Theosophical Quarterly, July, 1924
A Lecture by Charles Johnston, on April 27, 1924,
on the occasion of the Convention of The Theosophical Society.
There may be some here this afternoon who have no defined understanding of The Theosophical Society and its purpose. It has one admirable clause in its Constitution, with which not all its members, perhaps, are familiar: That every member has the right to believe or disbelieve in any religious system or philosophy, and to declare such belief or disbelief without affecting his standing as a member of the Society, each being required to show that tolerance of the opinions of others which he expects for his own. This is the high ideal of the spirit which really seeks truth, because no spirit not tolerant can ever find truth.
The second object of The Theosophical Society is the study of ancient and modern religions, philosophies and sciences; and we shall seek to study together certain points in religion, philosophy and science which have been the subject matter of rather sharp conflicts of public opinion during the last few months: namely, the conflict between the Fundamentalists and the Modernists, on the one hand, and the conflict between the Darwinists and the Adamists on the other hand. I use the term, Adamist, with some hesitation, because it really has a much deeper meaning than that currently given to it. For the present, I mean the traditional, literally understood descent from Adam and Eve.
The conflict between the evolutionists and the special-creationists had better come first. And it should be remembered that, while I am setting forth views which I hope may be clear, I am not speaking for The Theosophical Society. The Theosophical Society as such has no doctrines or dogmas, and no one has a right to say that this or that is the teaching of The Theosophical Society on any points outside our declared objects and the Constitution and By-Laws. Therefore, it is as a student of Theosophy that I speak, a student of truth; perhaps representing the opinion of other students of Theosophy, but with no claim to any authority, to any dogmatic orthodoxy or representative capacity for what I say. I speak only as one seeking truth.
Students of Theosophy throughout the ages have been evolutionists. That is equally true of the Gospels and the Puranas. The Puranas, the ancient records of India, teach a very clear system of evolution, pre-Darwinian, and in many ways wiser and fuller and more satisfactory than Darwin’s system. If you study the Gospels, you will find that they are nowhere committed to the view of special creation, as stereotyped by its modern adherents. In the Gospels, Adam is mentioned only once, in the genealogy in Luke, which breaks the narrative, and is apparently a later addition, no part of the teaching of the Master Christ. Many of that Master’s similes are similes of evolution, of things that grow and develop. The spirit of the Gospels is evolutionary, not only upward from protoplasm, but, infinitely more important, onward toward divinity. When the Western Master says, “Be ye therefore perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect,” he commits himself and us to an evolution of tremendous magnitude. Nothing but an evolution lasting for ages can conceivably make us mortals perfect as our Father in heaven.
Students of Theosophy, therefore, or many of them, are evolutionists; and, so far as the doctrines at present emphasized among biologists and paleontologists go, there is no very marked discrepancy. We have our own views, our own lines of study, but over much of evolution we can shake hands with the students of the Museum of Natural History. They had an interesting symposium there, the other day, concerning our putative cousins, the anthropoid apes. We, as students of Theosophy, would not hold that the anthropoid apes are absolutely separate from mankind in every quality and characteristic. We may not quite agree with the biologists about the precise relationship, but they have reached certain conclusions, which were formulated at that symposium, which many of us have long held. For example, it was there pointed out that the gorilla, the anthropoid ape which stands nearest to man, is not strictly an evolving type, but a degenerate type. The soles of his feet and his heels indicate a being which should stand upright, but the gorilla tends to stoop over, to become once more a quadruped in his later years. He is losing the power to walk upright. He is an animal which, formerly walking upright, is turning back to the quadruped stage. There are other things pointing in the same direction; for example, the skull of a baby gorilla bears a fairly close resemblance to the skull of a human baby. But each year the baby’s skull grows better, while the gorilla’s skull grows worse, till he finally comes to have the enormous ridges on the forehead which make him so inhuman in appearance. Therefore, it seems clear that the gorilla, physiologically our nearest kin, is a degenerate and not an evolving type. If he continued for a million years, he would not, biologically speaking, evolve into a human being.
The same thing is true of the moral nature of the anthropoids. Dr. Hornaday pointed out, in a recent book, that the baby chimpanzee is exceedingly amenable to training, he is apt at learning, and for ten or a dozen years, is a very hopeful scholar. After that, he becomes morose and ill-tempered, and tends to lose whatever approach to human sympathies he had gained. Therefore, as regards his moral nature also, he is a degenerating and not an advancing type.
So the main difference in view between students of Theosophy and the students of the Museum of Natural History is that, while they say “cousin,” we might say, of the anthropoid, that he is the “nephew” or “grand-nephew” of a vanished human race. But, if you consider the matter more closely, you will find that it is not we, but he, who might be inclined to disavow the relationship. Look into his conduct; he is not given to drunkenness or corruption of any kind; he is not wantonly destructive, nor prone to evil speaking, lying and slandering. It is he who may have the right to say, “I will not own this very questionable cousin.”
Regarding the evolution of the body, therefore, students of Theosophy have no great cause for disagreement with biologists, though there are still a good many points to be adjusted between us. We, as students of Theosophy, say: “You have left out half the story; you have left out the half that really counts. You have traced, imperfectly, as we think, but nevertheless suggestively, the evolution of the body; we hold also the evolution of the soul.” We hold that, if there be an immense past history of the human body, much of which is still a series of gaps in the theory of the biologists; if there be, for the body, a heredity of a hundred thousand, five hundred thousand, or a million years, there is a far longer heredity of the soul. Human history in the narrow sense begins where soul and body come together and join forces. In books written by students of Theosophy, and notably in The Secret Doctrine, you will find the thought of the evolution of the soul worked out in great detail, and supported by the teachings of many religions, as, for example, in the Puranas: the thought of the descent of the soul meeting the ascent of the body, and the almost infinite ages over which the descent of the soul to the body is spread.
In a certain sense, the whole practical purpose of Theosophy, as a student of Theosophy may venture to conceive it, is this: to recover the power, the liberty, the light of the soul, which at present is obscured through our incarceration in the body; to win back what we have lost, the splendid heritage of the soul; and, therefore, to possess the treasures of both worlds, and from that point to begin our real human life.
So far, for the moment, the controversy between the evolutionists and the followers of special creation. Let us come to the other controversy between the Fundamentalists and the Modernists. There are certain quite definite points about which that controversy has raged, and we may note that the spirit of the controversy has been on the whole urbane, tolerant, and to that degree theosophical. Not long ago, a very interesting book was published, dealing with Erasmus, and the controversies, just four centuries ago, over kindred themes. There was the genuinely theosophical tolerance of Erasmus, beset on the one hand by fanatical and degenerate elements among the Orders of monks, and on the other by the bigotry and egotism of Martin Luther and his adherents. We know very well how those controversies of four hundred years ago worked out: the burning of Servetus, the fires of Smithfield. There is a great advance, when we note the controversy waged today, a noteworthy increase in theological urbanity on both sides. To that extent has the spirit of Theosophy won its way in the world. Certain questions are being hotly debated; and on these questions, students of Theosophy can, perhaps, shed some light, just because they have, as their principle and practice, the comparative study of ancient and modern religions, philosophies and sciences, with the one purpose of finding truth.
We spoke a moment ago of recovering the heritage of the soul, the heritage lost in a sense, yet not lost; the heritage which will be ours when we reclaim it. We hold, as students of Theosophy, that there has been no age in the immensely long history of mankind without those who have claimed, and who have won again, the heritage of the soul and their full divinity. That is a truth testified to by more witnesses, and by better witnesses, than any other fact in history. The witnesses are, in the Western world, those of the stature of Pythagoras and Plato, or of the stature of the Western Master, Jesus; or the Buddha. If truth can ever be established by the unanimous testimony of indisputable witnesses, then the existence of the Masters is such a truth. Take this thought; let it be for us, for the moment, only a hypothesis: the thought of the existence of a Master, who has won again the superb heritage of the soul, who has won again man’s forfeited divinity. We are here, for the most part, bound by the chains of necessity. We are the soul, the “wanderer o’er eternity;” but we have come here, not of free will, but of constraint, bound by the chains of our desires, tied to earth by our earth-seeking tendencies; what in the Eastern world is called the thirst of desire has drawn us back to earth. Can we not conceive that there are those who come back, not under constraint, not bound by the chain of necessity, not oppressed by the yoke, not drawn by the thirst of desire, but of free will, through compassion; not to seek even the world itself for themselves, but in order to help us, who so sorely need help? Can we not conceive of a Master, who had painfully, through ages of infinite struggle and conflict, won back the heritage of the soul, thereafter remembering the pain and the struggle and the endless sorrows he had passed through; seeing us in the midst of these sorrows, and, tragedy of tragedies, not perceiving them, but thinking our misery to be our happiness; can we not imagine such a Master, electing to come again, perhaps many times, after all his debts were paid, after he had entered again into his divinity, coming again to help us? How would the age-old symbolism of the world represent that fact? By the symbol of the Virgin Birth, a symbol as old, perhaps, as any record of man, and always standing for the same truth. Therefore, we students of Theosophy venture to say that rightly to understand the Virgin Birth is to know that it must be true of the Western Master, to know that it represents, and is the hall-mark, in a sense, of the authenticity of his mission. Perhaps something of the same kind may be conjectured also of Mary. Perhaps she also may have been a spirit coming from afar, from some celestial realm. Perhaps that truth is represented in the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, meaning that the heredity of sin, coming from Adam, did not reach her; that she was born apart from, and free from, that heredity of sin.
The hard and fast dogma which connects together the story of Adam, which we may not call a myth, because it is a symbol of profound meaning, and the mission of Jesus, his death and resurrection, is based, not on anything in the four Gospels, but on a phrase of Saint Paul, himself a mystic, speaking of Theosophy, and as a student of Theosophy. He used the phrase, imperfectly translated, incompletely understood, on which that dogma is founded: “As in the Adam all die, so in the Christ shall all be made alive.” That is what Paul wrote. That is exactly the teaching which we have been considering: the dual heredity of mankind, the immensely long evolution of the body, the far longer, and, in a sense, deeply tragical, devolution of the soul; yet with the possibility of regaining the soul’s heritage, of restoring the soul’s divinity. In the Adam, the body which has come up from the earth, all die. We know and recognize that fact, and are foolish if we forget it for a moment. As physical bodies, we all die, and the sooner we face the fact, the happier we shall be about it. But in the Christ, in the soul, in the divine nature, we shall all be made alive, through the help of the Master, through the help of those who belong to him. That, I think, is the true meaning of that much discussed text, turning it from a dogma of theology to a tenet of Theosophy.
So far, then, regarding the first bone of contention between the Fundamentalists and Modernists. The second is concerned with the body of the resurrection, a theme of which one speaks with hesitation, with all humility, with a knowledge that one may easily err, but with the thought that students of Theosophy may have a light to shed on it. We would suggest this: the whole solution of the mystery is in the New Testament, if we read it wisely . The teaching of the spiritual body is there set forth, with its birth, its growth, its powers; and we can see that the Master Christ was in full possession of the spiritual body, not only after the resurrection, but before the crucifixion. That extraordinary event which is called the transfiguration, consisted, in the view of students of theosophy, in the opening of the consciousness of Peter and James and John, an opening of the spiritual eyes, so that they could behold the spiritual body which that Master already wore, and had worn, as we should believe, for ages. He himself said that Abraham had rejoiced to see his day, he saw it and was glad. We can hardly consider this to mean anything except that, in Abraham’s day, that Master wore a body, as a fully developed individuality. So we conceive that Master as wearing the spiritual body for ages, wearing it during the life when he bore the name Jesus, rising with it in all its life and power from the tomb. And we may thus reconcile the conflict between the Fundamentalists and Modernists: the Master rising with the same body, yet not the earthly body. In a sense, both the views put forward are true. In a sense, neither is more than a half truth. As students of Theosophy, we think that there are two halves to that, as to every truth. In the truth of evolution, there is the evolution of the body and also the august evolution of the soul. So also the resurrection of the body is a twofold truth.
On the whole, therefore, we shall find no very sharp conflict either with the Fundamentalists or the Modernists. The symbols are eternal, and they are true. The conflict between the two parties in the Church may be reconciled by seeking truth in the spirit of truth, by looking for the other half of every truth, by showing for the opinions of others the tolerance they expect for their own. As members of The Theosophical Society, we counsel them to do this, certain that along this way, truth may be found.
If, then, there be so little of sharp discrepancy between the views of students of Theosophy, on the one hand, and the views of the science and religion of the day, on the other; if it be a question only of filling in, of supplementing, of adjusting, does it follow that our work as members of The Theosophical Society is almost done, almost completed? The truth is that only now are we ready to begin. What is that work? We have already suggested it: the recovery of the heritage of the soul, the restoration of our lost divinity; a great adventure on which we embark, not without exemplars, not without leaders and commanders. We spoke of the ideal of a Master, further saying that there is no age in history which does not bear record to Masters who won back the heritage of the soul and regained the forfeited divinity. If that be true of the past, it is true today. It is true today, it will be true tomorrow, it will be true in every century to come. As some of us conceive it, a great part of our future work in The Theosophical Society is to make clear to those who seek—and seekers are many—to make clear, so far as we may, the reality of the existence and the spiritual powers of the Masters. That is a major part of our task, for a reason already suggested: by conquest and by birthright, they are the commanders of the human race, and they will be the effective leaders as soon as humanity has the common sense to recognize the fact. Imagine an army which could not see its leaders. Imagine an army going to war, with the leaders there, and with the men in the ranks so stupid, so dull, so blind that they could not see their commanding officers. That is a fair simile of humanity today, and largely of ourselves.
There is a beautiful phrase in one of Tennyson’s later poems: “I hope to see my Pilot face to face, when I have crost the bar.” Tennyson’s own comment on that phrase is even more notable: “The Pilot has been on board all the while, but in the dark I have not seen him.” We of the human race are in the dark, because we have tied a black bandage over our eyes, and will not let anyone remove it.
Our first task; then, is to show the reasonableness of our belief in living Masters. What are Masters? Supposing that you were to ask me that, how should I try to answer?
First of all, they are men; men with bodies like ourselves; not by any means “spirits” in the Spiritualistic sense; men with bodies, perhaps of finer, purer texture. The bodies of our day and generation are saturated with every disease and impurity; not so with bodies like that. Secondly, they are gentlemen. I think it was Dekker who, speaking of the Christian Master, called him “the first true gentleman that ever breathed.” We should thoroughly endorse the “true gentleman”; we should be less willing to endorse the “first.” Thirdly, they are warriors. And let us begin to realize, among other wholesome truths, like the truth about our bodily mortality, that we are not at the end of the age of wars, or anywhere near it. I do not know how many hundreds, or thousands, or millions of years it will be, before the day of the Great Peace, but that day is far distant, and we may as well look the fact in the face. Students of Theosophy are, perhaps, exceptional in their willingness to look certain ugly facts in the face. We are quite convinced, for example, of the existence of evil, and therefore of the reality and existence of devils, and of devils in human form. A wise and witty Frenchman said that we should be grateful to the Germans, because the belief in the Devil had almost slipped away, and they had restored it. They proved the truth, as we prove all truth, by being it.
It should be quite clear that, so long as the spirit of the Devil may possess men and nations, the devil of malice, of uncleanness, of destruction,—to talk of peace when there is no peace, is unwise. It is another of those points at which we bind a black bandage over our eyes.
Therefore, in the long war, physical as well as spiritual, the Masters , as warriors, will have their part to play. If they are to be, if by inheritance they are, the commanders, the leaders, the generals of the human race, it must follow that they have the practical wisdom that a real leader must have; and that practical wisdom we believe they possess, because they have regained the heritage of the soul. They have regained divinity, and wisdom is the very fabric of the soul and of divinity itself . “Wisdom and goodness, these are God.” Therefore we hold, on the evidence of the best witnesses in all history, the wisdom and goodness of the Masters.
The next characteristic which I shall speak of will, perhaps, come as a surprise; nevertheless, it is profoundly true: Masters have a supreme sense of humour. Even in the Gospels, overshadowed by tragedy, there are touches of exquisite humour. The story of the importunate woman and the unjust judge is one of the most humorous in all literature. The judge feared not God, neither regarded man, but when the importunate woman besieged him, he surrendered and avenged her. That he feared not God, and regarded not man, is told simply to bring out the point of humour. So it is with that other phrase: to strain out a gnat, and swallow a camel. We have only to make the mental picture of a man trying to swallow a camel, to see how humorous the image is.
In the Buddha’s teachings, there are admirable examples of humour. The Buddha often taught by describing former incarnations of those to whom he was speaking. A certain disciple was held back by certain difficulties. The Buddha described a remote incarnation, in which that disciple had been an animal, grey all over, and with very long ears. In that incarnation, the disciple comported himself in a way which accounted for his present moral limitations. It was a parable, but a notably humorous one. Perhaps the Masters are compensated by the sense of humour, when they have to deal with some of our peculiarities; without it, they might long ago have given up the task in despair.
The Masters have undying courage; always the readiness for absolute self-sacrifice; sacrifice of everything which even Masters may hold dear, because they have realized that sacrifice is the fundamental law of the universe. “God created man together with sacrifice,” says the Bhagavad Gita; and it has been well said that God himself made the first sacrifice when he created the universe. Therefore, realizing that sacrifice is the sovereign reality, it is the law which Masters have laid down for themselves, and which they follow with that perfect fidelity which is theirs.
The Masters are immortal in their continuous, conscious being, because they have recovered the immortality of the soul. They are powerful beyond our imagination, because the divinity, which is our heritage when we choose to claim it, is already unfolded in them, and shares with them its treasures and its powers.
So the ideal of Masters is, in a sense, entirely natural: Men, gentlemen, warriors, endowed with a sense of humour, with indomitable courage, with the genius of sacrifice, and with the powers which we can conceive as latent in our souls. We are, as Wordsworth finely said, “haunted for ever by the eternal Mind,” and there is not one of us who, in his best moments, does not feel that haunting presence, and that it is the only thing in life that is worth living for. There is a beautiful phrase of Tennyson’s, which speaks exactly to that point; he is recording the inspiration which had come to himself:
The light retreated,
The landskip darken’d,
The melody deaden’d,
The Master whispered
“Follow the Gleam.”
Follow the Gleam. Follow the inner light through the darkness, till the darkness gives place to light. The ideal, therefore, of Masters is sane, wise, normal, healthy, wholesome in every way. It is a bright ideal of the sunshine; there is nothing of darkness or shadow about it. It is the ideal which is the salvation of humanity, when humanity comes to wake up to its desperate need. We may remember here the wise words of Ruskin: “Exactly in the degree in which you can find creatures greater than yourself, to look up to, in that degree you are ennobled yourself, and, in that degree, happy.” What inspiration, what happiness, then, awaits us, when we find the Masters, to look up to!
What is the first practical, reasonable thing to do, to meet this thoroughly practical and reasonable situation, as we conceive the reality of Masters to be? To endeavour ourselves to do what they have done before us: to follow in their footsteps along the small, old path which the Seers knew and trod. To do the same things: first of all, to understand this dual heredity of ours. There is the body with its marvelous gifts and powers. It represents ages of achievement by nature. There is the soul, infinitely more wonderful, with its proved powers in their luminous divinity. Let us seek, therefore, the soul and the things of the soul. Seeking, we shall find. There are infinite riches of instruction ready to hand. Those who have spent years with the ancient and modern religions, philosophies and sciences can assure you that there is abundant instruction, thoroughly understood, systematized and organized, for those who are willing to seek and find. Every step of approach to Masters, every step of approach to our own inheritance in the soul, every step of the way back to our divinity is charted; there are detailed, intelligible instructions, there is guidance for us, if we have the purity of heart, the unselfishness, the loyalty and the valour to set forth on that same way.
Consider the manner in which geologists, for example, have laboured for generations, in many countries, creating a body of knowledge which is one, consistent, uniform, with a fine texture binding it together: all these human minds seeing into the mysteries of past time, the mysteries hidden in the rocks. After all, these rocks exist today, they are not in the past; yet the intelligence of those men has seen in the rocks of today the millions of years of the past. By constructive imagination, they have projected that almost infinite past backward out of today. Geology is one, though geologists are many.
Or take the simile of Shelley’s, where he calls the poetry of the nations “episodes to that great Poem which all poets, like the co-operating thoughts of one great mind, have built up since the beginning of the world.” Consider the superb achievement of the world’s poetry, one of the treasures of mankind, in literal truth the work of one great mind, of the infinite soul of man. What is needed is, that we, students of Theosophy, we, seekers after our divine inheritance, shall unite with the same oneness of heart, the same singleness of purpose, to discover the history of the soul in the immense geologic ages, in the eons of its spiritual development. We shall recover the inspiration and the beauty, the elements of divine shining; we shall recover them in life, as the poets have, in the one great poem of the world. There is our task. These are our marching orders.
One thought more, and we are done. We have spoken of humanity as a blind army of privates, who cannot see their leaders, and of the Masters as men and gentlemen, as warriors, commanders. Let this be our last thought: the soldiers are not waiting for their commanders; the commanders are waiting for the soldiers to take the bandages from their eyes. Humanity is not a helpless, hopeless sufferer, waiting for the Masters to come and take command. The Pilots are already on board, but in our darkness we do not see them. We are not those who are waiting. Those who are waiting are the Masters of Wisdom.