Our bookstore now ships internationally. Free domestic shipping $50+ →

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

Christianity as Mystical Fact
GA 8

Points of View

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.1Robert Green Ingersoll (1833–1899), was an Illinois lawyer, a colonel in the Civil War, attorney general of Illinois, and a nationally-known political speaker. “His public addresses attacking the Bible and Christianity destroyed his political career, and his reputation as a speaker was based on his brilliant oratory rather than clear logic.” Ingersoll's writings and lectures were published posthumously in 12 volumes, New York, 1902. 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.c1The words of Ingersoll are introduced at this point in the book, not only with reference to those people who declare them to be word for word their own conviction. Many people do not do so, and yet their ideas about natural phenomena and man are such that if they were logical they would have to arrive at these statements. It does not matter what anyone declares to be his conviction theoretically, but it matters whether this conviction really follows from his whole method of thought. Someone may even abhor or laugh at the above words; but if he forms for himself an explanation which takes into account only the outer facts without rising to the spiritual background underlying natural phenomena, as a logical consequence he will construct a materialistic philosophy out of it.

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”c2For those who can observe rightly the “Spirit of Nature” speaks powerfully in the facts which are at present being dealt with by the cliches “struggle for existence,” “omnipotence of natural selection,” etc. But not in the opinions which science forms about them today. The first of these circumstances contains the reason why natural science will gain increasingly widespread attention. From the second circumstance it follows that the opinions of science need not be accepted as essential to cognition of the facts. The possibility of being tempted by the latter is, however, immeasurably great at the present time. 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 Haeckel1aCharles Robert Darwin (1809–1882), English naturalist, whose voyage on the Beagle to the Southern Seas, recorded in his Journal of a Naturalist (1837) prepared the way for his famous work On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Presentation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life, published November 24, 1859. Next in importance among his books, The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, appeared in 1868. The Descent of Man, published in 1871, dealt with “the origin of man and his history” in the light of The Origin of the Species.

Ernst Heinrich Haeckel (1834–1919), German biologist, originally a physician in Berlin, became Privatdozent at Jena, afterward extraordinary professor of comparative anatomy, later professor of zoology, a chair established for him at Jena. This position he occupied for 43 years with intervals for zoological travels to various parts of the world. When Darwin's Origin of the Species appeared in 1859, Haeckel was deeply influenced by it, so that he became “the apostle of Darwinism in Germany.” Among his famous books were General Morphology (1866), Natural History of Creation (1867) and Die Weltraetsel (1899), English title, The Riddle of the Universe (1901). By his 60th birthday he had published 42 works of some 13,000 pages, plus many monographs. Rudolf Steiner knew Ernest Haeckel personally, and in his autobiography, Chapter 15, Steiner recorded a very perceptive impression of the great scientist.
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 Lyell1bSir Charles Lyell (1797–1875), British geologist, was the author of the famous Principles of Geology, An Attempt to Explain the Former Changes of the Earth's Surface by Reference to Causes Now in Operation (Vol. 1, 1830; Vol. II, 1832). His Elements of Geology and his Antiquity of Man appeared in 1838 and 1863 respectively. His life-work, which included journeys to the United States and Canada, the Scandinavian countries, Sicily, Madiera, Teneriffe and elsewhere, resulted in the advancement of modern geology. On the occasion of the observance of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Lyell, Rudolf Steiner wrote an appreciative article on his work which was published in Das Magazin für Litteratur, Berlin, November 27, 1897. Steiner also made a number of references to Lyell's work in his lectures (1900–1924). 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.c3It should not be concluded, from remarks such as those regarding the sources of the Gospel of Luke etc., that the author of this book underestimates purely historical research. This is not the case. It is absolutely justified, but it should not be intolerant of the method of thinking which proceeds from spiritual points of view. In this book no value is placed on bringing in quotations at every possible point, but whoever wishes to do so can see clearly that an all-round and really unprejudiced judgment will find no contradiction anywhere between what is said here and what is truly established historically. Admittedly, anyone who wants to be one-sided, and holds this or that theory to be what has been established as certainty, may find that the assumptions of this book “do not hold their own” from the “scientific” standpoint, but are “without any objective foundation.” 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.