On Sin and Freedom

offering three very different views of God and Christianity

Don Cruse

It is often said that "all comparisons are odious;" however, sometimes they help us to bring important issues into clearer focus. This is my intention here, in contrasting three very different kinds of Christian thought. I will begin with a critical account of the most familiar view of Christianity, which may be described somewhat as follows:

A Father God exists. He is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and eternal. He never changes. We are forever his children, although the reason for his creating us is a bit of a puzzle. It is usually presented as a deed of Love, but human suffering prompts many to question this. Some skeptics (1) say it was in order that we could praise and worship him, or so that He could tell us all what to do; but whatever the motive He seems never to tire from creating countless billions of us to live just one life, after which we must all be found an eternal place in the hereafter, be it in heaven or hell.

Christianity shares this stationary and rather sexist image of God with other monotheistic religions, principally Islam and Judaism. It has caused some writers, notably Philip Wylie in his book Generation of Vipers, to suggest that Christ was a megalomaniac who cursed fig trees because they would not give him fruit out of season, and insulted those who disagreed with him by calling them 'vipers'. That God is a cosmic Egoist who created man because He wanted someone to boss around and mistreat, and who would never tire of telling Him how great He was, while waiting expectantly for the next miracle to occur (as in Samuel Becket's play 'Waiting for Godot'). Wylie's view may be extreme, but it is disturbingly similar to the picture that arises from the recent Pulitzer Prize winning study of the Old Testament entitled GOD a Biography, by Jack Miles, a Jesuit who after writing it resigned from the Catholic priesthood. It is an image like that of an immature and domineering human father, one who keeps his children subservient to his will, while punishing them for their supposed misdeeds, and telling them that he does it because he loves them. But with one major difference. The human father's tyrannical behaviour is limited to his lifetime, whereas God's is thought never to end.

Human freedom does, does not exist. The philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-77) claimed "I call that being free who exists by virtue of his own necessity" which means that 'he alone is free who is his own creator,' i.e. God. The Christian philosopher and mathematician Leibniz (1646-1716) argued in agreement with Spinoza and in compliance with St. Augustine's doctrine of predestination, for the "impossibility of existence outside of God," hence unfreedom. All of which conflicts seriously with the account in Genesis suggesting that God gave man freedom at the very outset, only to find it used to thwart His will. According to St. Augustine, Spinoza and Leibniz, we were and are unfree, and so have had no possibility to choose disobedience.

A serious contradiction, therefore, exists at the heart of the conventional Christian doctrine as it concerns the existence of sin and its role in the scheme of things. In the space of a single lifetime we often fail in our compliance with what religious authorities hold out to us as God's will; and whether we are free or not we are still deemed to be sinners, and all of human kind is in any case thought to be born into original sin - to carry the guilt attached to Adam and Eve's initial transgressions. We are all, therefore, sinners in need of redemption, which remedy the church has historically administered, at times very harshly. Ironically, and seemingly without any sense of contradiction, believers in freedom were once burned as heretics. The New Testament is interpreted to mean that in order to free us from sin (however arrived at) God sent his only Son to earth to teach wayward mankind how to be good, but we crucified him; and having killed God's son (it is also often said we would do it again) we are even more deeply enmeshed in sin. Conventional Christian doctrine makes little distinction between the names 'God' 'Christ' and 'Jesus,' they tend to be used as though fully interchangeable. Jesus Christ is said to have lived 33 years before dying on the cross, and his immanent return in the flesh, the second coming, has long been anticipated, when the faithful expect to be rewarded. This expectation lies behind the "rapture," now awaited by many Christian fundamentalists.

In this entire picture, our relationship with God is that of (naughty) children to a supposedly wise and loving parent. If at the end of our single lifetime we are judged to have been good (whether the duration of that life be one minute or a hundred years), then we are sent to heaven for an eternity (though what we do there is usually not explained), but if we have been bad, or not sufficiently good, as determined by the church, or at the Final Judgment, then we are sent to the other place where we are made subject to eternal torment. It is very much in our own best interest, therefore, to act so that we may be judged as 'good' (although moral philosophy states that "goodness that knows itself is not goodness"). There are, of course, very many modern variations on this basic story, and the harsh rigidity of the medieval and renaissance church authorities on matters of sin has today been largely ameliorated, but the essentials still tend to be as stated. Emphasis is still placed upon the need for the faithful to believe in the story unconditionally, and, for obvious reasons the emotion connected with this traditional view of Christianity is often that of fear

Post-Modern Christian thought is the work of theologians much influenced by modern science. It rejects most of the above story as a fiction which no longer works, and that was told for humanity's benefit when we were still children. They view this story, if taken literally today, to be an affront to modern man's common sense. However, they do not have much to replace it with. In their view the word 'God' is just a synonym for nature, and Christ Jesus was the 'Son of God' only in the sense that we all of us are. Instead he is viewed as having been a social activist who was put to death because he threatened the political power structure of his day. His life and death are thought to have had no cosmic significance. Their view of the natural world tends to be evolutionary in the Darwinian sense, and so closely akin to materialism.

Neither conventional nor post-modern Christianity have anything to say about the ancient mysteries, which formed the religious environment into which Jesus was born and lived. This, in large part, is because it was viewed by the early church as 'paganism,' something that one just did not talk about for fear of contamination, or of being branded a heretic. Where both conventional and post-modern Christianity are concerned, ignorance of the mysteries remains self-imposed and endemic.

The Anthroposophical view of Christianity, arose primarily from the life's work of the Austrian seer/scientist Rudolf Steiner(1861-1925), who claimed that his teaching was not eclectic, but the result of a critical clairvoyance which he had developed since early childhood. He taught that the capacity for such heightened awareness lay within reach of everyone, but calls for intensive self-development. He points to an evolution of human consciousness that is becoming increasingly self-directed, leading to heightened self knowledge, and to a lifting of the veil that has concealed spiritual realities from us. His work connects strongly with the ancient mysteries, and with the esoteric Christian tradition, a so-to-speak underground tradition which during the past two millennium often found itself in conflict with the established churches.

The mystery schools were the institutes of higher learning in the ancient world; their task was to develop clairvoyant and clairaudient capacities among their students, by three or more years of intense spiritual discipline followed by a rite of initiation, which usually took place within the holy of holies of the temple. Seven 'degrees' of initiation were possible. Steiner has a lot to say concerning the role that the mysteries played in the development of human civilization, extending back thousands of years before the time of Christ. The following picture of Christianity itself, however, arises out of his many lectures on the four gospels.

Nothing in the universe is static. The entire spiritual and physical world is in a constant state of evolutionary change. The eternally unchanging Father God of conventional Christianity can be thought about only in retrospect, if at all. By this is meant that the Godhead no longer exists as an omnipotent omniscient entity, having  poured its being out into the universe in what may be thought of as a profound Act of Love. The Godhead has sacrificed itself so that the universe and mankind might come into existence. The Father God of Christianity, therefore, and of all other religions, is now only to be found as the spiritual background to all existence, i.e. as a force working only through the laws of nature. These include the physical laws now studied by science, but also laws that extend beyond the physical into the realms of life and consciousness. God does not perform miracles, and what we have come to think of as miracles are events whose law-abidingness we do not yet understand. Steiner's thought is predicated on the feminine principle 'Sophia,' which works only in ways that are ultimately knowable, and so lie within the reach of human understanding. To even begin to understand this, however, modern science must first abandon its materialistic assumptions. A Science of the Spirit is possible, but only if humanity will take the trouble to develop it. In his vast works Steiner shows how this may be accomplished; and describes much of what this science can discover about the spiritual background to human existence. I will describe it here very briefly.

As the Godhead poured its being out into the universe, it first created, step by step and over aeons in time, the nine Spiritual Hierarchies as defined by Dionysius the Areopagite, a disciple of the apostle Paul. (Two documents appeared in Syria in 500CE which bear his name, but some believe it to be the work of a 'pseudo Dionysius'). Steiner tells us that mankind is destined to become the tenth hierarchy, the Hierarchy of Love and Freedom. The wisdom and power exercised by each level of the hierarchies are dedicated to specific creative tasks. These are immense but finite, and they do not include inner freedom, a quality that is intimately connected with love and with human development. Inner freedom cannot be given to us. It is humanity's task to create it as a spiritual reality out of the fires of adversity, by gradually recreating ourselves. Before we could begin this task, however, we needed to become individuals; to rise above the limiting ties of blood, race and family which had dominated humanity's childhood. This is the significance of what Steiner calls the "Christ event," because the Christ was and is the 'I am,' the cosmic archetype of humanity's higher self. Christ's appearance on earth was an event long anticipated within the mysteries, but by the time of the Incarnation many of the ancient mystery schools had fallen into decadence. This is why Christ cursed the Fig Tree, an age-old synonym for the mysteries, and questioned the Scribes and Pharisees, saying: "you generation of vipers, how is it that you do not know this time?" The serpent was an ancient symbol of the mysteries, often used by its members, so he was not insulting them as the Philip Wylie's suggests, but telling them he knew who they were. The incarnation of the Christ being did not occur at the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, but only later at the baptism by John. The Christ then lived for three years in the body of Jesus of Nazareth - which had been prepared for it over many generations by the Jewish people - after which it needed to pass through the experience of death, an experience impossible in the spiritual world. The purpose of Christ's death, according to Steiner, was to repay a debt owed to humanity as a whole, incurred when during our spiritual infancy we were first exposed, by the hierarchies themselves, to the spiritual forces of opposition (that which we call evil), which was the work of beings drawn from the hierarchy's own ranks, and which at that time we had no power whatever to resist; and also in order that the Christ might become the "Spirit of the Earth," the future mediator of human destiny. The second coming, he tells us, has already happened, but 'on the clouds,' i.e. in the earth's etheric realm.

Mankind originated as an Idea in the mind of the hierarchies. The world of animals and plants constitute the necessary prior development of an etheric realm (plants) and of an astral realm (animals); mankind shares a deep spiritual affinity with both, but transcends them as the bearer of an I, or higher self. ' Matter is spirit condensed by the beings of the First Hierarchy, but the living world did not accidentally evolve out of dead matter. It was Consciously 'precipitated' into existence, i.e. it 'evolved' in the only true sense of that word, signifying a growth or development in the creative capability's of the spiritual hierarchies, working in a non-miraculous manner through the aegis of natural laws, many of which science has yet to recognize.

The 'Fall of Man' represents our evolutionary descent out of the astral/etheric realms into the physical realm. Steiner asserts that if Christ's death on the cross had not taken place, this descent would have continued until we had all became machine-like, and ever more hardened into matter. Christ's incarnation was a cosmic deed designed to arrest that descent (Love repaying a debt), and to give us all as individuals the strength to challenge the forces of opposition, thus making our future development towards freedom possible. The Fall itself was necessary, because freedom could only be developed on earth, it having been long prepared for us by the spiritual hierarchies as the future planet of Love and Freedom.

That Christ died on the cross is an event that would have the same historic significance even if the gospels had never been written. It was "the turning point in time" where human evolution is concerned, a deed not dependent upon faith. By it Christian and non-Christian alike were given the power of the cosmic 'I am,' the power needed to evolve as individuals towards our very distant goal of becoming the tenth hierarchy. Reaching this goal will require that we each pass through repeated earth lives, in which we are given new and progressively more difficult challenges and tasks to accomplish, and also the opportunity to remedy our past mistakes (karma). Humanity's number is finite; at first we needed to incarnate only once in every thousand or so years, as both male and female, but this frequency has increased greatly of late (because while it lasts we must all experience materialism), hence the larger present population of the earth. The truth of reincarnation was well known in the ancient world, especially in the mysteries, and even among early Christians, but was lost sight of by the early church when it embraced the spiritual determinism of St. Augustine, who taught that those who went to heaven and those who went to hell had been predetermined by God, so that even the idea of freedom became heresy. The reason we must reincarnate is that the evolutionary path that each individual is on is such that one lifetime can encompass only a very small part of it. This emphasis on individual development, like self-knowledge, may, if one so wishes be seen as self-serving, but only in the sense that "the rose which adorns itself adorns the garden."

The capacities which we develop as we progress from life to life are those which we may, if we so choose, place at the service of the rest of humanity, and also in the service of the spiritual world itself. In this respect Steiner tells us that in that world, which penetrates at every level into the physical universe, the spiritual hierarchies wait expectantly for what humanity can accomplish as it strives towards freedom. This thought he expressed in a number of meditative verses, including the following:

The stars spake once to man,
but they are silent now,
and in the deepening silence
there grows and ripens
what Man speaks to the stars.
To be aware of the speaking,
can become strength for Spirit Man.

The following chart is taken from the book Man or Matter, an introduction to Goethean science, by Ernst Lehrs (Faber & Faber, 1958). It shows the nine levels of the Hierarchies (3x3) as taught by Dionysious the Areopagite. The right hand column, as described by Rudolf Steiner, indicates the creative contributions made by the Hierarchies, out of their own substance, to the building of the universe and of human beings, who are destined to begin a fourth trinity.

First Hierarchy Spirits of Strength
Spirits of Love              Seraphim         Seraphim
Spirits of Harmony        Cherubim        Cherubim
Spirits of Will                Thrones           Thrones        Donors of the Physical

Second Hierarchy Spirits of Light
Spirits of Wisdom         Kyrioteties        Dominions    Donors of the Etheric
Spirits of Motion           Dynameis          Powers        Donors of the Astral
Spirits of Form              Exusiai              Mights         Donors of the Ego (2)

Third Hierarchy Spirits of Soul
Spirits of Personality      Archai               Principalities
Spirits of Fire                Archangeloi       Archangels
Sons of Life                  Angeloi              Angels

Fourth Hierarchy Future Spirits of Love and Freedom
Sons of Freedom          Humankind   (after the 'earth' stage of development has ended)    

(1) A colloquial dramatization of this skeptical critique is to be found on the Internet website of Rev. Jim Huber www.jhuger.com/kisshank.mv It is perhaps a bit crude for my taste, but very effective.

(2) In the Old Testament the Spirits of Form bear the name Elohim. One of them, called Jahve in the Bible, undertook the leadership of the Hebrew people, as a Divinity working at the same time in nature and in human history.

© 2001 Don Cruse
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