John Algeo – USA
John at his very best: passionately speaking in front of students, and a (white) blackboard behind him
The term "Theosophy" is generally defined in terms of ideas. Thus Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary defines it that way, both generally and specifically:
1 : teaching about God and the world based on mystical insight
2 often capitalized: the teachings of a modern movement originating in the United States in 1875 and following chiefly Buddhist and Brahmanic theories especially of pantheistic evolution and reincarnation
So does the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary:
Any of various systems of belief which maintain that a knowledge of God may be achieved by spiritual ecstasy, direct intuition, or special individual revelations; spec. (a) such a system proposed by Jacob Boehme (1575-1624); (b) a modern system following some Hindu and Buddhist teachings, seeking universal brotherhood, and denying a personal god.
Such, however, was not the view of Madam Blavatsky, who famously wrote (in The Key to Theosophy , p. 20): "Theosophist is, who Theosophy does." A Theosophist is not someone who holds any particular ideas, but rather is someone who "does" Theosophy.
HPB's statement certainly does not deny that there are Theosophical ideas. Theosophical ideas abound. Their essence was summarized by HPB herself in the three fundamental propositions of The Secret Doctrine (1:14-20), which can be even more concisely (albeit, inadequately) summarized as the ideas of universal monism, order, and purpose. But to be a Theosophist or even a member of the Theosophical Society, one need not subscribe to these or any other ideas, such as "pantheistic evolution and reincarnation" or other "Hindu and Buddhist teachings," including a nontheistic view of the divine. Instead one must "do" Theosophy.
What does "doing" Theosophy involve? When one joins the Theosophical Society, one is not asked to confess belief in any ideas whatever. Instead one is asked only to subscribe to the Society's three Objects:
- To form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color.
- To encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy, and science.
- To investigate unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in man.
Note that the operative verbs of the three Objects ("to form ... to encourage ... to investigate") specify actions, not beliefs or ideas. Membership in the Society requires a commitment to do some things, not to believe anything or adopt any particular ideas. To be sure, doing those actions assumes a belief in certain things: specifically, the reality of human brotherhood; the value of studying religion, philosophy, and science; and the existence of unexplained laws and latent powers.
In fact, every action rests upon some belief, just as every idea entails certain actions. Theory and practice are not divorced from each other, but are mutually implicative. Thus the three Objects of the Society correlate with the three fundamental propositions, as follows:
- Monism, the view that there is only one ultimate reality in the universe, implies that you and I -- indeed, all existing beings -- are ultimately one with that reality and therefore with one another. Human brotherhood is a fact of existence. In the Society, we merely try to form a nucleus of it.
- Order, manifesting through the cyclical patterns of life and the cosmos, is the subject of religion, philosophy, and science. Each of those disciplines focuses on some aspect of order: Science tries to discover the laws that govern the physical world; philosophy, the principles by which intellect operates; and religion, the connections between the secular and the sacred. Those three disciplines are the main ways humans have formulated ideas about the order of the universe. To encourage their comparative study is thus to increase our understanding of that order.
- Purpose, in the universe and in human life, is the recognition that existence has meaning and that all beings are on a pilgrimage, a journey towards a goal of ever-increasing refinement, understanding, and connectedness. Fulfilling that purpose entails an investigation into the unexplained and a development of our latent powers. The unexplained is within us as well as around us, and those latent abilities are not primarily psychic, but rather such spiritual powers as love and wisdom.
Ideas and actions properly go together like a horse and carriage, or love and marriage (as an old Frank Sinatra song has it). But the emphasis, in both Theosophy and the Theosophical Society, is on "doing" Theosophy, not professing a belief in any ideas or doctrines.
"Doing" Theosophy involves three things, as the Society's Objects indicate. First, "doers" form a nucleus by participating in the Theosophical Society and its branches, without prejudice based on the merely external characteristics of other Fellows, and by helping to forward the Society's work in whatever ways are possible for them. Second, they encourage the study of religion, philosophy, and science by recognizing the importance of humanity's multicultural efforts to respond to the principles of order in the universe, society, and human life and by respecting the diverse forms those efforts have taken, without attempting to impose their own cultural values on everyone else. Third, they investigate unexplained natural laws and humanity's latent powers by being open to new possibilities for dealing with the world and by striving to realize their own inner potentials.
To be sure, no one "does" Theosophy perfectly. We each need only try to do our best, according to our nature and opportunities. As the Master KH wrote to A.P. Sinnett: "We have one word for all aspirants: TRY" (The Mahatma Letters , no. 54). Theosophical ideas are inspiring and energizing. They are great guideposts in life. But ultimately karma does not respond to what we think or believe, but rather to what we choose to do.