Thursday, February 23, 2012

Steiner at the 'centre'

I remember a late conversation at the Abbey, years past, with a highly strung young woman. She took me to task for a passing reference to Rudolf Steiner. I think I had praised the emotional balance of a person I had met who had received a Waldorf education (an educational approach forged by Steiner). Did I not know that Steiner was a heretic, a subverter of souls, a pretended Christian?

I did not. My only exposure to him or his work had been reading a chapter in Anne Bancroft's eclectic 'Modern Mystics and Sages' (a second hand copy of which I reacquired recently) and my prolonged conversation with one happy product of his educational system.

Over the years, I have gleaned a better (if limited) understanding - both through reading and encountering practical products of his thought and imagination. In the latter case, through Triodos Bank that is inspired by Anthroposophia (Steiner borrowed coinage for his system), and, more tangentially further encounters with Camphill communities for the disabled and Waldorf schools. What continues to strike me is that Steiner was a sage whose wisdom has taken on valuable and progressive social form. Mystics can be worldly - indeed any true mysticism ought to have embodied consequences.

In the category of reading, I have just read the clear and engaging 'Rudolf Steiner: An Introduction to His Life and Work' (helped along by a long wait at the Russia visa office) by Gary Lachman. It is a more sympathetic and vivid book than Lachman's book on Jung that I read recently in Mexico.

That Steiner was a heretic (by the standards of mainstream Christianity) is unmistakeable - he professed reincarnation and was, in technical theological terminology, an 'adoptionist'. Jesus Christ was not wholly man, wholly God from inception but Christ 'adopted' the man, Jesus, as his vehicle, at the time of his baptism. That this act was pivotal for the development of world history was central to Steiner (and defined him over and against the Theosophical movement which he had joined and subsequently left), that its 'mechanics' were at substantial variance from Christian dogma (in all three main strands) is clear.

He struck me, again and again, in Lachman's portrait as a man of abiding paradox. The scholarly editor of Goethe's scientific writings is the 'seer' of the earth's sacred history, replete with accounts of 'Atlantis'. The sage who placed the emphasis on the spiritual renewal of man's thinking and transformation of consciousness is the man who is best known for his social products - either in farming or banking or education. The thinker who exerted significant influence on major artists both in image (Kandinsky) and word (Biely) when directly engaged in the arts presided over a palette of insipid pastel colours (a visit to the Triodos headquarters in Zeist in the Netherlands is a pallid example) and cumbersome philosophical dramas where endless speeches overwhelm the dramatic.

But, in the end, I was very much drawn to this polymath of the spirit and its consequences, not least because over and again, Lachman shows that Steiner was a good, often saintly, man that, literally, wore himself to death serving the needs of others - both collectively in his works and individually in the listening and counsel he extended to others.

He is, also, an articulate defender of the notion that it is consciousness, not matter, that is the ground of the universe, and so is a fellow traveller with my beloved Blake. He was, to use the appropriate terminology, an 'immaterial realist' - that the world manifests itself in consciousness and unfolds according to objective laws grounded in the Spirit. That this is seen as an eccentric view is only true if you look at it with the eye of the 'three provincial centuries' that Yeats described (starting, if it must with  someone, Descartes). It was to restore it to a central place in the West (it is, after all, the accepted view in Buddhism and Hinduism) that was Steiner's heart battle - and for that he is a most central figure, not a heretic.

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