The Individual and the World Today

Kurt Reineman

"How I wish you could have been at our house, back home, one evening last week! You would have been quite as thrilled as I was, I'm sure."

"Thrilled by what, Mrs. Ladenburg?"

As we wandered across the desert sands, looking for a likely place for sketching, my friend told me the following story — which, however, I have couched in the present tense, better to express the strong feeling it gave me of having myself, too, been witness:

Three good friends and neighbors are met together for one of their occasional evenings of informal discussion. Although their meeting is in a private capacity, it truly constitutes a gathering of notables; for it is Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann who have come to the hospitable Princeton home of Dr. Rudolph Ladenburg. Of the three, Dr. Einstein, of course, needs no public introduction; while Thomas Mann is not only held by many authorities to be the greatest living man of letters, he has also long ranked as one of the world's foremost students of social problems. The host, Dr. Ladenburg, although perhaps not so well known to people in general, is nevertheless an outstanding figure in his special field of physical science.

Aside from their superlative intellectual capacities, the three friends have several things in common: all alike have taken refuge in free America from the dangers and bitter disillusionments of the Hitlerian regime and have whole-heartedly thrown in their lot with the cultured life of their adopted country; and all alike are moved by a deep and abiding concern with the grave problems imposed on the peoples of the world by the rise of totalitarianism. Being world-citizens in the best sense of the term, their conversation at such evening gatherings habitually ranges throughout all the fields of useful human thought and endeavor, wherein, with no particular set thesis to defend, each feels free to seek out the truth wherever it may be found.

On this occasion the discussion has turned to the great and urgent problem of what is wrong, fundamentally, with the world today. More specifically, they ask themselves: why is it that, in spite of the fact that the peoples of earth are heartily sick of war and are longing with all their souls for peace, there still not only is no general peace, but there actually exists today a very real and serious threat of further and most terrible global warfare? That, as a planet acknowledged to be more than capable of sustaining a high level of existence for all of its inhabitants, there yet remain millions of people who either are suffering from actual starvation or else are living at a bare subsistence level? That, in a society wherein literacy and popular education have made such notable progress, the general standards of ethics, which might well have been expected to rise correspondingly, have on the contrary become increasingly lax and uncertain? Why should such things be? What is lacking? And is there anything at all that the individual man and woman can do toward counteracting these dangerous tendencies? Such are the questions that have come up on this Spring evening.

In the course of their discussion the friends take up one approach after another. May it not be, they ask, that the answer to the question of what is wrong with the world lies in the domain of physical science. Could it be that a mere increase in scientific knowledge would of itself bring about an era of peace, justice and righteousness among mankind? Their unanimous decision, finally, is in the negative; for despite the undeniably great benefits that science has conferred on the human race — and this not only in a material sense but on higher levels as well — modern man is not yet within sight of any such era of good will as has been envisioned. In fact, the friends agree that man today is often morally unprepared to use aright the marvelous scientific knowledge and equipment that he already possesses. He even has it in his power now, as everyone is all too uncomfortably aware, practically to wipe out the entire human race in one mad orgy of lunatic fear and hatred such as would set civilization back for many centuries. No, the answer does not lie in the realm of the natural sciences. It must be sought elsewhere.

The current economic systems next come under scrutiny. Could an economic reformation in accord with this, that or the other theory, be depended upon to produce a better world-order? Considerable discussion ensues. It does appear to be undeniable that certain reforms are urgently needed, if the worst of present-day abuses in this field are to be remedied; nevertheless, it seems to be just as obvious that economic changes alone have so far given little promise of solving the world's basic problems.

Can it be, then, that the answer is to be found in philosophy? Certainly there has been in the past, as there is at present, no lack of first-class philosophical speculation. Outside of certain limited areas of thought, however, it is apparent that such speculation has had very little effect on human conduct in general. Philosophy continues to be rather too withdrawn from the day to day experiences of the common man. Again the three friends are agreed in deciding that while no doubt it would be of very great advantage to mankind if the best of the world's philosophic thought were put into general practice, still this alone, even if it were possible, would soon prove inadequate for the reason that it does not get at the root of the problem.

This brings the evening's discussion around to the subject of religion. On the one hand there is the question of whether humanity today needs more religious teaching; and, on the other, whether more time in general ought to be devoted to existing religious practices. Also, are the current systems adequately meeting the challenge of these times? There is much to be said pro and con; but in the end the synthesis of opinion again is "No." It is recognized that there are encouraging signs of what has been called the "Wind of the Spirit," sweeping today ever more powerfully, not only through the ranks of our religious leaders the world over, but also through the rank and file of the laity. However, the practical results, while often gratifying, are still far "too little and too late," compared with the magnitude of the problem. Man has had organized religion a-plenty; but its impact on his deeper instincts and on his guiding impulses has so far been too weak to prevent the coming to a head of the present world-crisis. Nor does organized religion alone, as it now stands, offer much promise of being capable of doing markedly better in the future. The gaps between profession and performance are still disappointingly wide.

Arrived at this point, it would appear at first sight that, up to now, the evening's discussion has only led to a fruitless dead-end. The great question of what is basically wrong with the world has not been categorically answered. Yet something definite has been gained. The friends have arrived at a single simple conclusion: that all the facts point in one direction — the individual human being himself. Not to any one special system of belief, not to any one nation or race nor to any particular group, but simply to men and women as individuals living out their private, personal lives. At evening's end, the consensus of opinion is that one thing, and one thing only, holds in itself the power to save humanity from further disaster, and that this thing is nothing less than a "rebirth of spirituality" among men.

*     *     *

When the preceding story was called to the attention of another creative scientific thinker of comparable stature, Dr. Gustaf Stromberg, he exclaimed: "But of course! Every thinking scientist knows that." In his own invaluable book The Soul of the Universe Dr. Stromberg, long-time member of the research staff of the Mt. Wilson Astronomical Observatory and a leading astrophysicist, demonstrates conclusively the remarkable extent to which the more recent findings of physical science, notably in the field of biology, point to the real existence of a non-physical world behind, or beyond, or within, the physical: a world in which the latter is rooted and from which it receives its energies. For him, as for many another of the foremost scientific luminaries of the present day, the existence of God and the immortality of the human soul are just as fully proven, scientifically speaking, as are any of the generally accepted "scientific facts."

"A rebirth of spirituality." Many good people, hearing this said, may jump to the conclusion that what is meant here is a general revival of the particular form of religion that, for them, is the true one — meaning usually the only true one. However, in view of the known background and wide outlook of these three eminent thinkers, we can be reasonably certain that nothing of the kind is implied. Neither does it refer to "spiritual rebirth," which technically is quite another matter. We may safely assume that the statement means exactly what it says: the coming to new life of a quality called "spirituality." By implication it means also the dying away of the opposite quality of "materiality": in other words, the exchange of material values for spiritual ones.

The verdict, that the paramount need of mankind today is for a rebirth of spirituality, is a recognition of the fact that the increasing prevalence in the world, during recent decades, of material values, material ideals, material goals, all having led to a decidedly materialistic type of civilization, has been largely responsible for the existence of the present world-crisis. The logical remedy, then, does indeed lie in a modern rebirth, a new renaissance, akin to that which awoke western Europe from the long sleep of the Dark Ages. Today's renaissance, however, must be on even a higher plane than that one. Whereas that historic reawakening was largely of the intellect and the creative powers, the new one must be of the ethical and spiritual faculties.

In these times, however, it has become necessary clearly to define the words "spirit" and "spirituality." Far too many otherwise intelligent people, on hearing these terms used, will inevitably take on a certain characteristic expression as much as to say: "Yes, yes; I'll take your word for it. But the terms just don't mean anything at all real to me." For this reason, and perhaps, too, because our own ideas need clarification, it would be well to find meanings for our terms, fully as real and definite, if possible, as those attached to the words "body" and "physical."

All down the ages, certain qualities and modes of behavior have been considered as being of a spiritual nature. Patience, sympathy, humility, unselfishness, open-mindedness, love of God and of one's fellows: such as these have universally been the mark of the spiritually minded man or woman. Wherever such qualities have completely dominated the life of a human being, no matter of what race, creed or condition, there men have seen a "saint," a "holy one," a "mahatma," or great soul.

Such, then, are the fruits of the spirit. From them we can begin to understand, if not yet what spirit is, at least how spirit acts — just as the physical scientist, unable ever to contact directly the material universe as it is in essence, nevertheless can and does learn a great deal about matter and its elements by studying them in action.

The spiritual qualities, again, are precisely those attributes that, in their perfection, have been ascribed by enlightened men in all ages to their God. Whatever is godlike, most noble, most worthy of emulation in man, is recognized as being spiritual in nature and expressive of the element in him that has been held to derive most directly from the Divine. It is the basic element in him: the Spark of the eternal Primordial Fire, a ray of the Central Spiritual Sun; it resides at the very core of man's complex nature.

"God is spirit," says the old teaching, and He is only to be worshipped "in spirit and in truth." One should note carefully, in this connection, that it is not said that God is a spirit, a statement that at once shuts the Deity off as separate from man and from all the rest of creation, but simply that God is spirit. Similarly, then, it must be true of man that — in essence — he is, not a spirit, but simply spirit itself. In other words, that in the spiritual realm there is no actual separation into parts, as there is in the physical world. In spirit, all are in reality one and the One is in all. This is one of the most profound and most pregnant concepts known to the human mind. Its practical application in life and conduct would seem to be limitless in scope.

There is being developed in man a certain faculty known as intuition. It is not an intellectual faculty; it transcends the intellect. It likewise seems to be practically instantaneous in its operation. By its means man can come to "know" much that he cannot otherwise comprehend. The development of intuition in the individual seems to depend primarily on the extent to which he cultivates his spiritual qualities. This being the case, it follows that a rebirth of spirituality in the individual would naturally bring about a marked increase in the development of his intuitional faculty. This, in turn, would bring him the understanding and wisdom that he so desperately needs today in his attempts at solving the world's problems.

The belief in the essential goodness of man and in his potential perfectibility, which for so long a time has been basic to the American tradition and heritage, has in recent decades been under heavy attack on the part of certain influential writers who unfortunately have allowed themselves to be overwhelmed by the sinister aspects of world conditions. This our typically American faith, after having stood out like a beacon of hope for the whole world for well over a century, has been growing steadily weaker until, finally, we have had to witness the sad spectacle of large segments of the human race gradually and even reluctantly losing their hope in America.

Must it not be that we of the West have largely ourselves to blame for this loss? That our own faltering in the faith of our Fathers has been its direct cause? Truly, "where there is no vision the people perish," and it is high time indeed that we recaptured that lost vision!

There remains still the other question of what, specifically, the individual man or woman can do towards remedying present-day conditions. Mankind may be divided into two classes: those whose chief object in life is to obtain things for themselves, and those who live to benefit others, to give as may be needed of themselves and their substance. These Good Samaritans of the race can be found among sinners as well as saints, among men of low degree as of high, among the uneducated and the educated, the poor and the rich. They make up the great international Army of Service, whose distinguishing badge is a loving heart and two willing hands.

As a little leaven will cause a great mass of dough to rise, so the influence of even one spiritually motivated human being will spread throughout the mass of the race, beginning naturally with those individuals with whom he is most closely associated. There is no argument so potent as example, no theory that can stand alone against a practical demonstration. He who lives the life will know what is best to do in any given circumstance: he will find the wisdom he needs in dealing with his fellows. He need not make a great ado about it, he need merely go about his normal business, living according to his best light, one day at a time. That is sufficient — provided he is spiritually awakened.

Herein, then, lies our answer to the second great question. Progress is always spear-headed by individual men and women. He who lives unselfishly lives spiritually; his life and his actions are ruled by such motives as will inevitably give him the power to change conditions around him for the better. Moreover, he constantly sets in motion a series of chain reactions, which will carry over from one environment to another, from generation to generation, endlessly.

A world-wide spiritual emergency exists. Spiritually aroused men and women, each in his or her own particular place in the world, doing his or her full duty to God and to man: that is all that is needed to meet it effectively and successfully.

(From Sunrise magazine, July 1952; copyright © 1952 Theosophical University Press)

Theosophical University Press Online Edition