The Path – October 1888

KARMA AND PROVIDENCE — Alexander Fullerton

Theosophy is reconstructing our conceptions of the universe, and reinterpreting the facts and tendencies and laws of life. When it first appeared on the outskirts of Western thought, an alien in origin and sentiment, it seemed a curious product of Oriental dreaminess, a trifle fantastic as to garb, a little uncouth in its bearing before the wonders of our gifted age, and very far from practical in its ideas of either duty or aspiration; but because of its difference from all familiar figures, and because, too, it held in its hands the Wand of Magic and was known to have used it with most unaccountable results, certainly a subject for interest, perhaps for study. Not very many years have passed, and yet the newspapers are reporting it, the public turns an ear to it, literature is discussing and fiction appropriating it. The eyes which first inspected it with curiosity are now examining it with interest, and the minds which then surmised that it might hold some truth are now reverent as before an oracle. More than this, hearts weary and sad, weary of explanations which did not explain and of consolations which did not console, sad because finding that the ills of existence are not to be salved with arbitrary beliefs or distant hopes, rallied under the influence of that reviving touch, and demanded fuller, richer knowledge. Most of all, the awakened spirit, realizing that conventional tenets were an opiate and not a tonic, hurled them away and arose in the vigor of a definite and intelligible aspiration. And all classes of inquirers, just in proportion as the inquiry was sincere and its pursuit continued, found a singular dwarfing of all other topics, a spontaneous, increasing concentration upon this as the one before which the rest were insignificant.

As Theosophy advanced from the outskirts to the centre of thought in the West it was confronted, one after another, with the great problems which in every age and in every land have engrossed the energy of the thinker. The meaning and end of existence, the nature and direction of responsibility, our future in the world beyond death, — these and kindred questions lie at the door of the soul and meet it on its first excursion into the universe of inquiry. The primary duty of every religious system has been a reply to them, and if that was unsatisfying, men would have none of it. Theosophy undergoes the same rigid interrogation as the rest, and if it has encroached upon the preserves of other faiths and is giving answers to queries on later subjects, we must believe that this is because its first responses were convincing.

Very early in its course it is brought face to face with the great question of Providence, and must give its own interpretation of it. There is one already on the ground. It may not be logical or even rational, but it has the advantage of being in possession and of calming some of the strongest, if not the most meritorious, solicitudes of the soul.

The demand for an active, supervising Deity is almost as universal as a demand for any Deity at all. A Creator withdrawing from care over his creation seems a contradiction in thought. The term "Father" voices the soul's need for a guardianship which shall be both authoritative and paternal. In his "Philosophy of Religion," Morrell found that the last analysis of the religious sentiment is into a sense of dependence. But this almost necessarily implies the converse qualities of provision, oversight, supply. Then, too, the emotional faculty calls for satisfaction. Faith needs a sympathetic ear, a responsive touch, a readiness to use every power of nature for the relief of an appealing sufferer. Thus instinct and devotion unite to cause belief in Providence, and the difficulty of supposing that the Supreme Being looks after all the petty affairs of each of us is met by the fact that to the Infinite all are practicable, and, indeed, that in such a presence gradations in importance disappear.

There is, hence, a stage of religious experience in which every incident in the world of things and men is supposed to express a Divine purpose. God is present everywhere, acting everywhere, adjusting everywhere. "Even the very hairs of your head are all numbered," said Jesus. But in time comes an inevitable change. It is seen that the actual system, however ordered, by no means provides universal good. There are great wastes of sickening sorrow, vast and recurring areas of destitution, bitter cries from weariness and loss and agony. The intellect follows this up by its discovery of the reign of law. Events are not disconnected revelations of as many Divine intentions, but effects rigorously joined to their antecedent causes. As causation is better and more extensively perceived, the domain of admitted law expands, absorbing steadily the territory of Providence, and displacing the conception of ordering with the conception of order. At last no ground is left. Law is seen to pervade the universe, and to be the condition of all science, all foresight, all business. A life-insurance policy assumes the whole scientific doctrine of the reign of law.

But the sentimental want, though baffled, is not extinct. "There may be truth," it urges, "in the theory of causation and in the belief that the universe is a great machine, wisely contrived, endowed with sufficient impetus, and working automatically along. Yet all machines are liable to disarrangement, and exigencies arise for which the most perfect do not provide. It may very well be, then, that at grave crises, or for particular purposes, or to avert an evil, interposition may be proper. Let it be admitted that the usual administration is by law, if only is made concession that a Providence is sometimes possible." But even this the stern man of science must refuse. He is forced to answer that, whatever may be true of imperfect machines of human make, no breakdown is conceivable in one of celestial origin; and that, even if we could conceive of a universe conducted partly by law and partly by manipulation, we could never define their limits or foresee which would act.

One more plea remains. "I will not contest," says the sentimental want, "the doctrine of uniformity in physical things. But they are not the whole of life. Moral ends are more important. In the interest of morals, Providence is a necessity. To teach a lesson, to emphasize a warning, to recall from recklessness or frivolity or sin, interpositions are essential. A blind material universe, mechanically turning out its infants and swallowing up its dead, is no fitting expression of a Divine fulness. There must be some higher aim, some better purpose." "There is," replies the thinker, "but not as you imagine it. All nature is crowded with moralities; its very uniformity ensures their exhibition. But even if it did not, if occasional interferences were more impressive, how are you to interpret them? You have not the clue to their meaning, and your prophets expound it differently. They do not even expound it fairly. For, as it would jar on the religious sentiment to attribute to Providence the harsh and bitter things, it is mainly the good things with which they credit it. The sickness overcome, the life saved, the steamer rescued, the boon secured, the peril escaped are providential; not the sickness fatal, the life lost, the steamer wrecked, the boon forfeited, the peril triumphant. But if the one is, the other must be. If it is a Providence which brings one vessel safely through the violence of a tempest, it must be a Providence which abandons another to its fate. If it is a Providence which puts a Washington at the head of one nation, it is a Providence which puts a Louis Napoleon at the head of another. If a skater, breaking through the ice, is saved by Providence, the drowning of his comrade must be by Providence: if Providence accounts for a fortunate investment, a fulfilled presentiment, a happy marriage, it must also be accountable for the broken bank, the discredited prediction, the annals of the Divorce Court.

Nor have we any clue to the interpretation. It will not do to say "The Moral Lesson," for we do not know what the lesson is, nor whether it is a lesson at all. A boy swimming on Sunday is drowned. "This," urges the religious press, "expresses the Divine displeasure of such mis-use of Sunday." "But," replies the logician, "it can hardly do so unless you are prepared to show that all boys swimming on Sunday are drowned, and none on other days." Purpose is the very essence of Providence. If we have no clue to the purpose we have no clue to the Providence; for us it does not exist. Nor can you escape the difficulty by saying that it is inscrutable, for that vacates the whole position. If we are unable to scrutinize Providence, we are unable to make assertions about it, much more to expound it. So long as it keeps utterly in the dark, we cannot even prove that it is there,"

Thus, step by step, relentless reason forces back the struggling theory of an interposing power ever at work in manipulation, adjustment, the rectification of error in the machine of its own construction, the insistence on truths which it does not enable us to discover, the mumbling of unintelligible warnings which we have no power to make clear. Baffled, confused, exhausted, the old doctrine is now near its end. But the spirit which has informed it is vigorous as ever. Not a whit depressed, it still asserts the need for the perpetual presence of a moral force, for a Providence outside of which not a sparrow shall fall, not a wrong escape.

And it is right. No such sustained cry of the human heart could well be fallacious. It is one of the vindications, one of the glories, of Theosophy that it gives the frankest, most ungrudging welcome to every want, intellectual or sentimental, of humanity, and then provides for it. To me it seems that this is peculiarly true in the matter of Providence. The religious instinct will never give up its demand for a Providence. It revolts at the thought that there is no moral order in the world, that good and bad fare alike, that character goes for nothing. An elaborate system in which the Supreme Being has expressed all the qualities but those most strongly called for, is to it a monstrosity and a contradiction. You may wrench away from it its theories and its whimsical or unsatisfying methods of interpretation, but it will construct new ones at once. With what amplitude of recognition Theosophy steps forward to greet this instinct! "You are entirely right," it says. "I am with you in fullest sympathy. You cannot insist more than I that the moralities exact an agency by which their vindication shall be assured. But such an agency must be intelligible and consistent. It must be so comprehensive that not a right or a wrong shall go unrewarded, so impartial that it handles all men with absolute equality, so precise that its equations shall exactly balance. You can never invent such, you can never discover it. But you do not need to. The doctrine of Karma, the treasured possession of the Wisdom-Religion, fulfils all the requirements you insist upon, avoids all the difficulties which embarrass you, and responds to every call of reason, justice, and the moral sense."

The vast superiority of Karma as a substitute for the conventional idea of Providence is evident from every point of view. It is not a negation of Providence, it is an enlarged affirmation of it. Instead of a fitful, capricious, inconstant, purposeless, mysterious, undecipherable force, it is a lucid, inerrant, steady, and meaningful adjuster. For what, after all, is its definition? The law of ethical causation. Law, not whim: causation, not accident; and this, which the most orthodox now admit in the worlds of physics and of mind, extended to the noblest region, that of morals. Not that every incident of every life is to be read as a revelation of immediate desert, for that would be to forget the correlative doctrine of Reincarnation; but that the sum total of experiences in the chain of lives cannot err, and that the significance of the items in any one link may measurably be inferred. The conception of Providence expands till it covers everything. The religious instinct is satisfied, the claims of reason are allowed, the demand of justice is fulfilled.

I think that the devotional books of the future will print "Karma" where they now print "Providence." The concept is so much richer that the poorer one will not long content. The word "Karma" is not as strange as it was formerly. Sometimes we see it in improbable quarters. By and by it will be domesticated into the language, for Theosophists constantly employ it, and though — to transpose Gladstone's definition of a deputation — they do not signify many, they certainly signify much. After it is domesticated people will not be afraid of it. Then they will come to like it, as we all like what is familiar. In time the meaning will filter into them. It will displace the old narrow conception and establish itself as a broad and healthy philosophy of life. And when Karma is recognized, not merely as an ever-acting principle, but as an ever-forming fund, what may not be hoped for in the melioration of mankind?


The Path

THEOSOPHICAL UNIVERSITY PRESS ONLINE