Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Spiritual Journey: Part One

Here follows a series of writings which may serve to illustrate how my spiritual beliefs have evolved over the years. I am not necessarily posting them in chronological order, however, so to see how my beliefs have actually changed over time, one must pay attention to the date associated with each essay.

The great English biologist T.H. Huxley (grandfather of the novelist Aldous of Brave New World fame) once wrote the following often-quoted paragraph on the idea of the search of man for truth, in a letter of the year 1860 to a friend named Charles Kingsley:

"Sit down before a fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion. Follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing."

(Quoted in Seldes, The Great Thoughts [1980].)

This is exactly what I would also advise for the truth-seeker. I would add, moreover, the following two questions, or lines of thought:

Two Questions, for any honest, open-minded truth-seeker:

One: Are you afraid of the truth? And Two: What if "the truth" turns out to be something entirely different, something you did not at all expect? What if "the truth" turns out to be something that entirely contradicts most of what you previously believed? What then?

Will you accept what you now know (or believe) to be "the truth", letting go of your previously-held and previously-cherished beliefs in the process, or will you rather react with horror and fear by ignoring or turning a blind eye to these new truths--simply so that you can continue to believe all that you have previously believed, in safety and comfort?

What is truth? Jesus was asked this once, whilst being interrogated by Pilate, and we are not told what his answer might have been. The famous medieval German mystic and monk Meister Eckhard (c.1260-1327), however, completed for us what the Gospels left blank. Said he:

"What is truth? Truth is something so noble that if God could turn aside from it, I would keep to the truth and let God go. (Emphasis added)

He also wrote that

"To get into the core of God at his greatest, one must first get into the core of himself at his least, for no one can know God who has not first known himself."

(Both excerpts quoted in Seldes, op. cit.)

T.J.White, 2 February, 2005.


And what is "the Bible"? The "Bible" is nothing other than a scattering of brilliant, priceless diamonds, embedded and hidden in an overwhelming sea of mud and filth; in order to perceive the diamonds, one must first laboriously sift through a great deal of mud, and how many ordinary people ever have the time or mental faculty to do this?

With this thought in mind, I intend over the next few days and weeks to try to help my readers extricate some of the diamonds from the sea of mud, for I have found in my daily journey that occasional pointers from other wise souls who have preceeded me have oftimes been most helpful for myself, and saved me years of seemingly fruitless study-effort on my own part. Hopefully, my own pointers will in turn help others, who, like myself, started out on their own in this search for truth, with precious few guides to point the way.

T.J.White, 2 February, 2005.


The poet George Santayana (1863-1952) had written the following, in Soliloquies in England (1922):

"My atheism, like that of Spinoza, is true piety toward the universe and denies only gods fashioned by man in their own image, to be servants of their human interests; and that even in this denial I am no rude iconoclast, but full of secret sympathy with the impulses of idolators."

(Quoted in Seldes, op. cit., page 369.)

In The Age of Napoleon (1975), Chapter XIX "English Philosophy", pages 395-6, the Durants had the following to say regarding Thomas Paine's 1794 book The Age of Reason:

At the outset Paine gave an unexpected reason why he had written the book: not to detroy religion, but to prevent the decay of its irrational forms [i.e., 'fundamentalist' varieties] from undermining social order, "lest in the general wreck of superstition, of false systems of government, and false theology, we lose sight of morality, of humanity, and of the theology that is true." And he added, reassuringly: "I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life."

Then he drew his Occam's razor:

I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church. All national institutions of churches ... appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit. [This sounds much like Nietzsche a hundred years later. ...]

He admired Christ as "a virtuous and an amiable man," and "the morality that he preached and practiced was of the most benevolent kind"; but the story of his being fathered by a god was just a variation of a myth common among the pagans [Celsus had argued this point as long ago as the second century!].

Almost all the extraordinary men that lived under the heathen mythology were reputed to be the sons of ... gods ... The intercourse of gods with women was then a matter of familiar opinion. Their Jupiter, according to their accounts, had cohabited with hundreds. The story, therefore, had nothing in it either new, wonderful, or obscene [once again, almost Celsus' exact words]; it was conformable to the opinions that then prevailed among the people called Gentiles, ... and it was those people only that believed it. The Jews, who had kept strictly to the belief of one God and no more, and had always rejected the heathen mythology, never credited [i.e., 'believed' or 'accepted'] the story.

So the Christian mythology was merely the pagan mythology in a new form.

The trinity of the gods that then followed was no other than a reduction of the former plurality, which was about twenty or thirty thousand; the statue of Mary succeeded that of Diane of Ephesus; the deification of heroes changed into the canonization of saints. The mythologists had gods for everything; the Christian mythologists had saints for everything; the Church had become as crowded with one as the pantheon had been with the other. ... The Christian theory is little else than the idolatry of the ancient Mythologists, accommodated to the purposes of power and revenue; and it yet [i.e., 'still'] remains to reason and philosophy to abolish the amphibious ['crawling'?? 'ambitious'??] fraud.

Paine then played his searchlight of reason upon the Book of Genesis, and, having no patience with parables, fell heavily upon Eve and the apple. Like Milton, he was fascinated by Satan, the first of all rebels. Here was an angel who, for trying to depose a monarch, had been plunged into hell, there to suffer time without end. Nevertheless he must have escaped those inextinguishable fires now and then, for he had found his way into the Garden of Eden, and could tempt most sinuously; he could promise knowledge to Eve and half the world to Christ. The Christian mythology, Paine marveled, did Satan wondrous honor; it assumed he could compel the Almighty to send his son down to Judea and be crucified to recover for him at least part of a planet obviously in love with Satan; and despite that crucifixion, the Devil still retained all non-Christian realms, and had millions of servitors in Christendom itself.

All this, said our doubting Thomas, was offered us most solemnly, on the word of the Almighty himself, through a series of amanuenses from Moses to Saint Paul. Paine rejected it as a tale fit for nurseries, and for adults too busy with bread and butter, sickness and mortality, to question the promisory notes sold to them by the theologians. To stronger souls he offered a God not fashioned like man, but conceived as the life of the universe.

It is only in the Creation that all of our ideas ... of God can unite. The Creation speaketh an universal language; ... and this word of God reveals to man all that is necessary for man to know of God.

Do we want to contemplate his power? We see it in the immensity of the Creation. Do we want to contemplate his wisdom? We see it in the unchangeable order by which the incomprehensible whole is governed. Do we want to contemplate his munificence? We see it in the abandon with which he fills the earth. Do we want to contemplate his mercy? We see it in his not withholding that abundance even from the unthankful. In fine, do we want to know what God is? Search not the book called scripture, ... but the Scripture called the Creation.

2 February, 2005.