What the Theosophical Society is Not
Theosophical Quarterly, July, 1908
An address delivered before the Theosophical Society in Convention, at Dayton, Ohio, on April 26, 1908.
We have been considering, during this period of reunion, that it is just a third of a century since the Theosophical Society was founded in New York, by H. P. Blavatsky and her colleagues, in November, 1875. Looking back over these eventful years, we are again and again reminded that one of the chief obstacles to our progress has been the ceaseless misrepresentation, based on misunderstanding, to which we have been subjected by all sorts and conditions of men. In view of this constant misunderstanding, for which we ourselves are mainly to blame, it may not be unprofitable for us to take stock, to try to come to a clear statement of what the Theosophical Society is not.
It was my good fortune to join the Theosophical Society when it was not yet ten years old, and to know personally and intimately nearly every one of its foremost members, whether in this country, where it was founded, in Europe, where it had its first Branch Society, or in India, where so much of its eventful life was lived. It is, perhaps, natural that one who has thus reached the reminiscent stage should prefer to treat this question historically; and this is what I shall try to do.
We may learn what the Theosophical Society is not, by recalling what it originally was: a band of students, met together to search for truth. This high and noble quest had one condition: that it should be carried out in the spirit of perfect tolerance; that each truth-seeker should have the fullest liberty to look for truth wherever he might hope to find it, and the utmost freedom in expressing his conclusions, whatever they might be, provided only that he should be ready to allow to all his fellow-searchers an equal liberty, both of quest and of expression. This was the general spirit in which the Theosophical Society was founded; and very many subjects were taken up for examination, in those early days: theories as to the magic of the ancient Egyptians; the phenomena of spiritualism and mesmerism; traditions of Oriental lore; records of medieval miracles. All was studied, in the reverent love of truth and the spirit of toleration.
The reason for this tolerance was the deep-rooted belief of the Founders of the Society that no one of us is in possession of all truth, or even of the greater part of truth; but that to each one who sincerely seeks, some fragment of truth will be revealed. And only by the gathering together of these fragments, as a Chinese puzzle is put together, can a larger, deeper view of truth be gained. Each one, therefore, must reverence his own truth; and each one must remember that very much of truth, still unrevealed to him, is stored in his neighbors’ hearts, waiting for him to seek it. So he must add to his own truth the truth seen by his neighbors also; and only so can he hope to reach a wide and sane understanding of the riddle of the world.
This is a principle of very wide application. Let me try to illustrate it in certain familiar fields. To give such an illustration, and to make it practical, I should like to gather here representative members of the various sects and churches of Christendom; and we should not flinch at the word sect, for we must remember that one of the earliest names for Christianity itself was “the sect of the Nazarenes,” or, to use the Greek word, “the heresy of the Nazarenes.” Well, I should like to assemble here representatives of every Church and sect. I should like to begin with some member of the Eastern Church, perhaps from the Patriarchate of Antioch, where “the disciples were first called Christians,” or Alexandria, which claims descent from Saint Mark. And I should ask this representative to tell us, from the depth of his heart, what he believes to be the deepest truth as to the teaching of the Christ. To this I should like to add the deepest truth as it appears to a member of the Roman Church, so profoundly identified with the history of the Western world, from the days of the Cæsars, and all through the Middle Ages. Perhaps such a one would lay the greatest stress on authority and unity, as the member of the Oriental Church may have laid stress on primitive tradition, on the earliest order of Church government. Or perhaps our member of the Roman Church might hold that saintship; as of Saint Catherine, abnegation, as of Saint Francis, sacrifice, as in the lives of glorious unnamed millions, was the chiefest thing, giving virtue to both unity and authority. Then I should seek some believer in the Reformation, some one whose heart flamed with the zeal of Luther, of Melanchthon, who sought above all to make religion personal, a matter of commune between the individual soul and God, a communion outweighing both unity and authority. And to these I would add a member of the Anglican communion, with its balanced and eclectic spirit, taking so much from the older Church of the West, and much also from the Reformers; and tempering what was thus taken by an ancient and venerable tradition, going back to apostolic times. Then I should wish to add the saintly fervor of the Friends, followers of Fox and his spirit of quietude; the passionate zeal for righteousness of a Wesley; the searching after apostolic government, of the Congregational and Presbyterian bodies; and many, perhaps, of the minor sects, even the most heretical, since each has worshipped some divine spark, brightly gleaming for him alone.
And having gathered these together, I should ask each one to say, from the depth of a sincere heart, and as speaking in their great Founder’s presence, what they held to be the deepest truth concerning Christ and Christ’s religion; and while each spoke, I should ask the others to listen reverently, simply, not seeking to contravert, seeking only to understand. Then, when all had spoken and received this generous hearing, I think we should find that the various truths put forward would blend in one truth, and that we should have a presentment of the Christ’s teaching that would win the approval of the Christ himself. More than that, from the generous and gentle hearing that all had given to each, we should have realized something of that oneness of heart which inspired the disciples, when they listened among the hills of Galilee, drawn together by their love for the Master himself.
That would be the Theosophical method, applied to the great problem of Christianity. Nor would I stop there. Just the same thing could be done for Buddhism. I would assemble the priest of Ceylon, the Tibetan lama, the Burmese temple-votary, the learned Sanskrit-speaking Japanese, the inland Chinaman, the Javanese or Sumatran from their ruined island shrines; and from each I should seek his deepest understanding of the Buddha’s secret; his vision of what was taught in the bamboo garden, or beneath the red-fingered Asoka tree, by Siddhartha the Compassionate, after that memorable going-forth from the palace of Kapilavastu, twenty-five hundred years ago. To the reverently held tradition of the Pali devotee we should then add some of the Northern Buddhist’s lofty, penetrating thought, the magical sense of the lama, the sunny heart of the Burman, the fire of Japan, the compassionate love of mankind that belongs not to one sect of the Buddha’s followers, but to all. There again, we should have a Buddhism that even the Prince Siddhartha himself would accept, something like the teaching that fired the hearts of Ananda and the first disciples.
And having gone thus far, what would be more natural than to follow the same method for the older Indian faiths, hearing the worshipper of Krishna, as well as the follower of Krishna’s wisdom; the Vedic Brahman, as the heretical Jaina; the devotee of Shiva, lord of ascetics, not less than the mystical Vedantin, the intellectual Sankhya. Then we should have, from lips deeply reverent and hearts full of faith, something of the ancient Indian wisdom in its pristine purity and richness. And from India we might pass to China, from China to Persia, from Persia to Chaldea, from Chaldea to Egypt. Nor should we forget the older faiths of fading peoples, like the natives of Central America or the New Zealand Aborigine with his brothers scattered through the vast blue wilderness of the Southern Seas.
Having thus sought, and in some sense found, the pure recondite spirit of all faiths, might we not then, greatly daring, bring them all into each others’ presence; and from their assembling, from the open-hearted and reverent hearing of every faith, learn something of the One Religion that has inspired all religions, but has never been completely realized in any religion? In the company of immortals thus assembled, I doubt not we should find a singular oneness of heart, a smiling triumphant understanding, each recognizing each as a brother, a friend from of old, before all time.
Such would be the Theosophical method, as applied to the world’s religions. The work of reconciliation thus begun, should be carried far. For there are not only the religions of the past; there are the real and living religions of today; the faithful service of Nature’s law, the search for impersonal truth in the rocks and mountains, in the ocean depths, in the spaces of the stars; the seeking after Nature’s powers, to learn their mystery, to bring them into service, to subject them to the divine, all-conquering will of man. Here, the Theosophical method is most happily at work already. We are in presence of just such an assembling of scientific truth as I have imagined for religious truth; we see the seekers in each nook and corner of nature bringing their treasures to the common fund; we behold the student of each lesser law trying to bring it into understood relation with the vaster Law, seeking to come to some wide and general comprehension of the oneness of all things.
Is there then no need for the Theosophical method here? On the contrary there is much need. For we have yet to bridge the gulf between the first great body of truth and the second; between the tremendous ascertained facts and laws that underlie all religion, and the more outward facts and laws that make up our science today. Here again, the fundamental Theosophical procedure, “gently to hear, kindly to speak,” has its miracles still to work, and when they are worked, there will be that wherewith to give food to the lives of multitudes.
Will our task be ended, when we have brought into brotherly unity and common understanding the great verified truths of the past and the great ascertained truths of the present? Far from it. There will still remain the tremendous verities not yet known or guessed at, the vast and splendid truths still unrevealed. We look, therefore, toward the truth of the future, as well as of the present and the past. Are there not already whisperings in the inner consciousness of man, of powers wonderful and immortal, of growth that will make man a divinity, of realms, far wider and deeper than the waste abysses of the stars, which we are invited to enter? Shall we not keep our hearts open for these new truths, always uncertain of welcome, always regarded with suspicious shyness, very often rejected, spurned, misinterpreted, belied? Have we not the warning of Galileo, who brought to the world wonderful new truths and new vistas of life, and who was forced on his knees to recant, to give the lie to what he knew to be true? Have we not the later spectacle of Darwin, attacked, abused, denounced, condemned, because, with wonderful gentleness and reverence he sought to give new insight into the ways of the working God? Have we not the supreme instance of the prophet of Galilee, who was crucified by a howling mob, because he brought new and unwelcome truth to those who believed they already had all truth?
But you may think that, in our own day and generation, there will be a wider welcome for new truths. Happily, this is so to a large degree, but I am reminded that it has not always been so; it has not been so even during the few years since the Theosophical Society was founded. Here, on the right of the platform, is the picture of H. P. Blavatsky, whom I knew well during several years. She also was a bringer of new truths: truths indeed which were full of power and healing, which added a wonderful value to all life. But was she welcomed for her treasure of new truth? By a few, yes. By the great multitude, not at all. And there were not wanting those who, unable to receive the new truth she brought, turned against her violently, with accusations of fraud, of dishonesty, of trickery, and thus blinded the hearts of the multitude to the truth she brought, the message she announced. For years she was pursued by accusations and attacks, and at last she died, as veritably a martyr to truth as any of the pioneers of by-gone days. And here also is the picture of another valued friend, W. Q. Judge, who likewise lived for a truth that was beyond his time, beyond the understanding of some of those who worked with him. He also was made the target of accusation and denunciation, and died as truly a martyr as any primitive saint. So we shall do well to remember that, while our own days are more liberal and open-minded, there is yet deep in the human heart this ingrained suspicion of new truth, this tendency to resist development; and here, perhaps, more than anywhere else, is a wide field for the Theosophical method, of gentle hearing, kindly speaking; the method which the Theosophical Society lives to further and put in practice.
This, then, is the work and office of the Theosophical Society, as I understand it; this is the work which, on its foundation, it set itself to do. But I may be asked, if this be the Theosophical Society, what is Theosophy, what is the Theosophical Teaching, of which so much has been said? To me, it seems to be this: We have imagined a coming together of the followers of the Christ, from every church and sect, Eastern and Western, traditional and evangelical alike; all coming together in the spirit of truth, each seeking to declare the deepest truth that was in him concerning the Master’s teaching; each ready and willing to give ear to the other’s truth. And we have imagined that thus we might come at the true teaching of the Master, the veritable spiritual life which he both lived and revealed. And so with the other world-faiths; those of the older and the younger nations alike, from New Zealand to Guatemala. If we should thus gather together the just men made perfect, of every clime, each with his heart full of the deepest truth of his faith and race, and if these, coming into living communion, should thus gather the world’s truth in a united whole, that, in my view would be Theosophy. That, indeed, is Theosophy; for I believe that this assembling is not an imagination but a reality; the oldest reality in human life. And it was as a beacon and inspiration to the Theosophical Society, in its great work of reconciliation, that something of Theosophy was given to us; a part only, yet enough to lead us to realize the greatness and splendor of the whole.
There are other fields wherein the Theosophical method has much work to do. Take the question of race-difference, and especially of those deeper differences, as between the white races and the yellow, or the white races and the black, which already loom so large in our world-politics. It recently befell me to read the old records, from the late fifteenth century downward, of the first contact of our white races with the colored races of Asia and the races of the New World. And as I read, I felt profoundly ashamed for the men of my own color; whether in the East, or in the West, the tale was marred by spoliation, craft, robbery, violence, dishonor. It is a dark and evil record; and one cannot read it without shame. Here, once more, it is true that our own days have seen much betterment; yet very much remains to be done. It cannot be doubted that within a few years we shall see the yellow races of Asia, to the number of five hundred millions, as fully armed and equipped with our best inventions as are the Japanese, the pioneers of the yellow races, today. What shall we do in the face of that world-problem? What shall we do, a little later, when a like world-problem arises in Africa, with its uncounted millions of the black race? I answer, if we are to meet these problems with safety, we must put in force the Theosophical method. Instead of dwelling on the differences between us and these men of other hue until we come to hate them, we must approach them in a kindly spirit of understanding; recognizing frankly their good and lovable qualities, their strength in certain things wherein we are weak; our ability to help them in those things wherein we are strong. Thus coming into friendly and cordial relations with them, we shall presently come to see that there is no necessary strife between us; that our likenesses are far more vital than our differences; and that, as for our differences, the wise thing is to accept them frankly on both sides, agreeing to differ, in the genuine Theosophical spirit. Thus, and only thus, can we safely surmount the difficulties, piling up mountain high, between the races of different color, difficulties which it is for our century to solve, on pain of throwing the human race into internecine strife and confusion for generations. Here, the Theosophical method is infinitely more potent than fleets of battleships, and infinitely more benign.
For as Theosophists we by no means desire that all men should ignore their differences in a dead level of uniformity. This is not our ideal, whether for humanity as a whole, or for our Society in particular. We in no way seek uniformity of opinion, unanimity of belief. On the contrary, I for my part would welcome a far greater diversity of opinion, of belief, of faiths, of races, than exists in our Society today. We ought to have many races and creeds represented. Indeed, we should have men and women of every race on the globe within our ranks, and we would welcome them there. Nor should we seek to minimize their difference; on the contrary, we should ask each to express his own ideal, the ideal of his own race and faith, in its highest and noblest form; and then ask that all should admit and accept these differences, in the spirit of perfect tolerance and freedom, the spirit of that deeper unity which underlies all difference.
Thus we should have assembled the grand orchestra of man. And just as, in the orchestra of the musician, we do not ask the violins to become uniform with the trumpets, nor the harps to repeat the note of the horns, but rather demand that each shall be perfect in its own kind, the harp as a harp, the violin as a violin; so in that greater orchestra of man, we should ask that each should be his or her best self, his or her own highest attainment, and so should we see perfected the true universal brotherhood of mankind.
This is the Theosophical method, as applied to the great and fundamental questions of race, creed, color, sex; and the Theosophical Society exists to put this method in practise, and to do so ever more abundantly.
We have no creeds to offer, we have no dogmas to enforce, we seek no uniformity of opinion, no oneness of practice or belief. In the spirit of toleration, of spiritual freedom, of brotherly love, we meet all men, we accept all differences, we recognize the rights of all; and thus we work for the consummation of divine humanity.