The Path of the Christ through the Centuries
13 October 1913, Copenhagen
Translated by D. S. Osmond
I want to speak in a rather aphoristic way this evening about a subject which I consider of importance, especially at the present time.
Many of our studies have been concerned with the Christ Impulse, with the Impulse which since the Mystery of Golgotha has been working in the evolution of humanity. And this evening I want to speak of the Impulse itself and of its significance for evolution. It must be emphasised at the outset that the Christ Impulse is a difficult subject because if even an approximately adequate conception of it is to be acquired, the teachings still being given in the various Christian denominations must be left out of account. Perhaps you will ask: How can the Christ Impulse be studied at all if such teachings are to be entirely disregarded? How can we learn about the working of this Impulse from any sources other than the beliefs that have been held for centuries? The answer must be this. — Everyone will admit that it would be unfortunate if the effects of the Sun upon human beings living on the Earth were dependent upon some generally accepted teaching about the nature of the Sun. No matter what hypotheses are put forward, the effects of the Sun are quite evident. Science admits that it does not yet know precisely what electricity is, yet electricity is put to innumerable practical uses. Therefore it is certainly justifiable to speak of the effects of the Christ Impulse without believing that the study is in any way dependent upon what has been thought about Christ in the different centuries.
The Mystery of Golgotha, the penetration of the Christ impulse into the Earth sphere, into the evolution of humanity, took place in a particular epoch. The point of time at which it occurred has been determined with at least approximate accuracy, for our time-reckoning in the West is based upon it. What kind of epoch was it? We know that different civilisations have taken their course in the process of evolution — in the post-Atlantean era, the ancient Indian, ancient Persian, Egypto-Chaldean, Graeco-Roman and our own. One of the characteristics distinguishing these culture-epochs is that a different form of human understanding, human wisdom, existed in each of them. In the ancient Indian epoch, for example, men were possessed of penetrating insight into certain cosmic mysteries. In those times the etheric body was the most active member of man’s constitution. Then, as evolution proceeded, the etheric body receded more into the background and in the ancient Persian epoch the sentient body, the astral body, became predominantly active. In the Egypto-Chaldean epoch the sentient soul was predominant, in the Graeco-Latin epoch the intellectual or mind-soul, in our own epoch the spiritual or consciousness soul, and the epoch of the Spirit-Self lies in the future. Because different members of man’s constitution are predominantly active during the several epochs, individuals confront the world in each epoch with a different kind of understanding.
Now there is a certain striking and very illuminating fact in connection with the Graeco-Latin epoch. This was the epoch of the intellectual or mind-soul, and it lasted from the eighth century B.C., approximately from the time of the founding of Rome, until the fifteenth century A.D. Because the intellectual or mind-soul was developing during that epoch, the forces in individuals who were essentially typical of this function of soul-life became particularly important. This province of the soul was undergoing a special process of development for a little more than two millennia. Since the fifteenth century mankind has been living in the epoch of the development of the consciousness-soul. Not very much of this epoch has passed as yet, for not until the present century and two more centuries have taken their course will a third of the time appointed for the development of the consciousness-soul have elapsed. Quite different faculties will develop in man’s soul during the following epochs. Seven such epochs constitute the post-Atlantean age.
Let us now ask: Which of those epochs was least qualified to understand the Christ Being? Conceptions of the nature of man differed in all of them. The epoch least qualified to form adequate conceptions of the nature of Christ was the epoch of the intellectual or mind-soul, from the eighth century B.C. to the fifteenth century A.D. And the remarkable fact is that this is the very epoch when the Mystery of Golgotha took place!
If, to speak hypothetically, the Christ had appeared on the Earth in the days, let us say, of the holy Rishis of ancient India, there would have been widespread understanding of who He was. So too in ancient Persia, where men had been taught of the Sun Spirit. Had the Christ descended into a human body during that epoch men would have known that the Sun Spirit had come down into the body of a man on the Earth. And in the epoch of the Egyptian Temple Wisdom, something equivalent might still have been possible. But in the epoch when understanding of the nature of Christ was farthest from men’s reach — in that very epoch the Christ appeared on Earth.
It is not easy to add anything to this strange fact by way of illustration, for the conclusion to be drawn is that obviously hardly anything about the real nature of the Christ Being is to be found in the teachings formulated in that epoch and that understanding can therefore be expected only in later centuries.
Since the fifteenth century men may have begun to pride themselves on their intellectual acumen and to believe that in respect of an understanding of Christ better times have come with the fifth post-Atlantean epoch. In a certain sense it is so, but in another sense it is not.
What is there to be said about the intellectual faculties of men of the present age, since the fif-teenth century? Generally speaking these faculties have in no sense become more spiritual than they were in earlier times. In a certain respect man’s life of soul has sunk still more deeply into matter — as indeed was necessary in order that the stage of the consciousness-soul might be attained. So we find that Spiritual Science — which before the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries was still a matter of remembrance, of recollection — fell into the background and materialism steadily increased. Spiritual Science blossomed in certain personages of the Middle Ages, reached a certain height as it were through the elemental forces working in individual mystics, and then receded. But from the eleventh and twelfth centuries onwards it is obvious that something else is beginning to appear. A symptom is that men attempt to ‘prove’ the existence of God. Only people with very strange ideas about the world could fail to recognise what that means. As a rule we try to ‘prove’ what we do not know or understand. We try to prove that someone has stolen when we did not actually see him commit the theft. And when men lost all inner experience of God, when they no longer knew by what paths to seek for the Divine, they set about trying to ‘prove’ the existence of the Divine. This is irrefutable proof that men were beginning to lose all knowledge of God. The fifth post-Atlantean epoch must necessarily be the epoch of materialism because since it began man has been obliged to view nature as presented to the senses and intellect; for only so can the Ego in its full power become conscious.
To understand what I mean, let us think back to the epoch of ancient Persia. In the epoch of ancient India it would have been still more clearly in evidence, and even in the Egyptian epoch it was still apparent to a certain extent. A man belonging to the ancient Persian civilisation would have been astonished that a cosmological system such as that of Copernicus should be derived from observation of the planetary movements. — I must here say something highly paradoxical. — A man in ancient Persia would have been very surprised if attempts had been made to teach him astronomy in anything faintly resembling its modern form. He would have said: Am I supposed to be so stupid that if I want to walk about, someone must show me how to do it? When the Sun is moving along its path through cosmic space, my soul accompanies it. — He knew this just as a man today knows which way he is going when his body moves. Out of his innate knowledge the ancient Persian drew a spiral corresponding exactly with the course of the Sun through cosmic space. In that epoch the human soul felt united with the Earth-soul and the path taken by the Earth was indicated by the Caduceus, the Staff of Mercury. Not until later was man thrust out of his spiritual environment so drastically that he was obliged to plan and calculate the path of the Earth, his own planet.
On the other hand, if man’s relation to the external world had remained at the earlier stage, he would never have been able to develop full self-consciousness. He would have lived through the Graeco-Latin civilisation-epoch, when intellect and soul-life in general would have been left to their own resources, as it were smouldering inwardly; a condition would have come about in which the soul has no longer any direct knowledge of its relation to the world but makes progress only in itself. It was necessary for the human soul to emerge from that condition too, and pass into the epoch of the consciousness-soul. Man was to learn to live altogether in his ‘I’, in his Ego. He was to disassociate everything external from his ‘I’ and cognise the world through logic alone. He was thrust out of the spiritual content of the world.
In the Graeco-Latin epoch the soul still contained the active intellectual principle which although it no longer experienced the happenings in the external spiritual world directly, nevertheless did still experience the Divine. In the modern age men lost the Divine! It would never have occurred to Aristotle to attempt to ‘prove’ the existence of the Divine. The intellectual or mind-soul still experienced the indwelling Divine, although it could offer no proof of Christ. Then from the fifteenth /sixteenth century onwards even that experience was lost. Nevertheless when this stage too is over man will be capable with his own powers of evolving a conception of the Divine.
From the fifteenth century, for four hundred years, the self-dependent human intellect has been unable to penetrate to the idea of the Divine. Something very strange has happened — and the fact that we commented upon it caused great offence. Immanuel Kant, the philosopher, lived in the eighteenth century. What happened to him was that he confused the particular nature of the human soul since the fifteenth century with the nature of the human soul in general. Hence he came to the conclusion that it is impossible for man, by means of his own powers, to acquire knowledge of the Divine. What he ought to have said was that this had been impossible only since the beginning of the fifteenth century. But as Lucifer had Kant firmly by the collar and had made him an arrogant individual, he believed that what he said applied to the whole human race!
It might be thought from this that the prospects of understanding the Christ Being are even less hopeful than in the previous centuries. But it is not so. Men have faculties of knowledge other than those they possessed in the fourth post-Atlantean epoch, and different, too, from the only faculties that are used today for grasping the nature of the Ego. The other powers of cognition lie more in the underground province of the soul and have to be drawn up from there. But a modern man does this only under coercion. As long as it was possible for the human soul at surface level to cognise the Divine, men did not make efforts to bring their deeper forces into action. But now, in our present time, as man can make no real approach to the Divine, reaction compels him to delve to greater depths within himself and to summon into activity forces other than those operating on the surface of the soul. Connected with this is the fact that we are approaching an age when an understanding of the Christ Being through the deeper forces in man’s nature is beginning-to take root.
A few days ago in Oslo I ventured to speak of a Fifth Gospel. 1See, The Fifth Gospel. Seven lectures given in Oslo and Cologne in 1913. (Rudolf Steiner Press.) Through the Fifth Gospel information is given in addition to what is contained in the other four Gospels. The Fifth Gospel tells us still more of the nature of Christ. There can be no question of presumptuousness when this apparently new information about the nature of the Christ Being is given, for communications of this kind are made only when the times demand it. What has been said about the Christ Being here in Copenhagen, for instance, and printed in the booklet The Spiritual Guidance of Man and of Mankind, and in various lecture-courses — this too belongs in a certain way to the Fifth Gospel. Such communications are made when the times demand that they shall come to the knowledge of men. If you think only of what was said in that booklet about the two Jesus children, you will agree that all the intelligence of our present age — consisting as it does of the forces operating on the surface of man’s soul — not only does not understand these things but rages against them when they are communicated.
We are on the threshold of a new conception of Christ. It will not be an intellectual understanding. People will certainly be able to grasp its meaning but it will be discovered through the more deeply lying forces of soul. When the eye of clairvoyance desires to have any prevision of the future of humanity in the next centuries, also of the next incarnations of individuals now living, it must be remembered that the forces operating on the surface of soul-life will become increasingly less effective. Mankind will feel more and more drawn to the revelations of the deeper forces of the soul.
Of the Graeco-Latin epoch it is rightly said that the nature of the human beings then living was inwardly whole, inwardly complete. Fundamentally speaking, this can no longer be said of even healthy souls today and will in future be less and less the case. If humanity in the future were to be taught only of matters accessible to the superficial forces of cognition, the life of soul would become increasingly barren, barren in a remarkable respect.
We have not yet reached the point when religious teaching is no longer given in schools, but already there are demands that only what is authenticated by science shall be taught. The demands made by people of this mentality will become so powerful an influence in outer life that very soon mankind will become dangerously superficial. Human beings today still learn to write, but in a future not far distant people will have to remind themselves of the fact that once upon a time hand-writing was a custom! A kind of mechanical stenography will become general — executed, furthermore, on machines. Mechanisation of life! I will indicate it by just one symptom. Think of a civilisation at its prime, when the historic truth will be unearthed that once upon a time there were human beings who wrote by hand. This historic truth will be unearthed just as we today unearth the contents of the Egyptian temples. Handwritten texts will be excavated as we excavate the hieroglyphs of the Egyptians. But a reaction of the life of soul against mechanisation will also take place. True as it is that in future times our handwriting will be no less a wonder than the Egyptian hieroglyphs are a wonder to us, it is also true that the souls of men will long once again for the direct revelations of the spirit. Outer life will become more and more superficial but the inner life will claim its rights.
People may scoff today at Spiritual Science but the materialists will eventually be forced to retreat before man’s cry of longing for the spiritual world. And so a real understanding of Christ will begin in times when the doors are open for spirituality, although admittedly through reaction against the conditions prevailing in external life.
Let us now consider still another aspect of the subject. Maybe the following picture will evoke an echo in your souls. We can think of the women who, according to the Gospels, seek for the body of Christ and find the grave empty. The Angel says to them: He whom ye seek is not here; He is risen! That is, He lives in the Spirit. The One for whom they were seeking in the physical world appeared subsequently to the Apostles, teaching them for a time as exceptional individuals who had responded to Him with a certain measure of understanding. Christ appeared to them as a spiritual figure. And in the spirit He moved through Greece, Rome, to the Germanic peoples, moved from East to West and then to the North. We shall not look for an intellectual, abstract or scientific interpretation of the Christ Being among the great Roman philosophers who speak of Him without understanding. Nor among the somewhat inarticulate Germanic peoples shall we find evidence of understanding. The souls of men are drawn to Christ but without intellectual understanding. He lives in their hearts, only in their hearts.
In the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries the picture is not of the women who go to the grave to seek for the body of Christ and do not find it. Whole hosts of European peoples feel urged to seek for the grave of Christ. This is the age of the Crusades. Men journey from the West to the East to find the grave where the women had once sought. And what do these hosts experience? — He for whom ye seek is not here! — Truth to tell they were seeking for something that was living in their souls, but they understood it so little that they journeyed to the East to look for the physical grave, and finally, after many disillusionments and sufferings, were destined to know: He whom ye seek is not here! — Where, then, was the object of their quest?
On the one side there are the journeys to the East and on the other side European Mysticism at its preparatory stages in Tauler and Meister Eckhart, reaching its prime later on in Jacob Boehme. There was the one for whom men had sought in the East and had not found. Thither He had gone, but His Presence took effect in a particular way. What is the most significant characteristic of this medieval Mysticism?
Eckhart, Tauler and the others do not claim to understand the Divine Being, the Christ, but they resolved to lead a life of piety in order to experience Christ in their souls. And the greater the intensity of this experience, the more deeply they longed to be permeated by the Divine, by the Christ, in the way suitable for their time. The Crusaders had experienced no more than this: He whom ye seek is not here! — What they were seeking came to life in the form of European mysticism.
We too are living in an epoch with very definite characteristics. Not only the peoples of Europe but also those of America participate in the remarkable conditions now prevailing. Let me give one striking example — from Berlin. On February 1st, 1910, a famous modern theologian came out with the following ‘ingenious’ utterance: “Ladies and Gentlemen, I challenge you to bring me a single sentence attributed to Christ Jesus which I cannot prove to have been current in pre-Christian spiritual life.” — That is an entirely typical attitude today. Evidence is brought forward in attempts to prove that the content of Christianity, including even the Lord’s Prayer, was previously in existence. The words of the theologian quoted are in complete conformity with the current attitude, and similar utterances will become more and more common. What kind of impression is made by the statement that all Christ’s sayings were already current before His coming? — I was once listening to an address by a very erudite scholar and a child happened to be present. Someone asked the child: “What have you been told?” His answer was: “He has told me nothing new. I already knew all the words!” — Theologians too are familiar with the words and detect nothing new resounding through them.
These things should really be self-evident but nowadays are invariably met with resistance. The attitude that a cultured individual may still have something to learn is seldom present but it is widely held that everyone is capable of judging according to his own standard. We have witnessed a striking exhibition of this attitude. When materialism came to the fore, theology began to eliminate all divinity from Christ Jesus and to speak only of the man Jesus, although acknowledging his superiority. This view became widespread in the nineteenth century and was given grotesque expression in Ernst Renan’s famous book, The Life of Jesus, published in 1863. He spoke of Jesus in wonderfully beautiful language but his description of the Lazarus miracle suggests that in reality no awakening of a dead man had taken place, that Jesus had simply allowed His followers to spread reports to this effect; hence the so-called miracle was in the nature of a swindle! Thus something resembling a chapter from a cheap novel has been inserted into an otherwise genuinely fine work. There seems to be no reason for Renan having written any words of reverence, for the figure he describes merits no particular veneration. But for half a century this was all accepted without thought and it is only one example from literature in which tribute is paid to Christ Jesus as a man — but simply as a man.
Now, however, it has been realised that a great deal of what is reported of Jesus Christ would be impossible if He had been a mere man — especially the assertion made by Jesus that He himself was the Christ — therefore more than a man. Many contradictions were found. Then, more recently, God — an imaginary God — was again substituted for man. Christ Jesus became a phantom, a fetish — but a limited fetish. This was a truly remarkable state of things! For centuries men had eliminated Divinity from Christ Jesus and had made Him a man, and now the Divinity made the manhood an impossibility. Such arguments will go on ad infinitum and there is ample evidence that we are taking a path along which understanding is beyond the reach of the forces at the surface of human nature. To put it differently. — In the twentieth century men have attempted a kind of crusade in search of the historical Christ Jesus. And once again the answer will be: He whom you seek is not to be found here! — Those who seek in this way for the historical man Jesus will no more be able to find Him than could the women at the tomb or the Crusaders who thronged thither. The Crusaders could not find Christ because they were not seeking for Him inwardly; nor can the modern crusaders find Him because they do not seek with the inner forces of the soul by which alone Christ can be found.
Within the stream of spiritual life a deepening of the forces of soul-and-spirit is in process. And whereas the spiritual forces lying at the surface will deny the Christ more and more insistently, deeper forces of soul will rise up and seek for Christ. Increasing numbers of people will see the Christ, who will appear in the etheric realm and will be found by those who are sensitive to this experience. We therefore speak of an etheric appearance of Christ in the twentieth century. Those who have this experience will have direct knowledge that at the moment when the Mystery of Golgotha was fulfilled the Christ Being entered in very truth into the Earth sphere and in ever greater numbers individuals will know with certainty who the Christ is.
Knowledge of Spiritual Science will deepen souls to such an extent that men’s vision will be awakened and the Christ revealed. A wonderful prospect opens for the eye of prophetic clairvoyance. The forces belonging to the superficial activities of the soul will become more and more ineffective and human beings born as time goes on will comparatively soon have finished with these surface-forces of their souls. An epoch reminiscent in a remarkable way of the Christ Event is approaching.
In the thirtieth year of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, Christ entered into him. A new life of soul began in the body of Jesus of Nazareth, for the Christ had taken the place of the Zarathustra-Ego which had departed from that body. That was at the beginning of our era. An epoch is now approaching when into increasing numbers of men from their thirtieth year onwards, knowledge of Christ — not Christ in His full reality — will penetrate as though through enlightenment. In the thirtieth year of the life of these men a new, all-embracing soul-life will begin because they will have vision of the Christ in His etheric form.
We understand our epoch in the sense of Spiritual Science when we realise what this prospect signifies. When the souls now living are again incarnated — and this will happen to many sooner than the normal period — numbers of individuals, from a particular age onwards, will feel through actual experience that something has penetrated into them of which they could previously have known only by having been informed of it. They will be able to say: I myself know through actual vision who Christ is; vision has enabled me to understand. When that time comes, efforts to prove the existence of Christ will cease, for the number of those who can testify to direct experience of Christ moving over the Earth as it Spirit Being, will constantly increase. Men will no longer search for the historic Christ.
There are two aspects to the picture of the future: On the one side barrenness will become more and more widespread owing to the activity of the superficial soul-forces; on the other side, as reaction against the barrenness, the soul-forces lying in the depths of man’s being will be evoked. We spread Anthroposophy in order that this shall be made known.
Men should not heedlessly allow impressions however faint to pass them by, for strong impres-sions are rare. As a result of the spread of true Anthroposophy the souls of men will not allow enlightenment, when it comes, to elude them, for if they do it would be beyond their reach for several incarnations. Other people, however, who make use of the superficial soul-forces will speak of those who have known enlightenment as fools or lunatics. A terrible beginning in this direction has already been made. Psychiatrists have already begun to investigate the problem of Christ Jesus. The Gospels are studied with the aim of discovering in Him symptoms of insanity! Such phenomenal occurrences should not be ignored; they should rather lead to the insight that Christ, who came into humanity in an age when He could least be understood, is working perpetually to prepare the understanding that will come in future ages.
A person who looks into the future should not generalise about it in abstract phrases. The future reveals two aspects: the aspect of barrenness of soul, of complete absorption in materialism, but also the aspect of the birth of a new spiritual world, not only in thoughts or in vision but in existence itself. For Christ will come to the side of men and be their counsellor. This is not a mere image. In actual reality men will receive the counsels they need from the Living Christ who will be their adviser and friend, who will speak to their souls just like someone who is physically near. If men needed a prophetic proclamation at the time when He was to appear in a human body, they need such a proclamation even more at this time, when He will come in an etheric form. What has now been said should be regarded as a preparatory announcement of what will and indeed must come to pass.
Have no illusion about the future. We are not giving way to illusion when we picture what outer, material life will be like in a future when handwriting will be spoken of in the same sense as we today speak of the hieroglyphs of the Egyptians. The last vestiges of a spiritual culture still survive, even today, for writing still expresses characteristics of the soul; but the traces of soul will soon have disappeared from external culture as completely as Egyptian culture has vanished from our ken. People will speak of many things which in our time are still imbued with soul, as of something belonging to a far distant past. But the same voice that will proclaim the existence in the past age of a kind of hand-writing, will proclaim out of spiritual knowledge that in the spirit the living Christ is again moving among humanity. Men will have to exchange the spirit of mere intellectual conjecture for the spirit of direct vision, of direct feeling and experience of the Living Christ moving as a reality in the spirit by the side of the souls of men. 2See also The True Nature of the Second Coming. Rudolf Steiner. (Rudolf Steiner Press.)