Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation homepage > Notebooks of Paul Brunton > Category 17: The Religious Urge > Chapter 6: Philosophy and Religion
Philosophy and Religion
Differences, similarities among religions
The genial tolerance which affirms that all religions express something of the truth is justified. But whereas some express only a little, others express much of it.
The esoteric traditions have come down from remote antiquity into a large part of the Oriental and Occidental hemispheres. In most cases they were well guarded. A thorough study of them shows that they hold many dissimilarities. If some of these are due to the changes which are inevitable from one century to another, or in transposition from one climate to another, others are clearly due to irreconcilable standpoints and contradictory revelations.
The differences exist, and in great number, but they are mostly on the surface. The agreements exist and concern the more important matters; they are mostly at a deep level.
If some forms of religion are sensuous, if others are austere, all forms are expressions of some aspect only and hence incomplete.
In most of the creeds, cults, and systems there is some truth, a little in one, more in another, but also some error or some limitation of outlook. This is why they are all in disagreement with one another.
This cacophony of different and conflicting religious teachings may turn one man away from religion altogether but another to deeper and more detailed study of them.
We may try to make religions more tolerant by pointing to their points of agreement: this is laudable. But what is gained by ignoring or belittling the points of difference?
Different religions are or should be different attempts to lift mankind out of materialism.
Because they are different approaches, this need not mean they are antagonistic ones.
Comparative study, practice
No little coterie or large sect may rightly claim the sole knowledge of God, or the sole communion with Him. The very claim cancels itself out quite automatically, the mere statement of it is contradicted and refuted by the large volume of evidence gathered together in the studies of Comparative Religion, Mysticism, and Philosophy.
The well-informed observer, scholar, traveller knows that each cult, religion, sect, movement is but one of many. It contributes what it can to truth but it has no right to claim that it alone has all the glory of truth, or that no other has any truth. There have been insights in widely scattered groups in widely different centuries.
To search widely as well as variously in the records left by those who seem to have some insight is a wise procedure. How much better than remaining imprisoned in the limitations of a single geographical culture, a single period of thought! How much more likely to lead to broader, truer understanding of life!
His religious feeling should be broadened by comparative study of other faiths. It should be wide enough to take them in amicably even though he demurs at some of their tenets or deplores some of their history.
The subject of comparative religion, born in the previous century and developed in our own, attracts attention from the curious but serious study from the earnest. It is a fit and worthy field for questers, who should widen it to include comparative mysticism and metaphysics. But they should study only the best in each system and, annually, the best of the best. The worst is there, but let others, non-questers, wallow in it.
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.
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.
If anything will ever show it, the comparative study of the world's religious mysticism will show that truth, grace, spirit do not come through the historic Jesus or the historic Krishna alone, nor through the historic Christianity or the historic Hinduism alone. They can be confined to a single religious dispensation only by those who refuse to make this study or, studying, refuse to discard bias and divest themselves of prejudice while doing so. Today all who study widely and honestly know as clearly as can be that God's message has been here all the time, however impaired or imperfect its forms may be and however different his messengers may be.
Few take the trouble to discover what is authentic in religion and what is not. It would be a long tiring process requiring several years of extensive study involving history, theology, psychology, plus personal practice in several forms of worship, plus experience in varying moral values--and all this over wide areas of the world and through the centuries, for without knowledge of comparative religion the investigation would be an incomplete one. Ignorance is much easier. This is why scientifically minded persons become sceptics and piously minded ones become superstitious.
There ought to be religious education in the schools; the mistake in the past has been to narrow it down to a single creed or sect. It ought to be widened, to include the history and teachings of the world's chief religions, as well as those of persons without organized established churches.
Education in even elementary and certainly in secondary schools should give the pupils at least a little notion of comparative religion. This could at least be confined to biographies of founders of the world faiths together with those of celebrated saints and mystics from different lands and cultures. At college and university levels, carefully chosen tenets from their teachings could be added, and some discussion of the theologies or philosophies involved. In all this instruction the religions dealt with are to be described fairly and explained without prejudice, not criticized or judged.
If some pious persons raise the head in prayer, others lower it. If many Christians let their knees go down to the floor, some Muhammedan dervishes bring theirs up to the chest. If Catholics and Protestants sit on benches or chairs during church service, Greek Orthodox congregations stand during their service. Hindus and Buddhists squat cross-legged in meditation, but Indian Jains stand. All these outward forms have been shaped by tradition and so historically: fanatical insistence on them misses the point--what is going on in their minds and hearts. Not only the facts revealed by the studies of comparative religion and comparative mysticism show up the silliness of fanaticism, but even more the correct understanding of those facts.
If any one religion is to be taught to children and youth at State expense, then all representative religions should be taught likewise. Let it be a part of such education to know not only the life and teachings of Jesus, but also the lives and teachings of Buddha and Baha'u'lla, Krishna and Muhammed. Only so will religion in its purity rather than in its corruption be instilled. Only so will the young be liberated from the quarrels and prejudices created and kept alive by the selfish monopolies and vested interests which exploit religion for their own benefit.
The economy of Nature is spacious enough to have room for all these different ways and means to the common end. They are not competing rivals. A true perception accepts them and is thereby made tolerant toward them.
History has presented us with too many spiritual guides, prophets, sages, and saints in too many lands and through too many centuries for any single cult to claim a monopoly of revelation wisdom truth. No human formulation can give us all the fullness, so we profit by them wherever they appear. But partisans, with narrow views, ignore history and neglect the study of comparative religion.
The philosopher successfully reinterprets in the secrecy of his own mind the dogmas, rituals, and beliefs of every religion that history, scriptures, circumstance, or study brings into his life. Thus, too, he is able to save the truth of religion when others impatiently reject that along with the falsity of religion. It is true that the comparative study of religions, in a spirit of sympathetic detachment from all and prejudice against none, is rare. But it is a useful part of philosophic study. The rational investigator can take no scripture as finally authoritative but must take all scriptures on their merits. He understands that a religious message is partly shaped by the character and tradition of the country in which it has been delivered. Taking into consideration the various beliefs of human development, he finds it desirable that there be room for variety in religions and for freedom in thought. The Inner Voice has spoken differently to different people. The variety of religions proves not that they cancel each other out but that they arose in response to a variety of needs. Nobody will be kept out of the kingdom of heaven because he does not belong to the orthodox religion which prevails in the place where, by the accident of his birth, he happens to live. Nobody will get into the kingdom of heaven because he does belong to the orthodox religion. The right of entry will depend on quite other and quite nobler qualifications.
The study of comparative religion ought to be part of all educational systems to foster knowledge, replace narrow fanaticism by a reasonable tolerance, and combat superstition or persecution.
Such a comparative study can bring the evidence needed to dissolve ignorant intolerance and to combat religious hatred. It will show up the foolishness of denouncing heresies when most founders were, like Buddha and Jesus, themselves great heretics from the standpoint of the prevalent religions. It will show the case for a reasonable freedom of thought so that different types of people may find the path, the goal, and the form which suits them. So long as they are good morally, beneficent and helpful, there is room for most creeds.
So far as they are genuine expressions of the impulse to worship the Higher Power, all religions have a rightful place. But where human ambition and greed, ignorance and superstition, fanaticism and unbalance have entered into them, they render disservice or do actual harm. The study of comparative religious history is valuable.
There is hardly a people which did not have a large or small fragment of the higher teaching in its possession. Egyptians, Chinese, and Greeks in early times, Persians, Spaniards, and Germans in later times, were among this number. Anaximander, teaching in Europe more than two thousand years ago, ascribed the origin of the universe to a First Principle which was "the boundless, the infinite, and the unlimited."
When a man begins to exercise independent thought and independent judgement, when he becomes sufficiently informed through the study of comparative religion to note how devastating are the disagreements and inconsistencies with each other, he will have only one possible conclusion open to him. The various beliefs about God and the different statements about religion are as likely to be wrong as right, but the personal experiences of God are all essentially the same. But this conclusion reached, he passes through it out of the religious level and rises up to the mystical one.
Those who are really intent on finding truth will search for it as widely as their circumstances allow and think about it as often as their time allows.
Truth can speak for itself. It has done so since the earliest recorded times--thus incidentally defeating the theory of religious evolutionism--and has done so even in our own time.
The study of comparative religion is one thing, the study of comparative history of religion is another; but both demand from the student enough willingness to try to be unprejudiced.
The study of comparative religion must be an independent, not a partisan one.
The study of comparative religion along with the history of religions, and the inclusion under these heads of little-known, unorganized sects or inspired individuals, is the first step to open the eyes of blinded humanity. When most people are insufficiently educated about their own religion, it is not a surprise that they are ill-informed about that of others. Nor can this study stop there. It ought to be broadened to include the mysticism and metaphysics behind and beyond religions.
Comparative religion will become more scientific as it is freed from the prejudices brought to it from the images previously stamped upon other religions by half-ignorant missionaries trying to make them look childish or foolish. The spiritual insensitivity of agnostic or atheistic investigators reflects back from their encounters with other people's spiritual experiences.
The liberating power of the study of comparative religion comes into effect mostly outside the academic centres, outside the colleges where it is taught with a bias towards the particular religion prevailing in the country, along with a prejudice against the other religions outside it.
Welcome knowledge from the four points of the compass but be carefully selective in what is absorbed. Avoid sectarianism but do it wisely.
It is not even enough to make a comparative study of religions and mysticisms, of metaphysics and systems and practices through the centuries and around the world. Discrimination in what is found becomes necessary, evaluation and critical judgement become essential. It is then that unexamined dogmas and rigid sectarianism with the stifling attitudes they generate are more likely to be dropped. In the end a higher kind of knowledge, the intuitional, coming from a higher level of the mind, must penetrate it all. This is the beginning of the most meaningful events.
This larger outlook which the study of comparative religion gives to a man may set him free from being confined to dogmas of a single creed or the practices of a single religion. If he feels happier with this liberation why should he not abide by it? Why should he build walls around his faith and customs? Why must he go only into a church and not into a mosque, only into a synagogue and not into a temple? Why should he not feel free to go into all of those if he wishes--in other words, to be able to worship anywhere in any place at any time?
He is safe in selecting those tenets, those mystical revelations, those moral disciplines and personal regimens which form a common basis to all religious cults and systems; they are at least the best beginning.
Religion as profound conviction and religion as a social inheritance are vitally different. Philosophy examines religion as profound conviction because it is not the monopoly of any particular race or land but is the possession of all. There is no single religion with which philosophy identifies itself. It cannot accept what is not proved true; it may not regard a belief as false but it cannot use it as true. It does not deal in a priori reasoning; it assumes nothing and is thoroughly agnostic at the start. Faith and philosophy are like the lion and the lamb--they cannot easily bed together! Consequently, philosophy's approach to religious questions is comparative in method and eclectic in spirit.
Anthropology is another of the subjects which can yield some of its substance to the student of philosophy. So far as it traces the evolution of the God-idea and of morals from primitive to civilized, it may usefully be studied.
All these intellectual and imaginative activities in religion like historical research, theological speculation, and Sanskrit, Greek, or Hebrew interpretation are proper in their own place; but their value ought to be recognized as being quite limited, if contrasted with the value of direct insight.
Philosophy completes religion
The Quest takes him through three levels of experience. First, he travels through religious beliefs and observances. Then he discovers mystical ideas and practices. Next, he sees that the personal consolations of religion and the intuitive satisfactions of mysticism are not enough. So he adds to them the impersonal quest of truth for its own sake and thus enters the domain of philosophy.
Philosophy does not cancel or deny the sublime teachings of religion but endorses and supports what is incontrovertible in them. The rest it corrects or rejects.
In every act of religious worship--however blind it be--there is a dim realization of God's existence. It is the business of mysticism to get rid of much of this dimness and of philosophy to get rid of it altogether.
The statements of religion ask for our belief: they may or may not be true. The statements of mysticism ask us to seek experience of their factuality. But the statements of philosophy confirm belief by reason, check reason by intuition, lead experience to insight.
If we look at man's inner life from the point of view of the whole cycle of reincarnation, popular religion will be seen to be a preparation for philosophy. The idea of a personal God is admitted and belief in it is encouraged, because it is the first step towards the idea of and belief in an impersonal God. Belief that the good or ill fortunes of life are sent to us by some outside being at his whim is useful as leading the way eventually to the understanding that they come to us under the operation of eternal universal law. This is one of the reasons why philosophy does not criticize or oppose popular religion on its own ground and why it leaves it completely alone and never interferes with it.
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.
Between those who feel too weak to go farther than the simple reverence of church religion and those who feel strong enough to enter the philosophical quest in full consciousness, there is every possible degree.
Only those who are able to drink the strong wine of philosophy can forsake religion without losing by, or suffering for, their desertion.
These fine teachings may quickly be distorted by popularization or greatly cheapened when brought within reach of the common understanding. If their integrity is to go in order to make concessions to the sensate mentality, if their truth is to be adulterated in order to accommodate the mass mentality, then whatever is gained will be less than what is lost. The higher truth can and should be translated into the vulgate for a mass audience--and the attempt is being made--but no unworthy compromises should be made. After all, if men want to learn the partly true, partly false, they can do so from a hundred sources. But if they want the wholly true, how few are the sources to which they can turn! Let us keep at least these few inviolate.
To insist on carrying religious dogmas into philosophic truth, for example, is to insist on carrying the child-mind into adult life. Each has valuable work to do in its own place but may become useless or even harmful when set up in judgement of what is beyond its frontier. Religion is important, mysticism is important, metaphysics is important; but if we fail to distinguish between the relative degrees of such importance, if we do not estimate them separately against the larger background of philosophy, we are liable to fall into the common error of confusing their categories and values, and thus deceive ourselves.
The religious codes are judgements or opinions, and are absolutely necessary at the popular stage; but on the philosophic level, where truth contains the highest possible goodness as an accompaniment, inspiration from the Higher Self produces a nobler conduct.
From the standpoint of social need, we must be the advocate and friend of religion when it performs its proper duty of keeping men within ethical bounds. But, from the same standpoint, we should be the opponent of religion when it becomes a farcical, hypnotical, hollow show, or when it slays and tortures men for holding other beliefs. But mounting to a higher level and adopting the standpoint of what is the ultimate truth, we can be the impartial observer of religion, for then we shall see it is but an elementary stage of man's journey on the upward mountain road leading to this high goal. Whoever seeks the last word about life must not tarry at the starting point.
Religious institutions have always been unfriendly to philosophers. This is because they have feared philosophy.
When a man of superior intellectual attainments, moral stature, or intuitional feeling ends a period of doubt or search, of darkness or agnosticism, by attaching himself to a sectarian religion, and especially to a sectarian religion which attempts to impress the senses by sacerdotal pomp and ritual, as well as the mind by claims and dogmas,it is a confession of the man's mental failure, an indication of his intellectual retrogression, and an advertisement of his moral cowardice. Such a man should have gone onwards into either the mysticism of truth or the metaphysics of truth. There must have been some weakness either in his character or in his intellect which caused him to fall back so far.
Philosophy does not effect a conversion from one religious point of view to another, but a confirmation of what intuitive feelings and ideas are trying to tell the man.
Mentally disturbed or emotionally hysterical persons can neither find Truth nor produce beauty, except during temporary lucid periods. Religious cults founded by them can only attract their own kind. Art created by them can only find acceptance because of supposed daring originality. Both are unhealthy and increase the existing confusion. Truth is eminently sane. Reality is breathtakingly beautiful. Popular externalized religion must rise into internalized mysticism, but the first must avoid the danger of superstition and the second avoid aberration. This is why both attain fulfilment in the safety of philosophy.
They come to religion seeking consolation; he comes to philosophy seeking truth; the two aims are quite different. But in the end the philosopher experiences consolation and the religionists take a step towards truth.
All the outer forms of religion, all the outer rites affect their sincere devotees emotionally, but within the higher part of the ego only. But all the samadhis of yoga, and certainly the insights of philosophy, escape this limitation by cutting completely through emotion into its deep calm core--the real being.
Because religion is an easier approach, because it requires only a devotional attitude whereas philosophy requires both a devotional and an intellectual one, the one feeds the multitude, the other an elect.
Here is religion without ritual, inspired ministration that wears no vestment, and church attendance without leaving home.
Popular religion is able to do so but philosophy cannot speak directly to all persons. It can open its lips only in the presence of those who have been made ready by life to receive it.
Both religion and mysticism are self-enclosing activities. The defense against fears which religion offers and the transcendental experiences which mysticism offers provide personal satisfactions. But philosophy can only offer truth. It is not directly concerned with substituting one emotion for another, even if the new one is on a higher level, nor does it care whether the man has pleasing or displeasing experiences through following it.
Philosophy shows how a teaching which is purely religious can be re-expressed in a non-religious way.
If they look less to ecclesiastical institutions for spiritual satisfactions, it is not because they feel less spiritual need. It is because their needs have deepened, because they want to come to the principal points of the matter rather than the tedious, obsolete, arguable, and questionable ones.
The mass of men need something visible and touchable and perhaps audible if they are to believe it really exists--hence idols for primitive people, rituals and ceremonials for more developed people. But for the advanced ones, an idea needs no such symbol, as they can grasp it by mind alone.
A theosophy, a mixture of what is excellent in all the religions, is a breeder of tolerance and fellowship among them, a stage on the way, but still not the ultimate level. For that the seeker needs to penetrate in depth, beneath religion to mysticism, beneath mysticism to philosophy.
For one person who will respond to the call of philosophy, there are perhaps a thousand who can hear only the call of religion.
That most people are only in the first degree of religion is not their fault; they cannot help it and are not to be blamed. They are simply what their past has made them. If others have risen to the higher degrees of mysticism or philosophy it is because they have a longer fuller past behind them. Young plants are not to be reproached because they are not old trees.
The teaching which is suited to those who are well on the way to the final stage of spiritual development is not much help to those who are only at the first stage.
To rise up from the religious level calls for some metaphysical faculty, a sensitivity to subtle ideas. The mind's more abstract level must be used. Those unaccustomed to it should not let themselves be discouraged. Each attempt made at intervals helps to open the way.
The philosopher does not have to sing hymns, mutter mantrams, attend churches, or take part in rituals and ceremonies organized by priests and clergymen. All that is useful, necessary, and essential to the masses--for it is the limit of their spiritual exploration. He, however, has ventured much farther and he cannot stop within these narrow borders.
Once the individual has risen above the levels of religion it would be sheer folly to fall back into them.
There is no liturgy and no ritual, no hierarchy and no institution in philosophic worship, nor are they needed.
The philosopher joins with the atheist in resisting superstition. But they part again when this resistance is directed against atheism itself--the greatest superstition of all.
No doubt individual students have their own beliefs but for these they must accept responsibility themselves. Since philosophy seeks to know the Real, it is not concerned with beliefs.
Philosophy neither elevates any man into God nor drags God down to any man's level.
Religion is satisfied with the spiritual fact diluted by myth and legend, philosophy wants the fact only.
Ungrown and immature minds would be bored by the illuminations of philosophy. For a philosopher to argue with them combatively would be a waste of time--theirs and his. There are so many creeds, systems, and sects which are really preparatory to philosophy and which are more useful to them at their stage. When they are ready for something more fundamental, they will find their way to it.
Mankind is led by easy preparatory stages towards the highest philosophy. Only when they are well grounded in true religion or mysticism and sound metaphysics is the full and final revelation made to them.
There are some persons who could not be stopped by worldly attractions from seeking something entirely unworldly, who longed for an understanding that was true and a consciousness that was real, stable, transcendental, and peace-bestowing. They tried orthodoxy and unorthodoxy, faith and unfaith, cults and leaders, organizations and solitariness. In the end they found their peace, or rather the first step to it, when they found philosophy.
Thus the vaguely felt, dimly apprehended, and always symbolic truth of religion is developed into clear full direct knowledge by philosophy.
It is not interested in forming just another sect, in building up one more denomination.
That worship which the followers of popular religion give blindly, instinctively, and often mechanically is given intelligently, scientifically, and consciously by the adherents of philosophy.
Those who are attached to the religious creed into which they have been born have no need to discard it merely because they wish to avail themselves of the knowledge and benefits provided by philosophy, for by applying its light to the creed, to the forms and the symbols, they will find much more meaning and depth in them. Properly interpreted they will not be found contradictory. But what has been added by ignorance, miscomprehension, wilfulness, or superstition will be shown up for what it is. The Founder's great message will remain untouched, his access to the eternal verities will be vindicated. In the case of those who had previously turned away from their traditional religion into a blank agnosticism, or even a stronger atheism, their doubts will be removed. So philosophy alone serves both groups! If it refuses to support false beliefs, it equally refuses to support false negations of religious belief. It sees quite clearly through religion and atheism and can nourish the follower of both.
There is nothing in religion that philosophy really displaces. It simply supplements and completes, corrects and inspires mature understanding, and leads the individual to experience the blessed inner peace which religion, per se, can only allude to.
Religion signifies an intellectual descent when compared with Philosophy only when it is separated from Philosophy, which earnestly sets itself the task of evoking the presence of a new Faith in the hearts of men. Prayer, worship, communion, reverence, and faith in God are indispensable parts to the philosophic life. Philosophy is, for those who are willing to live it as well as to study it, a religion. They acquire the religious spirit from it even if they never possessed it before. They increase their religious fervour if they did possess it before. They finish up with a sense of their helplessness, their smallness, and their dependence. They finish up with prayer. Thus religious worship, so often denounced as the first superstition of primitive man, becomes the final wisdom of matured man.
Why walk into the prison of another sect? Why not walk out from all sects into freedom?
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.
The attitude of philosophy towards proselytizing Euro-American converts to yoga and propagandizing Ramakrishna Mission swamis is naturally sympathetic, yet wisely discriminating. It refuses to associate itself solely with any particular religion, whether Eastern or Western. Hence, it is uninterested in conversions from one religion to another, unconcerned with the defense or attack, the spread or decay of any organized religion. Those who especially link it with Hinduism alone or Buddhism alone are wrong. But although philosophy has no ecclesiastical system of its own, a philosopher is free to support one if he chooses to do so. This may happen for social reasons, or family reasons, or special personal reasons.
Because most religions theoretically turn people towards a power holier than themselves, however high or low their concept of that power may be, there is no ground for intolerance, fanaticism, or persecution. But because these things do exist, we must ascribe their origin to the human faults of upholders of religion and to the sectarian ambition or selfish aims of its organizations. Such an atmosphere is suffocating to would-be philosophers, with their pursuit of calm, their attitude of goodwill, and their doctrine of evolutionary levels. They are perfectly willing to let others follow their own way of worship, so long as it is not morally destructive or utterly evil.
If religion is for the consolation of man, philosophy is for the improvement of man.
How far is the distance between the pale apathetic faith of a nominal religionist and this wholly intensive devotion of a philosophic life!
If philosophy confirms basic religious feeling, it does not do so to serve any particular sect, institution, or creed. On the contrary, it frees one from the narrowness too often associated with them.
Buddha said, "Proclaim the Truth"; he did not say, "Convert others to the Truth." It is for the philosopher to make it available, to open up a way for others, but not to count the gains or weigh the harvest.
Judged from the philosophic level, the old religious forms which are disintegrating and the new forms which are striving to replace them are both gravely imperfect.
Philosophy does all that religion does for a man, but it does more. It not only restores or reinforces faith in a higher Power, gives each life a higher meaning, brings consolation and support during trouble, and ennobles one's treatment of other people, but also explains the deeper mysteries of the nature of God, the universe, and man.
The disciplinary revelations of the Overself displace the ethical regulations of established orthodoxy and render them unnecessary.
Religions and cults seek to get people into their particular folds. Philosophy seeks to get them out of all folds.
There is hope for these teachings so long as they do not become embedded in an organized church, so long as the movement of public appreciation remains individualistic, so long as no orthodoxy gets established with its accompanying pronouncements of anathema upon heresy.
The religious feelings of a philosopher are not less existent than those of the outwardly pious; they are deep and delicate: yet they are untouched by sentimentality.
Compulsory belief in particular religious dogmas has done harm as well as good, has led to much bloodshed and hatred. Philosophy instills an air of tolerance which operates against such religiosity.
The principles of philosophy are its clergy. They serve its little flock, minister to its higher needs, and support it in times of stress.
In the presence of sectarianism, with its rivalry and recrimination, philosophy remains aloof and silent. Unlike the sects, it is concerned with universal truths that will always be valid.
There are no labels in the kingdom of heaven, no organizations and no ashrams either. He who affixes a label to his name, be it that of Christian or Hindu, Advaitin or mystic, affixes a limitation also, and thus bars the gateway leading to the attainment of Truth. The study of philosophy mercilessly demolishes every possible division which the history of man has established.
It does not seek the convinced sectarians but tries to get the ear of the intelligent laymen who are dissatisfied with orthodox doctrine.
The current of religious conversion, exciting though it be at the time, is likely to exhaust itself as emotion subsides. The inward growth which comes with philosophy is slower moving and deeper rooted but more lasting. The change it makes cannot be undone, the peace it leaves cannot be taken away.
It is not religion itself that he has outgrown but organized religion, not truth that he has denied but arrogant claims to monopolize truth. He does not want a heaven which is really a prison.
Those who have passed through the disciplines of body, intellect, and emotion are no longer on the same level as those who have not. They need a teaching appropriate in every way to their higher development.
All that is finest and all that is really essential in religion is not negated but carried to its fulfilment in philosophy.
Philosophy and ``the faithful''
It is unphilosophic and imprudent to disturb anyone's religious faith. It is only when the course of events or their own mental development creates doubts and disquiet--and even then they must come seeking more satisfactory answers to their questions--that higher teaching can be given. But even then the manner in which the latter is presented is important--that is, try not to bring it into collision with those parts of their faith which they still hold, be constructive and not destructive. In that way the new teaching can be presented as a higher octave of the old one or used for reform of the old one.
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.
He will not disturb the faith of those who are satisfied with their own religion or of those who feel sure they have the truth. His ministrations are only to those who humbly call themselves seekers, who do not arrogantly feel they have arrived at the goal of truth, who are bewildered or who approach him earnestly.
Because of the absence of intolerance from his character, the philosopher neither desires nor attempts to impose his ideas upon others. He gives them the intellectual freedom he wants for himself.
He will accept the fact that a variety of attitudes and a diversity of views must exist among mankind, since the life-waves behind mankind are themselves so varied in age. The result of this will be a large willingness on his own part to let others believe what they wish so long as they do not try to force these beliefs compulsorily where not wanted.
They attend the church synagogue mosque most piously but the experience of the Deity as it really happens (not the ego-inflating joyous semi-mystic experience of popular religion and conventional mysticism) would frighten them away if described in advance. For it involves the disappearance of the ego into the Void.
The destruction of religion would constitute a serious loss of moral strength and mental hope to mankind. Its dogma of the existence of a higher power, its insistence that a virtuous life is rewarded and a vicious one punished, its periodical call to drop worldly thoughts and activities are values of which the multitudes cannot afford to be prematurely deprived without grave peril to their higher evolution. The philosophical student should be sympathetic to the genuine worth of religion as he should be hostile to the traditional abuses. He must not permit himself to be swept away on the emotional tide of extreme fanaticism, either by the materialistic atheists who would utterly destroy religion and persecute its priesthood in the name of science or by the blind pious dogmatists who would destroy scientific free thought in the name of God.
Popular religion, suited to rural peasants and city crowds, asks for simple faith, not reflective thought; questionless obedience and not critical inquiry. It is easier to follow. And besides, conformity in this matter means fewer troubles and freedom from harassment for those who have to live among others. A philosopher who pays outward deference to the religion of those around him because he wants a tranquil life is not necessarily a hypocrite. He knows what is true and what is superstitious in that religion. The truth he accepts, the other he ignores. He wants to worship God just as much as, more likely more, than the other people.
Religion must be regarded as a necessity for the masses, for whom it represents the best possible source of help; it is not right to disturb their faith. Nevertheless, for those who have begun to diverge from the herd and who have developed an interest in mysticism, such facts as the foregoing should be pointed out and need to be discussed.
Many in the prewar period had so altered their outlooks as to be somewhat sceptical of the validity of religion. But scepticism is a negative attitude which hides a real hunger, the hunger for some new truth to replace the old belief which has been found lacking. It is for us to show such minds that a rational mysticism, pruned of superstition, has much to offer them. It is also for us to show the few among them who can ascend so far that the hidden philosophy will satisfactorily fill their hunger and provide an alternative to replace what they have renounced.
This clinging adhesion to the institutions and organizations of religions and cults whether established or unorthodox, this lack of exploratory spirit to search out little known but superior teaching, must be recognized by the educator in philosophy. He must accept ruefully that what he has to communicate will be welcomed only by a small minority.
But if we do not tell others that the truth exists, how will anyone ever know about it? The answer is that telling is not a job for the incautious beginner but for the seasoned proficient.
In meeting with religious advocates, the student should listen courteously but not waste time arguing with them: he should keep his mental reservations to himself.
He will carefully avoid disturbing the faith of others but, except in special circumstances or for special motives--persecution, position, children, or mission--he will not go out of his way to encourage them. It is not his business to encourage superstition.
The sage seeks to descend and meet a man at his own level, and then try to lift him just a little higher. Thus he will try to give the remorselessly cruel fanatical religionist a noble view of his own faith.
It is not that philosophy holds a different conception about man from the religious one, but that it holds a deeper one.
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.
The pious man may keep his religious denomination when he adds philosophy, so long as he does not try to keep its conformism and dogmatism and smug monopolism. The one attitude is incompatible with the other. But the original living spirit behind its beginnings, the essential reverence of the higher power, the beautiful communion, the fervent devotion--these are perfectly philosophical.
Philosophy can never collide with religion. Indeed it includes a cult, a worship of the higher Power. But it may and does collide with superstition masquerading as religion, and with exploitation pretending to be religion.
Just as the confusion of planes of ethical reference between the monastic and householder's duties has introduced error into the whole subject of yoga, so the confusion of planes of intellectual understanding between the religious and the philosophic concepts has introduced error into the whole subject of truth. Philosophy has no quarrel with religion so long as it does not go beyond its legitimate frontiers.
If some men find help in the regular formal observance of established religions, philosophy does not object. But if they assert that these observances should be honoured and followed by all other men, as being indispensable to their spiritual welfare, then philosophy is forced to object. We must allow tolerance in spiritual and social matters to all except those whose doctrines would subvert tolerance itself or whose action would destroy it. If we regard it as wrong to impose our religious views on others, we also regard it as wrong to allow others to impose them on us.
They are not asked to give up their faith in God but to broaden their idea of God.
The gap between the religious approach and the philosophic approach cannot be closed except by time and development. Fools ignore it only to suffer disillusionment for their trouble.
Philosophy is forced to support existing religious bodies not because it conceives them to be the best, but because it can find no better ones. It is grieved by their faults and imperfections, their past history and present selfishness, but it believes that a world without them would be a worse one.
To the ignorant sceptic, the venerable institution of religion rests on the twin pillars of superstition and prejudice, but to the philosopher these are but the incrustations of time on the real pillars, which are understanding and reverence.
Philosophy is always sympathetic towards religion because the parent is always sympathetic towards its offspring.
Just as the worship of an anthropomorphic Deity is a proper prescription for the masses, so the worship of a personal saviour is a proper prescription for them too. Philosophy warmly endorses both kinds of worship. Let it not be thought that it would obliterate them. On the contrary, it rationally explains their necessity and defends their utility. They are valuable aids to millions of people. Moreover, they yield genuine and not illusory results. However, when ignorant or intolerant persons would set up these elementary goals as the highest possible ones for all men, or as the sole paths leading to divinity, then philosophy feels it necessary to refute the ignorance of the one and to denounce the intolerance of the other.
If personality is denied to Universal Being, this is only because of the littleness it imposes on that Being, because it lessens and minifies. But if children, adolescents, and many or most adults need the support of such a belief to maintain religious aspiration and provide personal comfort, why not let them have it? The others, who have been educated so highly as to regard it as an illusion, are entitled to their view too. Philosophy is able to point out what is correct and what is not in both views.
When one talks or writes in public about popular religion, one must be cautious and careful, for it is very easy to tread on the feet of those who take popular religion quite literally and most seriously. Just as the educated Greeks and Romans could not, because they dared not, tell the masses that the various cults they worshipped were really the laws of nature, so the philosopher must be very careful if he hints that popular religion is merely the first step on the way to God--a step too often mixed with confusions and superstitions.
Those who have reached its higher levels and stand at the portals of philosophy can get a point of view which will harmonize all old and new religions which now compete or even conflict with each other.
Intolerance toward philosophy
The sage of former centuries was prudent in the presence of established religious authority. He took care to avoid being persecuted for heresy, although he did not always succeed in protecting himself against its suspicions. Even on a lesser plane, a mystic like Miguel de Molinos could not be saved by the Pope, his friend, from the dungeons of the "Holy" Office, the Inquisition. Remember that the Jesuits were hostile to the work of Molinos and also Madame Guyon because of its success. They were also jealous of his intimacy with the Pope, who lodged him in the Vatican. Plots were laid, the Inquisition was brought into their opposition, he was denounced as a heretic and, further, falsely libelled. The Jesuits succeeded in winning the French king to their cause: he used all his influence with the Papacy to have Molinos arrested. The poor victim never regained his freedom but died in the dungeons of the Inquisition some twelve years later. His books were termed "dangerous" and destroyed.
The so-called normal condition of the human mentality is really an abnormal one. Sanity has not yet been stamped upon the human race. That is still a perfectionist ideal which is being approached slowly, haltingly, and with many side-wanderings. The narrow, unbalanced, and confused mentalities of most people naturally react indifferently, impatiently, or intolerantly to the broad straight truths of philosophy. Nothing can be done by anyone to assist them so long as they not only do not understand this teaching but do not even care to understand it. Only when they will have sufficiently awakened to regard it as being not too absurd or too idealistic to be considered will they have attained civilized maturity.
The narrow-minded and little-hearted among orthodox institutions will resent his independence and protest that to allow him freedom and equality is to allow anarchy and chaos to reign.
This word "religion" is very often and very glibly used. Yet the meaning given it by the seers is too frequently not the same meaning given it by the hearers. Consequently history has witnessed the curious spectacle of Spinoza, whose entire life was a contemplation of God and a practice of virtue, denounced as an atheist by the Jewish ecclesiasts, and as a scoundrel by the Christian ones, of his times.
Philosophic independence, universalism
The philosopher who would be completely loyal to Truth will also be non-denominational in religion. Among those who boast of their formal membership in a solidly organized or socially respected church he will be a churchless outsider. The very membership they are so proud of would be an oppressive limitation to him. Intellectually he is fully justified in refusing to affix to himself any label bearing the name of any sect. His detached impartial judgement allows him to see the errors and weaknesses of all sects no less than their truths and services. He can gladly share what is true in all beliefs but not what is false in them or limiting in their followers and organizers. Yet this true position will not be what it seems from the outside. It will paradoxically be both in and out of all religions--in by reason of his deeper understanding of them than their own believers possess, and out by reason of his knowledge that the inspired Word has been spoken in many lands, among different races, to the most varied individuals. He is in by reason of his sympathy with all groping for light and all giving Light, which a religion represents, but out by reason of his inability to narrow down his receptivity to that Light through adopting a dogmatic creed or through identifying himself completely with any particular faith. He cannot for the sake of partial truth endure the imitating error. He is out too because he sees each denomination locked in on itself, restricted in outlook and inadequate in tolerance. He feels the need of a larger liberty than any of them can give him, so as to express somewhat the infinite freedom of the Spirit itself. Nor will he, for the personal or social benefit of associating with a closed congenial group, yield to the temptation of losing interest in all other groups. His intellectual attitude is the only truly catholic one, and the neutrality of his feelings is the only really universal one. He stands at the frontier between every pair of religions, a foreigner but yet a friend, serene and immobile. In all this what else is he doing except expressing not only a stricter adherence to truth but also to love? For no man, whether believer or atheist, is shut out from his circle. All men are included in it.
No universal rule can be laid down for the illumined man to follow in the matter of relationship to the religion into which he was born. He may adhere to it, observe all its rites, and fulfil all its requirements quite faithfully or he may anarchically reject all allegiance to it. If he follows the first alternative it will most probably be because of the need to set an example to those who still need the support of such outward and visible institutionalism and such fixed forms and dogmas. If he follows the second alternative, it is most certainly because first, his inner voice tells him to do so, second, because the hour is at hand to recall religion itself to the great verities which have largely vanished from it, and third, simply because his own temperament and disposition prefer it. This is why in history we find the strangely paradoxical actuality of some mystics following orthodoxy with pious conformity but others standing aside with heretical stubbornness.
In the end man will find that no church can give him what he can give himself or do for him what he must do for himself. And that is, to go back to the source of his being and seek communion there within his own mind and his own heart where God is hidden.
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.
The outer forms and observances, the liturgies and rituals of religion may be dispensed with by the person who has successfully opened up an inner way of communication with the higher self, so far as his own personal needs are concerned. But, for the sake of others to whom these are still necessary, he may, by way of example, continue with them, as he deems best.
You can no more decipher the name of his denomination than you can put the sky into a container. For he does not belong to one inwardly although he may, occasionally, for social reasons, belong to one outwardly.
He does not have to enter a church or temple to stand in God's presence: he is continually there.
Religion is for the masses of men, mysticism for the few, but philosophy is for the individual.
The orthodox offering of myth will never satisfy the man who has had a glimpse of the star of truth.
Who is willing to sacrifice his worldly interests for the sake of coming closer to the intangible Overself? Who is willing to deviate from the conventional path of mere sensuality and narrow selfishness for the sake of a mysterious intuition which bids him obey and trust it implicitly? The answer to these questions is that only a scattered minority is willing to do so, and one small enough to show up humanity's actual state as being inwardly far from knowing why it is here on earth.
The shelter which religion offers the masses has its correspondence in the strength which philosophy offers the few.
Although the philosopher is not really tied to any dogmas or tethered to any cult but is friendly to all those which are not directly evil, this does not mean he is ready to agree deferentially with all the doctrines offered to the world. He may have to point out where acceptance must stop, but he qualifies this by showing up its relativity, its dependence on a particular level.
If others feel the need of a creedal, dogmatic teaching to support them, of a leader to take them along, of a group to give them gregarious comfort, it is right for them to accept these things. But the philosopher feels that he must remain uncommitted, must not put up fences and barriers behind which he is to shut himself in with a leader and a group. He remembers the experience of the spiritual glimpse, when he felt that God's love was for all, and not for any special sect or society, that God's truth was greater than any creed or dogma, and that he was set free from all man-made mental, social, and spiritual cages.
Too intelligent to accept the nonsense which is traditionally served in the name of religion, too intuitive not to feel the worshipful reverence for a higher Power demanded by religion, he is forced to follow an independent path.
In answer to the question which sometimes arises, whether the aspirant could continue to remain, without hypocrisy, in communion with an orthodoxy such as the Church of England, while holding the philosophic view of Jesus, the reply is that he could certainly do so. There is absolutely no need to break away from the Church nor to give up the services of institutional religion. Philosophy makes no pronouncements against these items but leaves it entirely to each individual to make his own decision in such matters. The decision must depend upon his circumstances, temperament, and so forth. Philosophy merely says that such services are not enough in themselves to ensure illumination in the case of the believer, while in the case of the sceptic they are useless. They may have their value to quite a number of people, and if one feels the need of them or of religious fellowship, it would be quite permissible for him to continue them. This need not at all be construed as hypocrisy or cowardice. However, no one should act hastily in so vital a matter. He has not only to consider the effect of such an act upon himself, but also upon the community around him. It might even be that, although the service no longer satisfied him personally, he might have to continue it for the sake of setting an example to other, less mature persons who still fully believe in it--since they think they are receiving help from it--and who are influenced by his decisions.
Philosophy sees that the problem of man's attitude to God is an individual problem, that organizations can at best only contribute towards its solution and at worst retard and delay its solution. No organization can ever solve it for him. Only he himself can do so.
The sceptic, who has no use for religious institutions and no belief in religious experience, is far removed from the philosopher, who criticizes these things but does not reject them.
The experience which carries him into the pure air of the Overself carries him also high above the limitations of creeds and dogmas, sects, rituals, and groups which so arbitrarily divide men.
Emerson overestimated the value of individualism because he tended to overlook the fact that all the fine things he said about it were true only of those rare individuals who had attained the zenith of noble character and inspirational wisdom.
He has freed himself from the biased creedal trap, from the fanatic sectarian exclusiveness, from the tight limits caused by non-existent or insufficient comparative knowledge. He has yet to free himself from himself, to become detached from the egoistic way of viewing ideas, to become detached and impartial and equilibrated.
It is not conversion from one religion into another that a philosopher seeks to effect, such as from Christianity to Hinduism, but conversion to the inner understanding of all religions.
The philosopher is inwardly a non-traditionalist. Why should he, who seeks or dwells in the fullest mental freedom, condition his mind by the opinions of others or conform his life according to the beliefs of others? Why should he, who knows that the Spirit bears no labels, attach himself to any particular system of thought, values, or rites? Do not therefore expect him to belong to any creed, religion, sect that you can name or to adore its symbols and submit to its clichés.
The Spirit which he has touched will not let him be confined to a single religious system but enables him to perceive what is true (and what is not) in all systems.
He is independent and neutral towards organized religions yet at the same time friendly and understanding of them. He is unable to commit himself to all their credos or join their institutions, yet he willingly studies those credos and recognizes the need of those institutions. He needs no formal authority to endorse his attainment for he needs no following, no publicity, no patronage.
Such a man will be highly advanced whatever religion or sect he follows outwardly, and not as the effect of that particular group to which he belongs. The credit is his own, not the group's.
He who acquires a thorough and correct understanding of philosophy acquires a property that will remain in his possession throughout life. He will never change it although he may broaden it.
If he chooses to remain within a particular denomination, it will not be at the price of regarding it as God's chosen one.
The sage is in himself a non-sectarian, yet his people's need or his personal destiny, or both, may make him active on behalf of religious sects. He is mentally nonpolitical, yet the same pressure may make him work for some political cause.
The philosopher has no general need to identify himself with any particular religion, with its bias and limitation, but he may have a special need to do so because of personal circumstances or of service to humanity.
He may attend his ancestral church, temple, mosque, or synagogue if he wishes but it will not be at all necessary for spiritual comfort to do so. His obedience to the obligation is merely a gesture, an outward symbol of acknowledgment that there is a Higher Power worthy of homage and worship. And he makes this acknowledgment to confirm the faith of the ignorant who are not able to do more than take their religion on external authority.
Traditional forms and organizations have little appeal to one who draws his inspirations from today's life, and not yesterday's: still less to one who holds to the superiority of the individual intuition above all organizations and prefers it to their tyranny and dogmatism.
With the fuller establishment of enlightenment he comes to understand that if he is to transcend duality he must give up the idols he has worshipped--gods and gurus.
He needs no religious authority to interfere with or interrupt this glorious glimpse, no theologian to bring it down to the intellectual level and thus lose it for him.
Do not ask the name of his religion or the whereabouts of his church, for he does not know anything more than that it is a faith and worship which saturate his mind, penetrate his heart, and satisfy both, and that it goes with him regularly everywhere he himself goes.
The philosopher may recite no creed and observe no sacrament, or he may do both. He is free.
But if such an event as the formation of a new cult be in the destiny of things, then he is content to let it come in its own way by the activity of others, never by his own, and only after his death, for he will do all he can to prevent it during his lifetime.
All these minor stars of religious theology and intellectual theory pale before the bright constellation of final Truth.
Philosophy is profoundly religious, but it is not a religion. Men belonging to different folds may study and practise it.
If you regard it as a religion, then it is one which embraces all other religions.
Whenever the masses begin to question, they ask, "What are we to believe?" whereas whenever the intelligent few begin to question they ask, "What can we know?"
If he is to be at all understood, he must use the names and dogmas of the established religion, the ascendant faith, in his own declarations.
To accept an institution's usefulness to society generally without accepting the institution personally is his attitude.
A man who develops his own private approach to the spirit has as much right to hold independent views of it as others have to hold conventional ones. Societies rightly depend upon organized religions but they should learn to respect individuals who are unable to do so but who are not less appreciative of religious values in their loftiest sense.
Those who look for overnight miraculous uplifting and exalting changes in the minds of the masses are looking for rare happenings; this is for individuals only; all the others will be changed either by a long process of experience or by a shorter process of education, or, more usually, by a combination of both.
If ideas, truths, knowledge of enormous importance to the human race, as well as a way of life founded upon them, are not to vanish from the world altogether, a few men and women here and there must carefully preserve them and lovingly nurture them.
It is not a long step but rather an easy one from the universalizing of communications and transport which is such a feature of our times, to the universalizing of spiritual culture. The search for God, the quest of the Soul can now be carried on with the help of all the knowledge gleaned by all human beings everywhere. It can now be discussed in terms of basic human experiences and not mere sectarian ones.
This universal message is destined to flow all over the world. Its bearers will be none other than the writings of ancient and modern seers. It will bring people the opportunity to grow, to go forward. Those who will be mentally flexible enough to understand and emotionally courageous enough to accept the truth will break away from the effete tradition which holds them. The others will stubbornly prefer to remain as they are. It is not easy to desert one belief for another.
The Notebooks are copyright © 1984-1989, The Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation.