Theosophy – September 1897


The need of the world today is for higher ideals. Wealth, and the power which wealth brings; fame, and the adulation which fawns upon it; ease, and the sensuous delights which accompany it — these are the things upon which the heart of humanity is set. They are its ideals; that for which it longs, fights, murders, and despoils its slain.

These ideals are the legitimate offspring of the one-life theory which prevails throughout Christendom today. If man lives upon earth but once; if his eternal destiny after this fleeting experience depends wholly upon his acceptance or non-acceptance of certain dogmas concerning a personal God, and a personal Savior who suffers vicariously beforehand for all the sins which he chooses to commit; if the acceptance or non-acceptance of these dogmas is in no way affected by the pursuit or attainment of wealth, fame, or ease; if the millionaire usurer and profit-monger can rely upon the vicarious atonement of Christ with quite as much or more assurance than the hod-carrier (can he not be princely in his gifts to the church, especially when he dies and has no further use for his wealth?), then the concerns of this life, its strivings and warrings, are wholly removed from all connection with or influence upon a future life. Spiritual becomes entirely divorced from temporal success, and the one may be pursued quite independently of the other.

The chief dogma of modern Christendom is that of the Vicarious Atonement of Christ, and the effect of this teaching has molded and directed Western civilization to a degree but seldom realized. It is this dogma which has brought about that paralyzing separation of the ideals of this life from those of that which is to come. Nowhere is its benumbing influence more apparent than in the attitude of churchianity itself towards religion. A small portion of one day in each week is set apart as sufficient for religious purposes. Certain formulas are repeated, creeds recited (especially, credo quia impossibile est! ), spiritual heretics (those whose "doxy" is not our "doxy") denounced, and the remaining six days devoted to the acquisition of the desirable things of material life with all the greater zest because of the pleasing consciousness of having disposed of spiritual matters, for a week at least, very effectively. And, if this dogma be true, one day in the week is certainly ample time in which to "repent" of one's sins, and take all the advantage of the vicarious atonement necessary to insure one's soul against the dangers of retributive punishment.

More than this: it is quite philosophical not to divert present energies from the attainment of success in this life, but to put off the acceptance of vicarious atonement until approaching death makes it timely, and immediately profitable. In other words, good "business" judgment is brought to bear here as elsewhere, and from the business standpoint most men look upon the dogma — practically, if not theoretically — while the church can offer no better logical reason for doing otherwise than the mere uncertainty of physical existence.

Having, then, been taught this view (ignorantly or intentionally matters little), it would have been strange if mankind had not sought after material success. Under it the present mad race for wealth or glory is perfectly legitimate. Greed for material prosperity has caused the legalizing of our present social and economic system, in which, of necessity, each man's hand is an Ishmael's, and raised against every other man. Legalized wrongs are the cause of much of human suffering. A large portion of the remainder is due to vicious habits (drunkenness, for example), which the churches — while they condemn — do not control for the reason that they neither have nor teach any conception of the effects of such habits upon continuous, progressive existence. Dealing with them from their one-life standpoint, they assure (for example) the drunkard that if he does not reform he will go to hell for all eternity, and that if he does reform — and accepts their dogmas — he will go to an equally eternal heaven. But both heaven and hell are very vague to him who, under the influence of his intellectual and religious environment, has divorced spiritual from material things. The one is unrelated to the other by any demonstration of the relation of cause and effect, and so he quite logically seeks to enjoy this life and takes his chances for any other. And, according to the teaching of the Churches, his chances are about as good as those of any one; he can repent quite as sincerely, and be forgiven just as effectually.

This is not to assert that the churches do not teach high ideals ethically. But their ethics and their dogmas are mismated, for the latter rest neither upon ethics nor philosophy. Even the memory of that time has been lost, when the Gentile Adept declared: "For if in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable." Both the ancient and modern church have removed the occasion for this plaint most completely. Papal palaces, princely hierophants, pious millionaires — all proclaim to the common mob: "Go thou, and do likewise!"

Reincarnation and vicarious atonement are deadly foes; one of the twain must disappear; there is no room for both. If the dogmas of the church be true, if man, encompassed as he is by doubts and ignorance, and assigned an appallingly short time in which to study either himself or nature, is to be "saved," then vicarious atonement is an absolute necessity. But to be logical or just (to say nothing of mercy), all must be saved; there must be no picking or choosing among souls existing under such dreadful conditions. The fatal objection apparent in the want of opportunity which but one brief life offers, especially in the case of children, has been partially recognized by the church, and it teaches (with the exception of those branches who believe in foreordination) that children who die young go to heaven whether they have accepted the vicarious atonement or not. No logical reason can be shown for this, however, except the whim of the Almighty. Such children might have sinned if they had had the opportunity, and surely all excepting those of Christian parentage would have indignantly rejected vicarious atonement had they reached maturer years. Yet this dogma supposes all children to be alike saved who die before forming an opinion as to its merits, while their Mohammedan, Buddhist, Brahmanical, Confucian, or other "heathen," parents go to eternal torment for not accepting it, although of necessity many of them never heard of it — unless by chance, and then as something absurd or abominable. To save the child under these conditions, while condemning the parent, is a "grace" of God which is strained to the point of puerile absurdity.

But reincarnation removes all necessity for this most unphilosophical perversion of a divine truth. (For the vicarious atonement of the man Jesus is but a distorted image of that divine compassion which causes entities high in the scale of evolution to descend among those lower, in order to assist such to take a step onward in the weary cycle of necessity. It is reducing to a single man, and to one brief instant of time, that which takes place eternally; that "crucifixion" which is daily and hourly being enacted wherever a human soul is incarnated in an animal body. And although compassion be the motive, and unmerited suffering the result, vicarious atonement is now a misnomer, whatever the term may once have connoted, for the soul thus voluntarily crucified upon the "tree" of material existence, is rewarded and its suffering compensated by the resulting wisdom which follows upon the new experiences.) Reincarnation enlarges the horizon of life infinitely.

It completely reverses our ideals of the things which seem most desirable; it restores the lost harmony between material and spiritual existence.

To one who would find an ethical solution for the puzzling problems of existence, reincarnation is an absolute necessity. When one looks around, and sees the chaos of injustice which this world apparently is, its unanswerable logic comes like a healing balm to the troubled soul. One sees two children, born of the same parentage, the one dies in an hour; the other lives three-score and ten. The one, because of the vicarious atonement, goes direct to a heaven, which it has not by act or thought deserved; the other struggles along some three-score years and ten, amid an environment which makes the acceptance of this dogma impossible, and goes to undeserved eternal torment. "Can the God who permits this, be just?" he asks the church. "God's ways are not our ways," is the only reply vouchsafed. One sees two souls born of different parents; this the heir to untold wealth which under the one-life theory it could not have deserved; that born of diseased, vicious parentage, in the slums of our great cities, and foredoomed to a life of shame and torture, which it also could not have deserved, and with the certainty of eternal punishment at the end, because Christian dogmas to such an one seem a repulsive mockery. "Why did God send an innocent soul to such awful parentage: — one, oftentimes, where no form or even thought of marriage had occurred?" again queries the compassionate doubter. "Neither soul had done anything to deserve its fate; both are newly created by God; is God, then, just?" "God's ways are not our ways," is the shibboleth of the church. One sees souls plunging into hell every moment of time for failure to accept it who have never heard of the vicarious atonement. "How can this be just?" he asks. "In ages past their forefathers probably had it preached to them, and refused to accept it," replies the Apologist for God. One sees a soul who refused, or, perhaps, only neglected to embrace the vicarious atonement, suddenly die with some trifling sin unforgiven. "Gone to his eternal punishment," comments the Church. "But how can a just God punish one eternally for such a trivial offence?" demands the Doubter. "Every sin, however trivial, against an infinite God is an infinite offence, deserving of infinite punishment," replies the Church, feeling within its heart that the answer is highly philosophical, and that God ought really to be proud of such able defenders.

But the Doubter turns away — sick at heart until he reflects that re-incarnation, under the law of cause and effect, resolves all his doubts, and removes all stain of cruelty or injustice from the entire universe. The child who dies at birth is paying a debt due to some violation of law in a past life, and goes not to an eternal heaven, but returns almost at once to earth to take up that work in another body which the death of this prevented. Chaotic, indeed, would be an universe where a life of one minute's duration would satisfy all material requirements necessary as a prelude to an eternal spiritual life. If children really went to heaven merely because of the accident of a premature death, the tenderest mercy a parent could show a child would be to slay it before it had ever sinned, and so ensure its everlasting happiness.

And the soul who struggled wearily through a long life, but who was overborne, perhaps by early education or environment, and whom therefore the church sends to an everlasting torment, reincarnation restores to earth; affords another and still other lives in which to struggle upward — in fact, infinite opportunity is given so long as even the faintest onward effort is maintained.

The child born heir to untold wealth comes to that which it has itself earned. Wealth and therefore ease it has, but the struggle with its lower sensuous desires is increased a thousand-fold because of unlimited opportunity for their gratification. It is almost certain to form habits, and to give its character a trend, which will cause it bitter suffering either in this or its next life. The transient enjoyment of wealth is no compensation for that hardening and strengthening of the animal nature which will cost so stern and painful an effort to overcome.

The child born of the slums comes also to its own. Perhaps being born heir to wealth in its last life may have laid the train which has exploded in such a mine of woe in this. Who can tell? Who is strong enough to use large wealth in this selfish civilization, and not abuse it? Few, few indeed. At any rate, reincarnation shows the method by means of which evil births may be deserved, and, indeed, the only ones possible for these sin-stained egos. For in such a birth there is no revenge — no cruelty, no injustice. The law says to the soul, "You have transgressed; this is your punishment: it is not eternal; it is in exact accord with your deserts. Live it out; live it down; it is not the will of your Father in heaven that any should perish!"

But why multiply examples? No birth can meet a returning soul which it has not earned; there is no life, however overborne by horrible suffering or hideous crime, which is not the exact and just recompense for deeds done in this or some other body; there is no death, however peaceful or appalling, which has not been justly deserved by the soul itself, or comes to it because of family, racial, or national deeds, in which it took an active part, and for which it therefore justly suffers. There is no medley or succession of acts so complex, nor no sins so dire, that the infinitely wise law of cause and effect cannot adjust their exact recompense. For this law is but the eternally present expression of the divine Will. It affords also a basis for a just and compassionate philosophy of life without going to the length of supposing an infinite, eternal effect to follow an insignificant, finite cause — which is the absurd position into which their dogmas have forced Christian theologists. The soul is the arbiter of its own destiny; it is a portion of deity itself. Under the impersonal action of the divine Will, as expressed in the law of cause and effect, it is forever fashioning its own fate, whether for weal or for woe.

It must not be understood, however, from the foregoing, that everything which happens to the soul during life, or even the inevitable time and manner of its death, are the results of causes set up in former lives alone. This would be to bind man in the straight-jacket of predestination, which is just the error into which the fore-ordinationists have fallen. There are new causes set up at every step of the soul's pathway, to be adjusted by the divine law in this or some future life. The soul is eternally free to choose, and must therefore be eternally able to set up new causes, whether for good or ill.

Reincarnation and vicarious atonement are also irreconcilable foes, because the latter supposes man to be by nature vile, the former, godlike. The one views him as an humble, cringing sycophant upon divine favor, the other makes him himself divine. And herein is the true root of the evil which the dogma of vicarious atonement has brought upon the race. If man is by nature vile, if he has no inherent right to eternal life and eternal progress, if he is lost — a child of Satan and of evil — except he is forgiven by a God whom he must thereafter spend eternity in praising for this act, then is there no incentive for brotherhood upon earth at all. "Make your peace with God; see that your calling and election are sure," says the church, "and all will be well with you." They do not perceive that by teaching that man is vile, and by nature evil, they are offering a logical precedent for man to treat his fellow men with that harshness and contumely which his base, evil nature warrants. God looks upon him as evil, and punishes him cruelly; that which God does man may surely do — is not this logical?

But reincarnation, carrying as a corollary the fact that man is himself divine, is a most cogent reason for the practice of brother hood. For when men shall have recognized this divinity within themselves, they can no longer be cruel or indifferent to each other. They will then no more blaspheme the divine in their fellow men than they now will their highest conceptions of deity. '' God dwells in my brother, how dare I wrong him?" "The flame of divinity burns low in my fallen sister; I must help her to fan it into a brighter glow___" these will be the thoughts of those who are now, it may be, so cold-hearted. No longer will man look upon humanity as so many men, but as so many manifestations of the divine; no longer as so many enemies to be slain, but as so many brothers to be beloved and assisted.

So, with ideals worthy of his godlike destiny, man may face that destiny fearlessly. Reincarnation widens his horizon infinitely; removes the arena of life far above this passionate warring and striving of material existence. Recognizing its holy truths, wealth becomes a thing to be despised; fame, a child's plaything; earthly honor, an empty bubble. To live to benefit mankind will become his highest ideal; to sink self in that great SELF which thrills throughout the entire universe, his one aspiration. So, working on with and helping nature, passing cheerfully and contentedly through the portals of life and death, embracing the infinite opportunities afforded him by means of reincarnation, man will at length evolve the potential divinity within himself into an active potency. And by the purification born of his struggles against his lower nature, he will one day realize the meaning of the saying of the Nazarene, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." For he himself will have rebecome God.