Ineffaceably stamped upon the memory are those scenes of childhood connected with religious instruction. The infant on its mother's knee listens not only to the old fashioned lullaby, but now and then to snatches of church hymns and Sunday School songs, and thus, as it were, absorbs their familiar airs among its first recognized impressions. Later, the child goes to church and learns to sing the same tunes and to repeat the same words, which thus acquire that depth of root in the brain enabling them to outlast years of carelessness or wicked living and to come back sooner or later as gentle reminders of the past or monitors of the future. Have we not all read stories of men steeped in crime, to whom have risen up at some supremely critical moment visions of sainted mothers and happy days of infancy, and whose hardened souls have been touched even to tenderness by the recollection of long ago church bells on peaceful Sundays in quiet country places, and the singing of the old, simple, long-forgotten hymns? Such an awakening is not by any means improbable. We must acknowledge the existence in almost every human being of some good impulses. A long course of worldly life, sordid or violent, will go far towards banishing the higher principles and degrading the soul to a lower level, but it is only in rare cases that the spiritual spark is extinguished entirely. Illustrations of the former are all around us. There are plenty of gamblers who are model husbands; there are thieves who love their children; there are drunkards who are otherwise moral; there are swindlers who are honorable in their dealings with their partners; and all of these and others equally reckless and abandoned are quick to respond to charitable appeals. What do these facts teach? That none are so far gone in depravity as to be beyond the reach of the good; that all — the exceptions are so rare as to be hardly worth noticing — possess some traits that are praiseworthy; that the good impulses, no matter how obscured by disuse, may be reached if only the right chord be touched and the proper moment seized.
The value of early religious training can hardly be over-estimated. There is no question here of creed or form. We might look out from our advanced standpoint of theosophy and say that is better to rear a child outside the church, in order that the child may not become imbued with erroneous opinions. But how many children are there that could comprehend the subtle distinctions of mentality found in the theosophic works? Not one. Children's minds require the simplest ideas clothed in the plainest language. The strongest of mature brains find perplexities in the involved theories of Karma, Reincarnation, and the Planetary Chain. But the mind of a child can grasp the problems of good and evil and of life and death as propounded by the Christian churches. It would seem, in fact, as if the founder of Christianity reasoned from analogy when he preached the gospel first, and, likening the human race to children, adapted his teachings to the comprehension of infancy. Theosophists who have dipped into the lore of ages can, of course, put Christianity aside as being puerile in its dogmatic form, and can demand a scheme of the universe that is more satisfactory and in accordance with the known aspects of science. The least we can do is to separate the original kernels of truth from the outer husk of creed, reserving the former for our use and condemning the latter.
But all this does not give us the right to scoff at Christianity or to revile it as many theosophists are in the habit of doing. Christianity may be likened to a bridge which has carried part of the world over from an epoch of infancy, or at least of ignorance, to an epoch of knowledge. It should therefore not be made the target of abuse. What if it has been the vehicle of tremendous cruelty and oppression? Nobody denies it — except, possibly, a few prejudiced priests. Let us admit that from the age of Constantine to the age of Victoria the church has only one long record of blood-shed and injustice. The mistake we are apt to make is to charge those crimes to Christianity, when, as a matter of fact, the fault lay in the darkness and degradation of the race. Religion in any other form would probably have evoked the same spirit of malevolence and persecution.
Or, if we were even to admit that the church is as bad as any one has ever claimed it to be, and if we charge all the crimes of the Inquisition directly to the church, that is, as a result of the church's teaching; still we find that these evils have largely corrected themselves with time, and that now a more liberal spirit pervades all denominations. All Theosophists who have examined the various religions must admit that Christianity stripped of dogma is truthful, even to as great an extent as Mohammedanism, Hinduism, and Buddhism are true when deprived of their external forms. It so happens that we in America are brought up in and surrounded by Christianity. It is the religion of all classes without exception, save Jews. If we were living in Constantinople it would be fitting for us to be Mohammedans, and doubtless we would be; if we were in Bengal we would be bound in the chains of caste which the Hindus have forged; if we were in Ceylon we would be followers of Buddha. Thus our external form of religion is determined, as it should be, by the circumstances of birth. Our real religion is what we make it in our daily lives. But I think it most appropriate that, as we are dwelling in a Christian country, we should be to a certain extent Christians. As there are Buddhist Theosophists, as there are Moslem Theosophists, so there can be and are Christian Theosophists. It must be admitted, however, that some members of the Society have become so irritated against the creeds of the Christian churches that they have lost all patience and continually expend most of their vitality in open abuse of Christianity. Now, it is true that there are many objectionable features to the dogmas — in fact, all are objectionable — but is it not a waste of energy to be crying out against the churches all the time? Does not such a course really obstruct the progress of the truth by arousing the hostility of the church members? If we go out to battle with the sword, immediately the sword is drawn in defense of long-cherished theories, even though erroneous, and they out-number us a thousand to one. Would not far greater success be achieved by exercising a larger spirit of forbearance, by dwelling more upon the words of Jesus and less upon the quarrels of the apostles? A Theosophist of renown has written a book to prove that there was no such person as Jesus Christ, but what has he accomplished by it? Nothing except to induce some Theosophists to quote this imaginary work as a real authority and to excite the sneers of Christians. But the worst feature of this and other such attacks is that they are all the time placing Theosophy in direct antagonism to Christianity. They are giving the enemies of Theosophy weapons to use against us. Admitting the abuses that have crept into the churches, admitting even the exoteric nature of their religion as now taught, admitting all the crimes of the past and the ignorance of the present era, there is still no reason why we should not endeavor to reform Christianity. And to do any effectual work in this direction requires more discreet treatment of the church, or at least of the religion of Jesus, than has been accorded to it from many quarters in the last few years. Does any one expect to convert people from Christianity to Theosophy? The idea is absurd. Can you convert a barn-door into a barn? No, but one can so fit the barn and barn-door that they can henceforth work together in harmony.
But, after all, there is a more important aspect which this question assumes, or should assume, to faithful theosophists. A no small part of duty is to exercise charity towards everybody, not to judge harshly, and to observe the Golden Rule. Our lot is cast in the midst of Christianity. In every city and village the spires denote the devotional tendency of the people. What if many individuals are imperfect and hypocritical? Is it not our duty to endeavor to see their better sides? Should we not exert ourselves to think kindly of these neighbors and friends of ours, even if they may be cherishing beliefs which we have found to be wrong? We admit that all religions are true at bottom, and no exception is made of Christianity. Is it not therefore our part to dwell upon this esoteric side of the national religion, and to think with kindness and charity of its errors,and by so doing and thinking shall we not achieve greater results than by deliberately separating ourselves from the church, and then attacking it as a foreign and hostile power?
The PathTHEOSOPHICAL UNIVERSITY PRESS ONLINE