Christianity as Mystical Fact
10. The Essence of Christianity
The fact that the Divine, the Word, the eternal Logos was no longer met only on a spiritual plane in the dark secrecy of the Mysteries but that in speaking about the Logos they were indicating the historical and human personality of Jesus, must have exercised the deepest influence upon those who acknowledged Christianity. Previously the Logos had been seen as reality only in different stages of human perfection. It was possible to observe the delicate, subtle differences in the spiritual life of the personality and to see in what manner and degree the Logos became living within the individual personalities seeking initiation. A higher degree of maturity had to be interpreted as a higher stage in the evolution of spiritual existence. The preparatory steps had to be sought in a past spiritual life. And the present life had to be regarded as the preparatory stage for future stages of spiritual evolution. The conservation of the spiritual power of the soul and the eternity of that power could be assumed from the Jewish esoteric teaching (The Zohar), “Nothing in the world is lost, nothing falls into the void, not even the words and voice of man; everything has its place and destination.” 72The Zohar, II, 110 b. The one personality was only a metamorphosis of the soul which changes from personality to personality. The single life of the personality was considered only as a link in the chain of development reaching forward and backward. Through Christianity this changing Logos is directed from the individual personality to the unique personality of Jesus. What previously had been distributed throughout the world was now united in a unique personality. Jesus became the unique God-Man. In Jesus something once was present which must appear to man as the greatest of ideals and with which in the course of man's repeated earthly lives he ought in the future to be more and more united. Jesus took upon himself the apotheosis of the whole of humanity. In him was sought what formerly could be sought only in a man's own soul. What had always been found as divine and eternal in the human personality had been taken from it. And all this eternal could be seen in Jesus. It is not the eternal part in the soul that conquers death and is raised as divine through its own power, but the one God who was in Jesus, will appear and raise the souls. From this it follows that an entirely new significance was given to personality. The eternal, immortal part had been taken from it. Only the personality as such was left. If eternity were not to be denied, immortality must be ascribed to the personality itself. The belief in the soul's eternal metamorphosis became the belief in personal immortality. The personality gained infinite importance because it was the only thing in man to which he could cling. Henceforth there is nothing between the personality and the infinite God. A direct relationship with Him must be established. Man was no longer capable of becoming divine himself in a greater or lesser degree; he was simply man, standing in a direct but outward relationship to God. Those who knew the ancient Mystery-conceptions were bound to feel that this brought quite a new note into the conception of the world. Many people found themselves in this position during the first centuries of Christianity. They knew the nature of the Mysteries; if they wished to become Christians they were obliged to come to terms with the old method. This brought them into difficult conflicts within their souls. They tried in the most varied ways to find a balance between the divergent world conceptions. This conflict is reflected in the writings of early Christian times, both of pagans attracted by the sublimity of Christianity and of those Christians who found it hard to give up the ways of the Mysteries. Christianity grew slowly out of Mystery wisdom. On the one hand Christian convictions were presented in the form of the Mystery truths, and on the other the Mystery wisdom was clothed in Christian words. Clement of Alexandria (died 217 A.D.), a Christian writer whose education had been pagan, provides an instance of this: “Thus the Lord did not hinder us from doing good while keeping the Sabbath, but allowed us to communicate of those divine mysteries, and of that holy light, to those who are able to receive them. He did not disclose to the many what did not belong to the many; but to the few to whom he knew that they belonged, who were capable of receiving and being moulded according to them. But secret things are entrusted to speech, not to writing, as God confided the unutterable mystery to the Logos, not to the written word.” — “God gave to the church some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” 73Augustine's Confessions, Book XIII, 38. The Loeb Library translation runs: “We therefore behold these things which thou hast created, because they are; but they are, because thou seest them. And we see without, that they are, and within, that they are good.” Another translation also reads: “... And we see without that they are, and within that they are good.” By the most diverse means personalities tried to find the way from the ancient conceptions to the Christian ones. And each of them, believing he was on the right path, called the others heretics. Side by side with the latter, the Church grew stronger as an external institution. The more power it gained the more the path recognized as the right one by the decisions of councils took the place of personal investigation. It was for the Church to decide who deviated too far from the divine truth which it guarded. The concept of a “heretic” took firmer and firmer shape. During the first centuries of Christianity the search for the divine path was a much more personal matter than it became later. A long distance had to be traveled before Augustine's conviction could become possible: “I should not believe the Gospel except as moved by the authority of the Church.
The conflict between the method of the Mysteries and that of the Christian religion acquired a special stamp through the various “Gnostic” sects and writers. We may class as Gnostics all the writers of the first Christian centuries who sought for a deeper spiritual sense in Christian teachings. (A brilliant account of the development of Gnosis is given in G. R. S. Mead's book mentioned above, Fragments of a Faith Forgotten.) We understand the Gnostics when we look upon them as saturated with the ancient wisdom of the Mysteries and striving to understand Christianity from that point of view. For them Christ is the Logos. As such He is above all of a spiritual nature. In His primal essence He cannot approach man from without. He must be awakened in the soul. But the historical Jesus must bear some relationship to this spiritual Logos. This was the crucial question for the Gnostics. Some settled it in one way, some in another. The essential point common to them all was that to arrive at a true understanding of the Christ-idea, mere historical tradition was not sufficient, but that it must be sought either in the wisdom of the Mysteries or in the Neoplatonic philosophy which was derived from the same source. The Gnostics had faith in human wisdom, and believed it capable of bringing forth a Christ by whom the historical Christ could be measured. In fact, through the former alone could the latter be understood and beheld in the right light.
From this point of view the doctrine given in the books of Dionysius the Areopagite is of special interest. It is true that there is no mention of these writings until the sixth century. But it matters little when and where they were written; the point is that they give an account of Christianity which is clothed in the language of Neoplatonic philosophy, and presented in the form of a spiritual vision of the higher world. In any case this is a form of presentation belonging to the first Christian centuries. In olden times this presentation was handed on in the form of oral tradition; in fact the most important things were not entrusted to writing. Christianity thus presented could be regarded as reflected in the mirror of the Neoplatonic world conception. Sense-perception dims man's spiritual vision. He must go beyond the material world. But all human concepts are derived primarily from observation by the senses. What man observes with his senses he calls existent; what he does not so observe he calls non-existent. Therefore if he wishes to open up an actual view of the divine he must go beyond existence and non-existence, for as he conceives them these also have their origin in the sphere of the senses. In this sense God is neither existent nor non-existent. He is super-existent. Consequently He cannot be attained by means of ordinary perception, which has to do with existing things. We must be raised above ourselves, above our sense-observation, above our reasoning logic if we are to find the bridge to spiritual conception; then we are able to get a glimpse into the perspectives of the divine. But this super-existent divinity has brought forth the Logos, the foundation of the universe, filled with wisdom. Man's lower powers are able to reach Him. He is present in the structure of the world as the spiritual Son of God; He is the mediator between God and man. He may be present in man in various stages. For instance, He may be realized in an external institution, in which those variously imbued with His spirit are grouped into a hierarchy. A “Church” of this kind is the material reality of the Logos, and the power which lives in it lived personally in the Christ become flesh, in Jesus. Thus through Jesus the Church is united to God; in Him lies its meaning and crowning-point.
One thing was clear to all Gnosis: one must come to terms with the idea of Jesus as a personality. Christ and Jesus must be brought into relationship with each other. Divinity was taken from human personality and must be recovered in one way or another. It must be possible to find it again in Jesus. The mystic was dealing with a degree of divinity within himself, and with his own earthly material personality. The Christian was dealing with the latter and also with a perfect God, far above all that is humanly attainable. If we hold firmly to this conception a fundamentally mystical attitude of soul is only possible when the soul finds the higher spiritual element in itself and its spiritual eye is opened so that the light issuing from the Christ in Jesus falls upon it. The union of the soul with its highest powers is at the same time union with the historical Christ. For mysticism is a direct feeling and experience of the divine within the soul. But a God far transcending everything human can never dwell in the soul in the real sense of the word. Gnosis and all subsequent Christian mysticism represent the effort in one way or another to lay hold of that God and to apprehend Him directly in the soul. A conflict in this case was inevitable. In reality it was only possible for a man to find his own divine part; but this is a human-divine part, that is, a divine part at a certain stage of development. Yet the Christian God is a definite one, perfect in Himself. It was possible for a person to find in himself the power to strive upward to this God, but he could not say that what he experienced in his own soul at any stage of development was one with God. A gulf appeared between what it was possible to perceive in the soul and what Christianity described as divine. It is the gulf between knowledge and belief, between cognition and religious feeling. This gulf does not exist for a mystic in the old sense of the word. He knows that he can comprehend the divine only by degrees, and he also knows why this is so. It is clear to him that this gradual attainment is a real attainment of the true, living divinity and he finds it difficult to speak of a perfect, isolated divine principle. A mystic of this kind does not wish to recognize a perfect God, but he wishes to experience the divine life. He wishes to become divine himself; he does not wish to gain an external relationship to the Godhead. It is of the essence of Christianity that its mysticism in this sense starts with an assumption. The Christian mystic seeks to behold divinity within himself, but he must look to the historical Christ as his eyes do to the sun; just as the physical eye says to itself, By means of the sun I see what I have power to see, so the Christian mystic says to himself, I will intensify my innermost being in the direction of divine vision, and the light which makes such vision possible is given in the Christ who has appeared. He is, and through this I am able to rise to the highest within myself. In this the Christian mystics of the Middle Ages show how they differ from the mystics of the ancient Mysteries. (See my book, Die Mystik im Aufgange des neuzeitlichen Geisteslebens. Berlin, 1901, Mysticism at the Dawn of the Modern Age, Englewood, New Jersey, 1960, Volume 3 of the Centennial Edition of the Written Works of Rudolf Steiner, 1861–1961.)