Maurice Nicoll

Also available as a set with The Mark and Living Time

This book indicates that all teaching, such as the Gospels and many other older and newer teachings, in the short period of known history, is about transcending the violence which characterizes mankind's level of being. It affirms the possibility of a development of another level of being surmounting violence. The point of view taken is that the goal of Man and Woman is this inner development, which is the only real psychology. It thus brings together in a single phrase, The New Man all religious and esoteric teaching.

Bookreview from The Listener February 10, 1955
Maurice Nicoll; A New Interpretation of the Gospels
R.H.Ward on the writings of Maurice Nicoll

It is often remarked that the past hundred years or so have seen the rise of many unorthodox religious 'movements' in the west, movements many of which, be it said, have brought into disrepute such words as mysticism and esotericism. Yet, delusive ways to God though most such movements and sects may be, they undoubtedly arise in answer to the need of certain temperaments for the direct communion with God, the direct experience of the knowledge and love of God, which belong to true mysticism and esotericism. When the exoteric religious bodies – the orthodox churches – no longer provide for the mystic, he will inevitably find himself driven, though probably reluctantly, to seek elsewhere the kind of religious life his nature demands.

At the present time it is increasingly clear that the true religious life of the west (and it was never more flourishing) lies quite as much outside the Churches as it does within them; and this in spite of the present increase in the numbers of adherents to the orthodox creeds. For by true religious life I mean here subjective religious life in its predominantly contemplative sense. Further, what we call 'the condition of the world' – meaning by this that break-up of our civilisation which is daily evident to any thinking person at the present time – this condition encourages, in those who by temperament are drawn to the mystical or esoteric aspect of religion, the search for religious reality elsewhere than within the organised religious bodies; for to such people these bodies inevitably seem part and parcel of the crumbling civilisation, and historically subject, with it, to time and decay. The mystic, by nature aware that there is something eternal behind the visible appearance of things, is under the necessity of discovering that eternal and invisible quality if he can; and it even seems to him that he glimpses it, so to say, through the cracks which are at present appearing in the façades of all temporal institutions.

I take it for granted that, at this late date, few who are not constitutionally incapable of the long view of history would doubt that ours is a 'time of tribulation', a time of change in which one way of looking at things – that is, one way of being civilised – is dying, and another, as yet only very uncertainly adumbrated, is coming to birth. Meanwhile, our own period is one in which the chaos of values which everywhere threatens social stability may break the surface and overthrow that stability; some would say, indeed, that this overthrow is no longer imminent, but already far advanced. The negative attitude to this situation is 'escapism' in its various forms: false religion and other pleasurable addictions of one kind and another. But the positive attitude, as I hope to show, is something quite different.

Meanwhile, in the midst of this dangerous 'condition of the world', the warring Gods and formulas of the various religions' (to quote William James) 'do indeed cancel each other'. Yet the esoteric or mystic temperament is still inwardly aware (to continue the quotation) that 'there is a certain uniform deliverance in which religions all appear to meet – this is the liberation of the soul'. To many such seekers for order out of chaos that quite familiar and ordinary phrase will appear highly suggestive: it will foreshadow a meaning which it is of vital importance to understand; it will have, as it were, a magnetic quality. Such a seeker will begin to perceive the liberation of the soul is itself invisible, a quality rather then a quantity; yet at this point it may appear to him to be the only quality available to the human being which, once liberated, could lead him to discover, within the chaos of the visible world in which he finds himself, an order, a purposefulness and meaningfulness, belonging to and stemming from another and invisible world. This phrase, 'the liberation of the soul', is in fact an esoteric phrase; strictly speaking, it has no meaning other than an esoteric one. 'The liberation of the soul' belongs with that other esoteric phrase, 'the Kingdom of Heaven is within you'; and indeed it is essentially the same phrase.

A Meaning for the Mystic

But this seeker of whom we are thinking is a certain kind of man, rather than mankind; for it is probably true to say that there are, roughly speaking, two kinds of men in the world, those (as the Gospels put it with significant reiteration) 'who have ears to hear', and those who have not. In other words, one kind of man 'has ears to hear' the ideas of which the esoteric aspect of religion treats, and for the other kind of man these ideas will be incomprehensible: for him the soul 'does not exist', nor does the invisible world. But the mystic is the kind of man – and he may be anybody, and certainly need not to be 'an intellectual' – who has ears to hear the good news which is in a very real sense the essential message of the Gospels. To such a man, then, the phrase 'the liberation of the soul', means something, promises something, though as yet he does not know what.

Doubtless this person we are considering has read the New Testament, and perhaps has studied it; yet, while he believes it to contain what he is seeking to know about the liberation of the soul, it somehow remains a closed book to him; it will not yield up its secret. Before he can read these pages aright he needs a key which, presumably, the writers of the Gospels possessed. Suppose, then, that there were to be set before this person, between the covers of two short books – or indeed the covers of either one of them – a way of reading and understanding the Gospels which was entirely new to him. Suppose he were to discover from these books – one called The New Man and the other called The Mark, written by Maurice Nicoll, a doctor and psychologist who died in 1953 – that within their familiar words the Gospels bear a wholly unfamiliar meaning, a meaning which is not expounded from the pulpit; that they are written in a kind of secret language, the key to which has for some reason eluded the New Testament interpreters and commentators of the past.

Here are some passages from these two books which would begin to tell the man we are thinking of what he wants to know.

There is not a sentence, not a single word, in the Gospels that has not meaning totally beyond the literal meaning.

The Gospels do not contain a collection of arbitrary rules and moral precepts, but are a set of psychological charts and directions, some simple and some very complicated at first sight, which, if a man could understand them and carry out their instructions rightly, would lead him inevitably to the discovery of the Kingdom of Heaven in himself.

A parable, in the Gospels, always begins from the purely sensual level and the ideas belonging to it, and so, taken as such, it seems merely to be what it appears to be – that is, a story about a king, or a vineyard, or a person called Nicodemus, or a Samaritan woman ... a parable always starts from the first level of meaning that a man acquires from his contact with life.... The teaching of Christ is on a different level of meaning, one that refers to the acquiring of quite new ideas, and aims, and new interpretations of life, in the light of a possible individual evolution of man, contained within him as a possibility.....

Here, then, the liberation of the soul is being directly spoken about as the essential purpose of Christ's teaching, as the Gospels record it, and as St.Paul refers to it when he writes of the change from the old Adam to the new man in Christ. That the Gospels speak of man's redemption has always been understood; what is not generally understood is that they do so in the strictly psychological terms, those of the soul's liberation by evolution within the individual, which Dr.Nicoll outlines. He explains, and does so with extraordinary cogency, that Christ's teaching is concerned with a single psychological process, that of changing man who is of one kind into a new man of another kind. This process has two phases: change of mind (Metanoia, more familiarly but less expressly and directly translated in the Bible as repentance), and consequent rebirth to a new condition of being. These two books contain interpretations, always in these terms, of many of the parables of Christ, of much of the story of his own life as it is told in the Gospels, and also of certain passages in the Old Testament. It is a question in every case of finding beneath the everyday words of the Bible their symbolic or allegorical meaning; always with reference to 'thinking differently', and thus to becoming something different. The effect of these two books on the reader is a curious one, and hard to define. By one kind of man they can, of course, be totally rejected; but by the man who has ears to hear they will be responded to with the simple awareness that they speak the truth. They convey what in a certain sense such a man has always known but never understood. His response to them will be inward and subjective; he will feel that they speak of man's essential, and potential, nature. The point is simply that man as he usually thinks about himself is incomplete; these books suggest that it is possible for him to become something more than he is, to awaken to a new order of consciousness – that consciousness, in fact, which knows that the Kingdom of Heaven is within him, and knows it in the most real way possible, as a matter of experience.

There is nothing in these exact and clearly reasoned books which is in the slightest degree 'mystical' in the pejorative sense. There are no fights of rhetoric or fancy. The theme is expounded in a curiously simple, lucid, and faithful English. Dr.Nicoll is scholarly where scholarship is needed; if the Greek is referred to, and often translated in a way which makes its meaning plainer than King James' translators made it, it is honestly dealt with; there is no special pleading. Indeed, one feels that Dr.Nicoll is not concerned to prove anything, only to expose something which was hidden and needs no proof; and he speaks throughout these books as one having authority.

One significant thing about what he has to say is that this 'change of mind' with which he deals offers contemporary people not the slightest 'escape'. Thinking in a new way about ourselves – but 'new', of course, only in so far as it was old long before the Christian era dawned – is not a thing which can be done without effort. And Dr.Nicoll is not writing about a problematical life to be attained after death, but about a more abundant life to be lived here and now. Nor can this new dimension, which is the liberation of his soul, be added to a man merely by taking thought, for 'thinking differently' implies being differently, and being differently implies being dead to what one is and alive to what one might be. There is, in fact, no resurrection without death, and probably a painful death. Thus the doctrine of these books is a hard doctrine: we shall not change our world except by changing ourselves, for 'it is not from life that a man suffers, but from himself'. That kind of remark of Dr.Nicoll's, which runs counter to our habitual way of regarding our relations with life, both sums up what is involved in this 'change of mind' and expresses the strange and mysterious quality of all he has to say. You feel, in fact, that these books about a different kind of man have been written by a different kind of man; and that is what gives their writer authority.

Moving into the Hidden Dimension of the Soul

Nor is it without significance, surely, that this new and different understanding of the teaching of Christ should be published at the present time, when for so many the meaning has departed not only from religion but from life itself. For what, in fact, is the impasse to which western man has brought himself but the point at which he must either be destroyed or take an entirely new direction? Dr.Nicoll makes it plain that this new direction does not lie in space and time but takes, as it were, a psychological course into man's own nature and consciousness of himself; it moves into a hidden dimension of the soul. There are many signs at present of such groping towards the exploration of being, and doubtless such signs are what we should expect at the end of an age. There is an eastern belief that, during the last phase of an era of civilisation, there occurs a recapitulation of what might be called the spiritual content of that era. Something of this kind may be involved in our present preoccupation with archeological discovery, whether of the temple of Mithras in the City of London or the Dead Sea Scrolls; we are taking a last look at the palimpsest we call time before 'there shall be time no longer' and 'the world's great age begins anew'.

So while the organised and exoteric expressions of the Christian religion, which have given our age its character, wane with the passing of the Christian era, there emerge, as the events of his life are said to do before the eyes of a drowning man, lost memories, so to say, of that era's beginnings, and give us a new understanding of their nature. And in these books of Dr.Nicoll's the spiritual impulse of those beginnings springs up like the living water with which Christ baptised his followers. At the end of the pre-Christian age these were the new men in whom an eternal and ageless truth was vested on behalf of the age which was dawning, new men without whom the values underlying that Christian era could not have characterised and civilised it as they have. Now, at the end of the Christian era, who are the new men who will in turn carry those eternal truths and values beyond destruction and into the age which is to come? This all- important question Dr.Nicoll answers.