The Theosophical Society in America

Christianity-Theosophy Conference: What is a Christian?

Originally printed in the JULY-AUGUST 2001 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Hoeller, Stephan A. “Christianity-Theosophy Conference: What is a Christian?.” Quest  89. 4 (July-August 2001): 135.

Observations stimulated by the Theosophy-Christianity Conference
November 5-7, 2000

By Stephan A. Hoeller

What is a Christian? Can one define oneself as Christian? Or must someone else so designate one, and if so, who? If someone believes or experiences spiritual truths that others find to be outside their definition of Christianity, can that person still claim to be a Christian?

The Theosophical movement since its inception in the nineteenth century has numbered in its ranks numerous persons who considered themselves Christians. Some of these have been ordained clergy and lay communicants of mainstream Christian churches; others, like Charles W. Leadbeater and Geoffrey Hodson, belonged to small, esoteric Christian bodies. Yet many contemporary voices that loudly proclaim their own Christian status in our culture would not recognize any of these fine people as Christians.

Arbitrary definitions of what constitutes a Christian have existed during the two turbulent millennia of the Common or Christian era. The third-century prophet Mani, who identified himself as "an apostle of Jesus Christ" and evidenced an overwhelming devotion to Jesus, was regarded as the worst sort of enemy of Christianity by the mainstream church. Uncounted members of the Cathar faith, all of whom considered themselves Christians, were burned at the stake by the inquisitors. In our own times, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Scientists, and Seventh Day Adventists have often been regarded as non-Christian by mainstream denominations.

More recently, evangelical and fundamentalist groups, who have gained prominence in the public arena, have insisted on even more rigid and idiosyncratic criteria for what constitutes a Christian. Moreover, it would seem that these folk have managed to convince the public media of the normative character of their definitions. Thus, when one hears the word "Christian" on radio and television today, the meaning attached to it is almost invariably taken from the vocabulary of sects who but a few short years ago were generally regarded as existing on the fringe of Christendom, rather than at its center. (The same is true of the political extension of these groups in the "Christian Right").

By the definitions of the fundamentalists, the Patriarch of Constantinople, the Pope of Rome, and Martin Luther are not Christians, for none of them are participants in such phenomena as being "born again," "baptized by the HolySpirit," or most important, "accepting Jesus Christ as their personal Savior."

What conclusions are then to be drawn from these considerations? Here are a few. First, when desirous of a dialogue, Theosophists ought to seek out persons from within the historic mainstream denominations, particularly those who have an interest in ecumenicity. All that glitters is not gold, and not all who call themselves Christians are suitable parties to such a dialogue.

Second, those in our ranks with dedications of a Gnostic or EsotericChristian nature should make it known that they consider themselves Christians and that they ask for a hearing as brothers and sisters in Christ, albeit of acertain, somewhat unusual kind.

Third, one may consider the virtue of pluralism not just for others, but for oneself as well. Not a few Theosophical and related works of the past have conveyed the message that the particular esoteric teachings they advocate are infact the true or real Christianity, and that our Christian partners in dialogue are simply ignorant of the authentic teachings of Christ.

In addition, early Theosophical literature contains many statements derived from dated sources, concerning the lack of the historicity of Jesus, the purely derivative origins of the Bible, and the lack of uniqueness of the Christian message. To include such nineteenth-century polemics in a dialogue with contemporary Christians is not useful.

In preference to such ideas, we ought to emphasize that our own esoteric approach may have some merit along with others, and that such a view accords with the current emphasis on pluralism.


Stephan Hoeller is director of the Gnostic Society of Los Angeles, anorganization concerned with the study of Jungian psychology, Kabbalah, Tarot,classical Gnosticism, and myth. He is the author of several Quest Books,including Freedom: Alchemy for a Voluntary Society, The Gnostic Jung and the Seven Sermons to the Dead, Jung and the Lost Gospels, and The Royal Road: A Manual of Kabalistic Meditations on the Tarot. His work in progress is an overview of Gnosticism. This paper is the third in a series of reflections onmatters considered by the November 2000 Christianity-Theosophy Conference.