Perennial Wisdom, also known as the Perennial Philosophy, the Perennial Tradition, or even the Wisdom Tradition, is a belief surfacing in the church although rarely under that name. Perennial Wisdom infiltrates through other practices such as Contemplative Spirituality and the Enneagram, both of which stem from the influence of Richard Rohr (b. 1943) and his followers. Rohr, a Roman Catholic Franciscan friar and the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is a self-avowed follower of Perennial Wisdom and does not hide it.
The term Perennial Philosophy first appeared around 1540 from the Italian humanist Agostino Steuco, and later by German mathematician and philosopher G.W. Leibniz in the 18th century. In the 20th century, a major spokesperson for the Perennial Philosophy was the Swiss-born Frithjof Schuon (1907-1998), a prolific writer on metaphysics, spirituality, art, and anthropology. Perennial Wisdom was popularized through the writer Aldous Huxley whose book, The Perennial Philosophy, was published in 1945. So what is the Perennial Philosophy? Several descriptions yielded this concise overview from a Perennial site called One River:
1. All life arises in and is an expression of the nondual Infinite Life that is called by many names: Ultimate Reality, God, Tao, Mother, Allah, YHVH, Dharmakaya, Brahman, and Great Spirit among others.
2. You contain two ways of knowing the world: a greater knowing (called Atman, Soul, Self, Spirit, Mind, etc.) that intuitively knows each finite life as a unique manifestation of Infinite Life, and a lesser knowing (called self, ego, ahem, kibr, etc.) that mistakes uniqueness for separateness, and imagines itself apart from rather than a part of Infinite Life.
3. Awakening the greater Self and knowing the interconnectedness of all life in the singular Life carries with it a universal ethic calling the awakened to cultivate compassion and justice toward all beings.
4. Awakening your greater Self and living this ethic is the highest goal you can set for yourself.
Not all followers of Perennial Wisdom would organize the above points in that order or even those categories, and would possibly modify it, but the points presented above appear basic to the Perennial Wisdom view and serve as convenient points for discussion. More on the four points are below beginning under the heading “Panentheism.”
Followers of Perennial Wisdom
Perennial followers are found worldwide. There are two main types of Perennial wisdom, one is evolutionary, believing that humanity is evolving, and the other is not evolutionary (Credit goes to Dr. Ronald V. Huggins for this information, and other insight he has given me on this topic).
This is not an academic article, so those two views and other finer points of Perennial Wisdom are not addressed in this article. Only an attempt to explain the main ideas, including those promoted by Richard Rohr and some others, are given and answered here.
Perennial Wisdom is different from the idea that truth is found in all religions, which is broad and can be applied to different beliefs. Although Perennial followers would agree with that statement, their views go far beyond that sentiment. According to followers of the Perennial belief, the exoteric (outer) aspects of religions make religions appear to differ from each other, but the esoteric (inner) truth binds all religions together in the same core reality. All religions come from the same root or source in the Perennial view and are united in the same core truth.
Followers of Perennial Wisdom do not, however, advocate a global faith or a uniting of all religions. They believe that the same thread of wisdom runs through all religions, and therefore, all religions share and eventually lead to the same core truth and Divine Reality. Consequently, all could find the Perennial truths via their own faith tradition through an inward journey (mysticism). The inner journey via mystical practices is the bridge that leads one to the truth that unites these religions.
Terms such as “Divine Reality” and “the Divine” refer to God, though this god is not usually referred to in personal terms. The first of the four points given above expresses this idea.
Followers of Perennial Wisdom tend to continue in a traditional religion and may call themselves followers of the Hindu tradition the Buddhist tradition, the Christian tradition, etc. The word wisdom may also be included, as in the Christian wisdom tradition. Christianity, for example, is viewed as only one of many wisdom traditions. This article focuses on Christian Perennial followers.
The Contemplative Aspect
The term contemplative in this context refers to advocating certain practices that involve techniques such as following one’s breath, repeating a word or words, imaginative prayer, and/or other techniques designed to bring one into a state of (non-thinking) awareness of the Divine and union with the Divine. This may go under the names prayer, meditation, centering, contemplative prayer, or other terms.
These practices are allegedly based on (what are called) the desert fathers and mothers, The Cloud of Unknowing, and the Centering Prayer Movement started by now deceased Trappist monks Thomas Keating( d. 2018) , Basil Pennington (d. 2005), and William Menninger (d. 2021). The Centering Movement also incorporated Hindu and Buddhist meditation techniques. (See CANA article on Contemplative Prayer for more information at Contemplative Prayer-Part 1 )
Richard Rohr is an enthusiastic promoter of Contemplative techniques and speaks admiringly of Thomas Keating. This contemplative aspect is significant because followers of Perennial Wisdom believe mysticism is the door through which one journeys toward the realization of Perennial truth. Therefore, contemplative practices are strongly advocated and often include a variety of techniques.
Perennial Wisdom emphasizes the inner journey as necessary, and doctrine is secondary or even extraneous. As David G. Benner (b. 1947), a Master Teacher of Rohr’s Living School, puts it:
The Christian wisdom tradition is not a set of beliefs to be embraced but a transformational path to be walked (From Preface to Living Wisdom; Wipf & Stock, Second edition, 2019).
To read more about Benner and this book, see CANA article on Benner’s book
Panentheism, Point One
The first of the four points given in the first section above speaks of all life as an expression of the nondual life, meaning God (God has various names). All creation, including the earth, stars, animals, rivers, plants, rocks, and humans, arise from the nondual divine Source and contain the divine Source. As Richard Rohr puts it, everything and everyone has divine DNA.
This view is panentheism, a belief that all contains God. It is not pantheism, which is the view that identifies God as the same as creation, usually stated as all is God.
Panentheism effectively erases the biblical distinction between God and creation (though its advocates may try to refute that). In truth, since God created the universe from nothing, God cannot be part of what he created. God’s omnipresence does not entail God being part of his creation; it merely expresses the reality that God cannot be contained anywhere. Therefore, God is present everywhere. The omnipresence of God is not panentheism.
Panentheism ties God into creation. This view of God denies biblical attributes of God such as his non-dependence (non-contingency) on anything; his immutability (God does not change (Numbers 23:19; Hebrews 13:8; James 1:17); his existence outside of time; and his Divine Simplicity (God has no parts/divisions) versus the dipolar panentheistic god who is in creation and transcends it. (To learn more about panentheism, see John W Cooper, Panentheism: The Other God of the Philosophers, From Plato to the Present; Baker Academic, 2006).
All Perennial Philosophy followers are therefore necessarily panentheists. Richard Rohr openly admits belief in panentheism and supports it as an historic Christian belief, although it is not.
The Greater Knowing, Point 2
The second point in the list is about everyone having a greater knowing versus a lesser knowing from what is called the ego, which is the false self. The greater knowing is allegedly an intuitive knowledge of the Perennial truth but the person may not have had a conscious realization of this truth.
The Perennial Wisdom follower believes that the conscious rational mind of the ego causes one to mistakenly believe that he or she is separate from the Infinite (God). This false sense of separation gives rise to supposed wrong teachings about God and humanity. For example, the Christian Perennialist rejects the teaching that Jesus atoned for sins on the cross as necessary. The Perennialist would posit that the ego mind has blocked realization of the Perennial truth through this atonement doctrine and the person needs an awakening through contemplative practices to get past it. In fact, Rohr has called contemplation a process of unlearning.
Rohr denies the atonement for sins or the need for forgiveness since all are already “in” Christ. Like any Perennialist, Rohr also denies God’s wrath on sin. Since the Perennial god is a part of creation and more impersonal, there is no Perennial concept of God’s righteousness. Without righteousness, God is lowered to a human standard of what is good or just, which, of course, is heavily flawed, relative, and in the end, meaningless. And since the Perennialist denies God’s wrath, then sin is not an issue.
The Greater Self and Justice, Points 2 and 3
Point 3: Awakening the greater Self and knowing the interconnectedness of all life in the singular Life carries with it a universal ethic calling the awakened to cultivate compassion and justice toward all beings.
Point 4: Awakening your greater Self and living this ethic is the highest goal you can set for yourself.
The third and fourth points are about the greater Self, also known as the True Self. This greater Self must awaken, and then the Self will recognize all life as part of the nondual Infinite. A call to compassion and justice is inherent in this awakening, but compassion and justice are based on human ideals, not based on the character of God or on anything expressed as a standard in the Bible.
Such a calling for man to conform to standards from non-Christian spirituality or secular ideals becomes a calling to whatever ideals are currently popular. Whether it is embracing polytheism, same sex marriage, or a gender fluid society as ideal, these become the basis for a call to compassion and justice. In contrast, Psalm 89:14 and other passages tell us that justice is from God and based on his character:
Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne; Mercy and truth go before You.
Other passages (Psalm 37:30; Proverbs 2:9, 8:20, 21:3, 15) link justice with righteousness, such as:
The exercise of justice is joy for the righteous, But terror to those who practice injustice. Proverbs 21:15
How blessed are those who maintain justice, Who practice righteousness at all times! Psalm 106:3
Righteousness is the character of God that no man can attain on his own, but it is the standard. Righteousness was imputed to those in the Old Testament through faith in the true God (Romans 3:21, 4:13), and the righteousness of Christ is imputed to those who believe in him as the Son of God who died to pay the penalty for man’s sins on the cross (Romans 1:17, 3:22, 4:5, 10:4; 1 Corinthians 1:30; 2 Corinthians 5:21).
The Perennialists who call themselves Christians, or say they are followers/practitioners of the Christian tradition or of Christian wisdom, like Richard Rohr and David G. Benner, do not refer to God’s righteousness because salvation from sins is not an issue in the Perennial view. The crucial goal is to awaken to the Greater or True Self, which is already part of Divine Reality, according to Perennial philosophy. The righteousness of God is neglected by or unknown to Perennial Wisdom adherents.
Without a foundation in the character of God for righteousness, there is no absolute standard for justice, and justice becomes relative. It is impossible in Perennial wisdom to know this righteousness and justice because Perennial beliefs reject or ignore God’s attributes as revealed in God’s word, as are the moral standards based on God’s revealed character in Scripture.
The True Self
Richard Rohr teaches that the True Self of the Enneagram has never been separated from God. The Enneagram is designed to uncover this Greater Self through realizing that the nine Types are temporary constructs of the self.
David G. Benner teaches about this True Self in the popular book, The Gift of Being Yourself (IVP, 2019), although he calls it the Christ-self and the Christ-in-me self and asserts that we must recognize Christ as the deepest truth of our being (p. 99). He adds:
It is not just becoming like Christ but actualizing the Christ who is in us. It is a journey toward union with God (p. 99).
Since Benner’s book has a Christian publisher, Christian readers may overlook this statement or misinterpret it to mean living out the Christian life according to Scripture. But actualizing the Christ is a specific concept foreign to the Bible. It is a psychological term Carl Jung used about living out an archetype that is supposedly within humanity’s collective (shared) unconscious. Benner is saying that we actualize this Christ as part of a journey toward union with God. It is not about relying on Christ for forgiveness of sins and eternal life. This Perennial belief gives the True Self priority over the historical Jesus.
Benner offers Jesus as an example of one who (supposedly) struggled with false selves as he searched for his true identity (pp. 72; 85). This not only demeans Jesus is but ignores the fact that Jesus knew who he was. The accounts of Jesus at age 12 in the Temple (Luke 2:41-52) and of facing Satan in the wilderness temptations (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13) demonstrate clearly that Jesus did know who he was. It is not the biblical Jesus that Benner writes about despite the popularity of this book on Christian campuses and in Christian counseling.
The so-called True Self should not be mistaken for the new self or regenerated self in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). The new self in Christ is born from above (John 3:3, 15) via a supernatural act from God (John 1:12, 13). It does not exist naturally in man at birth but comes through faith in the true Jesus Christ (John 3:16; Romans 3:25-28; 4:5, 13; 5:1; Galatians 3:11; and many more). The new self is being conformed to the image of Christ, and not to any other standard.
It is revealing that the Foreword to this book is by Basil Pennington, one of the founders of the Centering Prayer Movement. Connections like this, along with the use of certain terms, have led this writer and others to believe that the Perennial Philosophy is bleeding into the church, at least in part, via contemplative teachers, knowingly or unknowingly.
The Perennial Gospel
Those Perennial followers who follow what is often called the Christian tradition may refer to Jesus and see him as the best example of what they consider to be Christian values or teachings. Richard Rohr has referred to Jesus as an archetype (Rohr adopted archetype ideas from Carl Jung).
As seen in the previous section, David Benner speaks of Christ as more of an archetype in our unconscious than as a Savior, and he does not write about him as a Redeemer from sins. The gospel is not part of the Perennial beliefs and any meaning attached to the gospel falls away as one goes deeper into the Perennial philosophy since it does not consider the gospel to be necessary.
The Perennial rejection of a need for salvation from sins and the false views of Jesus make the Perennial Philosophy incompatible with Christianity. One cannot believe both in Perennial Wisdom and in the gospel as given in Scriptures. To sum up:
The Perennial Christian wisdom tradition is not wisdom from God.
The Perennial “Divine Reality” is not the true living God.
The Perennial Christ is not salvific and is not the historical, biblical Jesus Christ.
The Perennial Philosophy is a false gospel and a spiritual counterfeit to God’s truth.
The True Jesus Christ
In contrast to Perennial Wisdom, God’s revelation is that humanity is innately sinful and born separated from God, desiring to do his will over God’s will. Man cannot make up for this on his own, no matter how good, how religious, or how spiritual he tries to be because in his heart, man continues to desire his own will above God’s. Change is needed from the inside out, and only God can do this through his grace and power. This happens when one puts his faith in the true Jesus Christ who paid the penalty for sins on the cross.
Jesus Christ is fully man and fully God, uncreated, and the second person of the Trinity, co-equal and co-eternal with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Christ humbled himself to add humanity to his deity in coming to earth (Philippians 2:6-8) and died on the cross to make atonement for sins (Romans 3:24-26, 4:24-25; 1 John 2:2). This was due to God’s love for sinners, not due to anything humanity deserved or could earn. Out of God’s grace, God transforms the believer and gives him new life in Christ through that person’s faith in the true Jesus Christ.
But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we did in righteousness, but in accordance with His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He richly poured out upon us through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. Titus 3:4-7 NAS
But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, even now I say again: if anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed! Galatians 1:8-9
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV