Exoteric And Esoteric Christianity
Exoteric Christianity is to be found in the Gospels and as they have been interpreted through history; esoteric, inner Christianity is the living teaching of the Risen Christ: resurrection. Today it lies in the resurrection of thinking: how dead thoughts can be awakened to life in the form of moral impulses.
2 April 1922, Dornach
Translated by D. S. Osmond
The story of the evolution of humanity is preserved in ancient records mostly either of a religious or philosophical character. But it must be emphasised that as well as these records which have had a deep and good influence upon mankind through the ages, there exists what we may call esoteric knowledge.
Wherever the deeper aspects of human knowledge and human thought have been studied, a distinction has always been made between exoteric teaching (concerned with the more external side of things) and esoteric teaching which is accessible only to those who have undergone the necessary inner preparation. And so in the case of Christianity itself, especially in respect of the spiritual kernel of Christianity — the Mystery of Golgotha — a distinction must also be made between exoteric and esoteric knowledge. The exoteric teaching is contained in the Gospels and is there for all the world; but side by side with this exoteric teaching there has always been an esoteric Christianity, available to those who have prepared their minds and hearts to receive it.
In this esoteric Christianity the teaching of greatest moment is that concerning the communion between the Risen Christ — the Christ Who has passed through death — and those of His disciples who were able to understand Him. The Gospels, as you know, make only brief references to this. What the Gospels say of this communion between Christ after His Resurrection and His disciples does indeed enable them to surmise that something of the deepest import to earthly evolution came to pass through the Resurrection; but unless the step is taken into the realm of esoteric teaching, the words can be little more than indications.
The avowal of Paul, of course, is of the greatest importance, for Paul testifies that he was only able to believe in Christ after He had appeared to him at Damascus. Paul knew then, with absolute conviction: Christ had passed through death and in His life now, after death, is united with earthly evolution. We must reflect upon the significance of the testimony which came from Paul when, through the event at Damascus, the reality of the Living Christ was revealed to him.
Why was it that before the vision at Damascus Paul or Saul as he then was — could not be convinced of the reality of the Christ?
We must understand what it meant to Paul — who to a certain extent had been initiated into the secret doctrines of the Hebrews — to learn that Christ Jesus had been condemned to a death of shame by crucifixion. It was, at first, impossible for Paul to conceive that the old prophecies could have been fulfilled by one who had been condemned by human law to this shameful death. Until the revelation came to him at Damascus, the fact that Jesus of Nazareth had suffered the shame of crucifixion was for Paul conclusive proof that He could not have been the Messiah. It was only after the revelation at Damascus that conviction came to Paul concerning the Mystery of Golgotha, notwithstanding the fact that Jesus of Nazareth, or rather, the Being indwelling the body of Jesus of Nazareth, had experienced a death of shame on the Cross.
It was of immeasurable significance that Paul should have proclaimed his conviction of the truth of the Mystery of Golgotha. Traditions that were still extant during the first centuries of Christendom are, of course, no longer available. At most they have survived in the form of fragments in the possession of a few isolated secret societies, where they are not understood. Anything that goes beyond the very sparse traditions concerning Christ after the Mystery of Golgotha must be rediscovered to-day through anthroposophical Spiritual Science. We have again to discover how Christ spoke after the Resurrection. What was the nature of the teaching given by Him to those disciples with whom He was in communion but of whom the Gospels make no mention? The Gospel story concerning the disciples who met Christ on the way to Emmaus, or concerning the host of disciples, has always been clothed in a form of tradition adapted for naive and simple minds incapable of understanding the esoteric truths. Going further, we must ask: What was the teaching given by Christ after the Resurrection to his initiated disciples? Before we can begin to understand this, we must think of the nature of the human soul as it was in very ancient times and of the change brought about by the Mystery of Golgotha.
A most important truth concerning the earliest periods in the evolution of earthly humanity and one which it is exceeding difficult for the modern mind to understand, is that the first human beings who lived on the Earth had no knowledge or science in the form familiar to us to-day. Because of their faculties of atavistic clairvoyance, these early men were able to receive the wisdom of the Gods. This means that it was actually possible for humanity to be taught by Divine Beings who descended spiritually to the Earth from the realm of the higher Hierarchies and who then imparted spiritual teaching to the souls of men. Those who received such teaching — for the most part they were men who had been initiated in the Mysteries — were able, through their Initiation, to live in a state of remoteness from earthly affairs; the soul lived to a great extent outside the body. In this state of consciousness men were not dependent upon oral conversation or instruction; they were able to receive communications from the Gods in a spiritual way. Nor did they receive these teachings in a condition of consciousness resembling dream-life as we know it to-day. They entered into living, spiritual communion with Divine Beings, receiving the wisdom imparted by these Beings. This wisdom consisted of teachings given by the Gods to man in regard to the sojourn of the human soul in the Divine-Spiritual world before the descent into an earthly body. The experiences of the soul before descent into a physical body through conception — such was the substance of the teaching imparted to human beings in the state of consciousness I have described. And the feeling arose in these men that they were only being reminded of something. As they received the teachings of the Gods they felt that they were being reminded of what they themselves had experienced before birth, or rather, before conception, the world of soul-and-spirit.
In Plato's writings there are still echoes of these things. And so to-day we can look back to a Divine-Spiritual wisdom once received by men on the Earth from the Gods themselves.
This wisdom was of a very special character. Strange as it will seem to you to-day, the earliest dwellers on the Earth knew nothing of death — just as a child knows nothing of death. Those men who received the teachings of the Gods and who then passed them on to others also possessing the faculty of atavistic clairvoyance — such men knew quite consciously that their souls had come down from Divine-Spiritual worlds, had entered into physical bodies and would in time pass out of these bodies. They regarded this as the onward flow of the life of soul-and-spirit. Birth and death seemed to them to be a metamorphoses, not a beginning and end.
Speaking figuratively, we should say: In those times man saw how the human soul can develop onwards and he felt that earthly life was only a section of the onflowing stream of the life of soul-and-spirit. Two given points within this stream were not regarded as any kind of beginning or end. It is, of course, true that man saw other human beings around him, die. You will not accuse me of comparing these early men with animals, for although their outward appearance was not entirely dissimilar from that of animals, the soul-and-spirit within them was on a very much loftier level. — I have spoken of this many times — As little as an animal to-day understands death when it sees another animal lying dead, as little did the men of those early times understand death, for they could only conceive of an onflowing stream of soul-and-spirit. Death belonged to Maya, to the great Illusion, and made no particular impression on them. They knew life and life only — not death, although it was there before their eyes. In their life of soul-and-spirit they were not involved in death. They saw human life only from within, stretching beyond death into the spiritual world. Birth and death were of no significance to life. They knew only life; they did not know death.
Little by little, men emerged from this state of consciousness. Following the evolution and progress of humanity from the earliest epochs to about the time of the Mystery of Golgotha, we may say: men were learning more and more to know the reality of death. Death was something that made an impression upon them. Their souls became entangled with death, and a question arose within them: What becomes of the soul when the human being passes though death?
In the very earliest times, men were not faced with the question of death as an ending. At most they enquired about the nature of the change that took place. They asked: Is it the breath that goes out of a man and then streams onwards, bearing the soul to Eternity? Or they formed some other picture of the life of soul-and-spirit in its onward flow. They pondered about this but never about death as an ending.
It was only when the epoch of the Mystery of Golgotha drew near that men began, for the first time, to feel that there is a significance in death, that earthly life has indeed an ending. Naturally, this question was not formulated in philosophical or scientific terms; it was more like a feeling, a perceptive experience — an experience necessary in earthly life because reason and intellect were to become an essential part of human evolution. Intellect, however, is dependent upon the fact that the human being can die.
It was necessary, then, for the human being to be involved in death, to know death. The ancient epochs, when men knew nothing of death, were all unintellectual. Ideas were inspired from the spiritual world, not ‘thought out.’ There was no intellect as we know it. But intellect had to take root and this is possible only because the human being can die, only because he has within him perpetually the forces of death. In a physical sense we may say: Death can only set in when certain salts, that is to say, certain dead, mineral substances deposit themselves in the brain as well as in the other parts of the human organism. In the brain there is a constant tendency towards the depositing of salts, towards a process of bone-formation that has been arrested before completion. So that all the time the brain has the tendency towards death.
Humanity had, however, to be impregnated with death. Outer acquaintance with death, realisation that death plays an important part in human existence, was simply a consequence of this necessity. If human beings had remained as they were in ancient times when they had no real knowledge of death, they would never have been able to develop intellect — for intellect is only possible in a world where death holds sway.
So it is when viewed from the standpoint of the human world. But the matter may also be viewed from the side of the higher Hierarchies, and presented in the following way. —
The Beings of the higher Hierarchies have within them the forces which fashioned Saturn, Sun and Moon1The three earlier embodiments of the Earth. See An Outline of Occult Science. and finally the Earth. If the higher Hierarchies had, as it were, been holding council among themselves before the Mystery of Golgotha had taken place on Earth, they would have said: “We have been able to build up the Earth from Saturn, Sun and Moon. But if the Earth were to contain only what we have been able to incorporate from Saturn, Sun and Moon, no beings could develop who, knowing death, are able to unfold intellect. We, the higher Hierarchies, are unable to bring forth an Earth from the Moon embodiment — an Earth on which men know nothing of death and therefore cannot unfold the faculty of intellect. We, the Hierarchies, cannot so fashion the Earth that it will produce the forces necessary for the development of intellect in man. For this purpose we must allow another Being to enter, a Being whose path of development has been different from ours. Ahriman is a Being who does not belong to our hierarchy. He enters the stream of evolution by a different path. If we tolerate Ahriman, if we allow him to participate in the process of the Earth's evolution, he will bring death, and with death, intellect; the seeds of death and of intellect will then be implanted in the being of man ... Ahriman is acquainted with death; he is interwoven with the Earth, because his paths have connected him with earthly evolution. Ahriman is a knower of death; therefore he is also the Ruler of intellect.”
The Gods were obliged — if such a word is permissible — to enter into dealings with Ahriman, realising that without Ahriman there could be no progress in evolution. But — so said the Gods — if Ahriman is received into the stream of evolution to become the Ruler of death and therewith also of the intellect, the Earth will fall away from us; Ahriman, whose only interest is to intellectualise the whole Earth, will demand the Earth for himself.
The Gods were confronted with this dilemma that their dominion over the Earth might be usurped by Ahriman. There remained only one possibility, namely, that the Gods themselves should acquire knowledge of something inaccessible to them in their own worlds — worlds untouched by Ahriman; that they, the Gods, should learn of death as it takes place on Earth through One sent by them, through the Christ. It was necessary for a God to die upon the Earth, moreover for that death to be the result of the erring ways of men and not the decree of Divine wisdom. Human error would take root if Ahriman alone held sway. It was necessary for a God to pass though death and to be victorious over death.
The Mystery of Golgotha signified for the Gods an enrichment of wisdom, an enrichment gained from the experience of death. If no Divine Being had passed through death, the Earth would have been wholly intellectualised without ever entering into the evolution originally ordained for it by the Gods.
In very ancient times men had no knowledge of death. But at some point it was necessary for them to face the realisation: death, and intellect together with death, brings us into a stream of evolution quite other than that from which we have proceeded.
To His initiated disciples Christ taught that He had come from a world wherein there was no knowledge of death; that He had suffered death upon the Earth and had gained the victory over death.
When this connection of the earthly world with the Divine world is understood, intellect can be led back to spirituality. Such, approximately, was the substance of the esoteric teaching given by the Risen Christ to His initiated disciples: it was a teaching concerning death — death as seen from the arena of the Divine world.
To have insight into the depths of this esoteric teaching, we must realise that the following is known to one who understands the whole sweep of the evolution of mankind. — The Gods have gained the victory over Ahriman inasmuch as they have made his forces useful to the Earth but have also blunted his power in that they themselves acquired knowledge of death through the Christ. The Gods indeed allowed Ahriman to become part of earthly evolution but in that they have made use of him, they have prevented him from maintaining his dominion to the end.
Those who have knowledge of Ahriman as he has been since the Mystery of Golgotha and as he was before that Event, realise that he waits for the moment when he can invade, not only the unconscious, subconscious regions of man's life — which as you know from the book Occult Science, have been open to Ahriman's influence since the time of Atlantis — but also the spheres of man's consciousness. Using words of human language to describe the will of a God, it may be said: Ahriman has waited eagerly for the opportunity to carry his influence into the conscious life of man. It was an astonishment to him that he had not previously known of the resolution of the Gods to send the Christ down to the Earth — the Divine Being who passed through death. Ahriman was not thereby deprived of the possibility of intervention, but the edge of his power was broken.
Since then, Ahriman seizes every opportunity of confining man to the operations of the intellect alone. Nor has he yet relinquished the hope that he will succeed.
What would this mean? If Ahriman were to succeed in imbuing man with the conviction — to the exclusion of all others — that he can only exist in a physical body, that as a being of soul-and-spirit he is inseparable from his body, then the human soul would be so possessed by the idea of death that Ahriman could easily fulfil his aims. This is Ahriman's constant hope. And it may be said that from the forties to the end of the nineteenth century, his heart rejoiced — although to speak of a ‘heart’ in the case of Ahriman is merely a figure of speech — for in the rampant materialism of that period he might well hope for the establishment of his rulership on Earth. (Please remember that I am using expressions of ordinary language here, although for such themes others should really be found). — A measure of success in this direction was indeed indicated by the fact that during the nineteenth century, Theology itself became materialistic. I have already said that Theology has become ‘unchristian,’ mentioning that Overbeck, a theologian living in Basle, has written a book in which he has tried to prove that modern Theology can no longer truly be called Christian. In this domain, too, there was reason for Ahriman's hopes to rise.
Opposition to Ahriman really exists to-day only in such teachings as are contained in Anthroposophy. When, through Anthroposophy, man once again realises that the soul and the Spirit are independent of the bodily nature, then Ahriman must begin to abandon hope. Once again, the battle waged by Christ against Ahriman is possible. An indication is contained in the Gospel story of the Temptation, but these things can only fully be understood when it is realised that the more important rôle in ancient times was played by Lucifer and that Ahriman has only acquired the influence upon human consciousness since the time of the Mystery of Golgotha. He had of course an influence upon humanity before then but not, properly speaking, upon human consciousness.
Looking deeply into the human heart, we can only say: The most important point in the evolution of earthly humanity is that at which man learns to know that there is a power in the Christ Impulse through which, if he makes it his own, he can overcome the forces of death within him.
And so the Hierarchies belonging to Saturn, Sun, Moon and Earth drew Ahriman into Earth-evolution but restricted his claims for domination in that his forces were used to serve the purposes of evolution. In a sense, Ahriman was forced into the stream of Earth-evolution. Without him the Gods would not have been able to introduce intellectuality into humanity, but if the edge of his dominion had not been broken by the Deed of Christ, Ahriman would have intellectualised the whole Earth inwardly and materialised it outwardly. The Mystery of Golgotha is to be regarded not merely as an inner, mystical experience, but as an external event which must not, however, be presented in the same light as other events recorded in history. The Ahrimanic impulse entered into earthly evolution and at the same time — in a certain sense — was overcome.
And so, as a result of the Mystery of Golgotha, we have to think of a war between Gods, and this also formed part of the esoteric teachings communicated by Christ to His initiated pupils after the Resurrection. In describing this early, esoteric Christianity it must be recalled that in ancient times human beings were aware of their connection with the Divine worlds, with the worlds of the Gods. They knew of these worlds through revelations. But concerning death they could receive no communication, because in the worlds of the Gods there was no death. Moreover for human beings themselves there was no death in the real sense, for they knew only of the onward-flowing life of soul-and-spirit as revealed to them in the sacred institutions of the Mysteries. Gradually, however, the significance of death began to dawn upon human consciousness. It was possible for men to acquire the strength to wait for Christ Who was the victor over death. — Such is the inner aspect of the process of evolution.
The substance of the esoteric teachings given by Christ to His initiated disciples was that in what came to pass on Golgotha, super-earthly happenings were reflected, namely, the relationships between the worlds of the Gods belonging to Saturn, Sun, Moon and Earth as they had been hitherto, and Ahriman. The purport of this esoteric Christianity was that the Cross on Golgotha must not be regarded as an expression of earthly conditions but is of significance for the whole Cosmos.
A picture may help us to feel our way into the substance of this esoteric Christianity. — Suppose that two of Christ's disciples, absorbing more and more of the esoteric teaching and finding all doubt vanishing, were talking together. The one might have spoken to the other as follows. — Christ our Teacher has come down from those worlds of which the ancient wisdom tells. Men knew the Gods but those Gods could not speak of death. If we had remained at that stage, we could never have known anything of the nature of death. The Gods had perforce to send a Divine Being down to the Earth, in order that through one of themselves they might learn the nature of death. The deed which the Gods were obliged to perform in order to lead earthly evolution it its fulfilment — of this we are being taught by Christ after His resurrection. If we cleave to Him we learn of many things hitherto unknown to man. We are being taught of deeds performed by the Gods behind the scenes of world-existence in order truly to further evolution on the Earth. We are taught that the Gods have introduced the forces of Ahriman but by turning these forces to the service of man have averted his destruction. ...
The esoteric teaching given by the Risen Christ to His initiated pupils was deeply and profoundly moving. Such pupils might also have said: Interwoven as we now are with death, we should know nothing whatever of the Gods if Christ had not died, and now, since His Resurrection, is telling us how the Gods have come to experience death. We should have passed over into an age when all knowledge of the Gods would have vanished. The Gods have looked for a way by which means they could speak to us again. And this way was through the Mystery of Golgotha ...
The great realisation which came to the disciples from this esoteric Christianity was that men have again drawn near to the Divine worlds after having departed from them. In the early days of Christendom the disciples and pupils were permeated through and through with this teaching. And many a man of whom history gives only sparse and superficial particulars was the bearer of knowledge that could only be his because he had either received teaching himself from the Risen Christ or had been in contact with others who had received it. — So it was in the earliest days of the Christian era.
As time went on, all this became externalised — externalised in the sense that the earliest messengers of Christianity attached great importance to being able to say that their own teacher had himself been a pupil of a pupil of one of the Apostles. And so it went on. A teacher had meant one who had come into personal contact with an Apostle — with one, therefore, who had known the Lord Himself after the Resurrection.
In those earlier centuries, weight was still attached to this living continuity, but in the form in which the tradition came down to a later humanity, it was already externalised, presented as bald, historical data. In essence, however, the tradition leads back to what I have just described. The inculcation of intellectualism — a process which really began about the fourth or fifth century after the Mystery of Golgotha and received its great impulse in the fifteenth century, at the dawn of the Fifth Post-Atlantean epoch — this evolution of intellect entailed the loss of the old wisdom whereby these things could be understood, and the new form of wisdom was still undeveloped. For centuries the essence and substance of esoteric Christianity was, as it were, forgotten by mankind.
As I have said, fragments exist in certain secret societies whose members, at any rate in modern times, do not understand to what they refer. In reality, such fragments refer to teachings imparted by the Risen Christ to certain of His initiated pupils.
Assume for a moment that there had been no regeneration of the old Hebrew doctrine through Christianity. In that case the conviction held so firmly by Paul before his vision at Damascus would have become universal. Paul was acquainted with the ancient Hebraic doctrine. In its original form it had been Divine revelation, received spiritually by men in very ancient times, and it was then preserved as Holy Writ. Among the Hebrews there were learnéd scribes who knew from this Holy Writ what was still preserved of the old Divine wisdom. From these scribes came the judgment by which Christ Jesus was condemned to death. And so the mind of a man like Paul, while he was still Saul, turned to the ancient Divine wisdom preserved by the learnéd scribes of his day who well knew all that it signified to men. Paul said to himself: The scribes are men of eminence, of great learning; judgment derived on their authority from the Divine wisdom could only be lawful judgment. An innocent man condemned to be crucified ... it is impossible, utterly impossible in all the circumstances leading to the condemnation of Christ Jesus! Such was the attitude of Paul.
It was only the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, influenced instinctively as he was by an altogether different mentality, who could speak the momentous word: ‘What is Truth?’ While Paul was Saul, it was impossible even to imagine that there might be no truth in the execution of a lawful judgment. The hard-won conviction which was to arise in Paul was that truth once proceeding from the Gods could become error among men, that truth had been turned by men into such flagrant error that One in Whom there was no guilt at all had been crucified.
Saul could have no other thought than that the primeval wisdom of the Gods was contained in the wisdom of the Hebrew scribes living at the time of the Mystery of Golgotha. In such wisdom there could only be truth ... . While Paul was still Saul, he argued that if indeed it were Christ, the Messiah, Who suffered death by crucifixion, gross error must have entered into the flow of his primeval wisdom; for only error could have brought about the death of Christ on the Cross. Divine truth must therefore have become error among men.
Naturally, Saul could only be convinced by the fact itself. Christ Himself and He alone could convince him, when He appeared to him at Damascus. What did this signify for Saul? It signified that the judgment had not been derived from the wisdom of the Gods but that the forces of Ahriman had found entrance. And so there came to Paul the realisation that the evolution of humanity had fallen into the grip of a foe and that his foe is the source of error on the Earth.
In that his foe brings the intellect to man, he also brings the possibility of error which, in its most extreme form, becomes the error responsible for the crucifixion of One Who was without sin. The conviction that the guiltless One could be brought to the Cross had to arise before it was possible for men to understand the path by which Ahriman entered the stream of evolution and to realise that the Mystery of Golgotha is a super-sensible, super-earthly event in the process of the development of the ‘I,’ the Ego, within the human being.
Esotericism is by no means identical with simple forms of mysticism. To argue that mysticism and esotericism are one and the same denotes gross misunderstanding. Esotericism is always a recognition of facts in the spiritual world, facts which lie behind the veil of matter. And it is behind the veil of matter that the balance has been established between the Divine world and the realm of Ahriman — established by the death of Christ Jesus on the Cross.
Only into a world where the being of man is laid hold of by the Ahrimanic powers can error enter in such magnitude as to lead to the Crucifixion — such was the thought arising in the mind of Paul. And now, having been seized by this conviction, recognition of the truth of esoteric Christianity came to him for the first time.
In this sense, Paul was truly an Initiate. But under the influence of intellectualism this Initiation-knowledge gradually faded away and we need to-day to acquire again a knowledge of esoteric Christianity, to realise that there is more in Christianity than the exoteric truths of which the Gospels do indeed awaken perception. Esoteric Christianity is seldom spoken of in our times. But humanity must find its way back to that of which there is practically no documentary evidence and which must be reached through anthroposophical Spiritual Science, namely, the teachings given by Christ Himself after the Resurrection to His initiated disciples — teaching that He could only give after passing through an experience which he could not have undergone in the world of the Gods; for until the time of the Mystery of Golgotha there was no death in the Divine worlds. Until then, no Divine Being had passed through death. Christ is the First-Born, He Who passed through death, having come from the realm of the Hierarchies of Saturn, Sun and Moon who are interwoven with Earth-evolution.
The absorption of death into life — that is the secret of Golgotha. Previously, men had known life — life without death. Now they learned to know death as a constituent of life, as an experience which gives strength to life. The sense of life was feebler in times when humanity had no real knowledge of death; there must be inner strength and robustness in life if men are to pass through death and yet live. In this respect, too, death and intellect are related. Before men were obliged to wrestle with intellect, a comparatively feeble sense of life was sufficient. The men of olden times received their knowledge of the Divine world in pictures, in revelations; inwardly they did not die. And because the flow of life continued they could smile at death. Even among the Greeks it was said: The agéd are blessed because with the dulling of their senses they are unaware of the approach of death. This was the last vestige of a view of the world of which death formed no part.
We in modern times have the faculty of intellect; but intellect makes us inwardly cold, inwardly dead; it paralyses us. In the operations of the intellect we are not alive in the real sense. Try to feel what this means: when man is thinking he does not truly live; he pours out his life into empty, intellectual forms and he needs a strong, robust sense of life if these dead forms are to be quickened to creative life in that region where moral impulses spring from the force of pure thinking, and where in the operations of pure thinking we understand the reality of freedom, of free spiritual activity. In the book, The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity, I have tried to deal with this subject. The book really amounts to a moral philosophy, indicating how dead thoughts, when filled with life, may be led to their resurrection as moral impulses. To this extent, such a philosophy is essentially Christian.
I have tried in this lecture to place before you certain aspects of esoteric Christianity. In these days where there is so much controversy with regard to the exoteric, historical aspect of Christianity, it is more than ever necessary to point to the esoteric teachings. I hope that these things will not lightly be passed over, but studied with due realisation of their significance. In speaking of such matters one is always aware of the difficulty of clothing them in the abstract words of modern language. That is why I have tried rather to awaken a feeling for these things, by giving you pictures of inner processes in the life of human beings, leading on to the esoteric significance of the Mystery of Golgotha in the evolution of mankind as a whole.