The Stages of World Religion - part 2


Christopher Dawson outlines stage 4, "The Development of the Higher Religions" and the first part of stage 5, "Divided Course of Development in East and West" in his seven part system explaining the development of religion.

Stage IV.
Development of the Higher Religions

1. Worldwide Spiritual Awakening

Nevertheless in the first millennium B.C. a cultural change of the most profound significance passed over the world, a change that was not confined to any one people or culture, but which made itself felt almost simultaneously from India to the Mediterranean and from China to Persia. It was, however, a change of thought rather than a revolution of material culture.

It was due to the first appearance of new spiritual forces which have been active in the world ever since and which still influence the minds of men today. The teachings of the Hebrew prophets and the Greek philosophers, of Buddha and the authors of the Upanishads, of Confucius and Lao Tzu, are not the half-comprehended relics of a vanished world, like the religious literature of Egypt and Babylonia; they are of perennial significance and value. They have the same importance in the intellectual and spiritual life of mankind that the material achievements of the Archaic Civilization possess in the sphere of material culture. Like the latter, they have laid a permanent foundation on which all later ages have built, and on which our own intellectual and religious tradition is based.

Ritual and Moral Order

2. Confucius and the Ritual Order

In this way, the central belief that underlies the archaic culture — the conception of a sacred order which governs alike the way of nature and the life of man — continued to exercise a vital influence on the mind of the new age, but it was at the same time remoulded and transformed. The idea which the previous age had expressed in a ritual form became moralized and spiritualized. The sacred order was no longer a ceremonial system, but a moral law of justice and truth.

Nevertheless in the first millennium B.C. a cultural change of the most profound significance passed over the world, a change that was not confined to any one people or culture, but which made itself felt almost simultaneously from India to the Mediterranean and from China to Persia.

Thus the ancient conception of a sacred ritual order was everywhere the starting point from which the new religious development proceeded. The connection is to be seen most clearly, perhaps, in the case of China, where the older type of culture had survived with less breach of continuity than elsewhere. Here the new moral teaching of Confucius was essentially connected with the old idea of a ritual order. Its importance in his eyes consisted not in the ethical ideals themselves, but in their application to the traditional rites. Indeed the Rites have the same importance for Confucianism that the Law possesses for Judaism.

They are not, as the Western observer is apt to suppose, a matter of social etiquette; they are nothing less than the external manifestation of that eternal order that governs the universe, which is known as the Tao, the Way of Heaven. . . .

On one occasion Yen-Yen asked Confucius whether the Rites were really of such urgent importance. He answered: "It was by these rules that the ancient Kings sought to represent the ways of Heaven and to regulate the feelings of men. Therefore he who neglects or violates them may be spoken of as dead, and he who observes them as alive.".. . "Therefore these rules are rooted in Heaven, have their correspondences on Earth, and are applicable to spiritual beings." (Lu-Yun, IV, 5 and I, 4.)

The true greatness and originality of Confucius consists in his having given this ritual order an ethical content. Instead of regarding the rites as magically efficacious or being satisfied with an exterior standard of obedience to them, he demanded the interior adhesion of the whole man. The word Li which plays so important a part in the Confucian teaching, and which is commonly translated "Propriety," really signifies, not an external correctness of behaviour, but the conformity of the individual to the order which governs not only the life of society but the whole course of nature. The "Superior Man" must conform himself to the Tao not only in his outward conduct, but in his mind and his will. Thus the great Confucian virtue of benevolence or altruism (Jen) is not an emotional love of others, it is the renunciation of self-interest and egotism, and the merging of self in the universal order. So, too, the virtue of Justice (Yi) which consisted originally in the strict observance of class distinctions and the exact apportionment of social rights — was transformed by Confucianism into an ideal of moral rectitude and justice.

Moreover, this moral self-culture is not limited in its effects to the inner life of the individual. It radiates downwards from the King or the Sage upon all his subjects and disciples; it becomes the link which binds Heaven and Earth, Man and Nature, together in a cosmic harmony which is the supreme ideal of Confucianism.

3. The Upanishads and the Atman

The pioneers of thought did not rest content with the conception of an order immanent in the world, which manifests itself in the course of nature and the moral life of man. They sought for a yet higher principle, an absolute reality which transcends the order of nature and all limited forms of existence.

This search for the Absolute found its earliest and most complete expression in India, where it developed, not as might have been expected from the comparatively advanced ethical ideas connected with the worship of Varuna, but from the more primitive type of religion which is represented by the ritual magic of the Brahmanas. . . .

The progress of Indian thought from the religion of the Brahmanas to the religion of the Upanishads, consists in the conversion of this primitive idea of Brahman as a kind of magical potency or "Zauberfluidum" into an absolute metaphysical principle. The thinkers of the Upanishads sought not merely to get beyond the mythology and the external ritual of religious tradition, but to pass beyond the outward appearance of things, beyond the created universe, so as to reach the one absolute being which alone is true, which alone is.

Now the great achievement of the thinkers of the Upanishads, the discovery which has dominated Indian religion and thought ever since, was the identification of this supreme principle with the Atman or Self. This Self or soul is the ground of everything that exists, it is "the web on which the world is woven." Above all, it is the ground of our own consciousness, the soul of our souls, for the human self and the ultimate Self are in a sense identical.

"He who, dwelling in the earth, is other than the earth, whom the earth knows not, whose body the earth is, who inwardly rules the earth, is thyself, the Inward Ruler, the Deathless."

"He who, dwelling in the mind, is other than the mind whom the mind knows not, whose body the mind is, who inwardly rules the mind, is thyself, the Inward Ruler, the Deathless."

"He unseen sees, unheard hears, unthought thinks, uncomprehended comprehends. There is no other than he who sees. There is no other than he who hears, there is no other than he who thinks, there is no other than he who comprehends. He is thyself, the Inward Ruler, the Deathless."

Thus the supreme principle is no longer identified with the world substance or even with the cosmic process, as in the naive pantheism of the Brahmanas. It is essentially a spiritual reality, which transcends all finite modes of being. It can be described only by negatives, "Neti, neti, not thus, not thus," for "the Atman is silence." "When the sun has set and the moon has gone down and the fire is quenched and speech is hushed," the light of the Atman shines forth.

4. Negating the Values of the Archaic Culture

And with the realization of this principle of transcendence, the whole spiritual attitude of Indian religion became transformed.

The knowledge of Brahman was sought not, as in the earlier period, for the power that it conferred over nature, and the material rewards of long life, wealth and prosperity, but for its own sake as the supreme good. All the good works of the old religion — the worship of the gods, sacrifice, and the knowledge of the rites — have lost their value. They can only procure relative goods — prosperity in this world and a happy after life. True happiness is to be found only in the realization of the unity of the Atman the supreme unification of the soul with the Absolute, which alone can free man from the penalty of rebirth.

"As is a man's desire, so is his will, and as is his will so is his deed, and whatever deed (Karma) he does that will he reap."

Thus the conception of a transcendent reality became the foundation of a new moral ideal which no longer had any relation to social rights and duties. It was an ethic of absolute renunciation and detachment — the flight of the Alone to the Alone.

"When all the desires that once entered his heart are undone, then does the mortal become immortal, then he obtains Brahman. And as the slough of a snake lies on an anthill dead and cast away, thus lies his body; but that disembodied immortal spirit is Brahman only, is only light."

Thus the conception of a transcendent reality became the foundation of a new moral ideal which no longer had any relation to social rights and duties. It was an ethic of absolute renunciation and detachment — the flight of the Alone to the Alone. "Knowing Brahman a man becomes a saint; hermits wander forth seeking Him for their world. Understanding this the ancients desired not offspring, `what is offspring to us who have this Self for our world.' So having departed from desire of sons, from desire of substance and desire of the world, they went about begging."

How far removed is this attitude from the simple acceptance of the good things of life that is shown in the nature religions and in the archaic culture that is founded upon them!

The one end of life, the one task for the wise man, is Deliverance; to cross the bridge, to pass the ford from death to Life, from appearance to Reality, from time to Eternity — all the goods of human life in the family or the state are vanity in comparison with this. And so there arose in ancient India a whole series of different schools of thought, each of which attempted to find the way of deliverance by means of some special discipline of salvation.

5. Buddha and the Way of Deliverance

The thinkers of the Upanishads were primarily interested in their speculations concerning Brahman and the true nature of being, deliverance was a secondary question. To the Buddhist, on the other hand, the problem of deliverance was the one vital issue. "One thing only do I teach, O Monks," said the Buddha, "sorrow and the ending of sorrow." "As the sea has everywhere one taste, the taste of salt, so my teaching has one flavour, the flavour of Deliverance."

The Buddha expressly condemned all attempts to enquire into or to define the nature of this supreme goal. Salvation was to be found not in metaphysical knowledge, but in the strenuous moral endeavour which destroys desire, the root of all suffering and of physical existence itself.

Thus Buddhism arose as a movement of reaction to the intellectualism of the Upanishads and the philosophical schools. . . . The moral law — the Dharma — existed in itself and by itself as the one principle of order and intelligibility in an illusory universe. For the cosmic order itself, as seen in the external course of nature, has no reality — "the wheel of existence is empty with a twelve-fold emptiness." Behind the appearance of things there is no transcendent reality, as the Upanishads taught, neither Brahman nor the Atman. There is only the "sorrowful wheel" of existence driven round by ignorance and lust, and the path of moral deliverance, the via negativa of the extinction of desire which leads to Nirvana — the eternal beatific silence.

"In the mind of him who realizes the insecurity of this transient life arises the thought: All on fire is this ceaseless flux, a blazing flame! Full of despair it is and very fearful! Oh that I might reach a state where Becoming is at an end! How calm, how sweet would be that end of all defects, of all craving and passion — the great Peace — this Nirvana!" "Is there any place where a man may stand, and, ordering his life aright, realize Nirvana?" "Yes, O King, Virtue is that place."

Thus in Buddhism the ethical tendencies of the new movement of thought attained their extreme development. The absolute supremacy of the moral law was secured, and the whole of existence was reduced to purely spiritual and ethical terms. But this moral absolutism involved the denial of all other aspects of reality. The supreme affirmation of the moral will was an act of self-destruction which denied nature and even life itself.

6. Taoism and Transcendence

The whole tendency of the new movement of thought as represented by Buddhism and the religion of the Upanishads as well as by the Taoist mysticism, is to cause a turning away from human life and social activity toward the Absolute.

Even in China, the ethical positivism of Confucius did not reign unchallenged. Just as in India the principle of the ritual order — the Brahman — was transformed by the writers of the Upanishads into the metaphysical concept of pure being, so, too, in China there existed a school which interpreted the Tao, the universal order of the archaic culture, not like the Confucians as the principle of moral and social order, but in a mystical and transcendental sense. They believed that there existed behind the visible ever changing movement of the universe, a higher spiritual principle, which, itself unchanging, is the source of change; itself beyond existence, is the source of all that exists. Lao Tzu writes: "There is something undefined and yet complete which precedes the birth of Heaven and Earth. O Immovable! O Formless! which alone is without changing, which penetrates all things with alteration. It may be called the Mother of the Universe." And Chuang Tzu, the greatest of the later Taoists who flourished in the 4th century B.C. writes in the same strain. "O my master, my master! Thou who destroyest all things without being cruel, Thou who does good to ten thousand generations without being kind, Thou who wert before the ages and who art not old, Thou coverest the heavens, Thou bearest up the Earth, Thou art the effortless creator of all forms. To know thee thus, is the supreme joy."

Consequently the ethical ideal of the Taoists was one of quietism and spiritual detachment. They despised the traditional learning of the Confucian scholars as "the dregs and leavings of the ancients." The true knowledge is to be found neither in tradition nor in discursive reasoning, but in the mystical contemplation which leads to the direct intuition of reality. The wise man will take no part in the life of the state or in the business of human affairs, he will live in solitude as a hermit, conforming his spirit to the universal Tao whose influence is felt in the desert and the mountains, not in the ways of men. . . .

The whole tendency of the new movement of thought as represented by Buddhism and the religion of the Upanishads as well as by the Taoist mysticism, is to cause a turning away from human life and social activity toward the Absolute.

7. Deliverance in Orphic Mysticism and in Plato

At first sight nothing could be further removed from the world-refusal of the Indian ascetic than the Hellenic attitude to life. Yet the Greeks of Ionia and Italy, during the sixth and fifth centuries B.C., were bent, no less than the Indians, on piercing the veil of appearances and reaching the underlying reality. It is true that the Greeks set out in their quest for the ultimate cosmic principle in a spirit of youthful curiosity and free rational inquiry, and thereby became the creators of natural science. But there was also the purely religious current of Orphic mysticism, with its doctrines of rebirth and immortality, and of the progressive enlightenment of the soul and its emancipation from the defilements of corporeal existence, which had a powerful influence on the Greek mind and even on Greek philosophy, until at last the vision of eternity, which had so long absorbed the mind of India, burst on the Greek world with dazzling power.

It was through the golden mouth of Plato that the vision of the two worlds — the world of appearance and shadows, and the world of timeless, changeless reality — found classic expression in the West. The Greek mind turned, with Plato, away from the many coloured, changing world of appearance and unreality to that other world of the eternal Forms, "where abides the very Being with which true knowledge is concerned, the colourless, formless, intangible essence, visible only to the mind, the pilot of the soul"; "a nature which is everlasting, not growing or decaying or waxing or waning, but Beauty only, absolute, separate, simple and everlasting, which, without diminution and without increase or any change in itself, is imparted to the ever-growing and perishing beauties of all other things." "What if man had eyes to see this true Beauty — pure and unalloyed, not clogged with the pollutions of mortality and all the colours and vanities of human life," would not all human and terrestrial things become mean and unimportant to such a one? And is not the true end of life to return whence we came, "to fly away from earth to heaven," to recover the divine and deific vision which once "we beheld shining in pure light, pure ourselves and not yet enshrined in that living tomb which we carry about, now that we are imprisoned in the body, like the oyster in his shell." This note, so characteristic and so unforgettable, is never afterwards wholly lost in the ancient world, and it is renewed with redoubled emphasis in that final harvest of the Hellenic tradition, which is Neo-Platonism.

8. Over Against the World of Human Experience

Primitive man had already found the Transcendent immanent in and working through nature as the supernatural. The new religions found it in thought as the supreme Reality and in ethics as the Eternal Law. And consequently, while the former still saw the spiritual world diffused and confused with the world of matter, the latter isolated it and set it over against the world of human experience, as Eternity against Time, as the Absolute against the Contingent, as Reality against Appearance, and as the Spiritual against the Sensible.

It was through the golden mouth of Plato that the vision of the two worlds — the world of appearance and shadows, and the world of timeless, changeless reality — found classic expression in the West.

This was indeed the discovery of a new world for the religious consciousness. It was thereby liberated from the power of the nature daimons and the dark forces of magic and translated to a higher sphere — to the Brahma-world — "where there is not darkness, nor day nor night, nor being nor not-being, but the Eternal alone, the source of the ancient wisdom," to the Kingdom of Ahura and the Six Immortal Holy Ones, to the world of the Eternal Forms, the true home of the soul. And this involved a corresponding change in the religious attitude. The religious life was no longer bound up with irrational myths and non-moral tabus; it was a process of spiritual discipline directed towards the purification of the mind and the will — a conversion of the soul from the life of the senses to spiritual reality. The religious experience of primitive man had become obscured by magic and diabolism, and the visions and trances of the Shaman belong rather to the phenomena of Spiritualism than of mysticism. The new type of religious experience, on the other hand, had reached a higher plane. It consisted in an intuition that was essentially spiritual and found its highest realization in the vision of the mystic.

Thus each of the new religio-philosophic traditions — Brahmanism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Platonism — ultimately transcends philosophy and culminates in mysticism. They are not satisfied with the demonstration of the Absolute; they demand the experience of the Absolute also, whether it be the vision of the Essential Good and the Essential Beauty, through which the soul is made deiform, or that intuition of the nothingness and illusion inherent in all contingent being which renders a man jivana mukti, "delivered alive."

9. The World of the Hebrew Prophets

Israel alone had no great tradition of material culture behind it. It was an insignificant people that occupied a territory no larger than Wales; a people that was neither rich nor powerful nor highly civilized. And yet it produced the greatest spiritual revolution that the world has known, and has had a far greater influence on history than the powerful empires which surrounded it and seemed again and again about to destroy it. Hitherto the prosperity and strength of a people had been regarded as a proof of the power of its gods. The forces that dominated the world were divinized and worshiped, whether they were good or bad. In Israel for the first time we find this idea reversed. The servants of Jehovah, the God of Israel, are called "the poor, while His enemies are the kings of the earth.

Israel alone had no great tradition of material culture behind it. It was an insignificant people that occupied a territory no larger than Wales; a people that was neither rich nor powerful nor highly civilized. And yet it produced the greatest spiritual revolution that the world has known. . .

Nothing, in fact could seem more opposed to any idea of a moral government of the world, or a divine purpose in history, than the world in which the Hebrew prophets lived. They were faced with the spectacle of the triumph of brute force in its most repulsive form, and with an apparently aimless process of war and destruction. One after another the surrounding kingdoms came down in blood and ruin. Israel itself was conquered and its inhabitants deported. Then the conquering power of Assyria itself collapsed, but instead of this bringing relief, it proved to be only the prelude to the destruction of Judah and the sack of the holy city of Jerusalem. The temple was destroyed and the people were led into captivity. Through all this age of suffering and destruction the prophets of Israel carried out their mission. They saw these catastrophes as the judgment of God on a civilization that was in revolt against the Divine Law — whether that revolt was shown in the pride and violence of the Gentile world power, or in the oppression of the poor and the social injustice of Israel itself. They taught that the purpose of God was not to be fulfilled by material power, but by suffering and obedience. This defeated people, "despised of man, the servant of rulers," was to be the source of a universal kingdom which should unite all nations in a reign of spiritual truth and social justice. Other prophets and thinkers in different ages may have dreamt of the coming of a perfect state, like the Stoic Cosmopolis and the City of the Sun. But the prophetic conception of the Kingdom of God differs from such imaginations by its objective and historical character. It is founded on the tradition of a real people, an actual society with its own laws and institutions which claimed divine sanction. And consequently while the Platonic and Stoic ideal was simply an intellectual influence which coloured men's thoughts about the State, the Jewish tradition was an historical reality which preserved its social identity when all the surrounding nations had become merged in the cosmopolitan unity of a world civilization.

Stage V.
Divided Course of Development in East and West

1. Religious Syncretism or Historic Reality

When we survey the world religions from the theological point of view, we see that they are neither identical nor convergent, but represent at least two alternative and contradictory solutions to the religious problem.

On the one hand the religions of the Far East — Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism — adapt themselves well enough to Dr. Toynbee's ideal of religious syncretism, but they do so by denying the significance of history and creating a dream world of cosmological and mythological fantasy in which aeons and universes succeed one another in dazzling confusion and where the unity of God and the historical personality of Buddha are lost in a cloud of mythological figures: Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, gods and saktis, demigods and spirits. On the other hand the three higher religions of the West — Judaism, Christianity, and Muhammedanism — have followed quite a different path. Their very existence is bound up with the historic reality of their founders, and with the establishment of a unique relation between the one God and His people.

Thus any syncretism between religions of these two different types would inevitably mean the abdication of the monothesitic religions and their absorption by the pantheistic or polytheistic ones. Such a process is not inconceivable, but we have no historical reason to suppose that it is possible and no theological reason for supposing it to be desirable or right.

A. Religious Syncretism in the East

1. The Major Period of Religious Syncretism

(I) Rise of the World Religions: First Century B, C. to Third Century A.D.

This period witnessed the reawakening of the East, and at the same time the process of cultural and religious syncretism attained its highest point of development. . . .

In the Mediterranean world, the great fact was the rise of Christianity, the completest and most typical of all the world religions; but at the same time the pagan cults were being remoulded in a spiritualist and universalist sense, while the evolution of Greek philosophy finally culminated in the semi-religious synthesis of Neoplatonism. In India it was the time of the great Hindu revival, when the religion of India was transformed by the fusion of philosophic Brahmanism and popular paganism in theistic cults, like that'of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita — a process which closely resembles the fusion of Greek philosophy with the pagan cults of the Roman Empire, as we see it, for example, in the writings of Julian the Apostate. At the same time Buddhism was being transformed from a moral discipline, analogous to Stoicism, into a theology and even a mythology of salvation, and it was in this new Mahayana form that it began to conquer China and the other lands of the Far East.

In Persia we have a great religious movement, which renewed, and in all probability radically transformed, the Mazdaean religion.

Finally, in China there is the introduction and gradual growth of Buddhism from 57 A.D., and at the same period the transformation of Taoism in a theistic direction.

It is noteworthy that in all four culture areas we find at this period a development closely resembling the Gnosticism of the Mediterranean world.

2. The Oriental Solution of Life

Whether they teach a spiritualist monism, like the Vedanta; a spiritualist nihilism, like Buddhism; or a spiritualist dualism, like Manichaeanism — they agree in this, that what is wrong with man is not the disorder or disease of his actual existence, but his very life itself. Evil is not in man's will, but is essentially bound up with the existence of the body and the material universe. Therefore this life must not be spiritualized; it must be left behind, and man must return to the one, absolute, undifferentiated Being, or Not-Being, of which his spirit is a part.

This is the oriental solution of life, and with it all progress ends. Society loses its higher vitality which is transferred to the pursuit of the absolute, and man's spiritual energy is dissipated in theosophy and asceticism. . . .

Whether they teach a spiritualist monism, like the Vedanta; a spiritualist nihilism, like Buddhism; or a spiritualist dualism, like Manichaeanism — they agree in this, that what is wrong with man is not the disorder or disease of his actual existence, but his very life itself. Evil is not in man's will, but is essentially bound up with the existence of the body and the material universe.

There is no reason to believe that the modern scientific and industrialist civilization will ultimately escape that end any more than the great civilizations of the past. European civilization was tending this way under the early Roman Empire, in spite of the scientific genius of the Greeks and the essentially "Western" spirit of the Romans. The oriental spiritualist attitude to life was dominant alike in philosophy and religion, in Neo-Pythagoreanism and Neo-Platonism, in the oriental cults, above all in Gnosticism and Manichaeanism; and it was the great danger to the Christian Faith throughout the early centuries of the Church's life.

Yet these religions, with all their impressiveness and their fascination for minds that are satiated with material progress, do not solve the problem of human life. Man left to himself is powerless to reconcile the antinomy of his spiritual and material natures. Either he may let himself sink back into the life of the body, disregarding the claims of the spirit, or he tries to satisfy these by the total rejection of the body and the life that it conditions. Yet man cannot be quit of his nature on such easy terms. In spite of his denial of it, the material world goes on, and the body must in time exact retribution from those who despise it.

Thus even Buddhism, the most uncompromising of all the spiritualist religions, was not proof against paganism and magic; and the way of renunciation and the law of moral discipline were succeeded by the superstition and obscenity of Tantric Buddhism which spread throughout Northern India and Tibet during the early Middle Ages.

In the case of monistic religions, the process of degeneration is even easier, for the vagueness and antinomianism of the pantheist attitude to life are apt to idealize man's lower nature, and to throw a cloak of symbolism over the indulgence of physical impulse.

3. Fatalistic Acceptance in Hinduism

The one vital distinction consists in the fact that Indian religion ignores the idea of creation and that in consequence it is faced with the dilemma that either the whole universe is an illusion — Maya — a dream that vanishes when the soul awakens to the intuition of spiritual reality, or else that the world is the self-manifestation of the Divine Mind, a conditional embodiment of the absolute Being.

Hence there is no room for a real intervention of the spiritual principle in human life. The Indian ethic is, above all, an ethic of flight — of deliverance from conditional existence and from the chain of re-birth. Human life is an object of compassion to the wise man, but it is also an object of scorn. . . .

It is true that orthodox Hinduism inculcates the fulfillment of social duties, and the need for outward activity, but this principle does not lead to the transformation of life by moral action, but simply to the fatalistic acceptance of the established order of things. This is the theme of the greatest work of Indian literature, the Bhagavad-Gita, and it involves a moral attitude diametrically opposed to that of the Western mind. When Arjuna shrinks from the evils of war and declares that he would rather die than shed the blood of his kinsfolk, the god does not commend him. He uses the doctrine of the transcendence and impassibility of true being to justify the ruthlessness of the warrior.

"Know that that which pervades this universe is imperishable; there is none can make to perish that changeless being.

"... This Body's Tenant for all time may not be wounded, O Thou of Bharata's stock, in the bodies of any beings. Therefore thou dost not well to sorrow for any born beings. Looking likewise in thine own Law, thou shouldst not be dismayed; for to a knight there is no thing more blest than a lawful strife."

The sacred order that is the basis of Indian culture is no true spiritualization of human life; it is merely the natural order seen through a veil of metaphysical idealism. It can incorporate the most barbaric and non-ethical elements equally with the most profound metaphysical truths; since in the presence of the absolute and the unconditioned all distinctions and degrees of value lose their validity.

4. Higher Religions Re-Absorbed

The material civilization of the oriental world owed its preservation mainly to the continued survival of the tradition of the archaic culture. In China the latter was consecrated and preserved in a somewhat rationalized form by the influence of Confucian orthodoxy. In India, on the other hand, the absolute metaphysical view of life was theoretically triumphant, arid ruled the whole civilization. Netherless even there the old type of culture and the cult of the powers of nature with which it was associated continued to subsist with but little change. The ancient myths and rites are interpreted as the symbols of a higher reality by the followers of the new religious philosophy, while to the common people they retain their old meaning and continue to embody the mysterious forces of the physical world that rule the peasants' life. Indeed, in the course of time they tend to re-absorb the higher forms of religion that had seemed to replace them. Not only the worship of the Mother Goddess, and the archaic temple cultus, but thoroughly primitive forms of animism and magic gradually force their way into the bosom of the higher religions themselves. This is most strikingly evident in Northeast India and in Tibet. Here Buddhism itself became contaminated by Shamanism and magic, and, by a strange paradox, the most abstract ethical system that the world has ever known gave birth to the monstrous deities and obscene rites of the Tantras.

Thus the oriental cultures that are based upon the new type of religion tend to become stationary or retrograde. They do not advance in power and knowledge, or in control over their material environment. By degrees the older type of culture from which they have arisen reasserts its power and absorbs them, in the same way that the jungle swallows up the ruined splendour of Ankhor and Anuradhapura.

5. Sufism and Syncretism

By far the most important representative of this movement of syncretism in orthodox Islam is Ibnu'l 'Arabi, the great Spanish mystic, who is known as "The Great Shaykh," par excellence, since he was the first to organize it in a system of speculative thought dominated by a monism as absolute and as unflinching as that of the Vedanta. . . .


Abbreviations: PR - Progress and Religion. Enq. - Enquiries into Religion and Culture. RMS - Religion and the Modern State. CNA - Christianity and the New Age.

Stage IV. Development of the Higher Religions: (1) From India to the Mediterranean: PR: 119-120. (2) Confucius and the Ritual Order: PR: 121-123. (3) The Upanishads and the Atman: PR: 127-129. (4) Negating the Values of the Archaic Culture: PR: 129-131. (5) Buddha and the Way of Deliverance: PR: 132-133. (6) Taoism and Transcendence: PR: 134-135. (7) Deliverance in Orphic Mysticism and in Plato: Enq.: 104-106. (8) Over Against the World of Human Experience: CNA: 38-40 (1985 ed.). (9) The World of the Hebrew Prophets: RMS: xvi-xviii.

Stage V. Divided Course of Development in East and West
: (1) Religious Syncretism or Historic Reality: (Articles in International Affairs, April 1955, p. 154: lines 12-32. Toynbee's Study of History).

Stage V. A. Religious Syncretism in the East: (1) The Major Period of Religious Syncretism: Eng.: 82-83. (2) The Oriental Solution of Life: Enq.: 325-326. (3) Fatalistic Acceptance in Hinduism: CNA (1985 ed.): 55-58. (4) Higher Religions Re-Absorbed: PR: 138-139. (5) Sufism and Syncretism: Enq.: 177-182.

The whole system resembles a Gnostic or Neoplatonic version of Christianity rather than an orthodox interpretation of Islam, and it is remarkable that it can ever have been regarded as tolerable in orthodox circles. Nevertheless, from the thirteenth century onwards Ibnu'l 'Arabi has been accepted as the great doctor mysticus of Islam, and has set his seal on the later development of Sufism. And this reception of his doctrine involves a vital change in the character of Moslem mysticism. It marks the triumph of an intellectualized theosophy over the experimental mysticism which the earlier Sufis had drawn from their life of prayer. It substituted an intellectual intuition of pure being for the transforming union of the will, and thus dispensed with the necessity for the moral discipline and renunciation which had been the foundation of the original movement. . . .

Consequently, M. Massignon is fully justified in regarding Ibnu'l 'Arabi as the evil genius of Sufism and as the chief agent in the divorce between Moslem mysticism and moral life and its stagnation in a speculative quietism. Nevertheless, we must not exaggerate his influence, since it is very possible that even without his intervention Islamic mysticism would have been forced by the internal logic of its development to a similar conclusion. . . .

The fact is that, when once the possibility of a living communion of the human soul with God and its progressive transformation by divine grace according to the teaching of al-Hallaj was excluded as savouring of dualism and hulul (incarnation or infusion), the solutions of the extremists became the only logical ones. The transcendence and omnipotence of Allah, carried to their logical conclusions, involved the denial of any ultimate reality to created being and to human experience. God was the Real (al-Haqq), all else was vanity and nothingness. God's Will and Power were the only source of movement in the world. The apparent activity of man as a free moral personality was but an illusion which veiled the operation of the one real agent — the Will of God. And this view finds its speculative and dogmatic justification in the orthodox Ashafite doctrine, which denies not only moral freedom, but even the principle of causality, in the interests of divine transcendence. There are no necessary principles of relationship or succession in the order of things or the order of consciousness, only a juxtaposition of unintelligible states of being called into existence and destroyed by the arbitrary fiat of divine omnipotence.

The natural outcome of this theory in the religious life is a blind fatalism which adheres to the strict fulfillment of the religious law and forbears to scrutinize the mystery of the divine purpose. . . .

But the mystic cannot rest content with this external fatalism. The refusal of all moral and intelligible value to the phenomenal world only serves to throw him back upon the One Reality. If God alone is, then all that is, is God, and the transitory being of creatures is but a veil thrown over the one true substance. Thus the Moslem theologian's insistence on divine transcendence and unity culminates in a monism no less complete than that of the neoplatonist philosopher... .

It is this intuition — this realization — of the Divine Being as the One Reality which constitutes the essence of what the Sufi conceives to be mystical union, and all his spiritual life is orientated in this direction. . . .

Thus the mystical experience is not, as Hallaj and the Christian mystics taught, a real transformation or assimilation of the human soul to God. The Sufis themselves describe their doctrine as a Unitarian Gnosis, and it is impossible to define it more perfectly. It is simply the affirmation of a unity which has always been, and which will always be, a naked identity of pure being with itself. It leads not to the transfiguration of the soul, but to its disintegration and annihilation. The same vision which unites the soul with God unites it with everything else and all distinctions vanish in an iridescent mist.

This pantheistic ecstasy is the characteristic note of later Sufism and is the inspiration of all the great mystical poets of Islam.

Christopher Dawson
"The Stages of World Religion — part 1"
"The Stages of World Religion — part 2"
"The Stages of World Religion — part 3"
"The Stages of World Religion — part 4"



Dawson, Christopher. “The Stages of World Religion - part 2.” Dawson Newsletter Vol. V # 1 (Spring 86).

Reprinted by permission of Julian Philip Scott, grandson of Christopher Dawson.


Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) was most likely the most penetrating student of the relationship of religion and culture who has ever written. "Every culture," he wrote, "is like a plant. It must have its roots in the earth, and for sunlight it needs to be open to the spiritual. At the present moment we are busy cutting its roots and shutting out all light from above." In order to address this situation, he proposed the study of Christian culture. He believed this study to be essential to the secularist and Christian alike, because it is the key to the understanding of the historical development of Western civilization. His lucid analysis of the driving forces of world history, as well as his championing of the contributions of the Christian faith to the achievements of European culture, won him many admirers, including T. S. Eliot and Arnold Toynbee.

Christopher Dawson wrote twenty-two books. Among those currently available are Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, The Making of Europe, Medieval Essays, Dynamics of World History, and Progress and Religion. Also available is A Historian and His World: A Life of Christopher Dawson written by Christopher Dawson's daughter, the late Christina Scott. All works by Christopher Dawson © Julian Philip Scott, 2003.

Copyright © 2005 Julian Philip Scott

Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter



Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.