Expanding Horizons — James A. Long

God, God's Will, and Predestination

From a discussion with a Young People's Church GroupI

Question — There are so many questions we'd like to discuss with you — about God, and free will, and Adam's Fall, that we don't know where to start. Of course we can say everything is "the will of God," and for some in our group that is enough, perhaps because they have more trust than I. But I would like to ask, what is your creed or formula of belief?

Comment — Before I say anything else, let me make one thing clear: as far as I am concerned, you and I, and everyone, are all searchers for truth. It matters little whether a person is twenty, fifty, or eighty years of age — we all seek knowledge and understanding in our own individual way. Therefore no one has the right to speak with "final authority" on truth, or to attempt to give the last word on the laws of nature.

You ask, what is my creed or formula of belief? I have no creed, no organized formula of faith, no dogma of belief. Just as every blade of grass is different, so every human being is different. While the principles of truth are unchanging, the manner in which those principles have found expression has varied considerably with every world teacher. This is not only natural; it is essential to growth, for one of the most prevalent tendencies in human nature is the inclination to crystallize, to settle down comfortably with a tidy set of beliefs, and think: "Now, at last, I have the truth. There is no need to worry any longer about seeking it." That attitude is to me one of the greatest stumbling blocks to the spiritual progress of anyone sincerely seeking to expand his understanding of life.

I don't like the word creed one bit, for the reason that it usually connotes an authoritative summary of religious doctrine, or some formal statement of faith. That is precisely what I object to — regardless of how lofty or true such may be. The most important thing in my opinion is not the attainment of truth (or of any aspect of it, since we never could arrive at truth per se), but the searching after and the reaching toward a greater and greater understanding of it. If I had to have a creed, that would be it: the absolute conviction of the soul's need for a free avenue of research within its own range of consciousness.

Question — But you must believe in something. For example, do you believe in Jesus?

Comment — Certainly I believe in Jesus — though not necessarily as you do. I believe that Jesus was an incarnation of a divine force, God if you prefer. But I also believe that Jesus was not unique in this, because every man potentially is a "son of God," an incarnation of his own inner divinity. Did not Jesus say to us that what he did we could do also, and even greater things? What did he mean by this except to remind us that we too are "temples of the Most High"? Those were not mere words of comfort; in them he left a message of immense hope and confidence in the spiritual destiny of man.

Question — You seem to believe in God, but would you tell us exactly how you feel about Him?

Comment — Do I believe in God? That all depends upon what you mean by God. If you mean, do I believe in a Personal God, a Deity outside of man, then I would have to say that my belief in God extends far beyond the usual orthodox view. God has become for me that Divine Intelligence which is the background and foreground of all creation. In other words, to my mind nothing could exist except it were a part of God, an expression of that divine force. Using our Christian terminology, this is what seems true to me:

First, that the Waters of Space of Genesis not only are boundless and infinite, but are the divine Source of all manifested creatures; second, that the Elohim breathed on the Waters of Space the Void became a Fullness, and Life burst forth from the Darkness on the face of the deep into Light — and a universe with its hosts of life forms came into being. And third, that because the Elohim (to use again the Hebrew term for Gods plural, not God singular) impregnated every atom of Space with the divine essence, every facet of the universe must be an expression, however infinitesimal, of Divinity — which means, further, that every creature in the heavens and the earth has the opportunity to become self-consciously godlike. Obviously such self-conscious at-one-ment with Deity isn't accomplished in a day, but must take long ages through time and space until every aspect of Deity has had the chance to find expression in all the kingdoms. Then when the Great Day comes, all that was emanated from the Darkness of the Void will once again be indrawn into the bosom of Deity for its period of rest.

Question — When you say it like that, it makes everything so big, so awesome. It almost scares me, though, because it's hard to get back into the orthodox view if you really let yourself go along those lines. You've made it pretty clear, however, that your school of thought isn't trying to replace anything that we've been taught.

Comment — I am glad you expressed yourself just as you did, because the intent is not to replace anyone's beliefs, but rather to try to help an individual interpret his own faith in a fuller and richer way. The only 'dogma' that I adhere to is that there should be no dogmatization of thought. Truth is open to all, but the way thereto is a strictly individual affair. We shouldn't take anything as true unless it feels right deep down inside. Tomorrow any one of us may see things quite differently, have a greater understanding than we have today. Then today's belief will seem limited. So it is with growth on every plane of experience.

Question — I like that, because the one thing I can't abide is to have somebody say: "Now this is the way things are, and that is all there is to it." I don't think anybody has the right to say that. So I have just been plodding along, trying to pick up what I could, a little here and a little there. I suppose everyone can have his own brand of truth. Is it possible that certain ideas in our Christian belief are somewhat similar to other beliefs?

Comment — Not only is it possible, but you are absolutely right; and as you study the world's great religions and philosophies, both of the Occident and the Orient, you will find that all of them spring from a common source. The Christian scriptures contain many of the same doctrines that Buddhism and Hinduism teach, though differently expressed; so too can you trace in the Gospels Hebrew and Greek influences. All postulate a divine source, whether called Jehovah, Brahma, or Allah; the special Incarnation of God or Deity through Christ is directly parallel to the Hindu Avataras; and, as we know, the Golden Rule of moral and spiritual behavior is universally found. But just as with our Christian faith much dogmatism has entered in, so is this the case with the Eastern beliefs, and it is not always easy to see through these distortions.

Through comparison of the literatures, myths, and traditions of other lands, we discover that the creation story of Genesis, for example, is but one aspect of a universal tale, sacredly preserved in one form or another by every people the world over, whether civilized or primitive. Even though scientific and archaeological discovery has proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that our earth is millions of years old instead of a mere 6,000 years, these creation stories are not mere fantasy or childish imaginings. But how explain the creation of the heaven and the earth in six days, with God resting on the seventh! Taken literally, it is absurd; but it was never so intended. The Days of Creation, whether of the Christian Bible or of the Hindu Puranas, the American Indian legends or the Persian, are meant to symbolize Days of manifestation or activity, followed by Nights of withdrawal or rest — each of these Days being a life-cycle of terrestrial experience, ranging from a few thousand to perhaps hundreds of thousands of years.

All of which leads us to the conclusion that man too must be very, very old. In fact, some scriptures assert that at least eighteen million years have elapsed since he became a self-conscious unit! Whatever his age, whether millions of years or only a few thousands, the fact remains that it has been the untiring effort of all the great spiritual reformers of the ages to help us grasp the larger picture of man's divine potential.

Question — If every one of us, as you said, is an "incarnation of God," at least in degree; and if when God breathed on the Waters we all came into being, don't we have to go through all sorts of experience before we can join God again? But what happens between the first and the last step? How does it work out from the beginning until the end?

Comment — As far as I know, there is only one process, one modus operandi of becoming like unto the god within, and that is through repetitive experiences until we learn completely the lessons that our earth has for us.

Question — Are you referring to reincarnation? I was reared in a very orthodox family, and it's difficult for me to accept the idea. Still I can't quite throw it out, so I wish you'd say more about it.

Comment — There is no need for anyone to believe in reincarnation. On the other hand, there is no need to be afraid of a new idea. But I will say this: the concept of rebirth is a very ancient one and can be recognized in every religion, even the Christian, despite the fact that great pains were taken in the early centuries to remove it as one of the cardinal doctrines of the Church.

For purposes of discussion, let us assume that the soul might need more time than just the seventy-odd years usually allotted to it. How would it manage this, if death ends all? I believe we will readily admit that we cannot fulfill one tenth of our deepest hopes in so short a period. Now let us assume further that in his divine wisdom God allows us another chance, another opportunity for development. Would it be sensible to go anywhere else but here on earth where we had already become somewhat familiar with this planet and its laws? There is another point equally important: haven't we set a number of causes in motion already and, if so, do we really believe we can reap the consequences of all our thoughts and acts before we die?

Question — I have always thought that things are supposed to be a certain way, that nothing happens by chance. Yet I have also felt that man has a free will. I guess after all I am a fatalist, and yet I like to think we have some freedom of choice too.

Comment — I don't think you are really a fatalist, but let me try to reexpress the picture as I see it, without getting too far afield. If we believe that the law of cause and effect works not only physically but in our moral and spiritual relations as well, and that what we sow in the field of our soul we will have to reap somewhere at some time, then we see that nothing could "just happen" by chance, or contrary to the laws of nature. Yet this law of harmony is so delicately balanced that each individual finds it manifesting in a different manner, precisely according to his own soul-background.

Question — What do you mean by "soul-background"? Is the soul the same as the spirit?

Comment — Perhaps before I go further I had better briefly comment on this point concerning the soul. You are all familiar with St. Paul's division of man into three: body, soul, and spirit. Now it is difficult for many people to understand that the soul and the spirit are not the same; but they are not. You and I are human souls, gaining experience here in a physical body, but we are directed or urged into this experience by the spirit that resides within us. I am sure none of you believes that your body is you; or that even your emotions and brain or soul are all there is to you. What motivates your aspirations, your deepest feelings, unless it is your divine spark, that essence of God which is at the root of every living organism? So, let us think then of the permanent part of us as the spirit, stirring into action the human soul, which again uses a physical body as its temple here on earth.

Now that permanent element in us has managed to guide us into the positions in life from which we may learn the most. Yet as each of us is a facet of the Divine Intelligence, with our own portion of free will, it is up to us to exercise the right of choice, to choose which path to take, what thoughts to entertain, what actions to perform. You can see therefore that the soul stands on a battleground between spirit and body, between aspiration toward God on the one hand, and material desire on the other. Ours is an animal body, a highly developed one, but still it comes from the matter side of nature. Our soul partakes of strength from above, the god in man, but it also is sensitive to the pull of our physical nature. Here is where we have freedom of choice and also where we learn.

Question — I don't see how we can get around the idea of fatalism or predestination. Doesn't God have a will for our lives? And when we don't follow it, then we aren't in His will and have to search it out, don't we?

Comment — In one sense, and a very true one, we are all bound by God's will, provided we think of God as that portion of Deity which is at the heart of each one of us. That means that within us is the strength and potency of God's will which can in time be made manifest. But, and this is the important point, it will manifest differently for each individual, because it is the will of our own inner god whose divine force is impinging upon our soul. In that sense you could rightly say that man is "predestined" — by his own inner god: to come into life and to experience the pain and pleasure of earthly existence.

But let us not confuse this with the old dogma that asserted that man is preordained before birth to suffer punishment or reward, according to the whim or caprice of an extracosmic Deity. No man is predestined or preordained by any God outside of himself. Nor could he be predestined by anything other than the force of his own past experiences, the energies stored up by himself in the permanent portion of his being. In other words, man comes into life "preordained" by himself, and himself alone, to unfold and develop that which he has accumulated in his own soul-life; also stored there is his own individual quality of free will which he can utilize to make of himself whatever he chooses. We are prone to become fatalists because for centuries we have tended to view life and the circumstances around us through the narrow perspective of one lifetime. But once man awakens to a self-conscious knowledge of his full humanhood and responsibility, then fatalism is out of the picture.

Can any one of you possibly believe that you were "born in sin" literally, and that you are preordained to error unless God so wills it that you shall follow goodness? If we approach the question solely from the standpoint of the body, we could say that man is "born in sin" — if we mean by this born into matter, into a material animal body. But man is not his body. The soul is free, as near to freedom as it is near to its own innate godhood. That is the great challenge: man has within him the power through his portion of free will to become the willing helper of his own inner god.

Theosophical University Press Online Edition