Fragments of a Faith Forgotten, by G.R.S. Mead, , at sacred-texts.com
THE familiar story of the origins of Christianity which we have all drunk in as it were with our The Greatest Story in the World. mothers’ milk, may be said to be almost a part of the consciousness of the Western world. It is interwoven with our earliest recollections; it has been stamped upon our infant consciousness with a solemnity which has repressed all questioning; it has become the "thing we have grown used to." It has upon its side that stupendous power of inertia, the force of custom, against which but few have the strength to struggle. But once let the ordinary man desire to know more about the greatest story in the world, as all its tellers assert, and he must begin the struggle. Previously he has been led to believe not only that the story is absolutely unique, but that it is entirely supernatural. In brief, if he analyses his own understanding of the story he finds it violently divorced from all historical environment, a thing of
itself, standing alone, in unnatural isolation. His picture has no background.
Moreover he will find it very difficult to fill in The Need of a Background. that background, no matter how industriously he may labour. He may read many books on the "Life and Times of our Lord," only to find that for the most part the environment has been made to fit the story and its main features have been taken from it; in brief, he does not feel that he has been put in contact with the natural environment for which he is seeking.
There are of course a few works which are not of this nature, but the general reader seldom hears of them, for they are generally regarded as "dangerous" and "disturbing."
But even if we go deeper into the matter and make a special study of the history of the origins, with the largest of libraries at our disposal, we find that no writer has as yet given us a really sufficient sketch of the environment, and without this it is impossible to have a real comprehension of the nature of infant Christianity and the full scope of its illumination; without it we shall never understand its real naturalness and its vast power of adaptation to that environment.
For if we look back to the evidence of the first two The Main Means to a Recovery of the Outlines. centuries of our era (and to our mind no evidence with regard to the origins subsequent to this period is of any validity) for an understanding of the actual state of affairs, instead of one Church and one form of faith, we find innumerable communities and innumerable modes of expression--communities united for
the living of a Life and systems striving to express the radiance of a Light. In many of these communities and these expressions we find intimate points of contact with the life and faith of the best in universal religion, and a means that will help us to fill in the outlines of the background of the origins with a greater feeling of confidence than we had previously thought possible.
So far from finding the sharp divorcement between science (or philosophy) and religion (or theology) which has characterised all later periods of the Christian era up to our own day, it was just the boast of many of these communities that religion was a science; they boldly claimed that it was possible to know the things of the soul as definitely as the things of the body; so far from limiting the illumination which they had received to the comprehension of the poorest intellect, or confining it to the region of blind faith, they claimed that it had supplied them with the means of formulating a world-philosophy capable of satisfying the most exacting intellect. Never perhaps has the world witnessed more daring efforts to reach a solution of the world-problem than were attempted by some of these mystic philosophers and religio-scientists. That their attempts are for the most part incomprehensible to the modern mind is partly owing to the fact that our record of them is so imperfect, and partly due to the natural impossibility of expressing in human language the stupendous realities to which they aspired; nevertheless their "heaven-storming," when
we can understand its nature, is a spectacle to move our admiration and (if we cast aside all prejudice) make us bow our heads before the Power which inspired their efforts.
They strove for the knowledge of God, the science The Gnostic Schools. of realities, the gnosis of the things-that-are; wisdom was their goal; the holy things of life their study. They were called by many names by those who subsequently haled them from their hidden retreats to ridicule their efforts and anathematise their doctrines, and one of the names which they used for themselves, custom has selected to be their present general title. They are now generally referred to in Church history as the Gnostics, those whose goal was the Gnosis,--if indeed that be the right meaning; for one of their earliest existing documents expressly declares that Gnosis is not the end--it is the beginning of the path, the end is God--and hence the Gnostics would be those who used the Gnosis as the means to set their feet upon the Way to God.
The question which at once presses itself upon Where to Look for their Origins. the attention of the student of history is: Whence did these men come? Did they arise suddenly in the midst of a world that cared not for these things; were they entirely out of touch with the past; had they no predecessors? By no means; those who so bitterly opposed them, who--boasting themselves to be the only legitimate inheritors of the illumination of the Christ--in their most angry mood, stigmatised the Gnostics as "the first-born of Satan," may help us to set our feet in the
direction where we shall find some materials on which to base an answer. In less bitter mood, the Church Fathers tell us that the doctrines of the Gnosis are of Plato and Pythagoras, of Aristotle and of Heracleitus, of the Mysteries and Initiations of the nations, and not of Christ. Let us then try for a brief space to follow this lead and fill in some rough outlines of the background of the Gnosis; we shall then be better able to say whether or no we join our voices to the hue and cry of the heresy-hunters.
In what follows we shall only attempt the vaguest indications of the vast field of research The Nature of the Field to be Surveyed. in which the student of the Christian origins has to labour, before he can really appreciate the nature of the soil in which the seed was sown. The political history and social conditions of the time have to be carefully studied and continually borne in mind, but the most important field to be surveyed is the nature of the religious world, especially during the three centuries prior to our era. How is it possible, we ask ourselves, as we gaze upon the blendings of cult, the syncretism of theogonies and cosmogonics and the mixtures of faith which abounded in these centuries, to separate them into their original elements? The problem seems as hopeless as the endeavour to trace the mixtures of races and sub-races, of nations and families, which were the material means of these blendings of cult and religion. Where can we begin? For if we begin where known history fails (as is usually the case), and imagine that we have here
reached a state of things primitive, we are forced to be ever revising our hypotheses by each new archæological and ethnological discovery. Tribes which we have regarded as primitive savages are found to be the decaying remnants of once great nations, their superstitions and barbarous practices are found blended with the remnants of high ideas which no savagery could evolve; where shall we seize a beginning in this material of protean change? Surely we cannot trace it on the lines of material evolution alone? May it not be that there is the "soul of a people" as well which has to be reckoned with?
Just as the bodies of men are born from other The Soil of the Field. bodies, so are nations born from nations. But if the physical heredity of a man is difficult to trace (since the farther it is pushed back the more it ramifies), far more difficult is the heredity of a nation, for whereas a man has but two parents a nation may have many, and whereas the bodies of a man's parents at death are hidden away to decay in the earth, [the bodies of nations decay in the sight of all, and persist mingled with their children and grand-children, and all the family-tree which they share with other nations. Nations may have certain distinguishing characteristics, but they are not individualised in the same way as a man is individualised; and the problem of their inner heredity is more difficult to solve than even that of the nature of the animal soul, for it is on a vaster scale.
Such then being the nature of the physical vehicle of the general religious consciousness, it is not
surprising to find that the history of the evolution of religious ideas is one of the most difficult of studies.
If we bear all these presuppositions in mind, it requires the greatest courage to venture on any attempt at generalization; we feel that every statement ought to be qualified by so many other considerations that we are almost disgusted with its crudity, and know that we are only tracing the bones of skeletons when we ought to be clothing them with flesh, and making them vibrant with life.
But to return to the antecedents of the special period and movement we have in view.
Three main streams mingle their waters together in the tumbling torrent that swirls through the land in these critical centuries.
Three main elements are combining their substance and transmuting their natures in the seething crucible of the first centuries of the Christian era.
Greece, Egypt, and Jewry receive the child in their arms, suckle the body of the new born babe, and Three Mother Streams. watch round its cradle. The irrational soul of it is like to the animal souls of its nurses; its rational soul is of like heredity with their minds, but the spirit within it is illumined by the Christ. It is the heredity of its rational and spiritual soul, however, to which we shall pay the greatest attention; for in this is to be found the inner side of the religions of Jewry, Egypt, and Greece.
We have then to search most carefully in the direction in which this can be found; we shall not find it in the cult and practice of the people, but in the religion and discipline of the philosopher and
sage, of the prophet and priest. For antiquity, there were as many degrees in religion as there were grades in human nature; the instruction in the inner degrees was reserved to those who were fit to comprehend; mystery-institutions and schools of initiation of every degree were to be found in all great nations, and to them we must look for the best in their religions--not infrequently, alas, for the worst as well, for the worst is the corruption of the best; but of this we will speak elsewhere.
Let us then first turn our attention to the religion of the intelligence of Greece.