The Theosophical Forum – March 1948

DEFINING RELIGION — Clifton Meek

I would like to comment on the editorial "America Needs Religion" which appeared in the Norwalk Hour a few days ago. In doing so, it is not my desire, in any way, to belittle those who may disagree with my own views, but I do think that before the need of Religion can be intelligently discussed or determined, we should first have a clearer and far less confused understanding than there is today as to just what we mean by the term Religion. I am familiar with the broad and scholarly definition of the term, but I am referring to it as defining those noble qualities of the human heart and mind which spring from the divine nature of man irrespective of any profession of faith or sectarian classification, in contradistinction to the man-made superstructure of accretions, theologies, ritualism, dogmas and creeds which, all too frequently, devotees mistake for Religion itself.

If the writer was referring to religion as being morality, altruism, kindliness, and the like qualities; a sense of inner spiritual kinship, not only with one's fellow man regardless of race, color, or creed, but with Universal Life itself, from the lowest to the highest, seen and unseen, and in which we "live, move, and have our being," I heartily agree that there is a great and urgent need for Religion. These are the spiritual landmarks of the human race, the common property, or should be, of every "religion," the exclusive property of none. Special "religions" come and go with the passing of time, but these are the spiritual values that ever remain constant, age after age. They are not received by ritual, nor sanctified by ceremony, but spring from the inner and divine nature of the human heart to whatever degree man will permit his spiritual nature to manifest itself. Let us not confuse them with organizations, and the thousand and one modes and methods of worship which men have devised, and which, all too often, have contributed to the confusion of the religious thought of the world, doing more harm than good.

 If these latter are the things which are meant by the term Religion, the project will have to carry on without my poor blessing and humble aid. I realize, of course, that it will make little difference one way or the other. Men have messed up Religion and misled the minds of men since the beginning of recorded history, and it is safe to assume they will continue to do so until individuals assert their divine prerogative and begin thinking for themselves. As long as there are those who follow blindly, there will always be those who will blindly lead them.

"Freedom of the human will makes religion an "elective," and that is as it should be. But too many people have voted to leave it alone" the editorial begins. Well, there may be a reason, and perhaps the man in the street is not entirely to blame. He may be confused by the multiplicity of "religions" with their contradictory beliefs, dogmas and creeds.

Perhaps he is conscientiously searching for that elusive factor known as Truth, and just doesn't have sufficient time in one life to investigate some 250 interpretations, I believe it is, of religion that have been erected upon the few explicit teachings of morality and right living which the Christian Master proclaimed and gave to men. In viewing this absurd situation, his confusion of thought is surpassed only by that of theologians who created it. It would seem that whatever reformation is needed in the way of religious thinking should begin at the top, rather than at the bottom. Or perhaps, as was my own case, after wandering down many ecclesiastical blind alleys, he cannot conscientiously subscribe to certain doctrines and profess to believe something, which, in his own heart he does not, and which do not appeal to him as being true in the light of his own reason and the dictates of his own conscience. Would he be a better citizen or a whit more religious-minded by throwing his conscience and reason to the winds and pinning a sectarian label on himself? To a person with any intellectual honesty it would be unthinkable. We frequently hear it said that man's moral and spiritual development has not kept pace with his material and scientific progress, which of course is true. May it not be due to the fact that his religious concepts have not made a parallel advancement, and have become, to a great degree, static and crystallized? A dogmatic and materialistic science of the 19th century finally learned, after many bitter lessons and the shattering of more than one "last word" pronouncement, that there are always new frontiers to be explored, still greater truths lying beyond the horizon of their present ken. If this is true regarding man's quest for knowledge in the universe of matter, how much more so it must be regarding things of the spirit. The greatest frontier yet to be explored is human consciousness and the mystery of the human soul. Someone has wisely said: "The proper study of mankind is man."

Why do men, in face of this great mystery, shut themselves up in little air-tight compartments of thought and proclaim: "Here is Truth, ultimate and final. Don't look any farther; just believe." When will theologians and religious leaders learn the lesson that scientists had to learn, and that man's spiritual evolution cannot be accomplished by confining his conscience to intellectual concentration camps, fenced in by dogmas and creeds, ritualism and "last word" pronouncements which are still laden with medieval dust? These are the things which have but served to distract the attention of men from, and obscure, the great light of Christianity — the essential Divinity of Man. Not of one Man, a great Initiate and Teacher who worked and taught among his fellow men 19 centuries ago, and around whose mysterious and little known life the drama of the Christos was woven a century or two later, but the divinity of all men, as he himself taught. Why did men, supposedly versed in spiritual wisdom, permit this noble teaching, the master key to their own religion, to be buried beneath the mass of theological excess baggage, nullified by contradictory teachings, and forgotten?

One can but speculate how differently European history might be written had the self-appointed guardians of Christian doctrine remained true to their trust. All the theological crutches of Christendom could not teach the masses to stand on their own spiritual feet and avoid the catastrophe that inevitably comes to those who stifle the inner light of conscience and follow blindly. For example, the people of some nations never have shown themselves capable of self-government for the reason that they never have been taught to think for themselves and assume responsibility for their own acts. Someone has always shown them how to act and what to think.

Religious training? They had an abundance of it for centuries. Sectarian schools flourished and religion was taught in the public schools. But their children were not taught HOW to think, but WHAT to think. When internal difficulties arose, the teachings of morality were easily sloughed off because they were not engraved on the tablets of their hearts by an awakened conscience. They had been learned by rote, and it was just as easy to follow one thing blindly as it was another.

Whenever some of our good-intentioned citizens begin agitating again, as they do from time to time, for the teaching of religion in our public schools, let us remember the lesson of Germany. Morality and character building — yes, by all means, but let's keep every vestige of sectarianism and church doctrine out of it. Teachings which have stood the test of time can stand on their own feet and do not need propping up with theological crutches.

In Religion, as in any other field of human endeavor, man gets what he has the capacity and ability to take — what he attains by his own efforts. There is no spiritual featherbed on which someone is going to transport him to perfection. If he hopes even to approach the portals of Truth, he must be prepared to discard any preconceived ideas he may hold whenever he can replace them with one more universal in nature.

He is endowed with a thinking apparatus called mind, and a free will which it is his divine prerogative to use, to accept or reject, as conscience, the voice of his own inner god, dictates. If he permits them to atrophy by failing to use them, he has, like the son in the Biblical parable, buried his talents. If he centers his attention, hopes, and desires on externals, ritualism and ceremonies, naturally, he will receive but the externals of religion. It may appease and satisfy his worldly nature, but his divine nature, Christos, will remain unrecognized and unresurrected — crucified on the cross of matter — and the true significance of his own religion will remain to him, still, a mystery.


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