What Can Man Believe In?


What Can Man Believe In?



W h a t can m a n believe in? Each of us can answer only for himself. What, then, do I believe in? M y starting point is a negative belief. I believe that man is not the highest spiritual presence that there is in the universe and behind it. I cannot prove the truth of this negative belief of mine. The suprahuman presence in whose reality I believe is not known to me by any direct experience. On the other hand, I do have knowledge of myself and of m y fellow-human beings, and it is incredible to me that mankind is the summit. T h e mere suggestion of this sounds ludicrous to me. Every human being is conscious of his spiritual inadequacy. H e knows that his spiritual performance falls far short of the spiritual standards that he recognizes as being valid and binding. Do we have any direct experience of something that is higher than ourselves? I believe that we do. We have it in our experience of love. W e have been loved; we love; we see love flowing out from other human beings, and from some nonhuman living creatures as well. The Supreme manifestation of love is in a mother's love for her child, but there are many degrees of love short of this. This word "love" needs defining, for it is used to describe two emotions that ARNOLD TOYNBEE, D. LITT., D.C.L., best known for his monumental A Study of HistoEv, was Director of Studies in the Royal Institute of International Affairs and Research Professor of Internationa! History in the University of London from 1925 to 1955 (Professor Emeritus since 1955). The long list of his writings begins with books published in 1915. He became a Fellow of the British Academy in 1937 and a Companion of Honour in 1956.


Journal of Religion and Health

are not only different from each other but that are actually antithetical. Genuine love is an emotion that takes a creature out of itself. Love moves the creature to give itself to its fellow-creatures, to the universe, and to the ultimate spiritual reality that is in or behind the universe. But we also sometimes use the word "love" to mean covetousness. Every living c r e a t u r e attempts to make itself the center of the universe and to make all the rest of the universe serve its purposes. This is just the opposite of giving; it is exploitation. W e ought to give this selfish emotion a distinctive name of its own. We ought to call it not love, but "covetousness" or "lust." To be self-centered is another name for being alive. Every living creature is self-centered by nature. Lust is natural; love is not. Love is supernatural. Love is the one thing within our direct experience that is divine. The author of the First Epistle General of St. J o h n says, twice over, that "God is love." H e is writing in Judaic terms, and the J u d a i c religions--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--picture the ultimate spiritual reality anthropomorphically as a person. Indian religion pictures this ultimate spiritual reality as something suprapersonal: as Brahm~ or Nirvana. I would say--though I do not know whether a H i n d u or a Buddhist would agree with m e - - t h a t "Brahm~ is love" and that " N i r v a n a is love." Anyway, I believe that "Nirvana," "Brahm~," and "God" are alternative names for an identical spiritual reality. All names for this are inadequate. The ultimate reality is beyond our experience and is therefore ineffable. All the "higher" religions and philosophies that have made their appearance within the last 2,500 years speak with one voice in telling each of us what is his or her first and most difficult spiritual task. T h e y tell us that we must strive to overcome our self-centeredness and that, unless and until we have won this spiritual victory over ourselves, we shall not be able to put ourselves in the right relation with our fellow-creatures and shall not be able to enter into communion, or to attain re-union, with the ultimate spiritual reality. The Buddha and Jesus both set for us this spiritual goal, and M u h a m m a d , the founder of the youngest of the higher religions, has given us a name for it. He has called it "Islam," which is the Arabic word for "selfsurrender."

What Can Man Believe In?


Self-surrender to what? Self-surrender to love. The higher religions and philosophies give different accounts of the nature of the ultimate spiritual reality, and these differences have caused much controversy and animosity, which has sometimes boiled over into bloodshed. We human beings ought not to take these differences of doctrine so much to heart. Each of them is an attempt to describe something that is beyond h u m a n comprehension, and surely the Buddha was right in discouraging his disciples from speculating about these ontological questions. Whenever they asked him about questions of this kind, he used to rebuke them. T h e y were seeking, he used to tell them, to escape from their primary spiritual task--the painful and difficult task of overcoming their self-centeredness. T h e founders of the later Greek philoso p h i e s - S t o i c i s m and Epicureanism--took the same line. Like the Buddha, they offered the minimum amount of doctrine that they thought necessary for providing an intellectual framework for spiritual endeavors. It is significant that, when they come to prescribing practice, all the founders of the higher religions and philosophies agree with each other. They all preach selfsurrender, and they call for this because self-surrender liberates us for being carried out of ourselves by love. I have called love supernatural in the sense that it is contrary to nature. But we have no evidence that love is omnipotent. When love evokes a n answering love, it wins a victory and extends its realm. But 10ve is not always victorious. Love may demand self-sacrifice, and the self-sacrifice m a y apparently turn out to have been made in vain. Crucifixion is not bound to be followed by resurrection. Indeed, if it were, and if this were foreknown to be a certainty, the Self-sacrifice would forfeit its virtue. I myself believe that Jesus was a historical, not a mythical, person. I believe that he was crucified. I also believe that he submitted, out of love for his fellow-human beings, to being arrested and put to death. H e resisted the temptation to become a militant patriotic guerrilla-fighter, which, in Jesus' time, was the conventional career for a J e w who was believed to be, or who believed himself to be, the Messiah. 9I believe that Jesus was crucified and that he died on the cross, but I do not believe that he came to life again. If I did believe this, I should feel it to be an anticlimax.


Journal of Religion and Health

H o w far is self-transcendence possible? It is, after all, a spiritual objective that is contrary to nature. I should guess that no human being--not even the Buddha, not even J e s u s - - h a s ever overcome his innate self-centeredness completely. An ordinary person, such as I am, is well aware of the inadequacy of his spiritual performance. H e will not be unmoved by love, but his love will be relatively feeble. It will be feeble compared to the love that streams out of the saints. But it is significant that the saints, whose spiritual achievements are so far greater than ours, are also far more acutely conscious than we are of being sinners. Their performance is far better than ours, but their standards are higher still; so, for the saints, the gap between achievement and ideal is actually greater than it is for us. If mankind as a whole could become a communion of perfect saints, there would be peace on earth. Perhaps there have been some perfect saints-though the nearer they approached to perfection the more sensitively conscious they must have been that they had not attained it. However, perfect saints, if there have ever been any, have been rare. The vast majority of human beings are, and always have been, sinners. "Original sin is born again in every newborn child." This dictum of an older contemporary of mine, the English Episcopalian Archbishop William Temple, seems to me to be profound. The term "original sin" has, of course, an esoteric theological meaning. The sin committed by the first man, Adam, is held, according to official Christian doctrine, to have been bequeathed by him, through physical transmission, to all his descendants. In my own nontechnical terms, I interpret "sin" as meaning self-centeredness. I believe that self-centeredness is a built-in characteristic of every living creature; I believe that it is synonymous with being alive; and I take the word "original" in this sense. The point of Archbishop Temple's saying is that each h u m a n being who is born into the world of h u m a n society on this planet has to fight, in himself and for himself, the spiritual battle to overcome his innate self-centeredness. This battle is never won once for all. Each of us has to fight it perpetually from the dawn of consciousness in him till he is overtaken by senility, if senility overtakes him before death.

What Can Man Believe In?


The struggle against self-centeredness has to be life-long, and few of us fight it with all our might for all the time. This struggle is indeed arduous. Its arduousness is the price of the freedom of choice that has been conferred on us h u m a n beings by our specifically h u m a n faculty of consciousness. To be h u m a n is a formidable destiny.

What can man believe in?

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