In the Greek world the Mystery schools, coming down from the far past, were the source and official vehicle of religion. They affirmed for mankind the reality of inner worlds and the importance of things of the spirit; that behind the externals of worship there is a true philosophy of life which men may fit themselves to receive. This knowledge is not of the intellect but of direct spiritual perception. Therefore nothing was published broadcast, because the written or spoken word can reveal no truth unless such perception has been aroused. A truth not comprehended may be tinkered with and turned into a dogma or, in the hands of the selfish, be used for personal ends. The ancients saw dangers in both possibilities.
For this reason initiation always was preceded by a long course of discipline, by the attainment of self-mastery and complete purification of life, thought, and motive. Only in this manner could the understanding of the candidate become clear and the dramatic and symbolic ceremonies convey to him real knowledge. These rites were "magical," as all true poetry and music are — that is, having the power to quicken high faculties of the soul dormant in most of us. A person so transformed could see beyond outer appearances and become the greatest thing possible to man, a god-man. That this change, this blossoming, might be was the central idea of ancient religion. Such a one was said to have been "born again"; the real self in him had been born in a nature made faultless.
The Mysteries dealt in allegory, in drama; they spoke of a "virgin birth" because the god-self is always born in a purified or virgin heart. The soul, essentially divine, was thought of as suffering a kind of obscuration or death while exiled in our world of mortality, "nailed" to a physical body. Its adventures on the path of becoming were told in a thousand ways, of which none was more general or important than that of the god who died, descended into hell, and rose from the dead. The agony and death were the trials that purified; the arisen god was the perfected human being.
For many centuries before our era the Mystery schools had been decadent and had lost their efficacy as the carrier of spiritual light. Whatever had been the case of old, the arduous training and preparation, attainment of self-mastery and purity, were no longer called for. The rites became mere form and the result unreality. At Eleusis, for example, initiation later was conferred as a compliment to distinguished strangers, just as we grant the freedom of our cities. Again, a citizen took his initiation more or less as one takes degrees in Masonry now. It might mean a great deal to him because bringing him into contact with symbols which he might not otherwise have come to understand, but to be an initiate did not imply, as formerly had been intended, the possession of unusual wisdom, virtue, or divine compassion. Religion, as we know, had lost much of its hold on life long before the birth of Jesus, and it does not do that while it retains spiritual vitality and the organism it works through is fluidic. In the Hellenized world the Mysteries stood to religion much as the Bible and the churches stand today. They were religion, and upon their pattern religious ideas formed themselves.
Paul was a man of Greek culture, a cosmopolitan Jew, a Roman citizen. His writings leave no doubt that he was an initiate of the Mysteries as they had come to be. They also show, I think, his duality. There is, on the one hand, a man not without insight into the initiatory symbols, such as the second birth," the "new man" or "Christos-spirit" that is to be "born" in the perfected man. These things had been shown him, and his intense nature had not failed to see something, perhaps a great deal, in them. Certainly a man capable of writing that wise and glowing thirteenth chapter of the First Corinthians had plumbed some of the wells of wisdom. This is the higher aspect of Paul. On the other hand, there is the enthusiast whose tremendous energies and quick-mindedness outbalanced the depth of his nature fiercely devoted, of large personal ambition and strong will to lead, not a deeply compassionate soul like Jesus by any means. Self is there: he will argue at length for his right and fitness to be prominent; he will modestly set forth his own merits of which he is very conscious.
Paul read into the story of Jesus the implications of the ancient tradition, but he confounded the actual with the symbolic, made a dogma, a legend, a creed. Undoubtedly his intentions were excellent. In Jesus was a god-man who had been actually crucified — or so it was reported — just as in the Mysteries he was symbolically crucified. And here was the opportunity for whirlwind propaganda, a chance for all the activity of his mind, his organizing faculties, his energies. Here was a movement, surely a righteous one, that he could make worldwide. And because he was a human dynamo, utterly unsparing of himself, he succeeded — but in doing so made the sacred symbols almost valueless, because no longer were they interpreted as representations of the path each individual must travel. He thus helped to obscure for future generations much of the real value of the life and teachings of Jesus.
Turning to the first three gospels we find but the fragment of a story. The contents of only a few days are given, and these either at the beginning or in the last four years of a life that, according to most accounts, ended at thirty-three. Yet certainly the tragedy of the Nazarene has been not his death but what has happened to him since, indeed from the very first. He was never understood, even by those closest to him. Friends, disciples, relatives, enemies — all saw his stature, felt his spiritual magnetism, but they could not guess his meanings. They might have in time, but it was precisely time that he was not allowed. Buddha and Confucius both lived to be old men; each spent a near fifty years teaching, and serene civilizations flowed beneficently as the fruitage of both. But Jesus was crucified, it is said, within four years of the start of his mission. The world had not time to see and hear and know him, as it had with the other two. So for him and for his teachings it substituted a legend.
The ethical system set forth by these three and by Lao-tse are identical, but so far as the gospels record Jesus did not give to it, as the others did, a scientific or philosophical backing. However, it is apparent to any who have studied comparative religions that Jesus spoke, not out of mere generous sentiment, but out of scientific knowledge of the laws of life. He was of the royal line of spirit: a teacher and revealer, whose sheer nobility of nature showed what a glorious thing manhood may become, and pointed out the way of becoming. Regrettably, Christendom, preoccupied with the legend of Christ and convinced that the world is already "saved," has acquired through neglect of Jesus' teachings a certain subconscious attitude toward them. You can't meet the hard, bitter actualities of life with sentimental injunctions; and it does not occur to many that his precepts were more than that.
"Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you," said Jesus. "That's all very well for the Son of God," replies the Christian community, "but we are sinful men and must be practical." That, I believe, is the idea tacitly and widely held, and the churches have no answer to make to it. Such is the price paid for the myth and the dogmas that have replaced the Man and his Message. We can have the Son of God who taketh away the sins of the world, and keep him well supplied with sins to take away, but the results of those sins are not erased; the frightful suffering always with us, the hideous aftermath of wars. Nothing that happened on Calvary alters that. Or we can have the Man who taught the science of right living, and the joy of finding out what that science is and putting it into practice, thus taking away the sins before they are committed and saving the world in the sense of making it a fit and decent place in which to live.
If the keen mental acumen that has gone into the study of theology and into dissecting and defining the internal relations of the Trinity had been applied instead to putting into practice the laws of human conduct laid down by Jesus, those who now long to defend him and do not know how would have found that they stood before their fellowman, not as discredited sentimentalists, but as masters and doctors of the science of living — of great practical value to confused humanity. For Jesus was not talking platitudes to fill in time while waiting to be crucified to save a world that is not saved.
Jesus was a clear thinker who had discovered certain principles by study, experimentation, and training and, having discovered them, he set out to teach them. His love was great because his knowledge was great. He forgave because he understood. Love without understanding is apt to degenerate into emotionalism and unbalance. Understanding of what? That the inmost of all men is divine. Ordinary men and women hold within themselves infinite possibilities that may be made actual — bright lights whose gleaming rays shed genius, heroism, sunlit wisdom, into the affairs of this troubled old globe. Jesus saw God in the common people and went to work strongly, sternly, and practically to uncover it. "Let your light shine before men," he said. What could this Light be unless the joyful and generous godhood within?
In a world all ignorant, Jesus walked with knowledge, knowledge that would save. That was his tragedy which wrung from him the cry, "Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." What was this rest? Mental soporifics? Inertia? Surely there was enough of that already. There was altogether too much of the rest which is blind faith and a quietus of the mind, reason, and imagination. What Jesus would give was knowledge of the way to live; but his hearers could not understand. They thought he was something he was not: a Messiah to free them from the Romans; a King-to-be — and, afterwards, the only begotten Son of God who washed away the sins of the earth. And so the sins never were taken away; they are here now, and their name is legion, This was the true crucifixion, the agony, and the sweat.
Jesus was as one born out of season, with everything at cross purposes, and no aid, no weapon but the fire of his being . . . as if an impetuosity of compassion had brought him in where wisdom would have had him bide his time! We see nothing of that indomitable persistence that enabled Confucius to build one of the most enduring nations for his monument. Or the everlasting calm of Gautama Buddha, whose influence age after age quickened the culture of the Asian continent.
What we do see is a soul of flame, the majestic figure of a doomed hero. What spurs us most to enthusiasm in him, I think, is the feeling of the very hopelessness of his mission, the repressed fire, the universality impossibly set in mean little provincial surroundings — yet always with ineffable tenderness for the weak and fallen shining through.
(From Sunrise magazine, June/July 1984. Copyright © 1984 by Theosophical University Press)