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RELIGHTING AN ANCIENT LAMP
From many quarters of the religious field, there is resounding today the cry of a new age in Bible interpretation. There are substantial grounds for asserting that we are beholding the dawn of a brilliant new day in scriptural scholarship that does indeed harbinger the bright promise of a new enlightenment. All down the years there have been men individually or in groups who have spoken out in strong dissent from accepted orthodox codes of interpretation. Jesus challenged the strict legalism and formalism in Jewish religion and incurred the hostility of the Sanhedrin for his courage. Then in Christianity itself there arose dissenters, both in the early years and in later times. In the fifth century, Scotus Erigena made a strong case for using the Platonic philosophy as the elucidative key to the scriptures, and the seed he planted has borne fruit. Dionysius the Areopagite sounded a similar note. St. Paul's contribution is described as a widely variant approach to Bible meaning, stressing subjectivism and pure spirituality rather than the historical element in Christianity. Clement, Origen, and even Augustine emphasized the allegorical nature of the writings and doctrines, taking their cue from the Jewish Philo. Even the climactic reconstruction of Christian systematization by the great Aquinas and the schoolmen in medieval times represented, in many respects, a departure from former codes and standards. Many of these movements, however, merely exchanged old orthodoxies for new and carried no threat of revolt against fundamental positions or tenets.
It was Philo, in the first century, who brought out prominently the allegorical method in biblical exegesis. He had drawn it from its source in remote Egyptian crypticism. An eminent modern biblical scholar, Robert H. Pfeiffer, in his work, The History of New Testament Times, speaks of "the allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures, used with such amazing virtuosity by Philo." The early Christian fathers made a valiant attempt to apply the principles of the method to textual exegesis, and in the case of Clement and Origen it was by no means a futile endeavor. "Origen's allegories," as the historians refer to the exegetics of this most learned of the early church fathers, still stand as brilliant, illuminating revelations of the Holy Word. But the church successfully warded off whatever disturbing force the effort carried, and the historical code of interpretation has prevailed down to the present. The life of the Christian system was so powerfully activated by sheer faith that anything like a cold intellectual scholarship, which would subject the scriptures to dialectical criticism, was never able to gain a real hearing. Any such agitation was simply stifled by pietism. As a professor in Columbia University said in 1926, the Christian ecclesiastical power put a clamp upon the thinking mind of Europe for fifteen hundred years.
Now, however, that clamp is pried loose. For perhaps two centuries we have heard the hue and cry of scores of scholars as they have laid violent hands upon those venerable scriptures, to take them apart, study the mechanism of their structure, and discover their innermost motive and meaning. This work by now has progressed to the point where it puts in jeopardy the basic historicity of the entire scriptural corpus. Scholarly exegetes of the Gospels and the life of Jesus are bluntly declaring that the incidents of Gospel narrative can no longer be regarded as actual event, but must be taken as one or another form of literary artistry, legend, poetry, fiction, allegory, or Mystery play. The declaration of one writer as to the miracle of the feeding of five thousand with five loaves and two small fishes—that "whatever else this episode may be, it is assuredly not history"—is applicable to scores of incidents narrated in the Gospels. Under the blows of this sort of textual criticism, delivered with the remorseless power of fact and logic, the edifice of historical interpretation is fast crumbling.
In proportion as the historical view weakens, the allegorical approach must be reexplored. Truth emanates from the supernal world of divine ideation, and, as Plato said, comes forth in ideal forms. Man's feeble power to discern abstractions limits him to the effort to represent ideal forms by the imagery of concrete structures perceptible to his senses. Hence he must exotericize all esoteric truths. Having done so, he then faces the fatal risk of mistaking the objective representation for the ideal reality. When spiritual vision is blurred, the human mind sinks into idolatry. In the Gospels it is reported that in his questioning of Jesus, Pilate asked "What is Truth?" The canonical Gospels do not record Jesus' answer, but it appears in an apocryphal Gospel: "Truth is from heaven."
Truth does indeed emanate from the cosmic ideation and is brought down from that high source by the soul, for only the soul can grasp and carry it. Souls descend from on high, bearing the light of divine consciousness. But, says the profound Greek philosopher Plato, this light is dimmed and nearly extinguished by being plunged into the darkness of the body. As Browning has put it, "Wall upon wall, the gross flesh hems it in." St. Paul long ago stated the case: "For God, who hath caused the light to shine out of the darkness, hath shined in our hearts ... but we have this treasure in earthen vessels." Well has the poet said that the glory of God is "imprisoned splendor" in man's being, "cribbed, cabined, and confined" in the dungeon of the body. The weak vision of man has distorted the archetypal forms of divine truth, which he sees but dimly in the darkness of his earthly prison.
It has never been clearly perceived that the universal, immemorial symbol of light in religion represents mind. Mind is that light eternal that God caused to shine out of the darkness of unconscious being to generate consciousness. It was the projection of invisible reality into visibility, as the forms of the divine mind arose out of the darkness. A line from John Greenleaf Whittier's charming winter idyl, Snow-Bound, felicitously expresses the concept. Describing the effect of pale moonlight falling upon the countryside all blanketed under snow, he speaks of the "unwarming light,"
That only seemed, where'er it fell
To make the darkness visible.
To make the primeval darkness visible, from its fathomless depths was generated the light of mind. And the images, the archetypal forms that arose in that mind, became the realities of all existent things. The whole process of creation can be envisaged as the generation of God's divine ideas and their being crystallized into the concrete visible objects of our world. Thus creation is the materialization of the noumenal world, the abstract made concrete. Even modern physical science discloses that all material things are crystallized sunlight. Every tree leaf is produced by photosynthesis—and phos (phot) is the Greek word for "light."
Over the pattern of cosmogenesis we may discern the numberless archetypes embodied in ancient religious literature. If, to become manifest, God's truth assumed visible substantiality, likewise the lofty concepts of the celestial mind, if they were to be discerned in the lesser light of man's recognitions, had to be similarly made concrete. Divine ideation took material form; therefore, intelligent men had to follow this creative process when they undertook the task of expressing truth for the apprehension of human minds. Every truth had to be externalized in some form sensually or imaginatively perceptible; and, beginning with basic words (including even the letters of the alphabet and numbers, which are themselves miniature allegories), such various devices of representation as myth, allegory, drama, figure, symbol, parable, apologue, and astrological typology were resorted to in order to portray the archetypal forms of "the wisdom hidden in a mystery." Inevitably the bibles were collections of allegories, myths, dramas, and "such-like tropes," as Plato observes.
Doubtless the original formulators of the divine myths never dreamed there would come a time so degenerate in reflective capacity that the products of their allegorical genius would be mistaken for the body of reality itself; that the diaphanous character of their imagery would fail to be apparent; that spiritual vision could not penetrate the symbols. They could not have guessed that the allegories and dramas would be taken for objective factuality and the dramatis personae for living humans, or that their ideal world of living imagery would become frozen into ostensible history.
This development represents the wine and bread of an exalted conscious potential turned to stone. It offers us the archetypal forms of truth fixated in impossible "historical" events. Ancient Egypt's cryptic but luminous paradigms of spiritual truth were turned by Christian stolidity of mind into Hebrew miracles at the historic level. No one has seen this more lucidly than the English scholar and Egyptologist, Gerald Massey, as two passages reveal:
The human mind has long suffered an eclipse and been darkened and dwarfed in the shadow of ideas the real meaning of which has been lost to the moderns. Myths and allegories whose significance was once unfolded to initiates in the Mysteries have been adopted in ignorance and reissued as real truths directly and divinely vouchsafed to mankind for the first and only time! The early religions had their myths interpreted. We have ours misinterpreted. And a great deal of what has been imposed on us as God's own true and sole revelation to man is a mass of inverted myths.... Much of our folklore and most of our popular beliefs are fossilized symbolism.
The lost language of celestial allegory can now be restored, chiefly through the resurrection of ancient Egypt; the scriptures can be read as they were originally written, according to the secret wisdom, and we now know how the history was first written as mythology.
The world of scholarship which once repudiated Massey's contentions is now proving him right. When, however, he said that we have misinterpreted our Bible myths, it would have been nearer the truth to say that we have taken them without any interpretation at all. If we have progressed far enough beyond fundamentalism in its grossest forms to understand that the scriptural allegories of the Jonah-whale story have some recondite meaning, we still think that the ancients believed the myth unconditionally.
Massey has had corroboration from other astute investigators in the field of mythicism. Godfrey Higgins, in his monumental work, Anacalypsis, says that "what are called early histories are not histories of man, but are contrivances under the appearance of history to perpetuate doctrines ... in a manner understood only by those who had a key to the enigma."
The noted scholar Gerald Massey says, "I have amply demonstrated the fact that the myths were no mere products of ancient ignorance, but are the deposited results of a primitive knowledge; that they were founded upon natural phenomena and remain the register of the earliest scientific observation."
Surely a Christian should give heed when Origen, the most learned of the fathers of the church, speaks as follows: "The priests have a secret philosophy concerning their religion contained in their national scriptures, while the common people only hear fables which they do not understand. If these fables were heard from a private man without the gloss of a priest they would appear exceedingly absurd."
The sad truth is that in those early centuries of the Christian upsurge even the "gloss" of the priests on the hoary fables and allegories lost its true luminosity, as the cryptic keys themselves were lost and never recovered. This tragedy comes home to us in the realization that the modern mind is so unacclimated to the rarer atmosphere of true mystical apperception that it is unprepared to grasp the recondite significance of the Jonah allegory even if the true "gloss" of the ancient priest were to be clearly expounded.
With the near-total extinguishing of the genius of the ancient interpretation—that fatal fading out of what was not only the luminosity but a still deeper numinosity of mysticospiritual vision—the Dark Ages were born. The loss of the subtlety of mind that was able to devise and interpret the divine allegories committed the succeeding ages to a mental darkness so profound that it amounted to a veritable derationalization and a hypnotic paralysis of Western mentality. And no remedy can be found, no awakening from the delusion, until the whole body of our heritage of ancient literature and dramatic genius is reexamined and reinterpreted through the lens of allegory.
The epic of the soul on earth, its battle of evolution on the horizon line between the heaven of spirit and the earth of sense, can again irradiate the lives of thinking men only if the paralyzing obstruction of the historical incubus is lifted. The symbols, graphs, images, and devices for the expression of spiritual truth that were converted into alleged history must be turned back into their original purport. The figures personating the divine central Sun of Righteousness that is to rise in the collective consciousness of the race with healing in its wings, along with its retinue of attributes and qualities that were transposed into men and women, must be reentified as conceptual forms. There is no incident or detail of narrative in the scriptures that cannot be made to glow with a far more inspiring luminosity of meaning when taken allegorically rather than objectively. The content of the sacred literature, expressing the noumena of Nous, the God-mind, and the materialization of the divine ideas in the living world, must be reoriented to the plane of its original conceptuality. The analogical genius of man must be sharpened once again to the acuity of reading back from the concrete image to the abstract conception of which it is a hieroglyph. The entire body of scripture must now be transfigured in our consciousness with the light it was designed first to conceal, then to reveal. The task now confronting modern intelligence is to throw off the blinders of a shallow realism that have obscured mystical vision and to awaken the long-stifled faculties of insight into noumenal verities. It will inaugurate finally a reen-lightenment and transfiguration of human society.
In ancient times, the principles of a lofty soul-science were the substance, the nub, and the core of the Mysteries. Knowledge and instruction were not withheld from any who manifested potential capability and worthiness, as well as the desire and the will to attain the high goals. Thus began the tradition of secrecy. Only the reflective, discerning mind can see through and beyond the outer appearance and catch the spiritual counterpart in the noumenal world that remains hidden to the less thoughtful. This phenomenon is well described by the philosopher Santayana. In his The Life of Reason he writes, "Plato and Aristotle failed in spite of the immense and lasting influence of their work, for in both cases the after effects were spurious, and the spirit was smothered in the dull substance it strove to vivify. The Christian movement laid hold of the great body of imagery designed to depict spiritual truth and recondite wisdom, and transliterated it into 'history.'"
Christianity never could have emerged out of Judaism if it had not deviated from previous and more general religious acceptances to receive a separate character and identity. Its novelty lay in the fact that it had departed from former anchorage in the esoteric wisdom, which in certain of its forms and elements still activated and characterized the Hebrew religion. True, Hebraism itself had not maintained vital connection with the high, mystical esotericism manifested in Kabalism. It, too, had moved some distance in the direction of a literal reading of the sacred scripts, the Torah, the Law, and the prophets. The psychological pressures impelling Judaism to interpret the scriptural allusions to a spiritual Israel in the terms of an ethnic Israel, with a divine commission to implement God's purpose in history, were almost irresistible, and they prevailed in direct proportion to the waning and final obscuration of the purely spiritual or otherworldly reference of the Israelite tradition. Jewish orthodoxy had swung away from the primal revelation of divine truth to a distortion that was a concession to mass ignorance very much as the Christian leadership did in its turn.
Excerpted from A Rebirth for Christianity by Alvin Boyd Kuhn. Copyright © 2005 The Theosophical Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
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