Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Sherrard's critique of Rene Guénon

The late Philip Sherrard, a Perennialist and member of the Greek Orthodox Church, devotes a long chapter in his last book, Christianity: Lineaments of a Sacred Tradition, to the “Logic of Metaphysics in René Guénon” – although the points he makes are just as applicable to Schuon, as we shall see. Guénon did more than anyone else to reawaken metaphysical perception in our century, Sherrard says. But he made two important assumptions that predisposed him against Christianity and towards Vedanta (and which help to explain his own conversion from Catholicism to Islam). The first of these assumptions was that a strict correlation must be preserved between the metaphysical and the logical order – thus ruling out in advance the more paradoxical Christian relationship between Unity and Trinity in the Godhead. The second assumption was that every “determination” of the Absolute must be some form of limitation, and is therefore incompatible with the divine nature. These two assumptions led Guénon into an apophaticism so radical that he could affirm nothing at all of the Absolute, except by way of negation – including, obviously, a negation of the Christian Trinity.

Before his death, then, Sherrard had come to the conclusion that a Christian thinker who accepts Revelation must start from an entirely different point of view – must begin, in fact, from the knowledge that the supreme Principle is the Trinity, and furthermore that “personality” (indeed, triple Personality) in God is not necessarily a limitation. Without it, in fact, the Absolute has no actual freedom to determine itself or create a world: the freedom of God becomes merely the absence of external constraint. Although Sherrard assumes Schuon’s “transcendental unity” approach throughout his book, this insight calls into question one of Schuon’s core teachings: that a personal (or Tri-Personal) deity derives from an impersonal Godhead and will be “dissolved” in the gnosis which transcends Being. (As Sherrard writes, “This view thus involves a total denial of the ultimate value and reality of the personal. It demands as a condition of metaphysical knowledge a total impersonalism – the annulment and alienation of the person.”)

Sherrard’s insight leaves the other religions intact. It even leaves open the possibility that the perennialists have correctly understood them. But it separates Christianity, and perhaps even raises Christianity above them, in a way that seems to me incompatible (more so than he himself realized) with the theory of “transcendental unity” as stated by Schuon. Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, for one, believes that what Christians have to say is not something less than, say, Vedanta or Sufism, but more. In fact “the Christian is called to be the guardian of metaphysics for our time”. Of one exemplary Christian mystic he writes: “Looking into his own ground, Jan van Ruysbroeck sees beyond it into the eternal I, which for man is both the source of his own I as well as his eternal Thou, and in the final analysis this is because the eternal I is already in itself I and Thou in the unity of the Holy Spirit” [Glory of the Lord, V, p. 70]. The encounter with God in this “ground” is a nuptial encounter, a spiritual marriage. Thus “The pantheistic tat tvam asi, which identifies subject and object in their depths, can be resolved only by virtue of the unity between God and man in the Son, who is both the ars divina mundi and the quintessence of actual creation (see Book III of Nicolas of Cusa’s [DeDoctor Ignorantia), and by virtue of the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from this incarnate Son in his unity with the Father” [GL, I, 195].


  1. I am very interested in the image used for this article. Can you please tell me where it is from or who the iconographer is?

  2. Yes - I should have attributed it. It is an icon of Moses and the Burning Bush, which I have as a postcard. The only information given is "Atelier d'icones Karatzas, 27 rue des Bruyeres, 4000 Liege-Belgique". I hope that helps.

  3. Do you know if Sherrard wrote anything regarding reincarnation/rebirth (as conceptualized by Vedic, Buddhist, or Jain traditions)?

  4. Not that I am aware, sorry. It is, of course, a big topic, to which we should return someday.

  5. I would like to give a more in-depth reply to the points raised in this entry and the relationship between Guénon and Christianity in general, but unfortunately my message is over the blasted character limit. If you are not too busy may I send an email about it?

    Best wishes,

    _ _ _


  6. Yes of course. Send it to s_caldecott@yahoo.co.uk.

  7. I came to the Christian faith by way of the Perennialist school. Since then, I have immersed myself in the Catholic tradition, and, not surprisingly, I have found it more and more difficult to maintain the necessary "double vision".

    James Cutsinger reported that when he asked Frithjof Schuon for reading recommendations, he put the Doctor of the Church, Thomas Aquinas, at the top of the list. I find this strange, since I'm sure that most Aristotelian-Thomists would firmly oppose the nondualism of the Perennial Philosophy.

    Is it possible to simply explain the difference between theosis and moksha?

  8. >I came to the Christian faith by way of the Perennialist school. Since then, I have immersed myself in the Catholic tradition, and, not surprisingly, I have found it more and more difficult to maintain the necessary "double vision".

    Very well said. Same here, Chris, although the Orthodox tradition in my case!

    Ultimately if one remains foremost Perennialist, it appears to me, one remains in a somewhat dishonest stance in regards to his Christianity. As indicated on this blog, the Trinity is reduced to a upaya (a skillful means). A non-dualist Perennialist who is Christian must pay lip service to doctrine and dogma, even the personhood of God, all the while imagining himself to be somehow above the tradition (and the lay people and even clergy of the tradition). And if one believes in non-dualism over Christianity, I can't help but wonder why one wouldn't go a more direct route, following the instructions of non-dual sages such as Nisargadatta Maharaj or Ramana Maharshi, and dispose of tradition altogether? Double-vision indeed. I will have to read Sherrard's book.

    "We Shall See Him as He Is", by Archimandrite Sophrony, is a book that also touches on similar themes, particularly that of God being ultimately a Person. Archimandrite Sophrony was for awhile a non-dualist, dabbling in Vedanta, Buddhism, and eastern meditation, before becoming a monk of Mount Athos under the guidance of St. Silouan.

    Thanks for the very interesting article, Stratford!

  9. Cusa's work is "De Docta Ignorantia".

    Sherrard's opinions have been thoroughly refuted in Schuon's article, "Transcendence is Not Contrary to Sense."

  10. See also the letters in Sacred Web, nos. 30-32.