THE GROWTH OF THE SOUL
CHAPTER 2: OCCULT SCIENCE AND RELIGION.
Theosophy in harmony with essential religious ideas The uncertainties of modern thought in spite of religious teaching The exactitudes of Theosophic interpretation The methods of research in spiritual science True meanings of misunderstood dogmas.
At the outset of any serious attempt to comprehend Theosophic teaching concerning the growth of the soul, it is well worth while to dissipate the foolish delusion that such teaching is at war with religion, and based upon a Godless and Atheistic system of thought. Theosophy is so far from deserving that reproach that it even brings into sympathy with all essential religious ideas, those of its followers who, repelled in the first instance by the unsatisfactory creeds in which religion has so often been disguised by ecclesiastical systems, have approached it from the point of view of Agnostic or even Atheistic thinking.
Occult science enables us to define clearly before the mind's eye the goal at which humanity has to aim. Religious faith, it may be urged, does this also, no matter with what varieties of creed it may be associated. It points to a happy spiritual life of a refined order as a reward for piety and blameless conduct. But that is not a "clearly defined" goal, because the conditions of such superior existence are never explained in sacred writings with exactitude. The Theosophic exposition of spiritual science, on the other hand, shows quite definitely the coniditions of spiritual existence which ensue as a consequence of simple piety and blameless life, and also the still higher conditions that may be attainable for those who unite with the utmost attainable blamelessness, adequate knowledge concerning the scope and possibilities of human existence, and who, guiding their conduct by the light of that knowledge, bring themselves so far into harmony with the loftiest principles governing the evolution of the world, as to rise in the scale of creation, and take their places in that sphere of existence which, as compared with the kingdom of humanity, might be termed the kingdom of divinity.
Before going further let me expand this contrast a little. For one very common mistake made about Theosophic teaching by people who begin to appreciate its ethical tendencies, is that, after all, it only repeats familiar Christian exhortations in a new form of words, dropping out the ecclesiastical phraseology.
In spite of the painful pretences of precision which distinguish the anthropomorphic formulas of modern churches, the philosophical literature of modern thought is saturated with the conviction that the conditions of physical life hopelessly deny us exact knowledge in reference to the hereafter. "The bourne from which no traveller returns "is a region which Shakespeare, even though presenting us in the same breath with a traveller who does return from it, recognises as shrouded in impenetrable darkness. Tennyson cannot give, by the Voice of Faith, any more definite information concerning the future than is conveyed in the "notice faintly understood" which embodies the encouragemerit of "a hidden hope." The leading exponents of modern knowledge concerning physical nature are bitter in their repudiation of the theory that it is possible to get touch with positive facts having to do with non-carnate conditions of consciousness. With eighteen centuries to work in, the Christian churches have finally produced, as the result of their teaching, the assured conviction on the part of their most intellectual pupils, that there is nothing to be known, however much to be hoped for, along that road. Reasonable conjectures, pointing to a superphysical intelligence and consciousness of some sort governing the world, there may be, but of real knowledge, such as that we have about the planetary movements or the molecular constitution of matter, there is none attainable.
Samuel Laing, summing up the conclusions of Modern Thought, writes: "As far as our experience and knowledge extend, this life of conscious personal identity is indissolubly connected with a material organ the brain. . . . What will become of it when the brain is dissolved into its elements? No voice comes from beyond the grave to tell us. It is the mystery of mysteries."
And the authors of "The Unseen Universe," though their whole book presents itself as an attempt to argue that there may be an unseen universe and some avenue that may at last lead from the seen to the unseen, conceive that up to now this avenue "has unfortunately been walled up and ticketed with 'No road this way.'" "In fine," they say elsewhere, "the unseen may have a very wide field of influence, but from its very nature its working is not discernible, and we are therefore led to consult the Christian records for otherwise unattainable information regarding the reality of a present influence exercised by the invisible universe upon ours." As for the fate of evil doers, "We greatly question whether any school of theologians have succeeded in throwing a single ray of real light into this mysterious region."
The whole body of Theosophic teaching on the contrary rests on the confident declaration that an immense volume of real knowledge, quite as precise and certain as that we possess about the movements of the planets, or the behaviour of molecules, is attainable and has been attained in reference to superphysical conditions of human consciousness, the natural laws which govern the transition of human consciousness from one sphere or plane of Nature to another, and the conditions of existence which belong to other Beings, some higher than, some lower than the humanity of which we have cognisance on this earth. But when the practical bearing of this knowledge on human conduct during incarnate life is brought down to an every-day level, undoubtedly it is found that in many respects the ethics of exact spiritual science are identical with the ethics of the inexact, however ardent, aspirations of religion. That is in no way surprising for students of Theosophy who come to realise that all religion worthy of the name has grown out of spiritual science as existing in the world at the period of such growth. Religions prepared by the various great teachers and prophets of mankind for propagation in the world at large, are in all cases excerpts clothed in a more or less elaborate symbolism, from the great body of definite scientific knowledge concerning the spiritual laws and purpose of the world possessed by the initiates for the time being of esoteric wisdom.
The identity, however, of ordinary religious and theosophic ethics up to a certain point in no way lessens the importance of the additional spiritual guidance to be derived from the knowledge of theosophic doctrine. The acquisition of that knowledge at one stage or another of human progress is an absolute condition, sine qud non, for the attainment of the grander possibilities of that progress. The good life per se will lead to happiness hereafter, as the most popular forms of religious teaching very fairly declare. The ideas associated with religious piety, if welded with that good life, will colour the happiness to which it leads and determine its character and kind. But the good life per se leads to nothing more than happiness, and not even to an eternity of that. To rise in the scale of Nature and get above the conditions of transitoriness that beset all phases of consciousness of the merely human Kingdom, whether incarnate or disincarnate, we must make specific efforts of a kind that can only be made by virtue of knowledge concerning the higher spiritual laws of Nature.
These are vague phrases till they are brought to a focus by an exposition of the great and magnificent discoveries concerning the dormant spiritual faculties of humanity and the phases of Nature suitable to their expansion, which some advanced representatives of humanity in all ages of the world since the human epoch began, have been enabled to make.
When churches or sects with their hundreds of divergent creeds make definite statements of fact concerning the destinies of humanity which can be shown to have arisen from some unintelligent materialisation of an allegory, or from a grovelling, anthropomorphic conception of the principles on which the world is governed, theosophical teaching will naturally endeavour to break through such incrustations of error; but the religious instinct or sentiment itself is so fundamentally identical with the theosophical instinct or sentiment, that to suppose the one hostile to the other is to misunderstand the position entirely.
It is quite true, more's the pity, that much genuine religious sentiment is often blended with limited sectarian bigotry. Whether a man be a member of the Church of England, or a Roman Catholic, or a Baptist, or a Mussulman, if he conceives that his own creed sums up the actual truth of things and that the other creeds are false, he is in a state of mind which we must recognise, to say the least, as highly unintelligent. If he goes further, as many do, and believes that there is no salvation, outside the pale of his own creed, for the adherents of others, he stands before us as a reductio ad absurdum of sectarian folly. But however feeble may be his mental grasp of spiritual principles, even he and, all the more, sectarians who are in various degrees less bigoted may blend with their foolishness a great deal of genuine religious sentiment. They may set before their own interior sight a conception of Deity which they adore, a code of right and wrong which is, at all events, something divorced from the immediate dictates of selfish interest, and they may govern their lives on the principle that the destinies of the soul after death are of more importance than the transitory enjoyments of physical life. With that much spirituality to begin with, advancing intelligence in progress of time may lead them into the path of real enlightenment.
In a very much higher degree may religious sentiment of a more refined and intense order be directly calculated to prepare the mind for the supreme illumination of theosophic teaching, and however little modern popular creeds may seem adapted to develop ardent spiritual enthusiasm of a pure and refined character, we have to recognise the curious fact that in the present age of the world great numbers of religious people are immeasurably better and more spiritually intelligent than their creeds would lead one to expect. In fact, the growth of intelligence has permeated European religions to an extent that has honeycombed them, really, without apparently disturbing their external form : in other words, the refinement of feeling that general culture evokes, and the earnestness of spiritual aspiration among multitudes of people still professing some orthodox faith, have woven so beautiful a drapery of vague sentiment around the original doctrines which it has never occurred to them to dispense with that the ugly deformities thus hidden from view are effectually forgotten. If the outsider complains, "Your doctrine says so and so," the answer is, "Not at all; nobody of cultivated mind takes it in that sense; it really means this and that." And then the ignoble statement, whatever it may be, is sublimated into something too ethereal to be controverted.
This method of dealing with exoteric or popular religions may be supported or condemned along different lines of argument. Whether it hastens or retards the evolution of the popular religion into something higher is a question that cannot be easily decided. But at all events, the attitude of mind of people who in this way cling to and refine for their own use, at least the conventions of exoteric belief, may go hand in hand with a capacity to assimilate real spiritual knowledge. And the ardour of religious feeling which has in the first instance inspired their own interior development, must be distinctly favourable, in their case, to that practical application of the higher wisdom to the problems of human life and conduct which it is the great purpose of Theosophy to promote.
Indeed, it is impossible, from the theosophical point of view, to be too earnest in repudiating the miserable misrepresentation of Theosophy that leads people sometimes to imagine it an aggressive and iconoclastic philosophy essentially hostile to religion. It would be as wise to assert that mathematical teaching is hostile to astronomy. Mathematics may from time to time have upset some popular idea on the subject of astronomy, but that has simply been so much the better for astronomy; and in the same way any religious idea any idea, that is to say, which has become encrusted on religion which Theosophy may be in a position to discredit will be got rid of by religion* greatly to its own advantage. Theosophy, in fact, stands to religion very much in the position of mathematics to astronomy; that last relationship is the relationship of the abstract to the concrete. The pure colourless truths of mathematical science lead us upwards to an appreciation of the sublime and soul-stirring panorama of the heavens. So does an understanding of theosophic truth, however stern, scientific, and abstract it may seem in the first instance, lead the spiritual consciousness upward towards realms of glowing emotion, and eventually into the actual contemplation of spiritual realities, the glories of which may easily account for the way in which the illuminated theosophic student regards all familiar objects of mundane desire as contemptible trivialities beside the experiences of his interior progress.
To repeat a phrase growing almost too hackneyed for use, but representing a truth that must never be forgotten, Theosophy is the essence of religion, and of all religions worthy of the name. Or in other words, it is the science of Divine things, as the word implies. Reverence for each specific religion felt by its adherents, may often blind them to the idea that there must be such an underlying science. The outer expression given to the views of exoteric religions concerning Deity and Divine relations with humanity must for all but the most circumscribed intelligence be recognised as at any rate falling far short of a complete explanation of those stupendous mysteries. There must be a prodigious complexity, so to speak, in the organisation of spiritual Nature, which very bald however poetical -declarations concerning omnipotence, omniscience, Heaven, and eternal life, fail to expound. Within the far narrower field of observation with which physical science deals, it will be seen on reflection that a great many broad generalisations are in the nature of an exoteric substitute for the declarations which more advanced knowledge might supply. The sun, for example, is for the popular Western understanding a vast globe in the centre of the system of planets to which we belong, which shines with a bright light and gives out heat, generating organic growth, and providing for the recurrence of seasons, and so on. Other popular conceptions of the sun have anthropomorphised these ideas, more or less, and have imputed a self-conscious Divinity to the orb on whose influence the life and health of the world so manifestly depended. But underlying both views, there are certainly immense realms of complex intermediation that the popular understanding does not trouble itself about in either case. How does the sun make a plant grow? It sends out light and heat, but that is a loose and ineffectual statement that takes us no forwarder. We can hunt down the physical elements concerned, and discern them, if not absolutely with the sight, with the eye of understanding in their molecular simplicity. Heat may throw these molecules into motion, but that alone will not account for organic growth. Moreover, when we begin to examine into these things how does the heat get here from the sun? The sun radiates it!
That does not explain anything. By what intermediation is the influence conveyed? Science begins at this stage to be esoteric.
Popular knowledge the popular religion of the matter so to speak is content with the statement the sun emits heat. Even exoteric science finds it necessary to fortify and expand this crude statement, and brings the luminiferous ether into the field of observation. Ether, that marvellous medium of physical influences that can neither be seen, felt, nor examined by any instrument, is discovered by advancing knowledge nevertheless, and science, in spite of its extremely cautious habits, begins to affirm certain definite propositions concerning it. Then does "emission " in the popular sense take place at all in connexion with the sun's heat and light? According to the very latest views of physical science, such emission is actually suspected, though till the appearance of the electron on the scene, the tendency of modern thought was rather in the direction of assuming that all solar influences were transmitted to us as vibrations or peculiar conditions of the ether. That the sun does something to the ether, and that we feel effects in the ether round us, is undeniable; but esoteric science enables us to realise that the sun at all events is in control of forces infinitely more subtle even than those having to do with etheric vibrations, and already we can foresee developments of scientific knowledge in preparation for no very distant periods when the term "physical science "will have to be discarded as an incomplete description of the knowledge accumulated by the Royal Society.
Assuming eventually that students of solar physics come to something resembling complete knowledge of the chain of cause and effect between the sun's influence and the organic life of the world, then solar physics would be to the broad popular statements on the subject, just what theosophical knowledge in its perfection is to popular religion.
The analogy just employed is all the more inviting, because it suits the idea to be illustrated in more ways than one. Just as esoteric solar physics require us to investigate the properties of a medium imperceptible to exoteric senses, so in dealing with spiritual science we must range over fields of observation that lie altogether beyond exoteric understanding. Even without attempting this, a great deal of very instructive and suggestive information on the subject may, it is true, be picked up by those peculiarly qualified, from ancient Oriental literature. Most of this is maddeningly obscure, though when you know what it ought to mean you can often see that this meaning must have been present to the writer's mind. But granting that in this way from one region or another of ancient Oriental literature, it would be possible to compile an account of the great evolutionary processes of Nature, showing the origin of the solar system, the successive development of planets related to each other, the passage of the life influence through the vegetable and animal kingdoms, and the evolution of the human kingdom at last through a series of mighty races, and so on, after all the knowledge so preserved in the Eastern books, must in the first instance have been acquired by persons qualified to direct their observation to realms of Nature beyond those penetrated by the ordinary senses. Whether knowledge concerning the higher planes of Nature was obtained by ancient seers thousands of years ago, or by modern seers quite recently, its acquisition must of necessity depend on the exercise by some persons at one time or another of higher faculties than those concerned with the ordinary objects of sense. We may frankly recognise that the knowledge concerning Nature on which the lofty moral purpose of Theosophic teaching rests, could never have been acquired by the mere intellectual study of evidences lying within the range of mere scientific observation. The gifts of seership, including the highest spiritual clairvoyance, have been brought into play in the prolonged task of educating the human mind to understand the great scheme of Nature to which that mind belongs, and from this reflection it directly follows that the cultivation in ourselves of analogous faculties, is the great task on which it behoves us to enter if we would come fully into communion with the aspects of Nature from contact with which the seer's knowledge has been developed.
But not on that account need we assume that no progress in spiritual science is to be accomplished without first developing faculties that will bring us into conscious relations with higher planes of Nature. As well might we refuse to accept any knowledge concerning the stars unless we were in a position to build an observatory for ourselves, and arm ourselves with a complete comprehension of all sciences subsidiary to such knowledge. Through every department of human enlightenment through which culture ranges, most of us are daily in the habit of relying to a very large extent upon the original research of others. And for the great majority of mankind, for a long time to come, it will be inevitably necessary that they should rely, in dealing with the science of spiritual things, on the original research of others along those lines. But with reasonable precautions they may do this confidently in the one case as in the other. Of course, the situation is embarrassing at the outset in the case of psychic inquiry. In the other case the multitude know that each expert is checked and watched by a number of other experts, and it is quickly known whether any new conclusions of independent research are accepted by contemporary science. If so, the multitude accepts that guarantee. Now, at present, as regards spiritual science, we have no Royal Society at hand to put its imprimatur on progressive discoveries. Some of us know, indeed, that there is, so to speak, a Royal Society of spiritual scientists in existence, and that if we reach it we gain access to a source of authority in such matters far better to be relied on than even the elite leaders of contemporary physical science in their department of knowledge. It is from that source of information, as repeatedly explained, that the theosophical revelation of our time has come. But for reasons which patient investigation makes very intelligible, the foci of spiritual initiation are not readily accessible to all inquirers at present, so their authority can never be invoked for the guidance of people who are merely beginning the investigation of occult teaching. Nothing is more helpful to earnest inquirers than a clear conviction as to the existence of such foci and the conditions under which their influence radiates out into the world, but it is possible to get a long way on the path of theosophic culture before the question is taken up for thorough examination.
Leaving it out of sight for the moment we have to decide how we are to investigate spiritual science without special faculties which enable us to cognise other planes of Nature and without access to any body of established knowledge, in reference to which we have as yet entire confidence. My answer is that we all have the capacities of reason that enable us to consider the statements of occult science now lying before the world, to compare them with the familiar facts of life, to test them by reference to ideal conceptions as to justice and purpose in the spiritual government of the world, to make prudent and careful use of the wonderful analogies of Nature that visibly in so many ways, and inferentially in many more, bring her various phases into harmony with one another, and finally this kind of test bringing me back to the special subject I have in hand for the moment to apply the declarations of occult science to the great and fundamental conceptions of traditional religion, and see whether or not they offend, confirm, or illuminate the elements of those conceptions to which we may feel the deepest attachment.
In reality occult science not only shows itself in fundamental harmony with great religious ideas, but going far beyond this, reconciles itself, so to speak, with religion; and actually invests in a great many cases with a new and beautiful significance, dogmas of exoteric religion which have gradually forfeited their true spiritual significance for a materialistic generation, which have been for many centuries taken by churches and congregations merely at the foot of the letter, to be a stumbling block for some, unhealthy food for those who have swallowed them in blind faith, taking them literally and yet refusing to bring them out, for consideration, into the light of common reason. Take for example and merely as an example, for to go fully into the interpretation of religious dogma by the light of occultism would be to write a book on that branch of the subject alone the Vicarious Atonement that has long taken its place as the leading doctrine of modern Christianity. The notion of a wrathful God, expending anger on an innocent being and ultimately forgiving guilty persons when his desire to take vengeance somehow has been satisfied, is a notion that blasphemes Deity, offends justice, and is generally grotesque and refined modern theology sublimates it more or less vaguely into something different, while leaving it in that form for humbler understandings that do not rise in overt rebellion against its horrors. Occult science on the other hand, gives us the true reading of the mysterious dogma. The whole story of the crucifixion is enacted afresh in the case of every human soul that attains spiritual exaltation. It is the allegory of the soul's progress. It is the only process by which redemption can be accomplished and it is vividly appreciated as soon as we understand the occult teaching concerning the lower and the higher self. The higher self very roughly anticipating occult explanations that will be given more fully further on is the truly spiritual, immortal, imperishable part of a man the growth and expansion of which into full consciousness, is the purpose of physical life, and its protracted experiences. That is the Divinity which incarnates, welding its consciousness during each physical life with its lower self, the visible, sinful, fallible man of our every day observation the reflection of itself on the plane of matter. It can only exalt the personality to the plane of true spiritual evolution and redeem it from sin and suffering by crucifixion on the physical plane, by the painful sacrifice on the plane of its incarnate manifestation of physical desires and tendencies and personal selfishness that is to say, by the subordination of the lower self the ordinary waking consciousness to the Divine teaching involved in the loftiest aspiration of the Christ within us the higher self. Then the atonement is accomplished without an atom of injustice entering into the transaction.
In a similar way the whole story of Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, of the rib, the temptation, and the fall, can be shown, when illuminated by occult knowledge, to be a profound cryptograph embodying some of the most important facts in the evolution of the human race in the evolution especially of humanity as we know it now, expressed in the two sexes, from that earlier humanity belonging more to the "astral " than to the physical plane of Nature, which preceded our present type in the great process of the descent of spirit into matter. But I need not go into the minutiae of that interpretation here. The broad principle which I am specially concerned to lay down does not really depend on, however much it is fortified by, the precise correspondence between occult teaching and the dogmas of exoteric religion as soon as these are raised above the level of nursery tales or Icelandic sagas by an adequate translation into terms of spiritual thought. The harmony between occultism and the essence of everything that is most exalted in religious aspiration or emotion is unmistakable for everyone who gets on far enough in the study of occultism to realise how much more it signifies than that which it is sometimes supposed to be chiefly concerned with the unveiling of a new set of natural mysteries, the exploration of a new realm of scientific wonder. It is, indeed, the science behind all sciences, without which none can be complete; but it is also the religion behind all religions, without which none can do more than prepare the soul of man for entrance on its loftiest inheritance.