Rational Reformation of Religion: Possibilities and Limitations–M.S. Srinivasan

Key Perspectives: Role of critical reason; role of constructive reason; role of reason in the inner discipline of religion; role of intuitive reason.

According to Sri Aurobindo, in the course of history humanity as a whole and all human communities pass through three stages in their evolution: infrarational, rational and suprarational. Most of the religions have their origin in the infrarational stage of history and therefore carry a heavy baggage of infrarational beliefs, customs and practices. Our modern age of reason and science offers the opportunity to all religions to pass through and complete the rational phase of evolution and get rid of or reform or reshape its infrarational legacy. When we examine the history of organised religion, we will find those religions which refused to go through this rational phase of evolution have become inwardly stagnant and become heavily infected with fanaticism and fundamentalism. On the other hand, those religions which went through a phase of rational reformation, emerged better and more adaptive to the needs of our modern age.

The general attitude of the scientific and rational mind in the beginning of the twentieth century, and long after, is to dismiss religion as a superstition, or the “opium of the soul”, or to tolerate it with a patronising attitude for its social utility in sustaining the ethical balance of the society. The idea of reformation implies we consider religion as an important activity for human progress. However, there were always elements or parts in the rational and scientific mind which viewed religion in a more positive light but wanted a more rational religion. We will be considering here only the views of this part of the rational mind which does not altogether dismiss religion but aims at a rational reformation of religion.

There are two elements in the rational and scientific mind. First is the skeptical, critical and questioning element which is predominantly destructive. But all destructions are not bad; it can be purifying, clearing the way for a new creation. The second element is creative and constructive.

Role of Critical Reason

The argument of the predominantly critical reason is that most of the religions have become more or less moribund with a mass of irrational accretions. So let us apply the clear and critical light of reason to every aspect of religion like dogmas, customs or rituals and ask the question: what is the purpose, use or significance of these forms of religion to the religious and spiritual development of the individual? How rational are they? How far can they help or hinder my spiritual progress? Let us get rid of everything that cannot stand this scrutiny and retain everything which can give a satisfying answer to these questions. These questions raised by critical reason are quite legitimate. But the problem here is whether reason has sufficient light to find the right answer to these questions.

As we have said earlier almost all religions, because of their historical origin in the infrarational age have accumulated a large number of irrational beliefs. And since popular religion is based mainly on belief and not on reason, these irrational beliefs were never subjected to critical questioning. Even in India , where religion was led and sustained by a fine balance of spiritual intuition, reason and faith, there were unprogressive and misconstrued versions of practices like the caste system, which was not sufficiently questioned until the advent of Buddha. So at a certain stage a critical approach becomes necessary for the evolution of religion. As Sri Aurobindo points out in the context of Indian religion:

“A temporary reign of the critical reason largely destructive in its action is an imperative need for human progress. In India, since the great Buddhistic upheaval of the national thought and life there has been a series of recurrent attempts to rediscover the truth of the soul and life and get behind the veil of stifling conventions; but these have been conducted by a wide and tolerant spiritual reason, a plastic soul–intuition and a deep subjective seeking, insufficiently militant and destructive. Although productive of great internal and considerable external changes, they never succeeded in getting rid of the predominant conventional order. The work of a dissolvent and destructive intellectual criticism, though not entirely absent from some of these movements, has never gone far enough; the constructive force, insufficiently aided by the destructive, has not been able to make a wide and free space for its new formation.”[1]

But the main problem with this critical approach of reason is that most of the outer forms or religion have a deeper and inner purpose which the external intellectual reason cannot perceive. So what appears as irrational to a superficial rationality may have a deeper meaning and significance. For example, most of the mythologies of religion may appear to the rational mind as silly and meaningless outpourings of a primitive imagination. This is how most of the modern rational and scholastic minds regarded mythology until the second quarter of the twentieth century. But later, psychologists like Carl Jung and other psychologically oriented scholars, looking into mythology with a deeper insight, have found them shining with a profound psychological significance. Carl Jung says myth is “knowledge of a special sort, knowledge in eternity, usually without reference to the here and now, not couched in the language of the intellect”.[2] Egyptologist Jeanine Miller views myth as “a fundamental expression of the human psyche” with its roots plunging “deeper in human nature than was ever suspected by the superficial nineteenth century mind”.[3] What is said here regarding mythology applies perhaps to many other forms of religion as well.

We must also consider the possibility that most of these outer forms of religion were perhaps originally invented by spiritual and intuitive minds for serving as outer supports to some inner needs of the religious seekers. To understand this inner significance of the outer forms we need a similar intuition which invented these forms. But the intellectual reason does not posses this intuition. So an exclusively or predominantly critical approach of reason may lead to the hacking away of many valuable elements in religion.

Role of Constructive Reason

When we move from the critical to the more creative and constructive aspect of reason, its first and the most legitimate function in religion is in constructing philosophy. Faith, intuition and inner realisation are the bed-rock of religion. But for faith, which is a form of unconscious intuition, and for intuition which is a form of conscious faith, to be effective for realisation, they have to be shared by the whole being including reason. This is the function of philosophy in religion – to harmonise faith and intuition with reason and make reason participate in the light of intuition and faith. As Sri Aurobindo explains the role of reason and intellect in religion-

“In any total advance or evolution of the Spirit, not only the intuition, insight, inner sense, the heart’s devotion, a deep and direct life-experience of the things of the Spirit have to be developed, but the intellect also must be enlightened and satisfied; our thinking and reflective mind must be helped to understand, to form a reasoned and systemized idea of the goal, the method, the principles of this highest development and activity of our nature and the truth of all that lies behind it.”[4]

So it is always desirable for a religion to have a strong, vibrant and progressive intellectual and rational dimension, acting as a mediator between spiritual intuition and faith and the actual and evolving facts of life. A well-developed mind has the natural urge for progress providing the complementing or counterbalancing impulse to the predominantly traditional, conservative and preservative approach of religion; it compels religion to progressively adapt itself to the changing needs of time. But intellect and reason can also help in  preservative work. Religion, as it spreads itself into the masses, tends towards a dilution of its higher ideal in the mass-mind. Intellect and reason can help to preserve the purity of the ideal by deep thought. As Swami Vivekananda points out:

“Whenever you see the most humanitarian ideas fall into the hands of the multitude the first result you note is degradation. It is learning and intellect that help to keep things safe. It is the cultured among a community that are the real custodians of religion and philosophy in their purest form.”[5]

This brings us to another positive contribution which constructive reasoning can make in religion.

The scientific reason has this urge for comparison and generalization, tending towards drawing universal principles from comparative studies, like for example comparative religion and comparative philology. But the normal trend of reason is to study the outer history, forms and dogmas of religion. Instead of this externalized approach, if reason makes an impartial, scientific study of the inner experiences and intuitions of mystics, saints and sages belonging to different religions and also spiritual teachers outside religions, then it may perhaps arrive at some clear concept of the underlying unity behind all religions. This may lead to a deeper, more universal and a non-dogmatic idea of religion.

One of the earliest attempts on these lines is by a great mind who is considered as the father of modern psychology: William James, in his monumental work. “Variety of Religious Experiences”. But the attempt is from the view-point of psychology. William James, after a study of various types of religious experiences, came to the conclusion that there is a deeper and vaster level of consciousness behind the surface conscious being and most of the religious experiences come from this deeper level of consciousness. This conclusion or idea, which became the central idea of modern psychology, was later developed, and also distorted, by Freud, restored to a better condition by deeper insights by Carl Jung, and again refined and broadened with the insights from eastern spirituality by transpersonal psychology. But this attempt is worth repeating from time to time with new experiences, knowledge and insights, from the angle of religion as well as psychology, because it helps in arriving at universal psychological and spiritual principles of religion.

But in religion idea is not enough. Among all human activities, it is religion which requires most of the support from emotions, and an inner and outer discipline for realizing the idea in the inner consciousness and the outer life. But the rational professor of religion has nothing more to offer than a critique and an idea.

Role of Reason in the Inner Discipline of Religion

So far we have discussed only one aspect of the role of reason in religion — as an instrument for outer reformation of religion. There is another aspect — as the guide in the inner discipline of religion. In our present condition of evolution, reason is the highest faculty available to our consciousness. Thus, until a greater intuitive faculty develops and establishes itself as the leader of our inner being, reason should be the guide in our path to the divine.

Reason should exercise a strict control over the infrarational instincts, impulses and feelings of our lower nature. It should learn to discriminate between what is helpful to our inner development and what is not. Finally, reason has to be made conscious of its limitations and trained to open itself to the suprarational realms of the Spirit in a receptive silence. When this happens, and reason is able to receive and manifest the higher intuitive light and knowledge of the Spirit, it will be transformed from intellectual reason to intuitive reason.

Role of Intuitive Reason:

Hence, intellectual reason is not the only form of reason. There is a higher intuitive reason which develops in us as we grow inwardly. This intuitive reason can do whatever the intellectual reason is capable of doing, but with a deeper, higher and a more holistic insight and a greater flexibility in thought, application and action. It is this intuitive reason which can bring about a true reformation of religion.

The intuitive reason can see with a deeper insight the inner significance of the outer forms and therefore knows better than the surface intellect what is to be rejected, what can be retained and created or how to replace new forms for the old ones which have become obsolete. It can discover the unifying truth or idea behind the conflicting dogmas of religions; it can act as an ideal intermediary between the eternal verities of the Spirit and the changing realities of life, channelising the spiritual intuition into the mind and life of man and linking the spiritual dimensions of religion with its mental, vital and physical dimensions. Therefore, to cruise successfully into the future, religions have to develop the intuitive reason.

      [1] Sri Aurobindo, SABCL., Vol., 15, p. 22

    [2] Jeanine Miller, On the Veda, Harmony, Meditation and Fulfillment, p. 6

    [3] ibid., p. 5

    [4] Sri Aurobindo, SABCL., 19, 877

    [5] Swami Vivekananda, Complete Works, Mayavati Memorial Edition, Vol. VI, p. 124


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