On the Problem of the Meeting of Religions in East & West

Jacques-Albert Cuttat [1]

Jacques-Albert Cuttat

5,251 words

As East and West is a review devoted not only to the study of Orientalism but also to the problem of the relations between East and West, it may not be out of place to deal here with the ideas on this subject which for some time past Jacques-Albert Cuttat has been championing, though in rather narrow circles.

Cuttat is a Swiss scholar who had devoted himself especially to the comparative study of the different spiritual and religious forms, and who in a first period had joined the French “traditionalist” group heading up by René Guénon. He had then, under the pseudonym of Jean Thamar, published several articles in Études traditionnelles, the review published by Guénon’s group, besides others under his own name in Thought and in Études Asiatiques, where an essay of his on the Prajnaparamita had also appeared. Considered from the academic standpoint, Cuttat has taught at the École pratique des Hautes Études in Paris, and is now visiting Professor at Columbia University in New York. Before then he had studied on the spot the hesychasm, i.e., the mysticism of the Greek-Orthodox orientation, and Arabian Sufism. It may be that it was just during that period that a strange regressive change occurred in the direction of his thought, which has led him to the ideas he now professes on the relations between Oriental and Western spirituality.

The essence of these ideas is set forth in his book La rencontre des religions, published in Paris in 1957 by Aubier (Éditions Montaigne), of which there is an Italian translation (Naples: Rocco, 1958). Some essays and lectures of his may also be mentioned, among which “Asiens Incognito im europäischen Geistesleben,” delivered at the University of Frankfurt, and “Vergeistigungstechnik und Umgestaltung in Christus.” These are the writings to which we shall here specifically refer.

Cuttat’s new direction is sectarianly Christian, along lines which remind those followed by Henri Massis in his well-known book Défense de l’Occident. It is a kind of reaction against the growing interest in Oriental doctrines that is arising in the West. The arguments brought forward by Massis were extremely primitive, their inconsistency and partiality could be seen at a glance. Cuttat is much better prepared. The experience he had previously acquired enables him to put together a much more thorough knowledge of Oriental traditions and of the field of the comparative study of religions in general. But he uses this superior equipment in support of a line like that sustained by Massis, i.e., to denounce the “Eastern danger,” to defend the exclusivism of devotional religion of the theistic type, to try to assure the preeminence of this religion over any other form of spirituality.

The purpose is therefore just the opposite of what the title La Rencontre des religions might suggest. The contribution made by Cuttat consists rather, as we shall see, in accentuating the irreconciliable character, the impossibility for different spiritual points of view to find a meeting point.

We purposely use the expression “spiritual points of view” instead of “religions.” Indeed, as will at once be clearly seen, Cuttat’s worst misunderstandings arise from the arbitrary inclusion in the single category a religion of spiritual directions that are not at all on the same level. And we have the right to ask ourselves whether on this point Cuttat is not in bad faith, that is to say whether, for the purposes of the cause he pleads, he acts as though he did not know the very thing which, in his previous experience he had known very well, that is the essential morphological differences existing between religious thought and metaphysical thought, between esoterism and exoterism, between “metaphysics” and simple faith. These categories are confused and deformed by Cuttat for the purpose of exalting the originality and superiority of the religion that has come to prevail in the West, considered in its more limited and exterior aspects. This is very bad, and this is one of the reasons that have led us to write these present notes. Even if, as we have remarked, the range of action of Cuttat’s ideas is a rather modest one, there will certainly be many who will be tempted to make use of them for purposes differing widely from those of a really objective clarification.

In examining the relations between East and West, Cuttat sets forth a series of antitheses, part of which are real, but which should merely be the object of morphological-existential considerations, exclusive of any judgment on their value, for, as has been said, the terms dealt with cannot be placed on the same plane.

Here is the way in which the problem is faced: On the one hand, there is a “spiritual hemisphere” including Jews, Christians, and Moslems, which conceives of the Absolute as a person; opposite to it there is another spiritual hemisphere, inclusive of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism and Shintoism, for which the Absolute in its ultimate and transcendent divine reality is impersonal, and is personal only in its relative aspects and in its immanent manifestation.

Cuttat’s more elaborate equipment is made manifest by the fact that he does not qualify Western spirituality as mere a monotheism, and he does not use, as many do, the disparaging qualification of pantheism (= everything is God) for the East; he admits that “the East also does not ignore divine transcendency and is far from deifying nature as such. It is rather a panentheism (= all is God) which, instead of leading to the personal God, as does monotheism, culminates in what Rudolf Otto calls theopantism (= God is all, He is the only reality).” Still more precise is this assertion, corresponding to pure truth: “It is not that the extra-Christian asceticisms are, as is claimed, ignorant of divine transcendency and of the divine personality; they consider, nevertheless, that the latter is a ‘non-supreme’ aspect of the former, an aspect destined, in the last resort, to annul itself as such, when knowledge will rise to the non-duality of the Principle.”

But in this case it is no longer a question of the presence or non-presence of the conception of God as a person, but of the rank assigned to this conception in a given system. And the alternative is that between systems which admit a non-personal or super-personal Absolute, and systems which are ignorant of, exclude, or deny this truly transcendent dimension of the Divine. But to state the question in these terms means to solve it in a sense in all respects opposite to that taken by Cuttat.

Before explaining why this is so, it is to be noted that Cuttat can refer the antithesis between these two different systems to East and to West, only in as much as he considers as unessential, foreign and distorting a number of doctrines that are present alike in the traditions he includes “in the non-Oriental spiritual hemisphere”: Jewish, Christian, Islamic. (We will not stop here to discuss the legitimacy of considering as non-Oriental the Hebraic and Islamic tradition.) Judaism has indeed known the Kabbala; Islam Sufism, and in the case of the traditions of antiquity, Pythagoreanism, Neo-Platonism, and many traditions of the Mysteries have been characterized as well by the recognition of that dimension of the Absolute that transcends the personal theistic God. In Christianity itself, both in its origins (especially in Dionysius the Areopagite, Ireneus, Synesius, and many others) and in the great mystics or theologians that we might call of the dry path (such as Scotus Eriugena, Meister Eckhart, Tauler, etc.), we find here and there references to this superior metaphysical dimension.

As Cuttat cannot be ignorant of all this, he has recourse to a strange expedient: in a sort of verdict, of Matchtspruch, he declares that it is here a case of the intrusion or interference of a current foreign to a Western spirituality, and he begins to speak of an “Asia in incognito” which, with a zeal worthy of the Holy Office, he undertakes to unmask and to denounce, not only in the doctrines and by the mystics of whom we have spoken, but even by a whole series of Western philosophers, down to Kant, Schopenhauer, Hegel, and the existentialists, as to isolate that which in his opinion is purely “Western,” but which in these terms, as we shall see, is reduced to something of very little importance, unilateral and conditioned.

But the fact is that here it is absolutely nonsensical to apply the geographical-cultural categories of “East” and “West.” It is not a question of the intrusion of a foreign type of spirituality into a given system, but of an esoterism which in the West also has asserted itself beyond the limits of exoterism (i.e., of the more external aspects of the corresponding tradition); of a gnosis and of “metaphysics” that have gone beyond the realm of mere faith. Therefore, as has been pointed out, it is not even a question of a “religion” that meets, or does not meet, with another religion on the same plane; but of spiritual categories or worlds that are indeed different. To be more precise, it is a question of the morphological difference existing between systems that in addition to “religion,” have metaphysical teachings, and systems that instead begin and end on the plane of devotional religion. Cuttat has done his best to restrict the whole “Western” tradition to a system of the second type, which is as arbitrary as it is unilateral.

In any case, as he has been compelled to recognize the existence of an Eastern system of metaphysics, he finds himself in a position impossible to defend when he tries to present the matter in a light advantageous to theism. It would be consistent to assert that it is impossible to conceive an impersonal Absolute beyond the personal one, by declaring that all doctrines based on such a conception are delusions and aberrations. But unless this is done, if one admits as conceivable a superpersonal and impersonal God beyond the theistic God, a principle anterior and superior to the Divinity conceived in the image of the human figure, then it is absolutely absurd to claim for the latter preeminence over the former.

Cuttat is thus forced to have recourse to a mere verbal device to give an appearance of consistency to his attempt to invert the parts. As a matter of fact, when he does not follow in the footsteps of those who would settle all questions about non-Christian spirituality by describing it as “naturalistic” or “pantheistic” mysticism, when instead of so doing he speaks, with reference to the “East,” of an “impersonal divinity who is, indeed, ontological or metaphysical, but not supernatural” (the theistic divinity would instead be supernatural) he twists the meaning of the words, because the literal meaning of the expression “metaphysical” (physis = nature) is “supernatural,” “metacosmic.” And as Cuttat has had to admit that the East is acquainted with a metacosmic principle, he invents a new and non-sensical expression, “transmetacosmic,” in the opinion that this cheap verbal expedient will suffice to afford a basis for his suprematistic pleading.

Cuttat believes that in connection with the “transmetacosmic” principle man could inaugurate relations of a superior nature, not ontological but personal and “truly spiritual,” unknown to the “East.” Here again he displays uncommon skill in shuffling the cards on the table, as he gives the impression of having taken into consideration all that refers to “Eastern” spirituality, but he does so only, to assign it an inferior and subordinate position. And here we enter on the field of the experiences of the inner life. To characterize the “Eastern” path some have spoken not of ecstacy but of “enstacy,” that is to say of a concentric movement, of detachment of the mind from the object and from the external world of phenomena; of an interiorizing convergency towards the deeper Ego, the divine Self.

Cuttat hastens to make use of this idea. This, for him, would be “the primal gesture of the East.” But only half of the distance would thus have been traversed. Having reached his own center, man would have to recognize the “vertical transcendency,” and a movement would have to be made toward the personal God who is “unattainable transcendency” that stands above all interiority, even the deepest and the most detached from the world. And here the only categories that would count would be the “moral” Christian ones, or those of a Christian type, no longer the “ontological” Eastern ones. The category of the relation between an “I” and a “Thou,” of the human person with the Divine Person, love or supernatural communio, confidence in the redemption acted by Christ (thus automatically Hebraism and Islamism would fall out of the “non-eastern spiritual hemisphere,” faith, humility, the “tremendous amazement,” as the reply of man to God “ who wishes to give Himself to him,” and who has placed it in the creature in order to reveal Himself to him as the Being above him, and so forth.

The conclusions, at which he arrives with admirable ease is that: “The Easterners have not explicitly discovered that the inmost interiority of the spirit culminates in the extreme transcendency of the Creator.” In other words, the whole East is reduced to nothing but a mere preparatory stage, a possible via purgationis, beyond which only does the really Supernatural reveal itself.

All this makes apparent the intention to create confusion, pour cause. Cuttat acts as though he did not know what he does indeed know, for, if not directly from the corresponding traditions, he has learned at least from the clear statement of their real meaning made by the “traditionalist” group, the real structure of the path in “metaphysical” doctrines. Those doctrines take into consideration both directions, which are related to the symbolism of the center (or pole) and to that of the axis. The first movement is just that toward the interior (enstacy) by which the deepest and most original nucleus of one’s own being is reached, detached from all “nature.” The Ego itself as center is, however, far from being the point of arrival; it is, in its turn, the starting point for the “vertical” realization of the transcendent and super-individual states of being along “the Axis of the World,” symbolized in various ways by the different traditions, and leading to the Unconditioned.

All this had been clearly seen by the metaphysical teachings—it is, in a way, related by the Ancients to the distinction between Little Mysteries and Great Mysteries, and in the Far East to the distinction between “real man” and “transcendent man.” Therefore, the distinctive feature of the view upheld by Cuttat and attributed to “Western” spirituality, consists solely in conceiving of a split between the two phases: the line of a true realization stops at the center; the being does not rise above the center following the vertical direction; as though brought to a standstill by impotency or by fundamental anguish, he (the being) objectivizes all the other states in the form of a transcendent person, the unattainable theistic God, retroceding from the plane of metaphysical and intellectual realization to that of emotion, love, faith, and all the rest, giving new life to all those purely human motives, at bottom conditioned, socially and affectively—Cuttat refers indeed to relations similar to those between friend and friend, between bridegroom and bride, between father and son—which the preliminary process of “catharsis” and “enstasis” should have burnt without leaving any remainder. Undoubtedly, metaphysics also recognize that between the concentric and the vertical realization there is a rupture of continuity, a hiatus; but it is just the ability to surmount this hiatus actively that gives to the real initiate his chrism. This is the essential point.

Here also the concessions Cuttat had to make as regards the “Oriental” metaphysical path, irremediably injure from the start the ideas for which he stands, the cause of the “West.” He admits that that path is characterized by depersonalization, by the overcoming of the personality and attainment of a naked Ego, which, like the nous, is pre-conceptual, pre-affective, pre-volitional. How then can be possible to refer to a higher stage, a type of relationship in which all that is not only “personal” but even sentimental, emotional, “moral,” plays the decisive part? Do not the relations of love, even if it be mystic love, in themselves imply the limit of personality? Moreover, how can one seriously bring a charge of “subjectivity” and of “individualism” against a mind which has attained, through an intellectual catharsis, that form of depersonalized nudity of which we have spoken?

We have said that the “Oriental” path was not unaware of “vertical transcendency,” but conceived it as the task of realization. To make apparent all the absurdity of considering as a higher degree what arises not from realization but from an arrest of the being at the beginning of the vertical direction, with the consequent return of sub-intellectual complexes, let us just try to imagine a yogi or a siddha who begins to weep (in theistic mysticism the “gift of tears” is given as one of the highest marks of perfection in the Saint), a Buddha who starts praying and invoking, a taoistic shen-jen, or “transcendent man,” or a master of Zen who repeats formulae of the type of those of the esychasm: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me!” and such like. The impossibility of conceiving anything of the kind shows, better than any dialectics, the absurdity of the views of Cuttat and the level to which they belong.

In conclusion, the only merit our Author can claim is that of having made a thorough examination of the implications of a purely religious position alien to all forms of metaphysics. He thus ends by denying even the value of that movement of “concentric” or enstatic realization of the Ego that he had accepted as the first phase of the process as a whole. He sees the danger of the idea that “God unites only with gods” (it is a saying of St. Simeon, but it is also a classical and Pythagorean notion); preliminary theosis (divinization) is, at bottom, superfluous and dangerous for “we are already redeemed in Christ” (here again Islamism and Hebraism fall out), and all that need be done is to adhere humbly and believingly in our Redeemer. Cuttat writes textually:

By the fact that we do not wish to elevate ourselves towards God starting from our fallen nature do we not impose on God more than He asks of us? Is it not to fallen nature, is it not to the sick, the disinherited, the sinners, and even to the dead, that Christ addresses directly His act of redemption? Does He lay down any other condition sine qua non to His loftiest promise, beyond that of abandoning ourselves unreservedly, just as He finds us, with our defects to the omnipotence of His essentially gratuitous and undeserved mercy?

. . . To believe that we can only attain Him and unite ourselves to Him after washing away all our sores, does this not mean that we ourselves condition our surrender, refuse Him our absolute trust, doubt that He alone is the Author of our deific redemption?

This means the renunciation even of the attempt to include, be it only as a preparatory and subordinate phase, what had been formerly recognized as valid, in the “Oriental” ascetic and realizing line (reduced to very little indeed), and leads more or less to the Calvinistic doctrine—the extreme limit of the purely religious direction—that rejects works and sees in faith alone the instrument of possible salvation.

And here again Cuttat, to avoid having to pass over in silence facts with which he is well acquainted but which would destroy his theories, tries to juggle with the cards. The East indeed has also known a type of man who can accept the aforesaid views: he is the Bhakta, the devotional type, and the East also has known a similar path, the Bhaktimarga, which possesses more or less the same categories above mentioned, with a personal divinity as the supreme term of reference. Two points should however be noted: the first is that in India the Bhakta is considered as a type of man who, being characterized by the so called rajas-quality, ranks below the type who follows the path of pure metaphysical knowledge, characterized by the superior sattva-quality (it is a question of the doctrine of the three gunas). In the second place the appearance of the Bhaktic current, whether in India or elsewhere, is historically a relatively late event; more precisely, it is only recently that he has acquired importance and come to the fore other than as a trend of the more popular and promiscuous forms of worship. In order to face this fact Cuttat again shifts the cards, helping himself now with the Western conception of time.

He speaks of the opposition that exists in regard to time between the Jewish-Christian view of creation from which in his opinion proceeds the idea of historical development, more or less in terms of progress, and the “Eastern” conception of the world as an unchangeable emanation, as a pure symbol and perpetual image of a metacosmic and timeless reality, a conception which excludes the idea of historical development, and gives rise to the doctrine of cycles: time that consumes itself in a recurrent circular process which has no meaning in itself, but only as “the moving image of eternity.” We will not on our side note that the second conception, if it is not that proper to Christianity (though it appears in Ecclesiastes), was however familiar to many doctrines of Western and Mediterranean antiquity. Were we to do so, Cuttat would hasten to say that it is a case of an “intrusion of Asia” or of an “Asia incognito.” Nor will we go back to what Celsus ironically pointed out in this connection, when he said that only because they only know a fragment of a cycle do the Christians and the Jews speak so much of “history” and of “the end of the world,” dramatizing the one and the other, mistaking a recurrent episode for the whole. However this may be, the conflict between the “evolutionary” conception (even if with a providential or eschatological background) and the involutionary conception of history is real, and apart from the timeless metaphysical openings of history, it corresponds—if we study the ages known to us—to the conflict between an illusion and the truth—a truth that is becoming more and more apparent in the West.

Now, taking in hand the historical-evolutionary conception, Cuttat thinks he has found the means of getting over in an elegant way the difficulty caused by the aforesaid tardy character of the bhakti theory in the East, by stating that it is precisely here that we should see the progress proper to a superior stage of evolution. In his opinion we have here something that enters into the plan of a “divine economy” which has bestowed even on the East, at a later stage, a truth and a path similar to those revealed by Christianity, the God of the bhakti-marga being a hidden, not yet recognized form of the very God of the “monotheistic revelation.”

But the fact is that the late appearance of the devotional doctrine in the East is part of a regressive process (it falls in fact exactly within the period known as the “dark age,” kali-yuga), it is due to the “covering up” of doctrines that were originally metaphysical, and to the popularization of those doctrines. This can be clearly seen in the case both of Buddhism and Taoism. Only when they both became popular, when they were opened more and more to the masses, only then did the constant features of all that is mere religion, take shape: reliance on the gods to obtain salvation, the transformation into “Divine Persons” of abstract metaphysical principles or of great spiritual teachers, the need of external spiritual help, faith, devoutness, worship and collective ceremonies. Only if it be “providential” to create illusions and to compromise with human weaknesses, only then can the processes that in several Oriental traditions have led regressively to such results—the most typical case is that of Amidism—be considered as “providential.” This is one episode of that general involutionary trend of mankind—first in the West, and then also in the East—which today only those who shut their eyes so as not to see, can fail to discern, for it is becoming every day more apparent. The fact of the chronological syntony of Western devoutness with the spread of Bhaktism, Amidism, religious Taoism, etc., this coincidence may have escaped—as Cuttat says it has—the attention both of Orientalists and of Western missionaries, and of the Oriental who takes an interest in Western Christianity; but it is nevertheless obvious, and its real meaning is strictly that which we have indicated.

Were we to call attention to all the manipulations to which Cuttat has had recourse, we should never come to an end. We will not therefore stop to note how he treats Islam, here again inverting the facts; for it is precisely Islamism with Sufism (which goes so far as to recognize in man the condition in which the Absolute becomes aware of itself, and which professes the doctrine of the Supreme Identity) that affords a clear and eloquent example of a system which though it includes a strictly theistic religious domain, recognizes a loftier truth and path of realization, the emotional and devotional elements, love and all the rest, losing here—as is the case with the authentic Buddhism of the origins—all “moral” significance, and all intrinsic value, and acquiring only that of one of the many techniques (as is indeed the case with Bhaktism itself, if rightly understood).

In conclusion, the contribution made by Cuttat consists, as has been said, in defining strictly and consistently that which belongs to a purely exclusivistic religious doctrine as opposed to a metaphysical doctrine. The antitheses to which he calls attention are indeed real ones from the point of view of the former: on the one hand moral—i.e., non-real—categories, on the other hand, ontological categories; on the one hand the ideal of deification or sacralization, on the other the ideal of simple sanctification; on the one hand the theme of sin and guilt, on the other the theme of the error and the theory of metaphysical ignorance; on the one hand redemption or salvation, on the other liberation and spiritual awakening; on the one side objective techniques, on the other the “response” of the soul that surrenders itself to the personal God; on the one hand the theory of the Incarnation as a unique and unrenewable fact which divides in two halves the spiritual history of the world; on the other the theory of the avatara and of multifarious divine manifestations; on the one hand the world viewed as a sacred and transparent symbol of the timeless metacosmos, on the other the recognition of the object and the fraternal and loving communio of all beings and creatures in God (as in the nature mysticism of St. Francis); on the one hand the deconditioning of personality, on the other the acceptance of the irremediable finitude of man as a creature; on the one hand catharsis beyond history, on the other the eschatological valuation of history (which on the profane level leads to the Western fantasies about progress).

All these antitheses are real, or rather, as a rule, they present themselves as such if one assumes the religious standpoint characterized by conferring an absolute value on something that is proper to a lower human type, and on the “truths” suited to it. Instead from the metaphysical standpoint it is a question of two planes to be seen in a ranking order.

The facts therefore stand inversely as Cuttat has endeavored to present them when he says that “the Western Christian values include and complete the Eastern ones, and not vice versa.” How, starting from his strange ideas and from to many incomprehensions, it is possible to suppose that the “new Euro Asian Renaissance” and the corresponding “irresistible interpenetration between East and West” can lead to something positive, and how it is possible to speak of “meetings,” in which “the East should not be used by the West to reject, perhaps unawaredly, its own value, but rather to stimulate it (the West) to acquire a deeper knowledge of that value,” this is what we cannot understand unless we are to understand “deeper” to mean the strengthening of what is presumed to be “Western” (we have already pointed out the arbitrary nature of this identification) all that is exclusive, limited, and even anomalous.

This negative conclusion is explicitly contained in the pages in which Cuttat takes his stand towards “traditionalism,” that is to say the very current to which he himself had subscribed previously. “Traditionalism” asserts the idea of the transcendent unity of all religions, or rather of all the great spiritual traditions (for we insist in stressing the advisability of limiting the notion of “religion” to certain special forms of those traditions). These present themselves from the “traditionalist” point of view as homologizable; as various, more or less complete forms of a unique knowledge, of a philosophia perennis emanating from a primordial timeless tradition. All differences would relate to the contingent, conditioned, and caducous side, and not to the essential one of each single historical tradition, and none of these could claim as such to represent exclusively the absolute truth.

Now, Cuttat says textually: “Of all the religions, Christianity is the only one which is either the whole Truth or a crazy pretention. Tertium non datur” (here once more Cuttat has dropped by the way Greek thought, Islam, and what else he had included in the spiritual “non-Oriental” hemisphere of our planet to swell its size). A Christianity which could be “homologized” would be but one religion among the many, it would disperse like a mere chimera. It is either the “incomparable” or it is nothing. In Cuttat’s opinion the universal concordance, the comparability, the transcendent equivalence of religions, all that “are not a religious constant, but an aspect of the extra monotheistic traditions only,” for the “Western” believer to admit that his tradition may be considered from such a point of view, thus becoming “equivalent to the others before God,” would mean that he abjures his faith. He adds that from the Hebraic-Christian point of view the only possible position in front of other spiritual currents, is not that of “homologation” but of the “conversion” of those who hold them. This amounts to putting an end, once and for all, to the formula of “meetings” and to render impossible any serious dialogue between “East and West.”

Even these brief notes will have made evident the doctrinal inconsistency of the ideas of Cuttat. From the subjective standpoint, and within the framework of the spiritual movement of the times, his exclusivism is but a regressive phenomenon. It can be explained as a kind of “anguish complex.” It is a desperate reassertion of definite existential limitations before the prospect of widening horizons, of a higher liberty, a liberty that a certain type of man, very little “up to date,” can only feel to be destructive. For our part we absolutely refuse to identify this type of man with that of the true man of the West.

East and West, vol. 10, no. 4 (December 1959): 169–75.