Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation homepage > Notebooks of Paul Brunton > Perspectives > Chapter 17: The Religious Urge
The Religious Urge
We need religion, yes assuredly, but we need it freed from superstition.
A quester necessarily becomes a pilgrim seeking his destination in a Holy City. He may be a metaphysician or mystic, a profound thinker or connoisseur of Orientalisms, but he may not leave out the simple humble reverences of religious feeling.
He only has the fullest right to talk of God who knows God, not his idea, fancy, belief, or imagination about God. He only should write of the soul, its power, peace, and wisdom, who lives in it every moment of every day. But since such men are all too rare and hard to find, mankind has had to accept substitutes for them. These substitutes are frail and fallible mortals, clutching at shadows. This is why religionists disagree, quarrel, fight, and persecute both inside and outside their own groups.
It is unjust to deny the truths of religion in efforts to show up its superstitions or to decry its services and contributions to human welfare in order to point at its persecutions.
The public demonstration of one's religion in church or temple does not appeal to all temperaments. Some can find holiest feelings only in private. Those in the first group should not attempt to impose their will on the others. Those in the second group should not despise the followers of conventional communion. More understanding between the two may be hard to arrive at, but more tolerance would be a sign that the personal religious feeling is authentic.
The sceptic, the anthropologist, and the philosopher of Bertrand Russell's type say that religion arose because primitive man was terrified by the destructive powers of Nature and endeavoured to propitiate them or their personifications by worship and prayer. They say further that civilized man, having achieved some measure of control over natural forces, feels far less in need of religious practices. This is an erroneous view. Religions were instituted by sages who saw their need as a preparatory means of educating men's minds for the higher truths of science and philosophy.
Its originator left some power behind which was partly responsible for its wide and deep spread. This is the vivifying principle behind the spread of every historic religion, a principle whose results make us exclaim with Origen, "It is a work greater than any work of man." We should regard the great originators, the great religious saviours of the human race like Jesus and Buddha, as divinely used instruments. The individual centre of power which each left behind on our planet extended for long beyond his bodily death, continued to respond helpfully to those who trusted it, but then gradually waned and will eventually terminate after a historic period has ended. No organized religion ever endures in its original form for more than a limited period. All the great religions of the earliest antiquity have perished. The originators were admittedly not ordinary men. They belonged to higher planes of thought and being. They came from spheres of consciousness superior to that of average humanity. This was highly exceptional, but it does not turn them into gods. Nor does it justify us today in living in the past and leaning on what is vanishing. For despite all lapses and regressions, humanity is now coming of intellectual age. This is one reason why it must now furnish its own teachers, must recognize and appreciate its own wise men. For in the coming age, no further descents of these superior beings like the two just named may be expected. There will be no other Messiahs than those we can evolve from amongst ourselves.
The general line of inner development for the human race is in the first stage right action, which includes duty, service, responsibility. In the second stage religious devotion appears. This engenders worship of the higher power, moral improvement, holy communion. The third stage is mystical and involves practice of meditation to get a more intimate communion. The fourth stage is the awakening of need to understand truth and know reality. Its completed product is the sage, who includes in himself the civilized man, the religionist, the mystic, and the philosopher.
The dangers and downfall of every religion begin when its symbols are taken as substitutes for its realities, and when attendance at its public services replaces efforts at individual development.
Each person has some kind of faith; this includes the person whose faith reposes in scepticism.
It is right and proper that a building put to a sacred use should be reserved for it and kept apart from profane activities.
The exhibition of relics, the erection of shrines, or the creation of memorials, statues, paintings, and sects to record the name of a saint or prophet or holy man is useful to impress his attainments upon the minds of others living long after he has gone, and perhaps to inspire them to do something for themselves in the same direction.
In some rose-stained-glass-windowed church one may sense the strong atmosphere of true devotion so acutely that one instinctively falls on bended knee in humble prayer and in remembrance that self is nought, God is all.
God is Mind and they that would worship it in truth must worship it mentally. The ostentatious ceremonies set up by paid professionals enable men and women to obtain pleasing emotional effects but they do not enable them to worship God. A building becomes a sacred temple when it ceases to hear phonographic mumblings and when it ceases to witness theatrical mimicries, and when it provides a fitting place where its visitors can engage in undisturbed silent and inward-turned communion with their own deeper Mind.
Men who imagine that if they take part in the ritual of a cult they have done their religious duty are dangerously self-illusioned. By attaching such a narrow meaning to such a noble word, they degrade religion. We have progressed in religion to the extent that whereas ancient man sacrificed the animal outside him upon the altar of God-worship, modern man understands that he has to sacrifice the animal inside him. The external forms of religion are not its final forms. Jesus ordered one convert to worship "in spirit and in truth," that is, internally. The two phases of worship--external and internal--are not on the same level; one is a higher development of the other.
The controversy between those who believe ritual to be indispensable and those who believe it to be irrelevant nearly always ignores four truths which, understood, dismiss the controversy itself--as ordinarily carried on--as futile. The first is that any means that adapts the truth to the limitation of intelligence which is present in the masses is useful to those masses. The artistic symbolism of ritual is such a means. The second is that the idolatry which the puritan objects to in ritual, reappears in his own use of mental images and limiting attributes, or anthropomorphic terms in thought, speech, and literature about God. The third truth is that the puritan's means is obviously adapted to a higher grade of intellect than the ritualist's and that one day the physical worship will have to give way through evolution to metaphysical worship. The fourth truth is that since each means helps different groups of men, its advocates should not attempt to impose it on a group to whom it is unsuited and consequently unhelpful. The diverse levels of human minds must be recognized. If it is wrong for the ritualist to interfere with the non-ritualist who has outgrown this level, the latter needs to be tolerant of the former who has something more to exploit in the lower Level.
The degradation, falsification, commercialization, and exploitation which men, making use of institutional religion, have made of a prophet's mission, speaks clearly of what these men themselves are made. The fact is that they are not fit to be trusted with the power which institutionalism gives them. Religion is safer and healthier and will make more genuine progress if left free and unorganized, to be the spontaneous expression of inspired individuals. It is a personal and private matter and always degenerates into hyprocrisy when turned into a public matter. The fact is, you cannot successfully organize spirituality. It is an independent personal thing, a private discovery and not a mass emotion.
It is right that the principal cathedrals, temples, and mosques of religion should be built on a majestic plan to impress those who go there to worship and to express the faith of those who put the buildings up. Such structures are not only symbolic of the importance of religious faith, but also conducive to the humility with which worship should be conducted.
Many people have so meditated upon their concept of God, that they have become one with the concept and not one with God, as they vainly delude themselves. The concept˙is not reality.
No church can keep its primitive spirituality unless it keeps its political independence. And this in turn it cannot have if it accepts a preferred position above other churches as a state establishment. It was not the leader of Russian atheism but the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church itself, the late Patriarch Segius, Metropolitan of Moscow, who admitted that the disestablishment of the State Church in his country by the Bolsheviks was really "a return to apostolic times when the Church and its servants did not deem their office a profession intended to earn their living." Such were his own words.
Those who think that because a statement appears in sacred scripture such appearance terminates all further controversy upon a question are deluding themselves. They base their unqualified assent upon the undeniable fact that the ancient sages knew what they were talking about, but they ignore the other fact that some of their followers did not. They do not know that the scriptural texts have been peppered with later interpolations or debased with superstitious additions and are consequently not always reliable. But even if they were, still, the human mind must keep itself unfettered if it would achieve truth.
When religion identifies itself with an ecclesiastical organization and forgets itself as an individual experience, it becomes its own enemy. History proves again and again that institutionalism enters only to corrupt the purity of a religion.
It is something in history to ponder over that in the Alban hills, a few kilometres from Rome, there was once a Temple of Orpheus where, 3000 years ago, the Orphic mysteries were celebrated, where Orphic religion prevailed with its tenets of rebirth, fleshless diet, the quest, and inner reality. It is arguable whether the two other religions which followed it in that area have brought a better message.
If the credo of a religion insists on keeping these allegorical, symbolical, or child-directed early myths even in an age like our own when knowledge, education, scientific discovery, and observed facts require higher mental satisfaction, the masses will consider themselves deceived and back away from their faith in the truly authentic beliefs; whereas if the religious authority has the courage to revalue its credo, explaining why it does so, it can continue to hold them.
It must be said, and said quite plainly, that the Western and Near Eastern worlds would have had a better history, and Christianity would have had a stronger foundation, because truer, if Saint Paul had never been converted but had remained a Jew. For the vision on the road to Damascus, although a genuine one, was totally misinterpreted. It was a command (to stop persecuting Christians) of a solely personal nature; but he went much farther and not only began the construction of a new world-religion but shifted its emphasis from where Jesus had put it (the kingdom of heaven within men) to Jesus himself, from faith in the Christ-consciousness to faith in a crucified corpse.
Was not the most important council of all the Council of Nicaea, which finally settled Christian doctrines for a thousand years, but which foolishly dropped the tenet of metempsychosis as heresy after it had survived the first five centuries of anno domino; was not this great gathering composed of men who mostly could neither write nor read, who were stern extreme ascetics, fanatical in character and behaviour, narrow, intolerant?
James, the brother of Jesus and an Apostle, was a vegetarian. But the theologians and historians ignore this fact which was testified to by the Judeo-Christian Hegesippus, who lived in the century following and had contact with the Palestinian circles of the Apostolic time. Moreover Hegesippus asserts that James had been brought up in this way since childhood. Does this imply that the family circle was vegetarian?
Intolerant religious organizations which would allow no other voice, however harmless, to speak than one which echoes their own must in the end fall victim to their own intolerance; for as men through their education and contact with more developed persons come to perceive the Truth, their hostility and enmity to those religions are inevitably aroused. They will then either fall into agnosticism or into sheer atheism, or they will find their way to other and truer expressions of what religion should be if it is to fulfil its highest mission. Therefore, it is not the work of a philosopher to reverse, correct, or otherwise disturb other people's religious beliefs. If the latter are faulty and if the organization propagating them is intolerant, he may be sure that given enough time others will arise to do this negative and destructive work; and this saves him the trouble of these unpleasant tasks. His own work is a positive one.
It is a tragedy of all history that the names of Men like Jesus, who came only to do good, are invariably exploited by those who fail to catch their spirit and do more harm than good. Formal entry into any religious organization relates a man only to that organization, not at all to the Prophet whose name it claims. No religious institution in history has remained utterly true to the Prophet whose name it takes, whose word it preaches, whose ethic it inculcates. A religious prophet is mocked, not honoured, when men mouth his name and avoid his example. No church is a mystical body of any prophet. All churches are, after all, only human societies, and suffer from the weaknesses and selfishnesses, the errors and mistakes, inseparable from such societies. It is a historical fact that where religious influence upon society has bred the evils of fanaticism, narrow-mindedness, intolerance, superstition, and backwardness, their presence may be traced back to the professional members and monkish institutions of that religion. Priestcraft, as I have seen it in certain Oriental and Occidental lands, is often ignorant and generally arrogant. Throughout the world you may divide clergymen and priests into two categories--those who are merely the holders of jobs and those who are truly ministers of religion.
What other way have undeveloped masses to enter into some kind of communion with God except the way of a church established by other men and of doctrines promulgated by other men, when the masses have not the necessary capacity for either an intellectual or a mystical communion? But when the established religious institution becomes a barrier to further inner growth of the masses and when the doctrines block the path for a more reasonable or more felt understanding of the Higher Power, then it is time for a revision of both things.
Until about the turn of the previous century, the truth about religion was never published frankly and plainly. This was because those who wrote about it were either one-sidedly biased in its favour and so refused to see the undesirable aspects, or else they were hostile in their personal standpoint which stopped them from mentioning the deeper merits. Those who really knew what religion was in theory and practice, what were its goods and bads, kept silent. This was because they did not wish to disturb the established faith of the simple masses or else because the latter, being uneducated, were unprepared to receive subtleties which required sufficient mental development to comprehend.
Religion was devised to assist the masses. Mysticism was designed to assist the individual. When religion has led a man to the threshold of deeper truths behind its own, its task is done. Its real value is attained in mysticism. Henceforth, the practice of mystical exercises can alone assure his further spiritual progress. For mysticism does not rest upon the shifting sands of faith or the uncertain gravel of argument, but upon the solid rock of experience. The first great move forward in his spiritual life occurs when he moves from religion to mysticism, when he no longer has to go into some stone building or to some paid mediator to feel reverential towards God, but into himself. Mysticism is for the man who is not in a hurry, who is willing to work persistently and to wait patiently for consciousness of his divine soul. The others who have not the time for this and who therefore resort to religion must live by faith, not by consciousness. The man who wishes to rise from sincere faith and traditional belief in the soul to practical demonstration and personal experience of it must rise from religion to mysticism. Mysticism seeks to establish direct contact with the divine soul, without the mediation of any man and without the use of any external instrument. Hence it must seek inward and nowhere else. Hence, too, the ordinary forms and methods of religion are not necessary to it and must be dropped. When the mystic finds the divine presence enlightening and strengthening him from within, he cannot be blamed for placing little value upon sacramental ceremonies which claim to achieve this from without. Nor is he censurable if he comes to regard church attendance as unnecessary and sacramental salvation as illusory. If a man can find within himself the divine presence, divine inspiration, and divine guidance, what need has he of church organization? It can be useful only to one who lacks them.
If the transition from religion to mysticism is to be conveniently made, it must be gradually made. But this can be done only if the teachers of religion themselves approve and promote the transition. But if they do not, if they want to keep religion imprisoned in ecclesiastic jail-irons, if they persist in a patriarchal attitude which indiscriminately regards every member of their flock as an intellectual infant who never grows up, the transition will happen all the same. Only it will then happen abruptly and after religion itself has been discarded either for cynical atheism or for bewildered apathy.
A man may be holy without being wise, but he cannot be wise without being holy. That is why philosophy is necessary, why religion and mysticism are not enough, although excellent as far as they go.
Whoever limits himself in his search, faith, and acquaintance to a single book--the Bible--limits the truth he finds. Such is the position of those sects with narrow outlooks like the Lutheran Church, the Calvinists, the Jehovah Witnesses, and several other churches. They silently proclaim their own lack of culture when the bibles, texts, hagiographs, and recorded wisdom of all lands, all historic centuries, and all languages are today available or translated or excerpted.
He will become truly religious if he ceases to remain sectarian and begins to take the whole world-wide study of religious manifestations for his province.
The old theology invested God with the quality of man. It belittled the Infinite power and imputed petty motives to the motiveless. Such a theology really worshipped its own thought of God, not God in reality, its own cruel and pitiful concept of the Inconceivable. Can we wonder that it provoked atheism and led to agnosticism when the human race began to outgrow its intellectual childhood? However fitted to that early stage of our growth, such an idea is unfitted to this mid-twentieth century of our history. We must and can face the truth that God is not a glorified man showing wilful characteristics but a Principle of Being, of Life, and of Consciousness which ever was and therefore ever shall be. There is only one Principle like that, unique, alone, the origin of all things. The imagination cannot picture it, but the intuition can receive some hint of its solitary grandeur. Such a hint it may receive through its worship of its own source, the Overself which links man with this ineffable power, the Divine Spirit within him which is his innermost Self. The personal concept of Deity was intended to satisfy the race's childhood, not to enlighten the race's adulthood. The time has come to do away with such a false concept and to accept the purity of this philosophic truth.
The philosophical teaching is that the return of every prophet is an inward event and not a physical one. The common people, with their more materialist and less subtle apprehension, expect to see his body again. The initiates expect only to find his mental presence in themselves.
Because philosophy includes and extends religion, it necessarily supports it. But it does not support the erroneous dogmas and misguided practices which are cloaked under religion's mantle, nor the human exploitations which are found in its history.
Real religion is as universal as the wind. Cut and dried religions are mere local limitations; they were originally put up as temporary trellis-work for the young souls of man to climb and grow upward, but they have become imprisoning hatches and sometimes instruments of torture. Let us look only for that which is salient in a religion, and we shall find ourselves set free from its lassoing limitations. We shall not arrive at its meaning by muddled talk in its favour any more than by muddled talk in its despite, for the powers of calm judgement and reasoned reflection are then stupefied. The philosophical student's attitude is simply this, that he can begin no discussion with acceptance of the existence of any dogma; such acceptance is only proper as the culmination of a discussion. He must question and cross-question every inherited belief, every acquired doctrine until he can elicit what we really know out of the mass of pseudo-knowledge, until he becomes conscious of the ignorance which is so often veiled by the mask of supposed knowledge. Through such agitated unsettlement and such sharp doubt alone can we win our way to rocklike certitude ultimately.
In religion, metaphysical principles become symbolized by mythological persons. Thus Adi Buddha, the primeval Force, becomes the first historic Buddha, while Christos, the Higher Self, becomes the man Jesus. Thus the universal gets shrunken into the local.
If we gaze into the soul of modern man as it has been during the present century, we shall discern therein a state of long-drawn crisis. For two opposed and conflicting world-views have been taught him during his youth: the one religious and the other scientific and both accusing each other of being untrue. The emotional consequences of this have manifested themselves in instability, immorality, cynicism, hypocrisy, and despair. The mental consequences have manifested themselves in frustration, uncertainty, and bewilderment. So long as these two forces cannot come to terms with each other within him, so long will they exhaust and not nourish him. Such a widespread and deep crisis, such a fateful and difficult situation cannot be left unresolved for long. It is driving men to sink in bewilderment and despair, where they fail to comprehend and master it, or to rise in clarity and strength where they do. It is inevitable that man should try to unify his thoughts into a coherent system and his experiences into a coherent pattern. All traditional concepts of religion will have to be reshaped to conform to this new knowledge. If, for example, his religion tells him that the world was created five thousand years ago whereas his science tells him that it was created very much more than five million years ago, a nervous tension is set up within him which harms his mental sight and hurts his physical health. Only when he can find a satisfactory synthesis which consolidates the claims of reason and feeling without sacrificing either can he find healing of his trouble. And such a synthesis exists only in philosophy.
The enlightened philosopher has no conflict with religion so long as it retains its ethical force. When a religion is crumbling, when men reject its moral restraining power, when they refuse to accept its historical incidents and irrational dogmas as being vital to living, when in consequence they are becoming brutalized and uncontrolled, as our own epoch has painfully seen, then this religion is losing its raison d'être and the people among whom it held sway are in need of help. The mass of the common people now in the West mentally dwell outside any church, and are consequently outside its disciplinary moral influence. They cannot be left to perish unguided when religion becomes just a means of duping simple minds in the interests of ruling or wealthy classes, and is no longer an ethical force. This puts the whole of society in danger, and such a religion will inevitably fall, bringing down society with itself in the crash as it did in France and later in Russia. When the old faith fails then the new is needed. Thinking men refuse to bind their reason to the incredible articles of a dogmatic creed. They refuse to swear belief in queer concepts which they find impossible to reconcile with the rest of human life and certainly with modern knowledge. The philosopher finds that religion looms against a much larger background; it is the mere shadow cast by philosophy, but for the masses the shadow suffices.
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