It is rather common these days to see earnest questions about “choosing a religion” or “choosing a tradition”. It is propitious to see so many people admit publicly that they are estranged and seek to be reunited with Tradition. Such a confession takes courage, and we hope more will make it. We must also acknowledge that much good can be gained, in general, from consciously seeking out established traditions over whimsy or modernism. But there is much that must be considered about why this question is asked, and in the end, only a vague and ambiguous answer can be provided.
The false equivalence of Tradition with Religion
To answer this question, we must determine what course of action we are actually trying to commit ourselves to. A Japanese born in Japan, for example, should not be concerned with this issue. But a Japanese born in Brazil should. Many Japanese-Brazilians return to their home country these days, where special schools do their best to repair their Japaneseness by instructing them in proper behavior and language. This suggests that knowing Tradition might not involve attending church as much as attending a finishing school. We must therefore examine why Tradition and Religion are equated here, and why people are asking what “world religion” to join instead of, say, what university or political sect.
The highest pursuit according to René Guénon is not the preservation of specific traditions, which are manifestations of deeper principles, but the recovery of metaphysics, which allows us to discern the truth and falsehood of principles in the limited sensory world, and separate real traditions from three different modes of behavior which he labels “pseudo-tradition”, “counter-tradition”, and “anti-tradition”, although a less polite age knew them all as heresy. Metaphysics relates the world of Becoming to the world of Being, and Guénon claims that it actually permits a level of intellectual activity superior to religious writing:
Whereas the metaphysical point of view is purely intellectual, the religious point of view implies as a fundamental characteristic the presence of a sentimental element affecting the doctrine itself, which does not allow of its preserving an attitude of entirely disinterested speculation; this is indeed what occurs in theology, though to a degree which is more or less strongly marked according to the particular branch under consideration.
— Introduction to the Study of Hindu Doctrines (emphasis added)
Obviously, one can only speak so much about the unspeakable without reference to the world of Becoming, and traditional authority must respond to worldly emotion and suffering with dignity. Religion arises as the central part of this traditional response, and proves to be one of the toughest manifestations of Tradition for modernity to defeat. In the West’s very late stage of degradation, it is often (but not always) the sphere of Religion where the final barricade can be found. Guénon found innumerable trustworthy allies and intellectual equals embracing the concept of Religion as the last bulwark against modernity, just as you, the stray wanderer, might befriend such allies and feel tempted to join their fight. For example, he once gave Frithjof Schuon an imprimatur on the casual equivocation of traditional forms with “religions”:
As regards the new title for your book [De l’unité transcendente des religions], it seems to me to be preferable to the earlier one [De l’unité ésoterique des formes tradtionnelles], because it is shorter, and because it will perhaps also be clearer to readers who are not accustomed to our terminology.
— Guénon to Schuon, April 16, 1946
Guénon essentially recommended to Schuon that the concept of “religions” be used as a marketing device for the book, since it is the popular terminology. But if Guénon thought “world religions” by itself was so great he would have had no need for terms like Tradition. While he recognized the comfort of the idea for Western readers, he considered Eastern metaphysics to lack the nature of a “religious system” in the modern sense, and he thought “religiousness” was an inaccurate label for any traditional statement directed primarily towards the East. This annoyed Schuon who was apparently a big fan of the idea of “world religions”, and complained in René Guénon: Some Observations that “Hinduism is quite obviously a religion”, etc. “World religions” is a modern phrase, which is why it must stay inside the quotation marks, and there is no non-sentimental basis for Schuon’s attachment to it.
In conclusion, Schuon’s insistence on present-day, popular relevance might lead us to confuse Tradition with Religion, which is something like mixing up Eden and the Kingdom of Israel. This should not be construed as an attack on Schuon, since Guénon was so intent on resurrecting the superhuman that his geometry threatens to lose the human, and this is where Schuon, chrysostomos, may serve as a guide. However, if we allow ourselves to be guided by Schuon alone, Guénon’s careful metaphysics might be reduced in the sentimental imagination to someone’s choice of religions that “sounded nice” to him, or even to a syncretic “religious movement”, so-called “Traditionalism”. Those who have read Julius Evola will not make sentimental mistakes, but these people, if they are not similarly careful, can sometimes make far worse mistakes, like confusing Tradition with National Socialism. For Evola, it is the military, not Religion, that is the final bastion of Tradition, but obviously nobody wanting to “choose a tradition” is asking whether he should join the military or not. An examination of the traditional aspects of the military, which are real but not preserved in the same manner as Religion, is outside the purview of this essay.
A traditional outlook — not “traditionalism”, but acting as a well-behaved person would have done in the past — does not compel membership in any political group, religious group, or “movement” in the present day. With an “initiation” or in any case a true understanding, “every occupation is a priesthood” and all activities are sacred. On this all the doctors of Tradition should agree. Certainly, as humans with limited understanding, we all need others in our lives! But modernity, it must be remembered, attempts to render all activities profane (although it will never really be able to do so), meaning that trying to revive Tradition through sole means of modern pastimes like “a religious movement” or “a political movement” will only limit your possibilities and hinder your perspective.
Having established that there are many different methods of engagement, we now consider the situation that makes “choosing a tradition” a meaningful question. With this we arrive at the more complex problem of the “diversity” or confusion of traditions in modernity. Behind this there are much more sinister forces at work.
The modern trials of heresy and blood
The larger question of “choosing a tradition” lends itself to strange notions, which are also inherent (if less obviously) in the concept of “choosing a religion”. Should a born American traditionalist move to China because he feels an affinity with the pace of life and culture of that nation? Should he abandon his American friends and wander aimlessly through Chinatown to prepare for the trip? Such a question is not outright absurd, since great discoveries might be made abroad. But abandoning your home out of purely ideological considerations is simply abandoning the devil you know for the devil you don’t know. The ability to do so is the result of significant cultural and material shifts made possible by modernity, and the probability is high that the American will find as much to dislike in China as he does in America. G.K. Chesterton has it memorably, if perhaps cryptically:
There are two ways of getting home, and one of them is to stay there. The other is to walk round the whole world till we come back to the same place.
Guénon wound up in Egypt eventually, but he never complained about being born in France. He tried his best to be a good man of tradition wherever the fates took him, making Church connections in France, and fitting in with the Sufis in Egypt. It is impossible to see him as an “expatriate”, in the sense of an extended tourist seeking the company of his countrymen in European colonial clubs, or full of nostalgia for home. He had no interest in such things, as his spiritual home was above the world. Ideally, “every land is equally suitable as a residence for the wise man; the worthy soul’s fatherland is the whole world.” (Sextii sent. 162, in Uždavinys’ The Golden Chain)
But we are not saints and some options will be better for us than others. We were raised by specific people in specific places, and these circumstances do not prepare us equally for everything. Tradition is quite literally a transmission from our ancestors, and our interest lies with them. Modernity has made the receipt of that transmission very difficult for a great number of us in two specific ways.
First, it dethrones the traditional family, allowing families to be formed without a concrete idea of the higher virtues to be imitated, or even disposing of marriage and parenting altogether. The emotions generated by bad parenting, which of course never derives solely from the parents but is also a product of disturbed social conditions, are exploited by modernity to turn children against the very idea of respect for the family and ancestors. Evola’s concept of “spiritual race” is derived from the truth that generations of shared tradition build a feeling of ancestral unity. The products of broken households, or of families where no tradition was shared between the parents, or of families alienated from a different traditional society around them (by no fault of their own), are subject to a trial of blood.
Secondly, the secular State trains persons to be consumer-units with no higher pursuit than sentiment, and forces the inheritors of tradition to act as competitors in a marketplace of truths, the inviolable rules of which are set by the State, which must logically claim access to some “metatruth” that allows it to define how truth is determined. The State defines legal and illegal behavior for these “religions” which are “chosen” by sentimental “seekers”, rather than the traditional sources of authority defining legal or righteous behavior for the State to follow, in one of modernity’s earliest inversions. In such a topsy-turvy model it is easy to dispose of “religions” as an “outdated” way of providing “services” to “consumers” who can be better served by the State or even corporations–as if all metaphysics and principles are equal!! This insane inversion may or may not be the central cause of the proliferation of heresies, but it has a good explanatory power that allows us to identify traditional and non-traditional “religions”.
It seems that a modern state may allow traditions to survive by essentially being told to get out of the way by a committed public. Examples of states that legally “make room” for tradition include Japan, Iran, Tibet (recently converted from theocracy to diaspora), and Israel (recently converted from diaspora to nation-state). Much could be said about this dangerous game, but for now, we suffice to conclude that those who are born into these nations by and large should not worry over “choice of tradition”, but only how much they are willing to devote themselves. In other nations, the state may institute counter-tradition by placing a mimicry in the religious core that once preserved Tradition, such as the “state churches” of England and Norway. Those who know the gory details of such institutions probably already understand that these organizations are responsible not to God but to “the people”, and the traditionally minded in these groups are already drifting away.
Some groups stretch the truth more than others to increase their appeal to moderns. Guénon defines some religious groups as pseudo-traditions: Mormons, Bahá’ís, and Theosophers, to name a few. Pseudo-tradition twists the sacred geometry so that divinity and truth is thought to be constantly progressing and evolving (towards nothing in particular; the geometry makes no sense), and traditions, when acknowledged, are considered anachronistic. Unlike counter-tradition, it does try to place the will of the Divine foremost in the thoughts of men, and often manifests as a calling, a joy, and a rigorous spiritual life. We may even add Protestantism to this category. Pseudo-tradition is not a blight on society, and indeed its theology may allow families to make temporary peace with modern demands, but its logic is far from perennial. This may be why converts to atheism from pseudo-traditions are often the harshest critics of religion as an “impediment to progress”, and usually lack any knowledge of Tradition.
Practical advice on choosing a religion
The situation is dim for those who live in a secular State, which in our century controls the public sphere so completely that “religions” jump and bark on command. People who have been dumped by pseudo-traditions or trials of blood into a state of estrangement and alienation have every right to leave their failing community behind and seek out a group which raises the banner of the sophia perennis. Doing so will enable them to stop pontificating on the Internet and become part of the reactionary force repairing Tradition as expressed by their adopted “community”.
There is just one problem: the filial adoptee, the grateful orphan, does not argue with his adoptive parents over the meaning of his parents’ tradition. A traditionally inclined intellectual will at best accomplish nothing (outside of self-gratification, which is not a virtue) by forcing his way into a group with no doctrinal commitment to universalism, such as an ethnic group or initiatory Hinduism. At worst, he will advance modernity by supporting the arguments of liberals trying to debase the group of its qualities. Even if your principles are completely solid, even if you have absolutely no argument to make with the locals, merely existing as a foreign member of a local community will make you fodder for the newspapers.
As a reminder, the lives of Guénon, Schuon, and Evola show that the desire to repair tradition is not based directly on a confession of faith in any group. Truth seen as an observer is still truth. But not all spirits can be as pure as Guénon, and truth known as a participant can act on you and complete your life. Living in society means augmenting your own knowledge with the wisdom of both individuals and groups. To some extent, ethnic and religious groups may let you observe their traditions as an outsider. But with a confession of faith, placing trust in a larger community and being given full approval to carry out its traditions, immense intellectual and personal gains can be made, with the only trade-off being that you limit yourself to the sources of authority accepted by your peers, which really just means placing a deep trust in them.
The question of “choosing a tradition” is thereby limited to “choosing a religion”, a metaphysical core which should shed light onto one’s inherited traditions. “Traditions” in the broader sense cannot be chosen; furthermore, even “choosing a religion”, for all its heady theological weight, will merely cause you to enter a local community. You leave the false universal of modernity behind and return to something that is close to your heart. What is essential is not that you make the “right choice” — although you may feel later on that you did make the right choice — but that your act is one of returning home (rather than adventuring, or worse, “evolving”), that you are welcomed as a brother or sister (rather than a powerless observer or adopted child), that the inclination you have makes the right impact on others, and that they in turn make an impact on you. In this, we might be able to fulfill the purpose of religion and do the will of God.
The list of religions inheriting the sophia perennis that can be “chosen” by a lost soul is actually quite short. Eliminating all heresies and impossibilities, they are:
- The living traditional religion practiced by members of your ethnicity — this is akin to learning from your parents, as represented by your extended family, so we place it first even though this may not be an option for everyone.
- Catholic or Orthodox Christianity
This is not quite all, but the Westerner must take these first two options much more seriously than the form in which modernity has presented them to him. The image seen in the newspapers is not the real community. Two other options are available, but if you are not careful these may serve as an excuse to oppose the Western tradition outright, which is one of the insidious goals of late modernity. What’s more, a lot of work may be spent trying to throw off one’s native traditions for the sake of these foreign religions, only to find that the foreign groups remain foreign, and are just as flawed. The reader is referred again to the Chesterton quote above. Nevertheless these options are possible and some people are inclined to them.
- Sunni or Shia Islam
- Theravada or Mahayana Buddhism — there is a book online which captures the difficulties of being a Western convert to Buddhism.
There is one other path which we will not number. Guénon professed that he had been initiated by the Freemasons, but this was deeply worrying to his peers. The road of any modern group is fraught with danger, and we must again recognize that not everyone can be Guénon, and he never expected anyone to imitate him. By the way, Julius Evola professed to be a pagan, but he merely meant that he gave Religion little thought, just as the Romans did. “Neopaganism” is a post-Christian and ultra-modern phenomenon. We have outlined some of the benefits of Religion above.
You therefore have four options. “But which of these truths is true?” You were brought to the point of reading this essay by a combination of intellect and intuition; it is these forces which should guide you towards an answer. The doctrinal differences between these four groups are so great that it seems difficult to accidentally mistake one for the other. It may be silly to proselytize for two to four religions at once, but all the talk about “traditional society” in the end should influence our decisions in the modern day and help us grow in wisdom and save what is worth saving, or else it is just the idle fantasies of lost boys.