THEOSOPHY, Vol. 43, No. 1, November, 1954
(Pages 20-24; Size: 16K)
[Part 16 of a 29-part series]
ONE observation which has seemed inescapable during the sketchy investigations of this series is that the most interesting words are those having a certain ambiguity in meaning, at least in usage. And what, after all, could be more natural, from a philosophical point of view? For the words about which there are no arguments do not promote inquiry, which is the proper province of philosophy, and philosophy is more interesting than anything else. The terms about which everyone agrees are apt to be of minimal importance, because they bring to mind no moral or religious overtones -- and no challenge to ethical decision. The language of technical science, for instance, is stodgily exact, yet of themselves such words as "test-tube" and "equation" lead to no flights of imagination. Here are "absolute" meanings, but they give little comfort to soul. And this must be because the soul, in order to know its own life, has to be constantly aware of duality, must look in two different directions at the same time. The language of absolutes is not and cannot ever be the language of the questing inner man, but only a comforting jargon of the psyche, since the psychic nature dotes on simplicity and resists any form of deliberate uncertainty. Viewed in this light, most of the terms of formal theology signify retreat from the dual realities of living questions, revealing little of the mind, though a great deal about the emotional states of those who seem satisfied with one-dimensional symbols.
Perhaps, with this background of consideration in mind, it becomes easier to understand the various meanings of iconoclasm, especially in relation to the history of Theosophy. In the first place, men who are philosophers are forever breaking up the molds or "images" in the minds of others, simply because they must either continually ask questions or stop being philosophers. And any person firmly wedded to his "icons," whether they be literal or figurative, runs the risk of being mightily disturbed by queries. In the second place, though, and to bring into focus an entirely different dimension, the theosophic philosopher wishes to make constructive use of whatever symbols of religion or science may be turned to serve the purposes of education. So we discover that the Theosophists have often, and to some extent always, been iconoclasts, but have at the same time opposed the purely destructive ridicule with which many opponents of theology and science have assailed citadels of orthodoxy.
As an illustration of both emphases we may quote first from an article published by William Q. Judge in the Path for December, 1892, entitled "Iconoclasm Toward Illusions," then from the Preface to the second volume of H. P. Blavatsky's Isis Unveiled. Judge develops the necessity for "mold breaking" and excuses the confusion and unhappiness which sometimes accompany it:A disposition not to interfere in any way with beliefs which are illusions prevails with many who dislike the pain caused by such tearing away of the veil. And the argument that illusionary beliefs, creeds, dogmas should not be done away with so long as the believer is happy or good has been used by the Christian Church -- and more especially by the Roman Catholic branch of it -- as a potent means of keeping the mind of man in an iron chain. They are accustomed to add that unless such creeds and beliefs shall stand, morality will die out altogether. But experience does not prove the position to be correct.In apparent contradiction is the following from the Isis preface:
Shall it be worse or better, or kind or harsh, to tear away the veil as quickly as possible? And if the iconoclastic attack should be made, for what reason ought one to hesitate because the operation and the attack may result in mental pain?
The only reason for hesitation lies in this fear to give pain; there can be nothing but good result from the change from an untrue and illogical, and therefore debasing, creed, if a system that is complete and reasonable be furnished in its place.
Were we dealing with children or with a race mind which though dwelling in an adult body is but that of a child, then, indeed, it would be right to lead them on by what may be entirely an illusion. But the day of man's childhood as an immortal being has passed away. He is now grown up, his mind has arrived at the point where it must know, and when, if knowledge be refused, this violation of our being will result in the grossest and vilest superstition or the most appalling materialism. No child is born without the accompanying pains, and now the soul-mind of man is struggling for birth. Shall we aid in preventing it merely for the avoidance of preliminary pain? Shall we help a vast brood of priests to refasten the clamps of steel which for so many centuries they have held tightly on the race-mind? Never, if we see the great truth that we are preparing for a cycle when reason is to take her place beside the soul and guide the pilgrim to the tree of life eternal. [Note: For those who would like to read it in full, once you have finished reading this article, I've placed a link to William Q. Judge's "Iconoclasm Toward Illusions" article at the end of this one.--Compiler]Were it possible, we would keep this work out of the hands of many Christians whom its perusal would not benefit, and for whom it was not written. We allude to those whose faith in their respective churches is pure and sincere, and those whose sinless lives reflect the glorious example of that Prophet of Nazareth, by whose mouth the spirit of truth spake loudly to humanity. Such there have been at all times. History preserves the names of many as heroes, philosophers, philanthropists, martyrs, and holy men and women; but how many more have lived and died, unknown but to their intimate acquaintance, unblessed but by their humble beneficiaries! These have ennobled Christianity, but would have shed the same lustre upon any other faith they might have professed -- for they were higher than their creed. They are to be found at this day, in pulpit and pew, in palace and cottage; but the increasing materialism, worldliness and hypocrisy are fast diminishing their proportionate number. Their charity, and simple, child-like faith in the infallibility of their Bible, their dogmas, and their clergy, bring into full activity all the virtues that are implanted in our common nature. We have personally known such God-fearing priests and clergymen, and we have always avoided debate with them, lest we might be guilty of the cruelty of hurting their feelings; nor would we rob a single layman of his blind confidence, if it alone made possible for him holy living and serene dying.It is perhaps somewhat iconoclastic to present H. P. Blavatsky and William Q. Judge in contradiction to one another, but on the other hand such contrasting quotations force a measure of inquiry into the philosophical considerations involved. Two approaches to analysis suggest themselves. First, careful examination of the context of the statements, with particular attention to qualifications contained within the texts. Second, we may approach the altogether different emphases of the passages with the general thought that there are two sides to every question of importance, and that a theosophical teacher will inevitably stress whichever of these at the time provides the greater stimulation to thought.
Isis, published in 1877, was the initial theosophic work, dedicated to members of the Theosophical Society. Those members were in large proportion recruited from the growing ranks of men and women interested in conducting a comparative study of religions -- even though sometimes retaining affiliation with a particular faith. The idea of tolerance for another's belief, then, needed special stress in order that a constructive attitude of open-minded inquiry would come to characterize articles written for Theosophical publications. We must bear in mind that H.P.B. had not made available to the public, nor even to the Theosophists, the message of her Secret Doctrine. The mission of Isis was to raise questions and call attention to the evidence supporting a claim that the ancients knew more than the moderns in matters of philosophy and psychology -- in other words, to prepare the way. The natural time for presentation of H.P.B.'s full, positive teaching had not yet arrived, for students had not yet learned to use critical intelligence wisely.
Now, if we turn to Judge's statement, we may notice establishment of the following condition for unrestrained iconoclasm. Nothing but good results from iconoclasm, he writes, "if a system that is complete and reasonable be furnished in its place." In the intervening years between 1877 and 1892, that "complete and reasonable system" had been furnished in detail, and theosophical centers made available throughout the world wherein its specific study could be carried on. We may surmise that, in the opinion of both H.P.B. and Judge, this monumental effort coincided precisely with a transition point in the evolution of the mind of the human race generally -- something to which Judge seems to refer obliquely when he writes that "the day of man's childhood as an immortal being has passed away. ... His mind has arrived at the point where it must know."
Next, turning to the Isis preface, we will note that H.P.B.'s sympathetic consideration is first of all expressed in relation to the devoted disciples of Jesus of Nazareth, those who gained genuine individual inspiration from the quality of Christ's life and attitude. Men who answered to this description instinctively tended toward a humanitarian interpretation of whatever decrees were furnished by the particular creed of their affiliation; their simple belief in the "infallibility" of the church's integrity stemmed from their own honest, trusting natures. H.P.B.'s heartfelt remarks, then, are an expression of her fundamental attitude, which is one of construction rather than destruction. Yet she proceeds from this preface to a thorough denunciation of authoritarianism in religion, a forthright, and one might even say, merciless, attack upon all the representatives of priestcraft who have turned religious symbols into instruments of power. Such theosophical iconoclasm is not nihilistic, though, but simply the result of an attempt to further the liberation of the human spirit from thralldom to authority.
The second definition of Webster's International identifies the iconoclast as a "radical" -- in this case one "in opposition to religious use of images or icons." Now, a "destroyer of images" may simply attack cherished beliefs to fulfill a general destructive urge. If so, he is not a "radical" in the pure sense, but only a human being in the grip of a powerful negative emotion. The true radical is, however, rather inevitably opposed to "religious images and icons," because he believes that group-symbols and beliefs are misleading, and holds that each individual must construct the framework of his religion, with faith in his own discriminative powers. A radical is thus apt to suspect large political parties and top-heavy sects, not on personal grounds, but simply because he feels that nothing more than false security is ever provided by such superficial agreements as those provided by institutionalized faiths.
Though H.P.B. attacked the typical Christian usage of images and dogmas, she also rendered constructive explanations of all major religious symbolisms. Much of her demonstration of the existence of a "secret doctrine," persisting through all stages of human history, was but a showing that figurative expression, through myth and allegory, glyph and icon, was a natural language for the highest metaphysics. She once quoted approvingly from C. W. King, a contemporary writer, who spoke of the "primary meaning" of a particular symbol as being "imported in its present shape from India, that true fountainhead of gnostic iconography." Elsewhere, too, she speaks of a "remotely pre-Christian Iconography," indicating that the "icons" of ancient times possessed great significance, and, in fact, so great a power that the priests of a later day opportunistically continued the imagery while perverting its meaning.
So, in the final analysis, there is no necessity to attack symbols, icons, or even dogmas, as such, but there is ground for insisting that they be scrutinized by the eye of philosophy. Much of theological literalism would have been avoided if the Christians, in their symbolism, had carried forward the spirit of Indian philosophy; the imagery of the Bhagavad-Gita, a far older document than any Christian scripture, has managed for thousands of years to embody reminders of philosophical and religious truth without degenerating into mere formalism. While the Hindu religion has done many spectacular things with pictorial versions of Shri-Krishna, perhaps this has been accepted more in the spirit of art than of religion, it being for the most part intuitively grasped that the representation of a godlike power should be left to the imagination, and not confined by literal descriptions and definitions.
All men have their "icons," whether they be tangible, or simply symbolic ideals. The Theosophist will recognize that here, as in the case of sincerely held beliefs, the aim need not be to destroy them utterly, but rather to encourage their constructive re-interpretation.
[Note: Here's the link to William Q. Judge's article, entitled "Iconoclasm Toward Illusions", that was mentioned and quoted from in the above article by the Editors.--Compiler]
[Intellect. Intellectual. Thinking.
Philosophy. Leisure. Love of Knowledge.
Reason. Rational Soul. Spirit. Soul. Mind. Nous.
Intuition. Instinct. Intelligence. Discriminate.
Revelation. Universal Understanding.]
[Part 17 of a 29-part series]
Back to the
series complete list of articles.
Back to the full listing containing all of the
"Additional Categories of Articles".