THE GNOSTICS: FRAGMENTS OF A FAITH FORGOTTEN – G.R.S.MEAD
Posted by lahar9jhadav on March 27, 2012
Fragments of a Forgotten Faith is one of the foundation stones of Gnostic study and understanding. It provides the most comprehensive collection of pre-Nag Hammadi Gnostic texts but even more important perhaps, is the author’s penetrating knowledge and understanding.
MYSTERIOUS Time is once more big with child and labouring to bring forth her twentieth babe, as the Western world counts her progeny; for, according to the books, just nineteen children of her centenarian brood have lived and died since He appeared to whom all Christians look as Teacher of the Way to God. The common conscience of the General Church flows not only from the fact that all believe He is the Teacher of the Way, but from the faith, He is that Way itself. This is the common bond of Christians the world over, and this has been the symbol of their union throughout the centuries. Some nineteen hundred years ago the Illuminator appeared and light streamed forth into the world–such is the common creed of the adherents of the great religion of the Western world.
As the honorific inscriptions said of the birthday of the Roman Emperor Augustus, so said after them all Christians of the natal day of Jesus:
"This day has given the earth an entirely new aspect. The world would have gone to destruction had there not streamed forth from him who is now born a common blessing.
"Rightly does he judge who recognises in this birth-day the beginning of life and of all the I powers of life; now is that time ended when men pitied themselves for being born.
"From no other day does the individual or the community receive such benefit as from this natal day, full of blessing to all.
"The Providence which rules over all has filled this man with such gifts for the salvation of the world as designate him as Saviour for us and for the coming generations; of wars he will make an end, and establish all things worthily.
"By his appearing are the hopes of our forefathers fulfilled; not only has he surpassed the good deeds of earlier time, but it is impossible that one greater than he can ever appear.
"The birth-day of God has brought to the world glad tidings that are bound up in him. "From his birth-day a new era begins."
So runs the most perfect of a number of inscriptions lately found in Asia Minor and set up to commemorate the introduction of the Julian Calendar by the Emperor Augustus. It bears a date corresponding to our 9 (See Harnack’s article in Die christliche Welt, Dec. 1899).
The hope of the adherents of the Emperor-cult was speedily shattered; the expectation of Christendom remains in great part unfulfilled, for the nineteen centuries which have passed away have severally grown old in years of bitter strife, of internecine and most bloody wars, of persecution and intolerance in things religious which no other period in the world’s known history can, parallel. Will the twentieth century witness the fulfilment of this so great expectation; can it be said of the present time that "the whole nature travaileth together waiting for the manifestation of the Sons of God"?
Can any who keenly survey the signs of the times, doubt but that now, at the dawn of the twentieth century, among Christian nations, the general nature of thought and feeling in things religious is being quickened and expanded, and as it were is labouring in the pains of some new birth? And if this be so, why should not the twentieth century witness some general realization of the long deferred hope by the souls that are to be born into it? Never in the Western world has the general mind been more ripe for the birth of understanding in things religious than it is to-day; never have conditions been more favourable for the wide holding of a wise view of the real nature of the Christ and the task He is working to achieve in the evolution of His world-faith.
Our present task will be to attempt, however imperfectly, to point to certain considerations which may tend to restore the grand figure of the Great Teacher to its natural environment in history and tradition, and disclose the intimate points of contact which the true ideal of the Christian religion has with the one world-faith of the most advanced souls of our common humanity–in brief, to restore the teaching of the Christ to its true spirit of universality. Not for one instant would we try to lessen the reverence and the love of any single soul for that Great Soul who watches over Christendom; our task will rather be to point to a soil in which that love can flourish ever more abundantly, and ever more confidently open its heart to the rational rays of the Spiritual Sun. That soil is rich enough for the full growth of the man-plant; it is part of the original soil, and gives nourishment to every branch of man’s nature, emotional and moral, rational and spiritual.
With many others we hold there is but One Religion for humanity; the many faiths and creeds are all streams or streamlets of this great river. This may perhaps seem a hard saying to some, but let us briefly consider its meaning. The Sun of Truth is one. His rays stream forth into the minds and hearts of men; surely if we believe anything at all, we hold this faith in the Fatherhood of God! Must we not then believe that our common Father is no respecter of persons and that at all times, in all lands, He has loved and loves and will love His children? We should be dull scholars indeed if nineteen hundred years of the teaching of the Christ had not taught us this. And yet how few really believe it? The whole history of the Churches g of Christendom is a record of disbelief in this fundamental dogma of universal religion, and no greater foe has dogged the footsteps of Christianity than the evil genius of Jewish particularism, which has ever instigated it to every outbreak of intolerance and persecution. This same spirit also infused itself into Mohammedanism, and we can trace the results in the bloody pages of its history.
It may possibly be that this crude particularism and exclusiveness in religion is a necessary factor in the development of certain classes of souls, and that it is used for ultimate good purpose by the Wisdom that guides the world; but is not a greater portion of our Father’s blessing possible to us now? Can we not see that it matters not whether a man have learned of the Path from the teaching of Krishna or of the Buddha, of Mohammed or Zoroaster, or of the Christ,–provided he but set his foot upon that Path, it is all one to our common Father? He it was who sent Them all forth and illumined Them, that all might through Them have the spiritual food suited to their needs. Words fail even to hint at the sublimity of this conception, at the glorious glimpse into the stupendous reality of God’s providence which this illuminating doctrine opens up. And to realise this–not to believe it in some half-hearted way and practically deny it by our other beliefs–how great the growth of the heart! It is in the sunshine of this most blessed doctrine of all the world-saviours that we would ask our readers to approach the consideration of the many forms of faith of earliest Christendom with which we shall have to deal in these pages. In this sunshine "heresy" and "false religion" frequently wear so changed an aspect that they seem quite beautiful alongside of the "orthodoxy" and "true religion" of their unsympathetic opponents.
But let us be on our guard against all exaggeration and strive to get things in their true proportions, for it is only thus that we can realise the eternal providence of God, who by His Messengers in His own good time ever adjusts the balance. It has been said by Professor Max Müller that we should not speak of the comparative science of religion, but should rather employ the phrase, comparative science of theology. This is quite true of the work that has so far been done, and done well, by official scholarship; the main effort has been to discover differences, and exaggerate the analysis of details. So far there has been, outside of a small circle of writers, little attempt at synthesis.
We are not, however, prepared to abandon the term comparative science of religion; we believe there is such a science–the noblest perchance to which any man can set his hand. But it is one of the most difficult. It requires not only an intimate experience of human nature as well as a wide knowledge of history, but also a deep sympathy with the hopes and fears of the religious conscience, and above all things an unshakable faith in the unwinking providence of God in all human affairs.
Supposing it possible that a man could love and revere all the great Teachers known to history as deeply and earnestly as each exclusive religionist reveres and loves his own particular Master; supposing that he could really believe in the truth of each of the great religions in as full measure, though without exclusiveness, as the orthodox of each great faith believes in the truth of his own revelation; supposing finally he could sense the Wisdom of Deity in active operation in all these manifestations,–what a glorious Religion would then be his! How vast and strong his Faith when supported by the evidences of all the world-bibles and the exhortations of all the world-teachers! Persuaded of the fact of re-birth, he would feel himself a true citizen of the world and heir presumptive to all the treasures of the sacred books. Little would he care for the gibes of "eclectic" or "syncretist" flung at him by the analysers of externals and seekers after difference, for he would be bathing in the life-stream of Religion, and would gladly leave them to survey its bed and channels, and scrutinize the mud of its bottom and the soil of its banks; least of all would he notice the cry of "heretic" hurled after him by some paddlers in a pool on the shore. Not, however, that he would think little of analysis or less of orthodoxy, but his analysis would be from within as well as from without, and he would find his orthodoxy in the life of the stream and not in the shape of the banks.
The One Religion flows in the hearts of men and the Light-stream pours its rays into the soil of human nature. The analysis of a religion is therefore an analysis of human-kind. Every great religion has expressions as manifold as the minds and hearts of its adherents. The manifestation of its truth in the life and words of a great sage must differ widely from the feeble reflection of its light which is all the dull intellect I and unclean life of the ignorant and immoral can express. It is true that its light and life are free for all; but as there are grades of souls, all at different stages of evolution, how can it be that all can equally reflect that light? How unwise is it then to compare the most enlightened views of one set of religionists with the most ignorant beliefs and most superstitious practices of another set! And yet this is a very favourite pastime with those who seek to gratify themselves with the persuasion that their own faith is superior to that of every other creature. This method will never lead us to a comprehension of true Religion or an understanding of our brother man.
Analyse any of the great religions, and you find the same factors at work, the same problems of human imperfection to be studied, the many who are "called" and the few who are "chosen,"–there are in each religion, as there ever have been, "many Thyrsus-bearers but few Bacchi." To compare the Bacchi of one religion with the Thyrus-bearers of another is mere foolishness. All Hindus, for instance, are not unintelligent worshipers of idols and all Christians fervent imitators of the Christ. If we compare the two at all, let us put the image-adoration of the Roman Church or eikon-worship of the Greek Church alongside of the worship of four-faced Brahmā and the rest of the figures of the pantheon; but if we would find the proper parallel to the holy life and best theology of Christendom, then we must go to the best theology and holiest livers among the Brahmans.
So then if we analyse a religion, we find that the lowest of the people know little of it and cling desperately to many misconceptions and superstitions, and that from this travesty of what it really is, rises grade after grade of higher intelligence and less erroneous expression of it, until we arrive at that class of souls who consciously seek to welcome the light in all its fulness and make this the one object of their lives. It is within this class of minds that we must seek for the true nature of a religion. Here then we expect to find the real points of contact between the religion and its sister-faiths, and here we sense the presence of the glorious Spiritual Sun, the parent of all the Rays of Light poured into the world.
Now of all the great religions none can be of greater interest to any student of the comparative science of religion in the West than the Christian Faith. It presses on him at every turn; it is a problem he cannot escape. He is amazed at the general ignorance of everything connected with its history and origins. How few are there who have ever really studied the subject, outside of the comparatively small body of scholars whose profession is to deal with such researches–and even among them how few have thrown any real light on the subject, in spite of their admirable industry.
Indeed it is difficult for any one possessed of the ideas we have endeavoured to express above, filled with enthusiasm for the unity of religion and with a living faith in the truly universal nature of the Christ’s teaching, to gain much real help from the studies of either rationalists or apologists. For long he is confronted with libraries of books filled with mutually contradictory opinions, and only valuable as a means of sifting out material for future use. He finds as he prosecutes his studies, that every one of his preconceptions as to early times has to be considerably modified, and most of them indeed to be entirely rejected.
He gradually works his way to a point whence he can obtain an unimpeded view of the remains of the first two centuries, and gazes round on a world that he has never heard of at school, and of which no word is breathed from the pulpit.
Is this the world of the Primitive Church of which he has read in the accepted manuals and been told of by pastors and masters? Is this the picture of the single and simple community of the followers of Jesus; this the one doctrine which he had been led to believe has been handed down in unbroken succession and in one form since the beginnings? He gazes round on a religious world of immense activity, a vast upheaval of thought and a strenuousness of religious endeavour to which the history of the Western world gives no parallel. Thousands of schools and communities on every hand, striving and contending, a vast freedom of thought, a mighty effort to live the religious life. Here he finds innumerable points of contact with other religions; he moves in an atmosphere of freedom of which he has previously had no experience in Christian tradition. Who are all these people–not fishermen and slaves and the poor and destitute, though those are striving too–but these men of learning and ascetic life, saints and sages as much as many others to whom the name has been given with far less reason? They are all heretics, say later Church writers, very pestilent folk and enemies of the True Faith which we have now established by our decrees and councils.
But the student prefers to look to the first two centuries themselves instead of listening to the opinions and decisions of those who come after, who, as farther away from the origins, can hardly be expected to know more of them than those they anathematised after their death.
Now it is remarkable that, though such abundantly minute and laborious research has been expended on the problem of the origins of Christianity by the analysis of canonical documents, so little critical attention has been bestowed on the writings of these "heretics," although by their means great light may be thrown on many of the obscure problems connected with the history of the beginnings; it is only of comparatively late years that the utility of their evidence has been recognised and that attempts have been made to bring them into court. The "general voice" of the Catholic Church since its ascendancy has stigmatised these "heretics" as the "first-born sons of Satan," and the faithful have believed unquestioningly that that voice was "Sancto Spiritu suggerente." But for Protestantism at least such crude opinions can no longer satisfy the liberal mind in things religious at the beginning of the twentieth century.
For upwards of one hundred years liberal the Christendom has witnessed the most strenuous and courageous efforts to rescue the Bible from the hands of an ignorant obscurantism which had in many ways degraded it to the level of a literary fetish and deprived it of the light of reason. This policy of obscurantism is really one of despair, of want of confidence in the living and persisting presence of inspiration in the Church, a tacit confession that inspiration had ceased in the infancy of the Faith.
As is well known, the dogma of the verbal and literal inspiration by the Holy Ghost, in the fullest sense of the terms, of every canonical document was but lately universally held, and is still held by the majority of Christians to-day. The famous encyclical of Leo XIII. ("Providentissimus Deus "1893) formulates the orthodoxy of Roman Catholic Christendom in the following counsel of despair:
"It is absolutely wrong and forbidden, either to narrow inspiration to certain parts only of Holy Scripture, or to admit that the sacred writer has erred. For the system of those who, in order to rid themselves of these difficulties, do not hesitate to concede that Divine inspiration regards the things of faith and morals, and nothing beyond, because (as they wrongly think) in the question of the truth or falsehood of a passage, we should consider not so much what God has said as the reason and purpose which He had in mind in saying it–this system cannot be tolerated, for all the books which the Church receives as sacred and canonical are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Ghost; and so far is it from being possible that any error can co-exist with inspiration, that inspiration not only is essentially incompatible with error, but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the supreme truth, can utter that which is not true. This is the ancient and unchanging faith of the Church, solemnly defined in the Councils of Florence and Trent, and finally confirmed and more expressly formulated by the Council of the Vatican…. Hence because the Holy Ghost employed men as His instruments, we cannot therefore say that it was these inspired instruments who, perchance, have fallen into error, and not the primary author. For, by supernatural power, He so moved and impelled them to write–He was so present to them–that the things which He ordered, and those only, they, first rightly understood, then willed faithfully to write down, and finally expressed in apt words and with infallible truth. Otherwise it could not be said that He was the author of the entire Scripture.
Such has always been the persuasion of the Fathers…. It follows that those who maintain that an error is possible in any genuine passage of the sacred writings, either pervert the Catholic notion of inspiration, or make God the author of such error."
This encyclical is not a curious literary relic of mediævalism; it is the most solemn and authoritative voice of the Head of by far the largest and most powerful Church of Christendom, binding on all the faithful, and circulated broadcast at the end of the nineteenth century, in which we boasted ourselves to be so much better than our fathers.
It is, of course, perfectly patent that such a pronouncement is unavoidable by the Head of a Church which has given in its adhesion to the dogma of infallibility, and whose life depends on the maintenance of its unquestioned authority. The consequence, however, is that in order to reconcile this dogma with reason, its scholars have to resort to a casuistical method which is exceedingly distasteful to those who are nurtured in the free air of scientific research, and which unfortunately renders the writings of Roman Catholic critics open to the charge of insincerity. We need not, however, necessarily, doubt their sincerity, for in the domain of religion the commonest phenomenon is faith doing violence to reason; as students of life, therefore, we watch with keenest interest this tragedy of the human reason struggling in the bonds of a self-imposed authority, and as believers in Providence have confidence that the force thus generated will eventually be used for good, though at present it seems to many of us an unmixed evil.
This is one side of the picture, and indeed a most interesting one for the student of human nature. Indubitably many millions still believe most firmly as they are bidden to believe by the Holy Father, and with a slight difference of contents and edition many millions of Protestants, who spurn the Pope’s authority far from them, believe as blindly in this view of inspiration and are even more fervent bibliolaters than their Roman Catholic brethren. This conservative and reactionary force is apparently still necessary; it is the pressure which insists on ever greater and greater thoroughness from those who are clearing a way for the acceptance of a living doctrine of inspiration, to replace what for an ever-growing number appears to be the fossil of a lifeless dogma. This conservatism, we believe, will not prove an evil for Christendom in the long run, for it is largely dictated by a faith–though a blind one–in the reality of inspiration, in the sublimity of the "things not seen," which refuses to have its positive place in the human heart filled by what seems to it at present. a negation of its most cherished convictions. But could such believers open the eyes of their understanding, they would see that the busy souls who are clearing away the obscurations of centuries of misunderstanding, are filled with as lively a faith as their own—-and by their devotion to truth are doing God’s work in preparing the way for a fuller realization of His eternal Wisdom and a deeper understanding of human nature. True, in order to achieve this task these energetic souls are filled with an enthusiasm for criticism which is perhaps exaggerated, but which nevertheless is the necessary yoke-fellow of blind conservatism. It is the child of these twain that will bring light.
For if we turn to the other side of the picture, we find the keen and trained mind of the scientific intellect scrutinizing every word and letter of Scripture to test the assertions of blind faith. Textual or the Lower Criticism has for ever shattered the pretension of the Council of Trent, to settle the question of a "Textus Receptus." The Received Text is proved to have suffered in its tradition so many misfortunes at the hands of ignorant scribes and dogmatic editors that the human reason stands amazed at the spectacle. Can it be possible, it asks, that any soul possessed of God’s good gift of reason can believe the literal inspiration of such a collection of protean changes of words?
It is perhaps a mistake to have given the name Criticism to such research, because the ordinary person looks on the term as implying something hostile and inimical; the original meaning of the word, however, did not convey such an idea, but simply the sense of examining and judging well. But the wise man will not be dismayed by a term; he will look at the thing itself, and so far from finding anything impious in so admirable an art as that of textual criticism, will regard it as a most potent means for removing human error.
But Criticism does not end with the investigation of the text; it proceeds to a higher branch and busies itself with research into the date and history of the sacred books, the analysis and comparison of their several contents, and their relations with other writings; in brief, it surveys the whole field of Biblical literature as to contents in all its parts. The results of this investigation are so stupendous, that we seem to enter a new religious land. But before we enter the sun-lit waters of the harbour of this new country, we must have battled through many storms which no bark of blind faith will ever survive; the only vessel that can live through them’ is the ship of a rational faith.
In brief, the method of criticism is rational, it is that of private judgment; though indeed I doubt if there be any class of men who have sought more earnestly for help and guidance in their task than the great Critics of Christendom. It is this fact, the high moral worth of our Critics and their deep religious sense, which makes their work so valuable. It is the best in Christendom criticising itself–not a band of enemies without, trying to compass its discomfiture. A religion whose adherents can do this, is alive, and so long as this spirit exists cannot die. This spirit is as much the inspiration of the Holy Ghost as is the conviction of blind faith in the "credo quia absurdum" of the Roman tradition of verbal inspiration.
But we must not suppose that Criticism is an end in itself; it is but a means towards a new definition of the eternal problems of religion–a most potent means indeed, because these problems can now be defined with an intelligence and a knowledge of human nature which infinitely adds to their interest, and demands more pressingly than ever their solution; but Criticism cannot solve them, their solution depends on a still higher faculty, a faculty that will pass beyond the science of things seen to the gnosis of things unseen. This is the child that will come to birth from the congress of the two great forces of progress and reaction of which we have been speaking.
For, granting that the Bible is a library of books for the most part composed of scraps of other documents, of very various dates edited and re-edited; that the older deposits of the Jewish portion draw largely from the mythology of other nations and falsify history to an incredible extent; are in their oldest deposits profuse in unmoral doctrine and patent absurdities, and paint the picture of a God that revolts all thinking minds; that the more recent deposits of the Hebrew Scriptures, though breathing a far loftier spirit, are still open to many objections; and that the books of the Christian portion are equally called in question on numerous points;–still there is so much of beauty and lofty conception in the teachings of the Bible, and it has for so many centuries been regarded as the vehicle of God’s revelation to man, that the problem of inspiration, instead of being lessened by these facts, becomes all the more pressing for solution.
What is the nature of this higher faculty which transcends the reason; and why are the records of its activity marred with imperfection and absurdities which the reason can so clearly detect?
This the scientist as scientist, the scholar as scholar, can never fully explain. Equally so the mystic as mystic cannot throw full light on the problem
What is required is the nature born of the union of the two–a nature so hard to find that it may almost be said to be non-existent. The mystic will not submit himself to the discipline and training of science; the scholar refuses to attach any validity to the methods of the mystic. And yet without the union of the two the child of understanding cannot be born.
For some three hundred years the Western world has been evolving a wonderful instrument of natural research, a subtle grade of mind trained in what we call the scientific method; it has been developing in this instrument numerous new senses, and chief among them the sense of history. Its conquests are so brilliant that men are disposed to believe that never have such things been before; we are scornful of the past, impatient of its methods, unsympathetic to its ideas, and little inclined to profit by the lessons it can teach. As has ever been the case with nations in their prime, we think that "we are the people, and wisdom will die with us." All this is perfectly natural and even necessary for the proper development of this keen intellectual instrument, this grade of mind of which we are all so proud. But the student of human nature and the scholar of the science of life keeps looking to the past in order that he may the better forecast the future; his sense of history extends beyond the domain of the "Higher Criticism" and strives to become clairvoyant.
We have had three hundred years or so of cataloguing and criticism, analysis and scepticism, of most brilliant physical research in all departments; the pious have feared for the overthrow of religion, and positivists have longed for the downfall of superstition. What has it all meant; for what good purpose is this sifting; how does the strife exemplify the wise providence of God?
Perhaps it may not be so difficult as it appears at first sight, to point to the direction in which the answers to these questions may be to some extent anticipated. That similar phenomena recur in the natural world is the unvarying experience of mankind; that time is the ever-moving image of eternity, and that the wheel of genesis is ever turning, is testified to by the wiser minds of humanity. Whither, then, should we look in the history of human affairs for phenomena similar to the happenings of these last three hundred years? Whither else more certainly than to the history of the times which witnessed the birth of the religion of the Christ? The many striking parallels between the social and religious aspects of the civilization of that critical epoch and of our own times have been already sketched by a few writers, but no general notice has been taken of their endeavours, least of all has any practical lesson been learned from the review of this experience of the past. For the experience of humanity is our own experience, if we have but wit enough to understand.
The soul of man returns again and again to learn the lessons of life in this great world-school, according to one of the great doctrines of general religion. If this be so, it follows that when similar conditions recur a similar class of souls returns to continue its lessons of experience. It may well be even that many of the identical souls who were embodied in the early centuries of Christianity are continuing their experience among ourselves to-day. For why otherwise do the same ideas recur, why do the same problems arise, the same ways of looking at things? They cannot fall into our midst from the "Ewigkeit"; must it not be that they have been brought back by minds to whom they have already been familiar?
It would of course be exceedingly unwise to stretch even a single one of our parallels into an identity; we must bear in mind that though many of the conditions are strikingly resemblant, some factors in great prominence in the civilization of the Græco-Roman world are only very faintly outlined in our present civilization, while some strongly marked features of our own times are but imperfectly traceable in that age.
We must further remember that the records of that time are frequently very imperfect, while the history of our own is inscribed in painful detail; and that though we can review the main outlines of the whole of that phase of civilization, we can only survey a portion of our own, for its cycle is not ended and the records of the future are not yet open to our understanding.
Finally, we must remember that the general quality of the life and mind-texture of our own age is generally far more subtle than it was nineteen hundred years ago–for humanity evolves.
All these considerations must be kept in mind if we would anticipate the future from a survey of the history of the past. But indeed it requires no great effort of the imagination for even the most superficial student of history to see a marked similarity between the general unrest and searching after a new ideal that marked the period of brilliant intellectual development which preceded the birth of Christianity, and the uncertainty and eager curiosity of the public mind in the closing years of the nineteenth century.
The tendency is the same in kind though not in degree; the achievements of the scientists and scholars of Alexandria (to take the most conspicuous example) during the three hundred years which preceded the Christian era, have been vastly transcended by the conquests of their successors in our own time. To-day life is more intense, thought more active, experience more extended, the need of the solution of the problem more pressing. The modern mind took birth in Greece some two thousand five hundred years ago, and developed itself by intimate contact with the ancient East, a contact made physically possible by the "world-conquest" of Alexander, and subsequently by the organising genius of Rome.
But to-day it is not the conquests of an Alexander or the power of Rome which have built the ways of communication between the nations; it is the conquests of physical science which have in truth united the ends of the earth, and built up an arterial and nervous system for our common mother which she has never previously possessed. It is no longer the speculative mind of Greece and the practical genius of Rome that meet together, it is not even the mind of the then confined Occident meeting with the enthusiasm and mysticism of the then Orient; it is the meeting of the great waters, the developed thought and industrious observation of the whole Western world of to-day meeting with the old slow stream of the ancient and modern East.
The great impetus which the study of oriental languages and tongues long since dead has received during the last hundred years, has led to the initiation of a comparative science of ancient literature–of the world-bibles–and of religion which is slowly but surely modifying all our preconceptions. To-day it is not a Porphyry who disproves the authenticity of the Book of Daniel or a Marcion who makes havoc of what afterwards became the New Testament canon, but it is the "Higher Criticism" which has struck the death blow to unreasoning bibliolatry. The conflict between religion (or, if you will, theology) and science has produced a generation that longs and searches for a reconciliation. That reconciliation will come; Heaven and Earth will once more kiss each other. It came in the past for those souls who were searching for it, and it will come for those who seek it to-day. If the human heart seek the Light the Light will pour into it. It was so nineteen hundred years ago; men sought for the Light and the Light came in answer to their prayers. And if this view may at first appear strange to those who have been taught to regard the state of affairs before the coming of the Christ as one of unmixed depravity, the reading of these pages may perhaps lead them to a more reasonable view of the conditions which called for the coming of so great a Soul for the helping of mankind.
The Light was received by men in proportion to their capacity to understand it, and the Life was poured into them as their natures were capable of expansion. And if the subsequent history of the times, when the dark cloud of ignorance and intolerance settled down on Christendom for so many centuries, makes it appear as if that Life had been poured out in vain, and that Light radiated to no purpose, we should remember that they were lavished on souls and not on bodies; that the path of individual souls is not to be traced in the evolution of racial bodies. The souls incarnated into the civilisation of Greece and Rome who were capable of receiving the Light, were far different from the souls who were incarnated into the half barbarous hordes which destroyed that civilization, and out of which the new races were to be developed. The old races which supplied the conditions for the experience of the more advanced souls, were to disappear gradually, and new races were to be developed, which in their childhood could not supply the necessary conditions for the incarnation of such subtle intellects, but which in their manhood would attract to them still higher souls perchance. This of course did not take place with suddenness, it was all very gradual, there was much overlapping of races, as the old units and atoms were slowly replaced by new ones.
But how is it to be expected that Vandal and Goth could understand the great problems which delighted the minds of the philosophers and mystics of Greece and Rome? And further, must it not all have been foreseen and provided for by the Wisdom that watches over human affairs?
Races and nations are born, and die, as men are born and die; they may be long-lived or short-lived, they may be good, bad, or indifferent. But whatever their characters and characteristics as compared with other races, their early period is that of childhood, their middle period that of manhood, and their later period that of old age.
It follows then that as a general rule the class of souls which seeks experience in them in their childhood, is not the same as the grade of souls which incarnates in them in their middle age, or in their old age. Of course there are numerous individual exceptions, for the above is the merest outline of the elements of the problem; the details are so complicated, the permutations and combinations so innumerable, that no mind can fully grasp them.
Moreover races and nations so overlap and blend, their origins and disappearings so shade off into other nations and races, that the analogy of their lives with the lives of men must not be overstrained. The moment of birth and the moment of death is very hard to detect in the case of a race, and the embryonic period and stages of disintegration cannot be clearly defined. Nevertheless we can trace the main moments of their evolution and perceive the differences in their main periods of age.
Our Western world, the vehicle of the modern mind, has had its period of childhood; it was born of the from the womb of Greek and Roman civilisation, and its lusty childhood was a natural period of ignorance and passion. Such considerations will enable us better to understand the otherwise sad spectacle of the dark and middle ages in Europe; they were the natural concomitants of childhood, and were followed by the intellectual development of youth and early manhood. The Western world is apparently just coming of age, and in the future we may hope it will think and act as a man and put away childish things.
The problems which will in future occupy the attention of its developed intelligence were foreshadowed in the womb of its parent, and our more immediate task will be to deal with some of the outlines of that foreshadowing.
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