Christianity and Theosophy
What do Theosophy and Christianity have to do with each other? Is Theosophy Christian? Is it anti-Christian? Can you be a Christian and a Theosophist at the same time?
Yes, you can be a Christian and a Theosophist at the same time. The Theosophical Society is not a religion. Membership is open to all who state their agreement with the Society’s three objectives (known as the Three Objects):
- To form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color.
- To encourage the comparative study of religion, philosophy, and science.
- To investigate unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in humanity.
If you can state your sympathy with these goals, you are eligible to become a member of the Theosophical Society. There is no other requirement in belief or practice for anyone. Some members of the Theosophical Society belong to religious denominations. Others do not.
But we could say more about the relationship of Theosophy to Christianity. The Theosophical Society focuses on a body of knowledge and practice that has been known to all ages and all regions. It is sometimes called the Ageless Wisdom or the perennial philosophy. Most Theosophists would agree that this body of knowledge underlies all religious traditions, including Christianity. Indeed esoteric Christianity has long been a topic of serious interest to Theosophists. Esoteric Christianity is simply this perennial teaching expressed in the terms and concepts of Christianity.
The term esoteric is a curious one. It comes from Greek roots meaning “further in.” Originally it referred to teachings in the ancient philosophical schools that were not disclosed to outsiders, only to initiates. But it also refers to the need to go “further in” to yourself in order to discover these truths. Esotericism in all its forms, including the Christian form, has a great deal to do with self-discovery.
Esoteric Christianity tends to see the central mysteries of the faith—including the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ—not as merely events that happened to one man two thousand years ago, but as representations of what each of us must undergo on the path of awakening, of enlightenment.
Over a hundred years ago, Annie Besant, second president of the Society, wrote, “Every man is a potential Christ, and the unfolding of the Christ-life in a man follows the outline of the Gospel story in its striking incidents.” Besant’s book Esoteric Christianity, first published in 1905, presents an introduction to these ideas that is still readable and inspiring.
If you want a brief summary, here it is: The God-man comes down to earth. He plays his part in the world of his time, does his useful work, makes friends and enemies. He is subjected to a humiliating and painful death on a cross known as time and space. But in the end it does not matter, because what is undying in him cannot be killed and goes on to a new, higher life.
That is the story of Jesus Christ. It is our story as well. This truth is reflected not only in the teachings of the Gospels, but in the rituals of Christianity, including the sacraments.
Esoteric Christianity goes back to the earliest days of the faith. The Gospel of Thomas, a recently discovered text that may be older than the Gospels in the New Testament, reflects this teaching. So do the ideas of the Gnostics, members of a movement in early Christianity that emphasized inner awakening as the key to salvation. Others over the centuries have included Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and Emanuel Swedenborg.
What about the Bible? Do Theosophists believe that it is literally true? Do they have any place for it in their teachings?
Again, most Theosophists would say that much of the Bible is not literally true. This is not an outlandish or eccentric view. Most scholars today—including Christian scholars—say that large parts of the Bible are not historically factual. These include the story of Creation, the Flood, and the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt. There is actually very little evidence for King David and King Solomon in the archaeological record. If they lived, their kingdoms were not nearly as grand as those portrayed in the Bible.
Then why bother with the Bible at all? Because it conveys certain truths symbolically. In the third century AD, Origen, the most learned of all the fathers of the Christian church, wrote in his book On First Principles:
Very many mistakes have been made because the right method of examining the holy texts has not been discovered by the greater number of readers . . . because it is their habit to follow the bare letter. . . .
Scripture interweaves the imaginary with the historical, sometimes introducing what is utterly impossible, sometimes what is possible but never occurred. . . . not even [the Gospels and the writings of the apostles] are purely historical. . . .
And who is so silly as to imagine that God, like a husbandman, planted a garden in Eden eastward, and put in it a tree of life, which could be seen and felt?*
This perspective has been shared by Christian mystics and thinkers for centuries, although it has often been hidden from the public, and organized religion has always downplayed it.
But in an age when the literal truth of the Bible is more and more cast into doubt, this esoteric perspective is starting to show its value and relevance.
An esoteric view can explain many other things in the Bible too. Take the “kingdom of God” or “the kingdom of heaven.” This is one of the central ideas in Jesus’s teaching. He talks about it over and over. But very few people know what it means. They tend to think of it vaguely as something “up there” in heaven.
But what does Jesus say? “The kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). The kingdom of God is like a seed (Matthew 13:24, 31), leaven in a loaf (Luke 13:21), treasure hidden in a field (Matthew 13:44). This doesn’t sound much like a heaven up there.
In fact, the kingdom of God is within you. It has many names in the world’s religious traditions: the Self, the true I, Buddha mind. It is the immortal spirit, which never dies, even though the body dies. You will never see it, because it is always that in you which sees. It is your Self looking out through the filters of the body and the mind. Francis of Assisi said, “What you are looking for is what is looking.”
This truth is not always easy to grasp, and many people are unaware of it or are uninterested in it. Hence it is the “seed” mentioned in the Gospels, which is often cast on stony ground or eaten up by birds. Only a very few cultivate this seed into a higher, spiritual life. Those are the people that the Gospels talk about and are trying to reach.
How do you gain access to this buried treasure within yourself? Simply knowing it is there is a good beginning. But our connection with it can be strengthened a number of ways. The three ways that Theosophists emphasizes the most are study, meditation, and service.
You study the ideas of the Ancient Wisdom so that your mind understands them better and better, and you start to see how profound and wide-reaching they are. You meditate so as to deepen your experiential awareness of this hidden Self. Finally, you practice service to others, because this Self is fundamentally one in all of us, and being of benefit to others makes you more and more aware of this truth.
One sign of progress on this path is that you become more accepting of others. You start to realize that there are many different aspects and angles by which you can see universal truths, and you see that while all answers may contain some partial truth, in all likelihood none of them contains the complete and absolute truth.
People who find this possibility exciting and inspiring are likely to find a welcoming home in the Theosophical Society.
* “Very many mistakes . . .” From The Philokalia of Origen, 1.8, 16–17, trans. George Lewis; www.tertullian.org/fathers/origen_philocalia_02_text.htm; accessed Mar. 1, 2015. Cf. Origen, On First Principles, trans. G. W. Butterworth (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 4.3.1.
Besant, Annie. Esoteric Christianity. Rev. ed. Wheaton: Illinois, Quest Books, 2006.
Hoeller, Stephan A. Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing. Wheaton, Ill. Quest Books, 2002.
Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Vintage, 1981.
Leadbeater, C.W. The Science of the Sacraments. Adyar, India: Theosophical Publishing House, 1929.
Smoley, Richard. Forbidden Faith: The Secret History of Gnosticism. San Francisco: Harper One, 2006.
———. How God Became God: What Scholars Are Really Saying about God and the Bible. New York: Tarcher Perigee, 2016.
———. Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Inner Tradition. Boston: Shambhala, 2002.
Watts, Alan. Myth and Ritual in Christianity. Boston: Beacon, 1968.