From the Executive Editor - Fall 2009

Originally printed in the Fall 2009 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Smoley, Richard. "From the Executive Editor - Fall 2009." Quest 97. 4 (Fall 2009): 122.

Richard SmoleyThese days many are calling for a rejuvenation and revitalization of the Theosophical Society. At the risk of adding to the din, I thought I would throw out a few thoughts of my own.

Personally I don't think the TS will be saved by state-of-the-art technology or clever promotions or membership drives. Nor will it be rescued by infusions of cash. I don't even think it will be saved by an influx of bright-eyed young people. However welcome and necessary all these things may be, they are secondary. Whatever else it is, the TS is an esoteric organization, and its survival will only be ensured by fulfilling an esoteric purpose.

What, then, is an esoteric purpose? To examine this issue, let's go back and look at the earliest days. Initially the Society faced two crucial tasks. In the first place, it had to reintroduce the Ageless Wisdom to a Western world that had all but forgotten it. In the second place, it needed to break the back of the aggressive European proselytizing that was threatening to uproot this knowledge, particularly under the British Raj in India.

Now, over 125 years later, we can see that the TS's current problems are more the consequence of success than of failure. Teachings long hidden are now common currency. When the TS was founded, very few people in the West knew anything about reincarnation and still fewer took it seriously. Today polls consistently show that somewhere between 20 and 28 percent of the American population believe in this teaching. The same thing is true with the situation in Asia: Partly as a result of the TS's work, religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism have been able to reclaim their rightful place among the world's great religions.

Neither of these goals was seen as important by intelligent opinion of that era; indeed intelligent opinion, to the extent that it was aware of these goals, probably opposed them. This suggests that an esoteric purpose is not, in general, what society at large thinks is important at a given time. War, poverty, terrorism, environmental destruction—these issues are all acknowledged today by exoteric, outward society, which is dealing with them as well as it can. Those with an esoteric perspective have to look deeper and further. Like the early Theosophists, they have to work not for today but for fifty or a hundred years in the future. (Blavatsky advocated independence for India but foresaw that it would not come in the nineteenth century.) That was the secret of the success of TS in its earliest days. If we emulate this approach, we will be far more loyal to the Society's heritage than if we turn it into an airless shrine to the memory of HPB.

What esoteric tasks confront us now? One has to do with the place of the Ageless Wisdom in mainstream civilization. Although this knowledge (or a version of it) thrives in mass culture, the intelligentsia still don't take it seriously. The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, Harpers, and their kin usually cover mystical spirituality only to make fun of it; at best they treat it with a mild though contemptuous bemusement. While there are academic scholars who are exploring esoteric thought—Antoine Faivre, emeritus professor of Western esotericism at the Sorbonne, and Arthur Versluis of Michigan State University are two prime examples—by and large this knowledge has yet to inform disciplines such as psychology, philosophy, and theology, all of which are floating rudderless in desperate need of a more profound and authentic perspective.

Another purpose has to do with a goal that the early TS did not meet as well as it did with some of the others: reconciling science with spirituality. Although esoteric thought has served as an occasional inspiration to twentieth-century science (Einstein is said to have kept a copy of The Secret Doctrine on his desk), the two remain as far apart as two continents separated by an ocean. The Zens and Taos of physics have at best only suggested intriguing resemblances without creating any lasting change in the scientific worldview. In fact science seems to become more and more relentlessly materialistic with each decade—or is it merely its atheistic camp followers who make it seem that way?

In essence, these two goals converge. They both have to do with taking esotericism out of the closet and using its ideas and principles to enlighten our civilization as a whole. While for an individual this is a matter of inner work, it is a task that must be approached on a collective scale as well. This cannot be done as a matter either of proselytizing or of preaching to the converted. It will be done by approaching esotericism with an intellectual rigor and honesty that is on a par with spiritual depth and authenticity.

This may sound too aridly cerebral, too much in the head for those who say spirituality is all about the heart. But it is about both heart and head. Many of today's New Agers act as if thinking doesn't matter, while the mainstream intelligentsia often behave as if they have no emotions whatsoever. You need to be in touch with both: "Only connect," as E. M. Forster urged in his novel Howards End. It was this
connection between head and heart that he was talking about.

Admittedly it isn't easy to see how the present TS can advance these goals. Theosophy itself is often derided in works such as Peter Washington's Madame Blavatsky's Baboon, and one recent post on a Theosophical Web site said that the public perception of the TS collectively is that of a "crazy cat lady." But sometimes goals must be set without seeing where the means are to be found or how the purpose is to be achieved. These are often discovered only in the doing.

Richard Smoley


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