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9. Encounters between Higher Religions and Philosophies

Encounters between Higher Religions and Philosophies1

And some seeds fell upon a conveyor-belt and were carried into a factory, where they were processed, refrigerated, and sterilized.

In order to describe, in the imagery of the Parable of the Sower, the miscarriage that has overtaken the new gospel of the higher religions through their encounter with the philosophies, a post-Hellenic historian has to improvise and interpolate a verse, since this was not one of the miscarriages foreseen by the poet in whose imagination this parable was conceived, though a writer in the first century of the Christian Era was writing in a Hellenizing world. It is, indeed, rather surprising that something equivalent to this spurious verse should not have found its way into the parable by the time when the Gospels were in circulation in the Greek language. By that time, Saint Paul’s epistles had already been dictated by him in the same Greek language, which was his and his Gentile converts’ common mother-tongue; and, when once the New Testament was current in Greek and was winning Greek-speaking converts, it was surely evident that, sooner or later, the Christian Scripture would catch the attention of a philosophically educated dominant minority of the Graeco-Roman public and would be challenged by them to prove itself intelligible and credible in terms of their philosophy. Indeed, was it not also evident that, before the eventual delivery of this challenge from outside the Christian fold, it would already have been more than half met by educated Greek-speaking exponents of the Christian gospel who would have expounded this gospel in Hellenic philosophical terms spontaneously and unselfconsciously because these terms were their own ancestral intellectual idiom? Not much more than fifty years after the publication of the latest of the Gospels, and more than 150 years before the drafting of the earliest of the Greeds, Christianity was, in fact, presented in semi-philosophical terms to a pagan public by Christian apologists writing in the Age of the Antonines.

The translation of the gospel of Christianity, and, after it, the gospel of Islam, into terms of Hellenic metaphysics was, indeed, unavoidable. Christianity and Islam made their epiphanies in a Hellenizing World in which they could no more avoid an encounter with Hellenic philosophy than they could avoid one with the Roman Imperial Government. We have seen that, in its encounter with the Roman Imperial Government, Christianity was notably successful so long as it was being proscribed and persecuted, but was notably unsuccessful in coping with the Roman Empire and its successors when they adroitly took the Church into partnership with themselves. The story of the Christian Church’s encounter with Hellenic philosophy has the same plot. So long as Christianity was ignored or ridiculed by the philosophically educated middle and upper class of the Graeco-Roman Society, its relation with representatives of this class did not involve it in any great intellectual difficulties or embarrassments. Christianity’s intellectual troubles began when this philosophically educated class reconsidered its attitude and took Christianity seriously and sympathetically enough to demand a presentation of Christianity in Hellenic philosophical terminology.

The Church could not afford to rebuff an overture for an intellectual rapprochement with the philosophically educated upper class, any more than it could afford to reject an offer for a political rapprochement with the Imperial Government—and this for the same reason: the Church’s mission was to convert the World, not to hide her light under a bushel.2 So, at her peril, the Church must embrace any opportunities for conversion that might offer themselves; and the conversion of the professional philosophers called for special efforts, because these were the most difficult of all elements in the Graeco-Roman Society for the Christian Church to win. Unlike the rest of the pagan majority of the population of the Roman Empire, the philosophers were too proud to jump on to the Church’s band-waggon just because the Emperor Constantine I had patronized Christianity and because the Emperor Theodosius I had penalized Paganism. The philosophers’ ideal was self-sufficiency, intellectual as well as moral; they had worked out an intellectual as well as a moral system of their own, and they believed that they could live by it. If Christianity was to have any prospect of converting the professors at the universities of Athens and Alexandria or the magnates of the senatorial aristocracy at Rome, the Church must be prepared to come on to the philosophers’ intellectual ground by translating her gospel into their terms.

Possibly the Church could have afforded to ignore these intransigent professorial and aristocratic coteries if they had been the only representatives of the Hellenic philosophical attitude of mind. Actually, this attitude of mind was more widespread and more pervasive. It was to be found, in some degree, in anyone with any pretensions to having had an Hellenic education, and it survived, as we have already noticed, in Hellenically educated converts to Christianity. It would have been difficult to put the Christian gospel into writing in Greek prose without putting it into Greek philosophical language to some extent. Hence the Christian vision of Reality was gradually, unconsciously, and unintentionally translated into terms that came to be more and more Hellenic, and more and more professionally philosophical, as the process of conversion to Christianity gradually spread upwards in the social scale.

This explains why the Christian Church did eventually translate its gospel into terms of Hellenic philosophy deliberately and systematically—thereby precipitating a theology—after it had become first the official religion of the Roman Imperial Government and then the sole religion tolerated in the Roman Empire. It also explains why Islam likewise translated its gospel into the same Hellenic intellectual terms after the Arab Caliphate had become the successor-state of the Roman Empire in the Empire’s partially Hellenized eastern provinces. In the history of the relations of the Mahāyāna and of a post-Buddhaic Hinduism to Indian philosophy—particularly to the Hinayanian Buddhist school—the order of events was the reverse of their order in the history of the relations of Christianity and Islam with the Hellenic philosophy. So far from arising outside the orbit of Philosophy and subsequently colliding and coming to terms with her, the Mahāyāna and the post-Buddhaic Hinduism arose within the bosom of Philosophy and subsequently elicited from the philosophers’ intellectual approach to the problem of Life two higher religions which sent their roots down below the intellectual surface to the subconscious depths of Human Nature. In their metamorphosis from philosophies into religions, Buddhism and Hinduism did trail clouds of Indian philosophy behind them; but the process of transfiguring a philosophy into higher religions seems to have left the resultant Buddhaic religions freer from cramping and warping intellectual trammels than Christianity and Islam were left by the opposite process of translating these two Judaic higher religions into terms of a philosophy.

The translation of the gospels of Christianity and Islam into terms of Hellenic metaphysics has had awkward consequences because it has ignored the distinction between two facets of Truth which cannot be focussed into unity by the imperfectly unified faculties of the Human Mind. In the Human Psyche there are two organs: a conscious volitional surface and a subconscious emotional abyss. Each of these two organs has its own way of looking at, and peering through, the dark glass that screens Reality from Man’s inward eye and, in screening it, dimly reveals it; and therefore either mode of imperfect apprehension legitimately calls its findings ‘the Truth’. But the qualities of these two visible facets of a latent unitary Truth are as different as the nature of the two organs of the human psyche that receive these ‘broken lights’. If we assume, against the evidence of our experience, that these two facets of Truth are identical, and that something that is true in one of the two senses must therefore also be true in the other sense as well, just because the two facets of Truth have been legitimately labelled with the same name, we shall put ourselves in danger of losing our hold on both the aspects in which Truth presents itself to our mental vision.

‘Truth’ is not the only common word that the Intellect and the Subconscious Psyche jointly own and severally use in different meanings. One reason why it is possible to confuse one of the two facets of Truth with the other is because they have in common, not just one word, but their whole vocabulary. They have to share it because this is the sole vocabulary with which Homo sapiens has managed, so far, to equip himself for these two or for any other purposes.3 In ordinary commonsense human intercourse, this double usage of a single vocabulary does not lead to a confusion between the two different kinds of meaning. According to the context, we take the same word, phrase, sentence, or narrative either in the Subconscious Psyche’s sense or in the Intellect’s sense without either mistaking one of the two for the other or deliberately identifying them.

We do not, for instance, take in an identical sense an account of a battle in Palestine in this morning’s newspaper and an account of a battle in Heaven in Paradise Lost; and, if anyone were to suggest that either account was ‘untrue’ because it was not meant in the same sense as the other account, we should answer: ‘Why, the author never intended it in that other sense; so how can you suggest that he is departing from the Truth when he is using those words in his own sense?’ There have, however, been attempts to translate one of the two kinds of Truth into the other. For example, the Intellect’s dry record of the sordid behaviour of barbarian war-lords has been run away with by the Subconscious and been translated by it into heroic poetry. Conversely, heroic poetry has been pinned down by the Intellect and been translated into prosy chronicles; and the pinning-down of the Christian gospel in creeds, in which the words are used in the sense attaching to them in Greek metaphysics, is another instance of the attempt to translate the Truth of the Subconscious Psyche into terms of the Truth of the Intellect.

In all these translations either from the Truth of the Subconscious into the Truth of the Intellect or vice versa, the original is apt to be changed out of all recognition, and, in the ortrocess of being transformed, to be denatured, through being taken as if it were Truth in the other sense of the word from the sense originally intended.4 The Truth apprehended by the Subconscious Psyche finds its natural expression in Poetry; the Truth apprehended by the Intellect finds its natural expression in Science. Poetry and Science have, as we have observed, to use the same vocabulary, because Man has only one vocabulary, and this has therefore to serve all Man’s purposes.

Words strain,

crack, and sometime break, under the burden.5

But to assume that identical words must have identical meanings in scientific and poetic contexts is to be blind to the difference between Poetry and Science themselves.

Poetry comes to light in individual flashes of intuitive insight shooting up out of the Subconscious. One flash will differ from another in degree of brightness, but there is no Time-relation between successive flashes. When we place two poems of different dates side by side, we may become aware of a difference between them in degrees of genius; but we shall not have been able to tell a priori whether the earlier or the later poem is going to strike us as being the greater piece of poetry. In fact, the Time-relation between them is irrelevant and without significance for any purposes of comparison; for a later poem cannot be brought into a relation with an earlier poem in which it will abrogate the earlier poem or be abrogated by it, or will modify it or be modified by it, or will add to it or be added to by it. In the realm of Poetry, comparison does not lead on to combination. The explanation of this relation of mutual independence between one poem and another seems to be that each poem springs separately from a common source, and that this common source of all poems is timeless. Each poem is like a bucketful of water drawn up from a well in which the water is ‘the same yesterday and to-day and for ever.’6 At the subconscious level, from which Poetry rises, Human Nature seems to be the same always and everywhere—the same in Primitive Man as in Man in Process of Civilization; the same in different societies in process of civilization; the same in different individuals beneath their different conscious and volitional personalities.

By contrast, the Intellect progressively improves its comprehension of the Universe in the course of Time; and Science is a cumulative charting of this continually changing picture of the Universe on the Psyche’s conscious surface. So in Science, in contrast to Poetry, there is a Time-relation between successive reports of facts. A comparison of new reports with old reports does lead to a combination in which the reports modify one another until they fit together, for the moment, into a single self-consistent whole; and this will be re-organized, in its turn, in the light of further reports. Thus the Intellect’s scientific chart of the Universe is perpetually changing because it is perpetually growing. Any state of the chart, in any particular time and place, will be only provisional, because, at any time or place, a new piece of information may transform the whole pattern of the chart. For instance, it has been transformed in our lifetime by the discoveries of the principle of Relativity, of the structure of the Atom, and of the existence of the Subconscious Abyss of the Human Psyche. Thus any presentation, whether particular or general, of scientific truth is always precarious and temporary. The difference in character between scientific truth and poetic truth may be summed up as follows: poetic truth is absolute because it is static in the Time-dimension; scientific truth is relative because it is cumulative in the Time-dimension.

In either mode of apprehending the Truth, however, there can be either a vision of some particular feature or aspect of the Truth or a vision of the whole of it. On the poetic level of the Subconscious Psyche, the comprehensive vision is Prophecy;7 on the scientific level of the Intellect it is Metaphysics. If our foregoing analysis of the difference between Poetry and Science is correct, it will follow that Prophetic Vision’s attempt to present a comprehensive view of poetic truth must, in the very nature of the two modes of apprehension, be more feasible than the attempt made by Metaphysics to present a comprehensive view of scientific truth. No doubt, even the most illuminating prophetic utterance will fall infinitely far short of expressing poetic truth in its plenitude; ‘for My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, saith the Lord. For, as the Heavens are higher than the Earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.’8 Nevertheless, a prophetic utterance may be, as far as it goes, an expression of absolute poetic truth. And this will be an expression of unique value, standing by itself, and not subject to abrogation, addition, or subtraction when confronted with other expressions, perhaps differing from it in the degree of their illumination, that have been uttered in other times and places. By contrast, the attempt made by Metaphysics to present a comprehensive view of scientific truth can never and nowhere be more than an interim provisional report on the general progress of Science up to date.

This modest view of the capacity and the function of Metaphysics was taken, in the history of the Hellenic philosophy, by some of the greatest of its practitioners. Plato, for example, was a practical exemplar of a personal union between a metaphysician and a prophet. He was also sharply aware of the distinction between scientific truth and poetic truth; and, wherever in his metaphysical thinking he reaches the limits beyond which Logic will not carry him on the plane of Science, he deliberately and avowedly ascends to the plane of Poetry and abandons Logic for Myth. In Plato’s legacy, it is the poetry and the prophetic vision that have had a perennial message for other souls, whereas his science and his metaphysics have ‘dated’. Epicurus and Zeno, again, presented their metaphysics as the minimum provisional intellectual framework required for their ethics; and the Buddha always flatly refused to discuss Metaphysics at all. He was concerned with practice, not with theory; His practical programme for His disciples was exacting; and He was on His guard against giving them an intellectual opening for turning aside from their arduous moral quest. In taking this practical view, Hinayanian Buddhism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism were setting their feet on the road which Confucius followed out to the end.

Confucianism was, however, as we have noticed, exceptional among the philosophies in frankly accepting the traditional social targets of conduct. For the Indian and Hellenic schools of philosophy, the paramount objective was self-sufficiency for the individual; and the Hellenic philosophers pursued their quest for self-sufficiency in the province of Thought as well as in the province of Conduct. The philosophically educated élite of the Graeco-Roman public wished to believe that it possessed, in its metaphysics, a complete and final blue-print of scientific truth—a demand on Metaphysics that was incompatible with the nature of scientific truth, since this, as we have seen, is cumulative and therefore relative and provisional. In fact, a philosophically educated Graeco-Roman public opinion demanded that Metaphysics should do for scientific truth something that, if it could be done at all in any field, could be done only for poetic truth, and this not by Metaphysics, but only by Prophetic Vision. It was this impracticable demand among a philosophically educated public—including converts to Christianity and Islam from the upper strata of Society—that constrained Christians and Muslims to translate their gospels out of the prophet’s poetic medium of expression into the philosopher’s scientific medium. This attempt to translate the poetic truth revealed in Christianity and Islam into scientific truth has had consequences that have been adverse to the fulfilment of the higher religions’ authentic mission.

The Prophetic Vision that has made its epiphany in the higher religions—pre-eminently, perhaps, in Christianity and in the Mahāyāna—consists, if we are right, of two intuitions. The first of these is that Suffering is something to be accepted as the price of acting on the promptings of Love, and indeed to be embraced as an opportunity for thus following Love’s lead. The second intuition is that this attitude towards Suffering is practicable. The ideal has been put into practice by a Supreme Being; and this means that a human being who tries to do the same will be swimming with the current of Absolute Reality while swimming against the current of his own self-centredness.

The meaning and value of these intuitions lie in their apprehension of timeless truths and values: the truth that Suffering is the price of Life, and that therefore Life and Suffering are inseparable; the truth that, through self-sacrifice, Suffering can be made to serve the cause of Love; the value of Love as being worth its cost in Suffering; the truth and value of the conviction that this truth about Suffering and this value of Love are not just an illusory truth and a fictitious value that Man has invented for himself, but are stamped as authentic by positive acts of love and self-sacrifice performed by a Supreme Being; and the value of the mutual love of a self-sacrificing Good Shepherd for His human sheep and of his human sheep for Him. So long as Prophetic Vision is expressing itself spontaneously in the poetry that is its natural medium, we can concentrate our attention and our efforts on these illuminating and saving truths and values which the vision reveals. But, as soon as we try to translate these intuitions into terms of scientific truth, our first concern has to be the irrelevant and trivial and never finally answerable question: Do these statements—which are now to be taken as if they were statements of scientific fact—fit in, or do they not fit in, with the interim edition of the scientific chart of the Universe that I have before me on my study table here and now?

Thus the attempt to translate Prophetic Vision, expressed in the language of poetic truth, into a metaphysical blue-print, expressed in the language of scientific truth, has two untoward effects. It forces us to direct our attention from what is essential and momentous in the poetic truth of Prophetic Vision to the trivial and intrinsically insoluble question of its relation to scientific truth; and it substitutes a provisional report for a timeless intuition. Even if we could succeed in translating poetic truth into scientific truth at the risk of robbing it of its meaning and value, our scientific formula would no sooner have been drafted than it would be already obsolete.

This is what has happened to Christianity and Islam as a consequence of the attempts to translate them into terms of Hellenic metaphysics. This intellectual ‘processing’ took the life out of them even for the small minority of philosophically educated people in the Graeco-Roman World who thought in the particular terms of Hellenic metaphysics; and these Hellenic terms have become a greater and greater stumbling-block as the progress of Science has travelled farther and farther away from the local and temporary formulation of scientific truth in the blue-print of Hellenic metaphysics. This ‘dating’ of the translation of a Prophetic Vision into the scientific language of Metaphysics has been inevitable; but the ‘dating’ of a translation that is bound to have been a mistranslation does not impugn the original, since the mistranslated gospel is, in its original poetry, a kind of truth that is timeless.

If this reasoning is right, then the stumbling block that has been placed at the feet of Posterity by the mistranslation of the Christian and Islamic gospels into terms of Hellenic metaphysics is an unnecessary one. It is there merely because of the historical accident that, during the first four or five centuries of the Christian Era, the Christian Church had to try to talk to a philosophically educated Hellenic public in that public’s own metaphysical terms. This past episode of history is surely no reason why, in a twentieth-century Western and Westernizing World, this forced translation into the language of a now superseded metaphysics—a translation made in another time and place to meet a local and temporary requirement—should be taken by us as a shibboleth. It would be no remedy, however, to replace this old translation into the metaphysics of the Hellenic World of the fourth and fifth centuries of the Christian Era by a new translation into the metaphysics of the Western World of the twentieth century; for this more recent blue-print is likewise bound to be superseded in its turn by the continuance of the cumulative construction of the scientific chart of the Universe.

Strip the Christian and Islamic gospels of their incongruous and outworn Greek scientific dress; resist the temptation to put them into an alternative scientific dress of a Western cut which will also be incongruous and ephemeral; and take the truth that they express in the non-scientific poetical sense that is the natural sense in this context: if we were to give ourselves these instructions and could bring ourselves to carry them out, perhaps we should find that we had cleared the way for getting to grips with the question: What is Truth? But, of course, we should not yet have answered the question. We should still have to ask ourselves: In what sense did Christians, in those very early days before the statement of Christian beliefs began to be Hellenized, mean that Jesus was the Son of God, that He rose from the dead, that He ascended into Heaven? Can we hold these beliefs in the original Christian meaning of them, whatever this may appear to have been, in our world in our age? If we can and do hold these beliefs in a different meaning, have we, or have we not, as much right to our meaning as the original Christians had to theirs? If two ways of taking the meaning of a belief in the realm of poetic truth turn out to be different, does it necessarily follow, on this poetic plane, that one or other of the two ways must be false? These questions will meet us again in the second part of this book.

  • 1.

    The subject of this chapter has been dealt with in greater detail by the writer in A Study of History, vol. vii, pp. 465–506.

  • 2.

    Matt. v. 15; Mark iv. 21; Luke xi. 33.

  • 3.

    The single vocabulary that has to serve Man for all his purposes includes music that is older than words, and feelings that are older than music. ‘The emotions are the track on which the experience runs. Sex feeling runs on some of the same tracks as religious feeling; both express themselves by fear, anger, wonder, joy, silence, speech; but it does not mean that they are identical experiences because they use the same tracks. The power of a woman over a man is not identical with that of God, but many of its emotional responses are the same, for the simple reason that a man is not equipped with two sorts of tears and two sorts of laughter, one for God and the other for a woman. Sacred and secular music use the same notes, but with different results.’—Rattenbury, J. E., Wesley’s Legacy to the World (London 1928, Epworth Press), p. 72.

  • 4.

    In the Medieval Western allegory of Love, we can watch the transformation taking place by stages, the first of which is ‘a twelfth century jeu d’esprit called the Concilium in Monte Romarici’. ‘The whole poem illustrates the influence of Ovid, and the religion of Love, very well; but it is by no means an instance of “Ovid misunderstood”. The worship of the god Amor had been a mock-religion in Ovid’s Art of Love. The French poet has taken over this conception of an erotic religion with a full understanding of its flippancy, and proceeded to elaborate the joke in terms of the only religion he knows—medieval Christianity.… The love religion often begins as a parody of the real religion. This does not mean that it may not soon become something more serious than a parody.… The distance between “the lord of terrible aspect” in the Vita Nuova and the god of lovers in The Council of Remiremont is a measure of the tradition’s width and complexity.’—Lewis, C. S., The Allegory of Love: A study in Medieval Tradition (Oxford 1936, Clarendon Press), pp. 20–1. See the whole passage, pp. 18–23, and also pp. 5–8.

  • 5.

    Eliot, T. S., Four Quartets, ‘Burnt Norton’, V.

  • 6.

    Heb. xiii. 8.

  • 7.

    ‘Prophecy’ in the original and authentic sense in which the word means, not a forecast of the future, but the revelation of a mystery that is out of the Intellect’s reach. The literal meaning of ‘prophecy’ is the ‘utterance’ of Truth from a hidden source from which Truth cannot be extracted by intellectual processes.

  • 8.

    [Deutero—] Isa. lv. 8–9.