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George T. (George Thomas) Ashley.

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Pope, he was dubbed an atheist, altho he was a devoutly religious man,
and built a chapel at his own expense on his estate and dedicated it
"to the worship of God." Man instinctively recognizes _something_
above him. It is immaterial by what name this may be called; whether
Jehovah, Elohim, Allah, Heaven, Nirvana, or Jove; nor what attributes
we give it, whether we call it Person or Principle, the Great Unknown
or the Ultimate Cause; or whether it be a mere abstract Ideal, the
creation of one's own fancy; it is still that "_Something_" which man
recognizes as above him, toward which he aspires and hopes to attain.

Man also instinctively recognizes that he sustains some sort of
personal relationship to this "Something," that for want of a better
name, we call God. It is necessary in this connection to repeat what
we have already said: That very early in the history of the human race
man was led to this conclusion, concerning his relationship and
obligation to God, thru his effort to interpret and solve the problem
of evil, or his own sufferings from it, and his ultimate death. The
only possible method he had of interpreting these problems was drawn
from his own nature and experience. He knew himself as being alive, as
a conscious individual, capable of exercising will and exerting force.
Thus when he heard the roaring thunders, saw the clouds floating
overhead, and the flashes of lightning among them, felt the force of
the wind and the falling rain; in fact all the phenomena of nature and
life about him, including his own aches, pains, diseases, suffering,
and the ultimate death of his kind, he could only interpret these
things in terms of living personality, some great, powerful individual,
or individuals behind, and directing it all. These became man's first
gods.

Man also interpreted his own relation to the gods, and theirs to him,
in the same terms that defined his relations toward his fellowmen. He
recognized the fact that some of his fellowmen sometimes did him an
injury, or committed some offense against him; that this offense or
injury aroused in him a spirit of resentment, a desire for vengeance in
kind, even to the taking of the life of the man who had injured, or
seriously offended him. Man made his gods in his own image. He
believed these gods to be like himself. Thus, man interpreted his own
sufferings to mean that he was out of right relations with the gods;
that he had personally offended them, - or, one or more of them in some
way, according to the source from which he conceived some particular
affliction to come. When the individual was conscious of his own
innocence, he concluded that some of his ancestors had grievously
offended the god, who relentlessly pursued his posterity and inflicted
on them the penalties due for the sins of this ancestor. Hence the
doctrine of inherited or original Sin. Man then set about to devise
some means to appease the wrath of the gods, and thus restore
harmonious relations with them. A volume might be written here, but we
_must_ proceed with the next proposition.

All religion is therefore one in its ultimate purpose, and objective
end: To attain to its ideal, or harmonize with its objective. In other
words: To attain unto right relations with God. Lest I be
misunderstood, I will repeat: It is immaterial what this God may be,
Jehovah, Allah, Nirvana or Jove; Person, Principle, or Abstract Ideal.
It is that which man _in his mind_ sets before him, toward which he
aspires and strives to attain. Remember that what we _think_ God to
be, that is what God is to us.

We have now reached the point where divisions arise, where religion
branches out into religions. "Wherewith shall I come before Jehovah,
and bow myself before the high God? Shall I come before him with
burnt-offerings, with calves a year old? Will Jehovah be pleased with
thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I
give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the
sin of my soul?"

"What must I do to be saved?" This has, in one form or another, at one
time or another, been the burden of almost every soul among men. How
can man attain unto right relations with his God? This is the great
question of the ages. _Keep in mind_ that it is immaterial who or what
this god may be, how crude or how refined, from the lowest fetish to
the highest spiritual conception, the fundamental question remains ever
the same: How shall man get right with his God? What must man do to be
saved?

To answer this question has been the purpose of every system of
religion known to mankind, and every sect, order and denomination known
to every system. And here is where confusion begins. Some one evolves
a formula, means, or method that he believes meets the case. Some
others are persuaded to accept it and the sect grows. In the mean time
some other person has evolved another; and some other still another,
and so on, and on, and on, _ad infinitum_; all having the same purpose
in view, and each claiming to be the _only right one_, or at least, the
_best one_. And it is immaterial how erroneous, crude, or even
barbarous one may look to the devotees of the other; in fundamental
purpose they are all the same. The Hindu mother who casts her babe
into the Ganges as food for the crocodiles, as a sacrifice to her gods,
does it with as sublime a motive as any Christian mother ever bowed
before the altar of her own church, - and for the same purpose: To get
right with her God. The Parsee wife, who burns herself to ashes upon
the funeral pyre of her dead husband, does it for the same purpose: To
get right with her God. The devotee who throws his body before the
wheels of the Juggernaut to have it crushed as an act of devotion, does
it for the same purpose: To get right with his God. The devout
Mohammedan who bows himself to the earth five times a day, and says his
prayers with his face towards Mecca, does it for the same purpose: To
get right with Allah. The savage who repeats his incantations to his
fetish that he has probably made with his own hands, does it for the
same purpose: To get right with God as he conceives him. The Chinese
that burns his sticks before the image in his Joss-house, does it for
the same purpose: To get right with his God. And so on _ad infinitum_,
the same central purpose running thru it all, whether Hindu or Parsee,
Buddist or Janist, Confucian or Shintoist, Jew or Gentile, Mohammedan
or Christian, Catholic or Protestant, Methodist or Baptist,
Presbyterian or Lutheran, Calvinist or Arminian, Unitarian or
Trinitarian, one and all, have one and the same ultimate object: To get
into right relations with God, each according to his own conception of
God, and what he understands to be his will concerning him. However,
in the more rational interpretation of religion in these later times,
the element of fear of punishment hereafter has been almost, if not
entirely eliminated; and the religious objective is made the highest,
noblest, purest, and best possible life in this world, for _its own
intrinsic worth_, and without any reference to any future life, resting
firmly in the faith that he who lives right cannot die wrong.

Hence, religion does not consist in creeds, dogmas, or beliefs; nor in
forms, ordinances, ceremonies, or sacraments, as I was early taught to
believe. But these are, one and all, but so many varying _forms of
expression_ which religion takes. They are all only so many different
ways, means and methods religion takes to attain to its ultimate
purpose and aim. They are only so many different paths which different
men take in their search for God.

And is there but _one_ true path to God, while all the others only lead
to hell? And if so, _which_ is the right one? Ah, herein lies the
fruitful source of most of the world's tragedies and sufferings! It
was this that burned John Huss, Savonarola and Bruno. It was this that
lighted the fires of Smithfield and hung helpless, silly women in New
England, as witches. But thank God, it is abating and the dawn of a
better day is in sight.

I have long since come to believe that all who honestly, sincerely, and
diligently seek God will ultimately find him, in some way, at some
time, when God sees best to reveal himself, no matter what method may
be pursued. I do not mean that all methods are equally good; no, not
by any means. The quest for God may be helped or hindered, advanced or
delayed, accordingly as the methods of search may be correct or
erroneous. But I do mean to say that I do not believe the Infinite
God, who knows the hearts of men, and will ultimately judge them by
this standard, will forever hide, and deny himself to any, in whose
heart He sees honesty, purity, and sincerity of purpose and motive,
because in their finite judgment, they were unable to intellectually
determine just which was the right, or best way; - and this, whether the
searcher be Hindu, Chinese, Pagan or Parsee; Hottentot or Arab, savage
or philosopher; Christian, Mohammedan or Buddhist; or any one else on
earth. "Man looketh upon the outward appearance; but God looketh upon
the heart." And they that diligently, honestly and earnestly seek after
him will find him, - somewhere, somehow - in this life or some other, And
when found, it will not be "in far-off realms of space," but in one's
own heart.

"The outward God he findeth not,
Who finds not God within."


THE BIBLE

From the foregoing it is quite clear that religion is not something
miraculously revealed from heaven, handed down in a package already
bound up, complete and finished, ready for use; but that in its origin,
essence and purpose it is natural and common to all humanity alike.
Its present status is but the result of its progressive development,
from its crudest forms in early humanity, to the present day. While
forever remaining one and the same in its origin, essence and purpose,
it has undergone changes in its forms of expression, its means and
methods, in all ages as mankind has progressively developed upward.
What we call the great systems of religion, such as Buddhism,
Christianity, Mohammedanism, and others are but so many different forms
of expression thru which religion manifests itself in human life; and
the various sects and denominations in all these systems are but
further subdivisions in these forms of expression, according to
different desires, tastes and opinions among different people. Hence,
religion was not produced by the Bible, nor is it in any way dependent
upon the Bible as a source of authority, but just the opposite.
Religion was long before the Bible and itself produced the Bible; and
the Bible derives its sole authority from religion.

Here is perhaps as good a place as any to answer the question that has
often been asked me: "If the Bible is not the ultimate source of
authority in religion, what and where is it?" Just the same to you and
me today that it was to Noah, Abraham, Moses, the prophets, apostles,
and all others in all ages. "But were not these men divinely
inspired?" No more than you or I _may be_, even if we are not in fact.
This subject will be fully elucidated when I come to treat specifically
of inspiration and revelation in the next subdivision. The answer to
this question about the source of authority in religion is clearly
indicated in the very definition I have given of religion, and I only
make it more specific here to avoid any misunderstanding of my position
on it. If "religion is a natural impulse imbedded in the heart of man
which compels him to strive upward"; if it is the "zest of Life"; if it
is "that _inner urge_ in all humanity that ever pushes it onward and
upward"; these natural impulses themselves constitute the sole source
of authority in religion. Thomas Paine once said: "All religions are
good that teach men to be good." To which might well be added: That
religion alone is best which teaches men to live the best lives. Life,
not creed, is the final test of religion. To perceive what is right
and what is wrong, to cleave to the right and avoid the wrong, is the
highest, noblest and best expression of religion. Now, there is no
single universal standard of right and wrong that is universally the
same in its application to human life, in all ages, at all times, and
under all circumstances and conditions. Life is progressive; and as it
moves on new conditions arise, new relations develop, new problems
present themselves, and new and changing standards come with them. For
example, human slavery and polygamy were both practiced in the days of
Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, and Solomon, and for centuries
afterwards; and according to the Bible, with the divine sanction and
approval. The simple facts are, that according to the standards of
those ages, according to the social development of the race at that
time there was no moral turpitude in those practices. But who would
dare defend them now? And yet these, or most of them - and I say it
reverently and sincerely - were doubtless _good men_, judged by the
standards of their time; and devoutly religious.

Coming directly now to the answer to the question: The ultimate, final
authority in all matters of religion is the _individual conscience_,
the inner light, that law written in the hearts of all men, aided and
assisted by all the light of the present day, which includes all the
light of the past that has come down to us, both in the Bible and from
all other courses, history, science and the record of human experiences
generally interpreted and applied by human reason. That "natural
impulse imbedded in the heart of man which compels him to strive
upward"; that "inner urge that ever pushes him onward and upward," will
not only start him in the right way of life, but will remain with him
and guide him to the end, if he will but hear and obey its voice,
interpreted by reason.

The reader will recall the opinion I reached concerning the Bible after
my special course of study and the process of reasoning that followed
it. But after fifteen years of continued study I changed my opinion
about it again. When I took a different perspective I got a different
view. First, I was confronted with the fact that _the Bible is here_.
And while all my inherited opinions as to its origin, meaning and
purpose were gone forever, the second question remained unanswered:
_How came it here_? After all these years of study and investigation I
found an answer to this question satisfactory to myself, which I have
already indicated above, but will here more fully elaborate as a part
of my New Confession of Faith.

The Old Testament is but a record preserved and handed down to us,
first of events, legends, opinions and beliefs that existed in crude
form as traditions, long before a line of it was written; and
thereafter, for a period covering approximately a thousand years, it is
a record, tho evidently imperfect, of the progressive development of
the Jewish race, nation and religion, which are so inseparably bound
together that they cannot be separated. Let us go a little more into
detail. No one claims that a line of the Old Testament was written
before Moses. (And it is here immaterial whether Moses wrote the
Pentateuch or not. The Jews believed he did.) Yet the Jewish system
of religion, at least in its fundamental features, had been in
existence since Abraham, some five hundred years before, to say nothing
of previous peoples back to Noah, or even to Adam and his sons. Yet
none of these had any Bible whatever. If it is claimed by any one that
Moses was the originator of the Jewish system, it leaves Abraham and
all his posterity, down to the time of Moses, but pious pagans. But
according to the record, Moses added nothing to the _principles_ of
religious worship as practiced by Abraham and the other patriarchs. He
simply reorganized, systematized, refined and somewhat elaborated the
ancient system of worship, and at most reduced it to regularity and
order.

It was quite natural that Moses should then reduce to writing the
traditions and practices of his people, and make a more or less
complete record of their laws, regulations, and civil and religious
institutions; and especially of that system of religious worship which
he had not originated, but organized, systematized and reduced to more
perfect order, so that all this might be preserved for the benefit of
the people thereafter. This was the beginning of the sacred literature
of the Jews which, when completed in its present form, was called the
Bible - meaning simply, The Books.

After this, tho the Jewish system of religion, according to the Jews
themselves, was finished and complete, they had but five books of
written scripture, - the Pentateuch. Yet thirty-four additional books
were afterwards written and added to these. Can these later books be
quoted as _authority_ for that which existed, in some instances, a
thousand years before they were written? Certainly not. But the facts
are plain. The system of religion already existing, but continually
progressing, gave rise to these subsequent books, which are merely a
record of the progress, thoughts, feelings, beliefs, practices, etc.,
of this peculiar and intensely religious people.

Thus we see that the Old Testament is a _growth_ produced by, and
recording the historic development of the Jewish race, nation and
religion. It is simply the _literature_ of a people. Its various
parts were written by representatives of the people themselves, many of
whose names are unknown, at various times covering a period of a
thousand years, under many varying conditions and circumstances. It
records in part their history, traditions, legends, myths, their
beliefs, superstitions, hopes, fears, ideals and aspirations; and the
legendary deeds of their national heroes, just as we find them in the
literature of ancient Greece, Rome, England or Scandinavia. It
contains books of law, ritual, maxims, hymns, poetry, drama, letters,
sermons, denunciations, rebukes, warnings, arguments, anecdotes and
biography. No literature on earth is more multifarious in its
contents. That it contains many contradictions, errors,
inconsistencies and incredible statements is nothing to its discredit
from this viewpoint of its origin. The wonder is that there are not
more. But that it contains only what the various writers of its
different parts, at the time they wrote, honestly thought and
_believed_ to be true, may be freely admitted without in the least
derogating from its true value, or adding supernatural sanctity to it.
The Old Testament considered simply as a collection of ancient Jewish
literature, reveals to us to-day many of the stages in the national,
racial and religious evolution of ancient Israel, just as the
literature of any nation or people reveals the same thing concerning
them, - no more and no less.

Turning now for a moment to the New Testament: Is it the source and
authority for Christianity? Or just the reverse? Which was first of
the two? That which goes before is the cause of that which comes
after, - not the reverse. If Christianity is to be considered as a
separate and distinct system of religion, based upon divine authority,
the system was finished, full and complete with the resurrection and
ascension of Christ - for the argument's sake, admitting these to be
facts. Hence Christianity would have existed as a fact just the same,
whether a line of the New Testament had ever been written or not. As a
matter of fact, not a line of it was written for twenty-five or thirty
years after these events, and it was not completed for a hundred years
thereafter. Therefore the New Testament did not produce Christianity;
nor is it the authority upon which it is based, but just the opposite.
Christianity produced the New Testament and is the authority upon which
it is based.

So the New Testament, like the Old, is just literature, - no more. It
records what the authors of its various parts, in the light of their
time, and with the knowledge they possessed, as common, fallible,
mortal men like ourselves, honestly thought, felt, hoped and believed
was the truth. It gives us the only historical sketch we have of the
origin and early development of that system of religion that in one
form or another now dominates a third part of the human race. And as
such it is the most valuable book the world possesses today. But it is
no more the "infallible Word of God" than the Old Testament, Herodotus,
Josephus, Plato or Plutarch.

The conclusion of the whole matter is: The Bible is not the
supernaturally inspired, infallible word of God, given by him as the
source and final authority for religion, outside of which and since its
close there is no more revelation; but it was written by fallible men
of like passions with ourselves, who wrote, - not as they were
infallibly and inerrantly guided by the Holy Spirit, but - as they were
moved by the same impulses, passions and motives that have moved men in
all ages to write their thoughts, feelings, beliefs, hopes, fears,
aspirations and views of life. Thus, as has already been said, the
Bible is a _product_ of religion instead of being its source and
authority. Thus the literature of the Jewish race and the early
Christians _grew_. In course of time the thirty-nine books containing
our present Old Testament were brought together in one collection. We
do not know just when. Afterwards the twenty-seven books of our New
Testament were collected in the same way. Age and tradition first
embalmed them in an air of sanctity; and then superstition made of them
a fetish. Until this "spell" is broken there can be no hope of
anything like unity in the religious world. Until this fetish of a
"once for all divine and infallible revelation, completed and handed
down from heaven" is abandoned, there will continue to be "diversities
of interpretation," and consequently divisions, controversies,
bickerings, persecutions and recriminations will continue among
mankind, and wars will continue among nations.

It may be said here that all the other sacred literature of the world,
the Bibles of other systems of religion, the Zend Avesta, the Vedas,
the Upanishads, the Koran, and others, had their origin in exactly the
same source and manner as did our Bible; and attained sanctity and
authority among their respective followers in exactly the same way.
But we need not go into it in detail.

But when we return to our first proposition, that all religion in its
origin, fundamental essence and ultimate purpose is not only one and
the same, but is _natural_ and common to all humanity; that its
processes are a continual revelation in nature and human experience in
man's continuous progress onward and upward in the scale of human
attainment; and that the Bible, and all other literature of its kind,
merely records a part of these processes and revelations in nature and
experience, by which we are able to read the footprints of human
progress in the past, and that these various writers, mostly unknown,
merely recorded what they saw, felt, believed or understood at that
time to be the truth; then all these difficulties of interpretation and
sources of division vanish, and these books take on a new value and
importance that they never otherwise attain.

With this view of its origin and purpose the Bible readily takes and
holds its place as the most remarkable and invaluable book the world
has ever known, or perhaps ever will know. It becomes at once an
inexhaustible treasure-house of knowledge indispensable to the world's
highest thought and progress, - knowledge which cannot be obtained
anywhere else. In this view its many contradictions, discrepancies,
errors of fact, and incredible statements become at once of little
force and easily accounted for; and when we consider the various ages
in which its parts were written, the many different authors of its
different parts, the standards of human knowledge and attainment in
these times, the wonder is that there are not more. The Bible is thus
the greatest book of _religious instruction_ that the world knows, or
ever has known. It contains inexhaustible treasures of religious
thought, feeling, emotion and experience, of every conceivable type and
variety, which makes it indeed "profitable for teaching, for reproof,
for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness." It is an
inexhaustible mine of the richest and purest gold, fused in the fires
of human experience in many ages. But the gold is mixed with the sand


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Online LibraryGeorge T. (George Thomas) AshleyFrom Bondage to Liberty in Religion: A Spiritual Autobiography → online text (page 9 of 11)