Of Frithjof Schuon: Transcendent Unity of Religions

Conceptual Dimensions:


Ideas, when entering the mind – even initially – presuppose some level of understanding. However, to completely grasp the meaning of such an idea, a greater understanding will necessarily entail examining the idea from several different viewpoints,  thereby exploring it in greater dimensions. When applied to the spiritual life, and of spiritual realisation in particular, this gives rise to a plurality of dimensions and theoretical conceptions, and in the particular instance of religion, doctrinal expression.

The philosophical dimension in man, Schuon notes, has a tendency to absolutize these theoretical conceptions, or ‘mental schemes’; however, from the view of Spirit (the Absolute), these theoretical conceptions exist as mere representations. Like all speculative thought, though, these mental schemes, having some intimations of truth, may serve as ‘keys’ to opening up the soul to metaphysical thought, and knowledge; of course, given philosophy’s transitive nature, like all discourse, leaves it fundamentally limited in its apprehension of truth.

Dogmatism, it could be said, is the tendency to absolutize one particular conception, or mental scheme, at the expense of other conceptual forms. This, Schuon tells us, is characteristic of the religious point of view. Religious dogma, however, when understood in light of its inherent truth; where the particularities that give it form are acknowledged as simply that: particularities and theoretical frameworks embodying intimations of truth, are able to overcome the limitations imposed by the dogmatic tendency. This acknowledgement, Schuon informs us, is the beginning of all esoterism and metaphysical thought.

Exoterism/Esoterism Distinction: 

Schuon now demonstrates, by way of an analogy, the difference between the exoteric, and therefore dogmatic perspective, and the esoteric, or metaphysical perspective.


Suppose, for a moment, that the two points depicted on the circumference of this circle represent two seemingly contradictory statements, or theoretical positions. Where the dogmatic position, as necessitated by its very nature outlined above, isolates only one individual point, or perspective. And, taking this perspective as its primary and exclusice point of reference, it cannot admit the possibility of any congruity between these two positions. The esoteric, or metaphysical position, however, given its transcendent mode of Knowledge, allows the contradiction to stand, seeing their inherent unity along the circles greater circumference.

Limitations of Exoterism:

The primary concern of exoterism, as Schuon begins, is the individual over the entire “cycle of existence”, concerning both his terrestrial and spiritual life. Which is to say, mans salvation. Given this concern towards the salvation of the individual, exoterism is, as we previously noted, limited.

Religious dogma has two aspects: 1) the outward, or exoteric; and 2) the inward, or esoteric; a limited form, manifested in a mental scheme or concept, and as an unlimited symbol, a kernel of Truth. An example of this, provided by Schuon, is the dogma surrounding the “Unicity of the Church of God”; which, existing as dogma, necessarily excludes the validity of other religious confessions. Because universality lacks comport with the goal of a particular individual’s salvation. Indeed, such a position may incite religious indifference. Symbolically, or metaphysically, however, the idea of religious universality exists, for example, in the dogma of the Mystical Body of Christ in Christianity, or the Chosen People of Judaism.

Dogma, insomuch as it confers upon an individual the means of his salvation, is supremely important; however limited (in relation to the Absolute or Truth) it may be. Of course, the dogmatic viewpoint must not be conflated with its functional aspect, or “spiritual means”. And, when taken in this light, allows one to move beyond the Form, to the Formless. Thus, Schuon identifies, the exoteric may serve two ‘functions’: 1) facilitating the aforementioned transposition, where the individual may pass from the Form to the Formless, 2) and as a means of regulating, or orientating an individual towards the spiritual life, and his own salvation.

Schuon now identifies another limitation of the exoteric aspect of religion. Namely, its dependence upon the esoteric core. By which, as our Unknown Friend has eluded to in the first and second of his letters, religion is vivified through mysticism and gnosis, or metaphysical knowledge. The descent and ‘unfolding’ of which, in time, giving birth to the foundations of dogma, theology, tradition, etc. Whence this esoteric aspect ceases to exists, literalism, sentimentality, and heresy tend to flourish.

November 1, 2013

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