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Steiner and the Mainstream

Steiner and the Mainstream

Efforts like Steiner Studies are a bit of a conundrum. In the anthroposophical movement we are always complaining about how Steiner is invisible to the mainstream. How nobody knows about him, and he doesn’t get the credit he deserves. But the mainstream is only going to handle him the way it knows how. They will use their worldview, their academic and analytic tools. They will treat him just like any other interesting dead white European thinker. The problem with Steiner is that he was trying to reframe the debate. He first created his own lens, his own worldview, and then used it to examine the world. And all the books with his private lectures say something to the effect of: I won’t consent to be judged on your criteria; you have to use mine. That works for anthroposophists. We can all agree that no one understands Steiner who does not also use Steiner’s way of looking at the world. But the result is that the world becomes divided into those who are doing so, and those who are not. And to the outside world that looks like: anthroposophists don’t want attention and outside interest. They want converts. Because they throw a fit any time someone says something they don’t agree with from their point of view. And that does not invite dialogue and gain Steiner notice in the mainstream.

As for responding to this dilemma, what I’ve seen within the anthroposophical movement is a split into camps. Some people advocate for engaging with the mainstream. Others express outrage at the results of these attempts when they judge them to be insufficiently reverential. This split goes all the way up to the Vorstand, and is part of the reason Mackay was voted off a couple years back. But the split is not caused by the people at the top; the whole movement falls into one camp or the other. Christian Clement, a former Waldorf teacher and currently a professor at BYU has been working to release a critical edition of Steiner’s written works, analyzing how Steiner changed the text from edition to edition in books like Christianity as Mystical Fact. These were co-published by the Rudolf Steiner Verlag (the successor of the Nachlassverwaltung) and a prestigious academic publisher in Germany. Clements wrote a 150-page academic introduction that was not based on an anthroposophical worldview. This resulted in howls of outrage and petitions demanding the firing of everyone involved. Europeans made a big deal of BYU being a mormon institution, implying that no one employed there could be objective about anthroposophy. Meanwhile academics scoff at Selg’s biography as a hagiography written by anthroposophists for anthroposophists, noting that it could not be accepted in academic circles because the author plainly has no critical distance on his subject.

So should we care how Steiner is regarded? Steiner’s goal for anthroposophy was that it gradually become one with the evolution of Western and then global culture. His time-frame for this was the 20th Century. Steiner was nothing if not ambitious. But it didn’t turn out that way, and not for lack of effort on his part. It had some small impact (Waldorf schools, biodynamics, etc.). But anthroposphy has not swallowed Western culture whole. Those of us who carry his impulse forward should want nothing less than the total transformation of Western and global culture along the lines Steiner was urging. At the same time, we live in a world that is in no way ready for that. So given where we are, what steps advance the aim? Cultivating purity to the point of fanaticism? Is that going to get more people on board? Meanwhile, if you want visibility you have to invite scrutiny. Which means meeting people where they are. And some of them are not going to follow Steiner very far out of the realm of physical. To them he will be, at best, and interesting speculative thinker. And that is a far more generous take than other characterizations you find from time to time on the internet.

There is another path, another argument to be made. That would be that Steiner’s work is esoteric; it is not meant for those who are unready. It is an open secret, meaning no one is trying to hide it; all the books are on Amazon. But only those who have the key in their heart will open the door, will read past the first page. And it is ok that we build a small circle of purists, who in any case are mainly preparing in this incarnation for their role 6th epoch. From that point of view intensity is more important than broad reach. And policing the boundaries and disciplining those who stray from the true path is how we keep the flame alive. Quite a few people seem drawn to some version of this perspective.

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