THEOSOPHY, Vol. 42, No. 3, January, 1954
(Pages 112-116; Size: 15K)


[Part 6 of a 29-part series]

AMONG the many words carrying a complexity of different connotations and usages is the term belief. Theosophical students may have noted that, while H. P. Blavatsky has remarked that "faith is a word not to be found in theosophical dictionaries," she does speak quite often of the "beliefs" of Theosophists. For instance, in the Key, while answering an inquiry as to why Theosophy is "accepted" by its protagonists, she attributes "acceptance" to "a conviction on the part of many, and knowledge by a few, that there must be somewhere a philosophical and religious system which shall be scientific and not merely speculative. Finally, a belief, perhaps, that such a system must be sought for in teachings far antedating any modern faith." Later, in discussing the long-term cultural effects of belief in Karma and Reincarnation, as with the Buddhists and Hindus, she states that for "the millions of poor and uneducated" in those lands, "Karma and re-incarnation are solid realities, simply because their minds have never been cramped and distorted by being forced into an unnatural groove. They have never had the innate human sense of justice perverted in them by being told to believe that their sins would be forgiven because another man had been put to death for their sakes. And the Buddhists, note well, live up to their beliefs without a murmur against Karma, or what they regard as a just punishment; whereas the Christian populace neither lives up to its moral ideal, nor accepts its lot contentedly." In another portion of the Key, H.P.B. criticizes Christianity, not because the Christian religion contains "beliefs," but because its beliefs are demonstrably "erroneous."

Turning to the dictionary, we discover excellent reasons for H.P.B.'s preference for the word belief over the word faith.

Belief. The state or habit of mind of one who believes; faith; confidence; trust. 2. A conviction or persuasion of truth; intellectual assent; as, claims unworthy of belief. 3. The thing believed; specif., a tenet, or a body of tenets; doctrine; creed. 4. Eccl. A statement of beliefs; a creed; specif. (cap.), the Apostles' Creed.
We here note that it is only in theological usage that "belief" signalizes a closed mind. Webster insists upon this distinction:
Belief and faith, though often used interchangeably, are not quite parallel, for belief may or may not imply certitude in the one who assents and faith, in its older religious and Scriptural sense, always does even when there is no evidence or proof. In current use, faith often suggests credulity and overreadiness to accept.
Joseph Shipley's Dictionary of Word Origins discloses that a belief, in one sense, is simply a preference -- a desire to see things in a certain way, or an instinctive attraction to a certain idea. Belief, in this sense, is an individual or personal matter, whereas faith is usually institutionalized. We may "happen" to share certain beliefs with others, but we decide to share, or drift into sharing, a creedal faith. The "lief" part of belief is related to the Sanskrit Lubh -- to desire, and also to the Latin lubit -- it delights. Shipley therefore comments that it is not strange that often "what we like we think is just so."

What a strange tangle this is in terms of theological thinking! Anything spontaneously loved or desired, according to the "sinner" psychology of religion, is apt to be "satanic" -- therefore one ought not to believe what he feels, but rather what he is told. Theosophical respect for "sincere beliefs of all sorts" stems from the realization that men should be encouraged to follow up with impartial examination their instinctive preferences for ideas. No interference should intrude upon man's long and lonely struggle to enlarge his mental horizons by self-induced and self-devised efforts. Therefore the T.S., as H.P.B. so insistently maintained, respected all beliefs sincerely held, and refrained from promising any sort of reward for conversion to a new idea. In "A Year of Theosophy" she remarks:

Let us again say: (1) The Theosophical Society teaches no new religion, aims to destroy no old one, promulgates no creed of its own, follows no religious leader, and distinctly and emphatically is not a sect nor ever was one. It admits worthy people of any religion to membership on condition of mutual tolerance and mutual help to discover truth. The founders have never consented to be taken as religious leaders, they repudiate any such idea, and they have not taken and will not take disciples. (2) The Society is not composed of atheists, nor is it any more conducted in the interest of atheism than in that of deism or polytheism. It has members of almost every religion, and is on equally friendly terms with each and all. (3) Not a majority, nor even a respectable minority numerically speaking, of its fellows are students of occult science or ever expect to become adepts. [Note: For those who might like to read it, once you have finished reading this article, I've placed a link to HPB's "A Year of Theosophy" article at the end of this one.--Compiler]
In the Key (page 18), H.P.B. quotes approvingly these passages from a T.S. Convention paper prepared by Dr. J. D. Buck:
Individuals in every age have more or less clearly apprehended the Theosophical doctrines and wrought them into the fabric of their lives. These doctrines belong exclusively to no religion, and are confined to no society or time. They are the birthright of every human soul. Such a thing as orthodoxy must be wrought out by each individual according to his nature and his needs, and according to his varying experience. This may explain why those who have imagined Theosophy to be a new religion have hunted in vain for its creed and its ritual. Its creed is Loyalty to Truth, and its ritual "To honour every truth by use."
Later (page 50), H.P.B. makes this point clearer when, speaking of members and officers of the T.S., she affirms that "all have an equal right to have the essential features of their religious belief laid before the tribunal of an impartial world," although "no officer of the Society, in his capacity as an officer, has the right to preach his own sectarian views and beliefs to members assembled, except when the meeting consists of his co-religionists...."

Reflection upon these scattered statements inclines one to the view that Theosophists may have been overly frightened by the word belief, simply because the theological heritage of ideas has permeated even the general Theosophical climate of opinion so thoroughly that the distinctions mentioned here have not been clearly grasped. Yet, if a Theosophist claims he is beyond the stage of "having beliefs," if he feels himself possessed, instead, of definite "knowledge," he may sometimes be placed in a rather ridiculous position. For a belief is the natural intermediary stage between an inner prompting towards adoption of a certain idea, and knowledge concerning the truth of that idea. If a man were beyond the stage of beliefs, this would mean that he had become a Mahatma; even many of the Adepts, we may surmise, have some "beliefs."

H.P.B. has made the claim that Theosophists, while they do indeed have numerous beliefs, can be shown to have founded those beliefs in some degree upon persisting truths. But here, again, the distinction is between constructive beliefs and destructive ones. This seems a point of considerable psychological importance, for, if the Theosophist, engaged in discussion with a Christian, feels that while he is possessed of absolute truth, the Christian's notions are based upon absolute error, there is little room for that mutual tolerance and forbearance which alone make discourse upon differences of viewpoint of value.

We may also approach a consideration of the delicate shades of meaning in "belief" by considering the word doubt. The statement that the wise man "knows how to believe and to doubt well" has considerable validity, even though certain forms of doubt are certainly dangerous. For instance, there is that form of doubt which foments suspicion -- a doubt of the integrity of someone with whom we are conversing, or of one who has made certain representations for our consideration. This sort of doubt is entirely destructive, since our aim should be to learn whatever we can from the ideas of others and to leave the assessment of their character to themselves.

The fearful man, also, "doubts" in a negative or destructive fashion, for he doubts his capacity to ascertain truth. The conceptions of theosophical philosophy, on the other hand, ennoble man, encourage him to trust his ability to advance in wisdom and psychological balance. What, then, does it mean to "doubt well"? The person who doubts constructively is very apparently the man who simply doubts that he has reached the full and final essence of any truth. He knows that his truth, as he presently sees it, is but one view of a reality which lies underneath -- in part, a belief. By doubting his grasp of absolute truth he increases his respect for relative truth, and, when he respects relative truths sufficiently, he is encouraged to have an open mind in regard to the beliefs and opinions of others. In this case he believes that he has the capacity to discover more of truth with each moment; he also believes that others are similarly capable, and doubts only his right to set himself up as an authority or to feel superior to others.

A belief, rightly held, can be the growing tip of intellectual and moral progress. It is the very nature of the human ego to formulate beliefs, for beliefs represent a vast intermediary stage between a purely psychic existence and the highest adeptship. It is also in the realm of belief that the most fundamental moral decisions are made, since both kama-manas and buddhi-manas contribute promptings for our beliefs. The scientist, as David Lindsay Watson once pointed out in his Scientists Are Human, always proceeds with experiment guided by certain partially formulated theories. These are his beliefs, which he is willing to test by every means, but in which he places considerable trust and hope. Otherwise, he could never find sufficient enthusiasm to go through the painstaking drudgery of physical research. Similarly does the worthy philosopher strive to clarify his own "beliefs" in his own mind, to learn to distinguish between belief and knowledge as far as he himself is concerned, and then to test by every means at his disposal the ideas to which either instinct or intuition have led him.

Therefore it seems clear that, whether we speak of scientists, philosophers, psychologists or theosophists in terms of their "beliefs," even more important than the nature of the belief held is the attitude existing in conjunction with it. Not our beliefs, but what we do with them -- how we treat them -- becomes the final desideratum, though all of H.P.B.'s counselling should impel us to endeavor to rule our predispositions with a steady hand. It is impossible not to desire that certain things be true, and to search for evidence to reinforce credence. A deluded sort of self-interest enters the proceedings only when, fooling ourselves into thinking we know more than we actually do, we try to reinforce our belief by "proving" it is better than someone else's. When this stage is reached, we have retrogressed from a philosophical sort of belief to merely "religious" belief, and are then ready to become demagogues. However, to carp at the very notion of belief, as have so many arrogant scientists -- and a few sometimes arrogant theosophists -- seems but to carp at the very nature of man in his present stage of evolution.

COMPILER'S NOTE: The following is a separate item which followed the above article but was on the same page. I felt it was useful to include it here:

A belief in Mahatmas -- whatever name you give the idea -- is a common property of the whole race, and all the efforts of all the men of empirical science and dogmatic religion can never kill out the soul's memory of its past.

We should declare our belief in the Adepts, while at the same time we demand no one's adherence. It is not necessary to give the names of any of the Adepts, for a name is an invention of a family. ... To name these beings, then, is no proof, and to seek for mystery names is to invite condemnation for profanation. The ideal without the name is large and grand enough for all purposes. 


[Note: Here's the link to HPB's article, entitled "A Year of Theosophy", that was mentioned and quoted from in the above article by the Editors.--Compiler]

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