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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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Christ and the Evolution of Consciousness
GA 214

5 August 1922, Dornach

Translator Unknown

With his ordinary consciousness man knows only a fragment of all that is bound up with his existence. Looking out into the world with our ordinary consciousness we get pictures and images of the outer world through our senses. And when we proceed to think about what the senses have thus given us, when we form thoughts about what we have perceived, memory-pictures of these thoughts remain. Our life of soul is such that we perceive and live with the outer world and bear within us memory-pictures of what is past.

The process of memory, however, is not rightly understood by the ordinary consciousness of man. He thinks that he has known and perceived certain things in the outer world, that pictures have remained somewhere in the background of his being and that he can call them up again in his soul as memory-pictures. But the process is by no means so simple. Consider for a moment what goes on in man, step by step. You are certainly familiar with the ‘after-images’ that arise from what is perceived by the senses, by the eye, for example. As a rule we do not stop to think about them, but they are aptly described by Goethe in his Theory of Colours. He speaks of them as ‘vanishing after-images.’ We look intently at some object and then close the eyes. Different images or pictures linger for a while on the retina and then die away like an echo. In ordinary life we pay little heed to these images because we set up a more forceful activity than that of mere perception. We begin to think. If our thought-activity is weak when some object in the outer world is perceived, an after-image remains on the retina. But if we really think, we take the outer stimulus further inwards, as it were, and a thought-image lingers on as a kind of echo.

A thought-image is stronger and its ‘echoing’ more intense than that of an after-image produced by one of the senses, but it is really only a higher development of the same process. And yet these after-images of thought would also fade away, just as an after-image fades away from the eye, if they came into being merely as thought ¬pictures – which, however, they do not. Man has a head, but as well as this the rest of his organism, which is of quite a different nature. The head is pre-eminently an after-image of what happens before the human being descends from the spiritual to the physical world through birth, or rather, through conception. The head is much more physical than the rest of the organism. The rest of the organism is less developed, so far as the Physical is concerned, than the head. Let me put it thus: In the human head the Spiritual is present only as an image; in the rest of the organism the Spiritual works strongly as spirit. The head is intensely physical; it contains little of the spirit as being spirit. The physical substance of which the rest of the organism is composed is not a faithful after-image of what the human being was before his descent to birth. The Physical is more highly developed in the head of man, the Spiritual in the other parts of his organism.

Now our thoughts would fade away just as visual after-images fade away, if they were not taken over and worked upon by our spiritual organism. But the spiritual organism could not do much with these images if something else as well were not taking place. For something else is taking place while we are perceiving these images of which we then make the fleeting thoughts that really only reside in our head. Through the eye we receive the pictures which we then work up into thoughts. We receive these visual images from the physical and etheric universe. But at the same time, in addition to the pictures, we absorb into us the Spiritual from the remain¬ing universe. We do not only bear the spirit within us, but the spirit of the remaining universe is constantly pouring into us. We may therefore say that with the eye we perceive something or other in the physical and etheric universe and it remains within us as an image. But behind this an absolutely real spiritual process is working, although we are unconscious of it. In the act of memory, this is what happens: We look inwards and become aware of the spiritual process which worked in our inner being during the act of perception.

I will make this clearer by a concrete example. We look at some object in the outer world – a machine, perhaps. We then have the image of the machine. As Goethe described it, an after-image lingers for a short time and then ‘echoes’ away. The thought of the machine arises and this thought remains a little longer, although it too would ultimately fade away if something else were not taking place. The fact is that the machine sends something else into our spiritual organism – (nothing very beautiful when the object is a machine, far more beautiful if the object is a plant, for instance). And now – perhaps after the lapse of a month – we look inwards and a memory arises because, although we were entirely unconscious of it, something else passed into us together with the perception of the object which stimulated the thought. This thought has not been wandering around somewhere in the depths of our being. A spiritual process has been at work and later on we become aware of it. Memory is observation, later observation of the spiritual process which ran parallel with the act of physical perception.

In his onward-flowing stream of existence man is contained within the ocean of the spiritual world. During the period between death and a new birth his existence continues within this spiritual world. But there are times when with his head he comes forth from the spiritual world. In other words, with a part of his being he leaves the spiritual world like a fish that tosses itself above the water. This is earthly life. Then he plunges once more back into the ocean of spirit and later on again returns to an earthly life. Man never leaves this ocean of spiritual existence with the whole of his being but only with his head. The lower part of him remains always in the spiritual world, although in his ordinary conscious¬ness he has no knowledge of what is really going on. Spiritual insight, then, tells us the following: Between death and a new birth man lives in the spiritual world. At birth he peeps out with his head, as it were, into a physical existence, but the greater part of his being remains in the spiritual world, even between birth and death. And it is well that this is so, for otherwise we should have no memories. Memories are only possible because the spiritual world is working in us. An act of memory is a spiritual process appertaining to an objective and not merely to a subjective world.

In his ordinary consciousness man does not regard memory as being a real process, but here he is in error. It is as though he were looking at a castle on a mountain just in front of him and seeing it actually there, believes in its reality. Then he moves away a certain distance, sees the castle in greater perspective, and says to himself: Now I have nothing but a picture, there is no longer any reality. And so it is in ordinary life. In the stream of time we imagine that we get further and further away from reality. But the reality of the castle in space does not change because our picture of it changes, any more than does the reality of that which has given rise to our memory-picture. It remains, just as the castle remains. Our explanation of memory is erroneous because we cannot rightly estimate the perspective of time. Consciousness which flows with the stream of time is able to open up a vista of the past in perspective. The past does not disappear; it remains. But our pictures of it arise in the Perspective of time.

Man’s relation to the more spiritual processes in his being between birth and death has undergone a fundamental change in the course of earthly existence. If we were to regard man as a being consisting merely of physical body and etheric body, this would be only the part of him which remains lying there in bed when he is asleep at night. By day, the astral body and Ego come down into the physical and etheric bodies. The Ego of those men who lived before the Mystery of Golgotha – and in earlier incarnations we ourselves were they – began to fade in a certain sense as the time of the Mystery of Golgotha drew near. After the Mystery of Golgotha there was something different about the process of waking. The astral body always comes right down into the etheric body and in earlier times the Ego penetrated far down into the etheric body. In our modern age it is not so.

In our age the Ego only comes down into the head-region of the etheric body. In men of olden times the Ego came right down and penetrated into the lower parts of the etheric body as well. Today it only comes down into the head. The outcome of this is man’s faculty of intellectual thinking. If the Ego were at any moment to descend lower, instinctive pictures would arise within us. The Ego of modern man is quite definitely outside his physical body. Indeed his intellectual nature is due to the fact that the Ego no longer comes down into the whole of his etheric body. If such were the case he would have instinctive clairvoyance. But instead of this, modern man has a clear-cut vision of the outer world, albeit he perceives it only with his head. In ancient times man saw and perceived with his whole being – nowadays only with his head. And between birth and death the head is the most physical part of his being. That is why in the age of intellectualism man knows only what he perceives with his physical head and the thoughts he can unfold within his etheric head. Even the process of memory eludes his consciousness and, as I said, is interpreted falsely.

In days of old, man saw the physical world and behind it a world of spirit. Objects in the physical world were less clear-cut, far more shadowy than they are to the sight of modern man. Behind the physical world, divine-spiritual beings of a lower and also of a higher order were perceived. To state that ancient descriptions of the Gods in Nature are nothing but the weavings of phantasy is just as childish as to say that a man merely imagines something he has actually seen in waking life. It was no mere phantasy on the part of man in olden days when he spoke of spiritual beings behind the world of sense. He actually saw these beings and against this background of the spiritual world, objects in the physical world were much less clearly defined. Thus the man of antiquity had a very different picture of the world. When he awoke from sleep his Ego penetrated more deeply into his etheric body and divine-spiritual beings were revealed to him.

He gazed into those spiritual worlds which had been the forerunners of his own world. The Gods revealed their destinies to him and he was able to say: ‘I know from whence I come, I know the divine world with which I am connected.’ This was because he had the starting-point of his perspective within him. He made his etheric body an organ to perceive the world of the Gods. Modern man cannot do so. He has no other starting-point for his perspective than in his head and the head is outside the most spiritual part of the etheric body. The etheric counterpart of the head is somewhat chaotic, not so highly organised as the other parts of the etheric body, and that is why modern man has a more defined vision of the physical world, although he no longer sees the Gods behind it. But the present epoch is one of preparation for what lies in the future. Man is gradually progressing to the stage where the centre of his perspective will be outside his physical being. Nowadays, when he is really only living in his head, he can have nothing but abstract thoughts about the world. It may seem rather extreme to say that man lives in his head, for the head can only make him aware of earthly, physical existence. But it is none the less a fact that as he ‘goes out of his head’ he will begin to know what he is as a human being. When he lived in his whole being he had knowledge of the destinies of the Gods. As he gradually passes out of himself he can have knowledge of his own destiny in the cosmos. He can look back into his own being. If men would only make more strenuous efforts in this direction, the head would not hinder them so much from seeing their own destinies. The obstacle in the way of this is that everyone is so intent upon living only in the head. It is simply an unwillingness to look beyond what the head produces that makes people loath to admit that the wisdom which Anthroposophy has to offer in regard to the being of man is something that can be understood by ordinary, healthy intelligence.

And so man is on the way to a knowledge of his own being, because he will gradually begin to focus his perspective from a point that lies, not inside, but outside himself. It is the destiny of man to pass out of his etheric body and so, finally, to attain to knowledge of himself as a human being. But obviously there is a certain danger here. It is possible for man to lose connection with his etheric body. This danger was mitigated by the Mystery of Golgotha. Whereas before the Mystery of Golgotha man was able to look out and see the destinies of the Gods, after that Event it became possible for him to see his own world-destiny. In the course of his evolution, man’s tendency is more and more to ‘go out of himself ‘ in the sense described above. But if, as he does so, he understands the words of Paul: “Not I but Christ in me” in their true meaning, his connection with the Christ will bring him back again into the realm of the human. His link with the Christ sets up a counter¬balance to the process which gradually takes him ‘out of himself.’ This experience must deepen and intensify. In the course of world-destiny the outer Gods passed into twilight, but just because of this it was possible for a God to work out His destiny on the Earth itself and thus be wholly united with mankind.

Think, then, of the man of olden times. He looked around him, perceived the Gods who arose before him in pictures, and he then embodied these pictures in his myths. Today, man’s vision of the Gods has faded. He sees only the physical world around him. But as a compensation he can now be united in his inner life with the destiny of a God, with the death and resurrection of a God. Looking out with their clairvoyant faculties in days of yore, men saw the destinies of Gods in fleeting pictures upon which they then based their myths. The difference in the myths is due to the fact that experience of the spiritual world varied according to men’s capabilities of beholding it. Perceived by this instinctive clairvoyance the world of the Gods was dim and shadowy – hence the diversity in the myths of the various peoples. It was a real world that was seen but it arose in a kind of dream-consciousness. The figures of the Gods were sometimes more and sometimes less distinct, but never distinct enough to guarantee absolute uniformity in the different myths.

And then it happened that a God worked out His destiny on the Earth itself. The destinies of the other Gods were more remote from man in his earthly life. He saw them in perspective and for that reason less distinctly. The Christ-Event is quite near to men — too near, indeed, to be seen aright. The old Gods arose before men’s vision in the perspective of distance and for this reason somewhat indistinctly. If it had been otherwise, the myths would have been all alike. The Mystery of Golgotha is too near to man, too intimately part of him. He must first find the perspective in which to behold the destiny of a God on Earth and therewith the Mystery of Golgotha.

Those who lived in the time when the Mystery of Golgotha took place could behold with spiritual vision and so understand the Christ. They could readily understand Him for they had seen the world of the Gods. So now they knew: Christ has gone forth from the world of the Gods. He has come to this Earth for His further destiny beginning with the Mystery of Golgotha. As a matter of fact they no longer saw the Mystery of Golgotha itself in clear outline but until this moment they could see the Christ Himself quite well. Therefore they had very much to say of the Christ as a God. They only began to discuss what had become of this God at the moment when he came down into a human being at the Baptism of John in Jordan. Hence in the earliest time of Christianity we have a strongly developed Christology but no ‘Jesuology’.

It was because the whole world of the Gods was no longer within man’s ken that Christology afterwards became transformed into mere Jesuology — which grew stronger and stronger until the nineteenth century, when Christ was no longer understood even with the intellect and modern Theology was very proud of understanding Jesus in the most human way and letting the Christ go altogether.

Precisely through spiritual knowledge the perspective must be found once more to recognise what is the most important of all — the Christ in Jesus. For otherwise we should no longer remain united with the human being at all. Increasingly we should only be looking at him from outside. But now, by recognising Christ in Jesus, through our union with the Christ we shall be able to partake once more with living sympathy in man and in humanity — precisely through our understanding of the Mystery of Golgotha.

Thus we may say: In going more and more out of himself, man is on the way by-and-by to transform all spiritual reality into mere abstract concepts and ideas. Mankind has already gone very far in this direction and such might be its impending fate already at this moment. Men would go farther and farther in their abstract, intellectual capacity and would develop within them a kind of faith whereby they would say to themselves: Yes, now we experience the Spiritual, but this Spiritual is a Fata Morgana. It has no weight. It consists of so many ideas.

Man must find the possibility once more to replenish these ideas with spiritual substance. This he will do inasmuch as he takes the Christ with him and experiences the Christ as he passes over into the intellectual life. Modern intelligence must grow together with the consciousness of Christ.

In olden times man spoke of the Fall into Sin. He spoke of this picture of the Fall as though with his own being he had belonged to a higher world and had fallen down into a lower, into a deeper world. Take it in a pictorial sense and it is quite true to the reality. We can in a very real sense speak of a Fall into Sin. But just as the man of olden times felt truly when he said to himself: ‘I am fallen from a spiritual height and have united myself with something lower’ — so should man of modern time discover how his increasingly abstract thoughts are also bringing him into a kind of Fall. But this is another kind of Fall. It is a Fall that goes upwards. Man as it were falls upward, that is to say he ascends, but he ascends to his own detriment just as the man of olden times felt himself fall to his detriment. The man of old who still understood the Fall into Sin in the old sense could recognise in Christ Him Who had brought the human being into the right relation to this Sin, that is to say, into the possibility of a salvation. The man of old, when he developed the right consciousness, could recognise in Christ the Being Who had lifted him again out of the Fall. So should the man of modern time as he goes on into intellectualism see the Christ as the one who gives him weight so that he shall not spiritually fly away from the Earth or from the world in which he should be.

The man of old perceived the Christ Event paramountly in relation to the unfolding of the will which is, of course, connected with the Fall into Sin. So should the man of modern time learn to recognise the Christ in relation to thought — thought which must lose all reality if man were unable to give it weight. For only so will reality again be found in the life of thought.

Mankind indeed is going through an evolution. And as Paul might speak of the old Adam and of the new Adam, of the Christ, so too may the modern man in a certain sense. Only the modern man must realise it clearly. He must perceive that the man of old who still had the old consciousness within him, felt himself lifted up by the Christ. The man of the new age, on the other hand, should feel himself protected by the Christ from rushing forth into the spiritual emptiness of mere abstraction, mere intellectualism.

The modern man needs Christ to transform within him this sin of going out into the void, to make it good again. Thought becomes good by uniting itself once more with the true reality, that is, the spiritual reality. Therefore, for a man who can see through the secrets of the universe there is the fullest possibility to place the Christ into the very centre even of the most modern evolution of human consciousness.

And now go back to the image with which we began. I began by speaking of the faculty of memory in man. We human beings live on and on in the spiritual world. We only lift ourselves out of the spiritual world inasmuch as with our heads we peer forth into the physical. But we never emerge from the spiritual world altogether. We only emerge with our head. So much do we remain in the spiritual world that even our memory processes are constantly taking place within it. Our world of memories remains beneath, in the ocean of the spiritual world.

Now so long as we are between birth and death and are not strong enough in our Ego to perceive all that is going on down there even with our memories — so long are we quite unaware of how it is with us as humanity in modern time. But when we die, then it becomes a very serious matter, this spiritual world from out of which we lift ourselves in physical existence, like a fish that gasps at air. Then we no longer look back on our life imagining that we perceive unreal memory-pictures, giving ourselves up to the illusion that the perspective of time kills the reality. For that is how man lives in relation to time when he gives himself up to his memory. He is like one who would consider what he perceives in the distance, in the perspective of space, as unreality, as a mere picture. He is like one who would say: ‘When I go far away from it, the castle there in the distance is so small, so tiny that it can have no reality, for surely no men could live in so tiny a castle. Therefore the castle can have no reality.’ Such, more or less, is the conclusion he draws in time. When he looks back in time he does not think his memory-pictures realities, for he leaves out of account the perspective of time. But this attitude ceases when all perspective ceases, that is to say when we are out of space and time. When we are dead it ceases. Then that which lives in the perspective of times emerges as a very strong reality.

Now it is possible that we had brought into our consciousness that which I call the consciousness of Christ. If we did so, then as we look back after our death we see that in life we united ourselves with reality, that we did not live in a mere abstract way. The perspective ceases and the reality is there. If in life we remained at the mere abstract experience, then too, of course, the reality is there. But we find that in earthly life we were building castles in the air. What we were building has no firmness in itself. With our intellectual knowledge and cognition we can indeed build, but our building is frail, it has no firmness. Therefore the modern man needs to be penetrated with the consciousness of Christ, to the end that by uniting himself with realities he may not build castles in the air but castles in the spirit. For earthly life, a castle in the air is something which in itself lies beneath the spirit. The castles in the air are always at their place, only for earthly life they are too thin and for the spiritual life too physically dense. Such human beings cannot free themselves from the dense physical, which in relation to the Spiritual, after all, has a far lesser reality. They remain earthbound. They get into no free relation to earthly life if in this life they build mere castles in the air through intellectualism.

So you see, precisely for intellectualism the Christ consciousness has a very real significance. And this significance is in the sense of a true doctrine of salvation — salvation from the building of castles in the air, salvation for our existence as it will be when we have passed through the gate of death.

For Anthroposophy these things are no articles of faith. They are clear knowledge which can be gained as clearly as mathematical knowledge can be gained by those who are able to manipulate the mathematical methods.