I come here to a point of no small importance to the conquest of fear, the courage to release oneself from the tether of tradition. Few people have it, in the sense of rejecting old theories because of having worked out to new spiritual knowledge. When it comes to the eternal verities many of us are cowardly; nearly all of us are timid. The immense majority of us prefer a God at second or third-hand. We will accept what somebody else has learned, rather than incur the trouble or the responsibility of learning anything for ourselves. We take our knowledge of God, as we take our doses of medicine, from a prescription which one man has written down, and another has “put up,” and still another administers. By the time this traditional, handed-on knowledge of God has reached ourselves, it is diluted by all kinds of outside opinions and personalities. It is not strange that when we have swallowed the dose, it does little to effect a cure. I do not deny that a second or third-hand knowledge of God may do something. I only deny that it can do much. To support my denial, I need only point to what the world has become in a second and third-hand Christendom. The illustration is enough.
It should be plain, I think, that no one will ever be released from fear by clinging to the teachings which have inspired fear. We are fearless in proportion as we grow independent enough to know for ourselves. I cannot but stress this point to some extent, for the reason that I myself suffered so long from inability to let the tradition go. It seemed to me to have a sanctity just because it was traditional. The fact that other people had accepted certain ideas had weight in making me feel that I should accept them too. To go off on a line of my own seemed dangerous. I might make mistakes. I might go far wrong. Safety was spelled by hanging with the crowd.
It was the chance remark of an old acquaintance which dislodged me from this position. In the lobby of a hotel, we had met by chance, after not having seen each other for a good many years. The conversation, having touched on one theme and another, drifted to subjects akin to that which I am now discussing. I ventured to disclose some of my own “seeking God, if perhaps I could grope for Him and find Him.”
My friend straightened himself and squared his shoulders. “I stand exactly where I did thirty years ago.”
There was a pride in the statement with regard to which my first feeling was a pang of envy. A rapid calculation told me that thirty years ago, he had been about twenty; and the superiority of a man who at twenty had attained so much spiritual insight that he had not needed to learn anything more in the interim was evident. I was two or three days turning this incident over in my mind before the exclamation came to me, “How terrible!” To have lived through the thirty years of the richest experience the ordinary man ever knows and still have remained on precisely the same spot as to spiritual things struck me then as a woeful confession.
I beg to say here that I am not talking of external and official religious connections. I am trying to avoid the subject of external and official religion altogether. I am speaking not of religion but of God. To my mind, the two have no more than the relation of the words of a song and the music of its setting. You may use them together or you may consider them apart. I am considering them apart, and confining myself wholly to the words of the song. What is known as church-affiliation, the music of the setting, I am not concerned with. My only topic is the way in which the meaning of the words gets over to the average inner man, and the effect upon him mentally.
I revert, therefore, to the statement that to make the kind of spiritual progress which will overcome fear, it will be often necessary to let go of the thing we have outlived. Often the thing we have outlived will be something dear to us, because there was once a time when it served our turn. But our turn today may need something different from the turn of yesterday, and the refusal to follow new light simply because it is new leads in the end to mental paralysis. I was once asked to sign a petition to the mayor of a city praying that, on the ground of its novelty, electric lighting might be excluded from the street in which I lived. Exactly this same reluctance often keeps us from making changes of another sort, even when we feel that the light which hitherto was enough for us has been outgrown and outclassed.
The danger of the lone quest leading a man astray can be easily exaggerated. It is not as if God were difficult to find. “The soul cannot move, wake, or open the eyes, without perceiving God.”
“For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven that thou shouldest say, Who shall go up for us to heaven and bring it down unto us that we may hear it and do it? Neither is it beyond the sea that thou shouldest say, Who shall go over the sea for us and bring it unto us that we may hear it and do it? But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth and in thy heart.”
No motion toward the Universal can miss the Universal. I cannot escape from the Ever-Present; the Ever-Present cannot escape from me. Intellectually I may make mistakes in deduction, but spiritually I cannot but find God. The little I learn of God for myself is to me worth more than all the second and third-hand knowledge I can gather from the saints.
PHOTO CREDIT : KATHERINE HANLON
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