Materialism and its attendants — greed and selfishness — have so engulfed the awareness of humanity globally that today the religious expressions of mankind find themselves hopelessly in their embrace. Who is unaware of the bottom line in fund-raising for church, temple, or synagogue; the sale of "supreme consciousness" through this or that technique or object; the pandering to the desire for increased membership; the involvement in political lobbying deemed necessary to put across a spiritual agenda? Is it any wonder that many ask themselves: What is religion?
Many religions today are working to relieve suffering, but how do they differ from the many secular service organizations unless they work on a spiritual level, with causes rather than effects? The dark side of current religious expression underlies nearly two-thirds of planetary violence. Additionally, centuries of dogma and ritual have blinded us to individual spiritual experience, while creating gods separate from ourselves to whom we may appeal for favors of all kinds. Is this religion? The last thirty years have witnessed a significant turning away from formal religious practices. However, for some, the thought of stepping out into a broad, free world, and relying upon one's own judgment has been frightening. The need to be told what is spiritually correct, as opposed to thinking for oneself, along with the desire to maintain privileges by preventing others from thinking and acting freely, has nurtured a worldwide rise of religious fundamentalism, fanaticism, and bigotry. Where is our sense of true religion when flagrant or subtle coercion is used upon our fellow human beings, often to promote doctrines fueled by extreme emotionalism, or to belittle others' inner discoveries? This arrogance of trying to convert another away from his own faith in reality encourages divisiveness and disloyalty — elements in opposition to true religion.
In this era of selfishness, subliminally nurtured by a doctrine of personal salvation, many are beginning to see through the veils. People are again on a quest for universal truth — the highest religion. What spiritual essentials are needed to continue this transformation, to cut through the materializing effect of the secular world upon the spiritual? In the words of H. P. Blavatsky:
In our humble opinion, the only "Essentials" in the Religion of Humanity are — virtue, morality, brotherly love, and kind sympathy with every living creature, whether human or animal. . . . the most fundamental differences between religions and sects sinking into insignificance before the mighty problem of reconciling humanity, of gathering all the various races into one family, and of bringing them all to a conviction of the utmost necessity in this world of sorrow to cultivate feelings of brotherly sympathy and tolerance, if not actually love. — Collected Writings, 4:502-3
Where and how do we discover the basis for these "essentials" of religion? From what source flow virtue, morality, and brotherly love? How do we cultivate a sympathy for every living thing, or begin a reconciliation of humanity? If the root of the word religion means to bind, then our greatest efforts should be toward an awareness of all beings bonded together in a universal brotherhood. What are the enduring, universal ties that bind us together, and how, if we have lost sight of them, can we reaffirm the sacred in the secular?
The way in which we see the world determines the depth of vision we bring to the monumental problems which face humanity. To begin with, it may help to see religion and science together as complementary vehicles for understanding the unknowable rather than as antagonists. Truth even partially apprehended can and must be expressed in many ways. The scientist and the mystic, in centuries past, were partners working together to understand the nature of the universe and ourselves — our past and destiny. The fundamentals of science and the essentials of religion are before us, if only we have "the eyes to see and the ears to hear."
Everywhere we see form — even chaos is now described as form that we yet do not grasp. And where is any form or design without a fashioning agent — consciousness? If the universe is infinite, can there be any limiting dimension, or any "ultimate" deity opposed by another outside itself? The infinite must naturally be beyond our finite mental abilities and well removed from any words to convey its likeness or meaning. Perhaps only by careful observation of its various forms can we gain any insight into its nature and purpose.
The cosmogonies of the world speak of the One and the many. Some consign the One to "creating" the many from nothing, a challenge to logic; others suggest the many emanate from and through the One that is no thing. The universe is the expression of the awakening, expanding consciousness of the One and to our minds it is the vast expanse hinted at in Christian phraseology as the One in whom we live and move and have our being. Consequently, there is no manifestation without consciousness, all units of design, whether visibly manifested or abstractly determined, are living, evolving beings. Hence, it appears that all comes from a divine sourceless source for the evolution of consciousness. As sparks of the infinite, they manifest periodically to continue the evolutionary expansion of awareness. Matter on all planes, being a co-partner and vehicle for the evolution of consciousness, continually, and from deep within, unfolds the unlimited potential of life. We humans, as expressions of consciousness, not only bear direct responsibility as the fashioners of our world, but contain within ourselves the talents to make amends and additions. Working with these cosmic dimensions in mind, what wonders we may achieve! The possibilities for the betterment of all living beings are checked only by the collective and individual actions we take daily. Even when we appear to fail, we may be buoyed by the realization that we always have another chance. We may be assured that justice prevails in all action, for what we put out we get in return — as we sow so shall we reap. Here then, from the universal to the particular, are the foundations of morals and virtue, as well as of a universal and unconditional sympathy, if not love, for all beings.
We are naturally religious. Our ignorance — and hence our suffering — stems from focusing on our material selves rather than the divinity within. The first step toward the religious experience, and paradoxically the last, is the recognition of our oneness with all being. Spirit and matter are one. Seeing ourselves as we truly are demands that we act accordingly. It is time we stretch our hearts and minds to deal with the challenges before us. Accepting our birthright as spiritual beings, we accept the same for others and the responsibility that goes with it. Nothing is given to us that we do not earn; no outside force tempts us that is not ourselves. We must learn to act not from fear of punishment or hope of reward, which is only selfishness, but because we are an expression of an unfolding consciousness of infinite possibility.
Through what instruments can we discover these universal laws, or prove the existence of such a vast consciousness? Perhaps the most advanced instrument to test and verify our discovery is the combined human mind and heart focused through intuition. Certainly it is from kind acts and selfless service that wisdom is born. If we start with these, using the same intense drive and belief that we give to building and using our physical instruments of discovery, we may make a leap in understanding that will benefit all mankind.
The awakening of consciousness in ancient humanity, told in global mythology, was a momentous occurrence, in some ways presaging events of the far future. In this great past mankind, in general, was not burdened by words, ideas, or concepts specifying religion. They knew no outer structure for ritual, no division of the sacred and secular. Nonetheless, they sensed that they were bound to one another and to all beings, earthly or stellar, through an inheritance of divine generations. After all, this early humanity, it is often said, walked with the gods, living with a sense of reverence and wisdom. It would be a mistake to over-idealize these ancient peoples; after all, they had their problems too. However, common to them was a sensitivity to profound expressions of consciousness in the earth, the forces of nature, and the seasons. Beyond the outer veils of nature they saw life's essence. Our minds today have the same capabilities, but the clutter and diversions of modern life are too great a distraction. Even today, so-called peasants or aboriginals, whose lives remain close to nature, know the universal laws inwardly, though they may not say upon what they base such discoveries. Ancient humanity had no freeways to rush them to the opening of new malls, but they witnessed the opening of wildflowers and in doing so beheld the pulsing force of infinite life. The night was not filled so much with fear of fellow man as with the wonder of the ebb and flow of the stellar regions overhead.
Perhaps from our antediluvian past we may discover a working model for the application of morals, virtue, and the amelioration of humanity not found in dogma and ritual but rather woven into the very fabric of existence. We may again see every being as an expression of oneness. We may learn by experience that from within ourselves moves universal mind, the same that animates the stars above and the flowers at our feet. In all things we may experience the tabernacle of the most high. Then, no occupation will be too small or insignificant. No being, man or woman, animal or plant, will be thought of as inferior, but each will be seen in its true role as sustaining universal order. These are the foundations and source of religion, the experiencing of which truly binds us all.
(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 1993. Copyright © 1993 by Theosophical University Press)