Christianity, Theosophical Approaches to
Christianity, numerically the world’s largest religion, and modern theosophy have had a complex and sometimes troubled relationship. The Christian faith was and is the natal religion of the great majority of Western members of the Theosophical Society (TS) from the generation of the Founders to the late twentieth century. But many came to theosophy through a process of questioning, or even rebellion against that faith. Some were of no faith or, increasingly, have been raised in theosophy or some other spiritual alternative. Other theosophists, both Eastern and Western, were never Christians, being of Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Zoroastrian or tribal religious background and so also were the Masters of the East.
Thus theosophy has had to deal with the feelings of persons who find themselves at odds with Christianity as well as those sympathetic but who look to theosophy to add a dimension of depth and esoteric meaning to conventional expressions of the religion — and also with those of all faith traditions who want to find in them all, Christianity no less than any other, relics of a common ancient wisdom. All this has understandably led to some differences of tone and emphasis amongst theosophical writers treating of Christianity.
Helena P. BLAVATSKY was herself unsparing in her polemics against the ecclesiastical tradition of Christianity, whether dealing with the Church Fathers or modern priests, pastors and missionaries. That was above all the case in Isis Unveiled and certain letters. Roman Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox clerics were all subjected to her scorn, though she considered her own Russian Orthodox church a bit purer than the others (see CW XIV:125). The basis of her animus against Christian churches was what she perceived as arrogance combined with misplaced concreteness. That is to say, Blavatsky held that churchmen, past and present, whether through intentional deceit or mere stupidity, had concealed the real origin and meaning of Christianity as a vehicle of the ancient wisdom and had then made absolute, dogmatic creeds of Christianity’s symbolic outer conveyors of esoteric truth, to the extent of suppression and persecution of those who saw beyond the letter. The fundamental error, or deception, was making God a Creator external to the universe rather than, as theosophists understood the situation to be, a source of consciousness-matter emanations unfolding from within the heart of the cosmos. The best intellectual expression of this position may be the following passage from The Secret Doctrine (II:41):
- Christian theology, having rejected the doctrine of emanations and replaced them with direct, conscious creations of angels and the rest out of nothing, now finds itself hopelessly stranded between Supernaturalism, or miracle, and materialism. An extra-cosmic god is fatal to philosophy, an intra-cosmic Deity — i.e., Spirit and matter inseparable from each other — is a philosophical necessity. Separate them and that which is left is a gross superstition under a mask of emotionalism.
There were, however, among the Christians, some initiates who understood these things. Jesus himself, whom she said taught karma and reincarnation above all, was one, and so was St. Paul, and they presented the deeper truth in the veiled language of Jesus’ parables and Paul in his grasp of the esoteric meaning of the Cross (SD II:556). In Blavatsky’s understanding of Jesus and Paul, the former is not exactly the singular incarnation of an external God, or even of the creative Logos, of ordinary Christianity. That is the Christ, who is more than Jesus: “Christ, the Logos, or the God in Space and the Savior on Earth, is but one of the echoes of the same antediluvian and sorely misunderstood Wisdom” (SD II:483).
But esoterically the doctrines about Jesus as Christ come close to the truth when they acknowledge that he was an initiate and a Master, and that in the symbolic drama of his life, death, and resurrection profound mysteries that must be interiorized by all initiates are presented in symbol. In her view this was how the ancient Gnostics understood Christ and Christianity. They, Blavatsky like many theosophists contended, alone entertained a true and deep understanding of the Christian mysteries. As for the rest of the churchmen, they came nigh to obliterating it with their quarrelsome dogmatism and political ambition.
It must be admitted that Blavatsky’s onslaughts against most Christianity, which included attacks even on groups given to good works such as the Salvation Army, were not always even-handed. There was little inclination to give credit as well as blame in connection with the faith’s long and exceedingly diverse history. Moreover, Blavatsky seemed unaware of the emerging liberal, and broadly Platonic, strand in Christian theology — Schleiermacher, Coleridge, Channing, Kingsley and many others — that in her own nineteenth century was giving Christianity a far different face from that of the naive dogmatism she so hated. Yet her assault on church Christianity can be viewed as a preliminary necessary to her particular task, and that of the Theosophical Society: the establishment of a new spirituality based on an immanentalist universalism which stood at an opposite pole from the exclusivist, hidebound but aggressive faith she saw all around, whether in European bishops or in missionaries abroad. Other writers of the first theosophical generation were generally of the Blavatsky stamp on the issue of Christianity. The tone is generally more sympathetic — and the discussion more extensive — when the subject is HINDUISM or BUDDHISM than the great faith of the West, but Jesus and Paul are seen as initiates whose support can be summoned on behalf of certain basic tenets of the ancient wisdom. Alfred P. SINNETT, in Esoteric Buddhism and elsewhere, is quite reticent on Christianity. William Q. JUDGE, though he also had relatively little to say about the subject, points out in The Ocean of Theosophy that the sometimes cryptic language of Jesus must be understood in light of the fact that his mission was to the Jews and so was couched in the terminology of their tradition; he was in fact an avatar for the Jews. In Echoes of the Orient II, we find a passage in which Judge says that “the religion which Jesus taught is not what the world understands by Christianity,” and states that Jesus actually taught reincarnation (p. 435). Henry Steel Olcott, in his inaugural address as President of the Theosophical Society, very nicely positioned theosophy between the conflicting dogmas of science and religion (here obviously meaning Christian religion), making its reversion to an ancient heritage underlying them both the solution to that great Victorian battle: “If I rightly apprehend our work, it is to aid in freeing the public mind of theological superstition and a tame subservience to the arrogance of science.” According to Stephen Prothero in his study of Olcott and Buddhism, The White Buddhist, after further interaction with Blavatsky and his own labors on behalf of Asian Buddhists, Olcott developed more and more antipathy to the Christian faith.
Another side, however, was beginning to emerge elsewhere in the theosophical world, particularly in a circle related to the London Lodge in the early 1880s centering on Anna KINGSFORD and her companion Edward MAITLAND, and supported by their great Parisian friend and patron, Marie, countess of Caithness and duchesse de Pomar, founder and president of the French lodge in 1883. This group has been examined by Joscelyn Godwin in The Theosophical Enlightenment. Lady Caithness had published on esotericism and Christianity Old Truths in a New Light as early as 1876.
Kingsford and Maitland were finding their way toward an esoteric but Christ-centered faith. Most well-educated theosophists were aware of a tradition of allegorical interpretations of scripture influenced by Neoplatonism and the Hellenistic approach to myth, of Jewish and Christian writers like Philo, ORIGEN, Gregory of Nyssa, and more recently BOEHME and SWEDENBORG. The first Christian esotericism Kingsford and Maitland had heard of was Swedenborg; Lady Caithness, with whom they had corresponded by 1878, told them of Jacob Boehme and Eliphas LEVI. On the basis of such reading, and of direct mystical visions on the part of Anna Kingsford they called “illumination,” they came to interpret the Christian mythos as one form of the popular “solar myth” pattern, allegories of the passage of the Sun through the Zodiac which scholars as distinguished as Max Müller then took to be basic to all religion. But they also claimed that Jesus was a real person; the Christ, however, represented the state of regenerate man, united with the Logos or Divine Spirit. They conceded that the other ancient mysteries and the pagan gods had concealed and revealed the esoteric doctrine as much as did Christ. But now, for obvious historical reasons, that burden lay almost entirely on Christianity in the West. But that faith, though now the main vehicle for the wisdom, had become so corrupt that it was hardly fulfilling its true function.
All this was presented in lectures at the London Lodge of the Theosophical Society in 1881, published anonymously with the help of Lady Caithness in 1882 as The Perfect Way; or, the Finding of Christ. This fascinating work, which clearly influenced Annie BESANT deeply, centers on the Gnostic theme of the liberation of spirit from matter, a salvation prefigured, after the mystery drama of the Crucifixion and Death of Christ, in his Resurrection in his “true and immortal form,” and finally culminated in his Ascension, which is “that of the whole Man, now regenerate, to his own celestial kingdom within himself” (1924 ed., p. 213.). Between Caithness and Kingsford there was now before the world an esoteric, quasi-theosophical understanding of Christianity, especially Catholic Christianity. (Both Kingsford and Caithness were Roman Catholics; Kingsford, like Annie Besant, the unhappy wife of an Anglican vicar, a convert in 1870.) In 1883 Anna Kingsford became president of the London Lodge of the TS, but was defeated for reelection the next year at a meeting over which Olcott presided by a faction backed by A. P. Sinnett; at Olcott’s suggestion she, Maitland, and others left to form the more Western- and Christian-oriented Hermetic Society. Tension between Christian/Catholic Theosophy and the vigorously Eastern-oriented, anti-clerical theosophy of Sinnett and the Blavatsky-Olcott tradition was certainly a factor in this acrimonious division. But though Maitland and Kingsford went their own way, their ideas were far from forgotten in theosophical circles, their counterparts finding larger and larger place, though never without intense controversy, after 1900. A new generation was arising which was often temperamentally better disposed to reconciliation between Christianity and Theosophy than the earlier cohort had been. One reason was that the world itself had changed, and Christianity with it. The mid-Victorian starkly-defined “war” between science and religion, or faith and reason, had given way by the end of the century to serious philosophical and theological attempts at mediation and taking higher perspectives, including growing popularity of the previously-mentioned theological liberalism. One upshot was a vogue for Christian mysticism, popularized by books like those of Evelyn Underhill. A parallel and no less helpful enthusiasm for the deeply psychological and sometimes sympathetic study of mythology and folklore, whether in the manner of Andrew Lang and James Frazer, or the psychoanalytic style of Sigmund Freud and C. G. Jung, suggested, as had Blavatsky and Swedenborg even earlier, other ways of looking at the Christian mythos than either the literalist or rationalist.
Another congenial trend, widespread even among the clergy in the 1890s and 1900s, was a “Christian mysteries” approach to the faith with its worship and festivals. Inspired by Freemasonry and the ceremonial magic of the Order of the Golden Dawn, it sought new ways of understanding how the forms of conventional Christianity expressed timeless mystical truths and channeled divine power. One exemplar of this vision was Dr. Robert Felkin of England and New Zealand, theosophist, leader in the Golden Dawn, and devout Anglican layman who founded within that church the Order of St. Luke, devoted to the spiritual side of healing.
Another reason for a certain shift in attitude was a new type of theosophist. By 1900 the Theosophical Society was generally less “bohemian” and more middle class than in its early days; these were people by no means as radical in their overall social views, including those concerning the established religion, as their predecessors. Often Anglican in background, at least in the English-speaking world, they carried over something of that communion’s relative toleration of theological diversity and its ritual sense, and some were as much interested in reconciling all that with theosophy as in renewed theology/theosophy battles. Out of this new realm of the spirit came the theosophical Christianity of persons like Annie Besant, Charles W. LEADBEATER, James Ingall WEDGWOOD, Geoffrey HODSON, and the LIBERAL CATHOLIC CHURCH. These writers certainly continued in the tradition of affirming that the Gnostics represented the best and truest version of Christianity, and that the religion was to be understood in a mystical, mythological, “Christian mysteries” kind of way. But in their books the earlier trenchant anticlericalism, the diatribes against Jesuits, missionaries, and the church fathers, is noticeably missing. The tone is almost entirely positive, and one can imagine these works being well-received — as some of them were — by Christians in the pews of any reasonably liberal or “mainstream” twentieth century church.
The first in the new series, though drawing from Caithness, Kingsford, and Maitland, was Annie Besant’s Esoteric Christianity of 1898. Its basic message is that all religions contain a “hidden side,” a “mystic and esoteric teaching,” and that Christianity is no exception though lamentably that side is not widely known. The particulars of that teaching are not new, nor are they meant to be: it is that the Christian “mythos” of the life of Christ is an allegory of the descent of the Logos into matter and the initiatory transformation of matter through the “Christian Mysteries,” the “Mysteries of the Kingdom.” The “solar myth” concept is still much employed. What is new about the book is, first, the emphasis on drawing material not only from heretical Gnostics, but from “orthodox” fathers like Clement of Alexandria, and even from readings of the normatively orthodox Nicene and Athanasian creeds; and third, the positive interpretation even of the central act of Christian worship in the Anglican and Roman Catholic traditions, the Eucharistic sacrifice and holy communion, in light of their esoteric meaning.
The same animated regard for normative Catholic-type doctrine and worship, understood esoterically and theosophically, was carried forward by the ex-Anglican priest and theosophist, C. W. Leadbeater. In The Christian Creed (1899) he continued, with much greater fullness, his colleague Annie Besant’s theosophical exposition of the traditional credenda. The Hidden Side of Things (1913) contained a celebrated passage, reprinted in The Science of the Sacraments (1920) where it well articulates the sacramental theology of the Liberal Catholic Church, relating the author’s experiences at mass in a simple Sicilian Roman Catholic Church. Leadbeater describes the radiant lines of spiritual forces from the inner planes that he clairvoyantly saw streaming from the altar and consecrated Host in that humble place, irradiating the peasant congregation and the village with benign energies.
In 1916 the theosophist James Ingall Wedgwood was consecrated a bishop in an English Old Catholic Church which already was largely theosophical. He shortly afterwards traveled to Australia to consecrate Leadbeater as a fellow bishop. Both prelates were by then enthusiasts for the ceremonial expression of theosophical concepts, whether in Co-Masonry or Christian worship or other venues like the Order of the Star. Together they prepared liturgies for a Catholic style of worship consistent with theosophy. Their church soon became the Liberal Catholic Church. The meaning of its rites were expounded in Leadbeater’s The Science of the Sacraments and The Hidden Side of Christian Festivals (both 1920). Wedgwood wrote more, including The Presence of Christ in the Holy Communion (1928), The Place of Ceremonies in the Spiritual Life (1928), and The Larger Meaning of Religion (1929). In these distinctly Liberal Catholic works the basic esoteric Christian premise that the religion’s myths, creeds, and festivals are allegories of fundamental theosophical teachings about the outpourings of the Logos and the initiatory path of return to the One is accepted implicitly. The task now is to relate it to the details of traditional liturgical worship — the offering and consecration of the bread and wine, the cut of vestments and the swing of incense — and beyond that, to show how those features of Catholic Christian worship channel spiritual energies, as in the Sicilian church, to the congregation. Much emphasis was placed on the presence of ministering angels assisting in Eucharistic worship.
Another prolific theosophical writer of similar interests, and one reportedly clairvoyant like Leadbeater, was Geoffrey Hodson. In his Liberal Catholic writings like The Inner Side of Church Worship (1930) and The Priestly Ideal (1971) he continued in the same vein as Leadbeater; his clairvoyance was especially attuned to angels, and as well to entities in the devic line of evolution; the role of angelic beings in worship was especially emphasized. In a typical passage, he wrote:
- There is an order of angels attached to the Christian Church, who, being dedicated to the service of Christ, and serving as channels and conservators of His blessing and His power, attend every service held in His name. Filled with His love and compassion, they seek to bear those priceless gifts to the souls of men; at the great celebration of the mystery of the bread and wine they come, that every thirsting soul shall receive according to his need. Men know and see them not, and so the angel servers pass unnoticed and unknown. (The Inner Side of Church Worship, p. 15)
Hodson had another Christian interest too: the esoteric interpretation of the Bible. He authored several works offering extensive and often profound esoteric interpretations of familiar stories from the Old Testament and the life and parables of Jesus, showing what they can teach the believer about the descent into matter, evolution, and life on the several inner planes. The close rapport between these authorities and Christianity, especially in the form of the Liberal Catholic Church, was not popular in all theosophical quarters. Leadbeater particularly was a man who drew both fervent support and condemnation, and his many enemies often roundly condemned the church as a reversion to superstition and priestcraft which Blavatsky would have loudly rejected.
Yet even the non-Adyar strands of theosophy in the twentieth century, the Theosophical Society of Point Loma TS (PL) and the UNITED LODGE OF THEOSOPHISTS (ULT), were more reconciling toward Christianity and less stridently anticlerical than was characteristic of the previous century, though the TS (PL) and the ULT were, in the tradition of Sinnett and Judge, considerably more cautious than Adyar on the topic, and showed no overt interest in churchly, much less ritual, aspects of the Faith. Their principal figures, Katherine Tingley and Robert Crosbie, like Sinnett and Judge, offer only scattered references to the dominant religion of their world, and then chiefly to emphasize that theosophy is not opposed to “pure” Christianity as Jesus taught it, but only to “churchianity” with its creeds and rites (The Wisdom of the Heart: Katherine Tingley Speaks, p. 122), and that on the other hand the true Christ, Messiah, or Savior is the divine principle within every human being (A Book of Quotations from Robert Crosbie, pp. 105-6). Gottfried de PURUCKER, successor to Katherine Tingley as head of the Point Loma community and the Theosophical Society there, while he may not have worshiped with the Liberal Catholics, offered a fine exposition of the esoteric interpretation of Jesus in lectures later published as Clothed with the Sun: The Mystery-Tale of Jesus the Avatara (1972). He emphasizes, however, as have other esoteric writers, the correlation of the Christian mysteries with those of other ancient deities, noting, for example, that the day selected for the Christian celebration of the birth of Christ is identical with the birth-celebration of Mithras and the Roman festival of Sol Invictus, the unconquerable sun.
Other twentieth-century groups related to theosophy have generally carried on something of the same esoteric Christian tradition. The Alice BAILEY groups and books, especially From Bethlehem to Calvary and The Reappearance of the Christ, take seriously and broadly the coming World Teacher, for whose coming they see themselves as making preparation, with the return of the Christ. The Anthroposophy of Rudolf STEINER has made as virtually central to its program a very profound Western, Christian mysteries occultism. In the “I AM” movement Jesus has appeared, together with SAINT GERMAIN, as one of the most important Ascended Masters.
One perceives within modern theosophy two modes of thought regarding Christianity. The first style was willing to grant value in the “original” teachings of Jesus, which were held to include reincarnation and other theosophical precepts. This school honored the ancient Gnostics, and even acknowledged the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection as a “mystery drama” instructive as to the crucifixion of spirit on the “cross of matter” and its liberation therefrom; but these theosophists clearly sought to distance themselves from all subsequent forms of churchly Christianity. This was the style of Olcott, Judge, Sinnett, Blavatsky herself, and of the TS (PL) and ULT.
The second party, originally associated mainly with former Anglicans like Kingsford, Besant, Leadbeater, and Hodson, was prepared to see value in the doctrines and practices of historic Christianity as well, especially in its Catholic forms. While accepting the allegorical character of much of the Christian mythos, it did not stop there. These theosophists also viewed Christ, together with the church’s seasons, festivals, and sacraments, as not only symbols of spiritual truth but also as means of transmitting transcendent energies; most of this group entered the Liberal Catholic Church, though some have been Anglicans and Roman Catholics.
Needless to say, the whole matter has been a divisive issue within theosophy. Though some of the passion once generated by this divergence of view had subsided by the late twentieth century, the debate over theosophy and Christianity remains alive.
© Copyright by the Theosophical Publishing House, Manila