Review by JongWook Hong, 2008
Schuon, Frithjof. The Transcendental Unity of Religions, English tr. by Peter Townsend. New York: Harper & Row, 1975. 156 pages.
The Transcendental Unity of Religions was published in 1975 with an introduction by Huston Smith. The introduction is a big merit of this edition because Smith, as a professional scholar of a variety of religions, delineates the theme of book based on Schuon’s terminology. Schuon uses different terms and ideas crossing over various religions, and this makes the book more abstract, and thus a little hard to follow at times. However, his thesis is fascinating and beautifully stated, and Smith explains it well.
In the big picture, Schuon identifies two categorical realms in each religion: the exoteric and the esoteric. Although these two realms are not necessarily opposites, they show opposing tendencies. The exoteric is more dogmatic whereas the esoteric is more mystical. The exoteric has more varieties because every religion has its own ways to establish and nurture distinctive philosophical, theological, historical, and even sentimental values. Thus, the exoteric claims of religions tend to exclude one another. By contrast, the esoteric realm displays certain similarities running beneath all religions, or at their peaks. The more esoteric, the denser these similarities become. Whether at the very bottom of the depths, or at the highest peak, the core esoteric claim is that all religions reach to the same ultimate reality. Therefore, Schuon argues that the esoteric aspects of mysticism demonstrate the transcendence and universality of all religions.
In order to explain this, Schuon attempts to compare, contrast, and juxtapose religions in respects of their exoteric and esoteric elements. The most basic contrast compares exoteric and esoteric to ‘form’ and ‘spirit’ respectively (p.29). Schuon admits that certain religions may show more esoteric features, but nevertheless argues that all religions have form and spirit, and quotes from a variety religious figures to establish this claim.
Since the exoteric is more dogmatic and manifests marked differences among religions, Schuon does not feel impelled to examine and compare the exoteric systems of each religion. Rather, he examines the esoteric realm in terms of the philosophical or theological meanings of sacred texts and symbolic names or terminologies in historical perspective. Schuon believes that all revelatory activities in all major religions show the “infinite, eternal, and formless Essence” (p.98).
That Schuon quotes from various religious texts and uses various religious terms suggests that his thesis is not without a certain degree of plausibility. After all, every religion has transcendence and unity in its own way. It is true that most of major religions value mystical unity with an ultimate reality whatever they believe what it is, and this ideal is at the heart of each religion.
Despite these good points, Schuon's book is not comprehensive enough. Showing that some terms and texts in various religions have the same or similar indexical aspects does not imply the further point that they are representing the exact same reality. Terms and traditions in different contexts reflect complicated aspects of religions. It is not just religious doctrines that are different; ways of thought are also different, as are concepts of self, or ultimate reality, and of modes of relating self to ultimate reality. Especially given the extensive development of the field of comparative studies of religion, it seems that Schuon's book falls a little short of contemporary standards of comparative adequacy. However, the book itself is enjoyable. His idea is not unique, but it is fascinating.