It’s a crazy dream, like finding the Theory of Everything: finding the Universal Theology, or some such. It would be nice, wouldn’t it, to reconcile all faiths once and for all, at some incomprehensibly deep level? Well, it’s not going to happen.
A Sufi dhikr ceremony. These guys really have it going on. Photo by Iason Athanasiadis
This is on my mind because I’ve been reading a bunch of Sufi writers — al-Ghazali, al-Bastami, Hujwiri — from the 9th-12th centuries CE. These guys are great. I’m beginning to warm up to them. And I just wrote a paper comparing the Christian mystical tradition to Sufism. There are some nice areas of overlap (like the ideas of annihilation and tasting God) but there are just as many significant differences. For example, the Sufis are more up-front about their universalist tendencies than almost any Christian contemplative that I know about. And, significantly, there is very little in the way of true negative theology within Sufism, at last as far as I can tell at this basic level. That was a surprise.
To cap it all off I just read Martin Lings, who wrote in his book What is Sufism?, the following: “Not only the universality but also the originality of each particular [tradition] increases in intensity as the End [divine union] is approached.” He uses the word originality here to indicate peculiarity, or distinctiveness. What this means is, Christianity becomes more uniquely Christian as one climbs the contemplative ladder, not less. And the same would apply to Sufism, or Tibetan Buddhism, or whatever tradition you may choose. At least this is what I understand him to be saying.
If this is true, we can kiss the Universal Theology goodbye. That’s okay. It’s a rather silly idea anyway. Thanks, Martin.