We have now reached in our inquiry the most interesting stage of evolution, the stage at which we ourselves are now toiling in our upward climb. It is at this stage that the need for practical religion is first felt, and where its practice helps evolution so greatly. “Religion” is derived from the Latin word religare, which means “to bind back.” So religion involves both the realization of our spiritual estrangement and a conscious effort on our part to reestablish oneness with God, our source or origin. Such an effort can only begin at the human stage of evolution, because not until that stage is reached is there any self-consciousness; and it is only self-conscious beings who can know either that they have come forth from God or that they are returning to God–or even that there is or can be or may be any such Being as God. Consequently, none below the level of the human stage can consciously practice religion, either in thought, devotion, or action. (Subhuman beings do, however, readily respond to spiritual vibrations and definitely manifest an intuitive awareness of the sacred in both animate and inanimate form.) But at the human stage the effort to understand what the great process is_–as well as the purpose of our own existence and the existence of all the universe–becomes possible. The impulse to pour out our homage, however feebly, to someone when we contemplate the wonder and the beauty of creation, and the effort to conduct our lives in accordance with the laws of evolution–that is a conscious effort to get back to our origin, and that effort is the essence of religion. Therefore to be truly religious in this sense is also to be truly human.
It is to help you, who read this, to understand something of those laws of evolution, and to urge you to take your own evolution into your own hands that these truths are being presented to you. What, then, are the laws of evolution at our stage, and how are we to conduct our lives in accordance with those laws? To the attempt to answer those two main questions the next few pages will be devoted.
The Human Soul
The soul, which was formed at individualization in the manner described in the last chapter, is the subject of evolution. That soul is, remember, a greater being than that part of him which he dips down to the level at which we are living here and now in these physical bodies, yet he is not by any means perfect. It is in order that he may acquire perfection in all respects that he makes excursions into these lower regions. There are certain qualities which can only be acquired by coming into a physical body–such qualities, for instance, as definiteness, accuracy, precision, and independence. Therefore, when the human soul has been formed, that soul at once begins to learn the lessons of the human stage of evolution by dipping down a portion of himself first to the lower mental plane, where he gathers round him a body of mental matter which we cannot see. Then he dips down still lower to the astral plane, where, again, he gathers together a body of astral or emotional matter, which, again, we cannot see. Then from that level he begins to push down into the infant body which has been produced from the bodies of his parents. In thinking of this stage of a human being’s life on earth, it should always be remembered that it is the baby body that is so young and tender, not necessarily the soul that is waiting to use that body. This will become more clear if we proceed to another stage in our explanation.
A human being, as we know him, is thus a soul who has dipped a portion of himself down to the lower mental plane, then to the emotional plane, and finally to the physical plane. And at each of these levels he has clothed himself in a body formed of the matter of that plane. Now this process of the involution of the soul into bodies is not a matter of a single occurrence only; it is done hundreds and hundreds of times. The soul comes back over and over again to this world of ours, or rather, he sends a portion of himself into this world again and again, determined to gain mastery over the matter of these lower planes, and to acquire the special qualities which can only be acquired at this level. This process is usually known as reincarnation. It is the soul which reincarnates, but it is not the same portion of the soul which comes every time. (By “portion” the bishop means a portion of the virtually infinite number of traits, abilities, and powers of the evolving soul. Therefore the temporary personality of the incarnating soul can be seen to differ from life to life–sometimes greatly.) That would hardly be possible. (That is, it would be impossible for the soul to manifest all of its qualities or traits in a single, necessarily limited, incarnation.) Therefore, when we speak of ourselves and of others as having lived many earlier lives on this earth, what we really mean is that the soul has many a time before this time sent down a portion of himself into what we call incarnation. “Incarnation” is a Latin word which simply means “in the flesh.” So reincarnation means coming back to life in the flesh. It is the soul, that larger being, who comes back again and again, or reincarnates.
The History Of The Soul
Let us now try to follow the process from the earlier lives to the later. At first the ego has very little control over his bodies. At that stage the soul is only just beginning his work at the human level of evolution, and consequently his bodies–mental, astral, and physical–are not yet by any means refined. We, too, have had such elementary and unrefined bodies in the past. In the earliest stages the soul finds himself practically a prisoner in his dense physical body–he is cribbed, cabined, and confined within it, and to a very large extent he is its slave. It controls him because he is too weak to control it. The body goes its own way, and the right and proper way for a body to go is to get as much as it can for itself. That is the law of evolution for matter. It must grasp and acquire particles from outside if it is to continue to exist. If it ceases to do this–to breathe and to eat, to acquire and to get–it ceases to exist. That is the law of evolution for matter and for material forms. And in the earlier stages of life that, too, is the law of growth for the lower types of life, for plants and trees and animals and birds. But that is not the law of growth for human beings. At the human stage another, opposite law begins to demand attention. The law of evolution for spirit is that it must give if it is to grow. It is the essence of love that it must pour itself out; it must sacrifice. If it did not, it would not love. And love is the quality which of all qualities marks the spiritual being; love is the very essence of spirit which is God.
Thus it is plain that throughout the human stage of evolution conflict is inevitable. It is right that it should be so, for conflict is the means of evolution at this particular stage. Nothing has gone wrong with the plan which God is working out. This conflict is due to the entry or “fall” of spiritual beings, the law of whose growth is the law of sacrifice_–“each for all”–into the world of matter, of which the law of acquisition or getting–“each for himself”–is the law of progress. The conflict produced by this entry into a material body within the material world is described by Saint Paul. “For I delight in the law of God after the inward man [the soul]: but I see another law in my members [material body], warring against the law of my mind [i.e., soul], and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin [selfishness] which is in my members [body]” (Romans 7:22, 23).
These two laws are contrary one to the other, but each is right and very good in its own sphere. Material forms could not increase by the law which governs spiritual growth, nor could spiritual beings increase or grow under the material law. If matter sacrifices it suffers loss, and if spirit “seeks her own” it ceases to evolve. The result of the conflict is that man, by striving, gradually gains a mastery over matter and, in learning to control it, he learns how to make it serve his spiritual ends: the higher subdues the lower. Man leads captivity captive (Psalms 68:18), and by so doing he, himself, throughout the period of conflict, grows stronger, more accurate, more balanced, and more clearly defined as a soul. For it is the soul who, through the lower personality, engages in this conflict and learns its lessons. The body is allowed to live its life according to the law of its growth–that is, it is allowed to eat and drink and acquire. Otherwise it would cease to exist. But it loses its position as the dominant partner in the union of soul and body, and is brought more and more under restraint–and finally under complete restraint–by the will of the soul within.
Such, briefly stated, is the condition in which every human being at present finds himself. From first to last the struggle continues for hundreds of earth lives extended over tens–or even hundreds–of thousands of years. The human stage is the stage of the severest strain and acutest tension. Animals have not reached it and the saints and angels have passed it, but we are in the midst of it. We all know it very well, for we are all still at work at this stage. “The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh” (Galatians 5:17). The higher and the lower are continually in conflict. We know it very well, and we have known it–that is to say, our souls have known it for hundreds of thousands of years. And the end is not yet. But by now we may hope that most of us who are interested in these things have turned the corner and passed the midmost point, and that the powers we have gained in the past will stand us in good stead in the conflict which is still ahead of us before we can reach the end of the human stage of evolution, and be “men made perfect” (Hebrews 12:23). In all this time we have over and over again fallen below our own best. That is to say, we have known what is right and done what is wrong. And that was sin.
The Certain Future
But we need not worry about past failings too much, for it is inevitable that in this long process of intense strain and conflict we should have again and again fallen into sin. We can expect that, both of ourselves and others, and it is wrong either to blame others for their past sins or to despair of ourselves because of our own. We should simply set our teeth and go on and on with the struggle, and help others as much as we can help them, and as much as they will allow us to help them. Let us say with Saint Paul: “Forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13, 14).
The end is a certainty. Our complete victory is the certain end of it all. It is certain because God–and we in God–have willed it. But that end will not be reached without our continued effort, because it is we who have to become Godlike at every level. And the only way to become Godlike is to will it at every level, from the highest level of our true self in spirit to the lowest or physical level where we now live our life in the physical body.
The Understanding Of Life
This idea of evolution through successive incarnations helps us to understand human life as we see it all around us, and explains many a difficulty which is not so well accounted for in any other theory. We see human beings at all stages of evolution. This is because they have reached the human level at very different times, a vast interval of time separating the entry on the human stage of those who are now most advanced from the entry of the least advanced. Quite obviously we are not all equal in our present stages of development. Though we do not now see any of the Cyclopean monsters who once inhabited this earth, since none are now so little evolved as that, yet we do find very many people who are certainly very primitive, and some even savage. And the great mass of people are just ordinary people, neither very good nor very bad. They are living their lives just as they come, without much thought about either the future or the past. There is no great effort on their part to subdue the body and its desires and to make it obey the will of the soul. They take life as it comes; they do what they like when they like, so far as the laws of the lands in which they live allow them. Their bodies still very largely control them, and not they their bodies, though they have passed the stage at which they had no scruples whatever in their efforts to satisfy their own hearts’ lusts. They live life after life, perhaps a hundred lives or more, without making any appreciable progress; but there is some slight progress all the time, though it is so slight that it is scarcely appreciable in any one life. Such as these form the great bulk of humanity. They have still a long way to go, and it is the business and the privilege of any of us who consider that we have got beyond that stage to hurry on with our own evolution, so as to be more capable of stimulating these to great effort and of helping them when they respond to the stimulus.
Then there are others who have quite definitely taken themselves in hand and are fighting a battle royal against the imperious demands of the lower appetites. These are the people in whom the soul is awake and stirring and making his presence felt. They are the “converted” people. They have turned from carelessly living “after the law of a carnal commandment” to seriously trying to “live by the power of an endless life” (Hebrews 7:16). They have begun to think. They have caught some vision of the plan and of the path in front of them, of the joy of sacrifice and of at-one-ment with other souls at or below their own level, as well as with the Great Ones who have gone ahead of them, and finally with God Himself. They may, and often do, fail, and fail badly; but they are seriously trying, and when they fail they pick themselves up and go on again. Such people are keenly, and even passionately, interested in religion, in philosophy or science, in music or art, in social service or in politics which are concerned with human welfare as a whole, and not merely with the welfare of just one small section of the human race. These souls are inwardly awake and will soon attain. Outwardly they are generally calm, serene, and patient. Inwardly they are determined, happy, and confident–determined not just to get their own way, but to conquer their own lower selves and to become more efficient cooperators with God. Some of them, the more advanced among them, are on the verge of attaining. They may be the great and famous people of the world, or they may be quite unknown–that depends on their mode of evolution. But, whether well known or little known, those who are on the verge of attaining are inwardly on fire with a great desire to help the whole human race along to better things.
Levels Of Evolution
So we find our brethren in the world around us. They are at all stages of growth, from the primitive aborigine to the nearly finished saint, sage, ruler, or genius of some civilized nation. They have all come forth from God; they all are God at their core; they will all be one with God again in some far-off future. Since they have come forth not simultaneously, but in successive waves, they appear now in our world at very different levels of development. It is estimated that the number of lives necessary for the human being to be made perfect is between seven and eight hundred. The least developed of our brethren, therefore, may have lived only fifty or a hundred lives on earth, whereas the most refined and cultured of them may have already completed seven hundred lives. No wonder, then, that there are such differences of culture and spiritual development. We must not blame those that are in the rear of human evolution. Why should we blame them? We were all at that level once, and they will all reach our level, and still higher levels in due time. It is as unreasonable to blame a savage or a sensualist for being what he is, and no better, as it would be for a man or woman of fifty years of age to blame a boy or girl for being still in the teens. It is useless and unprofitable to blame anyone for anything. It is not our business to blame, but to help, and to make ourselves better able to help.
For us, then, the law of our evolution is sacrifice. “Each for all” should be our motto. The human race is a single unit, and what is really good and right for each is that, and only that, which will be good for the human race as a whole. Broadly speaking, selfishness is the main evil from which we need to free ourselves, and loving-kindness the great good that we need to acquire. Our efforts from now onwards need to be directed to the task of learning to forget ourselves entirely in the service of mankind as a whole, and of making our lives all love, even as God is all love.
Read Chapter Eight of Religion for Awakening: The Origin of Evil