Freedom of Religions

Evolution of Faith

From The Review of Religions, April 1926

We are at the threshold of an era in which religion will be less a matter of form and ceremonial and a subscribing to cut-and-dried propositions laid down by others than an individual experi­ence and realisation, a living, palpitating force moulding and shaping not merely the course of individual lives but, under a common force and impulse, the destinies of nations. This has been the experience of scattered nations at different periods in the past history of the world, but we have now arrived at a stage at which it will become the common and contemporaneous experience of all mankind. The fact that there is a tacit rebellion at present against the forms, ceremonials and even the doctrines of religion does not in itself appear to be a matter for anxiety. What would, however, be a matter for grave anxiety would be an absence of questioning, criticism and research, that is to say, an attitude of entire indifference towards religion.

What is, therefore, neces­sary at the present moment is not the discouragement of criticism and differences of opinion, but the stimulation of questioning and criticism so that each individual may come to recognise and assign to matters of faith and practice their true position in the scheme of his life and may begin to realise that religion does not mean a dead weight of formalities to which one must submit for the sake of social peace, but a living force in the life of every one of us which supplies the motive power for our actions. Religion governs not merely life and death but also the unlimited activities of the human soul after it has passed through the portals of death.

It, therefore, behoves every serious-minded person to face and solve the problem of religion for himself, and he should not shirk the inevitable wrestling with that problem which is bound to arise in his soul, either by divorcing himself altogether from religion or by the unquestioning acceptance of beliefs and doctrines handed down to him by others, whatever may be the degree of eminence or piety these latter might have attained in matters spiritual. For an attitude of indifference or of un­questioning acceptance of what others have settled for us is the highest disrespect we can exhibit towards religion inasmuch as such an attitude would argue that we do not consider it worth our while to pay any serious thought or consideration to religion.

It should not be understood that what has been described as outward forms or ceremonies should form no part of religion. Their true significance and the relation which they bear to the spiritual aspect of religion is in itself a subject of peculiar interest, but I shall here content myself by observing that some sort of out­ward and physical expression of all spiritual acts is necessary for the purpose of spiritual training. Apart from this, all outward acts are bound to react upon the inner self. But no outward form should be adhered to merely as an end in itself and without a full realisation of its true significance and import; for if the meaning of these forms is lost sight of, they cease to be of any use so far as a man’s spiritual development is concerned.

The first requisite for a study of religion is an attitude of absolute honesty with oneself; that is to say, one must never attempt to deceive oneself with the comfortable but false assurance that one believes in any set of doctrines or propositions when one’s inner self rejects or repudiates any of those doctrines or proposi­tions. As an eminent English divine has at one place remarked, every one of us must pass through a stage “when the impulse becomes dominant to examine beliefs and either to justify or to abandon them.” An English writer of fame has observed: “if you were to question nine out of ten grown men and women of today as to their religious experience, they would describe to you an evolution through three stages of discovery. First, the child’s acceptance of the dogmas handed over to it by its elders; second, the adolescent’s reaction against that acceptance; and third, the evolution of some positive personal opinion born of personal ex­perience.” The only form of religion worth having is the form which emerges at the third stage of this evolution, after one’s early beliefs have been thoroughly examined in the light of sub­sequent knowledge and experience and have been either justified or abandoned, and the remnant enriched by additions made from one’s own mental workshop. The general result obtained by this process may be capable of being expressed in a few broad proposi­tions but the details of it would be a matter not merely of indivi­dual conception but of individual realisation. The whole would not be set in any rigid form, incapable of modification or altera­tion for all subsequent time, but like a living organism, acting and reacting upon other living organisms, it would grow con­stantly and enrich itself through deeper knowledge and more varied experience which each individual is bound to acquire during his passage through life.

These broad propositions in which an individual would ex­press his general conceptions of belief would in many cases be in agreement with the general statements in which other individuals have expressed what they have come to regard as essential matters of belief. All those who find themselves in such agreement with each other would be described as the followers of the same religion. The inner conception of his religion by each individual would, however, like his inner conception of everything else, still remain entirely different from the conception of every other in­dividual. For instance, we all agree in describing our conceptions of the phenomena of light, colour, sound, etc., in certain general terms, but none of us can be sure that our own inner conception of any of these phenomena corresponds exactly with that of any other individual. So far as outward expression is concerned we agree in using certain terms for describing certain phenomena, but it is not within our power to express and communicate to each other in words the inner realisation of any of these phenomena. For communal, national and international purposes, however, this concord in the outward expression of the general essentials of one’s belief is sufficient. Too great insistence upon agreement in matters in which no agreement in the nature of things is pos­sible, is likely to lead to irritation and friction.

It is a matter of common experience that as the child grows into the youth, and the youth into the man, his physical faculties experience a corresponding growth. There is no reason, therefore, to imagine why his spiritual faculties should not continue to grow and expand, and consequently why his conception of faith and religion should not be a richer and more generous conception in each successive stage of his physical existence in this world.

The next requisite for the study of religion is courage. It requires a great deal of initial courage to put oneself in a ques­tioning and examining attitude towards matters which one has always regarded as sacred and consequently above all question and criticism. The very suggestion appears to border on sacri­lege. This timidity is again the result of an entire misconception of the true meaning of religion. If religion means something outside of us to which we have to bow and pay homage, it would indeed be an act of sacrilege to attempt to examine its nature and to realise the significance of its various component parts. If, on the other hand, it is to be a living force within us, directing, controlling and regulating all our emotions, thoughts and deeds, it behoves us to carry out a thorough examination of this our moral and spiritual power-house, to see whether the various parts of its machinery are in a sound condition and are properly coordinated to each other so as to be able to function without fear of wastage, obstruction or catastrophe of any kind.

Having made up our mind that such an examination is necessary, we must set about it in a spirit of thoroughness. To carry on the simile alluded to above, we must examine and test for ourselves all the major and minor parts of the machinery, even the bolts and rivets which hold the various parts together, and must satisfy ourselves that we are properly fitted not only for the strain and stress of this life but also for the fulfilling of that external purpose for which man was created. Our examination, if honestly and thoroughly conducted, would at times cause consternation and dismay at the realisation that certain vital parts of the machinery which we had hitherto regarded as absolutely sound have been corroded and eaten through by rust, or that they have been so adjusted with relation to the other parts that instead of serving to run the machine smoothly, they are the means of introducing friction, discord and obstruction.

We must, therefore, have courage to dismantle the machine, take out the rotten parts, polish them, repair them, and, wherever necessary, replace them with new ones. This is not an easy process, but it is a necessary one, if we desire that the faith within us should be a living faith and not a dead formula to be repeated on solemn occasions but having no more to do with our moral and spiritual well-being than a piece of stone lying by the side of a road. Those things, therefore, which we have been accustomed to regard as vital matters of faith must, if on examination they turn out to be but useless en­cumbrances, be finally rejected and discarded as forming no part of the true faith which is beginning by this time to grow and germinate within us.

The next requisite is perseverance. Let not the apparent ruin, to adopt a new simile, of what we have so far imagined to be the stately edifice of faith confound us. For, whatever there is of solid faith in it is bound to survive, it is only the dust and ashes which have assumed the appearance of stone and mortar that must be washed away. And when we look deeper into our soul we are able to discern already the broad foundations laid of a glorious palace wherein we are provided with every species of comfort. Let us extract, therefore, whatever there is of real worth in the old building and let it be used for the rearing of the new, but we have to take care that the material that we use in the construction of the latter is sound and eternally durable, for in this dwelling we will have to reside unto eternity.

This brief and rather vague outline of the process through which each of us must pass in order to solve for ourselves the vital problem with which we are sure, sooner or later, to be con­fronted, is bound to give rise to misgivings and misconceptions, and I must, therefore, before proceeding further, make an attempt to remove some of the more obvious of them.

I have, so far, laid stress on the necessity for each individual to examine and justify his beliefs; to discard those that are un­tenable and to adopt those that have become necessary. How is this process to be carried out? What are the materials to be employed in carrying it out? What are the tests that shall determine that which must be retained and that which must be discarded? Should our own reason be the sole guide in such matters, or should we seek external help of any kind? And if external help is to be sought, then shall we not again start with the notions con­ceived by others of what ought to be and what ought not to be, which is exactly the evil we set out to avoid?

It would be idle to pretend that the answers to these queries could be stated in the form of definite instructions and formula: such as would be useful for the solution of a mathematical prob­lem. The problem is bound to present itself in a different shape to each individual and must be solved by each in the light of the materials available to him. There are, however, certain general considerations which must be present in every case and which must, therefore, be kept in view in order to help oneself to arrive at a correct solution. In every case the enquiry is bound to com­mence in some such form as this: What is the object of this existence? Have I been sent into this life or is my presence here a mere accident? If I have been sent, if I do not merely happen to live but have been brought into life, who or what has sent me here, and for what purpose? If I have been sent here for a purpose, as part of a plan or design, how can I discover that purpose, plan or design? Can I get into any kind of communication with the Being Who has sent me here?

To answer this last query it would be necessary to discover the nature and attributes of that Being. So that the first stage of the enquiry would be concerned with the determination of the question as to the Existence, Nature and Attributes of God; the relation which exists between man and his Maker, and the object which God has appointed for man on earth; this would include the possibility and nature of Revelation and Prophethood. For this purpose one would rely upon the evi­dence of one’s own senses, that is to say, one’s own observation of the Universe, one’s personal experiences, and the innate con­sciousness planted in each individual self, also on the evidence furnished by the reliable experiences of others, whether recorded or related orally, the teachings of scriptures and the guidance afforded by living preceptors. All this, however, would merely constitute the materials, the data, on which our judgement is to be based, but the judgement must be ours and not somebody else’s. For if this is not so, the whole enquiry will be futile. If I am to surrender my judgement to another, then the conclusion at which I have arrived is somebody else’s faith and not mine. It cannot provide me with any motive power, it cannot prompt or check the workings of my mind, the operations of my will, and consequently cannot have the slightest effect upon my actions.

The next stage of the enquiry will be for a man to realise, as far as it is possible for him to do, his own nature; that is to say, the nature of his soul, the relation of the body to the soul, how they act and react upon each other and how the functions of the one must be coordinated to the functions of the other; how the mind is related to the soul and the body, the relation between mind and will, and between these two and action. Upon the determination of these questions would, to a large extent, depend a man’s conception of good and evil, and consequently the regu­lation of his thoughts and deeds.

This bare outline of the scope of the enquiry must give birth to a grave anxiety. Is the average space of human existence long enough to permit of such an enquiry being undertaken and com­pleted? Even if it is, must a man’s moral and spiritual existence remain, as it were, in abeyance till the enquiry is completed? The answer to these questions is that although the enquiry indicated above embraces almost every aspect of human existence, it will not in practice be found necessary to deliver judgement, as it were, on every issue involved in the enquiry before a man would be able to start an earnest religious life. During the very initial stages of the enquiry certain truths would begin to be so plainly visible, that one would be able to chalk out a general plan which could be safely followed while one’s knowledge of details was being amplified with the help of the fuller light which is bound to be vouchsafed in daily increasing volume to the earnest seeker and enquirer. For, while the true seeker is enquiring and seeking in the dark, he will suddenly find that the darkness is beginning to lift and light begins to penetrate the gloom from the direction in which he is seeking to advance. This is the Light of Revelation.

Once the seeker has come to believe in the existence of Beneficent Creator, Who has sent man into this life for a definite purpose, there can be no escape from the conclusion that the purpose of man’s existence and the means of fulfilling it must have been explained by Him in His own way, inasmuch as such an explanation alone could he perfect, and in the absence of such an explanation man, in spite of honest and diligent efforts to solve the mystery of existence, would at best attain to but a dim and imperfect perception of the reality.

This, however, merely argues that there ought to be such an explanation; it would remain to discover whether such an explanation exists. If it does, and if one is able to demonstrate its Divine origin to oneself, the re­mainder of our enquiry would be occupied with discovering the true meaning of this explanation.

The best illustration of such meaning would be found in the life of the person who was selected to be the bearer of this ex­planation to mankind, and in the lives of those who were its imme­diate recipients from him and who had the perfect ideal of his life before them. If, however, owing to the vastly altered circum­stances and conditions of human existence in a subsequent age difficulties were experienced in carrying out the directions and precepts contained in the revealed Code, doubts would again arise as to its suitability and consequently as to its Divine origin, at least so far as its claim to serve as a guide for all succeeding generations were concerned. There would be a misgiving that, whatever its origin, it could not have been meant as a guide for mankind for all time. The need would then be felt either of a fresh Code or of a living ideal in whose life the true meaning of the existing Code may be illustrated. In the absence of such an ideal, faith in the existing Code would again be a matter of theory and not such faith as forms the fountainhead of man’s thoughts and actions.

Even after one has arrived at that stage, the enquiry would continue. Only now it would be directed towards working out details and adjusting one’s thoughts and actions in practice to one’s beliefs. And here the supreme value of faith would manifest itself. As each contingency presents itself in one’s life, whether it relates to the sphere of beliefs or of actions, one would be able to face and solve it in a spirit of perfect assurance, an assurance which no amount of sophistry could shake. Equipped with such faith, man would be able to face life with confidence in himself and trust in the Supreme Being Who has sent him into this life for the purpose of equipping himself for the perfect realisation of the life to come. This is the faith which is based on certainty and realisation, which one believes not merely because it is convenient to believe in certain things or because others have believed or con­tinue to believe in them, but because in itself it has attained to the fullest realisation of that which must otherwise have remained matter of theory. Where such faith exists, the whole life of an individual is regulated by that faith, and in the absence of such faith, man is but at the mercy of every wind that blows and his actions are the result of haphazard impulse. We must, therefore, strive to attain to this certainty of faith which can be achieved only through realisation.