Two Kinds Of Religion

In 1959 Aldous Huxley observed the following about religion in a speech at the University of California Santa Barbara:*

These two main sets of references, at the beginning of the Bible and at the end, illustrate very clearly an important point: that there are two main kinds of religion. There is the religion of the immediate experience (the religion, in the words of Genesis, of hearing the voice of God walking in the cool of the evening – the religion of direct acquaintance with the Divine in the world), and there is the religion of symbols (the religion of the imposition of order and meaning upon the world through verbal or nonverbal symbols and their manipulation – the religion of knowledge about the divine rather than direct acquaintance with the Divine). And these two types of religion have, of course, always existed, and we have to discuss them both…

These two types of religion – the religion of immediate experience, of direct acquaintance with the Divine, and this second kind of symbolic religion – have, of course, co-existed in the West. Mystics have always formed a minority in the midst of the official symbol-manipulating religions, and this has been a rather uneasy symbiosis. The members of the official religion tended to look upon the mystics as difficult, trouble-making people. They have even made puns about the name; they have called mysticism “misty schism” in the sense that this is not a clear doctrine. It is a cloudy doctrine, it is an antinomian doctrine, it is a doctrine which does not conform easily to authority; and they have disliked it in consequence. And on their side, of course, the mystics have spoken – not exactly with contempt, because they don’t feel contempt, but with sadness and compassion about those who are devoted to the symbolic religion, because they feel that the pursuit and the manipulation of symbols is simply incapable in the nature of things of achieving what they regard as the highest end: the union with God.

*The passage is quoted in John Cleese, Professor at Large (Cornell University Press, 2018) and mentioned in a November 2018 Harper’s excerpt from the book, “A Divine Pat.”