The Four Paths to the Sacred

This is an essay I wrote for my (mostly Christian) students in my Humanities class some 20 years ago, while I was still teaching at Hampton University. It was later adopted as the basis for a service at the Williamsburg Unitarian-Universalist Church, to which my wife and I then belonged.

“Everything possible to be believed is an image of Truth.” — William Blake

Many people who have been raised in western religious traditions such as Christianity do not quite know how to react when they are first exposed to other religious and spiritual traditions from around the world, and particularly indigenous and far-eastern traditions.

In this essay, I would therefore like to propose a model for understanding other religious traditions in a way that allows us to recognize the both the similarities and the differences between others’ traditions and ours, without feeling as if we have to choose between them or decide who’s “right” and who’s “wrong.” Rather, the model is intended to show how all religious traditions, despite their major differences in style, beliefs, rituals, metaphors, and emphasis, nevertheless point to the same basic, intuitive truths of human experience.

The model takes the form of a Solar Cross (a circle bisected vertically and horizontally by a cross), in which, at the center, is a point we can call, simply, “the sacred.” The four arms of the cross all move from the periphery to the center in accordance with the four directions — north, east, south, and west. Each arm may be seen to represent one of the four basic paths to the sacred, onto which all the major religious traditions of the world can be mapped. For the sake of simplicity, I will call these the Path of Learning (S); The Path of Teaching (E); The Path of Healing (W); and the Path of Creating (N). They correspond, roughly, to the subject matter of each volume of Joseph Campbell’s four-part study of the world’s mythic traditions, The Masks of God — “primitive,” oriental, occidental, and creative. Like Campbell, I will describe them in the order in which they historically arose.

1. The Path of Learning (South): The Sacred in Nature and Tradition

This is the oldest path to the sacred of all, the path of our most ancient ancestors, north, south, east, and west, but since humanity itself evolved in the south — in Africa — and since the tropical areas of the world still retain many surviving instances of this ancient approach to the sacred, we may, for convenience, associate this path with the South.

I call this “the path of learning” because the indigenous cultures that embody this path to the sacred all transmit their knowledge orally, from one generation to the next. These teachings vary dramatically from one indigenous culture to the next, for they are embedded in the mythologies which reflect each culture’s distinct collective experience with the landscapes within which they had their livelihood. But despite these differences, these indigenous belief systems all share common traits:

● A belief that the sacred is immanent in the natural world, which is indistinguishable from the spiritual world;

● Close ties of kinship;

● Rituals of communion with ancestors and nature spirits or deities;

● A complex mythology that embeds the sustaining ethical values of the culture, communicated through story-telling, music, and ritual performances.

● Shamans, or magician/healer figures, male or female, who mediate between the visible and invisible worlds, and who are regarded with awe and respect by the rest of the community.

This most ancient and venerable path to the sacred, like all others, has both elements of profound wisdom and characteristic pathologies. The wisdom inherent in this path consists, in my view, in their awareness of all life as sacred, the social and ecological wisdom embedded in the myths, and the primacy of community and sharing. The pathologies include a strong tendency toward superstition or magical thinking, and thus, vulnerability to manipulation by unscrupulous shamans or by opportunists from the outside. The other pathology lies in the fact that these traditions are culture-specific — there is no distinction between “religion” and “culture,” and therefore people who grow up in such cultures often perceive all other cultures as enemies or aliens. This inability to assimilate the “other” has led, historically, to constant warfare or parasitic theft between different indigenous cultures, and a consequent inability to unite effectively against a common threat to their livelihoods.

2. The Path of Teaching (East): The Sacred as Oneness

This path, associated with the Orient, probably arose at the same time as the beginnings of literacy, around 2000 BCE. It arose separately, in both China and India, from indigenous roots, as Hindu and Taoist wisdom traditions, and then these two paths merged in Buddhism. I call it the “Path of Teaching” because the common theme of Hindu, Taoist, and Buddhist approaches to spiritual understanding lies in the primacy of the teacher-student relationship. The great foundational sages of this Eastern path — such as Patanjali, Lao Tzu, and Gautama the Buddha — all were pre-eminently teachers of the Way to direct realization of Oneness — the basic, liberating, and paradoxical awareness summed up in the Hindu Upanishads as “That art thou.” Each (along with many others) founded a ramifying lineage of transmission of wisdom from teacher to student, and this accumulated wisdom is recorded and disseminated in written texts — the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Baghavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching, and the Buddhist Sutras.

Unlike the orally transmitted, culture-specific teachings of the indigenous Path of Learning, these text-based wisdom traditions could readily be transmitted from one culture to another, as, for example, Bodhidharma did in bringing the Buddhist sutras from India to China. Thus Buddhism was (as far as I am aware) the first spiritual tradition that could be transmitted intact from one culture to another.

One important aspect of the subtle and far-reaching wisdom of this Eastern path can be summed up in the first line of the Tao Te Ching: “The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.” That is, the map is not the territory, and the name is not the thing named. Inherent in all these Far-Eastern teachings is this liberating recognition that words are inadequate to describe this liberating apprehension of Oneness which is the common goal of all these paths — it can only be experienced through direct contemplation and practice. This awareness also makes these traditions remarkably tolerant of one another: there has never been a holy war, for example, between Buddhists and Taoists, even though both sects have coexisted in China for many centuries. Many (or even most) Chinese consider themselves both Buddhist and Taoist — and Confucian as well! Likewise, India has a long and venerable tradition of tolerance for religious diversity.

The pathology inherent in Eastern traditions is a strong tendency toward passivity and withdrawal from the world — all of these traditions rely heavily upon monastic isolation, where seekers can study with their teachers and pursue enlightenment without distractions. This has historically made adherents to Hindu, Taoist, and Buddhist traditions tolerant of, or even complicit in, the social status quo, and reluctant to engage the outer world of political and social injustice, other than, perhaps, to offer food, shelter, and teachings to those who happen to pass by.

3. The Path of Healing (West): The Sacred as the One God.

This is the path with which most of us, here in the west, are already familiar: the path that begins, historically, with the direct experience of the foundational Hebrew prophet Abraham — the experience of the One True God, creator of Heaven and Earth, of all that is seen and unseen, whom the Hebrews called JHVH, the Muslims call Allah, and whom we routinely refer to, and relate to, as “God.” Unlike the Eastern traditions, the Western experience of God, starting with Abraham, and passing directly on through Christianity and Islam alike, is an experience not of Oneness, but of Relationship, as recorded both historically and eternally in the Bible (and/or the Qur’an, the Book of Mormon, etc.)

I refer to this as the Path of Healing because the common theme of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, despite their considerable differences, is the theme of Redemption, or reconciliation between an erring, sinful, or fallen humanity and the wrathful but loving God who both created and later redeems him. In the Jewish tradition, this redemption is accomplished through their sacred history as God’s Chosen people, and through the promise of a Messiah or deliverer. In Christianity, the redemption is accomplished, of course, through the death and resurrection of Jesus. And in Islam, it is accomplished through the prophecy of Muhammed, as embodied in the Qur’an, wherein they believe that God’s will is revealed in its full final form.

The wisdom of these three “religions of the Book” is of course likewise deep and multifaceted. It lies above all, in my view, in the recognition that, as Jesus pointed out, the love of God is inseparable from love of neighbor and from love of self. Each presupposes the others. This fundamental experience of the Sacred as the love of God and of neighbor alike lies at the root of the vigorous social activism which characterizes all three monotheistic paths — the common urge to heal the human community, and to minister to the needs of others.

The pathology of this path, in my view, lies in the strong tendency of all three traditions toward intolerance, particularly of one another. All three are built on doctrines that basically divide the world into two categories: God’s people (that is, us) and the others (them). Those who lie outside of the sacramental community are variously viewed as (1) benighted savages awaiting conversion; or (2) enemies of God and/or instruments of the Devil. They all, according to this logic, must therefore be either converted or annihilated. The result of this common tendency in western theistic traditions toward intolerance of others has been all of the horrors which have afflicted our history over the past millenium — holy wars, schisms, crusades, jihads, slavery, genocide, and colonialism.

4. The Path of Creating (North): The Sacred as the Autonomous Self

This fourth and most recent path is still, by and large, a work in progress. It is the North’s distinctive contribution to enlightenment through free inquiry, experimentation, discovery, and innovation, in both science and the arts. It is rooted in Classical Greece and European Renaissance, but it was codified in the latter years of the Eighteenth Century, with the epochal claim that “all men are created equal,” and that we all have a common “right” to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It blossomed in the Nineteenth Century through the Romantic Movement — the recognition of the Sacred as inhering in the unique experience of the autonomous self, irrespective of communal religious traditions, as expressed in Romantic poetry, fiction, and art. This “creative” approach to spiritual discovery continues into the Twentieth Century with the Modernists such as Yeats, Joyce, T.S. Eliot, the Harlem Renaissance, and well into the Sixties and Seventies, with the blossoming of the Counterculture and the so-called “New Age” movement. Because it is still a work in progress, it is difficult to draw generalizations about this multifaceted movement. But its features are becoming clear — it is global in scope, multicultural, vigorously creative and innovative, fast-paced, and exciting to be caught up in.

Its pathologies, of course, are equally apparent and dramatic: alienation; greed and narcissism; cultural fragmentation; breakdown of family, community, and societal bonds; violence and drug addiction; and widespread ignorance of, or indifference to, the greatest common threat of our time — our ongoing destruction of the only living planet we’ll ever know.

Therefore, our collective hope, as I see it, lies in embracing not just one but all of these four paths to the sacred simultaneously, since the strengths of each balance the weaknesses of others. From our indigenous ancestors, we can learn, once again, that the living Earth and all its inhabitants, along with the diverse indigenous cultures and their ways of knowing, are sacred and to be respected, not simply exploited for short-term personal gain. Our Eastern traditions can teach us the elusive, but indispensable techniques of breathing, observing, and letting go — and all of the allied practices that heal and reintegrate body, mind, and spirit — in order to directly apprehend the Sacred in ourselves, all others, and all life. From our own Western root traditions — Jewish, Christian, and Islamic — we may draw renewed strength and resolve to heal our communities, stepping out of our own self-absorption, our SUVs, our gated communities, to follow the path of Jesus and the prophets in healing the sick and feeding the hungry — and from our own humanistic traditions of free inquiry, bold experimentation, and the inalienable rights of free expression, we may acquire once again the courage to create a just and sustainable future.

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I am a retired English professor now living in Oregon, and a life-long environmental activist, Buddhist, and holistic philosopher.

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Tom Ellis

I am a retired English professor now living in Oregon, and a life-long environmental activist, Buddhist, and holistic philosopher.