A Word of Warning
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
A Word of Warning
I write this little pamphlet, which I have entitled "A Word of Warning," under a strong sense of responsibility. There are certain things which it is my duty to say, and this seems to be the time to do it. They are not easy things, nor things which make for popularity, but for many years I have had to plead an unpopular cause for the sake of truth, and one gets used to opposition and misrepresentation. As one grows near the limit of the psalmist, the outer world gives us little fresh to hope for and little fresh to fear. One’s only possible motive or desire is to state the truth as clearly as one can see it, and to justify any gifts which God may have given one.
For five or six years I have received in my own family circle certain messages which profess to be, and have every internal sign of being, from a high spiritual source. Some of them I have actually published under the title "Pheneas Speaks." The part published is not more than one-third of the whole, and the residue contains much which, if it be true, is of extreme importance for the human race. I was instructed that the time has not yet come for such publication, and indeed it was clear upon the face of it that a detailed and verbatim account would tend to cause panic, and lend itself to different forms of vulgarisation and sensationalism. I, therefore, refrained, but I went the length of indicating the general tenor of these warnings.
This was that the world had failed to learn the lesson of the great war, that only by such tragic visitations could it be chastened and humbled into a more spiritual state of mind, and that accordingly, unless there was some sweeping change of heart, a second trial was coming which would surely accomplish what the first had failed to do. The date of this crisis would be soon, it would take the form of political and natural convulsions, and its effect would be absolutely shattering. Such, in a nutshell, is the message as we have received it. It is not a pleasant one either to hear, or to deliver, at a time when we are still reeling from the last blow, but if the message is a true one then the situation should be faced.
But is it a true one? There lies the whole crux. There are several considerations which bear directly upon the question. First of all, these messages have come absolutely unsought, are entirely outside the medium's range of thought or interests, and in many ways run counter to our own opinions. Secondly, since they began to reach us the whole trend of events, both in international affairs and in seismic activity has moved in the direction indicated, and shown itself in each case most active in the very quarters of which we were warned. Finally, during this time we have received a series of corroborations which now exceed a hundred in number, coming from every part of the world, and all dealing with one or other of the events which are already foretold in our record. If, to use a homely comparison, I may compare that record to a completed jig-saw picture, then we have had each separate piece handed in independently, so that all united, when fitted into their places, would form a duplicate. These records, some of them short, but many of them long and detailed, I have, of course, carefully preserved. They constitute a formidable dossier. If any critic says, "These alarms are continually occurring. They are delusions of the sub-conscious mind," I am entitled to point to this mass of evidence, and to say, "But why should all these subconscious minds be moving in the same direction?"
A further consideration which influences me is that many of the lesser prophecies of Pheneas have been already fulfilled. Again and again he has given us notice of earthquakes and other events before they occurred. Anyone who cared to examine my manuscripts could satisfy himself upon that point. If, then, Pheneas is often right about the smaller matters, is it logical to suppose that he is mistaken in his main contention?
Weighing every alternative explanation, there is only one to which I could attach any weight. It is that people who have responded to the reactions of the war may unconsciously fall back upon the terrors and wonders of Revelations, and the Apocalypse which build up visions of the same order. It is a conceivable explanation, and yet it will not cover the facts. It will not explain the exact detail obtained in so many of these sinister messages, nor will it account for the fact that the signs of the times are already ominously pointing in the direction indicated.
I have used the adjective "sinister," and so they would seem on their face value and immediate application. But I would stress the fact that if and when they materialise into realities, they are but a violent remedial prelude to a very great moral and spiritual advance of the race. Therefore, even at the worst, it should be hope and expectation rather than despair which should fill our hearts, if we place the welfare of the whole future race against that of one generation of human beings.
But now we come to the centre of the whole problem. What are the changes which should have been brought about by the war, which have not been brought about, and which must be brought about, if we are to escape the wrath to come? They are, as I understand them, of two different orders, religious and economic. I will take the former first.
Mankind must learn once for all that Religion has nothing whatever to do with theological beliefs, or forms, or ceremonies, or priest hoods, or vestments, or sacraments, or any of the other trappings and adornments which have so covered it that we can no longer see it. It depends upon two things only, and those are Conduct and Character. If you are unselfish and kind, then you are of the elect, call yourself what you will. If you are dry and hard and bitter and narrow, no church and no faith can save you from the judgment to come.
But what is the harm of the form or the sacrament? May it not help you to be unselfish and kind? It is true that it may not prevent you from being so if such is your natural bent. Every creed and system of thought has its saints – which does not mean that it produces its saints. The mere fact that they appear in all, shows that they are independent of all. Even Atheism has had its saints. But the general objection to all forms is that they inevitably tend to take the place of facts, and to give a man the impression that not by his own effort, but by some trick or charm of someone else, the sacrifice of a Christ, or the blessing of a priest, he will reap his reward. It is a fatal delusion, as each will find for himself when it is too late. It is easy to go through life in the majestic procession of a church, with that sense of security which the sheep may feel in the heart of a flock. But we do not die in a procession. We die alone. And then comes the hour when the soul realises its position, and understands that nothing in the world is of any help to it save only the character which it has itself built up. If it is sweet and loving, all is well. If it is hard and worldly, then it has now to face the consequence.
These irrational observances do harm because their obvious impossibility and falsehood alienate the earnest man, and prejudice him against all that is true and good in religion. In his repulsion from the self-styled ministers of the Christ he loses sight of the Christ Himself. He fails to understand that that august figure, the most notable in the annals of the world, is in no way responsible for all the complexities and distortions which have been inflicted upon His own prefectly simple maxims by an order of men who often represent not Him, but those Pharisees with whom he contended in His lifetime. Christ's mission was to fight the pedantic religion of His day. The same mission assails Him now should He come back to us. It is true that there are ministers of every denomination who are the salt of the earth. So it may have been also among the Pharisees. It is not they, but the system into which they are forced which needs an utter reform, which can hardly stop short of total abolition.
Vague statements are of no avail. One must get down to details, even if some tender souls are hurt in the process. There is no need to be hurt. They should learn that the best service that can be done to the real Christ is to make Him reasonable, and that every effort, however humble, in that direction, is done for His sake and His true religion.
Let us admit in the outset that every one of the fantastic beliefs which have been foisted upon mankind has originally had some true and legitimate meaning, which has been exaggerated and deformed, until it has become a monstrosity. Let us consider first the case of that august lady who was the mother of the greatest of mankind. Surely she deserves honour. We know, it is true, hardly anything about her, but "like mother, like son," and she was carefully chosen. If we wish to have an ideal of womanhood why not Mary the wife of Joseph, the hard-working partner of a carpenter, the mother of a large family and the sufferer in that tragedy which has stirred the world? All this is reasonable. But why in the name of sanity should we call her "The Virgin." Are not the names of her children known? In an absurd desire to exalt her and make her other than human, one-half of the people have been driven into superstition, and the other half into contemptuous and almost hostile neglect. In claiming too much her supporters have lost that universal assent which would be right and reasonable.
Now take that sacrament, the nature of which is disguised under such grand names as "Eucharist" and "transubstantiation," because it is so obviously repellant that any plainer word would condemn it. In its origin it was reasonable and charming. It meant that those who were of the same communion should meet from time to time in good fellowship, and that when they did so they should bear in mind Him who was the very centre of that Communion, the gentle teacher and living example of all that was good. What could be more reasonable than that? And what has human absurdity and perverseness made of it? No less than that we eat and drink (and presumably digest) the actual flesh and blood of God. Some, possibly half the Christian body, go to that preposterous length. The other half halt at some point just short of this blasphemous absurdity. All this in the teeth of all common sense and on the faith of a single text out of a volume which is never critically examined that it is not shown to be full of mistranslations and interpolations. It is folly of this sort, folly to which I know no parallel in any barbarous religion, which calls for a judgment upon us. That we should claim that the words of a man could turn a wafer of flour into the flesh of God will fill our posterity with mingled horror and amused contempt.
Or take the so-called sacrament of Confession. What could be more sensible or laudable than to take some elder of one's own sex into one's confidence and obtain his advice. The young man with an inclination to drink or debauchery is guided and gently reproved by his elder. But that out of this perfectly natural transaction there should be so perverse and dangerous a practice that a young woman should tell her secret thoughts to a celibate of the opposite sex is surely stark lunacy. It is difficult to say whether it is the man or the woman whose delicacy suffers most. If she must needs confess, then in the name of chastity and common sense let it be to some discreet matron.
And what of baptism? It is intelligible enough that some ceremony should be performed in order to remind the adult that he really does belong to a certain Community, with the beliefs and duties attached. There is no special need for such a thing, but it is intelligible. Look, however, at the monstrous perversion which has supervened. It has been taught that of two unconscious babes, one of which has received a splash of water with a formula while the other has not, one will surely, if both die at the time, be blessed and the other be cursed for ever. Should the babe die unsplashed, then the mother who dies in bearing it shall lie in consecrated ground, but the babe shall be buried outside and alone. Again, I ask, has any heathen tribe anything more fantastic than this in its ritual, and can we ever expect the affairs of this world to be normal while we profess to hold views in religion which no sane mind could justify? If such things have come from the priesthood, then it is time that all priesthood should be swept away, and that the Community should take their religious affairs into their own hands. However badly they conducted them it could not be worse than the organised materialism and systematised insanity which are the framework of present-day religious belief.
What too of the Trinity, with its involved and mystical three in one? How simple it is in its reality, and how monstrous the growth which Byzantine speculations have nourished. We have our God, the unthinkable, marvellous, ever-present force which makes all and pervades all. Call it "The Father," since we must needs reduce it to our human level of thought and expression. So far we are on sure ground. Then we have the Son, or rather, the Sons, since to certain human beings, whereof Jesus of Nazareth was an outstanding example, there is given special attributes of character and knowledge, by which they may serve as guides and teachers to the race. These rare souls are God-created, so we may use the word Son. So far again we are within the bounds of intelligible reason. But why make any third persona person who can only be defined as being an inspiration, an emanation, an influx, or other names which are quite contrary to our idea of personality. There are, we will say, vibrations between Father and son. These same vibrations pass on to us. But how does this make a third person, or why should we bemuse our plain Western European minds by such obvious fallacies of ancient Oriental speculation? Let us be honest with ourselves, and cut away all this dead matter until we expose that which is living.
And the fall? And the Atonement? Is it not certain that there never was a fall, and that if there had been a fall there would be no justice or sense in such a vicarious sacrifice? How long are we to continue to propagate such ideas, which offend honest minds and make them turn away from that which is indeed reasonable and essential. Is it not enough that God has sent a great teacher into the world who can set us an example in the modesty of his own life, and in the bravery with which, to his own danger and destruction, he protested against the formal, bigoted creeds of his day, even as lesser men are protesting now. Make Him reasonable, make Him understandable; do not make His life alien and inapplicable by depicting Him as of different flesh and blood to ourselves. If He were indeed so, then where is the merit of His career?
These are a few of those dogmas and formal teachings which have to be utterly swept away, if the Race is indeed to make an advance towards truth. The whole Old Testament must also go, save as a venerable and sometimes edifying piece of literature. It touches heights of poetry, and preserves records of early history, but bears no relationship to religion, and carries no message from God to modern man. It has long poisoned the New Testament, as a corpse would poison a living body to which it was chained.
Concerning the New Testament also – must we not use our God-given reason in its interpretation? The time which elapsed between the death of Jesus and the assembly of the gospels was roughly the same as that between the death of Shakespeare and the present day. There were very many floating narratives and Jerome, the compiler, said that each was a different version. From among them all he built up the present gospels. Is it not perfectly clear that nothing at all was known of the birth and infancy of this humble teacher. It was not a public incident like His teaching and His death. Therefore in the foolish idea of glorifying one, who was so manifestly great that He needed no spurious adornment, the whole story of His beginnings is taken from Oriental legends told many hundreds of years before. If this did not sufficiently vitiate the text it is said that in the third and fourth centuries special inquisitors were appointed called "Correctores" and that their duty was to bring the text of the gospels into harmony with the actual practice of the church. It would be interesting to know how many of our present sacraments and how much theological confusion we owe to the ingenious interpolations of these gentlemen. They would certainly sustain ritual since ritual entails a priesthood, to which they belonged. As to the exact value of ritual it is well to remember that the most ritualistic of all churches is the Russian, and that their national history has been a nightmare of murder and crime.
All vain forms must be discarded. But there is something to be added – something of infinite importance. We have to recognise that God, the Central source of all inspiration, has not ceased two thousand years ago to send his messages and his consolation to the world. Through the movement which is called Spiritualism, we have learned that it is possible to get into touch with sources of knowledge which are far higher than ourselves, and thus to obtain a clear explanation of the reasons of our existence, and of the fate which awaits us after death. This is the most weighty message which has been sent out for two thousand years, and it has been received in the main with ignorant derision and contempt. This also has to be answered for in the time to come. But it is towards this source of knowledge that we have to turn in the future. The Ethics of the Christ, with the guidance and teaching of the other world, will constitute the whole religion of the future, fluid in form and dogma, but solid in the essentials, and consistent always with our reason. All else must change. These wrangles which we now see in the Churches, are like men who dispute whether they shall sit on this branch or on that branch, when the whole trunk is rotting beneath them. If they could change themselves, then all might be well. If they will not change themselves, then surely something will come to change them. What that something may be lies in the future, but there are signs that this Future is not far away. If those signs are true, then the message is that England, though heavily stricken, will escape more lightly than those countries where form and dogma have an even stronger grip than with us.
Let me, in a word, restate the position as I see it. Our religion has been like clay and gold, the clay of man-made dogma and observance, the gold of the inner Spiritual meaning. The clay has long covered the gold, so that many of the most earnest of mankind have turned away heavy hearted, and never seen that the gold was there. Our task is to remove that clinging clay, and to expose and use the gold so that no man ever more can doubt its existence.
I write in a conservative and not in a destructive spirit. I have my eyes fixed not upon the minority of this nation who belong to Christian churches, but to the majority who have been driven out of all communions by the fantastic out-of-date doctrines which are advanced, and who in their repulsion have now lost the essentials of religion. If those dogmas could be made moderate and intelligible as I have tried to make them here, then all those multitudes may once again be brought back to that God-consciousness and sense of the beauty of Jesus which is at present lost. The Churches, immersed in their own petty squabbles and formulas, have no time or energy for the consideration of the state of things outside their own borders. If what I have said hurts any tender soul I do hereby express my regret. I have written not in levity or in thoughtlessness but under the strongest conviction that I am helping, in however humble a fashion, to break the ground for the harvest of the future.
One word in conclusion as to the economic side, which is also involved. This brings us into an atmosphere of politics, and yet there are some large considerations which are guiding posts upon which any present political party may march. This is no place for details, nor have I perhaps the practical knowledge which would furnish them, but it is clear that wealth must be regarded less a personal possession and more as a trust to be used for the common good. No one who surveys society can doubt that some are too rich and some too poor, and that a method should be found by which the former shall help the latter. It offends our sense of justice that some should squander wealth in luxury abroad, and that so many who work hard and live plainly should be so hard pressed at home. Man needs little to have all the materials for happiness. An assurance of nutritious food, nature, love, music, literature, games, cleanly orderly houses – if a man has these things, which should come within the compass of all, then he should, with an occasional change, have all that life can give in the way of contentment. When every man and woman have such a prospect then the social position is sound. Such a solution is not to be gained by bloodshed, or by the violent destruction of existing Government, but it is to be gradually worked for as the methods to attain it unfold themselves. The present inequalities and consequent miseries of life are among the causes which make for disaster.
In conclusion I should say that the views experienced are my own and are quite independent of the Spiritualistic Organisation.