The skeptic, the bigot and the seer are typical representatives of three distinct attitudes which men entertain toward the Truth. Individuals of each of these classes are equally positive in their convictions, equally certain that their particular views are correct. How, then, is it possible for one to decide whether that which appeals to him with such emphasis as true is the Truth, or not? By what test can one distinguish truth from error?
There are two kinds of knowledge:—that which pertains to facts, and that which pertains to principles. The former is relative, changeable, for facts are susceptible of a variety of interpretations, depending on the view-point of the observer. The latter is absolute, unchangeable, for principles do not admit of interpretation. Facts are apparent; principles are real. Knowledge of principles alone is perfectly trustworthy, for it is not subject to revision or adaptation. Principles are discerned, appreciated by intuition; they are axiomatic. Facts are perceived, understood by the intellect. Intuition reveals the Truth immediately, without an intervening process of interpretation. The intellect stands in the capacity of a commentator on the Truth. It doubts, questions, argues, reasons, explains, believes; but it can furnish no absolute assurance that its conclusions are final. It sees truth in conceptions. No conception should be held as a finality, but only as the best view compatible with present discernment of truth, and with the recognition that it must yield to something better when we realize truth more perfectly.
The process of evolution reveals growth through a succession of stages. The inner life develops each form to its utmost capacity, until, transcending its limits, it appears in the guise of a higher one. The insect larva passes through a succession of moults, discarding each outgrown form for a fresh one representing a higher stage of development. Catastrophe, or seeming destruction, is but the ushering in of a new order of existence; and that which appears to be death is only transition to higher conditions of life.
Every dogma contains the seed of its own destruction, for it implies the possibility of a permanent conception. Throughout the world's history, thought has been in almost complete bondage to dogmatism. Now and then, however, certain individuals have realized perfect freedom of thought; but usually, each formulation has been treated by its adherents as final in its own domain. Nevertheless, the entire realm of mind is one; and change of ideas in a single department of thought often involves the readjustment of a whole scheme.
Theologians, scientists and philosophers have contemplated life from independent standpoints. Not only have they antagonized each other, but they have been at variance among themselves. Each one has asserted his own views in opposition to all others, until chaos of conflicting claims ensued. Each has insisted upon the supremacy of his own opinions, only to have them superseded in turn by others for which equal authority was claimed. Each purported to hold the unalloyed truth. But men are beginning to see that beliefs about truth are not the Truth; that conceptions, to be of value, must be sufficiently elastic to admit of unlimited readjustment and modification.
However exhaustively we study the world from any standpoint, we have only to assume a different one, or to view it from another plane, to find our former conception replaced by a new one. Theologians, scientists and philosophers are coming to recognize and consider the claims of one another. Not one, without the aid of the others, can see the full significance of even the smallest fact of life. Like the radii of a circle when considered as starting from different points on the circumference, they all converge toward a common center.
The Truth can be dealt with only on its own plane. The world is still attempting to solve its problems upon the plane suggested in the query of the woman of Samaria—whether men ought to worship "in this mountain" or in Jerusalem. No true answer could be given upon the plane of such an inquiry, for it revealed a misconception of the very idea of worship. When the true nature of worship was understood, the alternative implied in the question was no longer possible.
Conceptions are at best only suggestive. They cannot comprehend the Truth, for that is infinite and transcends all possibility of perfect formulation. They can only indicate the direction in which it lies, the atmosphere in which it exists. They are its ever-changing body, which the dogmatist mistakes for the soul. They are its appearance, not its reality. The forms of our conceptions must necessarily be deduced from experience.
At the surface of life is manifold expression in infinite variety, apparently without unity of source, or direction of purpose. If we dwell upon the surface, we are borne around, knowing neither whence nor whither. Phenomena seem the only realities. But as we turn inward and seek its center, obeying a spiritual attraction, we begin to discern the unreality of phenomena. Only when the universal center becomes the individual's center, does he find perfect repose. Past and future are lost in an eternal present. Existence seems no longer fragmentary, but one complete whole. Confusion, contradiction and inharmony no longer prevail. The most intricate problems reach a simple solution. From this standpoint both center and circumference are perceivable, and the whole is comprehensible; while from the surface neither circumference nor center is recognizable, and the mind knows not even its own relative position.
At the center alone is absolute knowledge possible. There the individual comes into harmony with the Universal and shares its consciousness. Thought and feeling are no longer distinct experiences, but are merged in realization. We know what truth is because we experience the Truth. This was the standpoint of Jesus. He spoke with absolute authority: "I and my Father are one;" "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life." The Pharisees, who judged according to appearances from the outer instead of the inner standpoint, were astonished at his wisdom: "Whence hath this man knowledge, never having learned?" To the dogmatist of today the idea of wisdom which is independent of learning is just as incomprehensible. He insists that it must bear the stamp of the schools, or be accompanied by some external authority, in order to be genuine. The great world still thinks of truth as something to be known outwardly, instead of appreciated inwardly. It sees it only in conceptions; it does not realize it.
If we are to be free, in the truest sense, we must be released from bondage to belief. We must conquer the intellect, and make it our servant, instead of permitting it to be our master. We must assume a standpoint above the plane of understanding, so as to be able to control our thinking, and not allow it to control us. The vast majority of people, knowingly or ignorantly, merely reflect the opinions of others in intellectual matters, instead of developing original tendencies of thinking. Just at present it is comparatively easy for most persons to forsake old beliefs and conceptions for newer ones. These are days of transition, of revision, of reconstruction, in the world of thought. It is now, indeed, more natural for progressive minds to accept new forms of belief than to cling to old ones. So general is this disposition, so widespread has become the tendency to adopt new ways of thinking, that, unless one is extremely careful, he is in danger of yielding to a "fad" in changing his views. History proves that when any reconstructive movement has once gained sufficient headway, new recruits flock eagerly to its support. But, after all, the significance of such movements does not lie so much in the superiority of the new doctrines they proclaim as in the spirit evinced by considerable numbers of people identified with them to become independent truth-seekers, instead of to adhere tenaciously to any single phase or expression of truth. In time, however, a large proportion of the champions of new doctrines allow themselves to come into bondage to them, just as have men, in times past, to older ones. History constantly repeats itself. Principles, vital truths, give rise to doctrines, and in turn doctrines degenerate into dogmas. It is the dogmatic spirit rather than allegiance to any particular belief that stamps one a bondservant of thought instead of a free man. Every dogma is a dry, shriveled husk that once contained the seeds of a vital truth. Men recognize the familiar external form, and by association confound it with the spiritual essence it once embodied. But the living germ has already fallen into the ground where, warmed and nourished by the revitalizing influences of faith and love, it is again growing into manifestation in fresh forms. Such is the common history of all beliefs. Doctrines, philosophies and theologies are born, grow, bear fruit and die. "Except a kernel of wheat fall into the ground and die, it cannot bear fruit."
Every belief is destined at some time to be outgrown and cast aside. He who pins his faith to beliefs, ancient or modern, builds on an unstable foundation. The free man is absolved even from the desire for a permanent system of thought. Just now we need to be exceedingly careful lest, in our enthusiasm for a newly discovered ideal, we establish a dogma of healing. The final word in this matter has not yet been spoken,—in fact it never can be spoken in any matter with which the intellect has to deal. Every man believes what he believes because of his particular view-point. The free man recognizes the utter dependence of belief upon viewpoint. Instead of asserting that what appears to him in the form of intellectual conceptions is the Truth, he treats his views rather as working hypotheses. To attempt to put truth into rigid forms, implies a misconception of its very nature. For convenience we may try to formulate it, but always with the realization that each result is merely tentative and a steppingstone to a higher one, in endless progression, as our experience enlarges. Creeds are but "milestones on the road to truth." The man whose inner world is based on definite beliefs is in much the same quandary as the ancients who fancied that the earth rested on the back of a huge elephant, which in turn stood on a tortoise. But what supported the tortoise? That seems to have rested on the credulity of the believer. An absolute first cause can never be arrived at by reasoning back from specific effects to their antecedent causes. In order to obtain a truer inward view of the world, we must relinquish the view-point we have hitherto held. We shall then see that absolute truth is independent of all fixed beliefs and authority. Spirit is self-constituted, self-sufficient, self-sustaining, not mind-created or subject to the dominion of thought. It is necessary repeatedly to tear away formulas and dogmas—deposits of thought filtered through the intellect and crystallized around the spiritual nucleus of life. Open-mindedness is the key that unlocks the door of the intellect, and gives one access to the spiritual realm. He who bars this door with dogmas and creeds cannot know the essence of truth.
Agnosticism and skepticism have dealt some heroic blows at lingering, decaying forms from which the Spirit had departed, lopping off and pruning away the dead wood of dogmatism to make way for fresh expressions of a vital character. Honest skepticism is like fire, consuming the dross, and leaving only the genuine substance of truth unscathed. A positive, vital faith is impervious to the thrusts of such negative weapons as doubt and unbelief. They can only prevail where faith is in decadence and the dry rot of conventionality has set in. As beliefs are outgrown and discarded, many timid persons entertain the gravest apprehension lest the disappearance of old forms shall involve the destruction of faith and the annihilation of all that men have reverenced in the past. By confounding faith with belief, by associating the Truth with its instruments or agents, they are led to assume that if certain of the latter are put aside because no longer adequate to meet present needs and conditions, no vital power will survive capable of effecting a reconstruction of life upon a broader basis. They do not recognize an eternal Principle beneath all metamorphoses. The casting off of superfluous opinions and conceptions that have already fulfilled their period of usefulness is indicative of a deeper life at work making for larger ends. As newly formed leaf-buds expand, they force the past season's dried foliage to loosen its hold and fall to earth, thereby preparing the way for a fuller growth of fresh leaves.
Slaves of belief may be separated into two classes:—those who judge every idea in the light of their preconceived opinions, holding tenaciously to a particular philosophy or creed which serves them as a touchstone by which to estimate all new revelations of truth; and those who, although not hopelessly or permanently committed to the views they now hold, are, nevertheless, slaves of belief because they substitute in their lives one or another form of belief for the Principle of principles. The former class cannot properly be termed truth-seekers at all, for they are unwilling to abandon outgrown conceptions for more serviceable ones. The man who never changes his views is, indeed, hopelessly in the dark. He is like a person who should refuse to change his clothing lest he might thereby forfeit his identity. The dogmatist does not profit by the experiences of past generations. In the clearer light of the future, our most advanced conceptions will seem crude and even in a way absurd, as do those of former periods to us today. The radical of yesterday is the conservative of today; the "crank" of today may prove the sage of tomorrow. Every truly great scientist is imbued with the spirit of reverence, not that of arrogance. It is a characteristic trait of the dogmatist to regard the knowledge of his own time as the grand consummation of all past thinking. He fancies that, however ignorant and conceited former generations may have been, the full light of truth has now, at length, burst upon the world. Yet in the evolution of knowledge it is necessary continually to abandon outgrown theories after they have served their purpose as stepping-stones to a more perfect understanding of truth.
The doctrine of the "new birth" is founded on a universal principle. Beneath the distorted conception of conversion taught in the "old theology," is a fact of experience that finds new emphasis in each successive epoch of the world's unfoldment. Before any human being can appreciate his right relation to the universe, it is necessary for him to utterly forsake the viewpoint he accepted on entering this sphere of finite thought, the earthly life,—to cease relying on intellectual impressions as the basis of absolute knowledge. Through the spiritual re-birth, one emerges from the darkness of that realm into the light of an absolute or axiomatic consciousness. Thus the Truth makes one free. "Except a man be born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God," i.e., the realm of Spirit.