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Seaching It Out: Mystic Modernism
By Linda Tiessen Wiebe

“If I do not become clear to myself through self-perception then I do not exist for myself.” Rudolf Steiner

IN THE SUMMER of 2003, we at Watershed began a study of cosmology and the wisdom of creation as part of our course on Jesus and the Wisdom Tradition. Because the wisdom tradition honoured Creation as the handiwork of God, we wanted to better understand how this physical universe is understood in the 21st century. We started to become familiar with the 13.7 billion year birth process of the universe, and became immersed in what science was telling us. A bewildering array of facts and phenomena suggest a living universe that is still evolving. At first we were disoriented. The shift from Eucharist to eukaryotes seemed disjointed. We weren’t familiar with the language or even the emphasis on the physical sciences. Deep time is really hard to get your mind around. And how do we integrate faith in an accompanying God with the fascinating processes that continue every day at both the microscopic and macroscopic level all around us?

One of our most poignant classes centered on an episode from the PBS series, Evolution. A 19-year-old boy sat amidst the test tubes of his chemistry class in Wheaton College and exclaimed, “What do you do when, as a scientist, the evidence before you goes completely against your whole upbringing, against everything you’ve known previously?” These were the earnest words of Nathan Baird, a student raised to believe evolution was evil, but who had become fascinated by what his chemistry classes were revealing to him. He was in an arduous process of sifting both what he thought and what he believed, and he wanted to include his apprehensive family in the process. Nathan’s struggle reflects in microcosm the tension between science and religion that has been brewing ever since Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859. It seems the more we know about our world, the less we can attribute its workings to God. Rudolf Steiner in Mystics after Modernism suggests that it isn’t science per se but a distortion of reason that has led us astray.

"This spirit doesnt live in objects but is brought to birth by our consciousness. And in so doing, we participate with what Steiner calls Primordial Essence in creating the world."Centuries ago, at the dawn of the modern era, science and faith were not yet separated by a chasm. As humanism was being born, many of the pioneers in science were also pioneers of the spiritual realm. They were breaking ground with discoveries of the physical world, and in ways of knowing in the mystical realm. These first moderns understood reason as including imagination and intuition, but from Descartes on we have been increasingly hobbled by limiting reason to logic. This has fostered a dualism between experience and knowledge that has fueled the polarization of science and religion ever since. Steiner traces an evolving consciousness from Meister Eckhart (1260 – 1326) to Angelus Silesius (1624 - 1677). Amazingly, many mystics anticipated some of our scientific discoveries, like the basis of chemical medicine (Theophrastus Paraclesus) or stages of development in consciousness (Jacob Boehme). Perhaps the resolution of Nathan’s enigma lies in revisiting how these men came to know what they did.

How we know determines our experience of what we know. All our knowledge starts from the senses, through our physical organs. But knowledge doesn’t just happen. Valentin Weigel (1553 – 1588) says we must be active in it. I can open a book and see the black markings on the page, but I’m not reading until I interpret those markings. The book doesn’t put the idea in my mind, nor does it come strictly from my mind. I arrive at an idea through the interaction between my observing self and the book. At some point we become aware we are observing; we become self-aware. Here we touch on another level of knowing and perceiving. We understand intuitively what we once only knew through the senses. We have direct apprehension. This spirit doesn’t live in objects but is brought to birth by our consciousness. And in so doing, we participate with what Steiner calls Primordial Essence in creating the world. Consciousness of this sort only arises in humans; it is the natural world becoming conscious of itself through our spiritual capacity, or intellect.

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