Anthroposophy, a name that is used to describe the body of knowledge and the practical fruits of Rudolf Steiner’s extraordinarily polymathic activities and teachings in the first quarter of the 20th century, is an unfortunate word. It means something like “human wisdom”. The Germans seem to have no problems in stringing together two or more words to make up these clumsy portmanteau words; but to the English speaker a word such as anthroposophy is not only awkward to pronounce but also sounds cult-like. It’s almost guaranteed to get normal human beings to walk in the opposite direction as soon as they hear it.
Steiner himself said that he would like to change the word every week but unluckily for us, he stuck with it. It is equally unfortunate that other terms used to describe Steiner’s work, such as “spiritual science” are just as bad. “Spiritual science” appears to be a particularly poor translation of the German term “geisteswissenschaft”, which could more accurately be called “the spiritual humanities” in English.
So if we are of the view that Steiner has a huge contribution to make in helping us to understand what it is to be a human being and how to live better lives, it’s a pity that we start off with something of a communications problem.
That’s why I was very encouraged at the 2014 summer conference of the Anthroposophical Society in Great Britain (ASGB) that the recently appointed general secretary, Marjatta van Boeschoten, announced that the ASGB Council was seriously considering a name change for the society. I was even more encouraged that the members present seemed to be overwhelmingly in favour of such a change and wanted the society to play a much more active, outwardly-facing role in the world. Hurrah! That’s what I’m interested in – not just talking, but doing – helping to get to grips with some of the massive problems facing us all.
But in the meantime we’re still stuck with this term “anthroposophy”. What is it? I like this pithy description from an old Norwegian acquaintance of mine, Tarjei Straume:
“Anthroposophy is nothing but a path to the Spirit available to everyone and basically compatible with any cultural or religious background, including secular humanism. As a matter of fact, humanism is the basis, the point of departure, for the epistemology that is the backdrop of anthroposophy and therefore also its backbone.”
Yes, there’s that troublesome word again, “Spirit”. Steiner’s own description is: “Anthroposophy is a path of knowledge, to guide the Spiritual in the human being to the Spiritual in the universe. It arises in humans as a need of the heart, of the life of feeling; and it can be justified only inasmuch as it can satisfy this inner need.”
Steiner knew with absolute certainty that we human beings are not just physical creatures in a material world but in fact we are spiritual beings who are currently having human experiences in a physical body – and that we are subject to constant cycles of life, death and rebirth.
How does that sit with you? Do those ideas resonate somewhere inside you or do they seem to be absolute nonsense and delusion? If the latter, then why not apply to join the British Humanist Association, whose slogan is: “For The One Life We Have.”
But if you feel there may be rather more to life than just one lifetime, then you could find it worthwhile to find out more about Steiner.
This blog will reflect my own journey of discovery, my comments on the state of anthroposophy today and some hopes for the future. It will be a great pleasure and privilege to share some of all this with you.