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The Idea of Religion

So unfailingly are the minds of men dominated by the tyranny of the institution that even to quote the inspired utterance of Hebrew or Hindu has become somewhat inexpedient to whomsoever essays to speak independently of truth; inexpedient lest he shall be thought to commit himself to some particular and partial view—to be the phonograph into which some sect or cult has spoken. But truth will be subject to neither book nor institution; will not be cornered nor held in the treasury with the brocaded vestments and sacred relics. And he who would act as her spokesman must speak from without the world's institutions and from within himself.

Nevertheless, those visions of truth which have been vouchsafed to men in all ages, and the record of which, more or less adulterated, forms what is known as the sacred literature of the world, give aid and encouragement to all who search for the true meaning of life; and he who gives ear to the communication of the Spirit will find their echo nowhere oftener than in the Bible. But once and for all may we lay aside prejudice and tradition and read the Bible with open eyes; let us abjure it as a fetish that we may find in it an inspiration. And while we behold the glorious expression of that truth which underlies all religions, we shall find superimposed upon this and to a great degree obscuring it, the dogma and superstition of another period; the tales and allegories, fable and fiction which arose in after times to give to the inspired sayings unity, from a certain exterior point of view, that they might become subject to the purposes of the institution and amenable to the ends of priest craft. Nor are we warranted in assigning an ethical unity to so heterogeneous a collection of writings as that which constitutes the Bible. Such is the deference to the authority of names that we exclude from the canon of scripture certain books as apocryphal; but to the sublime authority of truth we offer no such unqualified allegiance, and are content that much that is apocryphal from this standpoint and at variance with the canons of reason should remain. We may assume that the familiar adage of the devil's quoting scripture would never have arisen were there no grounds for supposing scripture to contain that which might be construed to serve his ends. But this fallacy of the infallibility of scripture is in no sense unique, but pertains, it may safely be inferred, to all writings that are esteemed as sacred, governing the Hindu in his relation to the Veda, and the Mahometan to the Koran; investing alike with sacred dignity whatever incongruity may occur on some antique scroll, some venerable papyrus or parchment.

But there shall surely be held a council of reason whose office it will be to weed this sacred garden and to separate the tares from the wheat, to disassociate the visions of seers—the pearls of truth—from the mere record of misdoings; that divine edicts may not again be cited in justification of the savagery of a primitive people, and that we may no longer promulgate as sacred that which forms a chapter in the annals of crime. Thus shall they be absolved at the confessional of their own higher natures who have refrained from giving such husks to the fair mind of childhood, that asking for bread it should no longer be given a stone. Whereupon that Bible we have so long held with palsied hands and read with bleared vision shall be invested with a new glory, and filled with a new meaning, or rather with one that is never old.

We shall see that in its final analysis the Bible presents an epitome of the Soul's history—or, properly, of the history of man's recognition of the Soul, reaching its ultimate expression in the life of Jesus whose transcendent genius lay in his perfect apprehension of the spiritual basis of life and of the oneness of the Universal and the individual Soul, whereby he realized his true relation with the Infinite. Him all men reverence but none comprehend. "Surely," they say, "His was a voice from heaven"; and so he has become a fixed star, his early adherents a constellation. He dared so assert the supremacy of the Soul that men repudiate their manhood and worship him as God. So dazzling is that vision of man, so radiant his countenance that the eyes of men are put out and they behold not their brother. Nineteen centuries have elapsed since that grand and solitary Soul dared assert the prerogatives of mankind, dared rely upon the Infinite Love and trust the Unseen. But the voice which spoke in him speaks in us today—shall speak nineteen centuries hence, and admonishes us likewise of our divine origin and spiritual inheritance. The Spirit of Truth within us rises in majesty to welcome all expression of truth—and time is not. Behold, men like ourselves proclaimed this truth and saw these visions. And now shall we do likewise; shall lift up our heads from the dust; shall stand again for the dignity of spiritual manhood and proclaim anew the freedom of man made in the image of God, and so doing shall come to write our own bibles. For we are under no fatality that we should forever translate Pali and Sanskrit, Hebrew and Greek, that we may hear the Word of God; the English tongue will serve as well to record the monitions of the Spirit.

We may assign as the basis of religion the idea of God and the recognition of the Soul, for this implies a relationship and dependence. And the love of this supreme idea, the desire for a deeper realization of this idea, the yearning which in some minds seeks satisfaction in union with the universal Soul, in others in absorption into it, and in others again in a realization of the present and eternal identity of the individual with that universal, from which it has never been and never can be separate—this is the working out or approximation of the divine archetype, and constitutes the reason and purport, or we may say, the idea of religion, in virtue of which man must always seek his Maker. This longing implanted in the human heart, this groping for the Infinite, while primarily natural and spontaneous, tends always in the hands of a priesthood to become conventional and perfunctory in its expression, and to congeal into various dogmatic systems.

In considering the idea of religion it is to be observed that while its expression is prone to crystallize into some form, it is itself superior to all forms; it cannot be contained, and tends to escape whenever there is any conventional or molding process. To the form of religion man has contributed all that is blackest in his character; to the idea of religion he has given all that is noblest. Not but what there is a time and place for every phase of religious thought; and in its day emotionalism, which is pseudo religion par excellence, serves as one swing of the pendulum that forever oscillates between credulity and apostasy, between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, reverence and fanaticism. A certain refining and evolutionary process is always in order in the religious world, whereby certain types tend to become extinct and others dominant for a time. The decline of any phase is marked by the degeneracy of rational belief into superstition and bigotry, piety into pharisaism, and sanctity into cant. But we should perhaps discredit none, realizing that the worst have at least the negative virtue of undoing themselves, while that central idea of religion remains ever intact in its purity and sublimity, though temporarily misconstrued and even lost sight of; their vice lies in living out of date and beyond their time—saurians rampant in a mammalian age, but destined nevertheless to disappear.

Under the impetus of this idea the world discards its religious speculations as a growing caterpillar molts its skin—whenever in the course of its growth the skin becomes too close. The religious world has molted repeatedly and the cast-off integuments are of deep interest to the religio-paleontologist, forming as they do a mould or cast of successive bodies of thought. As a caterpillar will turn and devour the skin from which it but now emerged, so it happens not infrequently that the old belief is absorbed and incorporated with the new. The Hellenic larva after successive molts, mythologic and philosophic, produced the Platonic butterfly, a rare and beautiful fossil perfectly preserved in the strata of human thought, which before its decline doubtless contributed somewhat of its essential philosophic qualities to determining the form of the then newly arisen type of Christianity. From Egypt has descended to us a fragment of the Hermetic fossil, by some looked upon as a sort of Rosetta Stone to the ancient Wisdom Religion; from remote Persian antiquity comes the Avesta, dwindled and shrunken but still animate; from Sinai proceeds still the thunder of that awful and unapproachable Jehovah of Judaism, while the tablets of stone are set up within the households of Christendom; of the Chaldean and Assyrian there remains hardly a fragment. In the far East there arose a true Psyche—a winged soul—to flutter over the hills and plains of Hindustan, which retains still its ethereal beauty nor has lost the iridescent sheen of its glorious wings; and the spirit of the Upanishads went abroad to be a solace to whomsoever through its truth should find the Way. And these Upanishads were the rich spiritual soil from whence sprang the gentle Buddha, to invest with the force of a transcendent individuality some phases at least of the time-honored truth, and to mark even at that early day a recoil from the perversion and extremes of priest craft. It was in Palestine where now the spirit of the past sits brooding, and nature lies under the spell of a mighty reverie; where blossom still the rose of Sharon and the lilies of the field, where, in the solemn landscape, silent spectral Bedouins pursue their dreamy way between hedgerows of prickly pear, swinging rhythmically on stately camels; it was in this land of Syria that the ineffable vision of truth declaring itself in the parable and imagery of Semitic genius was destined to sound with unequaled sublimity the Word of God; while it was in succeeding years in Alexandria that the streams of Semitic and Aryan thought were to unite, thenceforth to flow onward through the centuries—the great river of Christianity; the fusion of Jewish monotheism, Jewish ethics, and Jewish legendary and traditional lore, with the philosophic culture of Greece; the whole illumined and made glorious by the pure radiance of love—the law that supersedes the tablets of stone, the light that removes the veil of the past, the benign influence that softens the hearts of men and makes the esoteric teaching of Jesus preeminent because it is the religion of love. The world has since rent its integument in divers places. But whether it was a sudden and meteoric outburst such as the appearance of the Prophet and the rise of Islam, or the more gentle appearance of Sufism: or as in the Christian world a rending asunder as of Greek and Latin, or a great split like the Reformation, or the continued disruptions of Papist and Huguenot, of Establishment and Disestablishment, Dissenters, Come-outers, Calvinists, Wesleyites, Swedenborgians, Puritans, Quakers, Dunkards, or what not; it was always a rift and readjustment to suit the infinite differentiation of human needs. And now is this old cuticle cracking still and peeling here and there.

But through every religion there runs one general line of cleavage separating it into two parts, into two distinct phases—mysticism and scholasticism. This division has never been wanting in Christianity, but since the days of the German Mystics has been perhaps but little recognized—for the expression of mysticism is always intermittent, no two phases being identical, but appearing now with a transcendental, again with some other aspect; it has seldom been institutional, and is more often individual than collective. We are witnessing in these very days a revolt against scholasticism and a renaissance of true mysticism: a mysticism that stands for truth, and for the spirit as against the letter; a mysticism that represents the philosophy and the theosophy of Christianity against its theology and dogmatism; that accepts the Christ in the light of its philosophic antecedents as the manifestation of the Logos, the bond between the human and the Divine, the Light that lighteth every man that comes into the world; that divests Jesus of his legendary and mythical character, and looks for the birth of the Christ within every awakened man; that sees in the finding of that inner Christ the Way which leads to God, in the assumption of that Christly mind the ideal of the spiritual life. And it beholds in the historic Christ an example of the divine possibilities of mankind when conscious of the Logos it abandons itself to God: when abiding in the spiritual consciousness it shall make its claim accordingly and shall do even as was done, and still greater things. This mysticism is not concerned with what is legendary and traditional in Christianity but with that which is spiritual, philosophical and metaphysical—with that spiritual truth which Jesus applied to mankind, in the realization of which all men become sons of God, and of which his life and works were the attestation. It would aim therefore to live spiritually in the conviction that it is the spirit which avails and not the flesh; that it is expedient to seek and work for that which is permanent—to lose the sensuous life of strife and turmoil in order to find the philosophic life of peace and love. Thus it seeks to experience a rebirth of consciousness—to be born again—to attain a child-like purity of mind that there may be entered that state of harmony with the facts of love and being which constitutes the ever present kingdom of heaven.

The scholastic mind of today looks still with disfavor upon the mystic. Nevertheless it is obvious that mysticism, or the perception of the Divine in man, has for its premise that basis of truth which must ever find corroboration in the spiritual mind, whereas the dogmas of scholasticism do not; nor can we fail to recognize the fact that Jesus himself was the Mystic of mystics. And though mysticism in general may be liable to perversion and to abuses that lead to self-deceit, scholasticism has been productive of greater abuses and a far more general deception.

It is preeminently the office of religion to be the high priestess of truth, to "show the besotted world how passing fair is wisdom." Reason will not for a moment sanction a divorce between philosophy and religion. Philosophic conviction and religious faith are not only compatible, but are, properly speaking, complementary; and to cast out philosophy from religion is to degrade the latter to a superstition. It is to be regretted that the ancient term theosophy has lost its deep and universal application and come to have so limited and conventional a significance, for it best expressed the idea of religion. As theology is the bane, so is truth the genius of religion, and serves to give definite aim and purport to human life and thought; to supply the necessary bias to the mind and afford consistency and reason and identity of purpose throughout the continuity of life eternal; to supply a thread that is never broken but shall be taken up in the successive phases of existence, and without which life would be fragmentary and disconnected. Material aims are devoid of continuity and consistency and cannot supply this thread, but broken ravelings merely. Given the fact of consciousness, and the mind must have a reality of which to be conscious—upon which to reflect. It is plainly its function to be conscious of truth, and to reflect upon that which is real and essential to its life and progress.

There has been advanced no more untenable proposition than the dogma of Revelation; an appointed time and place for the revealing of truth. Truth is properly not so much revealed as it is discovered. It stands an eternal revelation to all men who are able to perceive it. Our obtuseness is the only concealment; as we ascend the mountain the view expands. To take to oneself credit for the discovery savors of conceit. God is speaking ever to those who have ears to hear. Were one who had been born blind suddenly to obtain sight, he would doubtless cherish his first perception of common objects in the light of a discovery, and would say of the stars, "what glorious and shining objects have I not discovered in the heavens!" When in the past someone received his spiritual sight we speak of it with bated breath as revelation—a something supernatural. He looked, indeed, upon the everlasting stars at which we blink with rudimentary eyes; and did we but perceive a tithe of the cosmic revelation eternally awaiting our recognition we would be overwhelmed with the majesty of our position, and evermore look about us with reverence and awe. Would that we might strike from the Bible the word fear and write lave, that we would have authority, if need be, that love is the beginning of wisdom. The atmosphere of Sinai or of Patmos was no more favorable to clear vision than is that of Boston or New York. Whoever ascends the Sinai of his own being, whoever retires to the serenity and solitude of some inner Patmos or Buddha-Gaya, there to live free from outer hindrance, stands in a fair way to discover anew some facts of being.

Truth takes its rise not from the Bible, nor the Upanishad, nor the Avesta, but from the Soul, and antedates all books. These preponderant institutions, Christianity, Brahmanism, Buddhism, Mahometanism, Shintoism, Jainism—are not so much religions as phases of religion. Truth comes from within and is recognized in the book only upon its inward cognition. Burn every book and there would remain a residuum of truth no less than now is. From a child we may have read and conned the Bible, but not until the day of our regeneration shall we perceive its message; and in that day we shall feel that heretofore we have read and heard that mostly which was unessential and without real import. To love and understand what is best in Browning, or Emerson, or Thoreau, honors one's spiritual perception, for the substance of their writing eludes the purely intellectual mind. When one speaks of Thoreau as of a naturalist merely, it may be assumed he is not yet able to read Thoreau; for botany was his pastime—religion was the serious pursuit of his life.

The language of the Soul is the same for all times and all men; it is a key to what is worth unlocking in the scriptures of all races. It interprets as readily the imagery and idiom of a Semitic as of an Aryan or a Turanian people. A Seer speaks from the desert and his words pass from tongue to tongue, from century to century, and are received with a thrill of recognition by kindred minds today. Who so cosmopolitan as truth, for she is at home in Egypt and in Syria, in Persia and in India, Europe and America. To the Persian she is a Persian, to the Arab an Arabian, to the Hindu a Hindu, but to Christendom she remains still a Hebrew.

Love of God is the reason for all that is true in religion as fear of some god or devil—it matters not which—is the ground of fetishism. Only that which springs from the heart, only that which is implanted in the spiritual consciousness is vital in religion. The zenith of theology points the nadir of religion, which declines with the ascendency of dogma. Such is the disparity between the nucleus of truth in a religious system and the tenets of the institution that has been builded around it, that the nearer we draw to the central figure and the spirit of his philosophy, the further do we depart in sympathy from the system.

It is the aim of religion that we should preserve our integrity before God; how much, then, depends on the idea of God! There is perhaps no such thing as an absolute atheism, but there are many strange gods. There are ninety-and-nine beautiful names of Allah and there are as many that are not lovely. To deny one god and bow to a supreme God, Fate, does not constitute atheism but is another form of monotheism; as to believe in God and the devil is polytheism. The decline of mythology no doubt marks the ascent of religion, but it is no abrupt transition and the form of religion reveals always a certain mythologic impress. It matters not whether our Pantheon be of deities or of saints. An anthropomorphic God is the child of mythology. The Greek in the day of his myths knew naught of mythology, for what we so denominate was to him his religion; and posterity shall as surely ascribe the taint of mythology to that which we deem our religion, for the religion .of one period is judged somewhat mythologic from a later and more advanced age. The world has passed from that ancient mythology, prehistoric or connate with the beginnings of history, to that later phase which is premetaphysical and now merging into metaphysics. And there are not wanting iconoclasts that would overthrow the gods of fate and chance, of wrath and arbitrary decrees, and declare the one true God of Love, knowing the false gods to be the projection of human ignorance. In the words of the Eleatic Xenophanes:

If sheep, and swine, and lions strong, and all the bovine crew,
Could paint with cunning hands and do what clever mortals do,
Depend upon it, every pig with snout so broad and blunt
Would make a Jove that like himself would thunder with a grunt.

Theology has inclined ever to a god of battle and inferred that men have been created and set on occasion to war with one another that principle might be vindicated. But principle needs no vindication and forever asserts itself. Though humanity transgress as one man, divine law remains immutable: vengeance though sought in the name of Infinite Love returns upon the seeker.

A religion serves a truly moral and beneficent end only in so far as its scheme is in accordance with truth. We can no longer afford to be ignorant of the principles of metaphysics. It is not to be assumed for a moment that while physical science is making such rapid progress, the science of mind itself has not undergone a like development. Metaphysics, no less than chemistry, has outgrown its alchemistic and speculative period and is now an applied science. It has been remarked that there was a time when if the facts did not agree with the dogmas of a religion, so much the worse for the facts. There may be those who still regard the coach-and-four as the only proper method of conveyance and who fondly hope to see it reinstated. Man, despite what he may appear to be, is a spiritual being, having his life in God who is Spirit, and to declare himself anything less than that is to disparage his chance of present realization to just that degree. Being implies the inherent equality of mankind: theology sees one or a few elevated above all others. Equity decrees that every man shall accept the responsibility for his acts: theology would have one assume the responsibility for all. Being affirms life to be continuous—r a perpetual sequence of cause and effect; theology would have it broken and disconnected.

All men have some religion, but few have the faculty of discerning that which is true in the various forms of religion. It requires rare discernment to distinguish the grain of wheat in its bushel of chaff—to neither overlook the seedlet nor be overwhelmed and smothered in the chaff. It wants a fine spiritual balance to go thus far with a religion and no further; to go the full measure of love and spirituality and stop short of theology and a perversion of metaphysics—to accept the spirit and reject the letter; to discriminate between that which will encourage the spiritual and perceptive faculties, and that again which produces atrophy of the will and indifference to present life—and leads to the abyss of inertia. In the maze of philosophic and religious systems through which the inquiring mind may wander, there is offered always the safe conduct of the Spirit. Choose none! Reject none! But take from all that which is for you and it shall be given you to construct therewith that which will sustain you and best serve your development. Be true to your Self and all shall work to your advancement: be true, and truth shall appear to you in letters of light. But false to your Self, you shall be overwhelmed in the wilderness of error.

There is nowhere a greater lack of independence than in matters of religion. It is now sixty years since Emerson remarked with rare insight that it already indicated "character and religion" to withdraw from the religious meetings. We continue to appoint men to do our thinking and our praying, nor consider it derogatory to the dignity of the Soul that another should undertake to make our peace with heaven. We are content to be sheep rather than men, and to walk with God by proxy. The fallacy of institutional and ceremonial religion lies in asserting one to have done the thinking for the many, in claiming one could achieve the salvation of the many. But God deals not with communities nor races but with individuals, and every man shall work out his own salvation—shall save himself from ignorance. How may he do this if not by thinking for himself; how may he become wise if not by his own efforts. Goodness comes not by another's virtue nor wisdom by another's thinking. The idea of religion stands out clearly to the spiritual mind, and where there are the more mysteries, the more obscure signs and symbols, there is found the less religion. It is to no purpose that the paraphernalia of mystery was designed to mask the truth from the unfeeling gaze and to reserve the esoteric for the reverential homage of the initiate, for truth will out to whomsoever is ready to receive it. There is no need to conceal the esoteric from the vulgar, for it is its own concealment. As well talk of concealing telescopic nebulae; astronomers will discover and map them, while farmers will never look for them. Signs and symbols no less than pomp and ceremony are the retainers of a system and serve as a retinue that shall impress the multitude; for whereas pomp dazzles the eye, the symbol confuses the intellect.

If your religion is the result of another's persuasion, be assured it is not so much a mark of spiritual growth as of the lack of individuality. What has the soul to do with creeds and conversions? If you have accepted the faith of your fathers as such, it will fail you. We are required each to derive a faith of our own, and none other will suffice. We cling to an ancestral belief, but not until we give up this faith in another shall we find that faith in ourselves by which alone we stand; not until we give up the God in the skies shall we behold the measure of our own identity with the Infinite; not until we cease looking for the heaven of the future shall we find the heaven of the present. We must look to it that our religion leads us forward and not backward. You who have been nurtured in the cherished traditions of a time-honored belief shall one day be beset with doubts. You cannot escape them; they are incident to an ultimate perception of the idea of religion. May you welcome that day and encourage those doubts. They are angels in disguise and presage the appearance of a plant from the seed which but for them would have rotted in the ground. When you have said, "I ought to believe" that which you cannot believe, you have belied yourself. Your very doubts shall stimulate you to a faith that is real, as your aspirations imply and are the guarantee of that which you seek. Say not, "Lord help me in mine unbelief," but, if you will, "Lord help me to be true to myself." It has been said that to doubt the evidence of the senses was the first step in philosophy. It is equally true that to doubt the evidence of any authority recognized as absolute or infallible is the first step in true religion.

We need never despair of attaining to faith because of present doubts; never to have doubted would signify credulity rather than faith. We shall not discard the reason and repudiate the mind because they declare contrary to a creed, the product of some mind. Faith is transitive, requiring an object, and so implies that its object is supreme to the consciousness. Faith in a system or creed or anything external to us is subjection to what is impermanent, and hence is itself ephemeral. But faith in the interior Self is allegiance to that which shall stand unmoved when the heavens and earth have passed away. How shall we be satisfied with bookishness and monkishness who must have religion? Shall we forswear the Soul and be content with less than truth? How can we refrain from inquiring, who are given minds wherewith to inquire? Search! Search! Search!—that religion may come to be an invigoration, a resource and an inspiration, and shall no longer be deemed a token of weakness and decline.

There are men who are ashamed both of appearing religious and of not appearing so. Into such disrepute has piety fallen, that a pious man is often looked at askance, and is suspected of using it as a cloak for nefarious purposes. Religion is a tabooed subject on six days of the week. How do we fall short of the idea of religion that religious observance should be regarded largely as a solace for emotional women! A long face is no badge of faith. A gaunt hollow-eyed specter is no saint. You shall know one is truly religious by his joyousness. Religion is for the heroic and the strong; it is the flower of spiritual manhood and womanhood. It is not for Sundays alone but for all days. We read of a primitive German people who believed in a Deity too sublime to be worshiped in temples made with hands. How, then, has our God dwindled that we must seek him always within some petty enclosure! When religion springs from the heart we need enter no church, but perceive that all times are times of prayer—that living is praying—and the universe but the cathedral of the Spirit, the fixed stars the angles of its entablature, the signs of the zodiac its frieze. Set times and set places as well as formulas and creeds all conspire against what is true and ringing and joyous in religion. A man proclaims his religion in his life and shows it in his face; worships God in the nobleness of his life, and shows his reverence in the love of men and of animals; reveals it in tolerance, kindness, gentleness and strength. Our love of mankind is the measure of our love of God; our faith in the eternal goodness, eternal progress, is the test of our religion.

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Stanton Davis Kirkham

  • Born on December 7th, 1868 in Nice, Alpes-Maritimes, France and died on January 6th, 1944 in New York City.
  • Graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • Quoted in As a Man Thinketh by James Allen

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