In his book of “Reflections,” Hermann Hesse writes: “In speaking with members of a church or religious community, I am careful to say nothing that might undermine their faith. For most men it is a very good thing to belong to a church and faith. The first experience of those who break away is a loneliness that makes a good many of them hanker for the old community. Only much later will they discover that they have entered into a new community, great but invisible, which encompasses all peoples and all religions. They will be poorer in all dogmatic, national goods, but richer in brotherhood with the souls of all epochs, nations, and languages.”
Anyone who has felt the need to break ties with a church or religious community because it felt too small, parochial, myopic and provincial to encompass the infinitude of the human spirit will know what Hesse is talking about. Hesse wants to identity with the “One Spirit” that for him is “above all images and multiplicities.” In this way he hopes “to belong to the universal brotherhood of all souls across all ages and civilizations.” It sounds like a noble idea, however difficult it is to work out such an ideal in practice. Hesse’s own approach as a mystic was to create “a church of one.” But that makes some sense when you realize how passionate he was about protecting the solitary individual against the corrupting, compromising, banalizing and leveling influences of all social collectives, whether religious, educational or political institutions.
As I see it, our encounter with every world religion presents us with a variety of different interpretive options. People usually stick with the same option, no matter which religion they encounter along the way.
The first option held by “the new atheists” is the view that all religions are misguided, ignorant, superstitious and harmful.
A second option held by dogmatic fundamentalists is the view that only their religion is absolutely true and divinely revealed – “from God’s lips to man’s ears.”
A third option held by many religious “mainliners” today is the view that their religion is NOT “the one true faith” but that, all things being equal, it is in some ways the best faith, or it is existentially “the best faith for them.”
A fourth option held by religious liberals is the view that religious beliefs ought not to be taken literally but they ought to be taken seriously — how so? — as symbolic, metaphorical and mythical ways of speaking about the ineffable mystery that is beyond language and words.
A fifth option held by pantheistic monists is the view that because “God is the One Spirit above all images and multiplicities,” all the world religions and spiritual paths are saying essentially the same thing in different symbols and words. In this view words like Atman (True Self), Anatta (No Self), Tao (Integral Harmony), Torah (Divine Law) and Grace (Unmerited Kindness) are all different aspects of the One Spirit where all polarities converge in Universal Unity.
A sixth option held by metaphysical pluralists is the view that there are not only different ways to salvation, enlightenment, fulfillment, at-one-ment (whatever word we choose to use) because there many religious means to many religious ends. We’re not all heading up the same mountain, but rather heading up different mountains. Each ascent has its own unique merits and is not interchangeable with the others.
A seventh option held by indifferent “ignostics” is the view that the perennial religious and spiritual quest for transcendent meaning, purpose, fulfillment and hope is not worth thinking about. They are simply indifferent to it.
An eight option is the view held by “reverent agnostics” is the view that if there is an ultimate meaning and purpose to life and human existence that death does not utterly destroy, that transcendent meaning and hope remains for them an Ineffable Mystery.
Which of these eight (or more) options we choose will depend upon many factors, including our life experiences, psychological disposition, social conditioning and educational environment.
Like Don Quixote’s “Impossible Dream,” Hermann Hesse’s German Romantic vision of “a brotherhood with the souls of all epochs, nations, and languages” may remain an impossible but relevant ideal.