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Theosophy or Pantheism?
Friedrich Max Müller's Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion

Lourens Peter van den Bosch



The philosophy of religion as taught by Max Müller in his Gifford lectures belongs to the most neglected part of his work.(2) This neglect shows the posthumous decline in the twentieth century, which sharply contrasts with the fame Müller received during his life. One may ask oneself whether this is deserved, because many of his ideas are still highly interesting.(3)Nowadays he is best remembered for his scholarly edition of the Rigvedawith the commentary of Sayana (1849-1874)(4)and for his edition of the Sacred Books of the East.(5)Moreover, his contributions to the science of religion have been of such vital importance for the acknowledgement of this study as an academic discipline, that he is generally regarded as the founder of the comparative study of religion.(6) This notwithstanding the fact that many of his ideas are outdated, amongst others, on account of their evolutionistic orientation.

However, dry as dust as Müller's work on philosophy and religion may seem to the modern reader,(7)it was once highly controversial in circles of orthodox Christianity and led to fierce accusations against him.(8)His teachings were regarded as subversive to Christian faith and fit to spread pantheistic and irreligious views amongst students and others. According to Monsignor Munro, the Roman Catholic bishop of St. Andrews Cathedral in Glasgow, the lectures were nothing less than 'a crusade against divine revelation, against Jesus Christ and Christianity'. The pantheism taught by Müller made 'divine revelation simply impossible, because it reduced God to mere nature, and did away with the body and soul as we know them'. He was horrified by the fact that 'a Christian university like St. Andrews could tolerate these blasphemous teachings, in which, according to the bishop, Mr. Müller proclaimed atheism under the guise of pantheism'. He added that Müller's 'theory uprooted our idea of God, for it repudiated the idea of a personal God'.(9)

The fights with the narrow-minded clergy did not hurt Müller, because he was deeply convinced that God had revealed himself to humanity in manifold ways in nature and in mankind.(10)The history of religion was full of evidence that there was no religion which did not contain some grains of truth.(11)For this reason he was convinced that a historical and comparative study of religion was the best preparation for a philosophy of religion and should form its basis.(12) He distinguished two branches in the science of religion and called them the Comparative and the Theoretic Theology.(13)The first one was devoted to an impartial and truly scientific study of the most important religions of mankind.(14)The second one, also called by him philosophy of religion, should be based on this Comparative Theology and investigate the nature and development of religion and its hidden purpose.(15)

Müller aimed to sketch in his Gifford lectures a philosophy of religion which could meet the religious crisis among the educated public of his days.(16)This crisis was evoked on account of the historical and critical study of religion by German scholars, and on account of the theories on evolution by Darwin and his pupils.(17)Müller wanted to unveil the deeper layers of religion by historical investigation and to show that a belief in God, in the immortality of the soul, and a future retribution could be gained, without the assistance of what has been called a special revelation.(18)He wrote that there might be reasons for the omnipresent unbelief of his time, but the principal reason was 'the neglect of our foundations, the disregard for our bookless religion, the almost disdain of Natural Religion'.(19)Müller described this natural religion as the religion, 'which is in the head, and in the heart, and in the sky, the rocks, the rivers and the mountains'. He added, that 'it has its roots in nature, in the human nature, and in the external nature, which to us is at the same time the veil and the revelation of the divine'.(20)One of its main features was the sense of the Beyond or the Infinite, without which no religion was possible.(21)'Natural Religion', he wrote, 'may exist and does exist without revealed religion. Revealed religion without natural religion is an utter impossibility'.(22)All revealed religion started, according to Müller, as natural religion and for this reason he claimed that all theology began with anthropology.(23)

Müller's ideas on natural religion show his affinity with representatives of the 'Scottish Enlightenment', such as J. Locke (1632-1704) and D. Hume (1711-1776). They stressed the autonomy of the human mind in its reflection on God, the world and mankind, because the human mind participated in the lumen naturalis ('natural light').(24) But Müller was also attracted by Romantic and Idealistic philosophers such as, for instance, J.G. von Herder (1744-1803), W. von Humboldt (1767-1835), and G.F.W. Hegel (1770-1831) with their stress on the meaning of history. The evolution of the human mind as reflected in the history of ideas became object of a highly speculative reflection, with the dialectic philosophy of Hegel as one of its most brilliant examples.(25)Müller absorbed these two views in his philosophy of religion, and stated that he wished 'religion to be treated as the necessary outcome of the mind of man, when brought under the genial influence of surrounding nature'.(26) He added immediately that the human mind, in its historical development, could not be dissevered from that of nature. For this reason he regarded the study of the evolution or growth of religious thought as the more important part of his Science of Religion. With other words, Müller opted for an approach, in which religion could be studied in its historical development as a product of the human mind.(27) Moreover, in order to stand the test of criticism before the forum of sciences, he wanted to build the foundation of his Natural Religion on the epistemological views of Kant.(28) This thoroughly anthropological position in the Gifford lectures led to charges of atheism by his opponents, but Max Müller dismissed them, because he regarded the history, and especially the history of religions, as the place of divine revelation.(29) Religious texts, including the Bible, were primarily historical documents and formed only a part of this divine revelation. For this reason they should not be regarded as absolute and final revelation.

The basic ideas on the meaning of history such as expressed in Müller's Gifford lectures were not totally new. He had sketched them shortly in 1873 when he wrote that an honest study of the religions of the world would enable us to see in the history of the ancient religions, more clearly than anywhere else, the divine education of the human race.(30)With this expression, derived from G.E. Lessing (1729-1781),(31)Müller placed himself in the Romantic tradition in which history was not only studied for its own sake - in the words of the German historian L. von Ranke:(32) 'wie es eigentlich gewesen ist' - but to learn lessons from it. History, especially the history of religion, was the place of divine revelation and education. The study of Indian religions had taught Müller many useful lessons, not only on the origin and growth of religion, but also on its decay. Careful historical research on the Rigveda had revealed to Müller 'how the conceptions of the deity arose, till they reached, mainly in the Upanishads, the highest stage of a concept of the Godhead' and were condensed in notions such as brahman and atman. The Vedic texts contained a number of important features about the dynamics of religion in the early stages of mankind, especially with respect to the question how to understand the process of religious symbolisation. Müller generalised these views in his study on Natural Religion when he wrote: 'History teaches us, that religions change and must change with the constant changes of language and thought in the progress of the human race'.(33)By this time he had partly incorporated the evolutionistic ideas of Darwin in his own view on the development of religion and tried to neutralise its detrimental effects on Christianity. For this reason he could state that in both history and nature the reflex of laws and thoughts of Divine Wisdom could be detected.(34)

It may be clear from the preceding that the charge that Müller spread pantheistic ideas was not so much based on his elaboration of philosophic ideas of the Enlightenment and Romantic Idealism. It seems more likely that the structure of his philosophy of religion evoked the anger of orthodox theologians. This structure had many similarities with basic ideas of the Vedanta philosophy. Müller had become acquainted with them during his study in Leipzig and Berlin, but especially after 1875 when he translated the principal Upanishads.(35)In his Hibbert lectures on the origin and growth of religion he had traced how the idea of the Infinite gradually had been formed in Indian religions and elaborated in notions as brahman and atman and in a doctrine of release or enlightenment with pantheistic implications. 'The key-note of the old Upanishads' is, "Know thy Self"', but he added, 'the "Know thy Self" of the Upanishads means, know thy true Self, that which underlies thine Ego, and find it and know it in the highest, the eternal Self, the One without a Second, which underlies the whole world'.(36)The three principal themes of his Gifford lectures on natural religion were the discovery of God, the discovery of the soul, and the discovery of the oneness of God and soul in the great religions of the world, a rather ambitious program, as he admitted himself. For this reason he divided natural religion in three branches in accordance with the ways in which the Divine Reality, also called the Beyond or the Infinite, was perceived in nature, in man and in the self, and accordingly named.(37)

Müller made it frequently clear that he wished to study the great themes in the religions of the world according to a strictly historical method. This method implied for Müller not only a collection of the facts but also a scientific interpretation, because the true object of the historical school was to connect the present with the past, to interpret the present by the past, and to discover the solution of current problems by tracing back to the cause from which they arose.(38) The final aim of his Gifford lectures, however, was not so much historical as religious, because he wanted to develop an alternative for the current crisis in Christianity by revealing the pure theosophy in Christian tradition which resembled in many respects the Vedanta.(39)'Theosophy', he wrote, 'was the highest conception of God in the reach of human mind'.(40) Müller investigated the Christian mystics and their principal sources in the light of his knowledge of the Vedanta and concluded that master Eckhart was a real Vedantist.(41) In this context he wrote that his real heroes were the German mystics, Eckhart and his pupils, and that there was nothing mystical in them. It was all as clear as daylight, and very true and beautiful.(42)Müller sketched in his study on Theosophy how in the history of religions the relation between God and the soul, and finally the essential unity between God and the soul, was perceived, and which lessons could be drawn from it. This was according to Müller the highest purpose of religion, in which the yearning of the soul was fulfilled.(43)Theosophy was the true bridge between the Finite and the Infinite.(44)

Müller's philosophy of religion is a blend of many philosophical traditions, but the bare outlines seem to have been derived from the Vedanta, as he admitted at the end of his life.(45) This statement may seem to obscure the finer shades of his philosophical thought, but in the end even the most complex and elaborate systems of philosophy rested, as Müller had remarked himself, on such broad foundations.(46)For this reason I shall restrict myself to a short sketch of these foundations and connect it with the question whether he is rightly accused of being a pantheist.

Natural religion and the idea of the divine

Müller was elected as the first Gifford lecturer in Glasgow because he was acknowledged as being one of the most influential scholars in the science of religion. Moreover, he was supposed to be sympathetic to the ideas of Lord Adam Gifford who prescribed in his testament that the chosen lecturers should lecture on the true knowledge of God in the spirit of Natural Theology and should apply strictly scientific methods.(47)

Müller accepted the invitation, but moulded Gifford's ideals, which were rooted in the Scottish Enlightenment, in his own way. He introduced important notions of German philosophy and theology, as was stated earlier. This becomes clear when his definition of religion is analysed. 'Religion consists', according to Müller, 'in the perception of the Infinite under such manifestations as are able to influence the moral character of man'.(48)The notion of the Infinite is rather vague, as Müller admitted himself,(49)but it had functioned for a long time in Romantic discourse and was of central import in the philosophical theology of Schleiermacher, the most influential theologian of the nineteenth century. According to Schleiermacher, the essence of religion did not consist in knowing or doing, but in sensation and contemplation. Religion was a sense and an appetite of the Infinite.(50)Religious sentiment was explained by him as being the immediate consciousness that all that seems finite is Infinite, that all that seems temporal is eternal or, as he said, 'to seek and find what is Infinite and eternal in all that lives and moves, in all changes and chances, in all doing and suffering, in fact by an immediate sentiment to have and to know life itself as the Infinite and eternal life is religion.(51)

This notion of the Infinite was the starting point for Müller's reflection on religion and it shows that it had strong psychological overtones, because it was regarded as a feeling and disposition of the mind which felt itself dependent on the universe.(52)This feeling and disposition coloured the way in which man perceived the world and constructed his reality. In spite of this, Müller stated, that the Infinite was not only wrapped up in psychology, but more. In this context he introduced the correlative concepts of the phenomenal and nominal reality and claimed that there could be no appearance without something that appeared.(53) That 'something' behind the phenomenal reality existed, according to Müller, by, in and for itself, and one should learn to recognise that as the invisible in the visible, the Infinite in the finite, or as the Divine presence in nature and man.(54) He described this as the sensus numinis of the philosophers and stated that 'all religions may be called endeavours to give expression to that sense of the real presence of the Divine in nature and in man'.(55)The conceptualisation of this notion in its successive stages was for Müller of vital interest in his philosophy and he tried to find an epistemological foundation for it.

With Kant, Müller acknowledged that all our knowledge came through two gates, viz. human senses and reason.(56)In spite of that, he was convinced that 'beyond, behind, beneath, and within the finite, the Infinite is always present to our senses'.(57)He specified this notion of the Infinite in his Gifford lectures and tried to bridge the limits of phenomenal and nominal reality and also to refute objections from the agnostics of his days.(58)Müller challenged his orthodox and agnostic opponents quite boldly with the statement that by knowing the finite we could know the Infinite, by knowing nature we could know God, by knowing ourselves we could know the Highest Self.(59) 'It may, no doubt, be said, that the perception of the Infinite is in itself a perception of something negative only, of something which is not finite such as we perceive it in all its variety, and of which we can predicate nothing except that it is. We know that it is, because it always begins where our finite knowledge seems to end. This is perfectly true logically, but it is not true psychologically'.(60) The main reason was that these sharp distinctions between the nominal and phenomenal reality were usually not drawn in the great majority of cultures which Müller had studied. Belief in the Infinite was implicitly given with the perception by means of the senses and formed in that capacity the source of a rich variety of religious ideas and their manifestations in rituals and the like. For this reason Müller could say: 'Here is the great lesson which the Veda teaches us! All our thoughts, even the apparently most abstract, have their natural beginnings in what passes daily before our senses'.(61)

Unlike Kant, who founded belief in God and the immortality of the soul on the practical postulates of morality, Müller tried to establish belief theoretically on sensual perceptions in which, as we have seen, the notion of the Infinite was implied. In his lectures on Physical Religion he mitigated these ideas and acknowledged that 'the perception of the Infinite' should be conceived as the first moment, germ or impulse in the development of religious ideas.(62)'Man sees to a certain point', Müller had argued in an earlier publication, 'and there his eyesight breaks down. But exactly where his eyesight breaks down, there presses upon him, whether he likes it or not, the perception of the unlimited or Infinite. It may be said that this is not a perception in the ordinary sense of the word. No more it is, but still less it is mere reasoning'.(63) As such, it was only the starting point for the religious consciousness, but not total religion or, to say it in his own words, 'perception of the Infinite is to be taken as the true source of religion, as that without which religion would be inconceivable, but as little as the source is the whole river, is the source of religion the full stream of religion'.(64)None the less, he was of the opinion that this perception of the Infinite was the one element shared in common by all religions. All religions sprung from this same soil - the human head and heart, and this notion of a universal human religiousness is one of the constituent elements in Müller's philosophy.(65) This brought him to the conviction that there was a common truth in all religions, derived from a revelation that was not confined to one religion, nor miraculous in the usual sense of the word. Man could have access to this natural religion, because he could somehow grasp the Infinite, also called the Beyond or Divine, on account of the fact that he participated in it.(66)

Müller equated the idea of the natural with the regular, comfortable to rule, and intelligible, while the supernatural was that which was beyond the rule and reason,(67)In this connection, he stressed the unity of mankind with the words: 'The heart and mind and soul of man are the same under every sky, in all the varying circumstances of human life; and it would indeed be awful to believe that any human being should have been deprived of that light "which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. It is that light which lighteth every man".'(68) With these ideas Müller elaborated his earlier statement that all theology started with anthropology and that all religious concepts participated in the limitations of the human mind, but their first impulse originated in the nominal reality.(69)True religion, according to Müller, was the highest knowledge praised by Fichte, 'when it opens our eyes and makes us perceive the nominal in the phenomenal, the supernatural in the natural, and thus changes the very veil of nature into a never-ceasing revelation of the Divine. All religions may be called endeavours to give expression to that sense of the real presence of the Divine in nature and man.(70)In later reflections Müller gave a more mystical interpretation to the Infinite when he stated that the Infinite could only be apprehended by a faculty superior to reason, by entering into a state in which the Divine Essence was communicated to man by a higher knowledge in which the essential unity between the human and the divine (henosis) was realised.(71)

Müller distinguished three divisions or branches within the reach of natural religion and stated that the three great manifestations under which the Infinite by some means or other could be perceived were Nature, Man and Self.(72)Each of these perceptions had contributed in a specific way to the historical development of what one may call religion. Physical religion was the first branch in which the phenomena of nature formed the starting point for reflections on the Infinite. The two other branches dealt with what Müller called anthropological and psychological religion. The various aspects of the Infinite in man as an objective reality and subjective reality was investigated in these two branches or spheres of thought.(73)Müller admitted that these spheres of thought were often intertwined, but they could be distinguished. Chronologically, but also psychologically, he regarded physical religion as the most ancient layer, which was followed by anthropological religion and, lastly, by psychological religion.(74)Physical religion focused on the problem of what Müller called 'the drama of nature', and the laws governing it in relation to the notion of the Beyond or the Infinite. Anthropological religion posed the question of the immortality of the soul, while psychological religion or theosophy dealt with the relation between man and God or the Absolute. The concept of the Infinite had to pass through the many stages of its historical evolution in each of these three divisions, from the negative to the positive, or to say it with the words of Müller: 'beginning with the simple negation of what is finite and the assertion of an invisible Beyond, and leading to a perceptive belief in that most real Infinite in which, to quote the words of St. Paul, "we live and move and have our being".'(75)

Physical Religion

Müller devoted the second series of Gifford lectures to the relations between early man and nature and the various forms of religious symbolisation which originated in nature. For this reason he made a careful study of the numerous names and expressions derived from the phenomena of nature, by which the early inhabitants had endeavoured to apprehend what lied behind the veil of nature, beyond the horizon of our sensuous perceptions.(76)He was the first to admit that the Infinite was an highly abstract concept and that in many religious traditions is was only implicitly denoted. In spite of that, he tried to show how, to quote him, 'different nations or people had arrived at a belief in something Infinite behind the finite, in something invisible behind the visible, in many unseen agents or gods in nature, till at last, by the natural desire of unity, they reached a belief in one god above all those gods'.(77)From this passage it may be clear that Müller ascribed priority to the historical evolution of ideas and the lessons to be learnt from that. He was therefore not so much interested in a definition of physical religion as a worship of the powers of nature, as some of his contemporaries, like Comte and Spencer, had done.(78)Instead of trying to explain how human beings could ever worship the sky as a god, Müller wanted to discover how any human being could come in the possession of the predicate god and what it meant when this predicate was applied to the sun, the dawn, the sky etc. He supposed that this was no longer evident to his Victorian hearers for whom the concept of God excluded the fire, the dawn, the sun and the sky.(79)

In answering these questions on origins Müller's study of the hymns of the Veda proved an important aid, because it enabled him to illustrate the gradual and perfectly intelligible development of the predicate 'god'.(80)It started with the simplest perceptions and conceptions which the human mind gained from that objective nature by which man found himself surrounded. Nature was, according to Müller, 'the greatest surprise, a terror, a marvel, a standing miracle', and certain features of that standing miracle were called natural, 'in the sense of foreseen, common, intelligible' on account of their permanence, constancy, and regular recurrence. It was this regular recurrence which had led to linguistic expressions. The supernatural, on the contrary, comprised all those phenomena which were 'beyond the reach of rule and reason'.(81) The Infinite in nature, or that which underlied all that was finite and phenomenal in our cosmic experience, became named, individualised, and personified, till it was in the end conceived again as beyond all names and denoted by vague expressions as the Infinite.(82)

Müller had sketched the main line of this development already in his Hibbert lectures and had shown that the Vedic tradition offered many examples of this process.(83)He regarded the most ancient hymns of the Rigveda as a form of primeval nature poetry, as important representatives of the German Romantic tradition, such as F. Schlegel (1772-1829) and F.W.S. Schelling (1775-1854), had done earlier.(84) These early hymns clearly showed, according to Müller, that the idea of the deity was not yet fixed and settled, but only slowly growing towards perfection.(85)The poets ascribed the highest powers to the sun, but they ascribed equally high powers to other natural phenomena. In this context Müller used the expression primitive and meant that the most ancient layers of the Veda were more primitive than any other literary work with which he was acquainted. Besides, he used the term primitive to express the idea that the Rigveda contained many thoughts which required no antecedents and were perfectly intelligible in themselves.(86)Müller made it very clear that the study of the Veda was for him a means to a goal, namely a philosophy of mythology and religion, which was based on more reliable materials, as could be done by Schelling.(87)

Müller stated that the names derived from natural phenomena were originally used in a metaphorical way in order to denote particular features of the divine reality behind the finite. It was this process of ongoing reflection on the Infinite and its setbacks which gradually had created a 'God-consciousness', an expression which might refer to ideas of Hegel.(88)Müller asked himself many times 'by how many steps, by how many names, the Infinite was grasped, the unknown named, and at last the divine reached'.(89)In this context he stated that the Rigveda contained the true theogony of the ancient Aryans,(90) because it showed far more convincing than any so-called special revelation how the human mind was led from perception of the great phenomena of nature to the conception of agents behind these phenomena.(91)He illustrated this in view of the sun as supernatural power, but more detailed in his biography on Agni, the god of fire. He sketched how the fire as a physical phenomenon had become a powerful vehicle and how its various aspects had led to complex theological and mythological reflections and speculations, in which the divine was gradually stripped off from its physical aspects.(92) The highest point reached by physical religion was the idea of brahman, described by him as the merely objective or cosmic God.(93)Müller claimed over and again that the human mind, unassisted by any special revelation, could arrive at a belief of one God in nature.(94)He stated in this context: 'If it can be shown that the highest and purest concept of deity has been the result of a natural and perfectly intelligible evolution, all we have to do is to study the facts which history has preserved to us, and then draw our conclusions'.(95)

In the conclusions of his study on physical religion Müller took an active stand against the popular ideas of Cardinal Newman on divine revelation and argued that man had come independently to a notion of the Infinite or divine in nature, without any appeal to the supernatural.(96)This became evident after a careful historical study of sacred texts of various religions. In a similar natural manner man had come independently to a notion of the soul, but Müller agreed with Newman that real religion was founded on the true perception of the relation of the soul to God and God to the soul.(97) 'From the prayers in the Sacred Books of the East', he added devoutly, 'we learn that no human soul was ever forgotten, and that there are no clouds of superstition, which the rays of eternal truth cannot pierce. Such moments are the rewards of God to the student of the religions of the world - they are the moments of true revelation, revealing in fact that "God has not forsaken any of his children, if only they feel after him, if haply they may find him"'.(98)

Anthropological Religion

Müller's lectures on anthropological religion focused on ideas of the human soul in various religions and philosophies of the world. Physical religion mapped out a series of important religious phenomena, but was in itself an incomplete religion because it did not pay attention to the dimension of the Infinite in man. For this reason he could state that this abyss separating God from man remained in the end of physical religion. God was immortal and man was mortal; and physical religion could not throw a bridge over the abyss that separated the two. Real religion required, according to Müller, more than a belief in God, it required a belief in man also, and in an intimate relation between God and man, at all events to come.(99)Chief object of his lectures on anthropological religion was to show the genesis and growth of the concept of the human soul, which in his opinion was the necessary counterpart of God in every religion and therefore regarded as the immortal element in man.(100)His main questions in this context were, how different people arrived at a belief in a soul, how they named its various faculties, and what they imagined about its faith after death.

Müller observed that the so-called lessons of death were the starting point for this belief in the soul.(101)The first attempts at naming the soul started everywhere from the simplest observations of material facts such as the running away of blood, the beating of the heart and, particularly, the cessation of breathing at the time of death.(102) These phenomena suggested that there was something different from the body and at the same time they supplied the names for that 'something different' as a metaphor. In the words of Müller: 'When people spoke of breath, they at first meant breath, and it was only by what I call the process of divestment inherent in language, that breath came in the end to mean something from which all the material characteristics of breath had vanished, the postulated agent of breath, the living soul, the spirit, the mind.'(103)

More generally formulated, Müller stated that man began by naming what he could perceive; and by simply ignoring what was purely material in his words, he gained possession of a large array of expressions to convey to himself and to others what could not be perceived. Müller observed that the wealth of our abstract and spiritual words came from a small number of material and concrete terms, which could be used also in a metaphorical way,(104)but when the metaphorical character of speech was forgotten, mythology with its irresistible vagaries stepped in.(105)Equally, when art invested these unsubstantial similitude's with a substantial form, the souls often became actual shadows and dreams, birds and winged angels in the popular mind.(106)Müller regarded these phenomena as no more than relics of ancient poetry. The soul was not a bird, nor a shadow, a dream, or even the phantom in a dream. Müller observed in the process of ongoing reflection on the soul a development which was similar to the conceptualisation of God (c.q. brahman), because the same negation, 'he is not this, he is not this' (nêti, nêti), which in the Upanishads was applied to God as the highest reality in the universe, was also applied to the soul. This process of slow and almost unconscious divestment revealed, according to Müller, 'behind the perceptible world a new world which, though invisible, became the necessary substratum of the visible world'. In this context he traced the discovery of the soul as the necessary consequence of the progress of language from the singular to the general, from the concrete to the abstract, from the phenomenal to the nominal, and added 'that as long as we think in human language, we shall never arrive at a truer expression than breath or spirit, unless we rise to a higher octave of thought altogether, and agree to call it the Infinite in Man, as we recognised in the gods of nature the ancient names for the Infinite in Nature'.(107)

From the preceding it may be clear that Müller opted for a historical approach when he studied the various forms of belief concerning the soul and its origins. This led to a contextual analysis of the names and concepts of the soul in their successive stage. In this context Müller applied the linguistic philosophy of J.F. Herbart (1776-1841), which enabled him to detect the growth or evolution of ideas.(108)Belief in the soul, exactly like a belief in gods, or in One God, could only be understood as the result of a long historical growth. It could, to use Müller's words, 'be studied in the annals of language, especially in those ancient words which, originally meant something quite tangible and visible, but in time came to mean something semi-tangible, then something intangible and invisible, and in the end, something Infinite in man'.(109)Physical and anthropological religion were regarded by Müller as hanging together, because the latter showed how man discovered an agent within, and to call that agent soul or person or ego or self, while the former traced the discovery of the agents without in nature leading to the concept of the existence of One God. Müller concluded for this reason that 'the soul is to man, what God is to the Universe'.(110)

Belief in the existence of the soul after death led to many mythological ideas with respect to the hereafter and also to a belief in ancestors and ancestor-worship, but Müller was more interested in the philosophical speculations on the soul and its immortality. In this context he drew attention to the Upanishads and, especially, to the idea of the _tman and its development in the successive stages of Indian thought. He translated this word by "soul", but acknowledged that it was even higher and purer than soul and could be perhaps best rendered by the "Self". He paraphrased this idea of the Self as follows: 'that which constitutes the true Self, the looker-on, the witness within us, that is everywhere in the body and yet nowhere to be touched, that which cannot die or expire, because it never breathed, that is the Infinite in man which philosophers have been groping for, "though he is not far from every one of us" (Acts 17.27). It is the Divine or Godlike in man'.(111)With this arrangement Müller gave also a Vedantic interpretation to these words of St. Paul, because he regarded this interpretation as the highest possible expression within the reach of man.

It as one of the greatest efforts of which humane nature was capable, to bring the two concepts of the human and the divine, which seemed so diametrically opposed to each other, into one focus again.(112) In ancient Indian religion the Self had been recognised as the true bridge, the best connecting link between the soul and God, but Müller also investigated how in various other religious traditions the idea of the divine or immortality in man was gradually shaped and drew especially attention to the origin of Christianity and its historical context. The notion of the divine in man was not so much of Jewish origin because the idea of the unapproachable majesty of Jahwe was stressed, which left little room for ideas relating to the immortality of the soul.(113)The idea of the divine in man was represented in Christianity by the metaphor of the fatherhood of God and Divine sonship of Christ and man. Central to it was the message that the whole of mankind participated in this Divine reality. This was regarded by Müller as a blending of Jewish and Greek thought and he tried to trace the most important roots of these ideas.(114)Orthodox opponents accused Müller of atheism, because he demythologised traditional ideas concerning Christ and degraded the 'Son of God' into a 'a mere man'.(115) The Christian message was regarded as an integral part of history and not as belonging to a special revelation, but for Müller the whole history of the world was the place of divine revelation and did not want to make it profane, or even godless. He stated that the development of the notion of a divine or Infinite element in man in the course of history did not necessarily lower the conception of the Divine and could not be regarded as a blasphemy. It was, in the words of Müller, 'an expanding of the concept of the Divine, and at the same time a raising of the concept of humanity, or rather a restoration of what is called human to its true character, a regeneration, or a second birth.' From this point of view, he accepted the charge of pantheism, but he added that this was pantheism in the best sense.(116)

Müller regarded his study on anthropological religion as a preparation to the study of the relation between God and man. In the preface to this study he added: 'In lecturing on the origin and growth of religion, my chief object has been to show that a belief in God, in the immortality of the soul, and in a future retribution can be gained, and not only can be gained, but has been gained by the right exercise of human reason alone. I have tried to do this, not, as others have done it, by reasoning a priori only, but by historical investigation'.(117)And he defended himself against his opponents with the following words: 'I could not have believed it possible that in undertaking this work, I should have exposed myself to the attacks from theologians who profess and call themselves Christians, and who yet maintain that worst of all heresies, that, during all the centuries that have elapsed and in all the countries of the world, God has left Himself without a witness, and has revealed himself to one race only, (...), the Jews of Palestine'.(118)None the less, Müller defended at the same time the unique and truly historical character of Christianity and stated that it came in the very fullness of time and formed a bridge between the temporal and eternal.(119)From this point of view, the metaphor of the divine sonship of man as proclaimed in the New Testament had a universal meaning.

In his lectures on anthropological religion Müller also took a stand against the position of Herbert Spencer who regarded a belief in ghosts and a cult of ancestors as the main source of primitive religion.(120)Müller acknowledged the importance of this source, especially with respect to religious feelings, but gave it a secondary place in comparison with the worship of the powers which manifested themselves in nature, because the phenomena were the starting point for religious symbolisation and linguistic incorporation.(121)


Müller regarded his last series of Gifford lectures on psychological religion as the crowning glory of his work. It was the result of a life-long reflection on religion. We find the first germs of this reflection in a letter he wrote to his mother in 1849 when he was twenty-five years old: 'The rediscovery of the eternal union between God and man constitutes true religion among all people: religion means binding together again'.(122)It is probable that Müller was already acquainted at that time with the basic ideas of the Vedanta and influenced by them. For this reason he could write in the same letter that many roads to this highest goal and that the Bible should not regarded as only source of revelation. The elaboration of the implantation of these ideas took him much time and energy and sometimes he referred to them, as may be clear from his letters.(123)He often felt incapable to deal with them, though he had been attracted to them during his whole life.(124)When he prepared this course he wrote in a letter to an American friend in 1892: 'you will see easily how I try to solve the problems relating Nature, Self and God, historically, if possible, .... but I find it almost too hard to finish, and begin to feel my ignorance more and more'.(125)He was at that time deeply steeped in the study of the early church and mysticism, which had been always very dear to him. 'I am deep in the mystics just now', he wrote to his friend W. Lilly, 'they have been throughout my life my protection against all troubles ... My favourites are of course the German mystics, particularly master Eckhart and Cardinal Cusanus. Even Thomas Aquinas is permeated by mysticism ... Still, he does not go as far as Eckhart who is a real Vedantist, and knows the difference between Wesen and Sein'.(126) The Vedanta and Christian mysticism were the two main topics of his theosophy, but Müller acknowledged that there were more endeavourings to build bridges between the visible and invisible, the finite and the Infinite, or the human and the divine, such as Sufism, for instance, had had taught him.

Müller named his last course of Gifford lectures 'Psychological Religion or Theosophy', but he knew that this last title could be misunderstood, as the word was already used by Madame Blavatski and Colonel Olcott for their occult doctrines, in which eastern and western ideas were blended. In the preface of his book he stated: 'the venerable name so well known among the early Christian thinkers, as expressing the highest conception of God within the reach of human mind, has of late been so greatly misappropriated that it was high time to restore its proper function'.(127)Müller wanted to do this by a historical study of the various attempts made in the religions of the world to define the relation between the Infinite in nature and the Infinite in man or, as he called it more popularly, of the connection between heaven and earth.(128)He was convinced that a study of the discovery of 'the oneness of the objective God and the subjective soul formed the final consummation of all religion and all philosophy'. In this context he analysed the metaphors which were often employed to describe this relation and stated that in most religions of the ancient world, the relation between god and the soul had been represented as a return of the soul to God. In his words: 'a yearning for God, a kind of divine home sickness, finds expression in most religions, but the road that is to lead us home, and the reception that the soul may expect in the father's house, have been represented in very different ways, in different countries and in different languages'.(129)

Müller distinguished two different views, in the first place the idea of the return of the soul to God, and secondly, the knowledge of the unity of the Divine and the Human. Müller opted for the last view, which, in his opinion, was most thoroughly elaborated by the Vedanta. He summarised its basic ideas in the following simple syllogism: 'If there is one being, the Vedantist says, which is all in all, then our soul cannot in its substance be different from that being, and our separation from it can be the result of nescience only, which nescience has to be removed by knowledge, that is, by Vedanta philosophy'.(130)He stated that similar ideas, though in a different cloak, could be found in early Christianity, especially in the philosophical speculations on the concept of Logos, in which Jewish ideas and Hellenistic philosophy were blended.(131) Müller tried to justify the seemingly pantheistic aspects of his philosophy in front of orthodox opponents by quoting an important passage of St. Paul's speech to the inhabitants of Athens (Acts 17.28) qualifying God as the one 'in which we live and move and have our being'.(132)He stated that these words contained the corner-stone of Christianity and were essential for his interpretation of theosophy. They gave expression to the idea of the essential oneness between God and the soul.(133)It strengthened in him the opinion that the expression of the divine sonship of man in the New Testament was a metaphor which it embodied the same idea, viz. identity in substance and difference in form.(134)In this context he wrote to one of his friends: 'it will be the last word I have to say, and it not easy to find out how to say it, and how to explain in English the unity of the Infinite in nature and the Infinite in man, the true meaning of "I and the Father are one" (St. John 10.30).'(135)It will come as no surprise that the Christian dogma of incarnation was interpreted by Müller in a Vedantic sense, though he was the first to acknowledge that the mythological form of this doctrine, so carefully guarded by the priestcraft, was essential for Christianity as a popular religion.(136)

Müller wished to treat the materials collected for his theosophy not simply as a philosopher, but also as a historian, who carefully searched after the facts and interpreted them in their own context. He tried to decipher the metaphorical expressions of the relation between God and the soul in specific religious traditions and followed what he called the genealogical method. This was, in his opinion, the most perfect method to trace the growth or evolution of religious ideas. This study of history had a theological meaning for him and for this reason he could write: 'when we have learnt to recognise in history the realisation of a rational purpose, when we have learned to look upon it as in the truest sense of the word a Divine Drama, the plot revealed in it ought to assume in the eyes of the philosopher also a meaning and a value far beyond the speculations of even the most enlightened and logical theologians.'(137)With these words Müller placed himself in the tradition of the philosophy of history and even contended that the history of religion was the true philosophy of religion, because history tested and sifted all forms and varieties of religion far more effectively than any single philosopher could hope to do.(138)

The study of theosophy was elaborated by Müller in a grand design in which the mystical and theological traditions of the world religions were analysed on the basis of the ideas relating to God and the soul. Theosophy presupposed, according to him, both physical and anthropological religion, because both the concept of God and the soul had to be elaborated, before the soul and God could be brought in relation to each other: 'God had to be conceived as soul-like, and the soul of Man as God-like, like only can know like, like only can love like, like only can be united with like'. The ancient Indian religions and philosophies contained important material with respect to these questions. In this context close attention was paid to the Vedanta, which originated in the Upanishads. Müller stated in this context that belief in the eternal oneness of the human and the divine 'in the Vedanta religion only had received its full recognition and development'. Its corner-stone was the expression tat tvam asi, 'Thou art that'. The tat was conceived as the last result of Physical Religion and equated with the eternal idea of Plato, the unknowable of the agnostics, the idea of brahmanin India and the Infinite in Nature. The tvam, 'Thou', was, 'the Infinite in man, the last result in Anthropological Religion, the Soul, the Self, the being behind every human Ego, free from all bodily fetters, free from passions, free from all attachments'. The gist of true theosophy was, according to Müller, the understanding that 'the subject and object of all being and all knowing are one and the same'. This was the highest summit of thought the human mind had reached and it had found expression in some religious traditions and philosophies, but nowhere as clear and powerful as in the ancient Upanishads, and in the later interpretations of Shankara and Ramanuja.(139)

Müller discovered in his study of theosophy a number of striking similarities between mystic Christianity of the fourteenth century and Vedanta Philosophy. Master Eckhart was particularly one of those great Rhineland mystics, in whom the accumulated spiritual wisdom of the preceding centuries had culminated. Müller had become acquainted with German mysticism in his youth and deeply admired the works of Eckhart and his followers.(140)He regarded Eckhart as a real Vedantist,(141)and agreed with him that 'it is through the Divine or immortal element in the human soul, that we are one and become one with God'. In this context Müller added that 'man can not know God objectively, but in what Eckhart calls the mystic contemplation, he can feel his oneness with the Divine.' He quoted various famous expressions of Eckhart in order to substantiate his view, such as: 'what is seen with the eye wherewith I see God, that is the same eye wherewith God sees me. My eye and God's eye are one eye and one vision, one knowing and one loving. It is the same to know God and to be known by God, to see God and to be seen by God'. This knowing and to be known was formulated in metaphorical expressions of mystical Christianity like the birth of the Son in the soul. 'If His knowing is mine', Eckhart wrote, 'and His substance, His very nature and essence is knowing, it follows that His essence and substance are mine. And if His nature and substance and essence are mine, I am the Son of God. Behold ... what manner of love the Father has bestowed upon that we should be called the sons of God', and to this Müller added, 'be the sons of God'. Müller compared these ideas of Eckhart with similar notions in the Upanishads. 'What Eckhart calls the Divine Ground in the soul and in the Godhead', he wrote, 'may be compared with the neutral Brahman of the Upanishads, as discovered in the world and in the soul. And as in the Upanishads the masculine Brahman is distinguished, though not separated, from the neutral Brahman, so, accordingly to Eckhart, the three persons may be distinguished from the Divine Ground, though they can not be separated from it'.(142) These somewhat "abstruse" ideas cannot be further elaborated in this context.

The views formulated by Eckhart were in Müller's opinion the result of a long development in Christianity, which started with the early Alexandrine church fathers, St. Clement and Origen. They based themselves, according to Müller in imitation of others,(143) particularly on the Jewish philosopher Philo who had lived in Alexandria and incorporated Platonic ideas in his theological reflections on God and nature.(144)They were the first who translated Philo's ideas within an early Christian context. As such, their works were a blending of Greek speculative thought and Jewish-Christian traditions.(145)Müller was convinced that Christianity never would have conquered the world, particularly the educated Hellenistic world, without the Greek philosophers of Alexandria and their speculative view of Christianity.(146)He concentrated himself on the cluster of notions round the term logos, 'word' or 'thought', because early Christians had discovered the bridge between the Visible and the Invisible with the help of them. It would go to far to deal in this context with all details, important as they are, but Müller stated in a letter that if St. Clement and Origen 'could conceive God the Father as a person, they would conceive the Son, the Logos, the first thought of the universe, before all creation, as a person also'.(147)None the less, he admitted that these thinkers could not shake off all mythological language, and confessed in the same letter: 'I think the Urgrund, or the abyss of the mystics, is the Divine Substance of which Father and Son are persons. The Urgrund is not personal, as little as the _tmanof the Vedantists. It is shared in common, it forms as it were the essence of both God and Man'.

In his evaluation of the works of the earliest Christian philosophers in Alexandria, Müller claimed that Christianity in its fist struggle with the non-Christian world owed its victory chiefly to the recognition of what formed the essential element of all religion, namely 'the recognition of the closest connection between the phenomenal and the nominal worlds, between the human soul and God'.(148)The ideas of St. Clement and Origen were in later times frequently misunderstood and criticised, but they formed an important undercurrent in the theological reflections from the second until the nineteenth century A.D. The works of Dionysios the Areopagite (6th century A.D.) were, according to Müller, of paramount import in the transmission of these ideas and it was due to him that the light of ancient Christian theosophy was not extinguished, but handed down to later medieval theologians such as e.g. Bernard of Clairveaux (1091-1153) and Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274).(149)The real fascination in the works of Dionysios, Müller believed, lay in the satisfaction they gave to the innate cravings of the human soul for Union with God. These cravings became stronger as the mind of the priests and the laity was occupied by the mere externals of worship and religion.(150)This was also the case in the latter half of the nineteenth century, when religious doubt had corroded traditional Christianity. Müller took a stand against the narrow-minded priesthood of his time, because it was more concerned for the arid dogmas, miracles, vain symbols and ceremonies, than for honest doubt and independent spiritual searching.(151)In this context he confessed that nothing seemed more delightful to him than 'to be able to discover how by an unbroken chain our thoughts and words carry us back from century to century, how the roots and feeders of our mind pierce through stratum after stratum, and still draw their life and nourishment from the deepest foundations, from the oldest thinkers of mankind .... That is what gives us confidence in ourselves, and often helps us to impart new life to what threatens to become hard and petrified, mythological and unmeaning, in our intellectual and, more particularly, religious life'.(152) He condemned, from this point of view, orthodox Christianity with its dogmas as much as he had earlier condemned orthodox Hinduism in his Westminster lecture on Missions.(153) He described his own position in this context with the words: 'Let us reverence by all means what is called a childlike faith, but let us never forget that to think is also to worship God'.(154)

With his eulogy on mystical religion with notions of unification or change into God, Müller believed to base himself on the teachings of St. Paul and St. John. (155)True historical research could trace the spiritual dimensions of their message which had come in the "fullness of time".(156)It had blended the pure metal that had been brought to light by the toil of centuries in the East and in the West into a stronger metal, the religion of Christ. Müller was, however, not only interested in the outer world of religion and its actual growth, he at least as interested in the inner world of religion, its spiritual dynamics and its high potentialities in attributing meaning to life. Referring to the ideas of Cardinal Newman, he wrote that 'it was for religion to define the true relation between God and man', but added that 'this recognition of a relation between the Divine and the Human must be preceded by what I called the perception of the Infinite in nature and of the Infinite in man, and the final recognition of their oneness'.(157) Religion meant for Müller essentially a re-uniting of the soul with God. He distinguished in this context two ways of reunion, viz. as the restoration of the original oneness, or as an approach and surrender of the soul to God in love which would lead to the final union with God.(158)He acknowledged the validity of the Vedanta as a bridge between the soul and God, but was convinced that Christian mysticism had developed a similar valid alternative, though its historical moulding was quite different.

Müller regarded the idea of the divine sonship of man in early Christianity as the best possible metaphor to express the relation between God and man, because it clearly conveyed what was wanted: 'identity in substance and difference in form'.(159)It was this identity in substance which was expressed by St. Paul in his words that 'we live and move and have our being in God'. Müller remarked with fine irony that St. Paul had added to them: 'as certain of your poets also have said', thus referring to notions of Natural of Universal Religion.(160)The difference in form was embodied in the very name of the Son as a creation of the Father, or, to say it otherwise, it was the Divine or the Infinite in created form. To substantiate his ideas on the relations between the human and the divine, Müller drew attention to the metaphorical expressions on the Father and the Son as they were used by St. John and explained by Eckhart. Müller agreed with Eckhart and other mystical theologians that the difference between Christ and mankind was one in degree and not in kind. All mankind participated essentially in the Divine reality and was therefore entitled to the divine sonship, but in Christ this idea was fully embodied.


From the preceding it may be clear that Müller's his philosophy of religion was rooted in the religious experience, such as expressed in the linguistic records of mankind. The starting point for his reflections was the notion of the Infinite as mediated by German Romanticism, with Schleiermacher as its most important theologian. This notion of the Infinite had strong psychological overtones, but Müller tried to stress its epistemological aspects by stating that the Infinite as the nominal reality was somehow always implied in the finite reality. It could be perceived subjectively and expressed in metaphorical language only, because all statements on the nominal or absolute reality were inevitably wrapped up human language.(161)Religion expressed a universal human yearning for God; all theology as a systematic reflection on religion was for this reason essentially anthropology, but anthropology with a divine dimension.

The perception of the Infinite as the essence of religion was Müller's imaginary point of departure, but he could study its various manifestations only in as far as these had become concrete in words and names and formed the object of reflection in the great religions of the world. From this point of view, the history of religions became important to Müller, because it enabled him to sketch the origin and evolution of religious ideas. He stated that the names of the concrete phenomena of nature were used initially by man to express the notion of the Infinite in a metaphorical way, but added that in the history of religion two contradictory processes could be observed. The first was one of decay, when metaphors were no longer understood and became petrified, and the second was one of growth or progress by the ongoing reflection from the concrete to the abstract. The first process led to mythology, a belief in miracles and to superstition,(162)but the other, to a progress of divestment, in which language was purified and a higher idea of the Absolute was formed.(163)A similar process could be observed with respect to the notion of the Infinite in man leading to a purer concept of the soul and its divine origin. The perception of the Infinite in the world and the Infinite in man led to a number of questions which centred around the relation between God and the soul on the one hand and God and the world on the other one. These questions were answered in the history of religions in manifold ways and were seen by Müller as natural endeavours to bridge the gap between the human and divine.(164)

In his philosophy of religion Müller evaluated all these attempts from a historical point of view, because he was convinced that history sifted and tested all forms and varieties far more effectively than any philosopher ever could hope to do. A study of the history of religions had for this reason a religious meaning for Müller and became the place of divine revelation, in which mankind gradually became aware its spiritual destination. The history of religion taught the lessons on the divine education of the human race. In this context a comparison between religions and religious ideas became of interest. Müller did not intend to compare them in order to condemn them, because he believed that all religions gave expression to the same yearning to the Divine. His principal aim was to evaluate their intellectual and spiritual strength and consistency in order to develop a natural religion which might meet the religious crisis of Christianity.(165)As such, Müller appealed to metahistorical criteria, though he is not always clear on this point. Anyhow, he regarded the Vedanta philosophy and its metaphysical foundations as the most advanced from an intellectual point of view, because it had formulated the most consistent answers. For this reason Müller adopted them for the basic structure of his philosophy of religion, in which the historical progress of the idea of the divine reality in nature and in man was traced in all its complexity. Under this aspect Müller's philosophy of religion can be regarded as a blending of idealistic philosophy and a philosophy of history.

Müller regarded the Vedanta philosophy originating in the Upanishads as the earliest manifestation of psychological religion and he qualified it as the highest summit of thought which human mind had reached.(166)It broke completely with the anthropomorphic conceptions of God and the Soul and opened new vistas with on the highest reality in the universe and the highest reality in man, which were essentially one. Within the context of this psychological religion Müller investigated the mystical traditions of Christianity which originated in the theology of St. Paul and St. John and the early Alexandrine church fathers. He was convinced that the same basic ideas of natural religion were at the roots of their teachings as found in the Upanishads. It was this conviction which led to the accusations of pantheism, but Müller denied them and referred to Eckhart with the words: 'though all things are dynamically in God, God is actually not in all things'. Müller identified himself with the position of Eckhart and stated that Eckhart spoke of God as the universal Cause like the Vedantists, and 'yet he claimed for him an extra mundane existence. God is outside nature, he is not Himself Nature, He is above it'.(167) With other words: God and the world are not the same.(168)This position, which Müller adopted from Eckhart, can be best qualified as 'pantheism'.(169) It does not equate God and world, but stresses the omnipresence of God, especially in mankind. 'God is always working', Eckhart had stated, 'and his work is to beget His Son'. The Gifford lectures show that God, in the unity with his son Friedrich Max Müller, had to work very hard.


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