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Chapter 9 – Ethics of the Creeds
“Belief in limitations is the one, the only thing, that causes limitation, because we thus impress limitation upon the creative principle; and in proportion as we lay that belief aside, our boundaries will expand, increasing life and more abundant blessing will be ours.”
IN view of our knowledge of the law of mind, the power of thought, and the undeviating law of suggestion, as revealed by a study of modern psychology, and the influence of thought as affecting character and personality, the subject of what should be taught to growing minds becomes a topic of universal interest. More especially do these questions rise to a profound degree of importance when they are considered and analyzed in reference to religious thought and training.
The consideration of this line of thought suggests an inquiry of the deepest concern. Has the religious instruction of the past been of that healthful and constructive kind that leads to the highest moral and spiritual development? Has it been creative in its tendencies and effectual in developing the highest personality in man? Has it been at all times ethical and conducive to a strong and robust morality? What effect have these teachings had on the development of character? We should be able to approach the study of these questions with open and impartial minds, and bring to the discussion the spirit of fairness which the consideration of such questions requires for an intelligent solution.
There can be no reason why these questions should not be treated with the same unbiased judgment that we bring to bear on the solution of all secular questions.
No institution is so venerable, or clothed about with such authority, that it should not be willing to invite an examination of its underlying principles and a study of its methods. No institution, whether encompassed by traditions or not, should be immune from a fair investigation or a just and intelligent criticism by thoughtful men in every age. Time is the great leveler, and ultimately men place a just estimate upon all institutions.
It has been truthfully said: “Humanity has never really had but one religion and one worship. This universal light has had its uncertain mirages, its deceitful deflections, and its shadows; but always after the nights of error we see it reappear, one and pure like the sun.” It is not necessary to confine our investigations to the religious teachings of the past. We may with equal propriety direct our inquiries to a consideration of the religious instruction still administered to the young and to ceremonials and rituals constantly observed and practiced. They offer an interesting field for psychological study and metaphysical investigation. Those who assume the right and authority to administer religious instruction seem either to have never given study and thought to the great lessons of modern psychology, or wholly to ignore the effect of its teaching. They seem to dwell in the past, ignoring the truths that modern psychology brings to men, a revelation and knowledge of his own mind and soul that ought to be heeded by all who assume the responsibility of presenting religious thought.
The neophyte is taught that a clean, moral, upright life, with the strict observance of the Golden Rule, alone will not answer his needs; that a religion of works is not sufficient for his soul’s salvation. Although he may have “visited the fatherless and widows in their affliction and kept himself unspotted from the world,” he must do something more. He must look outward and elsewhere for help and must exercise a belief in a certain dogma before he can hope for eternal rest and happiness. He is told that a life of works will not weigh, in the divine scales, against a fixed and necessary belief.
The student of religion marvels at the theory that the qualities that endear man to man and man to society do not endear him also to God. He does not understand why character, the best asset in life, is not also the best eternal asset. He does not see why an unselfish life of duty should not be of more value, both here and hereafter, than a particular belief.
The exaltation of faith, or rather belief, over character cannot lead to the best moral and spiritual results. The attempt to make character secondary and subordinate to faith or belief removes from man the highest ideal that has yet been set before him. Faith or belief does not depend on character. Men seemingly devoid of character may nevertheless have a supreme faith in creeds and dogmas. It has been said, whether truthfully or not is not vouched for, that with one exception every murderer ever executed in the city of Chicago had a supreme faith and belief in the whole doctrine of the atonement.
Since faith or belief is not necessarily linked with character, but may be exercised by men who are strangers thereto, it is dangerous teaching to make faith the supreme fact of man’s existence. Relief is a slender prop, unless reared on the enduring foundations of morality, character, and manhood.
The truths of psychology are slow in making their way against established religious customs. We observe that public oral confessions of wickedness, depravity, and weakness are constantly made by religious worshipers as a part of the recognized and established public worship. They publicly confess their manifold sins, accompanied with the declaration that they are without health or strength. The idea seems to prevail that the worshiper can only approach God, and that God will only listen, when the worshiper comes in the attitude of a spiritual mendicant. These ceremonials and rituals, adopted hundreds of years ago, when psychology was unknown and when metaphysics was a jargon, are still revered and preserved on account of their antiquity and because they were adopted by the authority of an institution. What is an institution but “the lengthened shadow of one man?”
These ceremonies called worship are affirmations and suggestions, made by the conscious to the subconscious mind. The laws of psychology reveal their effect upon the subconscious mind. They are seeds sown in the subconscious, and will bring forth fruit in abundance after their own kind. If they are not spoken with tender feeling and from the innermost depths of the soul, they are idle and useless exercises and become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. If they are not poured forth from the fountains of a sincere heart, however sonorous their utterance, they must fail to reach the divine ear. If they spring from the innermost depths of feeling, with the spirit of true devotion, they become seeds of weakness, depravity, and disease, planted in the subconscious, which by an unerring metaphysical law will germinate, grow, and produce a harvest like unto the seed sown.
These conceptions of worship originated from thinking of God as a monarch seated on a distant throne, separated from man by a gulf, and man approaching the throne in a servile and dependent attitude. Although Jesus came teaching a religion of democracy, the brotherhood of man, and the Kingdom of God within, yet the church has continued to cling to and conduct its worship on the monarchical plan and idea.
True worship is not a confession of weakness and depravity. God does not want man, created in His own image, to worship Him in fear or in the attitude of a culprit. Jesus instructed his followers, when they prayed, to go into the silence and shut the door, but did not tell them to debase themselves in God’s presence.
It is a strange conception also to think of pleasing God by a stately worship of pomp and circumstance. The great soul, feeling the throbbing pulse of the divine within, walks and talks with God. It realizes God as an enveloping presence, sweet as the breath of eternal spring, bringing ineffable joy and peace to the soul. Divine itself, the soul cannot come into harmony or unity with God by belittling itself or proclaiming its own depravity. The true worshiper listens to the whispering accents of the great soul within, and obeys the still small voice that ever comes to him whose soul is attuned to catch the divine harmony that forever breaks thereon.
Jesus said, the Kingdom of God cometh not by observation, which being rendered into modern phraseology means that we cannot come into a realization of oneness with God, or hear the whisperings of the divine spirit, by the observance of ceremonials, costly robes, rituals, saints’ days, pomp, and stately worship. Confessions of sin are acknowledgments of weakness. Such affirmations send negative and disturbing thoughts and impressions into the subconscious mind, there to germinate, grow, and bring forth more negative and disturbing thoughts.
What we think, by an inexorable mental law we become. The soul does not purify itself or rise to spiritual heights by thinking of evil, but by thinking of the good, the true, and the beautiful. The growing soul seeks light, health, and strength. It looks within, it comes into touch with the universal soul, it finds joy and serenity and that peace that surpasseth the understanding. Health is not brought to the body by thinking or talking of disease; neither is peace brought to the soul by thinking or talking of sin.
These perverted ideas of worship grow out of the erroneous idea that God and man are separated by a gulf. The theologians said man was weak, indigent, and sinful, and that he must look outward and elsewhere for light, health, and strength, rather than into the depths of his own infinite soul. They clothed God with vanities, like a temporal despot, jealous of His subjects, His own children, and that He will not bestow His benefits until man has pleased Him, either by a worship of craven humility or by that of pomp and splendor. These are the fruits of the theological conception of man’s fall, original sin, and his separation from God.
In the beginning of the twentieth century, as we look forth into the world and there observe the constant increase of crime and insanity, the depravity, poverty, disease, and wretchedness everywhere apparent, did you ever pause and ask for the cause of these conditions? Why is not man a more nearly perfect being? What accounts for this increase of crime and insanity, now established by statistical and indisputable proofs? The question recurs again and again, in this age of general education and enlightenment. Why is this so?
There must be a cause for these effects. The theologian would say the devil is getting the upper hand of God; that man has ceased to be religious and neglects the religious sanctuary. He would attribute present conditions to the evil that Adam brought into the world, now manifesting itself in men’s lives.
These explanations, or any other we might receive from the theologian, might have sufficed in medieval times, or in an age of theology, when man farmed out his thinking to the spiritual advisers and accepted the commands of ecclesiastical authority, but they will not answer the requirements of an age of thought and reason. The reasoning faculties of man require a more rational solution. The thinking man looks for a deeper cause and cannot bend his mind to such sophistical explanations. His reason, his experience, and the intuitions of his own soul reveal to him another cause. This is a social problem, engaging the attention of the world and reforms will be of small avail until the true cause is found.
Psychology, science, and enlightenment are fast exposing this, as many other fallacies of the past, supposed to be conclusively established. Nothing is final or conclusive but truth, a fact which some religious institutions seem never to have grasped, or at least never acknowledged. The key to a man’s life is his thought. Thought makes character. Thought develops the soul. Thought makes the man. Thought is expressed in the personality. Thought, either good or bad, is manifested in all men’s lives.
Never did Emerson speak more wisely than when he said: “He who knows that power is in the soul, that he is weak only because he has looked for good out of him and elsewhere, and so perceiving, throws himself unhesitatingly on his own thought, instantly rights himself, stands in the erect position, works miracles.” Men have looked outward and elsewhere and have depended on the will and direction of others so long for guidance and power, that they have ceased to realize that the seat of power and wisdom is within their own souls. They have not learned that as they throw themselves unhesitatingly on their own thought, on their own infinite resources, they can instantly right themselves and produce corresponding results in their lives. They have forgotten that the Kingdom of God is within themselves.
The character of a man’s thought determines his moral worth. Suggestion is the power that molds thought. Everything in life is a suggestion. Man receives suggestions from environment, from his associates, but most of all from what he has been taught. The quality of his thought is determined by the quality of his teaching. It depends on the mental and spiritual food upon which his mind and soul are nourished.
The modern thinker, not appalled by tradition, is making bold to ask, Has the mental and spiritual food for centuries administered to man been of the right or proper quality? Has it furnished proper nutriment for mind and soul? Has it built character? Has it given man strength to contend with and master the forces with which he is surrounded?
The church has always claimed the prerogative of providing the spiritual education of man. It always begins with the plastic mind of childhood. It has told the child, and continues to tell man in mature life, that he is inherently bad, weak, and a worm in the dust; that sin is his natural state, that he is a fallen being, and has no power within himself, but must look outward and to another for all his help and strength. He has been taught that only as he believes in a vicarious atonement can he hope to escape the consequences of his own sinful nature and tendencies and be reconciled to and find harmony with God; that to find a secure place in a future world is the supreme purpose and aim in life.
The great theme of theology has been, what can man do to be saved, instead of what can he do to make life beautiful, true, and good–a life worthwhile. These theological ideas have been set forth in catechisms prepared for the young, in order that in early life, before reasoning was mature, they might become fixed, settled, and established. That these theological tenets might sink deep into youthful minds, it was made compulsory that they be thoroughly committed to memory. They were also taught that if they believed and repented of their sins and wrong- doings, whatever they might be, they would all be blotted out and remembered against them no more. They were told that they were weak and indigent and that there was only one power to rescue them from their lost condition, and that was in repentance and a belief in the vicarious atonement.
What should be expected of the boy or girl starting out in life burdened with such thoughts and ideas? They are suggestions of weakness and depravity, impressed upon receptive minds, sinking deep into the subconscious, there to germinate, grow, and work throughout the years of their lives. Burdened with such teaching, would you expect the boy or girl to develop character, to be brave, and to be strong to meet the contending forces of life?
At this point we must not lose sight of the great truth that there is an unerring metaphysical law that regulates the force and effect of each thought impressed upon the subconscious mind; that whatever is sown will grow; that each thought and impression is a seed that will bring forth fruit after its kind and will find expression in the life and personality of the individual.
Taught moral weakness, would you look for moral strength? Taught that they were sinful by nature, have you a right to expect goodness? Taught fear, how could they be brave? Taught dependence, should you look for independence, character, and virtue? Instructed that a belief and confession–a certain mental conclusion–would relieve them of the consequences of a misspent life, would set aside the laws of cause and effect, the incentive to an ideal life is removed. The proverb says, Call one a thief and he will steal.
Christian D. Larson says: “The knowledge that counts is not the knowledge of evil, nor facts about the missteps of man, but that knowledge that informs us how man may bring forth the greatness and the beauty that are latent within. The knowledge that counts is not the knowledge that tells us how to avoid the wrong, but how to increase the power of the good.”
Personal irresponsibility cannot produce spiritual and moral character. It does not fit men for the conflicts and storms of life. Only as responsibility rests upon a man, can he build on a foundation of strength and worth. Man is ever a builder, but only as he trusts his own inherent forces–the unbounded resources of his own soul–will he build a spiritual temple that can withstand the winds and storms of life.
There exist in man two opposite forces or principles, as in all the manifested works of Nature. The one has positive, constructive, and upbuilding tendencies; the other negative, destructive, and tearing-down tendencies. The one constructs and builds, and is the basis of all life and growth; the other dissolves, disintegrates, and tears down, and is the cause of all weakness, dissolution, and decay. The one is active and directs the life-forces to build; the other is inactive and negatives the same forces. The one produces unfoldment, development, and growth; the other, arrested strength, stagnation, and decay.
We see the workings of these forces and principles throughout all the operations and processes of Nature. She has her actions and reactions, she has her springtime and summer of life and growth, and her autumn and winter of death and decay. She has her season for the bursting bud, also for the falling leaf. Nature symbolizes these two principles in colors. Green symbolizes life and growth, the yellow betokens death and decay.
Nature has endowed man with a will that must determine by which of these contending principles he will be controlled, whether the positive and the building or the negative and the unbuilding. Whatever strengthens the will is constructive, whatever weakens it is destructive. Whatever prompts man to step forward and upward is constructive; whatever induces him to step backward is destructive. Whatever points man toward self-mastery is constructive; whatever tempts him to submit to his baser nature is destructive. Whatever increases self-reliance and confidence in his own powers is constructive, whatever takes away self-reliance and causes man to rely on others is destructive. Whatever produces in man the consciousness of the indomitable forces of his own soul is constructive; whatever inspires man with a sense of weakness and inferiority is negative and destructive. Whatever establishes a spiritual paternalism over man’s soul to be exercised by others weakens his moral fiber and makes him a slave of external forces.
The instruction given to man, whether religious or secular, is valuable or otherwise according as it strengthens the one or the other of these contending principles. Education that augments the power of the will is constructive; that which weakens it is destructive. Applying this test, it is plainly apparent that the greater part of man’s religious instruction has had the direct tendency and effect of weakening and destroying his power of will. His will-power being weakened, he has become defenseless and dependent upon external influences, the victim of superstition and the slave of fear. Practically the entire scope of man’s religious teaching has been negative in character. Fear, weakness, and moral depravity have been the ideals set before man. Even the Ten Commandments are mostly negative and place before man’s mind the evils they would have him refrain from.
The more thoughtful of the orthodox clergy are now outspoken in their declarations that we cannot make men good and strong, that character cannot be developed, by repeating to them the negative commandments. The lawgiver from whom Moses borrowed the Ten Commandments might have told man to be honest, instead of not to steal. When a man is honest, he does not want to steal. When kindness is in a man’s heart, he does not want to murder. What the world needs is more positive teaching and less negative. Men and children alike are not made good and strong by don’ts. Negative rules of conduct do not build character, do not develop manhood and womanhood. These qualities are built up only as the latent divinity and forces within are called forth into expression and activity.
But, someone says, your characterization of the quality of theological instruction is not borne out by observable and recognized results. Look at the vast array of noble men and women living model religious lives, revealing the sublimest examples of manhood and womanhood, who have received the religious instruction you now criticize. Their lives are a standing protest against what you say.
True; every religion is productive of men and women of the highest religious types. They sometimes rise above their theological training; they listen to and obey the intuitions of their own souls. The highest spiritual development is expressed in their lives, in spite of their theological teaching and not because of it. Then, too, the majority of men and women grow away from the fetters and creeds and limited theological conceptions, into higher and more rational planes of spiritual thought. They rise above the narrower confines of thought, into more exalted fields of spiritual endeavor.
But the real question is, what is the tendency of a system of teaching that impresses on man’s mind a sense of weakness, inferiority, and a debased and wicked nature? Theology claims much credit for what has been done in the world since the advent of the Christian era, to which it is not entitled. There is no desire to minimize in the least the great work that has been done for man under the banners of the Christian church. It is true Christian nations have set the highest ideals before the world; we must not forget also that they have at times set the lowest. If man has established a fair standard of civilization, we must not forget also the relentless religious wars fought in the name of the Prince of Peace.
Civilization was not even a name when religious institutions controlled the lives and welfare of men. Whenever these institutions were supreme in power, they were ever the faithful allies of tyrannies and despotism. They remain so today in certain countries of the world. Man has made social and civil advancement only as he broke away from the restraining influences of these institutions, only as he exercised independent thought and action, only as he felt the spirit of democracy.
The Christian nations have had the highest ideals before them by which to direct their work. When divested of every vestige of theology, the life and simple utterances of Jesus have been the great example before the eyes of man. With a perfect understanding of the laws of life, he presented the completest ideal and type of manhood the world has yet observed. For nearly two thousand years that ideal has stood before man as the most potent influence in molding his life, in spite of the hindrances and obstructions thrown around it by the ingenious subtleties of the theologians. They have obscured the ideal by theological perplexities and limitations. They raised him to a pinnacle to which man could not hope to aspire. They separated him from man by a gulf so wide that man could never hope to bridge it.
Notwithstanding all this, man has been led by that great ideal into a truer realization of the brotherhood of man and to a higher and better conception of life and his relation to God. Theologians told man to worship Jesus, rather than to follow his footsteps. Jesus directed man what to do; they told him what to believe.
The purpose of theology was to make man religious by fear. It labeled him with the mark of an outcast. It held before him the threat of eternal punishment, as the motive for a religious life. It prescribed a belief and repentance as the antidote for what they termed man’s lost condition. Fear never developed virtue or established moral character. Fear has ever been the fruitful mother of man’s woes and misfortunes. Fear retards all growth, whether physical, mental, or spiritual. Science and experiment reveal it as a source of physical weakness and as the prolific mother of disease. It destroys the power of will; it is the enemy of progress. It chills every worthy and benevolent impulse in man.
Someone asks, Do you believe in the atonement? Not in a vicarious atonement. I would feel myself debased to cast my sins and offenses on that Gentle Soul who never had a thought but love and kindness for man. If I believed in the vicarious atonement, I would have to believe in the separation of God and man, which everyone who has caught the inner vision knows is only a fable, and a superstition. God is universal, God is omnipresent, God dwells in man, God was never separated from man except in belief–except as he follows the false light set up by an Augustine, to make a vicarious atonement possible.
Do I believe in an atonement? Yes, in a real atonement; each soul has its own atonement. It must be purged of the dross and superfluities of life, before it can become pure. The atonement is finished when the soul has come into harmony and unity with God. Each soul must purify itself. The law of the soul recognizes no proxies.
Every individual must obey the eternal mandates of his own being, the voice of his own masterful soul, that ever speaks to him who listens. Man must walk by that light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world, the light of his own soul. It leads man by a divine path, and at each step the light grows clearer until in the fullness of time he shall stand forth in the radiant splendor of eternal truth.
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