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The Way of Initiation

By Rudolf Steiner

The Superphysical World and Its Gnosis

In this practical age and because of the many various claims of the day, it is but natural that people, who hear of transcendentalism should at once ask the question: "How may we for ourselves know the truth of such statements?" Indeed, it is noticeable, as a characteristic of the majority, that they will accept nothing on faith, or mere "authority," but wish rather to rely entirely upon their own judgment. Therefore, when a mystic undertakes to explain something of the superphysical nature of man, and of the destiny of the human soul and spirit before birth and after death, he is at once confronted with that fundamental demand. Such doctrine, they seem to think is important only when you have shown them the way by which they may convince themselves of its truth.

This critical inquiry is quite justified; and no true mystic or occultist will dispute its fairness, yet it is unfortunate that with many who make the demand, there exists a feeling of skepticism or antagonism toward the mystic or any attempt on his part to explain anything occult. This feeling becomes especially marked when the mystic intimates how the truths which he has described may be attained. For they say, "Whatever is true may be demonstrated; therefore, prove to us what you assert." They demand that the truth must be something clear and simple, something which an ordinary intellect may comprehend. "Surely," they add, "this knowledge cannot be the possession of a chosen few, to whom it is given by a special revelation." And in this way the real messenger of transcendental truth is frequently confronted with people who reject him, because—unlike the scientist, for example, he can produce no proofs for his assertions, of such a nature as they are able to understand. Again, there are those who cautiously reject any information pertaining to the superphysical because to them it does not seem reasonable. Thereupon they partially satisfy themselves, by claiming that we cannot know anything of what lies beyond birth or death, or of anything which cannot be perceived through our five ordinary physical senses.

These are but a few of the arguments and criticisms with which to-day the messenger of a spiritual philosophy is confronted; but they are similar to all those which compose the key-note of our time, and he who puts himself at the service of a spiritual movement must recognize this condition quite clearly.

For his own part, the mystic is aware that his knowledge rests upon superphysical facts; which to him are just as tangible, for example, as those that form the foundation of the experiences and observations described by a traveller in Africa or any strange land. To the mystic applies what Annie Besant has said in her manual, "Death and After?"

"A seasoned African explorer would care but little for the criticisms passed on his report by persons who had never been there; he might tell what he saw, describe the animals whose habits he had studied, sketch the country he had traversed, sum up its products and its characteristics. If he was contradicted, laughed at, set right, by untravelled critics, he would be neither ruffled nor distressed, but would merely leave them alone. Ignorance cannot convince knowledge by repeated asseveration of its nescience. The opinion of a hundred persons on a subject of which they are wholly ignorant is of no more weight than the opinion of one such person. Evidence is strengthened by many consenting witnesses, testifying each to his knowledge of a fact, but nothing multiplied a thousand times remains nothing."

Here is expressed the mystic's view of his own situation. He hears the objections which are raised on every side, yet he knows that for himself he has no need to dispute them. He realizes that his certain knowledge is being criticized by those who have not had his experience, that he is in the position of a mathematician who has discovered a truth which can lose no value though a thousand voices are raised in opposition.

Then again will arise the objection of the skeptics: "Mathematical truths may be proven to anyone," they will say, "and though perhaps you have really found something, we shall accept it only when we have learned of its truth through our own investigation." Such then have reason to consider themselves to be in the right, because it is clear to them that anyone who acquires the necessary knowledge can prove a mathematical truth, while the experiences professed by the mystic if true depend upon the special faculties of a few elect mystics, in whom they assume they are expected to blindly believe.

For him, who rightly considers this objection, all justification for the doubt immediately vanishes; and mystics can here use the very logical reasoning of the skeptics themselves, by emphasizing the truth that the way to Higher Knowledge is open to anyone who will acquire for himself the faculties by which he may prove the spiritual truths herein claimed. The mystic asserts nothing which his opponents would not also be compelled to assert, if they did but fully comprehend their own statements. They, however, in making an assertion, often formulate a claim which constitutes a direct contradiction of that assertion.

Skeptics are seldom willing to acquire the necessary faculties to test the assertions of the mystic, but prefer to judge him offhand, without regard to their own lack of qualification. The sincere mystic says to them: "I do not claim to be 'chosen' in the sense that you mean. I have merely developed within myself, some of man's additional senses in order to acquire the faculties through which it is possible to speak of glimpses into superphysical regions." These senses are dormant within you and every other person, until they are developed, (as is necessary with the usual senses and faculties more noticeable in the growth of a child). Yet his opponents answer: "You must prove your truths to us as we now are!" This at once appears a difficult task, for they have not complied with the necessity of developing the dormant powers within them, they are still unwilling to do so, and yet they insist that he shall give them proofs; nor do they see that this is exactly as if a peasant at his plough should demand of the mathematician the proof of a complicated problem, without his undergoing the trouble of learning mathematics.

This mixed mental condition appears to be so general and its solution so simple that one almost hesitates to speak of it. And yet it indicates a delusion under which millions of people continue living at the present time. When explained to them they always agree in theory, since it is quite as plain as, that two and two make four; yet in practice they continually act in contradiction. The mistake has grown to be second nature with many; they indulge it without realizing that they do so without desiring to be convinced of its error; just as they set themselves against other laws which they should and would at all times recognize as embodying a principle of the simplest nature, if they but gave it an unbiased consideration. It matters not whether the mystic of to-day moves among thinking artisans, or in a more educated circle, wherever he goes he meets with the same prejudice, the same self-contradiction. One finds it in popular lectures, in the newspapers and magazines, and even in the more learned works or treatises.

Here we must recognize quite clearly that we are dealing with a consensus of opinion that amounts to a sign of the times, which we may not simply pronounce as incompetent, nor deal with as possibly a correct but unjust criticism. We must understand that this prejudice against the higher truths, lies deep in the very being of our age. We must understand clearly that the great successes, the immense advance marking our time, necessarily encourages this condition. The nineteenth century especially had in the above respect a dark side to its wonderful excellences. Its greatness rests upon discoveries in the external world, and conquest of natural forces for technical and industrial purposes. These successes could have been attained only by the employment of the mind directed toward material results.

The civilization of the present day is the result of the training of our senses, and of that part of our mind which is occupied with the world of sense. Almost every step we take in the busy marts of to-day shows us how much we owe to this kind of training. And it is under the influence of these blessings of civilization that the habits of thought, prevalent among our fellow-men, have been developed. They continue to abide by the senses and the mind, because it is by means of these that they have grown great. People were taught to train themselves to admit nothing as true except those things that were presented to them by the senses or the intellect. And nothing is more apt to claim for itself the only valid testimony, the only absolute authority, than the mind or the senses. If a man has acquired by means of them a certain degree of culture, he thenceforth accustoms himself to submit everything to their consideration, everything to their criticism. And again in another sphere, in the domain of Social Life, we find a similar trait. The man of the nineteenth century insisted, in the fullest sense of the word, upon the absolute freedom of personality, and repudiated any authority in the Social Commonwealth. He endeavored to construct the community in such a way that the full independence, the self-chosen vocation of each individual, should, without interference, be assured. In this way it became habitual for him to consider everything from the standpoint of the average individual.

This same individuality is also helpful in the search of knowledge on the spiritual plane, for the higher powers which lie dormant in the soul may be developed by one person in this direction by another in that. One will make more progress, another less. But when they develop those powers, and attach value to them, men begin to differentiate themselves. And then one must allow, to the advanced student, more right to speak on the subject, or to act in a certain way, than to another who is less advanced. This is more essential in matters of the higher realm than on the plane of the senses and the mind, where experiences are more nearly the same.

It is also noticeable that the present formation of the Social Commonwealth has helped to bring about a revolt against the higher powers of man. According to the mystic, civilization during the nineteenth century has moved altogether along physical lines; and people have accustomed themselves to move on the physical plane alone, and to feel at home there. The higher powers are developed only on planes higher than the physical, and the knowledge which these faculties bring is, therefore, unknown to the physical man. It is only necessary to attend mass-meetings, if one wishes to be convinced of the fact that the speakers there are totally unable to think any thoughts but those which refer to the physical plane, the world of sense. This can also be seen through the leading journalists of our papers and magazines; and, indeed, on all sides one may observe the haughtiest and most complete denial of everything that cannot be seen with the eyes, or felt with the hands, or comprehended by the average mind. We do not condemn this attitude for it denotes a necessary stage in the development of humanity. Without the pride and prejudices of mind and sense, we should never have achieved our great conquests over material life, nor have been able to impart to the personality a certain measure of elasticity: neither can we hope that many ideals, which must be founded on man's desire for freedom and the assertion of personality, may yet be realized.

But this dark side of a purely materialistic civilization has deeply affected the whole being of the modern man. For proof it is not necessary to refer to the obvious facts already named; it would be easy to demonstrate, by certain examples (which are greatly underrated, especially to-day), how deeply rooted in the mind of the modern man is this adhesion to the testimony of the senses, or the average intelligence. And it is just these things that indicate the need for the renewal of spiritual life.

The strong response evoked by Professor Friedrich Delitzsch's Babel and Bible Theory fully justifies a reference to its author's method of thinking, as a sign of the time. Professor Delitzsch has demonstrated the relationship of certain traditions in the Old Testament, to the Babylonian accounts of the Creation, and this fact, coming from such a source and in such a form, has been realized by many who would otherwise have ignored such questions. It has led many to reconsider the so-called idea of Revelation. They ask themselves: "How is it possible to accept the idea that the contents of the Old Testament were revealed by God, when we find very similar conceptions among decidedly heathen nations?" This problem cannot here be further discussed. Delitzsch found many opponents who feared that through his exposition, the very foundations of Religion had been shaken. He has defended himself in a pamphlet, Babel and Bible, a Retrospect and a Forecast. Here we shall only refer to a single statement in the pamphlet. One of importance, because it reveals the view of an eminent scientist regarding the position of man with respect to transcendental truths. And to-day innumerable other people think and feel just like Delitzsch. The statement affords an excellent opportunity for us to find out what is the innermost conviction of our contemporaries, expressed quite freely and, therefore, in its truest form.

Delitzsch turns to those who reproach him with a somewhat liberal use of the term "Revelation," and who would fain regard it as "a kind of old priestly wisdom" which "has nothing at all to do with the layman," making this reply.

"For my part, I am of opinion that while our children or ourselves are instructed in school or at church as regards Revelation, not only are we within our right, but it is our duty, to think independently concerning these deep questions, possessing also, as they do, an eminently practical side, were it only that we might avoid giving our children 'evasive' answers. For this very reason it will be gratifying to many searchers after Truth when the dogma of a special 'choosing' of Israel shall have been brought forward into the light of a wider historical outlook, through the union of Babylonian, Assyrian, and Old Testament research…. [A few pages earlier we are shown the direction of such thoughts.] For the rest, it would seem to me that the only logical thing is for Church and School to be satisfied as regards the whole past history of the world and of humanity, with the belief in One Almighty Creator of Heaven and Earth, and that these tales of the Old Testament should be classified by themselves under some such title as 'Old Hebraic Myths.'"

(It may be taken as a matter of course, we suppose, that no one will see in the following remarks an attack on the investigator Delitzsch.) What, then, is here averred in naive simplicity? Nothing less than that the mind which is engaged upon physical investigation may assert the right of judging experiences of superphysical nature. There is no thought that this mind without further development may perhaps be unfit to reflect upon the teachings of these "Revelations." When one wishes to understand that which appears as a "Revelation," one must employ the kind of knowledge or forces through which the "Revelation," itself has come to us.

He who develops within himself the mystical power of perception soon observes that in certain stories of the Old Testament which by Delitzsch were called "Old Hebraic Myths," there are revealed to him truths of a higher nature than those which may be comprehended by the intellect, which is only concerned with the things of sense. His own experiences will lead him to see that these "Myths" have proceeded out of a mystic perception of transcendental truths. And then, in one illuminative moment, his whole point of view is changed.

As little as one may demonstrate the fallacy of a mathematical problem by discovering who solved it first, or even that several people have solved it, just so little may one impugn the truth of a biblical narrative by the discovery of a similar story elsewhere. Instead of demanding that everyone should insist upon his right, or even his duty, to think independently on the so-called "Revelations," we ought rather to consider that only he who has developed in himself those latent powers which make it possible for him to relive that which was once realized by those very mystics, who proclaimed the "supersensuous revelations," has a right to decide anything about the matter.

Here we have an excellent example of how the average intellect, qualified for the highest triumphs in practical sense-knowledge, sets itself up, in naive pride, as a judge in domains, the existence of which it does not even care to know. For purely historical investigation is also carried on by nothing but the experience of the senses.

In just the same way has the investigation of the New Testament led us into a blind alley. At any costs the method of the "Newer Historical Investigation" had to be directed upon the Gospels. These documents have been compared with each other, and brought into relation with all sorts of records, in order that we might find out what really happened in Palestine from the year 1 to the year 33; how the "historical personality" of whom they tell really lived, and what He may really have said.

Angelus Selesius, of the seventeenth century, has already expressed the whole of the critical attitude toward this kind of investigation:

"Though Christ were yearly born in Bethlehem, and never Had birth in you yourself, then were you lost for ever; And if within yourself it is not reared again, The Cross at Golgotha can save you not from pain."

Nor are these the words of one who doubted, but those of a Christian, strong in his belief. And his equally fervent predecessor, Meister Eckhart, said in the thirteenth century:

"There are some who desire to see God with their eyes, as they look at a cow; and just as they love a cow, so they desire to love God…. Simple-minded people imagine that God may be seen as if He stood there and they stood here. But this is not so: in that perception, God and I are one."

These words must not be understood as directed against the investigation of "historical truth." Yet no one can rightly understand the historic truth of such documents as the Gospels, unless he has first experienced within himself the mystical meaning which they contain. All such comparisons and analyses are quite worthless, for no one can discover who was "born in Bethlehem" but he who has mystically experienced the Christ within himself; neither can anyone in whom it has not already been erected, decide how it is that "the Cross at Golgotha" can deliver us from pain. Purely historical investigation "can discover no more concerning the mystic reality than the dismembering anatomist, perhaps, can discover the secret of a great poetical genius." (See my book, Das Christentum als mystische Tatsache, Berlin, C. A. Schwetschke und Sohn, 1902, or its French translation, mentioned on page 1.)

He who can see clearly in these matters is aware how deeply rooted, at the present time, is the "pride" of the intellect, which only concerns itself with the facts of sense. It says: "I do not wish to develop faculties in order that I may reach the higher truths; I wish to form my decisions concerning them with the powers that I now possess."

In a well-meant pamphlet, which is written, however, entirely in that spirit of the age which we have already indicated (What do we know about Jesus? by A. Kalthoff, Berlin, 1904), we read as follows:

"Christ, who symbolizes the life of the Community, may be discerned within himself by the man of to-day: out of his own soul the man of to-day can create Christ just as well as the author of a gospel created him; as a man he may put himself in the same position as the gospel-writers, because he can reinstate himself into the same soul-processes, can himself speak or write Gospel."

"These words might be true, but they may also be entirely erroneous. They are true when understood in the sense of Angelus Silesius, or of Meister Eckhart, that is when they refer to the development of powers dormant in every human soul, which, from some such idea, endeavors to experience within itself the Christ of the Gospels. They are altogether wrong, if a more or less shallow ideal of the Christ is thus created out of the spirit of an age that acknowledges the truth of no perceptions other than those of the senses."

The life of the Spirit can be understood only when we do not presume to criticize it with the lower mind, but rather when we develop it reverently within ourselves. No one can hope to learn anything of the higher truths if he demands that they shall be lowered to the "average understanding." This statement provokes the question: "Why, then, do you mystics proclaim these truths to people who, you declare, cannot as yet understand them? Why should there be Movements in the furtherance of certain teachings, when the powers which render men able to conceive of these teachings are still undeveloped?"

It is the task of this book to elucidate this apparent contradiction. It will show that the spiritual currents of our day originate from a different source, in a different manner, from the science which relies entirely on the lower intellect. Yet, in spite of this, these spiritual currents are not to be considered as less scientific than the science which is based upon physical facts alone. Rather do they extend the field of scientific investigation into the superphysical. We must close this chapter with one more question, which is likely to arise: How may one attain to superphysical truths, and, of what help are spiritual movements towards this attainment?



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