An Explorer's Religion

I

WHAT is now my religion and how I reached it, I would here describe as plainly as I can.

From both parents, from generations back, I inherited a religious disposition and I was brought up in religious surroundings. My father and his father and his grandfather were soldiers; and soldiers are religious folk. I was, therefore, as naturally disposed to religion as others are to art or science.

But the conventional type of religion in which I had been brought up did not long satisfy me. I had taken it on trust and had never made it really my own. As I went out into the world I had to break through its crust and form my religion for myself, as I believe everyone should if religion is to be of any depth and service in life. I found it hard to believe in the existence of a shadowy God whom neither I nor anyone else had seen or touched. And the ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ upon which I had been brought up did not much appeal to my first, fresh, vigorous manhood.

At nineteen years of age I joined a cavalry regiment in India. Two years later I went for a joyous scramble through the lower ranges of the Himalaya, and it was here that my whole being began to expand. Ideas of exploration incessantly seethed in my mind. I saw that Manchuria was a country which needed exploration. I met Mr. H. E. M. James, who also was keen to travel. We decided upon Manchuria, and fifty years ago we set out for that then almost unknown country. We traveled for two months in an unexplored forest, and we explored the great Sungari River to its source in a fabled lake on the summit of a mountain — as it proved, in the crater of an extinct volcano.

But our journeyings did something more than satisfy our thirst for exploration. Quite unexpectedly we came across a French Roman Catholic missionary living alone in a remote Manchurian town. He had consecrated his life to his mission and vowed never again to return to his beloved France. Goodness radiated from him. And that one man — who, poor fellow, only a year later was killed by the people he was trying to help — made a profound impression on me. I was face to lace with holiness.

The Manchurian journey over, I set off alone from Peking in 1887 with one Chinese servant on a further exploration across the Gobi Desert and the length of Chinese Turkestan and over the Himalaya to India. Ten weeks I spent in the desert traveling by night, glorying in the daily beauty ol the setting sun and the serenity of star life. In crossing the Himalaya I saw mountain majesty in its sternest yet most compelling form, and I seemed to have risen to an altogether loftier and purer region than most men ever dream of.

As a result of the journey, I was brought into touch with scientific men and came to interest myself in astronomy, geology, natural history, and the great doctrine of evolution. Science was then very prominent and a trifle arrogant. It was criticizing religion severely — and this aroused my first real interest in religion. So far I had taken it on trust. Now I was stimulated either to make it my own or to reject it altogether. And for some years I had ample leisure for this congenial task, as I was employed by the government on a succession of explorations and political missions in the Northern Himalaya and Central Asia.

In the very midst of the Himalaya I read of how even these stupendous mountains had been raised from the bed of the sea. I learned of the titanic forces at work, of the colossal age of the earth, of its being only a droplet of the sun, of the sun being only one of millions of other stars, of us men and of all the multitudinous variety of animal and vegetable life on this planet having evolved from a single microscopic animalcule a thousand million years ago. My conception of the universe grew and grew and I marveled at the wonders which science revealed. But science did not destroy my religion; rather did science expand it. The more science taught, the keener did I become on religion. So keen indeed did I become that at one time I thought I had discovered an entirely new religion, and at another time, after reading Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is within You, I had determined to leave government service and devote my whole time to what had become to me far and away the most important thing in life.

II

There followed a few years in political service in the interior of India, where I had opportunities of working with some of the leading princes, Muslim as well as Hindu, and their able ministers, and coming into close touch with Indian life. Then came a most welcome surprise: I was charged by Lord Curzon with a mission to Tibet.

I had for the eighth time to cross the Himalaya and camp on the open plains of Tibet within sight of both Everest and Kanchanjanga. There were interminable delays in negotiation which I did not regret, as they left me the more time for my favorite pursuit. James’s Varieties of Religious Experience had just appeared, and that as well as Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness, and E. H. Haeckel’s Riddle of the Universe profoundly affected me.

Then strong action had to follow. I deliberately risked my life to secure a peaceful settlement; it was of no avail, and fighting ensued. With five hundred men I was for two months besieged by eight thousand. Subsequently reënforcements arrived and an advance was made to Lhasa. And then, in the capital of Tibet, I was eventually able not only to conclude a treaty with these most secluded people but to win their good will. It had been a most hazardous enterprise, but it had succeeded past all expectation.

On the day I left Lhasa I went alone up on to the mountain side and in the holy calm of eventide I chewed the cud of all I had just experienced. I was naturally elated at the successful ending of a critical mission. But suddenly, as I sat there among the mountains, bathed in the glow of sunset, there came upon me what was far more than elation or exhilaration. I already knew what that was, as I had received in one batch telegrams of congratulation from King Edward, Lord Curzon, and Lord Kitchener. That was one thing. This was very different. I was beside myself with an intensity of joy, such as even the joy of first love can give only a faint foreshadowing of. And with this indescribable and almost unbearable joy came a revelation of the essential goodness of the world. I was convinced past all refutation that men at heart were good, that the evil in them was the superficial, that the main impulse was to the. good — in short, that men at heart were divine.

Similar experiences have come to others. They are not common; and those who have them regard them as too sacred to speak about. But there must be many living who have had a like experience. One I knew was the late Dr. McTaggart, the Cambridge philosopher. He used to call it the ‘Saul’ feeling, because it was like that described by Browning in his poem, ‘Saul.’ And he spent his life in demonstrating by reason the truth of which the experience had already convinced him. He never put the experience forward as evidence; indeed, he never mentioned it. He wished and believed he was able to show the truth of it by pure reason.

And after many talks with McTaggart and studying what he has written I have come to the conclusion that my experience near Lhasa fits in perfectly with the main results of scientific inquiry and philosophic thought. Science shows the interconnexity of things. We and the world about us are all bound up in a whole; we are influenced by the whole and influence it; and philosophy shows that the whole is a spiritual whole, the material world including our bodies being the outward manifestation of an inner spirit. On the mountain side I was in a relaxed and exceedingly receptive condition immediately following a strung-up state of extreme tension. I was in that highly impressionable state in which I was most likely to catch the spirit of the Power which actuates that world of which I myself was a component part and with which I was intimately connected. In that moment of peculiar sensitivity I was best able to comprehend the essential nature of things.

III

As we have seen, the impression I received was of a joy almost beyond endurance, and a world which could produce in me such a joy I could not but love, and love in proportion to the joy it produced. Confidence in the Iovability of the world and of men was then established in my mind and has never wavered during the thirty-odd years which have followed. And though since then I have seen much evil, my faith in the essential goodness of things has never faltered.

But my thirst for more and more knowledge of this wonderful universe of ours and of the most beautiful and noblest of its manifestations continues insatiable. On my return from Tibet I took pains to get in touch with the leaders of thought of the day. I tried to keep abreast of the amazing progress of science. I studied many lives of Christ, English, French, German, Italian, Jewish, Indian. Here was the greatest of all lives, and through the study of that life I was able to get the most perfect idea of that which produced it. And in the form of a drama, under the title of The Reign of God, I recorded my own impression of it. I also studied the greatest spiritual personalities of our own times, whether in Europe or Asia, Christian or non-Christian. And the result of those studies I published in my book, Modern Mystics.

Nor have my studies been confined to events on this planet. From as far back as 1887, when I was making night journeys in the Gobi Desert, I have been interested in the idea that on other planets of other stars than our sun there may be living beings — and, on a few, living beings higher than ourselves. This is no fantastic idea and no vague speculation. On the face of it, it is extremely improbable that we should be the only living beings in a universe of such colossal dimensions as astronomy now shows ours to be. It is often supposed that conditions here are exceptionally favorable to the emergence of life. It is just as probable that conditions here are exceptionally unfavorable. In my Living Universe I have given my reason for supposing that on many other planets, scattered all over the universe, there may be living beings; and I look upon it as important to pursue these investigations because they get us out of that parochial, insular habit of mind which makes us regard ourselves as the lords of creation. We get to see things in their right proportion.

Similarly, it is important to look onward to our future on this planet. Science tells us that man has existed here for only one million years, while life will be possible here for hundreds and thousands of millions of years yet. There lie before us, therefore, unimaginable possibilities of development. Ahead of us may be whole societies of what our highest have already been — whole societies of Christ-like beings, with undreamed of possibilities of intercommunication and transportation and power over their material surroundings.

IV

Thus for me the world is no mere mechanism. I am no mere cog on a mechanically driven wheel. The world is animated; and with the spirit which animates it I also am imbued. With that same spirit those around me are likewise inspired. Together we form one vast community influencing and influenced by each other and all imbued with the same World Spirit. And that Central Spirit we can feel compelling us to eschew the bad and strive after the good, to strive after the best, rather than the merely good, and after the highest perfection we can conceive rather than the merely best we see about us. We feel impelled, in fact, to seek first the Kingdom of God.

Jesus we Christians believe to be the highest perfection. But even He did not consider Himself perfect, and most certainly the society He founded is not yet a perfect society. Clearly, therefore, our part is unceasingly to seek after higher and higher perfection both in ourselves and in the various communities to which we belong, and create the conditions under which more perfect being can arise.

Convinced of the essential goodness and beauty of the world, we will regard ourselves as among the myriad agents through which the universe as a whole is working to better life on this planet. We will therefore by prayer and meditation, by study and emulation, fill ourselves as far as we can with the essential spirit of the world, and then put that spirit into all we do. We will carefully select that line of activity along which we feel we can be of most service. It may be in the service of our country, it may be as artist or writer in creating more beauty, it may be in combating some crying evil, or in creating some beneficial business, or in making a home — whatever it may be, into that we will put the very best of ourselves. We will align ourselves with the Great Purpose of the universe, gather ourselves tightly together, reach after the highest pitch of perfectibility, and then put the whole of ourselves into the work we have deliberately chosen.

Having done that, we need not fret or worry, we can leave the rest to God. He is working His purpose out. And if we have made His purpose our purpose, it is bound to be fulfilled.

So, as the sum of it all, the religion which I have made for myself — the religion of an explorer — is a very simple religion. I find myself inextricably bound up with that world of men and things — that Mother-World — out of which I was born, and of which I forever remain an integral part, as a patriot does of his country. Of the essential goodness of this MotherWorld, experience has utterly convinced me. She has caused me pain of body, grief of heart, and agony of soul, all three at their acutest. But she has loved and tended me in helplessness, in suffering, and in sorrow, and given me untellable joy in the end. I love her. I would do anything for her. And I would have all others share the joy which she has brought me.

That, in brief, is my religion. I have found it work in practice. And my one longing now is to make it of service to my fellows.