Rudolf Steiner and Sophiology
Last week I had the extreme pleasure of giving a lecture to the Ann Arbor Branch of the Anthroposophical Society in America. The original idea was to do it in person, but with COVID concerns and an ongoing construction project at the Society’s building, it was decided to go online in a Zoom format. Now, clearly, we all would have preferred in-person—the presence of soul available in person cannot be duplicated in an online environment, no matter how congenial; but we did what we had to do. Of course, no doubt in revenge for my many warnings about AI and the encroaching reach of Ahriman, the internet connection here at my rural farm dropped out, so I continued on my phone! Then the internet returned and I reconnected, only, having forgotten to disconnect the Zoom app on my phone, we were all entertained by a few seconds of creepy feedback. Good times! None of these technical challenges compromised our interaction, however, (there were probably about fifty participants) and our Q & A session went on for over an hour. Following my talk, participants inquired whether I could share my notes. Notes?! I never use notes, even when lecturing in colleges. All I need is two cups of coffee and I can talk about anything. So, kidding aside, what follows is a kind of outline of my talk.
Sophiology is, as the title of one of my books asserts, a “submerged reality” in Western history, particularly in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Nevertheless, Sophia has not always been submerged in the long trajectory from antiquity to postmodernity. Indeed, she makes a number of appearances in the Hebrew Bible, perhaps nowhere more beautifully than in Proverbs 8:
The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his ways, before he made any thing from the beginning.
I was set up from eternity, and of old, before the earth was made.
The depths were not as yet, and I was already conceived, neither had the fountains of waters as yet sprung out.
The mountains, with their huge bulk, had not as yet been established: before the hills, I was brought forth:
He had not yet made the earth, nor the rivers, nor the poles of the world.
When he prepared the heavens, I was present: when with a certain law, and compass, he enclosed the depths:
When he established the sky above, and poised the fountains of waters:
When he compassed the sea with its bounds, and set a law to the waters that they should not pass their limits: when he balanced the foundations of the earth;
I was with him forming all things: and was delighted every day, playing before him at all times;
Playing in the world: and my delights were to be with the children of men. (22-31)
Biblical scholar and theological maverick Margaret Barker in a number of books has been arguing that Sophia (Wisdom, Hokmah in Hebrew) was a central feature of First Temple Judaism and whose veneration was widespread prior to the reforms (some might say persecutions) of King Josiah. Nevertheless, communities of the Jewish diaspora living in Alexandria kept her memory (and veneration) alive, evidence of which can be found in the biblical books of Wisdom and Sirach among other places.
Sophia also appears in the elaborate mythologies of Gnosticism, which seem at least in part to draw on the Jewish traditions and may in some ways allude to Josiah’s exile of Sophia in Judaism by way of the exile of Sophia in the Gnostic mythos.
The Church Fathers, particularly Irenaeus and Hippolytus, discuss Gnostic theologies at length (condemning it, of course) and for centuries their criticisms were just about all anyone knew of Gnostic beliefs. The primary problem with Gnosticism—then and now—is its condemnation of the created world as a structure of evil made by an evil god as a kind of prison. Sophiology does not support this message. Nevertheless, the notion of Sophia in exile—and nowhere as significantly as in the human heart—is a tremendously useful imagination. In one Gnostic myth, Jesus rescues Sophia from exile and brings her to Reality, the Reality of the Kingdom of God. This is a reality we all wish to attain.
From there, my talk moved ahead fourteen centuries to Jacob Boehme. Curiously, Anthroposophist Paul Marshall Allen in his book Vladimir Solovyov: Russian Mystic, calls Solovyov “the Father of Sophiology in the East” (which is certainly true) and calls Rudolf Steiner “the Father of Sophiology in the West” (which is not). Even though Steiner is an enormously important figure in Sophiology, the title of “Father” can go to no one but Boehme. Modern Sophiology begins with Boehme, and from him it flows to Russia to England and to everywhere else. He’s the fountainhead.
Importantly, Boehme identifies the Virgin Mary as the Incarnation of Sophia. As Sophia makes the Glory of God palpable to sensory perception in Nature, in art, in liturgy, so the Virgin Mary quite literally makes God present to sensory perception as the Mother of Christ. It doesn’t get any more sophiological than that, and Boehme—at great risk to himself—was bold enough to say so, the consequences be damned.
Then my talk touched on Boehme’s influence in early Rosicrucianism (17th century) and on thinkers like Robert Fludd, Thomas and Henry Vaughan, and on German Pietism. He was also influential in English religious movements, like that of The Philadelphian Society (John Pordage, Lane Lead, and Thomas Bromley, among others), on the nonjuror William Law, and on poet and visionary William Blake. Boehme likewise had a deep impact on German Romanticism and Idealism, particularly with Novalis, Goethe, Franz von Baader, and Hegel. From Romanticism, Boehme reached Russia in the late nineteenth century, influencing Solovyov who then inspired the Russian theologians Sergei Bulgakov and Pavel Florensky, not to mention Boehme’s primary Russian devotee, the radical philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev. Of course I’ve written about all of these things, not only in this blog, but also in my books, especially The Submerged Reality.
Enter Rudolf Steiner
Steiner arose at the ideal moment to take in all of this. A deep student of Goethe, he absorbed an integral Sophiology from his immersion in Goethe’s phenomenology (Steiner as a young scholar edited Goethe’s scientific writings for the Weimar edition of Goethe’s collected works). He likewise drank in Rosicrucian ideas from the various esoteric currents then percolating in Europe (Goethe was also interested in Rosicrucianism, which, at least in its earliest forms, was interested in preserving a spiritually scientific understanding of Creation in resistance the scientific materialism then appearing in the wake of Descartes and Francis Bacon. Steiner, who called his method “Spiritual Science,” was, as they say “all about this”). And, as a philosopher, Steiner was trained in German Idealism, which still shimmered with spiritual power and the influence of Boehme. In addition, when Steiner began lecturing to audiences involved in The Theosophical Society in the first years of the twentieth century, he found an audience open to his insights. But The Theosophical Society was too narrow an environment for such a man as Rudolf Steiner. In 1912, Steiner broke with the Theosophists after they tried to sell the young Jiddu Krishnamurti as the reincarnation of Christ (Krishnamurti would later follow suit) and called his new initiative Anthroposophy.
Steiner’s initiative grew enormously. He gave lectures, mostly on esoteric subjects in a Christian theosophical idiom. But then World War I happened. Had Steiner died before the Great War, he would probably only be remembered as an Austrian philosopher and Goethe scholar who then went esoteric. But with the cataclysm of war, Steiner rose to the occasion.
The occasion he rose to was by way of his introduction of some incredibly significant cultural contributions. They can only be called gifts. Each of them is inherently sophiological in the ways by which Steiner discloses the Glory of the Lord in practical application. Among these gifts are Waldorf education Biodynamic agriculture and beekeeping, Anthroposophically-extended medicine, and what he called the Three-Fold Social Order. By their fruits you will know them, and the fruits of Steiner’s contributions are increasingly hard to ignore.
In addition to this implicit Sophiology in Steiner’s career, he did, upon occasion, make explicit his ideas concerning Sophia. Following are a number of his sophiological statements over time. Notice how his definitions are never ossified into dead concepts, but that he imbues the conceptual realm with fluidity. (All the quotes can be found in Christoher Bamford’s exceptional collection of Steiner’s writings on Sophia, Isis-Mary-Sophia: Her Mission and Ours.
“Since the consciousness soul is the principle in which the Spirit the Spirit Self has evolved, we call it the ‘mother of Christ’ or, in the esoteric schools, the ‘Virgin Sophia.’ Through the fecundation of the Virgin Sophia, the Christ could be born in Jesus of Nazareth.” ~ 5 November 1906
“The spiritualized mother of Jesus is the Gospel [of John] itself. She is wisdom, leading humanity to the highest insights. The disciple gave us Mother Sophia, meaning he wrote a Gospel for us that allows anyone who looks into it to learn to know Christ, who is the source and goal of this great movement (spiritual science).” 25 November 1907
“The spiritualized mother of Jesus is the Gospel [of John] itself. She is wisdom, leading humanity to the highest insights. The disciple gave us Mother Sophia, meaning he wrote a Gospel for us that allows anyone who looks into it to learn to know Christ, who is the source and goal of this great movement (spiritual science).” ~ 25 November 1907
“Sophia becomes the being who directly enlightens human beings. After Sophia has entered human beings, she must take their being with her and present it to them outwardly, objectively. Thus, Sophia will be drawn into the human soul and arrive at the point of being so inwardly connected with it that a love poem as beautiful as the one Dante wrote may be written about her.
“Sophia will become objective again, but she will take with her what humanity is, and objectively present herself in this form. Thus she will present herself not only as Sophia, but as Anthroposophia—as the very being of the human being, henceforth bears that being within her. And in this form she will confront enlightened human beings as the objective being Sophia who once stood before the Greeks.” ~ 3 February 1913
“At the time of the Mystery of Golgatha, the being that enables humans to behold the world cognitively worked in a twofold way as the Divine Sophia, the wisdom that sees through the world. Divine Sophia, Heavenly Wisdom, was present in the double revelation: to the poor shepherds in the fields and to the wise men from the East.” ~ 24 December 1920
“We must realize that through the forces of the Christ we must find an inner astronomy that will show us again the cosmos moving and working by the power of the spirit. When we have this insight into the cosmos that is awakened through the newfound Isis power of the Christ—which is now the power of the Divine Sophia—then Christ, united with the Earth since the Mystery of Golgotha, will become active within us, because then we shall know him. It is not the Christ that we lack, but the knowledge and wisdom of Isis, the Sophia of the Christ.” ~ 24 December 1920
“Christ will appear in spiritual form during the twentieth century not simply because something happens outwardly, but to the extent that we find the power represented by holy Sophia. Our time tends to lose this Isis-power, this power of Mary. It was killed by all that arose with the modern consciousness of humankind. New forms of religion have, in part, killed just this view of Mary.
“This is the mystery of modern humanity. Mary-Isis has been killed, and she must be sought, just as Isis sought Osiris. But she must be sought in the wide space of heaven, with the power that Christ can awaken in us, if we give ourselves to him aright.” ~ 24 December 1920
Finally, I will leave you with a verse Steiner gave, that draws on the Gnostic mythos while Christening it with Christian theosophy:
Wisdom of God:
Lucifer has slain her,
And on the wings of cosmic forces
Carried her hence into the depths of space.
Working in man:
Shall wrest her from Lucifer
And on the grounds of Spirit-knowledge
Call to new life in souls of man
Wisdom of God. ~ 25 December 1920
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. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Garden.