On Perspectivism and Spirituality

My friend Swami Omkarananda once insightfully suggested that “every time I have seen thought trying to formulate a truth, it did so at the expense of all “others” and “other truths.” In being Christian, I would target and diminish the non-Christians. In being an Integralist, I would target and diminish the non-integralists. In nonduality, the tendency would be to target and diminish dualists or duality. All others are pawns in the game known as “my and my truth.”

Often, truth claims seem to have an almost ‘imperialistic’ quality to them.  They seem to what to conquer other positions in the name of themselves.  We’re all familiar with this practice in religious history (Christian, Islamic, etc.), political history (Republicans, Democrats, Liberals, Conservatives, Fascism, etc.), and cultural history (e.g. in the case of one culture’s norms supplanting those of another, as in Western colonialism).

Certainly, this militant approach to seeking truth has a kind of violence to it that can be at once limiting and distorting.  When we are so bent on conquering other people to our point of view, we may fail to look upon our own position critically.  We might see it as obviously and absolutely true, without flaw or limitation, and forget that alternative ways of seeing and interpreting the world are possible.  Just as staring at the sun for hours can blind us to the diversity of the world, so can intensely focusing on a single perspective to the exclusion of all others blind us from seeing the potential truth that they have to offer.  There is a danger here and a fundamental conquering tendency that Swami Omkarananda points out very clearly.

However, what we must consider, from the perspective of epistemology, or the study of what and how we know what is true, is whether our wariness about the conquering approach to seeking the truth justifies embracing perspectivism.  By perspectivism, I mean here, the belief that all positions and truth-claims are simply relative to certain conceptual schemes.  They are all tied to limited perspectives, and hence, none can be seen as being definitively true.  If we are perspectivists, then we see all perspectives as just that: possible perspectives.

The perspectivist point of view can carry with it a positive sense of acceptance, but it carries a danger as well.  This danger is the tendency to equalize all perspectives, to say that racism and viewing all races as equal, sexism and gender equality, ethnocentrism and cultural understanding, are equally valid perspectives and hence, none can be criticized.  This means that if someone decides to rape my daughter, I can only look at them and say “well, it was your perspective that it was fine to rape her.  So, I guess it is fine.”

Not all varieties of perspectivism necessarily claim that all perspectives are equally valid, but there is a strong vein of perspectivism in contemporary thought that does make this claim.  And it is a deeply problematic one, not only because it equalizes all just and unjust actions as the fruits of equally valid ‘perspectives,’ but also undermines critical thinking altogether.  Critical thinking is a valuable asset; it saves us from gullibility and from being manipulated in a large number of cases. For instance, it would be erroneous for us to uncritically take in the ‘reality’ promoted in television advertisements, for instance. It is arguably wiser to see the flaws in the ‘perspectives’ that are sold to us by politicians and corporations than to accept them as ‘equally valid perspectives.’  Not all received perspectives equally reflect the facts.  If truth is a measure of the correspondence of claims to states of affairs in the universe, then not all perspectives are equally true.

And if we hold this view for truth claims in general, why should we not apply it to spiritual matters as well? Spiritual perspectives are often limited. This does not mean they are not valuable, but it does mean that we should not take them as givens. If I had been content to assume that even distinctness was illusory, as some spiritual teachers have told me, I’d have been living against my direct experience.  I never would have seen that there is no conflict or duality between nonduality and its expression in distinct appearances.  The same is true for many spiritual claims I have ceased to hold as they came to conflict with my direct experience and best reasoning over the years.

Many perspectives and claims can be directly tested against experience. And if they can, then they should be. Perspectivism in science would mean the end of science.  If people simply accepted every scientific perspective as equally true, we’d make no progress in scientific knowledge. Similarly, if we don’t test out received spiritual perspectives, how can we dive deeply into direct insight and realization for ourselves?

We should treat each other with respect and try to see things from different points of view. However, this does not mean we cannot speak from what we directly experience just because another perspective says it is not valid. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Speak what today thinks in words as hard as cannonballs.” I find value in speaking the truth as best we understand it today, in words as hard as cannonballs. It doesn’t mean I’m absolutely right or infallible, which I’m not.  But it does mean that we have a right to take a stand for what we directly experience today, even if other perspectives attempt to invalidate what we directly experience to be true.

In short, just as I cannot accept perspectivism in ethics, politics, economics, and advertizement, so I can I not accept it in spirituality.  For me, all spiritual claims are hypotheses to be tested against experience and the best of our knowledge.  Many who believe in unquestioning faith in received doctrines will disagree with me.  However, this is what has proven valuable  and most defensible for me, according to my best experience and knowledge so far, and so, I will–as I encourage you to do, dear friends–speak it “in words as hard as cannonballs.”

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