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Christianity As Mystical Fact

Rudolf Steiner e.Lib Document

Sketch of Rudolf Steiner lecturing at the East-West Conference in Vienna.

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Christianity As Mystical Fact

NATURAL SCIENTIFIC THOUGHT has deeply influenced the formulation of present-day ideas. It is becoming more and more impossible to describe the spiritual requirements of the “life of the soul” without reference to the methods of thinking and the conclusions of natural science. However, it must be admitted that many people satisfy these requirements without taking into account the trend of natural scientific thought in modern spiritual life. But those who are alert to the pulse of the times must take this trend into consideration. Ideas derived from natural science conquer our thought-life with gathering momentum, and our unwilling hearts follow hesitantly and with apprehension. Not only the number thus conquered is important: there is a power inherent in natural scientific thought which convinces the observant that a modern conception of the world cannot exclude its impressions. Several of the side-growths of natural scientific thought compel us to reject which this method of thought has gained widespread recognition and attracts people as if by magic. The situation is not altered by the fact that isolated individuals can see how true science, through its own power has “long” led beyond the “shallow doctrines of force and matter,” taught by materialism. It appears to be far more important to heed those who boldly declare that a new religion should be built on natural scientific ideas. Even if such people seem shallow and superficial to those who know the deeper spiritual requirements of humanity, nevertheless they should be noted because they claim attention in the present time, and there is good reason to believe that they will win increasing recognition in the future. And those also must be considered who have allowed their heads to take precedence over their hearts. These people are unable to free their intellects from natural scientific ideas. They are oppressed by the need for proof. But the religious needs of their souls cannot be satisfied by these natural scientific ideas. The latter offer too comfortless a perspective for their satisfaction. Why be enthusiastic about beauty, truth and goodness if in the end everything is to be swept away into nothingness like a bubble of inflated brain tissue? This is a feeling which oppresses many people like a nightmare. Therefore scientific ideas also oppress them, pressing their claims with tremendous authoritative force. As long as they can, these people remain blind to the discord in their souls. Indeed, they comfort themselves by saying that true clarity in these matters is denied the human soul. They think in accordance with natural science so long as the experience of their senses and logic demand it, but they keep to the religious sentiments in which they have been educated, preferring to remain in darkness concerning these matters, a darkness which clouds their understanding. They have not the courage to struggle through to clarity.

There can be no doubt whatever that the method of thought derived from natural science is the greatest power in modern spiritual life. And one who speaks of the spiritual concerns of mankind may not pass it by heedlessly. Nevertheless it is also true that the method by which it attempts to satisfy spiritual needs is shallow and superficial. If this were the right method the outlook would indeed be comfortless. Would it not be depressing to be forced to agree with those who say, “Thought is a form of force. We walk with the same force with which we think. Man is an organism that changes several forms of force into thought-force. Man is a machine into which we put what we call food, and produce what we call thought. Think of that wonderful chemistry by which bread was changed into the divine tragedy of Hamlet!” This is quoted from a lecture of Robert G. Ingersoll, titled The Gods. It is irrelevant that such thoughts, casually expressed, apparently receive little recognition. The main point is that countless people, influenced by the natural scientific method of thought, seem compelled to assume an attitude in line with the above quotation, even when they believe they are not doing so. (See Author's Comments)

The situation would indeed be comfortless if natural science itself forced us to the credo advanced by many of its newer prophets. Matters would be entirely comfortless for one who has become convinced from the content of this natural science that its method of thought is valid and unshakeable in the realm of nature. Such a person must say to himself, However much people may quarrel over individual questions, though volume after volume may be written and observation upon observation collected about the “struggle for existence” (See Author's Comments) and its insignificance, about the “omnipotence” or “powerlessness” of “natural selection,” natural science itself moves on in one direction, and must find increasing agreement within certain limits.

But are the demands made by natural science really as they are described by some of its representatives? The behavior of these representatives themselves proves that this is not the case. Their behavior in their own field is not such as many describe and demand in other fields. Would Darwin and Ernst Haeckel (see Note 1a) ever have made their great discoveries about the evolution of life if, instead of observing life and the structure of living beings, they had gone into the laboratory to make chemical experiments with tissue cut out of an organism? Would Lyell (see Note 1b) have been able to describe the development of the crust of the earth if, instead of examining strata and their contents, he had analyzed the chemical qualities of innumerable stones? Let us really follow in the footsteps of these explorers who appear as monumental figures in the development of modern science! We shall then apply to the higher regions of spiritual life what they have applied in the field of the observation of nature. Then we shall not believe we have understood the essence of the “divine” tragedy of Hamlet by saying that a wonderful chemical process transformed a certain quantity of food into that tragedy. We shall believe it as little as a naturalist can seriously believe that he has understood the mission of heat in the evolution of the earth when he has studied the action of heat upon sulphur in a chemical retort. Neither does he attempt to understand the construction of the human brain by examining the effect of liquid potash upon a fragment of it, but rather by inquiring how, in the course of evolution, the brain has been developed out of the organs of lower organisms.

It is therefore quite true that one who is investigating the nature of spirit can only learn from natural science. He really needs only to do as science does. But he must not allow himself to be misled by what individual representatives of natural science would dictate to him. He must investigate in the spiritual domain as they do in the physical, but he need not adopt their opinions about the spiritual world, confused as they are by their exclusive consideration of physical phenomena.

We shall act in conformity with natural science only when we study the spiritual evolution of man just as impartially as the naturalist observes the material world. Then in the domain of spiritual life we shall admittedly be led to a method of consideration differing from the purely natural scientific method as geology differs from pure physics or the investigation of the evolution of life from research into purely chemical laws. We shall be led to higher methods which, although they cannot be those of natural science, yet hold good in the same sense. Many a one-sided view of natural science will allow itself to be modified or corrected from another point of view, but this only leads to progress in natural science and thereby one does not sin against the latter. — Such methods alone can lead to penetration into spiritual developments like Christianity, or the world of ideas of any other religion. Anyone applying these methods may provoke the opposition of many who believe they are thinking scientifically, but nevertheless he will know himself to be in full accord with a truly scientific method of thought.

An investigator of this kind must also go beyond a merely historical examination of the documents relating to spiritual life. This is necessary just because of the attitude of mind he has acquired from the consideration of natural occurrences. When a chemical law is explained it is of little value to describe the retorts, dishes and pincers which have led to its discovery. And in explaining the beginning of Christianity, it is of just as much or as little value to ascertain the historical sources drawn upon by the Evangelist Luke, or those from which the book of Revelation of John was compiled. (See Author's Comments) In this case “history” can be only the outer court to research proper. By tracing the historical origin of documents we shall not discover anything about the ideas in the writings of Moses or in the traditions of the Greek mystics. In these documents the ideas in question are expressed only in outward terms. And the naturalist, investigating the nature of “man,” does not concern himself about the origin of the word “man,” or how it has developed in a language. He keeps to the thing itself, not to the word which expresses it. And likewise, in studying spiritual life we shall have to keep to the spirit and not to its outer documents.

Last Modified: 02-Nov-2023
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