that overtakes dogmas when they are deprived of their internal dimension recoils upon them from the outside, in the form of heretical and atheistic negations.
“The presence of an esoteric nucleus in a civilisation that is specifically exoteric in character guarantees to it a normal development and a maximum of stability…Once this dimension or nucleus ceases to exist, which can only happen in quite abnormal, though cosmologically necessary circumstances, the religious edifice is shaken, or even suffers a partial collapse, and finally becomes reduced to its most external elements, namely literalism and sentimentality.”
Schuon adds another footnote here: “So far as the Islamic religion is concerned, we may quote the following observations of an Indian Moslem prince: ‘The majority of non-Moslems and even many Moslems who have been brought up in a European cultural environment, are ignorant of this particular element of Islam which is both its marrow and its centre, which gives life and force to its outer forms and activities and which by reason of the universal nature of its content can call to witness the disciples of other religions’ (Nawab A. Hydari Hydar Nawaz Jung Bahadur, in his preface to Studies in Tasawwuf by Khaja Khan).
“…In other words, when exoterism is deprived of the complex and subtle interferences of its transcendent dimensions, it finds itself ultimately overwhelmed by the exteriorised consequences of its own limitations, the latter having become, as it were, total.”
Schuon on religious people condemning esoterism/ mysticism/ Sufism
“Now if one proceeds from the idea that exoterists do not understand esoterism and that they have in fact a right not to understand it or even consider it nonexistent, one must also recognise their right to condemn certain manifestations of esoterism that seem to encroach on their own territory and cause “offence”, to use the Gospel expression; but how is one to explain the fact that in most, if not all, cases of this nature, the accusers divest themselves of this right by the iniquitous manner in which they proceed? It is certainly not their more or less natural incomprehension, nor the defense of their genuine right, but solely the perfidiousness of the means that they employ…this perfidiousness proves, moreover, that the accusations that they find it necessary to formulate, generally serve only as as pretext for gratifying an instinctive hatred of everything that seems to threaten their superficial equilibrium, which is really only a form of individualism, therefore of ignorance.”
Schuon’s criticism of “religious polemics”, or, to situate it in a modern context: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris et al
“One may ask why so much stupidity and bad faith are to be found in religious polemics, even among men who are otherwise free from such failings; this is a sure sign that the majority of these polemics are tainted with the “sin against the Holy Ghost.” No blame can be attached to a person for attacking a foreign religion in the name of his own belief, if it is done purely and simply through ignorance; when, however, this is not the case, the person will be guilty of blasphemy, since, by outraging the Divine Truth in an alien fom, he is merely profiting by an opportunity to offend God without having to trouble his own conscience. This is the real explanation of the gross and impure zeal displayed by those who, in the name of their religious convictions, devote their lives to making sacred things appear odious, a task they can only accomplish by contemptible methods.”
The Transcendent Unit of Religions, Frithjof Schuon, pages 9-12