This stuff comes up so much! And the view I hold usually seems to get shortchanged.
Here’s how I got started about it this time around. I was in conversation on a forum with an interesting guy named Michael Larkin, and at one point I said this:
It is not only possible to have a multitude of different types of spiritual goals, but joyful and useful and essential to have them — like a form of biodiversity.
By spiritual goals, I meant “final states”, “ultimates”, “enlightenments”, “god-consciousnesses”, and so forth — end points of spiritual traditions, completions of the mystical quest, Highests.
Michael objected right away to the idea of multiple spiritual Ultimates, and articulated a standpoint that fits the “Perennial Philosophy”. This is actually a collection of views held by different groups over the centuries which states that all spiritual or mystical paths are in some sense one or the same.
There are several types of perennialism, well categorised by the Ferrer book I mentioned last post. The reply Michael Larkin gave at first fits Ferrer’s “Esoteric Perennialism” category. He said:
The ultimate goal is the same: it is the paths that differ. The “biodiversity” is in the paths, and the kinds of experiences along the way. One can climb the same mountain along many different routes, perceiving different things according to the route taken, but there’s only the one summit or goal.
If this is true, my idea that “a multitude of spiritual goals is joyful and useful and essential” must not only be wrong, it must be meaningless — there couldn’t be a “multitude of spiritual goals”. All ultimate “enlightened states”, for example, must be identical in all human beings: the “goal state” of all Tibetan Buddhists must be the same as that of all Advaita Vedantins, all Catholic contemplatives, and so on. There is a huge variety of possible “ways there”, but only one “there”.
However Michael then added a nuance:
There may be different “angles of view”, so to speak, on the same reality. Viewed from one direction, a pile of stones might look like a face, and from another, like a whole figure; but all can agree it’s a pile of stones.
This resembles another of Ferrer’s types, “perspectivist perennialism”, associated with Stanislav Grof for example. Still many paths and one goal, but now many final perspectives on that goal.
This is an important idea, which I feel has some degree of truth, and I mean to explore it. But how easy is it to see these multiple views as “joyful and useful and essential” — or even meaningfully distinct? For lots of people the views don’t necessarily seem to differ for a good reason. (Remember, Michael rejected the viewpoint that the differences had any value, without giving it much consideration.)
In fact the “perspectivist” idea is often used to devalue difference, as in the cautionary tale of the blind men and the elephant, which pokes fun at how each individual perspective ignores the “whole elephant”.
Michael’s idea of the pile of stones isn’t quite as negative as that. Maybe it could be joyful/useful/essential to have as many “final views” of the pile of stones as possible. On other hand, how patient would we be with someone insisting on the importance of their particular view of the pile of stones — at the expense of the “bare fact” that it is a pile of stones? But I’m going to argue such insistence is actually very important.
These are the questions then:
1. Are all spiritual goals in fact “the same thing”?
2. If not, can they be seen as “different perspectives on the same thing”?
3. If so, is the difference between those “different perspectives” actually important or valuable?
NEXT: TWO DIFFERENT ULTIMATES IN ACTION