Wednesday, November 1, 2017
East and West in the Light of the Christmas Idea
Lecture by Dr. Rudolf Steiner
Dornach, Switzerland, December 24, 1921
From the aspect of modern thinking it may perhaps sound strange that we are arranging a study course for the Christmas holidays, because people generally think that during the great festivals of the year work should stop and that Christmas in particular should only be dedicated to religious exercises. Nevertheless a deeper insight into present conditions should not conceal the fact that this Christmas above all calls for other things than those which held good for such a long time. We live in another age, and today it must seem frivolous to maintain old customs and traditions without considering the difficult, distressing times in which we live, and untouched by what is taking place particularly in the present day both in the visible and in the invisible world. We see people making presents to each other at Christmas; they adorn the tree and do other things out of tradition, things which people have been accustomed to do for many centuries. But today in particular we should bear in mind that to keep up such old traditions and customs is almost a crime.
Those who had a deeper share in the events of the past years feel as if they had lived for centuries, and they can only look with a certain feeling of sorrow upon that part of mankind which is still led by habit and has the same thoughts today which were to some extent justified until the beginning or the middle of the second decade of our century. To an unprejudiced mind everything coming from the events of the time must appear full of problems which touch the very elements of the whole life of man.
We frequently hear the reproach that many people more and more believe that Christianity consists in their calling out “Lord, Lord,” or in uttering the name of Christ as often as possible. But something quite different is needed today: a Christianization of our whole life, in which it does not suffice to utter the name of Christ, but entails that we should deeply and intimately unite ourselves with the Spirit of Christ. We see that almost in the whole world great problems of life are being advanced today. And we can already perceive that the region, the European region which has for many centuries been the stage of human civilization cannot remain so in future. We perceive that the world problems now extend to larger territories, and in the present time we perceive above all through symptomatic phenomena that the great conflict between the West and the East announces itself in every sphere of life.
The West kindled the flame of a young spiritual life based upon a mechanical-naturalistic foundation. This spiritual life is only viewed in the right way by those who hold that it is in the beginning of its development. But from this young spiritual life in the West we should look across to the East; we are becoming more and more connected with it, also geographically and historically, and the West must reckon with the East.
In the East there exists an ancient life of the spirit, a spiritual life that can be traced back thousands of years. Immense respect can be felt for what lives in the East, although it is already decadent; the greatest reverence can be felt for it when looking back from its present state of decadence to the primeval wisdom of humanity from which it sprang.
When we envisage the more spiritual aspects of life a word re-echoes from the East which always awakens a peculiar echo in our hearts, particularly when we adopt the standpoint of the West. It is a word which is meant to express in the language of the East the characteristic of the physical world which we perceive round about us through our senses. The East, beginning with India, has been accustomed to designate this physical-sensory world as maya, the great illusion – apart from the fact of it being expressed more or less clearly.
The East (but, as stated, this exists only in a decadent form) thus faces the external world perceived through the eyes and ears as a great illusion that confronts man, as maya.
Those who learn to know the characteristics of the life conceptions of the East must experience that this conception of maya was not originally contained in the primeval wisdom of the Orient. The spiritual science of Anthroposophy above all enables us to gain insight into a development of the Oriental civilization stretching over thousands of years. We then look back into a time which lies 3,000 years before Christ, and by going back still further into a remote antiquity we find this conception of maya less and less, this idea of the great illusion connected with the physical-sensory reality of the external world.
If we wish to indicate an approximate epoch, we may say: Only at the turn of the 3rd and 4th millennium B.C. this concept rises up in the East; the conviction rises up that the physical-sensory world which surrounds man is not a reality, but a great illusion, a maya.
What is the cause of this immense change in the life attitude of the East? The cause lies deeply rooted in the soul development of humanity. If we consider the primeval wisdom of the East, the poetical form which it assumed later on in the Vedas, the philosophical form of the Vedanta philosophy and the Yoga doctrine into which it developed, if we notice, for example, the greatness and loftiness in which this Eastern teaching is contained in the Bhagavad Gita, we find that once upon a time the essence of this Eastern teaching was that man perceived not only the external sensory world, but that in this physical world, in everything he saw through his eyes, heard through his ears, or touched with his hands, he perceived a divine-spiritual essence.
For these primeval men the trees did not exist as prosaically as they do for us: in every tree, in every bush, in every cloud, in every fountain there was something which announced itself as a soul-spiritual, cosmic content of the world. Wherever they looked they saw the physical permeated by the spiritual. The fountain did not only murmur in inarticulate sounds, but the murmuring fountain conveyed a soul-spiritual content. The forest did not only rustle in an inarticulate way: the rustling forest spoke to them the language of the everlasting Cosmic Word, of a soul-spiritual being. Modern people can only have a very pale idea of the immensely living way in which man experienced the world in this remote, primeval time.
But this alert, spiritual way in which man lived in his surroundings gradually became paralyzed toward the 3rd millennium B.C. And if we transfer ourselves into the development of the times, we perceive that humanity, now taken as a whole, as it were, as humanity of the Orient, began to perceive the phenomena of the world with a certain feeling of longing and of sorrow, as if the gods had withdrawn from them. This feeling was voiced by many more profound souls almost in the form of a prayer by saying: the old gods have vanished and are now behind the surface of the external physical objects. The world has grown empty, it has lost the gods, and because of this emptiness, because it is without the gods, it is maya, the great illusion. They did not speak of the world as a great illusion from the very beginning; but because it no longer contained the gods, they experienced it as a great illusion, as maya.
If we wish to go back to the truly living essence of this conception we should go back even behind the Atlantean catastrophe, as far as the Atlantean race. For immediately after the Atlantean catastrophe civilization in general shows a faint trace of looking upon the external physical phenomena of the world as something not real.
Yet until the end of the 4th millennium B.C. there still existed in a strong measure the capacity to perceive the gods in the physical world. This faculty existed in so strong a measure that until that time people needed no consolation for what had up to that time been considered as unreality in the world. But such a consolation was needed after 4000 B.C. It was sought in initiation by the teachers and priests of the Mysteries. It was sought in the language of the stars. Here on Earth – people said – there is no reality. But if we investigate the stars, they tell us in their language that reality is poured down to the Earth from world-distant heavenly regions. If we listen to the language spoken by the stars, maya seems to obtain a true meaning. The great impression made upon mankind by the star wisdom of the ancient Egyptians consisted in the fact that people felt in this star wisdom something which gave maya a foundation of reality. People said that here on Earth only unreal things are to be found, that one had to look up to the eternal Cosmic Word that speaks to receptive souls in the movements and positions of the stars. Reality will then manifest itself in maya. If anyone wished to know something important and significant in life, it was investigated in the stars and in their language. This was the human soul constitution until the time in which the Mystery of Golgotha took place.
What was real was announced to humanity by the sages of the Mysteries, for people did not think that this reality could be found on Earth. Those who understand the true essence of life in ancient Greece will perceive that something tragic weighs on it (although a certain superficial way of looking at things makes people say that in Greece life consisted in a childlike joy over the nature of reality); the Greeks yearned for a kind of redemption in human life. This is nothing but the echo of that Oriental feeling which I have described to you just now. We modern people have reached the point where thought develops, as it were, in modern civilization as our highest inner treasure; thought unfolds on every side. But we have not reached the point of recognizing thought as a reality. When submitting to the life of thought we feel as if we lived in something not real. Indeed, many people say that thought life is nothing but an ideology. This word “ideology” indicates in regard to the inner life of the soul the same thing which was experienced in the Orient in regard to the external physical-sensory reality, which was designated as maya. In the same way in which we speak of ideology we may speak of maya, but we must apply this to our inner soul life.
The soul-spiritual which was such an intense reality in the Orient for a certain epoch, became maya for the Occident, and the maya of the Orient, the external, physical-sensory world, became our naturalistic reality. We live by calling that which permeates us inwardly, maturing to the stage of thought, an ideology, or maya. The Orientals once perceived gods in the external physical world of nature. But these gods vanished from their sight. The Orientals did not have thought in the form in which we have it now. The characteristic of the Occident is that it gained the faculty of thought, the purest, most light-filled form of soul life. But the divine element in thought has not yet dawned for us. We are waiting for the divine essence in thought which must rise up for us. The Orientals lost the divine essence in the external physical world, so that it became a maya, but this divine essence does not as yet exist in our world of ideas, in our thoughts, in our inner world filled with thought. In the course of historical development the Orientals little by little saw that the external physical world no longer contained the gods. And our thought life does not yet contain the divine; it is without God. We can only grasp this by looking upon it as a kind of prophecy that one day the maya of our thoughts will be filled by an inner reality.
The history of human evolution is thus divided into two important parts. One part develops from a life filled with the divine essence to a life deprived of this divine essence, of the gods; the other part – and we are now living in the beginning of this development – unfolds from a life deprived of the divine toward the hoped-for life filled with the divine. And in the middle - in between these two streams of development - the Cross is set up on Golgotha. How does it stand within the consciousness of humanity?
From the time of the Mystery of Golgotha we look back six centuries and come to Buddha, who gradually became an object of veneration on the part of a large community. We see Buddha abandoning his home and going out into the world, and among the manifold things which he perceives he sees a corpse. The sight of this corpse stirs up his soul, so that he turns away from the maya of the external world. The corpse has a discouraging, frightening effect on Buddha. And because he had to look upon death, the corpse, he felt that he had to turn his gaze away from the physical world to another sphere, to the divine-spiritual which cannot be found on Earth. The sight of the lifeless body was the true reason why Buddha left the world and fled into a sphere of reality outside the physical world.
Let us now turn to a historical moment about 600 years after the Mystery of Golgotha. Many people look toward that great symbol: the cross with the corpse hanging upon it. They look upon the lifeless human being. Yet they do not look upon him in such a way as to flee from him and seek another reality, but in this lifeless human being they see something which is a real refuge to them. Mankind went through a great change in the course of twelve centuries: it learned to love death upon the cross, that death from which Buddha fled.
Nothing can indicate more deeply the great change which took place through the Mystery of Golgotha, which lies in the middle, in between these two historical moments. And by turning our thoughts to the Mystery of Golgotha we should remember what was really the object of reverence in accordance with early Christianity.
St. Paul, an initiate in the Mysteries of his time, could not believe in the living Jesus; he opposed the living Jesus. But when he perceived the living Christ on his way to Damascus, the Christ that can even manifest Himself out of the world's darkness, then Paul believed in the risen Christ, not in the living Jesus, and he began to love the living Jesus because he was the bearer of the risen Christ. Out of this special insight into the connections of the world St. Paul gained certainty in regard to the divine-spiritual life, and this certainty sprang out of death.
What had taken place in the development of humanity was that people once found comfort when they looked up from the Earth to the stars, whence the everlasting Word resounded, whereas later on they turned their gaze to the historical event upon Golgotha; they beheld a human sheath that contained the mystery of life.
The apostle St. John expressed this Mystery of Life in the words “In the beginning was the Word.” Yes, in the beginning the Word spoke out of the path and position of the stars! This Word resounded from the cosmos. This Word could no longer be found upon the Earth, but it came down to the Earth from heavenly spaces, from the Home of the Father. The writer of the Gospel of St. John ventured to pronounce the words: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” That is to say, what once lived outside in the stars took up its abode in the body which hung upon the cross. What was formerly sought outside in the cosmic spaces became visible in a human being. What formerly streamed down to the Earth in the shining light, came down to man! The whole way of looking upon life was inspired by a worldwide cosmology which led to a conception of the central human being filled by that which came down to man! The whole way of looking upon life was inspired by a worldwide cosmology which led to a conception of the central human being filled by that which once shone down from the stars and was permeated by the living Cosmic Word.
The sense, the deeper meaning, which is to be revealed by the Mystery of Golgotha is that it is also possible to look toward the origin of the world by looking into Jesus' inner being and by establishing an intimate connection between one's own inner being and the inner human being of Jesus, even as in the past a connection was established between the human being living on Earth and the everlasting Cosmic Word speaking out of the stars. The Mystery of Golgotha is indeed the most important and incisive influence in the evolution of the Earth, and this is indicated in the New Testament.
It is immensely stirring and profound how the Gospels – now it is related by this one, now by the other – speak of the coming of Christ Jesus. On the one hand there are the three sages, the Magi from the Orient, the bearers of an ancient starry lore, who investigated the Cosmic Word in the starwriting of the cosmos. They were endowed with the highest wisdom then accessible to man. And the Gospels indicate that the highest wisdom could at that time only state that Christ Jesus had appeared, for the stars had revealed it. It is the eternal Cosmic Word that lives in the stars which revealed to man that Christ Jesus would appear. The schools of wisdom proclaimed: Since the beginning of the present earthly existence of mankind, Jupiter has completed his planetary orbit 354 times. A Jupiter year, a great Jupiter year, has reached its close since the time which the ancient Hebrews, for example, fixed as the beginning of man's existence on Earth. In accordance with the world conception of that time, an ordinary year only had 354 days. 354 Jupiter days elapsed, and these 354 Jupiter days are like a sentence speaking out of the cosmic wisdom, a sublime sentence, in which the single words indicate the revolutions of Mercury. There is a Mercury day 7 x 7 = 49 times, and this in the same length of time of a Jupiter day.
These were the connections sought by the ancient sages in the writing of the stars. And the inspirations which their souls received by deciphering the starry writing was interpreted in such a way that they were able to say: Christ Jesus is coming, for the times are fulfilled. The Jupiter time and the Mercury time are both fulfilled. This is what the Gospels relate on the one side. On the other side they tell of the revelation which was given to the poor shepherds on the field; without any wisdom, from the dream streaming out of their simple hearts, merely by listening to the simple, pious voice of the human soul, a revelation came to these poor shepherds out of the depths of the human heart. And it is the same message: Christ is coming. Highest wisdom and greatest soul simplicity unite in the words: Christ is coming. At that time the highest wisdom was already decadent, it was setting. Instead, there rises up something which comes from man's own inner being. Ever since, t h o u g h t has risen out of man's inner being. We cannot yet raise it to the stage of reality; it is still a maya, but it is necessary in an ever-growing measure to bear in mind that thought can become a reality. In pre-Christian times man looked up to the stars in order to experience reality. We must look toward Christ in order to have reality in regard to our inner being. Not I, Christ in me –- this is the Word which will confer weight and inner reality to thought.
The theologians of the 19th century gradually changed Christ Jesus into a merely human character, which can also be recognized with the aid of history, ordinary history; Jesus, the simple, though highly developed, man of Nazareth. The Christ has been lost. He will appear in His true shape when a world conception based on the supersensible will rise up again, a life conception that turns from the physical-sensory to the supersensible. In the same measure in which mankind has lost the spiritual from the physical, it must gain inner reality in the life of thought, which has to be advanced to the stage of being filled with light.
This inner reality will be gained by perceiving on the Earth itself, in the things taking place in connection with the Mystery of Golgotha, something which the human soul can only face through supersensible conceptions. Christ will be born anew in the development of human civilization in the same measure in which we decide to gain an understanding of the Mystery of Golgotha, with the aid of supersensible knowledge. By absorbing supersensible knowledge man may hope for a perennial Bethlehem. A profound meaning lies in the words of Angelus Silesius: “Though Christ be born a thousand times in Bethlehem, but not in you, then you are lost for evermore.”
Christ must be born not only in empty words but in every form of wisdom and knowledge. We must reach the point of envisaging what may be gained by looking at the world as Paul did before he approached the event of Damascus, before he perceived that the Earth is permeated by the forces of the living Christ. These forces of the living Christ should be brought into every form of knowledge. The cold abstract knowledge which led us into the misery of the present time must be filled with warmth. This is an important and significant task of the present times. We should feel that first of all we must reach Christ. A profound intimate deepening of the Christ idea must be gained. We should realize that the present misery is too great for the maintenance of old Christmas customs. We must rise to the conviction that it is a farce to keep them up in the face of the other conceptions which prevail in the present time. The great conflict between East and West must also take place in the spiritual sphere and the harmonization of the maya of the East with the maya of the West – the maya of the external world and the maya of thought. These must reach a harmonious agreement.
Let us not think that in the present time we already have Christ. We should feel like the poor shepherds who were conscious of their misery. Christ should be sought in the innermost depths of man's being, even as the shepherds sought him in the stable of Bethlehem. Sacrifices should be offered to Christ, who transforms the maya of our thoughts into realities. We should be humble enough to realize that we must first rise to an understanding of Christ's birth. We should remember that we first have to gain an understanding of the Christmas idea before we are really able to appreciate Christmas in the right way. Every sphere of life should be permeated with the living forces of Christ. We must work. And the festivals will be celebrated best of all if in the present misery we strive to transform into a spiritual reality the symbol – but it is a symbol of reality – which faces us historically from Golgotha's place of skulls.
Let us grasp that the most significant thought which we can have at Christmas is the following: A real understanding of Christianity must bring about a Cosmic Christmas. This inner voice, this inner longing, can lead us over into a Christmas which is in keeping with the misery of the present time. For the consecrated holy nights, the Christmas festival at the end of the year, can only acquire life if we are filled with the longing to see in Christmas an inducement to gain insight into the needs of human development. The festive feeling which we have at Christmas will then ray out something of the truth that tells us that through the power of an inner understanding of that reality which is still a maya for us we can come to the resurrection of that divine-spiritual reality which came to an end in more remote ages and led to the conception of maya. Mankind reached maya, the external maya. The true soul-spiritual reality must unfold out of the inner maya. If we understand this, then the individual Christmas idea which we have during this festive season will be permeated by a true cosmic feeling, and this is needed today if we are to experience the true value and dignity of man. The feelings which we have in connection with the different festivals of the year will then ray out something which will induce us to say: In these times of misery and distress, Christmas should be celebrated in such a way that we can see the NEW CHRISTMAS LIGHTS OF A NEW SPIRITUAL LIFE. We must learn to celebrate not only an individual Christmas, but a COSMIC, UNIVERSAL CHRISTMAS.