Perennialists by Alexander Green & Art Nicklaus

My husband became brave today when he agreed to make public an email that he sent to our children on October 17, 2018. He had found an article by Alexander Green that was a pretty good description of his philosophy of life and decided to share it with them. Today’s blog post is that email. It begins with the article by Alexander Green who is an author and Assistant Professor in the Department of Jewish Thought at SUNY University at Buffalo, USA, and the Chief Investment Strategist of the Oxford Club. My husband writes a personal note to our children at the end. Don’t miss that, because it’s the best part!

From Alexander Green:

“A few years ago, my friend John Mackey, founder and CEO of Whole Foods, invited me to a social event at his ranch west of Austin, Texas. Wandering through his home, I admired the beautiful artwork on the walls, much of it depicting Eastern mystical traditions. I asked John if he had an interest in Oriental philosophy. “Some,” he said, adding at one point, “I’m a perennialist.” That is a thought-provoking self-description, one you seldom hear these days.

Perennialists believe you should learn – and pass along to your children and students – those things that are of everlasting importance to all people everywhere. What are those things? Humanity’s best ideas about how to live. Perennialists assert that enlightened people everywhere agree on certain core principles. These are handed down from generation to generation, through the ages, and across nations and cultures.

In the West, perennialists like Aldous Huxley, Mortimer Adler and Huston Smith beckon us to join what they call “The Great Conversation.” It’s a broad discussion about what constitutes the best life, one that encompasses everything from the Analects of Confucius to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics to the mystical truths of the world’s great religious traditions. The conversation is ongoing and evolving, never static. It is about the connection between compassion and successful living.

Perennialists offer, for example, that…

• Everything worthwhile in life is created as the result of love and concern for others.

• Humanity is one great family. Our similarities are deep, our differences superficial.

• The Golden Rule, expressed in some way in every society, is the cornerstone of human understanding.

• The giving of time, money, support and encouragement can never be detrimental to the giver.

• Character development – the path from self-absorption to caring and consciousness – is paramount.

• Problems are life’s way of getting the best out of us. They are opportunities to grow.

• It is important to nourish your mind with the thoughts of history’s wisest thinkers.

• Courage and self-awareness are required to live fully and follow your heart.

• You should develop the ability to reason accurately and independently rather than accepting ideas based solely on authority or tradition.

• Our egos cause us to cherish our opinions, judge others and rationalize our beliefs. Perennialists ask, “Would you rather be right or be happy?”

• We should exercise humility. Not because others find it attractive – although they do – but because, if we are honest with ourselves, we have much to be humble about.

• We should practice forgiveness. When we forgive others, we find that others forgive us – and that we forgive ourselves.

• Moral development comes from strengthening our impulse control, prioritizing personal relationships and fostering social responsibility.

• Our lives are immeasurably improved by expressing gratitude and generosity.

• Whenever we act, we are never just doing. We are always becoming. If you aren’t growing, you are diminishing.

• Rather than quarreling over sectarian differences, perennialists focus on the nuggets of truth at the heart of every great tradition.

A few years ago, my colleague Mark Skousen and I bumped into Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, at a bookstore in Vancouver. (This was no great coincidence. All three of us were speaking at an investment conference at the Fairmont down the street.)

Taleb said he was planning to write a book on religion, whereupon he and Mark got into a brief dispute about whether a particular theological point was “true.” Like many conversations of this nature, more heat was shed than light. Frustrated at one point, Taleb waved an arm toward the fiction section… “How about all those books over there. Are they true?”

“Of course not,” Mark said. “They’re novels.”

“But they are full of universal truths,” I added.

Taleb turned and jabbed a finger in my direction. “Exactly!”

Consciously or not, Taleb was advocating the perennial philosophy. Perennialists seek enlightenment wherever they can find it. It doesn’t matter whether the source is ancient, modern, mythical, fictional or verified by the latest scientific findings. It only matters that it has some practical application for more skillful living.

It makes sense to absorb as much as you can of our nearly 3,000-year-old cultural heritage and take an occasional moment from your hectic life to ask an important question: “Am I becoming the kind of person I want to be? Am I part of ‘The Great Conversation’?”

(This concludes Alexander Green’s article. What follows is what my husband wrote personally to our children.)

“P.S. May I add (after you’ve read the short article above) that I believe Jesus was a perennialist? And that Jesus is as important or more important than ever to my life and to the “great conversations” I might have.Years ago when I took a philosophy of religion class at WSU, our Hindu instructor taught on the commonalities and the distinctives of the world’s major religions. I was not “religious” at the time, very open to spirituality of all kinds. But when he came at last to describing the distinctive of Christianity, he said this: “Now Christianity, on the other hand, teaches that people need a Savior.” When he said this, my heart kind of did a somersault, and something within me responded. Maybe I could even say I was “led to Jesus” by a Hindu college professor!

But my understanding today (a constantly evolving understanding) is that Jesus was a perennialist. He largely taught universal truths. He told his disciples that “if the people are not against me, they are for me.” The disciples wanted to shut down some that were teaching the teachings of Jesus but were not part of the early church, but Jesus said “no, let them teach.” Jesus was sooooo inclusive. It’s what got him killed.

The thing that I was missing in my life was the power to live the kind of life that deep down inside I wanted to live. That was my salvation. Julee and I have come to believe that our salvation is not from some hell that God sends us to, but the hell that we create for ourselves in our selfish, narcissistic choices and attitudes. Jesus never said “believe in me or go to hell.” He sad “believe in me and have life.” When he was resurrected he said “I’m not leaving you alone, I’m giving you my Spirit.” Like a car needs fuel to run, I need His Spirit to run the race, the Camino of life, to live like a perennialist. That for me is how Jesus enters into the conversation! He helps me. He is my example, my leader, and he helps me and empowers me by His Spirit.

Of course you don’t see Jesus when you look at me! I’m far from my goal of looking like Him. It is a Camino, a journey. But I am changing, being transformed by my desire and choices to change, empowered by His Spirit. So give me grace, OK? I’m not there yet.

So, I love that your mom is blogging right now in an effort to transparently say to her friends, “this is who I am!” I admire her courage. I’m not brave enough to share who I am with the world, but I do want to share it with you, so this is largely it.

Love always,

dad”

(This concludes the email written to our children.)

And now a final word from Franciscan priest Richard Rohr: “Because Christianity is the path I love and know best, I teach primarily through this lens. However, the Center’s [for action and Contemplation] fifth principle—We will support true authority, the ability to ‘author’ life in others, regardless of the group—points to the Perennial Tradition. If it’s true, it’s always been true; truth simply shows up in various ages and cultures through different vocabulary and images. Throughout the world’s religions and philosophies, recurring themes point to humanity’s longing for union with Divine Reality.”

One thought on “Perennialists by Alexander Green & Art Nicklaus

  1. Inclined to agree, but I think Jesus was much more than a perennialist. For example, if you look hard enough, you can find bits of truth in Hinduism. Yet Hinduism not only failed to prevent lots of evil in India, it was actually the cause of much of that evil.

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