Unity: Where East Meets West
By Robert Brumet
This article, which appeared in Unity Magazine, describes how the Unity philosophy may be seen as a synthesis on Eastern and Western spiritual teachings.
“Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet…” Rudyard Kipling penned these words about 100 years ago; but it is unlikely that he would write these words today. In this twenty-first century, as we are move ever-closer to a global culture, it is clear that “the twain are meeting”.
But the twain were beginning to meet even as Kipling was writing these words. 'The Ballad of East and West' was first published in 1889, the same year that Charles Fillmore gave up his business to devote all of his time to a nascent ministry which would come to be known as Unity, and would s grow into the worldwide movement lasting over one hundred years.
In April this same year Fillmore published the first issue of a magazine titled Modern Thought. It contained sixteen pages and sold for ten cents. In the early days of this magazine it included articles from a variety of authors, ranging from Christian Science to Theosophy to Buddhism and to Hinduism. Eventually the genre of the articles focused upon the teaching of a “practical Christianity” which would usually include the essence of these former teachings. The foundation principle of this new teaching was that everything in the visible world is a manifestation of one underlying Reality - the essential nature of all that is. Central to this teaching is the inherent unity of all life and the innate divinity of every human being. The teachings of Jesus Christ were a primary source inspiration for this new philosophy. A new form of Christianity was emerging- and it is alive and well to this day!
The Unity movement and its teachings can be seen as part of a larger movement in human consciousness known as the perennial philosophy. This term was used by the German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz to designate the common, eternal philosophy that underlies all religions, and in particular the mystical streams within them. The term was popularized in more recent times by Aldous Huxley in his 1945 book: The Perennial Philosophy. According to Huxley, the perennial philosophy is:
The metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man's final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being; the thing is immemorial and universal. Rudiments of the perennial philosophy may be found among the traditional lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions…. and that in the Upanishads: The Perennial Philosophy is expressed most succinctly in… the Atman, or immanent eternal Self, is one with Brahman, the Absolute Principle of all existence; and the last end of every human being, is to discover the fact for himself, to find out who he really is. ¹
This perennial philosophy might be likened to a deep underground stream that emerges in different places at various times throughout human history. The great wisdom teachings of all ages can be seen as wellsprings which tap into this ancient, yet ever-renewing truth. It arose in the West in the nineteenth century in the form of Transcendentalism, Theosophy, Christian Science and Unity. And it burst forth again in the 1960s as an influx of Eastern spiritual teachers and teachings emerged in the West.
We can perhaps best contrast Eastern and Western spirituality by the direction in which each one looks to find the sacred- that which is of primary value and of ultimate importance. We could say that Western religion tends to look “up and out.” The divine is seen to be infinitely beyond humanity; it transcendent and wholly “other.” Western religion puts great importance upon the meaning of certain historical events and upon the need to commemorate these events. Human relationships are considered very important- its primary vehicle for worship is the covenant community with its shared beliefs and rituals. Western prayer is generally directed toward a great Other which transcends the world and ourselves. Prayer is seen as creating a relationship with the divine. Though intrinsically transcendent, this great Other cares for us in a very personal way- as a parent for a child.
On the other hand, we could say that Eastern religion tends to look “down and in”- toward the deepest self. It encourages a turning away from the external world and focusing primarily upon the internal reality. The outer world and its history is considered “less real” than that the eternal reality which lies deep within us. Eastern prayer is typically practice in the form of meditation wherein one turns away from the external world and attunes oneself toward a transcendent reality which is nowhere other than within oneself. It is our most essential nature, and is it not unlike the One Reality underlying everything in the visible world.
The Unity teachings- and the perennial philosophy- differs from traditional Christian teachings in that the divine is not as a separate and or distant being. The divine is the essential nature of all that exists and is closer to us than our own breath. This perspective is similar to the Eastern spirituality. Some years ago I taught World Religions in Unity’s continuing education program. It was always interesting to me that, when we explored the Eastern religions of Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism, my students would usually remark “that’s just like Unity!”
And yet Unity uses the Bible as a primary textbook- particularly the teachings of Jesus. It tends to use traditional Christian terminology, which is interpreted in a non-traditional (metaphysical) way. The Fillmore’s came to believe that one did not have to abandon Christianity in order to find universal truths. Their mission was to breathe new life into the traditional language of Christianity. Unity relies heavily upon the teachings of Jesus, who is the centerpiece of Christianity. Yet ironically, many of Jesus’ teachings have a distinct Eastern tone. Unity puts particular emphasis upon teachings such as “the kingdom of heaven is within you” which has a decidedly Eastern or mystical slant.
In traditional Christianity, salvation (which could be defined as spiritual wholeness) is seen to come about primarily through adherence to certain creeds or the performance of rituals or sacraments or obedience to divine laws. By contrast, in Unity’s philosophy, spiritual wholeness comes about through the development of one’s consciousness by raising one’s awareness to a higher level. This perspective is inherent in virtually all Eastern practices, as well in the perennial philosophy. Unity’s form of prayer is much more like Eastern meditation practice than traditional Christian prayer. ² Rather than imploring upon a distant God, Unity prayer is an attunement of one’s consciousness to the ever-present reality of God’s presence as the essence of who we are. Prayer is not about changing God’s mind; it’s about changing our own mind by raising our consciousness to a higher level.
This form of prayer reflects Unity’s core philosophy which is Eastern- like in many ways; yet Unity also embraces the importance of history and human relationships- which is similar to Western religion. Unity’s approach, while distinctly mystical, is also intensely practical. (In 1903 Unity was incorporated as The Unity Society of Practical Christianity.) Unity has been referred to as practical mysticism. Its use of prayer for the purpose of healing, prospering, and guidance is characteristic of a Western approach to spirituality. East meets West at the heart of Unity. I would like to offer that Unity’s teachings represent a powerful synthesis of the best of Eastern and Western spiritual thought- truly a religion for our age!
¹ Huxley, Aldous. The Perennial Philosophy. page vii.
² I want to emphasize that here I am referring to traditional Christian prayer. Contemplative Christian prayer looks somewhat more like Unity’s form of prayer, although there are some significant differences.