My Lord Primate of all England,—
We make use of an open letter to your Grace as a vehicle to convey to you, and through you, to the clergy, to their flocks, and to Christians generally—who regard us as the enemies of Christ—a brief statement of the position which Theosophy occupies in regard to Christianity, as we believe that the time for making that statement has arrived.
Your Grace is no doubt aware that Theosophy is not a religion, but a philosophy at once religious and scientific; and that the chief work, so far, of the Theosophical Society has been to revive in each religion its own animating spirit, by encouraging and helping enquiry into the true significance of its doctrines and observances. Theosophists know that the deeper one penetrates into the meaning of the dogmas and ceremonies of all religions, the greater becomes their apparent underlying similarity, until finally a perception of their fundamental unity is reached. This common ground is no other than Theosophy—the Secret Doctrine of the ages; which, diluted and disguised to suit the capacity of the multitude, and the requirements of the time, has formed the living kernel of all religions. The Theosophical Society has branches respectively composed of Buddhists, Hindoos, Mahomedans, Parsees, Christians, and Freethinkers, who work together as brethren on the common ground of Theosophy; and it is precisely because Theosophy is not a religion, nor can for the multitude supply the place of a religion, that the success of the Society has been so great, not merely as regards its growing membership and extending influence, but also in respect to the performance of the work it has undertaken—the revival of spirituality in religion, and the cultivation of the sentiment of brotherhood among men.
We Theosophists believe that a religion is a natural incident in the life of man in his present stage of development; and that although, in rare cases, individuals may be born without the religious sentiment, a community must have a religion, that is to say, a uniting bond—under penalty of social decay and material annihilation. We believe that no religious doctrine can be more than an attempt to picture to our present limited understandings, in the terms of our terrestrial experiences, great cosmical and spiritual truths, which in our normal state of consciousness we vaguely sense, rather than actually perceive and comprehend; and a revelation, if it is to reveal anything, must necessarily conform to the same earth-bound requirements of the human intellect. In our estimation, therefore, no religion can be absolutely true, and none can be absolutely false. A religion is true in proportion as it supplies the spiritual, moral and intellectual needs of the time, and helps the development of mankind in these respects. It is false in proportion as it hinders that development, and offends the spiritual, moral and intellectual portion of man’s nature. And the transcendentally spiritual ideas of the ruling powers of the Universe entertained by an Oriental sage would be as false a religion for the African savage as the grovelling fetishism of the latter would be for the sage, although both views must necessarily be true in degree, for both represent the highest ideas attainable by the respective individuals of the same cosmico-spiritual facts, which can never be known in their reality by man while he remains but man.
Theosophists, therefore, are respecters of all the religions, and for the religious ethics of Jesus they have profound admiration. It could not be otherwise, for these teachings which have come down to us are the same as those of Theosophy. So far, therefore, as modern Christianity makes good its claim to be the practical religion taught by Jesus, Theosophists are with it heart and hand. So far as it goes contrary to those ethics, pure and simple, Theosophists are its opponents. Any Christian can, if he will, compare the Sermon on the Mount with the dogmas of his church, and the spirit that breathes in it, with the principles that animate this Christian civilisation and govern his own life; and then he will be able to judge for himself how far the religion of Jesus enters into his Christianity, and how far, therefore, he and Theosophists are agreed. But professing Christians, especially the clergy, shrink from making this comparison. Like merchants who fear to find themselves bankrupt, they seem to dread the discovery of a discrepancy in their accounts which could not be made good by placing material assets as a set-off to spiritual liabilities. The comparison between the teachings of Jesus and the doctrines of the churches has, however, frequently been made—and often with great learning and critical acumen—both by those who would abolish Christianity and those who would reform it; and the aggregate result of these comparisons, as your Grace must be well aware, goes to prove that in almost every point the doctrines of the churches and the practices of Christians are in direct opposition to the teachings of Jesus.
We are accustomed to say to the Buddhist, the Mahomedan, the Hindoo, or the Parsee: “The road to Theosophy lies, for you, through your own religion.” We say this because those creeds possess a deeply philosophical and esoteric meaning, explanatory of the allegories under which they are presented to the people; but we cannot say the same thing to Christians. The successors of the Apostles never recorded the secret doctrine of Jesus—the “mysteries of the kingdom of Heaven”—which it was given to them (his apostles) alone to know.1 These have been suppressed, made away with, destroyed. What have come down upon the stream of time are the maxims, the parables, the allegories and the fables which Jesus expressly intended for the spiritually deaf and blind to be revealed later to the world, and which modern Christianity either takes all literally, or interprets according to the fancies of the Fathers of the secular church. In both cases they are like cut flowers: they are severed from the plant on which they grew, and from the root whence that plant drew its life. Were we, therefore, to encourage Christians, as we do the votaries of other creeds, to study their own religion for themselves, the consequence would be, not a knowledge of the meaning of its mysteries, but either the revival of mediæval superstition and intolerance, accompanied by a formidable outbreak of mere lip-prayer and preaching—such as resulted in the formation of the 239 Protestant sects of England alone—or else a great increase of scepticism, for Christianity has no esoteric foundation known to those who profess it. For even you, my Lord Primate of England, must be painfully aware that you know absolutely no more of those “mysteries of the kingdom of Heaven” which Jesus taught his disciples, than does the humblest and most illiterate member of your church.
It is easily understood, therefore, that Theosophists have nothing to say against the policy of the Roman Catholic Church in forbidding, or of the Protestant churches in discouraging, any such private enquiry into the meaning of the “Christian” dogmas as would correspond to the esoteric study of other religions. With their present ideas and knowledge, professing Christians are not prepared to undertake a critical examination of their faith, with a promise of good results. Its inevitable effect would be to paralyze rather than stimulate their dormant religious sentiments; for biblical criticism and comparative mythology have proved conclusively—to those, at least, who have no vested interests, spiritual or temporal, in the maintenance of orthodoxy—that the Christian religion, as it now exists, is composed of the husks of Judaism, the shreds of paganism, and the ill-digested remains of gnosticism and neo-platonism. This curious conglomerate which gradually formed itself round the recorded sayings (λογια) of Jesus, has, after the lapse of ages, now begun to disintegrate, and to crumble away from the pure and precious gems of Theosophic truth which it has so long overlain and hidden, but could neither disfigure nor destroy. Theosophy not only rescues these precious gems from the fate that threatens the rubbish in which they have been so long embedded, but saves that rubbish itself from utter condemnation; for it shows that the result of biblical criticism is far from being the ultimate analysis of Christianity, as each of the pieces which compose the curious mosaics of the Churches once belonged to a religion which had an esoteric meaning. It is only when these pieces are restored to the places they originally occupied that their hidden significance can be perceived, and the real meaning of the dogmas of Christianity understood. To do all this, however, requires a knowledge of the Secret Doctrine as it exists in the esoteric foundation of other religions; and this knowledge is not in the hands of the Clergy, for the Church has hidden, and since lost, the keys.
Your Grace will now understand why it is that the Theosophical Society has taken for one of its three “objects” the study of those Eastern religions and philosophies, which shed such a flood of light upon the inner meaning of Christianity; and you will, we hope, also perceive that in so doing, we are acting not as the enemies, but as the friends of the religion taught by Jesus—of true Christianity, in fact. For it is only through the study of those religions and philosophies that Christians can ever arrive at an understanding of their own beliefs, or see the hidden meaning of the parables and allegories which the Nazarene told to the spiritual cripples of Judea, and by taking which, either as matters of fact or as matters of fancy, the Churches have brought the teachings themselves into ridicule and contempt, and Christianity into serious danger of complete collapse, undermined as it is by historical criticism and mythological research, besides being broken by the sledge-hammer of modern science.
Ought Theosophists themselves, then, to be regarded by Christians as their enemies, because they believe that orthodox Christianity is, on the whole, opposed to the religion of Jesus; and because they have the courage to tell the Churches that they are traitors to the Master they profess to revere and serve? Far from it, indeed. Theosophists know that the same spirit that animated the words of Jesus lies latent in the hearts of Christians, as it does naturally in all men’s hearts. Their fundamental tenet is the Brotherhood of Man, the ultimate realisation of which is alone made possible by that which was known long before the days of Jesus as “the Christ spirit.” This spirit is even now potentially present in all men, and it will be developed into activity when human beings are no longer prevented from understanding, appreciating and sympathising with one another by the barriers of strife and hatred erected by priests and princes. We know that Christians in their lives frequently rise above the level of their Christianity. All Churches contain many noble, self-sacrificing, and virtuous men and women, eager to do good in their generation according to their lights and opportunities, and full of aspirations to higher things than those of earth—followers of Jesus in spite of their Christianity. For such as these, Theosophists feel the deepest sympathy; for only a Theosophist, or else a person of your Grace’s delicate sensibility and great theological learning, can justly appreciate the tremendous difficulties with which the tender plant of natural piety has to contend, as it forces its root into the uncongenial soil of our Christian civilization, and tries to blossom in the cold and arid atmosphere of theology. How hard, for instance, must it not be to “love” such a God as that depicted in a well-known passage by Herbert Spencer:
“The cruelty of a Fijian God, who, represented as devouring the souls of the dead, may be supposed to inflict torture during the process, is small, compared to the cruelty of a God who condemns men to tortures which are eternal…. The visiting on Adam’s descendants through hundreds of generations, of dreadful penalties for a small transgression which they did not commit, the damning of all men who do not avail themselves of an alleged mode of obtaining forgiveness, which most men have never heard of, and the effecting of reconciliation by sacrificing a son who was perfectly innocent, to satisfy the assumed necessity for a propitiatory victim, are modes of action which, ascribed to a human ruler, would call forth expressions of abhorrence.” (“Religion: a Retrospect and a Prospect.”)
Your Grace will say, no doubt, that Jesus never taught the worship of such a god as that. Even so say we Theosophists. Yet that is the very god whose worship is officially conducted in Canterbury Cathedral, by you, my Lord Primate of England; and your Grace will surely agree with us that there must indeed be a divine spark of religious intuition in the hearts of men, that enables them to resist so well as they do, the deadly action of such poisonous theology.
If your Grace, from your high pinnacle, will cast your eyes around, you will behold a Christian civilisation in which a frantic and merciless battle of man against man is not only the distinguishing feature, but the acknowledged principle. It is an accepted scientific and economic axiom to-day, that all progress is achieved through the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest; and the fittest to survive in this Christian civilization are not those who are possessed of the qualities that are recognised by the morality of every age to be the best—not the generous, the pious, the noble-hearted, the forgiving, the humble, the truthful, the honest, and the kind—but those who are strongest in selfishness, in craft, in hypocrisy, in brute force, in false pretence, in unscrupulousness, in cruelty, and in avarice. The spiritual and the altruistic are “the weak,” whom the “laws” that govern the universe give as food to the egoistic and material—“the strong.” That “might is right” is the only legitimate conclusion, the last word of the 19th century ethics, for, as the world has become one huge battlefield, on which “the fittest” descend like vultures to tear out the eyes and the hearts of those who have fallen in the fight. Does religion put a stop to the battle? Do the churches drive away the vultures, or comfort the wounded and the dying? Religion does not weigh a feather in the world at large to-day, when worldly advantage and selfish pleasures are put in the other scale; and the churches are powerless to revivify the religious sentiment among men, because their ideas, their knowledge, their methods, and their arguments are those of the Dark Ages. My Lord Primate, your Christianity is five hundred years behind the times.
So long as men disputed whether this god or that god was the true one, or whether the soul went to this place or that one after death, you, the clergy, understood the question, and had arguments at hand to influence opinion—by syllogism or torture, as the case might require; but now it is the existence of any such being as God, at all, or of any kind of immortal spirit, that is questioned or denied. Science invents new theories of the Universe which contemptuously ignore the existence of any god; moralists establish theories of ethics and social life in which the non-existence of a future life is taken for granted; in physics, in psychology, in law, in medicine, the one thing needful in order to entitle any teacher to a hearing is that no reference whatever should be contained in his ideas either to a Providence, or to a soul. The world is being rapidly brought to the conviction that god is a mythical conception, which has no foundation in fact, or place in Nature; and that the immortal part of man is the silly dream of ignorant savages, perpetuated by the lies and tricks of priests, who reap a harvest by cultivating the fears of men that their mythical God will torture their imaginary souls to all eternity, in a fabulous Hell. In the face of all these things the clergy stand in this age dumb and powerless. The only answer which the Church knew how to make to such “objections” as these, were the rack and the faggot; and she cannot use that system of logic now.
It is plain that if the God and the soul taught by the churches be imaginary entities, then the Christian salvation and damnation are mere delusions of the mind, produced by the hypnotic process of assertion and suggestion on a magnificent scale, acting cumulatively on generations of mild “hysteriacs.” What answer have you to such a theory of the Christian religion, except a repetition of assertions and suggestions? What ways have you of bringing men back to their old beliefs but by reviving their old habits? “Build more churches, say more prayers, establish more missions, and your faith in damnation and salvation will be revived, and a renewed belief in God and the soul will be the necessary result.” That is the policy of the churches, and their only answer to agnosticism and materialism. But your Grace must know that to meet the attacks of modern science and criticism with such weapons as assertion and habit, is like going forth against magazine guns, armed with boomerangs and leather shields. While, however, the progress of ideas and the increase of knowledge are undermining the popular theology, every discovery of science, every new conception of European advanced thought, brings the 19th century mind nearer to the ideas of the Divine and the Spiritual, known to all esoteric religions and to Theosophy.
The Church claims that Christianity is the only true religion, and this claim involves two distinct propositions, namely, that Christianity is true religion, and that there is no true religion except Christianity. It never seems to strike Christians that God and Spirit could possibly exist in any other form than that under which they are presented in the doctrines of their church. The savage calls the missionary an Atheist, because he does not carry an idol in his trunk; and the missionary, in his turn, calls everyone an Atheist who does not carry about a fetish in his mind; and neither savage nor Christian ever seem to suspect that there may be a higher idea than their own of the great hidden power that governs the Universe, to which the name of “God” is much more applicable. It is doubtful whether the churches take more pains to prove Christianity “true,” or to prove that any other kind of religion is necessarily “false;” and the evil consequences of this, their teaching, are terrible. When people discard dogma they fancy that they have discarded the religious sentiment also, and they conclude that religion is a superfluity in human life—a rendering to the clouds of things that belong to earth, a waste of energy which could be more profitably expended in the struggle for existence. The materialism of this age is, therefore, the direct consequence of the Christian doctrine that there is no ruling power in the Universe, and no immortal Spirit in man except those made known in Christian dogmas. The Atheist, my Lord Primate, is the bastard son of the Church.
But this is not all. The churches have never taught men any other or higher reason why they should be just and kind and true than the hope of reward and the fear of punishment, and when they let go their belief in Divine caprice and Divine injustice the foundations of their morality are sapped. They have not even natural morality to consciously fall back upon, for Christianity has taught them to regard it as worthless on account of the natural depravity of man. Therefore self-interest becomes the only motive for conduct, and the fear of being found out, the only deterrent from vice. And so, with regard to morality as well as to God and the soul, Christianity pushes men off the path that leads to knowledge, and precipitates them into the abyss of incredulity, pessimism and vice. The last place where men would now look for help from the evils and miseries of life is the Church, because they know that the building of churches and the repeating of litanies influence neither the powers of Nature nor the councils of nations; because they instinctively feel that when the churches accepted the principle of expediency they lost their power to move the hearts of men, and can now only act on the external plane, as the supporters of the policeman and the politician.
The function of religion is to comfort and encourage humanity in its life-long struggle with sin and sorrow. This it can do only by presenting mankind with noble ideals of a happier existence after death, and of a worthier life on earth, to be won in both cases by conscious effort. What the world now wants is a Church that will tell it of Deity, or the immortal principle in man, which will be at least on a level with the ideas and knowledge of the times. Dogmatic Christianity is not suited for a world that reasons and thinks, and only those who can throw themselves into a mediæval state of mind, can appreciate a Church whose religious (as distinguished from its social and political) function is to keep God in good humour while the laity are doing what they believe he does not approve; to pray for changes of weather; and occasionally, to thank the Almighty for helping to slaughter the enemy. It is not “medicine men,” but spiritual guides that the world looks for to-day—a “clergy” that will give it ideals as suited to the intellect of this century, as the Christian Heaven and Hell, God and the Devil, were to the ages of dark ignorance and superstition. Do, or can, the Christian clergy fulfil this requirement? The misery, the crime, the vice, the selfishness, the brutality, the lack of self-respect and self-control, that mark our modern civilization, unite their voices in one tremendous cry, and answer—no!
What is the meaning of the reaction against materialism, the signs of which fill the air to-day? It means that the world has become mortally sick of the dogmatism, the arrogance, the self-sufficiency, and the spiritual blindness of modern science—of that same Modern Science which men but yesterday hailed as their deliverer from religious bigotry and Christian superstition, but which, like the Devil of the monkish legends, requires, as the price of its services, the sacrifice of man’s immortal soul. And meanwhile, what are the Churches doing? The Churches are sleeping the sweet sleep of endowments, of social and political influence, while the world, the flesh, and the devil, are appropriating their watchwords, their miracles, their arguments, and their blind faith. The Spiritualists—oh! Churches of Christ—have stolen the fire from your altars to illumine their séance rooms; the Salvationists have taken your sacramental wine, and make themselves spiritually drunk in the streets; the Infidel has stolen the weapons with which you vanquished him once, and triumphantly tells you that “What you advance, has been frequently said before.” Had ever clergy so splendid an opportunity? The grapes in the vineyard are ripe, needing only the right labourers to gather them. Were you to give to the world some proof, on the level of the present intellectual standard of probability, that Deity—the immortal Spirit in man—have a real existence as facts in Nature, would not men hail you as their saviour from pessimism and despair, from the maddening and brutalizing thought that there is no other destiny for man but an eternal blank, after a few short years of bitter toil and sorrow?—aye; as their saviours from the panic-stricken fight for material enjoyment and worldly advancement, which is the direct consequence of believing this mortal life to be the be-all and end-all of existence?
But the Churches have neither the knowledge nor the faith needed to save the world, and perhaps your Church, my Lord Primate, least of all, with the mill-stone of £8,000,000 a year hung round its neck. In vain you try to lighten the ship by casting overboard the ballast of doctrines which your forefathers deemed vital to Christianity. What more can your Church do now, than run before the gale with bare poles, while the clergy feebly endeavour to putty up the gaping leaks with the “revised version,” and by their social and political deadweight try to prevent the ship from capsizing, and its cargo of dogmas and endowments from going to the bottom?
Who built Canterbury Cathedral, my Lord Primate? Who invented and gave life to the great ecclesiastical organisation which makes an Archbishop of Canterbury possible? Who laid the foundation of the vast system of religious taxation which gives you £15,000 a year and a palace? Who instituted the forms and ceremonies, the prayers and litanies, which, slightly altered and stripped of art and ornament, make the liturgy of the Church of England? Who wrested from the people the proud titles of “reverend divine” and “Man of God” which the clergy of your Church so confidently assume? Who, indeed, but the Church of Rome! We speak in no spirit of enmity. Theosophy has seen the rise and fall of many faiths, and will be present at the birth and death of many more. We know that the lives of religions are subject to law. Whether you inherited legitimately from the Church of Rome, or obtained by violence, we leave you to settle with your enemies and with your conscience; for our mental attitude towards your Church is determined by its intrinsic worthiness. We know that if it be unable to fulfil the true spiritual function of a religion, it will surely be swept away, even though the fault lie rather in its hereditary tendencies, or in its environments, than in itself.
The Church of England, to use a homely simile, is like a train running by the momentum it acquired before steam was shut off. When it left the main track, it got upon a siding that leads nowhere. The train has nearly come to a standstill, and many of the passengers have left it for other conveyances. Those that remain are for the most part aware that they have been depending all along upon what little steam was left in the boiler when the fires of Rome were withdrawn from under it. They suspect that they may be only playing at train now; but the engineer keeps blowing his whistle and the guard goes round to examine the tickets, and the breaksmen rattle their breaks, and it is not such bad fun after all. For the carriages are warm and comfortable and the day is cold, and so long as they are tipped all the company’s servants are very obliging. But those who know where they want to go, are not so contented.
For several centuries the Church of England has performed the difficult feat of blowing hot and cold in two directions at once—saying to the Roman Catholics “Reason!” and to the Sceptics “Believe!” It was by adjusting the force of its two-faced blowing, that it has managed to keep itself so long from falling off the fence. But now the fence itself is giving way. Disendowment and disestablishment are in the air. And what does your Church urge in its own behalf? Its usefulness. It is useful to have a number of educated, moral, unworldly men, scattered all over the country, who prevent the world from utterly forgetting the name of religion, and who act as centres of benevolent work. But the question now is no longer one of repeating prayers, and giving alms to the poor, as it was five hundred years ago. The people have come of age, and have taken their thinking and the direction of their social, private and even spiritual affairs into their own hands, for they have found out that their clergy know no more about “things of Heaven” than they do themselves.
But the Church of England, it is said, has become so liberal that all ought to support it. Truly, one can go to an excellent imitation of the mass, or sit under a virtual Unitarian, and still be within its fold. This beautiful tolerance, however, only means that the Church has found it necessary to make itself an open common, where every one can put up his own booth, and give his special performance if he will only join in the defence of the endowments. Tolerance and liberality are contrary to the laws of the existence of any church that believes in divine damnation, and their appearance in the Church of England is not a sign of renewed life, but of approaching disintegration. No less deceptive is the energy evinced by the Church in the building of churches. If this were a measure of religion what a pious age this would be! Never was dogma so well housed before, though human beings may have to sleep by thousands in the streets, and to literally starve in the shadow of our majestic cathedrals, built in the name of Him who had not where to lay His head. But did Jesus tell you, your Grace, that religion lay not in the hearts of men, but in temples made with hands? You cannot convert your piety into stone and use it in your lives; and history shows that petrifaction of the religious sentiment is as deadly a disease as ossification of the heart. Were churches, however, multiplied a hundred fold, and were every clergyman to become a centre of philanthropy, it would only be substituting the work that the poor require from their fellow men but not from their spiritual teachers, for that which they ask and cannot obtain. It would but bring into greater relief the spiritual barrenness of the doctrines of the Church.
The time is approaching when the clergy will be called upon to render an account of their stewardship. Are you prepared, my Lord Primate, to explain to your master why you have given His children stones, when they cried to you for bread? You smile in your fancied security. The servants have kept high carnival so long in the inner chambers of the Lord’s house, that they think He will surely never return. But He told you He would come as a thief in the night; and lo! He is coming already in the hearts of men. He is coming to take possession of His Father’s kingdom there, where alone His kingdom is. But you know Him not! Were the Churches themselves not carried away in the flood of negation and materialism which has engulfed Society, they would recognise the quickly growing germ of the Christ-spirit in the hearts of thousands, whom they now brand as infidels and madmen. They would recognise there the same spirit of love, of self-sacrifice, of immense pity for the ignorance, the folly, and the sufferings of the world, which appeared in its purity in the heart of Jesus, as it had appeared in the hearts of other Holy Reformers in other ages; and which is the light of all true religion, and the lamp by which the Theosophists of all times have endeavoured to guide their steps along the narrow path that leads to salvation—the path which is trodden by every incarnation of Christos or the Spirit of Truth.
And now, my Lord Primate, we have very respectfully laid before you the principal points of difference and disagreement between Theosophy and the Christian Churches, and told you of the oneness of Theosophy and the teachings of Jesus. You have heard our profession of faith, and learned the grievances and plaints which we lay at the door of dogmatic Christianity. We, a handful of humble individuals, possessed of neither riches nor worldly influence, but strong in our knowledge, have united in the hope of doing the work which you say that your Master has allotted to you, but which is so sadly neglected by that wealthy and domineering colossus—the Christian Church. Will you call this presumption, we wonder? Will you, in this land of free opinion, free speech, and free effort, venture to accord us no other recognition than the usual anathema, which the Church keeps in store for the reformer? Or may we hope that the bitter lessons of experience, which that policy has afforded the Churches in the past, will have altered the hearts and cleared the understandings of her rulers; and that the coming year, 1888, will witness the stretching out to us of the hand of Christians in fellowship and goodwill? This would only be a just recognition that the comparatively small body called the Theosophical Society is no pioneer of the Anti-Christ, no brood of the Evil one, but the practical helper, perchance the saviour, of Christianity, and that it is only endeavouring to do the work that Jesus, like Buddha, and the other “sons of God” who preceded him, has commanded all his followers to undertake, but which the Churches, having become dogmatic, are entirely unable to accomplish.
And now, if your Grace can prove that we do injustice to the Church of which you are the Head, or to popular Theology, we promise to acknowledge our error publicly. But—“Silence gives Consent.”
1. S. Mark, iv. 11; Matthew, xiii. 11; Luke, viii. 10.