Monday, December 29, 2008

Modern Superstitions

Martin Lings

If you want to understand why the Islamic world smells blood in the water when it views Christendom and watches the decline of the West then we need to understand why some western philosophers who understood Christianity left it and joined Islam. One of the major twentieth century perennialists was Martin Lings (photo left). Although he wrote several books the only one I really studied was his 1965 book Ancient Beliefs and Modern Superstitions, Perennial Books, London; which was on our reading list.

There are a couple things about twentieth century perennialism that are important to understand when we consider the perennialism of the Southern Agrarians and their revolutionary contribution which returned the West to its rightful place in this field of ideas. One issue to bear in mind is that a few perennialists have wandered off into the syrupy world of universalism. Another is that some famous perennialist like Rene Guenon and Martin Lings converted to Islam.

Some could say I am being redundant. Islam is universalism after all. But there is some shades of difference that will be fleshed out at a later date. Nonetheless, it is interesting to consider why truly great thinkers abandon Christianity for Islam.

Let us consider Mr. Lings' background a bit. Martin Lings (1909-2005); Lings was born in Lancashire, England, in 1909 and received both his BA (1932) and his MA (1937) from Oxford University in English literature was a leading member of the “Traditionalist” or “Perennialist” school and an acclaimed author, editor, translator, scholar, Arabist, and poet whose work centers on the relationship between God and man through religious doctrine, scripture, symbolism, literature, and art. He was an accomplished metaphysician and essayist who often turned to a number of the world’s great spiritual traditions for examples, though he is probably best known for his writings on Islam and its esoteric tradition, Sufism. (World Wisdom biography).

In 1935 Lings discovered the writings of Rene Guenon, the French philosopher (1886-1951) and went to Cairo to study with Guenon. Lings lived in Cairo until Guenon died in 1951 and shortly thereafter Lings and his wife were kicked out of Egypt by some of his fellow adherents of Islam during a wave of Jihadism in the early 1950’s which did not approve of his English genetics. He returned to England where he lived the life of an academic. He wrote several books while working at the British Museum. He died in 2005.

I did not read Lings for his Arabic scholarship but for his critique of modernism. However, a passage in his book Ancient Beliefs and Modern Superstitions on pp 64-65 gives the attentive reader a good synopsis of what profoundly disturbed Lings about Christendom.

Recalling that in the period of the early twentieth century in Europe prior to the rise of Hitler Christianity was being laughed out of the marketplace of ideas by the dominant materialist ideology. Many sensitive Christian thinkers were scoffed at by scientists, Marxists, and others who were in the process of overthrowing Christian thought in the universities. Of course Hitler and his one-time friend and fellow Christian hater Stalin did their best to finish the job.

On p 43 Mr. Lings writes about the “barely luke-warm semi-agnostic religion which characterizes most of those ‘leaders of thought’ in the modern West who have any religion at all…” he continues on p 64:
It is often said that what has happened (to the West) was a reaction and that religion is to blame, but this argues a very narrow view of history. The flat ‘horizontal’ outlook which later came to be known as humanism was already rife in the pre-Christian West and is stamped on almost all north Mediterranean art of two thousand years or more. The modern civilization is not merely the death-agony of the Greco-Roman civilization which, having been cut short by Christianity was ‘reborn’ at the Renaissance. Since then the Western world has re-manifested, ‘with a vengeance’ if one likes to put it that way, its tendency to be distracted from the great truths of the Universe by what it calls ‘reality’, that is two-dimensional facts, mainly of the material order.

The circle is a vicious one, since ‘freedom’, that is, certain fully achieved degree of distraction, confers on the mind an agility which it did not possess in the past, and this agility opens up possibilities of still further distraction. The ever-increasing facility of travel in the modern world is as an outward image of the ever-increasing glibness and superficiality of the movements of the mind. Despite all the finery of words, what is called ‘enriching one’s cultural perspective’ or ‘broadening one’s outlook’ or ‘enlarging one’s intellectual horizon’ bears no relation to that magnanimity…If a plastic substance be continually pulled this way and that so as to increase its length and breadth, its third dimension will be reduced to a minimum. The ‘broad mind’ of the humanist is simply a narrow mind that has been flattened out.

But is it not possible to increase the psychic substance as a whole? The answer to this question is already implied in the image of a tree, for a tree cannot be made to grow by pulling at its branches, and so it is with the soul, whose substance can only receive increase from its root in the Spirit; and if the due performance of rites gives the root of the tree what nourishment it requires, the growth is not only still further encouraged but also made more perfect by the art of pruning, that is, by the abstentions and sacrifices which religion enjoins or recommends.

Not only is this a slap at liberal materialism but it also exposes the bleeding wound of the West that Islam seeks to exploit in its quest to conquer all of Christendom. The gash across the face of Western Civilization that Lings characterizes as humanism, is the same wound that the Agrarians call industrialism, and I call modernism. It is, unfortunately, all the same dreadful lesion.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Modernizing Jesus

On Christmas Day it seemed fitting to include a reading about Jesus Christ. Although Henry J. Cadbury’s book, The Peril of Modernizing Jesus, (Macmillan, 1937); was not on the Institute for Perennial Studies reading list the analysis that appeared in this book was often discussed in one way or another.

Cadbury was a Harvard scholar on religion in the twentieth century. Prior to the Quakers being taken over by the radical Left they produced a number of quality religious thinkers; Cadbury is one of them. He may not be regarded as a perennialist but in the pages of this book he does at least sound like one at times. The book wanders around trying to make a point and at times comes to it but this selection from page 42 is illustrative of Cadbury at his best.

Looking into the dense forest of modernism now enveloping his world in New England and its Harvard fiefdom somehow Cadbury was able to see a glimpse of the truth. To me this is the remarkable nature of the perennial wisdom. Even in the gathering gloom of the twentieth century a piercing light was able to burst forward and illuminate a benighted Harvard scholar.

Chapter II

The Cause and Cure of Modernism
The tendency to modernize Jesus is not a new phenomenon in Christianity. It has always existed. The history of the study of the life of Christ, such as Schweitzer made for the last century and a half, is largely a study of this reading into Jesus the thought patterns of the age or group. In our own time different groups tend to make him in their own different images. If we were able to predict the mental atmosphere of a future generation we should be able to predict as clearly their understanding of Jesus.

The tendency is inevitable, and probably not entirely curable. To attempt to offset it is surely a reasonable ambition. The means for doing so are fairly obvious. First, the realization of our own prejudices and presuppositions. We may try to look at ourselves objectively, to realize that we, like other generations or other groups, take our own mentality for granted and quietly read it into alien figures of the past, largely because we do not make the mental exertion of trying to understand them as they were. In the case of Jesus we are anxious…to secure his authority for our own point of view.

Somehow truth seems to seep through the paralysis of propaganda no matter how densely it is slathered across our consciousness. Cadbury had doubts. Not about Jesus but about how the modernists of his day were perpetuating a pliable Jesus (including later Quakers).

Today a few more people are questioning, “our own prejudices and presuppositions” including positivism, materialism, and science. Something Cadbury could only point to as he gazed into the surrounding fog. He may not have had the courage to expose the deception but he did have the courage to take a swing at one of the biggest modernizer of the time; Albert Schweitzer.

From Jack Miles, Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, (Knopf, 2001) is the following comment that elucidates Cadbury’s criticism of Schweitzer.

“Schweitzer believed that the historical Jesus not only could be essentially recovered, but had been recovered. When he wrote 'There is nothing more negative than the result of research into the life of Jesus,' he did not mean to express any doubt that the quest for the historical Jesus had succeeded but only unflinching realism regarding the religious relevance of its success.”

This is the process of reading ones own reality into the reality of God. It is nearly the ultimate in presentism a virulent form of modernism. So, yes, indeed Cadbury did a service, unfortunately, one that was almost entirely lost on Harvard and much of America to this date. However, on this Christmas Day we can rejoice that the truth will inevitably reveal itself as people of good will join the crusade.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


The antithesis of the Perennial Philosophy (philosophia perennis) is Modernism. In order to build a framework for further discussion I am posting an essay I wrote entitled "What is Modernism?". It first appeared as a letter to the editor in an Eselen Institute publication c.1996 although I do not have a copy of that version. A somewhat expanded rewrite was then published in Denmark in the English language edition of Global Times, the journal of the Proutist Society, January of 1998. The Global Times rendition is what appears below. Portions of it were published in the 2004 essay, "Three Pillars of Yankee Rule", which appeared in the online journal The Beacon.

A major part of the critique developed within the Institute for Perennial Studies was a decidedly downbeat view of the potent political philosophy; modernism. Unlike the tepid academic term “modernity” which is nearly devoid of content modernism is a cancerous doctrine that has swept through almost every culture particularly since the American Civil War.

There will be further discussion of this topic. In my opinion the negative aspects of modernism outweigh the positive contributions it has made, however, the pervasive nature of its reach and the influence of its adherents makes criticism rare.


Without a doubt the most powerful political and social ideology of the past century is something few people have considered. A cluster of dogma has sprung up around the philosophy of positivism, the belief that nothing exists except that which can be measured. From this starting point we have witnessed the rise of positivist science, philosophical reductionism, consumerism and a cultural appendage; modernism.

As the director of The Institute for Perennial Studies in the late 1980’s I found that we spent a lot of time researching and critiquing modernist systems as well as examining alternatives. If we learned anything from the experience it is that the negative effects of modernism are ubiquitous. As a belief system it infects all of our thinking.

Allow me to share some of our findings regarding modernism and its attendant systems; positivism, an aggressive new materialism, and consumerism. The first and most noticeable trait of any modernist system is its claim to be "new". Newness is unique to this belief system and is characterized by a cult like following of pundits and pollsters who are always trying to divine the latest trends and impulses for the purpose of forecasting. Newness is celebrated as a sacrament and is its own proof of superiority. The act of being "first" has become an obsession. Post-modernism, advanced modernism, progress, etc., have all laid claim to the mantle "new" at one time or another.

Modernism consistently defines its enemies as "undemocratic". Whether it is Kropotkin and Lenin espousing various forms of scientific socialism as an escape from the Old (elitist) Order, the Northeastern establishment promoting corporate liberalism ("free trade") in the new cyberspace of Wall Street, or Coca-Cola selling the universal soft drink to the "new global marketplace", the underlying argument is always the same. We have the wave of the future at our disposal and if you don't get on the bandwagon you are resisting "democratic inevitability".

Permutations of modernism are always heralded by a shower of statistics and other mathematical gadgets. Proving that the tide is running in a certain direction with various empirical methods is an absolute necessity for the modernist. Reliance on the measurability of social trends is the foundation of political science and public relations.

Modernism eventually fall victim to its own poison. The idea that modernism is itself new is a fallacy. History is filled with secular prophets declaring a "new dawn" or a "new era". Not only in the Christian Bible but in the scriptures of all spiritual traditions there are admonitions against people relying too heavily on their own creations. Babylon fell while lusting after temporal rewards. Jesus reminded us that he was “the beginning and the end” saying that time as well as Creation is the domain of God and “newness” is that suspicious property of Man.

The Prajna Paramitas warn the Buddhist not to trust the material world of ever changing “aggregates”. The Sacred writings of antiquity are replete with similar caveats against newness turning instead to the eternal world within. Allied as it is with the materialist pantheon of science and positivism the present incarnation of modernism is particularly dangerous and pervasive but little changed from past manifestations.

In our research we came to the conclusion that modernism was not the leading edge of an evolutionary continuum rather it is a veneer. In the case of its present likeness the veneer is uniquely corrosive and seeks to dissolve, absorb, or ultimately erase everything that has come before it. Natural resources, indigenous cultures, traditional values, and even history itself is a target for the modernist. Yet, the real sadness is that society has bought into a fad and in the last analysis "new" is predictably ephemeral.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Herald of Perennialism (1987)

The following is a statement that we generated as a result of the work at the Institute for Perennial Studies back in 1987. It was released as a broadside or poster on parchment style paper with graphic illustrations and was quite a handsome frame-able document. Unfortunately, only a few copies have survived so far as I know. There may be more floating about somewhere.

This critique holds up pretty well and was the catalyst for any number of people and groups who incorporated elements of the perennialist proposal into their thinking.

It was not the only piece we published but it did encapsulate some of the broad ideas. I will flesh out more of the raw thinking on this issue and demonstrate how the critique was used by me to analyze cultural data as I was able to refine the process.


We seek the re-evaluation of culture based on a perennial wisdom which emphasizes harmony and integration with nature and views humanity as a spiritual entity within Creation. This perennial wisdom was the axis of human culture for all but the last 250 years when a positivist model stressing Cartesian dualism began to gain ascendancy by exaggerating the separation of people from nature through the powers of abstraction. This new program led the way to extreme industrialism and the redistribution of wealth towards an urban elite and the bureaucrats that serve them and away from the traditional rural culture that was close to the land. The result of the potent but shortsighted worldview that evolved from this change has been to glorify complex organization, to disconnect people from the regenerative power of nature, to stifle a more productive style of learning based on renewal, and to dislocate human needs in favor of technological priorities. Consequently in a mere two and a half centuries this program that exaggerates abstraction, and promotes exploitation and expedience at the expense of serving the requirements of balance has brought to humanity the modern era of holocaust, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, ecological degradation, and an alienated culture which produces dependent, poorly adjusted people.

In light of our present situation we feel that a reappraisal of a perennial wisdom is necessary. This can be done by defining the elements of philosophy of perennialism. In the process of doing this we hope to create a dialogue among interested people which will lend to the creation of a vocabulary and paradigm capable of communicating knowledge about the deep relationship between God, people, and values. We feel that this work will activate a positive consensus towards a more productive use of human institutions. Having done this we believe that perennialism could be implemented by a wide spectrum of individuals and groups leading to a new and healthier culture. This in turn can facilitate the growth of o global kinship based on a deeper wisdom.

copyright: 1987 D. Reif, C. Klemaier

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Perennis Continues

In the 1980's a small group of independent scholars started a study group called the Institute for Perennial Studies. Grounding our work in the philosophia perennis we would apply those principles to our task; hence the name. We published the journal Perennis for a couple years before the core of the study group went in separate directions and we cease to publish.

The Institute for Perennial Studies had a question as its mission statement. The question was, "After thousands of years of sustained human habitation what factors have brought us to the place where mass annihilation was possible?" This question seemed so fundamental, so obvious, so natural to ask. Yet virtually no one was asking this question.

I know now that the reason no one was asking this question was because, well, why would anyone ask such a thing. The United States was soaring, Europe was rebuilt and shaking off the effects of WW II, and the "Third World" was under control. The future seemed bright for most people so why would anyone ask a dumb question like the one we posed.

Since then I have taken what we learned in our studies back in the 1980's and attempted to apply them to the real world. I put our critique up against the best contemporary thinking testing our findings to see if they held up under the rigors of time.

As my schedule allows I will post vignettes of what I have learned from 20 years of observations that have arisen from the original insights given to us through our studies of the effects of modernism and its allied beliefs and how this cluster of ideas impacts culture.