The Theosophical Forum – November 1941

RELIGION ORIENTATED TO CATASTROPHE — Marjorie M. Tyberg

The title of Dr. M. Chaning-Pearce's book The Terrible Crystal: Studies in Kierkegaard and Modern Christianity (1) is taken from the apocalyptic vision of the prophet Ezekiel and was selected as expressive of "the religion of a terrible and intense candour of spirit," brought to this quality by the intense inner experience of those face to face with catastrophe. The author views the thought of contemporary writers who see in inevitable catastrophe the very climate of religion and reality, and who seek a new faith based on the reality revealed to human consciousness in such terrible crises — a faith affirmed by the whole nature of man and termed by these writers "existential." He addresses his book to those who find Christianity in its traditional form inadequate to the present crisis, and who believe that a re-born religion, a revitalized Christianity, alone can avert the ruin of our world. He opens with a study of the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard, who, in his view, is the originator of this thought and who, after one hundred years have passed, remains its most profound and inspiring exponent.

After 1848 Kierkegaard abandoned his pseudonymous style of writing on various subjects and began to publish the studies of Christianity which have of late years become widely influential among both theologians and laymen. His purpose was to discover a religion rooted in life rather than in doctrine. By unflinching study and facing of his own nature, by long cultivation of inwardness and awareness, by relentless analysis of the official Christianity of his day — which, however, did not blind him to the heart of the Christian teachings — he came to the belief that with the mortification of the mind and the ephemeral self, man reaches a crisis, a state of fear and trembling, of utter suffering, where, by an act of choice and will, he can take a leap into the dark, into a new field of consciousness, and pass from death to life, reborn as his spiritual self; that from the purifying fire of suffering, as from a crucible, can spring phoenix-like a new faith.

The instant of choice, the act of faith resulting from the death of arrogant reasoning, mark the co-ordination of the dual aspects of man's nature whereby alone does man become man capable of realizing his full destiny and powers. It is man's entry into "a new dimension of thought," an emergence from unreality to reality, a consciousness of God-relationship, which is the birth of true individuality. To Kierkegaard the life of Christ is the universal type of this experience of inward religion. He eliminates all historical limitations as to the possibility of man's power, unaided by priestly mediation, to reach this highest religious attainment; and thus he came into conflict with conventional and established Christianity. Kierkegaard founded no school, no system of theology or ethics, gave rather "a fundamental metaphysic of life" which has made a strong appeal to thinkers today.

Dr. Chaning-Pearce's chapter on The Theology of Crisis deals with the teachings of Professor Karl Barth, a Swiss pastor of the Reformed Church, who, in 1918, found that he had nothing but a "bankrupt theology" to offer his flock, and turned back to the sources of Christianity to find a religion more adequate to their needs. He defines "crisis" as "a drastic reorientation and change of life and thought, necessary for the man who desires to be reborn, unescapable for the Christian"; and holds that the whole modern world is faced with this crisis. "Resurrection" he interprets not as an historical event, but as "a movement from above in which eternity invades time," as "the new world, the world of a new quality and kind" breaking in upon our natural world. "From first to last the work is God's, not man's" Barth asserts; "there is no way from man to God." He holds "the doctrine of likeness between the creature and the Creator to be the discovery of antichrist." Faith is the cornerstone of this theology and to those who make the leap of faith into the unknown, the Word of God is revealed — truth and knowledge beyond anything thought humanly possible.

This bold claim on behalf of the individual man was made at the time when the prophecy of Kierkegaard was affirmed by the existing conditions, when all certainties seemed to be dissolving, and the post-war dread of imminent catastrophe was creeping into minds everywhere. Be a "void," said Barth, which God alone can and will fill; surrender all to Faith; be reborn into the new life, receive All from God. This Barthian interpretation of Christianity, given in 1918, for years stirred Christians in Europe to the depths, and led many to believe that a new prophet had arisen. We are indebted to Dr. Chaning-Pearce for his account of Barth's thought, to which, for want of space, we are unable to do full justice.

Professor Emil Brunner's book The Mediator is a simpler presentation of the Barthian theology and a review of its implications. It is concerned with the link between God and man, the means by which this faith-knowledge is made available to man. Both writers are quoted by our author to show that they held that there must be "a clean break" between the old life and the new, "between knowledge and faith," between history and super-history"; a break into a fourth-dimensional Reality entirely other than that of the life we live. Man not only receives the revelation-truth, but also the capacity to receive and recognise it, as a gift from God. Dr. Chaning-Pearce, after close study of this theology, finds that this sweeping elimination of all human participation in the mediation is not maintained throughout the works of Barth and Brunner, and remarks that there is that within the nature of man, which cleansed from selfish propensities, can receive the Word and foster the divine seed into growth and development. He regards the view as false, that human life is "entirely worthless, unreal, doomed, fit only for some cosmic incinerator." He states that "a humanity which can conceive God, is not wholly evil."

The life of man is not in itself damnable; it is damnable because and in so far as it is sundered from that Life of life which is God, and is at variance with that Life. . . . Man is not a massa perditionis. His heart is abominably evil, but there is within his being a golden grain of glory.

God Transcendent and Spirit and Truth, books by Professor Karl Heim, give an interpretation of Barth's teaching concerning Divine Transcendence. Heim asks:

Is there, after all, that which the spirit of our age denies, a Reality . . . transcending the whole order of things in which we live?

How is it that we, who live in the Copernican age, we, for whom the world has lost its centre and its bounds, can still hold to the idea of the Transcendent?

How, when this idea, so vital to religion, has become impossible for countless people, can they believe in God? He realizes that to abandon it is to succumb to the naturalism bequeathed to us by the nineteenth century, the naturalism that grants only "the chance interplay of immanent forces."

Professor Heim meets this problem with a most interesting analogy. As transcendence presupposes boundary, he suggests as a substitute for the boundaries of content, the boundary of dimension; and instances the threefold world of consciousness of "I," "Thou," and "It," which exist independently and still interpenetrate and have a place of meeting established by means of speech, action, or decision.

Why not, then, a divine transcendence which, in its turn, lies beyond both "I" and "Thou" and the entire consciousness of our human world? And if, in the human "word" which reveals a new world to the "I," contact between two worlds is established, why should not the "wholly other" world of the "Kingdom of God" have been revealed, just so, in the "Word" which was Christ?

To this is added a conception of Time also in conformity with modern thinkers such as Einstein and Whitehead. These ideas fill out a new world-picture where

Reality no longer consists of stationary entities which enter into relations, but of an activity in transition by which everything that exists is forever being created anew . . . [a world] where a divine word, like the atmosphere, surrounds us invisibly on every side . . . [a world where the Church is] composed of a unique brotherhood . . . [for which] all spiritual sources of salvation are absolutely free.

It will be seen that the essential truths of Christianity restated in the light of this new cosmogony, may be a reassuring message to bewildered humanity.

Eighteen years after the Barthian theology became known Dr. Chaning-Pearce, having made a survey of contemporary thought as expressed in painting, sculpture, poetry, fiction, literary criticism, and works on science and religion — the account of which will be of absorbing interest to readers who have observed gleams here and there and wondered and been glad — suggested that the Theology of Crisis may be viewed as

part of a general and long-gathering reaction against the over-weening immanentism of nineteenth century evolutionary thought, and Karl Barth, in the main, a modern Luther pitted against the Papacy of Science.

While finding it difficult to overestimate the value of Barth's contribution to his age, Dr. Chaning-Pearce holds that the Barthian ideas concerning the wholesale repudiation of human life, the absolute break between the human and the divine, will not appeal to the modern mind, which is more prone to deny God than to deny life. And, while open-eyed to every indication that there exists a tendency toward the expression "through sense of something beyond sense," "a mounting faith in a transcendental reality," a recognition that "Known truth isn't the same as scientific truth," a repudiation of the stress on personality so dominant a few decades ago, Dr. Chaning-Pearce is just as alert to the extreme dangers existing in those dark unseen forces of magic that "ritualize man's optimism," and, in an age like ours, tempt those who have lost their former faiths and certainties. The perilous counterparts of the surrender to Transcendent Divinity which requires self-purification and renunciation of material desires, are dealt with in a chapter that makes clear the difference between subservient dependence on magical rites and willed co-operation with the Divine.

By 1939, when the last chapter of The Terrible Crystal was written, catastrophe was no longer a mere prophecy, but had broken upon the world. Dr. Chaning-Pearce's attitude to this is one of heroic inward acceptance of every terrific condition inevitably forced upon humanity. He believes that those who realize the catastrophic nature of the Christian religion, and the agony and travail that face humanity, can experience the "leap into the dark" and Kierkegaard's "first death, then life," can find spirit and will free to move into the new world here and now to which the teaching of Christ can give access, and find wisdom and peace.

The Terrible Crystal has some of the beauty of utter sincerity and compassionate inclusiveness. It is therefore the more surprising that the author, evidently so well abreast of numerous aspects of contemporary thought, has overlooked one potent spiritual movement and has omitted to mention the teachings of Theosophy. Ever since 1875, when H. P. Blavatsky restored knowledge of the Archaic Wisdom-Religion, the fount from which have flowed all the great religions of the world, there has been poured forth through the Theosophical Movement, a stream of Truth concerning man and his relations to the Universe and to Divinity. Her books have set forth the archaic cosmology and anthropology which is being confirmed by the most recent and reliable findings of science, but go far beyond these in presenting a conception of the origin and destiny of the human race in a cosmic setting that includes the rise and fall of many races and civilizations, the passing of that which has culminated ever leading to the rise of the new; includes also a view of the enduring principles which weave vehicles of varying grades, inner and outer, visible and invisible, for the purpose of experience and attainment of God-consciousness by the pilgrim souls which comprise humanity.

The sevenfold constitution of man, mirroring in little that of the universe contains the secret of that re-co-ordination of the Divine Transcendent with the immanent, now, according to Dr. Chaning-Pearce, the " "S. O. S." of the distressed ship of our civilization to-day." It also supplies the complete ethics and psychology of Mediation, whereby man through the purification of his intermediate nature receives Light from the Divine Transcendent within, guided in this by those who have preceded him in the attainment of this higher consciousness; namely, by the Hierarchy of Compassion, one of the greatest among whom was Jesus the Christ. The Theosophical cosmology and philosophy thus give a wonderful background of Archaic Wisdom for the intuitions of fearless and compassionate thinkers today, and also vital significance to life on Earth.

We express our gratitude to the author of The Terrible Crystal for formulating so clearly the great thoughts which no doubt do much to inspire the sublime heroism of our brothers who are facing most directly the present catastrophe. His statement that "Misery is near to mystery" is a true word. Acceptance of the crucifixion of agony and suffering rends the veils between spirit and the mind which is "the Slayer of the Real," and enables human beings to participate understandingiy as "knights of Faith" in that death which leads to birth of a new life for Humanity.

FOOTNOTE:

1. The Terrible Crystal: Studies in Kierkegaard and Modern Christianity. M. Chaning-Pearce. Oxford University Press, N. Y. 1941. $2 50. (return to text)


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