Nobody Understands My Relationship to Rudolf Steiner
There are but a handful of individualities whom I turn to again and again as spiritual mentors, though all returned to the undiscovered country long before I was born. Individuals I thought would have a long-lasting effect at the first blush of my love for them—William Butler Yeats, Valentin Tomberg, and Martin Heidegger, for example—have not had the same impact, though my love for them persists. But of those who have tinctured my very soul, one is the poet, engraver, and visionary William Blake, in whose honor I named the literary journal I edit after a conception of his, Jesus the Imagination. Another is the formidable Russian thinker and spiritual revolutionary Nikolai Berdyaev, whom I first encountered by happenstance at a used bookstore long ago and whose thought still provides thrills for me over a quarter of a century later. Still another is the philosopher, mystic, and activist Simone Weil, whose powerful spirit has haunted me for most of the past thirty years. But perhaps the most significant is the Austrian philosopher, educator, and practical visionary Rudolf Steiner.
People who are willing to put up with my affection for Blake, Berdyaev, or Weil, are nevertheless often nonplussed by my love for Steiner. Likewise, those who appreciate my love for Steiner, from what I can tell, are often uncomfortable with the fact that I am what most would interpret as a small-t traditional Catholic (though I think my spirituality may be a little more complicated, a little more nuanced, than they give me credit for).
Primary in my admiration for Steiner, is the fact that he actually did something concrete. This is not to denigrate anyone else in my list, but he actually made a practical difference in the world through the astounding number of initiatives he contributed, all of them in the last five-to-ten years of his life. He gave the world the gifts of Waldorf education (I was a Waldorf teacher for sixteen years), biodynamic farming (I’ve been a biodynamic practicioner since 1992), not to mention Anthroposophically-extended medicine and his contributions to architecture, the arts (eurythmy, for one), liturgy (the Christian Community), and beekeeping. Most reformers and innovators write or talk. Steiner certainly did those things (he gave over 3000 public lectures!). But he also turned thoughts into action: and on a scale unmatched by any individual in recent history, if ever. And that, more than anything else, is the reason for my love for this man.
Of course, there are things I don’t necessarily accept from Steiner; for example, his proposal that there were two different Jesus children who more or less amalgamated in Jesus Christ—but I don’t need to be in absolute congruence with anybody to love them and learn from them. (Indeed, I cannot think of one person from history—with the exception of Jesus—about whom this would be true).
I could probably write a book about Steiner (and perhaps I should), but in lieu of that, let me here provide just a little background on Steiner from my book The Submerged Reality. More people need to know about him. He is too important to be the property of only Anthroposophists.
Steiner, it could easily be argued, is one of the most fascinating geniuses of his era. He was a philosopher trained by, among others, the important thinker and psychologist Franz Brentano (1838–1917). In addition to Steiner, Brentano greatly influenced subsequent streams of phenomenology, analytic philosophy, and psychology, including Edmund Husserl, Gilbert Ryle, and even Sigmund Freud. Steiner studied with Brentano just before Edmund Husserl did, and Brentano’s influence, especially in terms of his notion of intentionality, manifests in both. In Husserl’s work, phenomenology becomes more fully realized, a genuine movement, whereas Steiner investigates the possibilities in intentionality in his important book, Die Philosophie der Freiheit (1894; known in English by three different titles: The Philosophy of Freedom; The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity; and Intuitive Thinking as Spiritual Path). Steiner, while still in his early twenties, was chosen to edit Goethe’s scientific writings for the Weimar edition. Goethe’s influence on Steiner’s thought was enormous.
For the first half of his career, Steiner drew on the traditions of German Idealism, though he also owed a debt to Romanticism, particularly Novalis’s Marian intuitions and communitarianism. Having been born into a working class family, Steiner, though an important intellectual, never lost his appreciation for the lives of the common folk and for what he called the “peasant wisdom.” Indeed, he saw more wisdom in the peasantry than he did in the rampant materialism he found among intellectual elites, certainly a Romantic sensibility. Around the turn of the century, however, Steiner unexpectedly turned to Theosophy, the highly intellectually suspect occult movement founded by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and H.S. Olcott, and at that time directed by Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater.
Why Steiner turned to Theosophy is not at all clear. He was not impressed with his first encounter with the movement, A.P. Sinnet’s book Esoteric Buddhism. He found the table-rapping and sensationalism of the then-vogue spiritualism equally repellent. Steiner, it is true, claimed a kind of clairvoyance achieved through thinking1 (and not through what he called “atavistic clairvoyance”), and his insights led him to affirm the truth of the Eastern notions of karma and reincarnation—ideas certainly central to the quasi-Buddhism/Hinduism of Theosophy. But Steiner was no quasi-Buddhist/Hindu. Indeed, central to his own system (which, subsequent to his break with the Theosophical Society, would later be named Anthroposophy) is what he called “the Event of Golgotha” and the Incarnation of Christ. As Jonael Schickler has written, for Steiner Christianity was not to be understood as one religion among others (certainly the view of Theosophy) “but as a universal and defining spiritual-natural event for humanity; in short as an event with a profound inner logic.”2 Steiner, that is, though an esoteric thinker, was a thoroughly Christian one. In that way, he had much to offer Theosophy. All Theosophy, a tremendously popular phenomenon at the time, had to offer Steiner was an audience receptive to his esoteric ideas.
Though he had grown up in a nominally Catholic household—and spoke feelingly about his time as an altar boy in his local parish—Steiner, a man of his time, in the early part of his career was uninterested in religious questions and had only a passing knowledge of the Bible and theology. However, he came to understand the Incarnation of Christ, culminating in the death and resurrection of Jesus, as the most important event not only in the history of the human race but in the history of the earth and cosmos as well. This understanding came gradually, but it came completely, as Steiner writes in his Autobiography:
“During the period when my statements about Christianity so contradicted my later ones in literal content, a conscious knowledge of true Christianity began to dawn within me. Around the turn of the century this knowledge grew deeper…. This experience culminated in my standing spiritually in in the presence of the Mystery of Golgotha in a most inward, profound and solemn festival of knowledge.”3
Elsewhere, Steiner speculates that had not things turned out as they did in his biography, he would have become a Cistercian priest. “For in the town where I spent my youth,” he told an audience in Arnhem, The Netherlands, on 18 July 1924,
“the Gymnasium was only a few steps away from the Real Schule and it was by a hair's breadth that I went, not to the Gymnasium but to the Real Schule. If, however, at that time I had gone to the Gymnasium in the town, I should have become a priest in the Cistercian Order. Of that there is no doubt whatever. For at this Gymnasium all the teachers were Cistercians. I was deeply attracted to all these priests, many of whom were extremely learned men. I read a great deal that they wrote and was profoundly stirred by it. I loved these priests and the only reason why I passed the Cistercian Order by was because I did not attend the Gymnasium.”4
It is evident in his voluminous writing and lecture transcripts that Steiner, a man who every afternoon at three o’clock would stop whatever he was doing to say the Lord’s Prayer in Latin, is ever mindful of Christ.5 But he did not merely hold the reality of Christ as a personal truth. Rather, he held it to be a tremendously scientific, existential, ontological, and teleological reality. As he spoke in a lecture in 1922:
“Humankind must become increasingly ‘Christened,’ through and through. This, above all, is important—that we experience only here on Earth, as a human being with other human beings, be carried through the gate of death by means of Christianity. This is a most essential truth.”6
Christopher Bamford interviewed for the documentary The Challenge of Rudolf Steiner.
Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses.
1 As Jonael Schickler has written, Steiner’s “phenomenology of thinking lays a basis for understanding the clairvoyance which grows out of it.” See Jonael Schickler, Metaphysics as Christology: An Odyssey of the Self from Kant and Hegel to Steiner (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2005) 139.
2 Jonael Schickler, Metaphysics as Christology, 146
3 Rudolf Steiner, An Autobiography, trans. Rita Stebbing (Blauvelt, NY: Rudolf Steiner Publications, 1977), 319.
4 Rudolf Steiner, Karmic Relationships, Volume VI: Esoteric Studies, trans. E.H. Goddard, D.S. Osmond and M. Kirkcaldy (1971; reprt. Forest Row, UK: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1989), 137.
5 Rudi Lissau, Rudolf Steiner: Life, Work, Inner Path and Social Initiatives (Wallbridge, UK: Hawthorn Press, 1987), 40. He also recommended that Children in Waldorf schools begin the day with the Lord’s Prayer. See Faculty Meetings with Rudolf Steiner, 1919 – 1922, Volume I, trans. Robert Lathe and Nancy Parsons Whittaker (Hudson, NY: Anthroposophic Press, 1998), 38.
6 Rudolf Steiner, Isis Mary Sophia: Her Mission and Ours: Selected Lectures and Writings, ed. Christopher Bamford (Herndon, VA: Steiner Books, 2003), 237. Steiner’s emphasis.