THEOSOPHY, Vol. 31, No. 5, March, 1943
(Pages 205-209; Size: 16K)
(Part 2 of 2)



ANOTHER phase of the transient unity between science and religion in the early nineteenth century is represented by the Deist philosophy of the Founding Fathers. This is of importance today, when popular writers like Walter Lippmann and Dorothy Thompson are claiming that the classical and religious background of the great first Americans is lacking from present-day culture. These sentiments are occasionally echoed by spokesmen for the back-to-religion movement. But it is seldom noted, as Harry Elmer Barnes remarks in his History and Social Intelligence, that "the majority of distinguished Americans in the generation of the Fathers were not even professing Christians." Dr. Barnes quotes from a sermon printed in 1831, in which the Rev. Dr. Wilson deplores the fact that most of the founders of our country were "infidels," and that "of the first seven presidents not one of them had professed his belief in Christianity." Citing Remsburg's Six Historic Americans, Dr. Barnes justifies the preacher's plaint that "God had been deliberately excluded from the origins of our government":

. . . the Constitution was framed and God was neglected. He was not merely forgotten. He was absolutely voted out of the Constitution. The proceedings, as published by Thompson, the secretary, and the history of the day, show that the question was gravely debated whether God should be in the Constitution or not, and after a solemn debate he was deliberately voted out of it. . . . There is not only in the theory of our government no recognition of God's laws and sovereignty, but its practical operation, its administration, has been conformable to its theory. Those who have been called to administer the government have not been men making any public profession of Christianity. Washington was a man of valor and wisdom. He was esteemed by the whole world as a great and good man but he was not a professing Christian.
The Founding Fathers were really the inheritors of the Deist tradition that gained currency during the seventeenth century. One of the more important Deists of this earlier period, John Toland, wrote of the practice of the ancient philosophers "to set forth an exoteric and an esoteric teaching, of which the former was intended for the general public, but the latter only for the circle of initiated disciples." (Lange, History of Materialism I, 324.) In his treatise, Clidophorus, the "key-bearer," he says: "I have more than once hinted that the External and Internal Doctrine are as much now in use as ever; tho' the distinction is not so openly and professedly approv'd as among the Antients." This is not to suggest that Washington was of necessity a believer in Toland's views, but simply to show the quality of Deist thought, which is present also in the great deists of a century or more later.

Deism, like Emersonian idealism, was fated to give way to the externally more impressive "proofs" of scientific materialism. The synthesis of the nineteenth century was inadequate to the heavy artillery of men such as Darwin and Huxley, or, to be more accurate, to the unceasing sniping at metaphysics and moral philosophy which raised to prominence the lesser minds who transmitted evolutionary theory to the masses.

Today, while a world-wide social cataclysm rages about their heads, the serious men of the age are desperately trying to devise a philosophy that will give them the faith to go on and to hope for better days. Urged on by the terrifying catharsis of war, the weaker of the scientific fraternity are opening the door to traditional religion, on the theory that we must have some stabilizing influence. The Catholics, of course, are saying "I told you so," and insisting that they have had the solution all along. The enlightened men of religion, however, are more cautious, at the same time more conscious of the extremity of the situation. Some thoughtful criticisms of "Our Moral Chaos" are provided by Willard L. Sperry, Dean of Harvard Divinity School. His first comment is on the war:

We have probably outgrown the idea of "holy wars," though a decently good conscience is still morally necessary to the waging of a war. Victorious self-righteousness is likely to make a bad peace. From a religious standpoint, it is almost impossible to see how any new world is ever to be set up if the self-righteousness of great states is allowed to persist undisciplined. The world of politics can hardly afford to say these things; the world of religion cannot afford not to say them.
In this statement of a leading Christian there is quite a step of progress. Historical research has shown that Christians were most persistent of any of the groups demanding the conquest of the Philippines in 1898, on the ground that by taking these South Pacific islands Americans could better carry to the natives the truths of Christ! Similarly, President McKinley, after a night spent in pondering the problem of whether or not to seize the Spanish possession, announced that God had instructed him to go ahead. Today we see where the march of Christian progress has led us. Fortunately for their own Karma, protagonists of Christianity no longer ask for bayonets to clear the way for the process of conversion.

After developing the weaknesses of scientific positivism as the source of ethical guidance, Dr. Sperry proceeds:

If there is any single conclusion to be drawn from our present dilemma it is that morality alone cannot make a religion, and that behind any ethical system that is to have a religious quality about it there must be an act of faith and a body of beliefs. The way we behave is determined by judgments of value that we pass on the world and on our own experience, and by some long-range guess as to the meaning of life. Those of us, therefore, who hoped forty years ago to keep the ethics of Jesus and to let his "religion" go were wrong. That apparently cannot be done. The reason for behaving in the ways that Jesus proposes, and beyond that, the actual ability to behave thus, are derived from the belief that there is a God. It is said, "One is your Father and all ye are brethren." We tried to realize the second of these propositions in neglect of the first. It begins to look as though we should have to go back to the major premise if we expect the ethics of Jesus to work.
It is at this point that Julian Huxley enters a strenuous objection. The analysis, in the abstract, is accurate enough. In theosophical terms, without the first Fundamental Proposition of The Secret Doctrine, brotherhood is an idea without any substantial support. Further, without any teaching at all concerning the destiny of the soul, and the nature of immortality, there is no real reason for morality. As Mr. Judge wrote years ago in The Ocean of Theosophy: "For alone in reincarnation is the answer to all the problems of life, and in it and Karma is the force that will make men pursue in fact the ethics they have in theory." He adds: "It is the aim of the old philosophy to restore this doctrine [reincarnation] to whatsoever religion has lost it; and hence we call it the 'lost chord of Christianity'."

But will Dr. Sperry recognize its ancient harmony, realize that Reincarnation, and not God the personal Father, is what modern ethics, Christian or otherwise, needs in order to survive the ravages of scepticism and lip profession? The learned Dean is urbane, pleasantly sophisticated, wisely tolerant, but "God the Father" still entrances his otherwise thoughtful mind. Like so many other good men, he probably has never given any serious thought to alternative possibilities. There is wisdom in much of what he writes:

The world will never get its moral universals back until it again finds something like a religious faith. Of course man cannot compel himself to believe this or that article of faith by a fiat act of his will, but he can, at least, put himself in a believing attitude toward things. He can refuse to be contentedly agnostic. That, after all, is what has been wrong with modern man, not his agnosticism -- for there is a strong strain of agnosticism in every religion -- but his complacent contentment with that agnosticism. Job came to the point when he decided to give up bothering his head about the mystery of life and the world. But just when he had reached this comfortable solution of his difficulties, the Lord spoke to him out of a whirlwind and told him to stand on his feet and answer like a man. It rather seems as though out of the gales of modern history a voice were trying to say the same thing to us.
The analogy of Job is a pertinent one, for if, as H. P. Blavatsky wrote, the book of Job is a treatise on Initiation, the world of today stands on the threshold of another epoch of Manasic(1) life, and, like Job, is being tossed by the whirlwinds of the trial which must precede a new awakening. The transition age is upon us, and like Job, the time has come for us to choose a philosophy of life that has truth in it -- to choose, or, as always happens to the lukewarm, the apathetic and the careless, to be destroyed.

Another important problem is raised and faced by Dr. Sperry:

Ethically our situation is even more difficult. All great world religions have, in their moral regimens, a strong strain of world denial or world renunciation. This negative quality has been, as a matter of fact, the fulcrum by which they have proposed to move history. But the natural man tends to world affirmation. How to square these rival ethics is a stubborn riddle -- perhaps an insoluble riddle. But it cannot be shirked.
Nor has it been shirked -- by Theosophy. A Theosophical Teacher has written:
Why has that struggle ["the struggle for life"] become almost the universal scheme of the universe? We answer: because no religion, with the exception of Buddhism, has taught a practical contempt for this earthly life; while each of them, always with that one solitary exception, has through its hells and damnations inculcated the greatest dread of death. Therefore do we find that struggle for life raging most fiercely in Christian countries, most prevalent in Europe and America. It weakens in the Pagan lands, and is nearly unknown among Buddhist populations (THEOSOPHY X, 70).
The "world affirmation" taught by Theosophy is found in the Kwan Yin Pledge -- never to seek escape from the world at the expense of our brothers, but always to seek to make the world a better place for them, that they may learn all the lessons that life holds. That is the positive acceptance of life here by Theosophy -- resolution of the ethical dilemma inevitably confronting all religions which teach personal salvation as the highest good. Humanitarians cannot accept such a religion, and in default of anything else they become materialists.

Dr. Sperry concludes by appeal to the Emersonian theory that every reform was first an idea in the mind of a private individual. He urges that thoughtful men form "cells" in their communities, to attempt to work out some religious solution by actually testing their ideas in practice. This, again, is what Theosophists have always maintained to be the only way for social reforms to be accomplished, and their study groups and meetings have for years been carrying out this part of Dr. Sperry's program. . . . Not in behalf of a Christian revival, however, but toward the rebirth of the Wisdom-Religion in the hearts of men.

We may be thankful for such men as Julian Huxley and Dr. Sperry. The one clearly perceives the religious need of the world, the other as clearly sees the danger in that great vice of religion, the personal God idea. It is natural, in a transition age, that the leaders of society should present unresolved conflicts in their best thought, and a unity before the time of natural ripening of the cycle would be a specious compromise by both. When scientists acknowledge the soul and its immortal life, and when theologians bid goodbye forever to the "heavenly father," then may we hope for a Religion of the Future, founded on the teachings of Theosophy. Meanwhile, the trends of thought on both sides of the controversy need to be examined for both the good and the evil in them, lest the world be betrayed by their weaknesses, or, on the other hand, ignore entirely the values that are slowly emerging.

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: 


Theosophy, on earth, is like the white ray of the spectrum, and every religion only one of the seven prismatic colours. Ignoring all the others, and cursing them as false, every special coloured ray claims not only priority, but to be that white ray itself, and anathematizes even its own tints from light to dark, as heresies. Yet, as the sun of truth rises higher and higher on the horizon of man's perception, and each coloured ray gradually fades out until it is finally re-absorbed in its turn, humanity will at last be cursed no longer with artificial polarizations, but will find itself bathing in the pure colourless sunlight of eternal truth. And this will be Theosophia.


Next article:
The Adepts and Modern Science


COMPILER'S NOTE: I added this footnote; it was not in the article. If it doesn't paint an accurate enough picture, or is incorrect, I hope the Editors of THEOSOPHY magazine will spot it and point it out to me, so that I can make the necessary corrections.

(1) "Manas" means Mind.
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