Here and now: The Perennial Tradition

May 28th, 2019

It is easy to forget that there was what we might call “religion before the religions.” Scholars are not agreed whether Zoroastrianism or Hinduism is the oldest world religion, but they are generally agreed that no matter which was actually first, it began around 2000 BCE (4,000 years ago +/-).

Archaeology has unearthed evidence of “religion” (i.e. the religious instinct in humans) as far back as 40,000 years ago. With no connection to a particular date, the writer of Genesis notes that people began to invoke the name of the Lord during the generation of Enosh (Genesis 4:26), clearly a time far back in history.

It makes no sense to think that God was silent for 38,000 years — the time from the expression of a religious instinct to the emergence of formal world religions. To read the first two chapters of Genesis is to see God/human communion “in the beginning.” The creation of world religions was only the formalization (and contextualization) of what had been part of the human experience for a long, long time.

To say it another way, there has been much more time on the earth when people were religious without religions, than with them. The content is much older than the containers. Today we call this longer, pre-religions’ period, the Perennial Tradition. [1] I include it in this series because it too is a testimony to here-and-now living.

Because the religious instinct in the Perennial Tradition was so connected with nature, the here-and-now aspects of life were experienced almost every day: sunrise/sunset, the seasons, good weather/bad weather, agricultural cycles, etc. [2] God and the world were so intimately linked that it was almost impossible to think about anything other than living in the present moment. [3] God was understood to be inherent in all things. [4]. God was present as Presence.

Moreover, the Perennial Tradition emphasized the immediacy of relationship. ‘Here’ was the place and ‘now’ was the time to know God, be influenced by God and to serve God. There were no designated religious buildings to go to — no specifically declared religious days to observe. It was more like what David declared, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1).

These aspects, and more, from the Perennial Tradition reveal the longstanding history of here-and-now living. This kind of life arises from an organismic (unitive) view of life, compared to a mechanistic (separate parts) view. It is rooted deeply in a God/human “likeness” that began in creation. It is the sense that “God is not far from any of us, for in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27-28).

[1] For more about the Perennial Tradition, I recommend Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy; Bede Griffiths, Universal Wisdom; Karen Armstrong, The Great Transformation (Chapter 1); and Houston Smith, The World’s Religions (Chapter 9).

[2] The first place I saw this was when I read James Michener’s The Source.

[3] This was because a view of God as imminent took precedence over a view of transcendence. Only later, as religions took shape, did transcendence eclipse imminence, with ‘natural laws’ increasingly describing God’s interaction with creation. In the Perennial Tradition there was no differentiating between God’s person and God’s laws.

[4] Richard Rohr, A Spring Within Us (CAC Publishing, 2016), Week Four: “The Perennial Tradition,” 37-51.

About the Author

Steve Harper

Steve Harper continues to teach spiritual formation and Wesley studies to Christian divinity students for more than 35 read more…
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