hermetic doctrine affirms that all causes originally rise in the spiritual sphere. In the beginning the material and objective is the ectype of the essential and subjective. Thus, the first chapter of Genesis sets out with the declaration: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Matter is not viewed by writers of the Kabalistic school as self-subsistent and eternal in nature. In its grossest form, Matter is the last term in a descending category, the first term of which is the Godhead itself. Matter is thus not created, in the vulgar sense of the word, but evolved; and, in the process of cosmic flux and reflux, it is destined to be again involved and transmuted into essence. Hence it follows that the higher principles of the microcosm, itself the offspring and resumption of the macrocosm, represent and reproduce the higher principles of its parent, even to the inclusion of Divinity, as the supreme source of the world and ultimate of Man. Emanating as macrocosm from God, the universe culminates as microcosm in God. God is the Alpha and Omega of the whole vast process. Now Holy Writ addresses itself not to the lower, but to the higher nature of man. The word of God is spoken to the intellectual and spiritual nature in man as distinguished from the inferior grades of his complex being. Evidently, then, the subjects of Biblical exposition cannot be the things of sense and of matter, but the things of
the intelligible and formative world. The Bible is written for the Soul in man, not for his elemental and creaturely natures which, as we have seen, pertain to his lower perishable states, and are not included in the Covenant. Wherefore, surely, it is absurd and irrational to read the “History of Creation,” given in Genesis, as though it treated of the mere outward and objective universe, which, in comparison with the inner and subjective, is phantasmal and unreal. Correspondentially, of course, it does so include the outer and objective, because every plane of Nature reflects and repeats the plane immediately above it. But of these planes there are seven, and each successive medium, counting from above downward, is grosser and less capable of exact reflection than the one preceding it, so that when the lowest plane of matter, as we know it by means of the five bodily senses, is reached, the similitude of the first and highest plane has become blurred and indistinct. Not all media are equally reflective. The first plane or medium may be compared to a crystal for translucence, and the last to turbid water. So that we must not look to the first chapter of Genesis for a perfect and exact picture of the physical creation, seeing that it deals with this creation only in a sense remote in series from its original and direct point of application. First, and primarily, the Bible has a spiritual meaning addressed to the spiritual and intellectual natures in man, the Sol and Luna of the Microcosm; secondly, it has a philosophical meaning for the Mercurial nature; thirdly, an astrological meaning for the astral nature; and, lastly, a physical meaning for the material nature to which the higher planes are unattainable. But, it must be borne in mind that the three lower meanings thus ascribed to it are not the word of God, because, as we have said, this word is only addressed to the Soul, and not to stocks and stones and elements. In the third Book of Kings there is a marvellous parable which perfectly sets forth in order every one of these four meanings, each with its proper character, effect, and dignity: –
“Behold the word of the Lord came unto Elias, and said: Go forth and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And behold; the Lord passeth, and a great and strong wind before the Lord, overthrowing the mountains and breaking the rocks in pieces, but the Lord is not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord is not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord is not in the fire, and after the fire a still small voice. (Sound of gentle stillness, Heb.) And
when Elias heard it, he covered his face with his mantle and stood in the entering of the cave.”
“The Lord passeth,” and His coming is foreshadowed and heralded, indistinctly and confusedly, by the formless inarticulate wind, typical here of the lowest and universal expression of Force and Matter. “But the Lord is not in the wind. And after the wind, an earthquake,” the sundering and solution of the mere external and physical or earthly plane by the volcanic and electric forces of the more interior mental nature, with its sciences and hermeneutic subtleties. Now the Lord is drawing nearer, but even yet He “is not in the earthquake.” “And after the earthquake, a fire,” the ethereal penetrative and burning energy of the third principle in man, the human Soul, with its clear luminance of introspection, and its immortal quickening activity. Now, indeed, the Lord is at hand, but even yet He “is not in the fire.” “And after the fire, a sound of stillness.” Yes; for the Spirit, “the Lord,” the Fourth Principle in man is Rest, is Silence, is the “Divine Dark” of St Dionysius and the mystics. The word spoken by God is “a word in the ear”: a secret whispered only to the Beloved; heard only by the Saint in the recess of his inmost heart. “And when Elias heard It, he covered his face with his mantle.” For the Lord had come at last, and he knew that he stood in the Divine Presence. The real and inmost meaning of holy utterance is not reached until its physical, scientific, and intellectual interpretations have been all exhausted. The wind, indeed, may announce the coming and bear the echo of the sacred Voice, but without articulate expression; the earthquake may open the earth and disclose occult significations beneath the Letter which surprise the mere literalist; the fire may cleave the heaven and rend the darkness with its brilliant and vivid finger, but the formulate and perfect Word is inbreathed only by the Spirit. Truth is unutterable save by God to God. Only the Divine Within can receive and comprehend the Divine Without. The word of God must be a spiritual word, because God is Spirit. Accordingly, we find saints and mystics, Catholic and Protestant alike, accepting Holy Writ, both Old and New, in a sacramental sense. Rejecting the Letter they lay hold of the Spirit, and interpret the whole Bible from end to end after a mystical manner, understanding all its terms as symbols, its concretes as abstracts, its events as processes, its phenomena as noumena. The hermeneutic science of the saint has threefold characteristics – form is no more, time is no more, personality
is no more. Instead of Time is Eternity, instead of Form is Essence, instead of Persons are Principles. So long as the dross of any merely intellectual or physical concept remains unconverted into the gold of spiritual meaning, so long the supreme interpretation of the text is unattained.
For the intellectual nature, next highest in order, Biblical hermeneutics are of a philosophical character, which, according to the tendencies and tastes of the interpreter, variously wears a poetic, a masonic, a mathematical, an alchemic, a mythologic, a political, or an occult aspect. To occupy worthily this plane of interpretation much learning and research are needed, often of an extremely abstruse and recondite kind. The philosophical hermeneutics of the Bible are closely connected with the study of hidden and unexplored powers in nature, a study which, in former times, was roughly designated “magic,” but on which a younger generation has bestowed new names.
Large acquaintance with etymology, paleontology, geology, and the secrets of ancient systems of doctrine and belief is necessary to Biblical exegesis conducted on intellectual lines. Therefore it is, of all modes of exposition, the most difficult and the most perilous, many rival exegetes claiming to have discovered its key and clamorously disputing all interpretations other than their own. Thus the philosophical method is fruitful of schools and polemists, few among the latter becoming really eminent in their science, because of the enormous labour and erudition involved in it, and the brevity of human life.
Thirdly, we have the astronomical and astrological plane, which may briefly be summed up as the interpretation of Biblical writings on the basis of the Solar Myth. This is the method by which the intelligence of the astral mind is best satisfied; it involves no acceptance of doctrine, theological or religious, and no belief in the soul or in spiritual processes and eternal life. The solar theory is that, therefore, which is formally accepted by most modern exponents and reviewers; it is easily understood by men of average scholarship and perspicacity; it lends itself with readiness to all the dogmas and most of the language of both Testaments, and, with equal facility, explains the formulas of the Creed and the Church Liturgy.
Last and lowest comes the meaning which the crowd imputes to the Bible, and in which no real attempt at interpretation is implied. On this plane of acceptance, the literal sense alone of the words is understood throughout, obvious allegory is taken
for history, poetical hyperbole for prosaic fact, mystic periods for definite measurements of time, corporeal sacrifice for spiritual at-one-ment, ceremonial for sacrament, and physical acts in time for interior and perpetual processes. This is the plane which produces fanatics, persecutors, and inquisitors, which fills our streets with the cries and tumult of Salvationists, and our pulpits with noisy “evangelists,” which sends forth missionaries to “convert” the “heathen” Buddhist, Brahman, or Jew, and wastes tears and lives and treasure untold in frantic and futile endeavours to “christianise” the world. The formula of this class of exponents is “justification by faith,” and, apparently, the more monstrous the blasphemy against divine goodness, and the more extravagant the outrage against science involved in any article of belief, the greater the “justification” attained by its acceptance. The word of God, therefore, originally and primarily addressed to the secret ear of the soul, becomes, when conducted through all these various and increasingly grosser media, at length an inarticulate and confused sound, just as an image, conveyed through various and increasingly turbid strata of fluids, becomes at last distorted, blurred, and untrue to its original. Some similitude in form and colour of course remains, and from this we may divine the aspect of the object whose shadow it is, but the features of the shadow may be indistinct and grotesque, while those of the original are flawless and resplendent. Such a shadow is popular religion compared with Divine Truth, and the Letter of Holy Writ compared with its spiritual meaning. Do we then argue that the spiritual meaning is the only meaning intended, and the image afforded of it by all lower planes wholly false and fanciful? No; for we admit alike the philosophical, the astronomical, and the historical element in the Bible; we desire only to point out with emphasis the fact that all these, in their degree, transmit an ever-increasingly vague and inaccurate likeness of primal Revelation, and are, in their order, less and less proximately true and absolute. No man can be “saved” by the historical, the astronomical, or the philosophical, be his faith never so firm and childlike. He can be “saved” only by the spiritual, for the spiritual alone is cognate to that in him which can be saved, to wit, his spiritual part. Revelation is illumination imparted by God to the God-like principle in man, and its object is the concerns of this principle. Revelation may, indeed, be couched in solar or astronomical terms, but these are its vehicle only, not its substance and secret. Or,
again, it may be conveyed in terms ostensibly descriptive of natural phenomena, of architecture, of national and political vicissitudes. None of these, however, are really the primal subject-matter of Holy Writ, for all of them relate to things belonging to sense and to time, which cannot be brought into effectual affinity with the soul, whose proper relation is with the noumenal and eternal. Such things pertain to the province of the sciences – physics, biology, history, paleontology, and so forth – and can be appropriately and intelligently dealt with by these only. They are not subjects for revelation; they in no wise interest the soul, nor can they affect the salvation of man. Moreover, as all knowledges accessible on planes other than the spiritual must of necessity be partial and relative only, mere approximations to facts, and not facsimilia of facts, there can be no sure and infallible record of them possible to man. History, for instance, belongs entirely to the past and irrecoverable, and depends on the observation of and impressions produced by certain events at periods more or less remote; the recorders of the events in question being endued with the spirit and views of their time, and judging according to the light which these afforded. The same events in our age, appealing to minds of wholly different habits of thought and experience, would present an aspect and bear an intepretation wholly different. We need but to attend an assize or police court to learn how variously the same fact or episode presents itself to various witnesses. And when to the element of uncertainty created by natural defects and differences in the faculties of observation and memory possessed by different individuals is added the impossibility of reviewing events of a long-distant past from the modern standpoint, and the consequent necessity of accepting the ancient standpoint or none at all, it becomes obvious that there is, virtually, no such thing as history in the sense usually ascribed to that word, that is, as a record of actual occurrences as they actually occurred. Even contemporary history is only approximately true; the history of a generation past lends large ground to controversy, and that of the long past insensibly slips into legend, and thence into myth. Mankind has no art by which to photograph events. Character leaves its mark for a time on the world’s records, and great sayings survive indefinite periods, but acts and events soon become contestable, and the authorship of our finest systems of philosophy and of our most precious axioms and rules of conduct loses itself in the haze
of antiquity. The Lord’s Prayer, the Beatitudes, and the Golden Rule remain facts, but what scholar knows who first gave them utterance? The Pythagorean, Buddhist, and Chinese philosophies, as also the Parsee and Jewish religions, are facts, but were there ever such men as the traditional Pythagoras, Buddha, Kung-foo-tsze, Mithras, Zoroaster, or Moses? No one to-day can with certainty affirm or deny even so much as their existence, to say nothing of their deeds, their miracles, their adventures, and the manner of their birth and death. And to speak of later times, what do we know, undoubtedly and indisputably, of such prominent personages in English and French chronicles as Roland and Oliver, Bayard, Coeur de Lion, Fair Rosamond, Joan of Arc, Anne Boleyn, Mary Stuart, and a thousand other heroes and heroines whose actions and adventures form the theme of so many speculations and assumptions? They have left on the historic page an impression of character, but little more. Concerning their real deeds, and the actual part they played in the events of their time, we can affirm nothing with assurance. And as the footfall of time, and the gradual decay and destruction of record, literary and geographical, slowly stamps out the burning embers of the past, darkness, more or less complete, falls over the remoter ages and blots them from our view. Decade after decade it becomes increasingly difficult to pluck any certain and solid crumb of fact from the grip of the Biblical exegetes, the etymologists, the biologists, the paleontologists, and all the scientific kith and kin. Every assertion is contested, every date, circumstance, and hero must fight for place and life. Assuredly there will come a day when the figure of Jesus of Nazareth, which for eighteen centuries has filled the canvas of the world, and already begins to pale, will become as obscure and faded as is now that of Osiris, of Fo-hi, or of Quetzalcoatl. Not that the Gospel can ever die, or that spiritual processes can become effete; but that the historical framework in which, for the present age, the saving truth is set, will dissociate itself from its essentials, fall, and drift away on the waves of Time. Spiritual hermeneutics will endure because they are independent of Time. Spiritual processes are actualities, daily and eternally realised in the experience of the microcosm, “as they were in the beginning, are now, and ever shall be.” No man can know, philosophically, anything that occurs externally and objectively to himself; he can know only that which occurs internally and subjectively. Concerning the first, he can have an opinion only; concerning
the second, he has experience. Nor, again, can any man believe any fact on the testimony of another, but only upon his own witness, for the impression received through the senses of one man, no matter how profound, is incommunicable to the organism of another, and can produce no conviction save to the mind of the man receiving the sensory impression. To believe implies assurance, and assurance can be imparted only by experience.
In matters of history and natural phenomena, moreover, none but the ablest observers and best educated critics can indicate, or determine probabilities, and to be even a sound critic or observer great natural endowments and acquired erudition are needed. It is incredible that God should demand of every man exceptional gifts of intellect and a university education as necessary conditions for the comprehension and acceptance of His Word. Yet, if that Word be indeed directly or intimately dependent on processes of natural phenomena or historical occurrences, it is eminently necessary that every person seeking salvation should be versed in the sciences concerned with them, because no assurance of the truth of Biblical data can be gained save by competent examination and test, and if no assurance, then no belief. It will be observed that contention is not here raised against the accuracy on the physical plane of either facts or figures contained in Sacred Writ; it is simply sought to shew that the unlearned cannot possibly have any valid means of judging or affirming their truth, and that, therefore, belief under such circumstances is a mere form of words. Not long ago, when defending the proposition “there is no such thing as history” – conceived, that is, as a record of consecutive and ascertained facts – I was met by a clergyman of the Established Church with the contention that broad facts are always ascertainable, and that, in respect to sacred history, belief in such broad facts only was necessary to salvation. We need not, for instance, said he, trouble ourselves over much about the details and dates of the gospel narrative, nor does it greatly matter whether Christ was born at Bethlehem or at Nazareth; or, again, whether He was crucified on the Feast of the Passover or on the day following; the essentials of faith lie in the great events of His birth and crucifixion. But, said I, if the only evidence we possess of these great events depends on the assertions of recorders whose testimony does not agree together in detail, what does the worth of the evidence itself amount to? In the celebrated “Story of Susanna,” the wisdom and perspicacity of Daniel are shewn by his refusal to give
credence to an alleged “broad fact,” precisely because the witnesses did not agree in detail. But had Daniel been of the mind of my objector, he would have discarded the petty difference between the elders concerning the kind of tree under which they caught Susanna with her lover, he would have been content with their agreement as to the “broad fact,” and Susanna would have been stoned. The three facts most essential to the belief of the Christian who deems the acceptation of the gospels as literal history necessary to salvation, are precisely those concerning which detail is all-important, and the witness offered the most uncertain and meagre; to wit, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, and the Ascension. The dogma of the Incarnation is supported by the record of two only of the four Evangelists, and, as an historical fact, depends solely on the testimony of one witness, and that one Mary herself, for no other could have related the tale of the Annunciation or certified to the miraculous conception. As for the dogma of the Ascension, the information supplied in regard to this event is contained, not in the gospels at all, but in the Acts of the Apostles, for the only reference made to the Ascension in the gospels consists of a single sentence in the last verse of St Luke’s record, a sentence omitted by some ancient authorities, and noted as dubious in the Revised Version of 1880-1. Surely, then, the Incarnation and Ascension at least cannot be classed in the category of “broad facts,” and yet, to regard them as unimportant details which might safely be overlooked, would be fatal to Christian faith and doctrine as understood by the Established Church. Stripped of these two dogmas – the Incarnation and the Ascension – there is nothing disputable on scientific grounds in the gospel history as a record of actual occurrences. It is credible that a man should possess unusual magnetic and psychic powers, or should swoon on the cross and recover from a deathlike stupor in the course of a few hours when under the care of friends. But that a man should be born of a virgin, rise from the dead, and should bodily ascend into the sky are marvels for which overwhelming and incontrovertible testimony should be forthcoming. Yet these are precisely the three events for which the evidence is most meagre, and on two of which no stress is laid in either the sermons or epistles of the Apostles. Certainly, the dogma of the Incarnation is not once alluded to in their teaching, and it does not appear in any book of the New Testament that the disciples of Jesus or the founders of the Christian Church were acquainted with it. Whether a knowledge of the
Ascension is implied in the epistles or not is a
more open question, but at any rate no express reference is made to it as an
historical event. Yet, if for such reasons we should reject the spiritual power
of the Gospel and deny its dogmas, or the dogmas of the Catholic Church, in
their mystical sense, we should demonstrate our own ignorance and fatuity. For
every such dogma is certainly and infallibly true, being grounded in the eternal
experience of the human soul, and perpetually confirmed thereby. It is not the
crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth on
For how can such events reach or relate themselves to the soul, save by conversion into spiritual processes? Only as processes can they become cognates to the soul and make themselves intelligible to and assimilable thereby. Throughout the universe the law of assimilation, whether in its inorganic or organic aspect, uniformly compels all entities and elements, from crystals to the most complex animate creature, to absorb and digest only that which is similar to itself in principles and substance. And if by the law of natural things the spiritual are understood, as all apostles of hermetic doctrine tell us, then it is obvious, by the light of analogy as well as by that of reason, that the spiritual part of man can assimilate only that which is spiritual. Hence the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, most necessary to right belief, whereby the bread and wine of the mere outward elements are transmuted into the real and saving body and blood of the Lord. Can bread profit to salvation, or can physical events redeem the soul? Nay, but to partake the substance of God’s secret, which is the body of Christ, and to receive infusion of Divine grace into the soul, which is the blood of Christ, and by the shedding of which man is regenerate. These processes are essential to redemption from the otherwise certain and mortal effects of original sin. (1) It is not, therefore, part of the design of hermetic teaching to destroy belief in the historical aspect of Christianity any more than to dissuade the faithful from receiving Christ sacramentally, but to point out that it is not the history that saves, but the spiritual truth embodied therein, precisely
as it is not the bread administered at the altar that profits to salvation, but the Divine body therein concealed.
Life is not long enough to afford time for studying the volumes upon volumes of attack and defence to which the Christian tradition has given birth. It is more profitable to leave these contentions where they are, and to enquire, not whether the details of the story itself are accurate, nor even if the chief facts it relates were really enacted among men on the physical plane, but, rather, what it all signifies when translated into the language of absolutes. For phenomena cannot be absolutes, and we have shewn that only absolutes can have an intelligible meaning for the soul.
(146:1) Lecture given by Anna Kingsford, on the 13th April 1886, to the Hermetic Society, and, shortly afterwards, published as or included in Anna Kingsford’s “Prefatory Essay on the True Method of Interpreting Holy Scripture,” in her edition (then in course of preparation) of Astrology Theologized. (See Life of A.K., Vol. II, pp. 224, 226, and 227; and Light, 1886, p. 207.) It is from this source that the present Lecture has been taken, and while I have excluded therefrom all passages which – as referring to Astrology Theologized – I thought could not have been included by Anna Kingsford in her Lecture, it is possible that I have included therein some passages which did not form part of her Lecture. The excluded passages deal at considerable length with the Creative “Week” of Genesis, and the application of the Allegory to the evolution of Man considered as the Microcosm; and with Fate, Heredity, and Re-incarnation – as to which latter subjects see pp. 220-224, post. – S.H.H.
(155:1) As to “original sin,” see p. 135, ante.