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19. The Task of Disengaging the Essence from the Non-Essentials in Mankind’s Religious Heritage

In the second half of the twentieth century of the Christian Era a Westernizing World has been overtaken by two historical events which, together, make it now an obviously urgent task for us to try to disengage the essence in Mankind’s religious heritage from non-essential accretions.

On the one hand the West’s disillusionment with the idols which it took to worshipping in the Late Modern Age of its history has now brought the West back, once more, face to face with its ancestral Christianity. The West cannot avoid this re-encounter, and cannot have the experience without finding itself compelled to reconsider how it stands towards its discarded religious heritage. At the same time ‘the annihilation of distance’ through the achievements of a Late Modern Western technology has brought all the living higher religions, all over the World, into a much closer contact with one another than before. This closer contact is making the relations between them more intimate. In A.D. 1956 a stage could already be foreseen at which the hereditary adherents of each living religion would have become well enough acquainted with the other living religions to be able to look at their own ancestral religion in the light of its contemporaries; and, in this light, they would have an opportunity of seeing it with new eyes. Within Western Christendom itself, this was already happening as between the different, and once rival and hostile, Western Christian sects. Protestantism and Catholicism were learning from one another; and individual Western Christians, who had been brought up in one or other of the Western Christian churches, were deliberately choosing their church for themselves in after life. This change in the relations between Protestantism and Catholicism, and this new possibility of making an individual choice between the two, were portents of what might be going to happen as between Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. It looked, in fact, as if the living higher religions of the World would now, once again, have to face the same intense comparative scrutiny that they and their forerunners had formerly faced in those soidisant oecumenical empires that had been foretastes of a literally world-wide society.

Thus, in our society in our time, the task of winnowing the chaff away from the grain in Mankind’s religious heritage is being forced upon us by a conjunction of social and spiritual circumstances; but these circumstances are not unique, and the task is not an extraordinary one. It is a perennial task, with which the adherents of every higher religion are confronted all the time. ‘The Reformation’ is not just a particular past event in the Early Modern chapter of the history of the Western branch of Christianity. It is a perpetual challenge which is being presented at every moment to all higher religions alike, and which none of them can ignore for one moment without betraying its trust.

In the life of all the higher religions, the task of winnowing is a perennial one because their historic harvest is not pure grain. In the heritage of each of the higher religions we are aware of the presence of two kinds of ingredients. There are essential counsels and truths, and there are non-essential practices and propositions.

The essential counsels and truths are valid at all times and places, as far as we can see through the dark glass of Mankind’s experience up to date. When we peer into the records of Man’s religion as it was before any of the higher religions made their epiphany, we find the light of these counsels and truths already shining there, however dimly. And, if we could imagine to ourselves a future world in which every one of the living higher religions had become extinct, but in which the human race was still surviving, it would be difficult to imagine human life going on without still having these same essential counsels and truths to light its path and guide its steps, as in the past. In fact, the counsels and truths enshrined in the higher religions would appear to have still longer lives than the higher religions themselves. They would seem, indeed, to be coeval with Mankind, in the sense of being intimations of a spiritual presence accompanying us on our pilgrimage as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night1—an accompaniment without which Humanity would not be human.

These guesses carry us beyond the narrow limits of our historical knowledge; and this knowledge also does not tell us how the spiritual light reaches, or is reached by, us. Yet, whether it comes to us by discovery or by intuition or by revelation, and whether it is abiding or transitory, it is a matter of indisputable historical fact that it shines in all the higher religions, and it is also clear that this light in them has been the cause of their historic success. The higher religions have had a longer hold on a greater number of minds and hearts than any other institutions known to us up to date; and this hold has been due to the light that they have thrown, for Man, upon his relation to a spiritual presence in the mysterious Universe in which Man finds himself. In this presence, Man is confronted by something spiritually greater than himself which, in contrast to Human Nature and to all other phenomena, is Absolute Reality. And this Absolute Reality of which Man is aware is also an Absolute Good for which he is athirst. Man finds himself needing, not only to be aware of It, but to be in touch with It and in harmony with It. That is the only condition on which he can feel himself at home in the world in which he finds himself in existence.

This is ‘the true light which lighteth every man that cometh into the World’;2 and the higher religions are carriers of it. But at the same time these same higher religions are historical institutions; and they have been making a transit through Space-Time in which, at every point-moment in their trajectory, they have been encountering the local and temporary circumstances of human life. While the higher religions have been influencing the older religions and one another and the mundane civilizations, they have also been receiving influences from the mundane civilizations and from one another and from their forerunners, and these influences that they have received have left their mark on them in accretions. This is something that we can verify, because an historian can trace these accretions back to their origins and can show, in many cases, that these origins are alien to the essential truths and counsels enshrined in the higher religion in question. He can show that they have attached themselves to the religion, in the course of its history, as a result of historical accidents.

These accidental accretions are the price that the permanently and universally valid essence of a higher religion has to pay for communicating its message to the members of a particular society in a particular stage of this society’s history. We can express this in the traditional language of Christianity by saying that the price of redemption is incarnation. Alternatively, we can express it in the current language of a twentieth-century world by saying that, if the eternal voice did not ‘tune in’ to its present audience’s receiving-set, its message would not be picked up. But, in order to be picked up, the message has to be denatured to some extent by a translation of what is permanent and universal into terms of something that is temporary and local. At any rate, the message, if not positively denatured, will be limited by being put into terms of something that is not permanent and universal, and will thus be denatured at least in a negative sense, considering that the message itself is spiritually infinite. If the essence of a higher religion did not compromise with local and temporary circumstances by ‘tuning in’ to them, it would never reach any audience at all; for, in every human society, the permanent and universal counsels and truths are overlaid by one of those local and temporary culture-patterns with which Adam and Eve have covered their nakedness ever since they first ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. On the other hand, if a higher religion is unable or unwilling to change its tune when it is carried by the current of History to new theatres of social life in other times and places, its undiscarded adaptation to a past social milieu will put it even more out of tune with the present social milieu than if it had presented itself without any accessories at all.

A case in point is the Western costume in which Christianity has been conveyed to non-Western Christians and non-Christians in a Modern Age in which Western missionaries of Christianity have disembarked on all the shores of all the oceans. Are these Western Christian missionaries to strip Christianity of a local and temporary Western suit of clothes in order to reclothe it in the ancestral dress of the particular people to whom they are preaching? Or are they to present Christianity as part of the paraphernalia of their own ancestral civilization—as, in fact, the tribal religion of Western Man? This question gave rise, in the seventeenth century, to a controversy between the Society of Jesus and the Franciscan and Dominican Orders. The Jesuits in the mission-field had been trying to divest Christianity of its Western accretions in order to make sure that the non-Christian audience to whom they were addressing their message should not be deterred from accepting the essence of Christianity through being required also to accept things whose association with it was merely local, temporary, and accidental. In this seventeenth-century ‘Battle of the Rites’, the Society of Jesus suffered defeat; but the experience of the following 250 years has been demonstrating, more and more conclusively, that the Jesuits were as right as they were brave in resolutely wielding the winnowing-fan.

If the Jesuit missionaries were acting with uncommon insight and courage in trying to discriminate the essence of Christianity from its Western accidents, the Vatican was not acting in an uncommonly benighted or tyrannical way when it found in favour of the less adventurous of the two policies then in debate among Roman Catholic Western Christian missionaries. It was acting in a way that is characteristic of ecclesiastical authorities. For the distinction between the essence and the accidents in Religion is one which the ecclesiastical authorities, always and everywhere, are reluctant to admit.

This attitude has had disastrous consequences because it is a wrong attitude in itself. We cannot hope to be able to begin to put it right until we have diagnosed its cause; and this cause is not obscure. The evil has nothing to do with Religion itself and it is not peculiar to the religious institutions for which the ecclesiastical authorities are responsible. It is a manifestation of the Original Sin which is another name for self-centredness. This sin is always and everywhere on the look-out for opportunities for asserting itself, and one of its greatest opportunities is offered to it by Man’s inability to do without institutions.

Institutions, as we have seen,3 enable Man to satisfy social needs that cannot be provided for within the narrow range of relations attainable through direct personal intercourse. Yet the tragic experience of human history shows that the possibilities that the invention of institutions have brought within Man’s reach have been purchased by Man at a high price. The cost of the quantitative gain is a qualitative loss; for, while institutional relations leave personal relations far behind in respect of the number of the souls that they can bring together into society, all human experience testifies that institutional relations at their best cannot compare in spiritual quality with personal relations at their best. The miscarriages of both kinds of relations can be traced to an identical cause in the innate self-centredness of human nature, but a soul that surrenders itself to ‘nosism’ can deceive itself into imagining that this self-centredness in the first person plural is ‘altruism’, whereas a soul that surrenders itself to ‘egoism’ cannot so easily persuade itself that this singular self-centredness is not sinful.

One generic evil of an institution of any kind is that people who have identified themselves with it are prone to make an idol of it. The true purpose of an institution is simply to serve as a means for promoting the welfare of human beings. In truth it is not sacrosanct but is ‘expendible’; yet, in the hearts of its devotees, it is apt to become an end in itself, to which the welfare of human beings is subordinated and even sacrificed if this is necessary for the welfare of the institution. The responsible administrators of any institution are particularly prone to fall into the moral error of feeling it to be their paramount duty to preserve the existence of this institution of which they are trustees. Ecclesiastical authorities have been conspicuous sinners in this respect, though ecclesiastics have not been exceptionally sinful persons. Most of them have not fallen below the average level of human sinfulness, but have risen conspicuously far above it. The reason why they have gone rather far in succumbing to the administrator’s temptation to mistake means for ends is to be found, not in their character, but in their duties. Churches have been the most long-lived and most widespread of all institutions hitherto known; and their unusual success as institutions has made their institutional aspect loom unusually large in their official administrators’ eyes.

The true purpose of a higher religion is to radiate the spiritual counsels and truths that are its essence into as many souls as it can reach, in order that each of these souls may be enabled thereby to fulfil the true end of Man. Man’s true end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him for ever: and, if the ecclesiastical authorities were to make this true purpose of their religion the paramount consideration in the determination of their policy, they would be constantly re-tuning their unvarying essential message to different wave-lengths in order to make it audible to different audiences. Instead, they are apt to make the preservation of their church their paramount aim; and this consideration tempts them to insist that their religious heritage must be treated as an indivisible whole, in which the accidental accretions are to be accepted as being not less sacrosanct than the essence itself. They are moved to take this line by two fears. They are afraid of distressing and alienating the weaker brethren,4 and they are afraid that, if once they admit that any element in the heritage is local and temporary and therefore discardable, they may find themselves unable to draw a line or make a stand anywhere, till the very essence of the religion will have been surrendered.

Such a policy is not only wrong; it is also bad psychology and bad statesmanship. It is bad psychology because it implies that the essence of the religion which the ecclesiastical authorities are seeking to safeguard has not the power to hold hearts and minds if it is stripped bare of accidental accretions and of institutional wrappings. The badness of the statesmanship has been demonstrated repeatedly by the event. The authorities’ unwillingness to discriminate has not had the effect of constraining the less weak members of their flock to put up, for the sake of the essence, with accretions that have become unacceptable to them. ‘Tacking’, as this device is called in parliamentary politics, is a way of trying to apply coercion; and coercion nearly always defeats its own purpose in the long run. It defeats it when applied on the political and economic planes, and on the spiritual plane it is self-defeating a fortiori. A flock that is told by its pastors that it may not benefit by what it feels to be the essence of their and its common religion, except at the price of consenting to put up with what it feels to be anachronistic or exotic non-essentials, will, sooner or later, reject the non-essentials even at the cost of having to forgo the essence. It will feel that it cannot truly benefit by the essence if it is being guilty of hypocrisy and insincerity in its attitude towards the non-essentials. Both the nemesis of an ecclesiastical policy of ‘totalitarianism’ and the rewards of the contrary policy of discrimination can be illustrated from the history of the Western Christian Church.

At the Council of Florence (A.D. 1438–9), which had been convened with the object of negotiating a union between the Eastern Orthodox churches and the Roman See, a statesman-like distinction was boldly drawn by the Western ecclesiastical negotiators. They required, as the conditions for union, an agreement in doctrine with the Western Church and an acceptance of the Roman See’s ecclesiastical supremacy; and they insisted on these two conditions being complied with. But at the same time they showed themselves ready to allow to Eastern Orthodox churches that did agree these conditions a very wide liberty in the field of rites. They were to be free, for instance, to retain their own traditional liturgies in their own liturgical languages, and their own traditional customs and practices—as, for example, the custom that parish priests should be married men. This discriminatory policy did not attain its immediate purpose. At the time, the Eastern Orthodox peoples repudiated the signatures of their representatives, and the Greek people opted for political subjection to the Ottoman Empire as, in their eyes, a lesser evil than ecclesiastical submission to the Roman See. But this immediate rebuff did not move the Vatican to revoke the terms for union that it had offered in A.D. 1438–9; and, in the course of the five centuries that have passed since that date, the result of this enlightened liberality has been the reconciliation with Rome of a number of uniate churches recruited not only from Eastern Orthodox Christendom but from the Monothelete and Monophysite and Nestorian communions too.

This episode of ecclesiastical history is significant because in this case the concessions that reaped the rewards were not far-reaching. At Florence in A.D. 1439 the Roman Church was drawing its line, not between the essence of Christianity and non-essentials, but merely between some non-essentials and others. The ecclesiastical supremacy of the Roman See is a non-essential in non-Roman Catholic Christian eyes; and so too, in many eyes, is a great deal of what is traditional Christian doctrine. Thus, in making its dissection, the Roman Church was not coming near to touching the quick. Yet even this modicum of discrimination ultimately reconciled with the Roman Church an appreciable number of dissidents.

There is a melancholy contrast between the Roman Church’s measure of discriminating liberalism in its dealings, since the fifteenth century, with the non-Western Christian churches and the ‘totalitarian’ intransigence displayed by the same Roman Church, and likewise by most of the Protestant Western churches, during the last quarter of a millennium, in the war that they have been waging with a Late Modern Western experimental science. In this war most of the positions that have been contested have had as little to do with the essence of Christianity as the positions that were yielded in A.D. 1439; almost all of them have been accidental accretions with which Western Christianity happened to be encumbered in the seventeenth century, when the scientific movement started. The consequent alienation of many of the leaders of Western thought from the West’s ancestral tradition has been the tragedy of the West in its Late Modern Age. When, in the twentieth century, the ideals inspiring the current Western way of life were challenged by Communism, this schism in Western souls proved to be the West’s gravest spiritual weakness; and the responsibility of the ecclesiastical authorities for this unhappy and untoward consequence of spiritual discord was perhaps, on the whole, greater than the responsibility of the agnostics and the atheists.

The ecclesiastical authorities’ responsibility was perhaps the greater because their true duty is to winnow away the fresh accretions to their religious heritage that are constantly accumulating.

We have observed that what is permanent and universal has always and everywhere to be translated into terms of something temporary and local in order to make it accessible to particular human beings here and now. But we ought never to allow ourselves to forget that every translation of this kind is bound to be a mistranslation to some extent, and that it is therefore also bound to be contingent and provisional.5 The penalty for neglecting the perpetually urgent task of discarding the current mistranslation is to allow the light radiated by the essence of a religion to be shut off from human souls by an opaque film of accretions.

This will happen because a translation into the language of one social milieu makes the essence of a religion unintelligible in a different social milieu whose mother-tongue is a different vernacular. The point may be illustrated from the use of language in the literal sense as a means of conveying a religion’s message. In the first century of the Christian Era the dissemination of the books of the New Testament in the Attic koinê—the ‘standard Greek’ of the day—ensured their finding readers as far afield from Palestine as Britain in one direction and India in another; yet, in our twentieth-century Western World, the words ‘it is Greek to me’ mean, not that I can understand it, but, on the contrary, that I find it unintelligible. The self-same medium that was pre-eminently conductive there and then has become pre-eminently non-conductive here and now. In terms of visual means of communication, we can put the same point by saying that ‘one man’s lens is another man’s blinker’.

Thus the task of winnowing the chaff away from the grain is always making its demand upon us; and yet the operation is always as hazardous as it is indispensable. It is hazardous for the reason that makes the ecclesiastical authorities so often flinch from their duty of undertaking it. It is certain that any religious heritage, at any stage of its history, will be compounded of essential elements and accidental accretions which differ from one another in their nature, in their value, and in the treatment that they ought to receive from the religion’s adherents. But it is at the same time probable that it will prove difficult to make a dissection of this composite body which will be so accurate that it will distinguish the accretions from the essence quite correctly.

In setting about this task, the theologian finds himself in a plight which he shares with the astronomer and with the historian. A human observer is never in a position to take his observations from a fixed point outside the object that he is observing. The astronomer who is trying to survey and comprehend the stellar cosmos has to do his intellectual work from the saddle; for, all the time, he himself is riding at breakneck speed on one of the circling planets of a travelling star in a galaxy that is part and parcel of the phenomena that he is attempting to study. The historian, again, is himself being carried down a lower reach of the time-stream of human history whose upper reaches he is trying to map; and his own motion will make any particular reach on which he is focussing his attention take on, as he gazes at it, a kaleidoscopic succession of different appearances. It is not really passing through any corresponding changes; but the lower reach, down which the historian himself is travelling, is constantly twisting and turning and also constantly varying the rate of its flow, now to a faster and now to a slower pace, and, at each of these changes, is presenting the upper reach to the historian’s eyes in a changed perspective. The theologian finds himself in a similar quandary when he seeks to discriminate non-essential accretions from the essence of a religious heritage. In trying to correct the mistranslations of the essence of the religion into the transitory vernacular languages of a succession of past times and places, he must never forget to allow for the fact that the present time and place, which is his unescapable standpoint, is, all the time, forcing him to make a mistranslation of his own. This mistranslation is even more difficult for him to correct than those made by his predecessors are.

Another difficulty with which the theologian has to contend arises from the ambivalence of the character and function of the accretions that he is proposing to scale off from the essence to which they adhere; for we have noticed that an accretion which, for one eye, is a blinker, shutting out the light, may, for another eye, have been a lens letting the light in. Moreover, the transformation of the lens into a blinker is seldom a sudden mutation. It is usually a gradual metamorphosis—so gradual that it may seem arbitrary to try to identify a point-moment at which the change has taken place. This, too, makes the task of trying to distinguish the accretions from the essence a delicate one.

The theological critic’s task of discrimination is, indeed, a more hazardous one than the peeling of an onion or the cleaning of a picture. You might go on peeling an onion till you found that you had peeled away the heart as well as the skin; and you might go on cleaning a picture—stripping off successive coats of varnish and layers of paint—till, with a shock, you found yourself left with nothing but the bare canvas backing. In these two operations you are not likely to go to those disastrous lengths; yet, in every case at every stage, you clean and you peel at your peril. If, however, because of this risk, you refrain from trying to peel your onion, you will never have an onion to eat, and, if you refrain from trying to clean your picture, you will never reveal again, either to your own or to any other human eyes, the work of the old master who painted the now overlaid masterpiece.

In view of the inherent difficulty of Psyche’s task, it is audacious to censure the ecclesiastical authorities for their reluctance to take this task in hand. Amends are due; and the most pertinent amends will be for the rash censor to test his thesis at his own peril by making the hazardous attempt to discriminate the accretions from the essence in the principal living higher religions of his own day. The errors into which he is bound to fall will give the theologians an opening for pronouncing, if they choose, that in this field discretion is the better part of valour.

In the twentieth century there are at least seven higher religions to be taken into account by the would-be analyst if he reckons that the Hīnayāna, as well as the Mahāyāna, has now virtually completed its metamorphosis into a religion from the philosophy that it was originally. There are three Buddhaic religions: the Hīnayāna Buddhism of Ceylon and South-East Asia; the Mahāyāna Buddhism of Eastern Asia, Tibet, and Mongolia; and the post-Buddhaic Hinduism of India. There are three Judaic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And there is the Zoroastrianism of the Parsee diaspora in South-East Persia and Western India—a religion that is decidedly Judaic in spirit and outlook, whatever may be its historical relation to Judaism on the one hand and to pre-Buddhaic Hinduism on the other. We must keep all these seven religions in view in trying first to identify the essence of the living higher religions and then to scale off some, at least, of the non-essential accretions that are adhering to this essence in our day.

Let us begin with the essential truths and essential counsels that are preached by all seven religions alike.

They all agree that the phenomena of which we are aware do not explain themselves. These phenomena must be only a fragment of a universe of which the rest remains obscure to us; and the key to the explanation of the whole lies hidden in the part which we do not perceive or understand. So the universe in which we find ourselves is a mysterious one.

In this mysterious universe, there is one thing of which Man can feel certain. Man himself is certainly not the greatest spiritual presence in the Universe. He understands the Universe only partially, he can control it only slightly, and manifestly he did not bring it into existence. His own presence in the Universe is, for him, an accomplished fact which has not come about through any choice or act of his.

There is a presence in the Universe that is spiritually greater than Man himself. This presence is not contained either in some of the phenomena or in the sum total of them.

In human life, knowledge is not an end in itself, but is a means to action. Knowledge of truths is valuable in so far as it serves as a guide to action leading towards the goal of human endeavours. For example, the pre-Buddhaic Indian philosophers saw the truth that ‘Thou art That’: a human self is identical with Absolute Reality in some sense. But the sense in which this intuitive knowledge is true can be discovered only by taking action. The statement ‘Thou art That’ is, in truth, not a mere statement but a call to thee to make thyself that which thou knowest that thou canst be. An imperative is implicit in the indicative. The intuition of a truth is the designation of a goal.

Man’s goal is to seek communion with the presence behind the phenomena, and to seek it with the aim of bringing his self into harmony with this absolute spiritual reality.

A human self cannot be brought into harmony with Absolute Reality unless it can get rid of its innate self-centredness. This is the hardest task that Man can set himself; but, if he accomplishes it, his reward will be far more than proportionate to the toil and pain of the spiritual struggle. In giving up self-centredness he will have felt as if he were losing his life; but in achieving this act of self-sacrifice he will find that he has really saved his life, because he will have given his life a new centre, and this new centre will be the Absolute Reality that is the spiritual presence behind the phenomena.

Thus far, all seven religions speak with one voice; but at this point we come to a difference of view between the Hīnayāna and the other six in regard to the nature of Absolute Reality. All seven agree with one another in holding that Absolute Reality has an impersonal aspect. For Buddhism this is Nirvāna; for Hinduism it is Brahmā; for Zoroastrianism it is Ahuramazda’s abstract attributes; for the Judaic religions it is the experience of the mystics. But six out of the seven—all, in fact, except the Hīnayāna—also agree with one another in holding that Absolute Reality has a personal aspect as well. For them, Absolute Reality has a facet which is personal in the sense in which a human self is personal; and, in this manifestation of It, human beings have encounters with It which can be described, without this being misleading, in terms of the encounters that they have with one another. On this issue, Mahāyāna Buddhism parts company with Hīnayāna Buddhism and agrees with the other five religions in practice, though it does not break with the Hīnayāna in theory.6 In theory the bodhisattvas are not personal aspects of Absolute Reality; they are phenomenal and ephemeral selves that have arrived at the verge of achieving harmony with Absolute Reality by extinguishing themselves and have it in their power at any moment to take the final step. In practice, the bodhisattvas are virtually divinities akin to the gods or God in whom Absolute Reality reveals Itself in Its personal aspect in the view of the other five religions.

The consensus of these five religions with one another and with the Mahāyāna, as against the Hīnayāna, in holding that the greatest spiritual presence known to Man has a personal aspect is a bond of unity which transcends the differences between their views of what the personal aspect is. For the Mahāyāna, this personal aspect of a superhuman presence, manifested in the bodhisattvas, is plural; for Hinduism and Christianity the personal aspect of Absolute Reality is triune; for Zoroastrianism, Islam, and Judaism it is singular. These differences are momentous. All the same, they are perhaps not so significant as the point of agreement which distinguishes all six religions alike from the Hīnayāna. Their common tenet that Absolute Reality has a personal aspect governs not only their theory but their aim. It determines their interpretation of the common counsel to the Self to strive, with all its might, to get rid of its innate self-centredness. The Hīnayāna interprets this counsel as a call to self-extinction.7 For the other six religions the attainment of harmony with Absolute Reality means, not self-extinction through the Self’s own exclusive exertions, but self-reorientation with God’s or a bodhisattva’s aid. It means the transfer of the Self’s centre of attachment from the Self to a bodhisattva, or to Absolute Reality in Its personal aspect in which It manifests Itself as God. For these six religions, the goal implicit in the pre-Buddhaic Indian philosophers’ intuition ‘Thou art That’ is attained in a communion of selves, human and divine. On this view, human selves realize their potential identity with Absolute Reality, not by dissolving themselves, but by making God’s will theirs.8

This vision of the Universe as a society of selves raises problems of good-and-evil and right-and-wrong if it is true that two of the attributes of selves, as exemplified in our human selves, are consciousness and will. If we believe that human selves are conscious of the difference between good and evil, and are free to choose between doing right and doing wrong, we must infer that the same faculties are possessed by Absolute Reality in the personal aspect in which It is a self in the sense in which a human being is. In God, however, the consciousness and the will that are familiar to us in Man become mysteries that are beyond our human understanding. Since God is Absolute Reality, His consciousness must be omniscient and His will must be omnipotent. But it looks, at least at first sight, as if an omnipotent God must be the author of all evil as well as all good and be the doer of all wrong as well as all right; and these conclusions are incompatible with the beliefs that God’s nature is good and that Man’s will is free. Conversely, these beliefs seem, at least at first sight, to be incompatible with a belief in God’s omnipotence. For, in the fragment of the Universe that is within human ken, evil occurs and human beings do wrong; and, if God is good, this evil-happening and wrong-doing must happen in spite of God’s will and must be done in defiance of it.

This mystery has confronted the six religions that agree in holding that Absolute Reality has a personal aspect. Each of them has tried to find an explanation; and, in this quest, Hinduism has parted company with the others. Hinduism has sought to vindicate God’s omnipotence by seeing in Him the author of evil as well as good and the doer of wrong as well as right. Of the three persons of the Hindu Trinity, Shiva is maleficent, while Brahmā9 is ‘beyond Good and Evil’. The Mahāyāna, Zoroastrianism, and the three Judaic religions have sought to vindicate God’s goodness by finding a prime author of evil and prime doer of wrong in a Devil who is not God and is not on an equality with God, but who, in spite of being God’s inferior and God’s creature, is permitted by God to oppose and, temporarily at least, to defy, His will. In the Christian Trinity, all three persons alike are beneficent; and, if the Hindu Vishnu finds his counterpart in God the Son, the Hindu Shiva finds his antithesis in God the Holy Spirit. Yet, in excluding the author of Evil from the Godhead, Christianity cannot banish him from the Universe and cannot relieve God of responsibility for the Devil’s activity or, indeed, for his existence. Of the five religions that find in the Devil an explanation of the mystery, Zoroastrianism is perhaps the frankest in recognizing the difficulty of reconciling a belief in the existence of the Devil with a belief in the omnipotence of God. This answer to the riddle is, in fact, unconvincing to the Head, while the Hindu answer is repugnant to the Heart. Yet Man cannot have a vision of Absolute Reality in terms of personality without both feeling God to be good and also knowing Him to be omnipotent; and our inability to reconcile these two intuitions indicates, not that there is an inner contradiction in the nature of God, but that there is a limit to Man’s powers of comprehension.

The five religions that vindicate God’s, or the bodhisattvas’, goodness as best they can all agree in holding that God’s, or the bodhisattvas’, attitude towards human beings is not one of aloofness or indifference. In virtue of His goodness, God, or a bodhisattva, cares for human beings, loves them, and helps them. As Judaism sees God, ‘He delighteth in mercy’;10 as Islam sees Him, He is ‘the merciful, the compassionate’; as Zoroastrianism sees Him, He is the leader and champion of the hosts of the good in the age-long war between Good and Evil. This vision of God’s attitude towards Man is shared with Judaism, Islam, and Zoroastrianism by Christianity and by the Mahāyāna, but it looks—at least in the eyes of one observer who has grown up in the Christian tradition—as if the Mahayanian and the Christian vision had also brought to light something else in God’s nature and action which, in the vision of the other three religions, is perhaps latent but is not explicit. Both Christianity and the Mahāyāna hold that a superhuman being has demonstrated His love for human beings in action, and this at the cost of the Suffering that is inseparable from being a self. A bodhisattva is a self that is deliberately refraining from entering into Nirvāna for the sake of continuing to help its fellow sufferers at its own cost. Christ is a self that has found itself ‘existing in God’s form’ and ‘on an equality with’ Him. Yet, instead of ‘thinking of this as being a prize to be clutched’, Christ has deliberately ‘emptied Himself by taking a menial’s form—for this is what He did in assimilating Himself to human beings. Exposing Himself thus in human guise, He showed His Humility in His obedience. He was obedient even to the point of submitting to die—and this by a death on the cross.’11

In this Christian-Mahayanian vision, Absolute Reality deliberately accepts a consequence of selfhood which follows necessarily from an assumption of selfhood that is genuine. Suffering is as inseparable from selfhood as will and consciousness are; and Absolute Reality accepts a self’s suffering from a motive which human selves can understand because they too can be moved by it. This motive is a love for other selves which does not shrink from suffering for their sake.

If it is hazardous to try to state the essence of the higher religions, it is even more hazardous to try to discriminate from it the non-essential accretions that can be, and ought to be, discarded. It is perhaps safest to begin by stripping off what looks like the outermost layer, and then to feel our way cautiously, through one layer after another, towards the quick. But even the outer layers have acquired, by long use and want, a tenacious hold on human feelings; so that these, too, cannot be removed without inflicting pain and arousing resentment and regret.

For example, strong feelings are focussed on local holy places, though these are perhaps the least controversial of all permissible discards. There is a charge of emotion in the very names Heliopolis, Abydos, Delphi, Bethel, Shiloh, Jerusalem, Mount Gerizim, Mecca, Medina, Karbalā, Najaf, Qazimayn, Mashhad, Rome, Compostela, Monte Gargano, Loreto, Lourdes, Bodh Gaya, Benares, Tun Hwang, Wu T’ai Shan, and the rest. Yet, considering that a sense of holiness is a sense of a spiritual presence behind the phenomena, a feeling that one spot on the surface of this planet is holier than another will be a feeling that this particular spot is more redolent of the presence of Absolute Reality than other spots are. This notion is incongruous with the idea of what Absolute Reality is; for it is of the essence of Absolute Reality that It is omnipresent. Moreover, in almost every case, an historian can trace back the hallowing of a particular spot to historical events that have nothing to do with the essence of the religion in whose tradition this spot has acquired a special odour of sanctity. And, since every higher religion holds that God is present everywhere, and also believes its own mission to be to preach the Gospel to all Mankind on all the face of the Earth, every higher religion’s ultimate verdict on local holy places must be: ‘The hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father’.12 No doubt, this hour could not come so long as a lack of adequate physical means of communication was still constraining Mankind to go on living in a number of small separate compartments, each a miniature world with its own local centre. But this former physical raison d’être of local shrines has vanished in an age in which Technology has ‘annihilated distance’. In this age ‘the Earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea’.13

A still higher charge of feeling is accumulated in rituals: the pilgrimages that are symbolic recognitions of a holy place’s holiness; the kissing of the Black Stone embedded in the Ka’bah, or the kissing of the toe of a bronze statue of St. Peter; the Passover; the Muslim’s daily round of prayers; the Christian and the Mahayanian Buddhist liturgies. Acts of worship tend to become institutionalized when the congregation extends beyond the family circle. Yet God can be worshipped by human beings, congregationally as well as individually, at any place and time, and this without formalities. ‘God is a spirit, and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.’14

A still higher charge, again, is accumulated in tabus: not to eat pork ever; not to eat the flesh of mammals on Fridays; not to work on the Sabbath; to fast partially in Lent and totally during daylight hours in Ramazan; to circumcise male children; to eat human corpses, or to expose them to be eaten by vultures and hyaenas, instead of burning or burying them;15 to keep every jot and tittle of the Jewish or the Zoroastrian Law. Yet ‘the Sabbath was made for Man, and not Man for the Sabbath’.16

Particularly violent feelings are aroused by conflicts between different social conventions: celibacy versus marriage for a Christian priest according to the Latin as against the Eastern Orthodox rite; monogamy for a Christian layman versus polygamy for a Muslim up to a limit of four wives; stringency versus laxity in the Christian as against the Muslim regulation of divorce; caste versus the brotherhood of all believers in the Hindu as against the Islamic or the Sikh community. In this field, as in those of tabus and rituals, the Roman Church has set an example of courageous discrimination which we have cited at an earlier point in this chapter. The uniate churches of non-Latin rite are so many monuments to the wisdom and liberality of the Roman See in drawing a distinction between some non-essential things and others, and in conceding that, in some non-essentials, the uniates should be free to follow their own traditional practice so long as they fulfil the two conditions of recognizing the Roman See’s ecclesiastical supremacy and agreeing with the Roman Church on questions of doctrine.

Though shrines, rituals, tabus, and social conventions are highly charged with feeling, they do not come so close to the heart of a religion as its myths: the portrayal of death as the seed of life in the figure of Tammuz-Adonis-Osiris-Attis, embodying the fruitfulness of the year that dies to be born again;17 the portrayal of self-sacrifice for the salvation of fellow-sufferers in the figure of Christ or of a bodhisattva; the portrayal of superhuman spiritual stature in the figure of a hero whose mother is human but whose father is divine (the birth-story that is told of Jesus, Augustus, Alexander, Plato, and every pharaoh of Egypt since, at latest, the beginning of the Fifth Dynasty). Can these myths be discarded without taking the heart out of the faiths whose essence the myths convey? If the Universe is a mystery, and if the key to this mystery is hidden, are not myths an indispensable means for expressing as much as we can express of the ineffable? ‘No man hath seen God at any time’18 and ‘Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis’;19 yet ‘das Umbeschrcibliche, hier ist’s getan’.20 This similitude of Absolute Reality in the World of Time and Change is the nearest approach towards the Beatific Vision that can be attained by human souls; and myths are the instruments through which these farthest flights of the Human Spirit are achieved.21

This is true; and it does mean that myths are indispensable to Man for probing a mystery that is beyond his intellectual horizon. Yet no particular myth can be sacrosanct; for myths are woven out of poetic images borrowed from This World’s passing scene. The myths that fall least far short of being universal and eternal are those inspired by the primordial experiences of human life. ‘Das ewig Weibliche zieht uns hinan.’22 Man’s feelings about the part that Woman plays in his life are rooted in Human Nature itself; and it is no wonder that a myth quarried from this bedrock should keep on reappearing in variations that betray its identity. A primordial element is perhaps to be found in every myth that makes its mark. Yet the stuff of which myths are fashioned is mostly local and ephemeral.

This is true even of the images taken from agriculture, which, for most of the Human Race, has been Man’s staple means of livelihood for the last 7,000 or 8,000 years, and which, by now, has been propagated over almost the whole of the cultivable surface of the planet. The Christian adaptation of the myth and ritual of the agricultural year, which, in Christendom, seems as if it were speaking an oecumenical language, is in truth speaking no more than the regional language of the parochial realm of wheat and the vine. The Western traveller to Japan finds that the alien realm of rice—which is the food of half the Human Race—has no words for bread and wine in its vocabulary. If Christianity had made its first epiphany in Eastern Asia and not in Palestine, its primary symbols would not be the Mediterranean imagery that they are. So even the most expressive symbols prove to have no more than a limited range in Space and Time, and therefore cannot be of the essence of Religion. They can be no more than local and ephemeral indications of a Reality that, in itself, is omnipresent and eternal.

What is true of myths must be true, a fortiori, of Theology, if there is any force in the argument of an earlier chapter of this book.23 It has been argued there that the poetic usage of words, which is their usage in myths, differs from the scientific usage of the same words in feeling, intention, and meaning; and it has been suggested that Theology, in its handling of myths, has been acting under a misapprehension which has condemned it to defeat its own purpose. Theology’s purpose is to clarify the meaning of myths, and it seeks to do this by treating their words as if these were being used in their scientific sense. But theologians seem not to have recognized the limitations of the scientific usage. This, too, has a limited field of application, as the poetic usage has; and it is not a more exact usage than the poetic one is. It is not truer to reality intrinsically. It is simply the best notation for describing a fragment of the Universe that is within the Human Intellect’s grasp. But the poetic usage is the best for reconnoitring this foreground’s mysterious hinterland. Consequently an attempt to take a poetic intuition of the mystery as if it were a scientific analysis does not sharpen our faculties but inhibits them from serving us. The music of the spheres ceases to be audible when it is transposed into a mathematical scale of numerical ratios.

In the same context we have sought to trace back to their historical origins the accretions of theology with which the mythical expressions of Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism have been overlaid, and we have found these origins in the price that has had to be paid for the conversion of a philosophically educated elite. The ‘intellectuals’ could not be induced to accept a new religion unless this could be presented to them in terms that would be acceptable to them philosophically; and Theology is thus a monument of an encounter between ‘intellectuals’ and missionaries.

If it is true that an intellectual operation which once commended a religion to a particular class of potential converts has actually obscured, instead of clarifying, this religion’s meaning, intention, and feeling, as these are conveyed in its myths, then, if it is also true that the myths themselves are not of the essence of a religion, it must follow that the theology into which these myths have been transposed cannot be essential either.

The sacrifice of Theology is as desolating for the intellectual minority in a religious community as the sacrifice of current myths is for the community at large; but there is one sacrifice that is even more painful than these, and that is the sacrifice of self-centredness. Since self-centredness is innate in Human Nature, we are all inclined, to some extent, to assume that our own religion is the only true and right religion; that our own vision of Absolute Reality is the only authentic vision; that we alone have received a revelation; that the truth which has been revealed to us is the whole truth; and that, in consequence, we ourselves are ‘the Chosen People’ and ‘the Children of Light’, while the rest of the Human Race are gentiles sitting in darkness. Such pride and prejudice are symptoms of Original Sin, and they will therefore be rife in some measure in any human being or community; but the measure varies, and it seems to be a matter of historical fact that, hitherto, the Judaic religions have been considerably more exclusive-minded than the Indian religions have. In a chapter of the World’s history in which the adherents of the living higher religions seem likely to enter into much more intimate relations with one another than ever before, the spirit of the Indian religions, blowing where it listeth,24 may perhaps help to winnow a traditional Pharisaism out of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish hearts. But the help that God gives is given by Him to those who help themselves; and the spiritual struggle in the more exclusive-minded Judaic half of the World to cure ourselves of our family infirmity seems likely to be the most crucial episode in the next chapter of the history of Mankind.

  • 1.

    Ex. xiii. 21–2.

  • 2.

    John i. 9.

  • 3.

    In Chapter 8, pp. 106–7, above.

  • 4.

    See Rom. xiv; 1 Cor. viii.

  • 5.

    See Chapter 9, pp. 121 and 125–7, above.

  • 6.

    In practice, the Hīnayāna, too, like the Mahāyāna, has travelled some distance along the road leading towards a theism that is incompatible with Buddhist theory.

  • 7.

    See Chapter 2, p. 16, Chapter 5, pp. 63–5, and Chapter 6, p. 83, above; and Chapter 20, pp. 289–94, below.

  • 8.

    This difference in aim between the Hīnayāna and the other six religions is not reflected in any corresponding difference in conduct. In this field the Hinayanian Buddhist peoples compare well, not only with Mahayanian Buddhists, but with the followers of the other five living higher religions.

  • 9.

    See Chapter 2, p. 16, footnote 1, above.

  • 10.

    Mic. vii. 18.

  • 11.

    Phil. ii. 5–8, quoted in Chapter 6, p. 86, above.

  • 12.

    John iv. 21.

  • 13.

    Hab. ii. 14. Cp. Isa. xi. 9.

  • 14.

    John iv. 24.

  • 15.

    See, for example, Herodotus, Book III, chap. 38.

  • 16.

    Mark ii. 27.

  • 17.

    John xii. 24; 1 Cor. xv. 35–8.

  • 18.

    John iv. 12.

  • 19.

    Goethe, Faust, 1. 12104.

  • 20.

    Ibid., 11. 12108–9.

  • 21.

    See Chapter 9, pp. 123–4, above.

  • 22.

    Goethe, Faust, 11, 12110–11.

  • 23.

    Chapter 9, pp. 116–27, above.

  • 24.

    John iii. 8.