Theosophic Perspectives

By Sarah Belle Dougherty

How easy it is to become complacent with our answers to life's questions, closing ourselves off from whatever lies beyond our current understanding. We become sectarian -- "narrowly confined or limited in interest, purpose, scope." In its masthead Sunrise declares itself to be nonsectarian, and though this indicates that it is not affiliated with any particular religion or denomination, it implies more: a spirit of free inquiry. Its subtitle, however, is very definite: "Theosophic Perspectives." Some might wonder what this signifies, and whether theosophy is a sect or set of doctrines. Considered as the ancient wisdom or perennial philosophy of mankind, theosophy does of course involve philosophic, religious, and scientific ideas, but determining what these are, their value, and how they may be interpreted is an individual affair. Considered as a modern movement, its literature re-expresses key concepts from this timeless tradition as food for thought, not as authoritative pronouncements or a new revelation. The only concept theosophists are enjoined to accept is universal brotherhood, both as a fact in nature and as a force in their lives. Becoming conscious of oneness as a fundamental reality opens our hearts, making us more compassionate and receptive to others and allowing us to expand beyond our self in thought and feeling.

Perhaps we can gain further insight into what a theosophic perspective might mean by turning to the early years of the modern theosophical movement. In the opening issue of her first magazine, The Theosophist, Helena Blavatsky declared that to be a theosophist

one need not necessarily recognize the existence of any special God or a deity. One need but worship the spirit of living nature, and try to identify oneself with it. . . . Be what he may, once that a student abandons the old and trodden highway of routine, and enters upon the solitary path of independent thought -- Godward -- he is a Theosophist; an original thinker, a seeker after the eternal truth with "an inspiration of his own" to solve the universal problems.
With every man that is earnestly searching in his own way after a knowledge of the Divine Principle, of man's relations to it, and nature's manifestations of it, Theosophy is allied. It is likewise the ally of honest science, as distinguished from much that passes for exact, physical science, so long as the latter does not poach on the domains of psychology and metaphysics.
And it is also the ally of every honest religion, -- to wit: a religion willing to be judged by the same tests as it applies to the others. Those books, which contain the most self-evident truth, are to it inspired (not revealed). But all books it regards, on account of the human element contained in them, as inferior to the Book of Nature; to read which and comprehend it correctly, the innate powers of the soul must be highly developed. Ideal laws can be perceived by the intuitive faculty alone; they are beyond the domain of argument and dialectics, and no one can understand or rightly appreciate them through the explanations of another mind, though even this mind be claiming a direct revelation. -- "What Are the Theosophists?," October 1879, p. 6

Because "the very root idea" of the Theosophical Society "is free and fearless investigation" (ibid.), every person is entitled to -- and encouraged to form -- his or her own beliefs and opinions. Still, promoting a theosophic perspective surely implies some type of limitation. Blavatsky addressed this issue in her second magazine, Lucifer -- the Light-bringer, which was, she wrote, being criticized by those who "cannot see why it should not be a purely Theosophical magazine,"

in other words, why it refuses to be dogmatic and bigoted. Instead of devoting every inch of space to theosophical and occult teachings, it opens its pages "to the publication of the most grotesquely heterogeneous elements and conflicting doctrines." This is the chief accusation, to which we answer -- why not? Theosophy is divine knowledge, and knowledge is truth; every true fact, every sincere word are thus part and parcel of Theosophy. One who is skilled in divine alchemy, or even approximately blessed with the gift of the perception of truth, will find and extract it from an erroneous as much as from a correct statement. However small the particle of gold lost in a ton of rubbish, it is the noble metal still, and worthy of being dug out even at the price of some extra trouble. . . .
. . . Theosophy allows a hearing and a fair chance to all. It deems no views -- if sincere -- entirely destitute of truth. It respects thinking men, to whatever class of thought they may belong. Ever ready to oppose ideas and views which can only create confusion without benefiting philosophy, it leaves their expounders personally to believe in whatever they please, and does justice to their ideas when they are good. -- "What Is Truth?," February 1888, pp. 431-2

While it is not the policy of Sunrise to print "a ton of rubbish," neither is it to present opinions and interpretations which are orthodox -- "sound or correct in opinion or doctrine" -- according to any individual or group, or with reference to any book or author, theosophical or other. While striving to be factually accurate, the magazine does not pretend to be authoritative, nor does it seek to define by its contents what is correct or legitimate. Rather, throughout its fifty years it has attempted to share in ordinary language reflections on the meaning of life and on the perennial wisdom of humanity, whether found in ancient or modern sources or personal experience. The magazine's founder, James A. Long, spelled out its purpose on the cover of many early issues: "Sunrise came into being as the result of our belief that men and women in all walks of life in every country had thoughts and experiences worth sharing with others -- experiences which meant the difference between success and failure, between joy and unhappiness, between a broad and narrow horizon of life," thoughts that "have helped . . . build a sounder philosophy of life."

We are all searchers after truth, not as a mere abstraction or intellectual pastime, but as a means to understand ourselves, our fellow beings, and the universe around us. We seek ways to live that harmonize with reality, an understanding of what happens to us and others, and the basis for making just, compassionate decisions and responses. To become crystallized and stagnant in our thinking is, of course, a universal human tendency. We can counter it by being conscious of our own assumptions, realizing the incompleteness of our understanding, and making a deliberate effort to be receptive to the truth in the ideas of others. Although we inevitably build up mental structures in order to achieve intellectual understanding, we can remember that at any time our current webs of thought may shift into a new configuration or even fall to the ground entirely. However disconcerting such an upheaval, it is all to the good: recognizing our ignorance is the necessary first step to learning more.

Truth -- reality -- exists, and on the quest to grasp it each person relies on his or her inner touchstone to determine what to believe and accept and what to discard or hold in abeyance. As finite beings our view is always relative and partial -- but recognizing this does not imply that all ideas and opinions are equally valid or equally lacking in truth. The surest way to progress is to exercise our faculties by doing our own thinking and feeling, rather than constantly depending on external authorities, however helpful these may be as guides and catalysts. Trying to discover ever closer approximations to things-as-they-are strengthens our discernment and judgment, which increase as we grow in experience, perception, and understanding. At the same time, all others enjoy this privilege, and it is unwarranted to seek to constrict or control their opinions by our own or by those of whatever authorities we happen to embrace. Humility, openness of heart and mind, a determination to find truth wherever our search leads us -- these are steps to a deeper, broader, and more compassionate awareness, which is indeed the essence of a theosophic perspective.

(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 2001; copyright © 2001 Theosophical University Press)

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The huge concentric waves of universal life are shoreless. The starry sky that we study is but a partial appearance. We grasp but a few meshes of the vast network of existence. --Victor Hugo