Christian Gnosis

Christian Gnosis

C. W. Leadbeater. Edited with a  foreward by Sten Von Krusensterna. intorduction and notes by Richard Smoley.
Wheaton: Theosophical Publishing House, 2011. xxiv + 338 pages, paper. $16.95.

This is a welcome new edition of a provocative and important work by a prolific Theosophical writer of the Society’s second generation, C. W. Leadbeater (1854–1934). The new Quest Books edition is beautifully published, and benefits greatly from a fine contemporary introduction and notes, corrective when needed, by Richard Smoley. The Christian Gnosis (as Leadbeater originally titled it) was among Leadbeater’s more challenging books, even within the genre of esoteric Christianity. That is because it takes the complex intellectual structure of Leadbeater’s Theosophical worldview and adapts traditional Christian theology, based on the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds, to his elaborate but often profound system.

The Christian Gnosis was not originally published until 1983, nearly fifty years after Leadbeater’s death, and behind that event lies an interesting story. The tale is told in a foreword by the editor, Sten von Krusenstierna, then presiding bishop of the Liberal Catholic Church. The book’s origins lie in an incomplete theological manuscript Leadbeater showed to F. W. Pigott, another Liberal Catholic bishop, in 1924. The latter discouraged the author from pursuing this project, later writing that “it was mostly a very Leadbeaterish harangue against a variety of Christianity which by then was obsolete or at least obsolescent amongst Christians of education.” Von Krusenstierna compiled the present book by extracting what he considered useful from that manuscript, adding to it articles from The Liberal Catholic magazine, plus various unpublished talks and sermons. This editorial labor of love is admirably done. The compiler also includes a brief biography of Leadbeater.

Alas, assuming that 1924 “variety of Christianity” was of the fundamentalist stripe, one wonders if Pigott’s words are not themselves obsolescent in view of the literalist school’s current upsurge in many parts of the world. Could it be that liberal-minded “Christians of education,” willing to position themselves strategically between reactionary dogmatism and sheer secularism, are instead the dwindling breed? If so, this book is here to give them what aid it can, offering a view of Christianity that is far from what Leadbeater perceptively calls the “materializing tendency” in religion—for the fundamentalist fallacy lies in its attempt to declare faith “true” in the same precise way scientific “laws” governing matter and energy are considered true. Surely that help is urgently needed now by those seeking a third way between the two absolutist poles.

Those familiar with Leadbeater’s other writings will recognize the basic intellectual structure into which he fits Nicene Christianity. Foundational to it are three outpourings of the Logos or creative divine energies, which he identifies with the Christian Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Solar Logos, the central intelligence of our solar system, is essentially equated with the traditional God; that which is above him is also quite above our comprehension. The Seven Rays are important, as is Our Lady as personification of the virginal primordial matter over which the Holy Spirit, first of the divine three to descend, brooded to begin the process of creation; all this is likewise reenacted in the Christ mythos, and within our own spiritual lives. Here we find the incarnational drama of the imprisonment of the divine in matter, and its emancipation or resurrection therefrom.

Along the way, Leadbeater makes some problematic assertions. Not many scholars of early Christianity would agree with him that Jesus really lived about a hundred years before the conventional dates, or that he was stoned rather than dying on a cross (for Leadbeater, the latter refers to the allegorical “cross of matter” to which we are figuratively nailed till liberation). Eschewing the “materializing tendency” does not require us to abandon the attempt to learn what we can about Jesus as a person; understanding both the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith are surely essential to any viable reconstruction of the religion for the twenty-first century.

These idiosyncrasies on Leadbeater’s part need not stand in the way of appreciating the author’s overall project. In his use of Gnostic texts as testimonials to early Christianity along with the canonical writings, he anticipates the contemporary recognition—greatly enhanced by the dramatic finding of the Nag Hammadi Gnostic library in 1945—that Gnosticism was an alternative view of Christianity as old and as significant as the strand that won out in the end. Leadbeater’s assimilation of Christian language and the Theosophical worldview in Christian Gnosis is an impressive intellectual achievement.

Those for whom both the mainstream and Gnostic traditions are important will certainly find much to ponder here, and to them this book is highly recommended. It is also recommended to those who wish to experience something of the Theosophical life of the mind in Leadbeater’s era, or who want to try on a fresh approach to faith.

It is not necessary, of course, to see Leadbeater’s schema as anything more than a model, a template to place over an unfathomable reality. It would be disastrous to give up one fundamentalism only to fall for a Theosophical form of the same. Any such pattern as Leadbeater’s is like a map, and as has been said, the map is not the territory. The map greatly oversimplifies, but it does have the value of lifting out key landmarks, and above all of showing that the trip, different as it may be for each traveler and different as it may look to each observer, is possible and has been made before.

Robert Ellwood 

The reviewer is emeritus professor of religion at the University of Southern California and a former vice-president of the Theosophical Society in America.