You are here

10. The Idolization of Religious Institutions

When anyone heareth the Word of the Kingdom and understandeth it not, then cometh the Wicked One and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart.—Matt. xiii. 19.

In the two preceding chapters we have seen that a religion may be diverted from its path, with unfortunate consequences, by an encounter with some institution of another species. Yet a wrong turning taken as the result of an encounter with some external force or power can never be either so perverse or so fatal as one taken through allowing ourselves to be ‘betrayed by what is false within’.1 In any living creature, the worst of all sins is the idolization of itself or of its own handiwork. This sin is the worst of all because it is the greatest moral and intellectual rebellion that a creature can make against its true state of subordination to God the Absolute Reality, and also because it opens the door to all other sins. This arch-sin is committed by the followers of a higher religion when they idolize their own religious institutions; and self-idolizing claims to uniqueness and finality have been made, in authoritarian terms that forbid dissent and even discussion, by all the higher religions, and particularly by those of Israelite origin.

Among the small number of human beings who have been venerated and adored by Posterity within the 5,000 or 6,000 years during which this has been possible thanks to the keeping and preservation of records, by far the longest and widest fame has been won by the founders of higher religions and philosophies. Among their posthumous adherents there has been a strong tendency to canonize them as unique and final authorities, and to justify this canonization by an apotheosis. The apotheosis of founders of philosophies is particularly remarkable, because the philosophies have been apt to arise in cultivated, sophisticated, rationalistic, critical-minded, disillusioned social milieux that might have been expected, a priori, to be unpropitious to, and immune against, extravagance and superstition. Yet both Siddhārtha Gautama and Epicurus—perhaps because each of them presented his message in negative terms that were in tune with the temper of his public-were virtually deified by their followers. Epicurus was styled ‘saviour’ and is called ‘a god’ outright by Lucretius.2 Gautama was styled ‘the Buddha’ (‘the Enlightened Being’); and His followers’ feeling that He was a superhuman presence was expressed in a set of birth-stories—presenting the birth as a miraculous event of cosmic significance—that has likewise attached itself to Plato, to Augustus, and to Jesus in two of the four Gospels. If the founders of philosophies underwent this posthumous transfiguration in the crucible of their followers’ memories, it is no wonder that the same transfiguration should also have overtaken the founders of higher religions. For the higher religions, in contrast to the philosophies, have been apt to arise in social milieux in which the prevalent psychic atmosphere has been that of Poetry and Prophetic Vision, not Science and Metaphysics, and in which there has therefore been no inhibition upon feelings of veneration and adoration.

Even the most recent of the prophets, Muhammad, who lived in the full light of History and who never claimed to be superhuman, did claim for himself, not merely that he was the latest of the prophets, but that he was the last of them that there was ever to be. He also claimed that he had received revelations from God through the Archangel Gabriel and that, on the Night of Power, he had ascended into Heaven and, in the Seventh Heaven, had been admitted into God’s presence. Zarathustra—who, like Muhammad, never claimed for himself to be more than a man—was transfigured retrospectively by his followers when they had come to believe that from Zarathustra’s seed a superhuman saviour, the Saoshyant, was to be begotten at the end of Time. Jesus of Nazareth was identified by His followers with the Messiah (in Greek ‘the Christ’ and in English ‘the [Lord’s] Anointed [King]’) who was expected by the Jews to be begotten at the end of Time from the seed of David. Other leaders in Jewry, both before and after Jesus, were identified by their followers with the Messiah as Jesus was—for example, Simon Maccabaeus in the second century B.C. and Bar Kokhba (‘the Son of a star’) in the second century of the Christian Era. The Jews had conceived of the Messiah as being a human king who, like an Achaemenian Emperor, would be commissioned and inspired by God without being God himself. The Christians saw in Jesus, not only the vicegerent, but the Son, of God, and went on to pronounce Him to be co-equal, as one of three persons in a triune godhead, with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. ‘In thus deifying your founder you are deifying your church and ultimately yourselves’ is the comment that Christians might hear from the lips of Jews and Muslims. The critics would, however, be implicitly passing a censure on their own religions as well. For, whether the founder of a higher religion is or is not deemed to be God Himself, he is credited with a superhuman authority; and this authority is deemed to have been bequeathed and transmitted by him, after his departure from This World, to some perennial depository of his legacy.

This perennial authority may be invested in a living corporation or in a canonical holy scripture; and, if in a living corporation, in one of this or that alternative type. It may be an unorganized body like the doctors of the Jewish and the Islamic Law, who are recruited by apprenticeship and co-option, or like the Brahmans, who are qualified by birth for the efficacious performance of religious rites. Or it may be an organized priesthood, like the hereditary Israelite priests and Levites and the hereditary Median magi who took possession of Zarathustra’s religious heritage. These two types of living corporation may also be combined, as they are in the Roman Catholic Christian Church, in which the priesthood, like the Jewish and the Zoroastrian priesthood, is an organized hierarchy (though it differs from them both in being non-hereditary), while the highest source of authority is the head of the hierarchy acting in unison with an oecumenical council of fathers whose powers correspond to those of the Jewish and Islamic doctors.

The alternative is for the perennial authority to be invested in a canonical holy scripture. All the higher religions made their epiphany in literate societies; all of them have therefore had sacred books purporting to be authentic records of their founder’s words and acts; and so, when the adherents of a higher religion have revolted against the authority of a living corporation, they have been apt to appeal to the authority of Holy Scripture as an alternative depository of the founder’s legacy. They have taken the line that Holy Scripture, not the priesthood or the doctors, is the ultimate perennial authority representing the founder, and that each individual member of the Church has a right, at his peril, to interpret this written oracle for himself. Protestant Western Christianity is perhaps, among all the higher religions, the one in which the attribution of authority to a book instead of to a priesthood has been the most conscious and deliberate. Sikhism—in which the Granth is virtually deified—is perhaps the religion in which the idolization of a book has been carried to the farthest lengths.

There is no higher religion in which both the alternative depositories of authority are not to be found side by side, though their relative importance has varied greatly as between one religion and another. Protestant Western Christianity and Islam have not succeeded in doing without professional ministers of religion, while, on the other hand, Roman Catholic Western Christianity and Hinduism have not ever gone so far as officially to abrogate the authority of Holy Scripture, however wide the latitude that they may have given to the priesthood for interpreting the Scriptures to the laity. The histories of Judaism and Christianity indicate that the authority invested in Holy Scripture is apt to outlive the authority vested in a living corporation. An authoritarian scripture suffers, however, from a weakness from which an authoritarian corporation is exempt. The possibility of re-interpreting a written text to meet a changeless Human Nature’s ever-changing situation is more narrowly circumscribed than the possibility of re-interpreting the unwritten lore of a hierarchy or of a body of doctors or fathers claiming to be inspired by a Holy Spirit which, like the wind, ‘bloweth where it listeth’.3

The authority of Holy Scripture or of a living corporation or of both kinds of depository of the founder’s legacy has been the higher religions’ sanction for their self-centred claims to uniqueness and finality, but these claims are exposed to challenge. One challenge to them is the historian’s point of view; another is the interpretation of the rhythm of the Universe as a cyclic movement governed by an Impersonal Law; another is the interpretation of it as a non-recurrent movement governed by Intellect and Will; another is the persistent survival of a number of competing claimants to the necessarily exclusive privilege of being the recipients and vehicles of a unique and final revelation. These divers challenges bring the higher religions’ self-idolizing claims under a formidable convergent fire, and each gun in the battery is worth inspecting.

The historian’s point of view is the product of a conscious and deliberate endeavour to break out of the self-centredness that is innate in every living creature. The pursuit of this endeavour is common to historians of all schools, and it would be impossible to be an historian of any school if one were utterly incapable of performing this self-transcending feat of detachment and reorientation. In an historian’s eyes, therefore, the higher religions’ claims to uniqueness and finality will look like almost impious proclamations of a deliberate reversion to the self-centredness that is the hall-mark of ‘Original Sin’.

The historian’s point of view is not incompatible with the belief that God has revealed Himself to Man for the purpose of helping Man to gain spiritual salvation that would be unattainable by Man’s unaided efforts; but the historian will be suspicious, a priori, of any presentation of this thesis that goes on to assert that a unique and final revelation has been given by God to my people in my time on my satellite of my sun in my galaxy. In this self-centred application of the thesis that God reveals Himself to His creatures, the historian will espy the Devil’s cloven hoof. For there is no logically necessary connexion between the belief that God reveals Himself to His creatures and the belief that God has chosen out, to be the recipient of His revelation, one creature that happens to be precisely I myself, and that this revelation, given exclusively to me, is a unique and a final one.

There is nothing in logic to debar a Jew from believing, in accordance with the theory of probability, that, if there is any ‘Chosen People’, it is not Israel, but, say, the Chinese, or to debar any human inhabitant of the Earth from believing that, if there is any ‘Chosen People’, it is not Homo Terricola but the Martians. If an historian ever did come across any such rationally unself-centred applications of the belief that God has chosen some particular people to be the recipient of His revelation, the disinterestedness of these findings would be a strong ground for investigating them very sympathetically and seriously. But, though there is no necessary logical connexion, there is, of course, a very compelling psychological connexion, between the proposition ‘God has revealed Himself’ and the proposition ‘God has revealed himself exclusively to me’. Indeed, it might be difficult to put one’s finger on any actual presentation of the belief that God reveals Himself to His creatures that did not at the same time cast for the role of being God’s ‘Chosen People’ the members of the particular church that subscribes to this particular presentation of the general thesis.

The interpretation of the rhythm of the Universe as a cyclic movement governed by an Impersonal Law admits of an endless series of successive avatars of God, bringing revelation and salvation to His creatures in successive cycles; but the possibility of recurrence is incompatible with the dogma that there has been, or will be, an incarnation of God that has been, or will be, unique and final. The doctrine of avatars is characteristic of both Mahayanian Buddhism and post-Buddhaic Hinduism. In the Mahāyāna, the Buddha has been transfigured into a being who is not only superhuman but is also super-divine. But Siddhārtha Gautama, the historical founder of the Hinayanian school of Indian philosophy circa 500 B.C., has had to pay for being thus raised higher than the gods by forfeiting His human uniqueness. In the Mahāyāna He has been reduced to being one avatar—and this neither the most significant nor the most potent one—in a series of avatars of Buddhahood in successive ‘worlds on worlds’ that are

rolling ever

From creation to decay,

Like the bubbles on a river,

Sparkling, bursting, borne away.4

This cyclic interpretation of the rhythm of the Universe is incompatible with the Judaic belief in a peak in Time-Space at which God is going to give (according to non-Zionist Judaism), or has already given (according to Zionist Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), a unique and final dispensation to His ‘Chosen People’. In an Indian or an Hellenic philosopher’s eyes, the non-Zionist Jewish version of this belief would probably seem the least preposterous, because this version relegates the advent of the Messiah and his inauguration of the Millennium to a future date which, for all that any human being can tell, might be postponed to an infinitely distant future. But what is the philosopher to make of the Christian-Muslim-Zionist version of the Judaic belief, in which the unique and final peak in Space-Time is deemed to be already in the Past: Muhammad the last of the prophets; Jesus the sole incarnation of God; the return of Israel to Eretz Israel a fait accompli?

Those schools of Judaism which have believed, like Judaism’s Christian and Muslim pupils, that the peak has already been attained have impugned the Judaic belief by a reductio of it ad absurdum. If the significance and the consummation of History are to be found in the advent of the Messiah, then those Jews who acknowledged Simon Maccabaeus’s claim to be the Messiah would have had to see the peak in the inauguration, in 142 B.C., in the hill country of Judaea, of a short-lived Hasmonaean successor-state of the Seleucid successor-state of the Achaemenian Empire. If the significance and the consummation of History are to be found in the return of Israel to Eretz Israel, Zionists would have to see the peak in the carving-out of a state of Israel, once again by force of arms and this time in Philistia, after the end of the Second World War. Yet who could seriously see in either of these two turbulent and controversial political events the raison d’être of the Universe? It is true that a less mundane and more ethereal view of God’s design has been taken by Christianity and by Islam; but, since the Christian-Muslim claim to uniqueness and finality is derived from the Jewish, a reductio ad absurdum of the Jewish claim impugns the Christian-Muslim claim as well.

The interpretation of the rhythm of the Universe as a nonrecurrent movement governed by Intellect and Will is the most searching of all the challenges to the Judaic claim to uniqueness and finality, because it is a challenge to this Judaic claim from the Judaic Weltanschauung itself. It is true that an Almighty God who was planning to reveal Himself to His creatures and to place the means of salvation within their reach would have it in His power to carry out His plan by performing a unique and final act at a single point in Space-Time and by picking out a single human community—Israel or Judah or the Zoroastrian or the Christian or the Islamic Church—to be the special recipient of His grace and special vehicle of His means of salvation. So this monotheistic Weltanschauung, unlike the cyclic one, is not incompatible a priori with a claim to uniqueness and finality. Yet, if the claim is not actually irreconcilable with the theology, it is decidedly incongruous with it; for, if one believes that God has this power, it is difficult to believe simultaneously that He also has the will to use this power in this way.

It is, in fact, difficult to imagine that a God whose mind and will govern the whole course of the Universe would compromise the conduct of His government by acting on a caprice. It would seem highly improbable that He would pick out just me and my tribe to be His prophet and His ‘Chosen People’. Any such idea of mine would seem less likely to be the Truth than to be an hallucination conjured up by my innate self-centredness. And it would seem hardly more probable that God would choose out any other particular prophet or particular people to be the unique and final instruments of His purpose. Any such idea would seem incongruous with the concept of a God whose thoughts and plans are, ex hypotbesi, infinitely greater than the whole of His creation, and a fortiori, greater than any single creature and than any single point in Space-Time. Does not any creature stand convicted of megalomania if he allows himself to imagine that God can have committed Himself in an annunciation to one or more of His creatures, or, still more preposterous, in a covenant with one or more of them, at a particular point in Space-Time, to making this particular encounter of theirs with Him into the supreme moment in the history of His creation?

The persistent survival of a number of competing claimants to the privilege of being the recipients and vehicles of a unique and final revelation is a challenge to all the competing claims alike; for the privilege, if it has ever been granted, is necessarily exclusive. Only one of these absolute claims can be valid if there is any validity in any one of them. The rest of them must be false in any case when made in these absolute terms. The first test of the valid claim, if there were a valid one, might be expected to be that it should win a universal recognition and acceptance from all Mankind in competition with its rivals, and that these rivals’ false claims should all be confuted and rejected; and some of the claimants that were once in the field have, in fact, fallen out. Of all the philosophies thrown up by all the civilizations up to date, only two—Confucianism and the Hinayanian school of Buddhism—are still in the field today. Epicureanism, Stoicism, and the Legist and Mohist schools of Chinese philosophy are now extinct, and the Hīnayāna might not have survived if it had not gone far towards transforming itself, like the Mahāyāna, from a philosophy into a religion. Of all the higher religions that were once in competition in the Hellenic World, only six are still in the field today. Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, the Mahāyāna, and Hinduism are still there; but the worships of Mithras, Cybele, Isis, and Juppiter Dolichenus are now extinct, except in so far as they have been unavowedly taken up into Christianity. Yet here we have two philosophies and six higher religions—eight faiths and ways of life in all—still in the field some 2,500 years after the date at which the earliest of the philosophies made their epiphany.

No doubt, 2,500 years is not a very long time on any Time-scale. It is less than half the Age of the Civilizations up to date, and is only a 240th, or perhaps only a 400th, part of the Age of the Human Race up to date. Two thousand five hundred years is, nevertheless, an appreciable length of time compared with the life-spans of those philosophies and higher religions that have already fallen out of the race. On that standard, all eight surviving faiths have shown considerable staying-power; and, on this reckoning, there would seem to be a presumption in favour of the likelihood that these eight survivors will continue to exist in the same Oikoumenê side by side. But, the longer they do continue to exist side by side, the more convincingly will the fact of their co-existence militate against any acceptance of the exclusive claim to uniqueness and finality that is made by each of them in contradiction with the identical claim made by each of its seven contemporaries.

Considering how numerous and how formidable the objections to this claim have proved to be, how are we to explain the persistence of each of the surviving higher religions in asserting the claim on its own behalf as well as in refuting its contemporaries’ assertion of it by surviving? The explanation of both the assertion and the survival seems to be partly sociological and partly psychological.

The sociological explanation of the assertion of the claim is perhaps to be found in the human circumstances in which the higher religions made their epiphanies. They made them in social milieux in which disillusionment and suffering had evoked a yearning for some new hope of salvation; in which the failure of the worship of parochial human communities had left a spiritual vacuum; in which the artificially promoted alternative worship of an oecumenical human community had left its subjects’ hearts cold; and in which the competition between the higher religions themselves for the prize of filling the spiritual vacuum was very severe. Higher religions competing with one another in this arena were inevitably tempted to pitch their rival claims high.

As for the psychological explanation of the assertion of the claim, this is perhaps to be found in a human craving to escape from the burdensome responsibility of having to take decisions for oneself. It may look as if this burden can be escaped by submitting one’s own intellect and will to some authority to which one can feel it proper to submit because one has recognized its claims as being unique and final. This craving to escape responsibility can be reconciled with an unexorcized self-centredness by the belief that, in submitting to the authority of the Church, one becomes a member of the ‘Chosen People’. This craving for an authority that will lift the burden of responsibility from one’s shoulders is, no doubt, at its strongest in social situations in which Society is in disintegration; but it is an innate and perennial craving which, in every soul everywhere and always, is on the wait for an opportunity to break out.

The sociological explanation of the survival of half a dozen competing faiths, each making an exclusive claim for itself, is perhaps to be found in the lack, until our own day, of adequate means of physical communication on an oecumenical scale. This would explain why each of the eight surviving rival faiths has fallen so far short, as it has fallen, of making good its claim that its destiny is to become the exclusive faith of all Mankind throughout the Oikoumenê; it would also explain why each of them has, on the other hand, succeeded in entrenching itself in some particular region of the Earth’s surface, side by side with its rivals entrenched in other regions. Even the Jewish and Zoroastrian diasporàs have their regional limits. There are few Jews beyond the bounds of Dār-al-Islām and Christendom, and few Parsees beyond the bounds of India and Iran.

There is also a possible psychological explanation of the survival of eight faiths on one planet. It is possible that each of the surviving faiths may prove to have an affinity with one of the diverse alternative possible organizations and orientations of the Human Psyche. For the present, this psychological explanation can be offered only tentatively, because the study of psychological types, initiated by C. G. Jung, is still in the exploratory stage. But it is conceivable that an affinity between some one of these psychological types and some one of the surviving faiths might prove to be the explanation of this particular faith’s survival in contrast to the fate of its now extinct former competitors, and it is not inconceivable that the survival of all the surviving faiths might eventually be accounted for, at least partially, on these lines.5

If each of the surviving faiths does, in truth, have an affinity with one particular psychological type, we can tentatively forecast some of the effects, on the religious plane, of ‘the annihilation of distance’ and the social unification of the Oikoumenê that are being achieved in our day through a sudden vast improvement in physical means of communication. This technological revolution may be expected to break the regional monopolies, but not—at least, not in the first chapter of the next episode in Mankind’s spiritual history—to result in any single faith’s converting a regional monopoly into an oecumenical one by driving all its rivals off the whole of the field. In the next chapter we may expect to see all the now surviving faiths continue to hold the field side by side and continue to divide the allegiance of Mankind between them. But we may also expect to see the individual’s adherence to a particular faith determined, in an ever larger number of instances, not by the geographical accident of the locality of his birth-place, but by a deliberate choice of the faith with which he feels the closest personal affinity—a feeling that will, presumably, be determined by the type of his psychological organization and orientation. The adherents of each religion thus seem likely, in the next chapter, to come gradually to be distributed all over the Oikoumenê, but it may also be expected that, in the process, they will come to be intermingled everywhere with adherents of all the other faiths, as the Jews are already intermingled with Muslims and Christians and the Parsees with Muslims and Hindus. As a result, the appearance of the religious map of the Oikoumenê may be expected to change from the pattern of a patchwork quilt to the texture of a piece of shot silk.

The higher religions’ identical and therefore incompatible claims to be unique and final revelations arouse passionate feelings in the hearts of their respective partisans and opponents, and there may be long and bitter controversy before an oecumenical verdict is delivered. But, whatever may be the eventual verdict on the claims of the higher religions, it is evident already that the epiphany of these religions has been a decisive and significant new departure in History. Our Human Reason cannot allow us to accept as the Truth the self-centred view of the Universe that is innate in every living creature. But our Human Conscience, which has a claim to be heard as well, cannot allow us alternatively to accept as the Truth a view of History that is meaningless. This meaningless view is a necessary corollary of the belief that the Universe is governed by inexorable laws of Nature, and is also a possible corollary of the alternative belief that the Universe is governed by the will of an Almighty God—supposing that we were to think of God as being, not self-sacrificing Love, but a capricious tyrant.

In the history of the Universe, in so far as human insight has been able to probe the mystery of it so far, we can see events that have been decisive and therefore significant: the successive geneses of our galaxy, our sun, and our planet; the epiphany of Life on this planet; the epiphanies of the Vertebrates, of the Mammals, of Man. These are all instances in which a particular creature has, in fact, served as the instrument or vehicle for a decisive event at a particular point in Space-Time. If it is not incredible that the Earth may have been singled out circa 2,000,000,000 B.C. for becoming a home of Physical Life, it is neither more nor less incredible that Abraham may have been singled out circa 1700 B.C. at Ur, or Israel circa 1200 B.C. at the foot of Mount Sinai, for becoming a vehicle of God’s grace to God’s creatures. If it is not incredible that the First Adam may have been created, circa 1,000,000 or 600,000 B.C., at some point, not yet located by pre-historians, on the land-surface of this planet, it would be neither more nor less incredible that a Second Adam may have become incarnate in Galilee at the beginning of the Christian Era. There are also events that are decisive, and therefore significant, in the life-history, in This World, of every individual human being. And, if God, at least in one of His infinitely numerous and diverse aspects, faculties, and potencies, is a spirit expressing Itself in an intellect and a will which it would not be altogether misleading to think of in anthropomorphic terms, then there will be events that will be significant, because decisive, in God’s working out of His divine plan. The acceptance of a belief that there have been, and of an expectation that there will continue to be, decisive new departures does not, however, require the acceptance of a belief that any one of these new departures has been, or will be, not only decisive, but unique and final. The two beliefs are, indeed, incompatible.

The Human Spirit that dwells in each one of us cannot refrain from seeking for an explanation of the Universe in which we find ourselves, and it insists that our Weltanschauung shall give the Universe significance without making the Universe centre round the Self. In logic it may be impossible to reconcile these two requirements. Yet, even in the teeth of logic, the Human Spirit will not consent to abandon its search for an explanation of the mystery; and the new gospel revealed in the higher religions does seem to offer a reconciliation in its intuition that the meaning of Life, Existence, and Reality is Love. If God is self-sacrificing Love, and if God has taught Man, not merely by precept but by example, that the right attitude towards Suffering is to embrace it in order to make it serve the cause of Love, we can catch, in this vision, a glimpse of Reality that will satisfy both the Heart and the Head.

If this is the Truth, and if the revelation of it is the gospel of the higher religions, then we must hold fast to this inestimably precious spiritual possession. We must not allow ourselves to be alienated from it by our conscience’s just condemnation of the sinful claim to uniqueness and finality for each particular claimant’s particular faith. We must not allow ourselves, either to be disconcerted by premonitions of the metamorphoses which the outward forms of all our ancestral faiths may have to undergo in the course of the aeons during which Mankind may continue to survive on the face of the Earth.

For I am persuaded that neither death nor life nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.6

  • 1.

    Meredith, G., Modern Love, xliii.

  • 2.

    Lucretius, De Rerum Naturâ, Book V, II. 7–12.

  • 3.

    John iii. 8.

  • 4.

    Shelley, Hellas, II. 197–200.

  • 5.

    This question has been discussed in greater detail by the writer in A Study of History, vol. vii, pp. 716–36.

  • 6.

    Rom. viii. 38–9.