religious — uncritical — awe

some days I feel barely human at all. This is one such day. And people address me as if I were in fact human, and I can’t respond as a human. I behave like an alien. I am an alien. I just want to depart in my space-ship. Maybe I can have an imaginary flying saucer? Humanity is too complicated for me. And the streets of Stockholm are way too untidy for mr Dog and his holy fur and royal paws. There’s no clean white snow anymore… there’s only this rock-hard, dirt-coloured, sanded, salted, many times frozen-melted-and-refrozen ice. Awful, just awful.

This morning, when drinking my coffee (first) and eating breakfast (later), I began to read George Metaxa’s translation of Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and its Attainment. (I’ve read Bamford’s translation before, but there’s no doubt in my mind that Metaxa’s is much cooler.) At the beginning of the book, Steiner explains that in these matters of spiritual science, the fundamental attitude of the soul of the student must be “the path of veneration“. He then continues to say that in some children, the right attitude is already present, which would be a prediction of their later spiritual abilities. He says

[t]here are children who look up with religious awe to those whom they venerate. For such people they have a respect which forbids them, even in the deepest recess of their heart, to harbor any thought of criticism or opposition. Such children grow up into young men and women who feel happy when they are able to look up to anything that fills them with veneration. From the ranks of such children are recruited many students of higher knowledge. (Steiner, R. Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and its Attainment, Steiner Books/Anthroposophic Press, 1947/2009, p 6.)

Although I do think Steiner says a great deal of reasonable things in this book, there are sections, like the one above, which fill me with fear. Because in that passage he doesn’t say that during meditation or during a time of intense focus — that is, within a limited time, before going back to “normal” — it is advisable to leave criticism or any judgmental attitudes behind. What he says is, there are people, children, who cannot harbour any criticism or opposition — not at any time, not even deep down within themselves — and that this something good. It’s not about them letting go of certain attitudes temporarily — it is about their very being. They are constitutionally unable to formulate criticism of an individual whom they venerate. If there really are such people, I believe they are more likely to be dangerous than they are to be wise initiates.

Well, Steiner does go on to say that this childish veneration transforms into a veneration of truth and knowledge, and I suppose this provides an amelioration of a kind of his prior statements about wholly uncritical veneration (how can you ever venerate truth and knowledge without applying your critical faculties to the object of knowledge?), but still… there’s something highly problematic about this, about his opinions about and predictions for such children. Moreover, since waldorf teachers are usually also anthroposophists, in the process of studying anthroposophy or committed to anthroposophy one way or the other, this raises important questions: do waldorf teachers have this in the back of their minds when they deal professionally with children? That from these “ranks … are recruited many students of higher knowledge”? It wouldn’t surprise me if it were so. Potentially adding to this (somewhat sordid) business is the emphasis of waldorf education on awe and reverence.

The student who is gifted with this feeling [of true devotion], or who is fortunate enough to have had it inculcated in a suitable education, brings a great deal along with him when, later in life, he seeks admittance to higher knowledge. (ibid, p 8.)

Apart from the obvious objection — what Steiner designates as gifted, I would call ignorant and naïve, something very much unwished for — where can we find such a suitable education which will increase the students chances when he later seeks admittance to higher knowledge? I wouldn’t call it fortunate to have had something inculcated either. My impression is one of passivity and unfreedom.

3 thoughts on “religious — uncritical — awe

  1. Funny thing, Zooey, is that I have absolutely no problems with that passage about childhood veneration. It ha always struck me as one of the moste beautiful and true things Steiner ever wrote. A truly inspired statement.

    I was always a rather critical nature myself, even as a child. But there have always been persons in my life that I felt exactly that way about. Feeling critical about my grandparents? Unthinkable! Then there was that old lady next door when I was four. Whew was she … I lack words for it. So totally … awesome in the original sense of the word. I almost feared her, yet longed to see her. The idea that she may even look at me in recognition some time (she never did, thank god!) filled me with a sense of something like a sweet unworthiness.

    When I read that passage for the first time – I was about 18 roaming around in Arizona – I knew I was reading that book because of that quality in me that made me fear that awesome old lady next door when I was four. I can still have that feeling. Not just for “truth and knowledge” (that part is a later edition anyways) but for real people. But the funny thing is that this feeling in no way gets in the way of seeing people’s shortcomings. What it does get in the way of, however, is judging and condemning people for those shortcomings.

  2. What you say is interesting, especially in your last two sentences. It didn’t occur to me to see it that way, even though it is completely in keeping with the general message of the book. And I liked the book and remembered I liked it — it wasn’t until I began to read again that it suddenly came back to me that these passages freaked me out last time and now it happened again! (So the “truth and knowledge” was added later, what a frustration. Not only is there 100s of works, books, lectures… every day you realize that’s not enough, because he says something different in the German original.)

    I can’t remember ever feeling veneration, although on the other hand I don’t remember being overly critical either. I was difficult to my parents, but this may have had several causes beside a generally critical mindset… I was more critical toward them than to my grandparents but parents often seem to take on other roles than grandparents do in children’s lives. Parents have to do all the boring (but necessary) things.

    Although I loved my maternal grandparents very much, they were like parents to me (except most of the boring bits which fell on my parents lot), and I spent more time with them than with my parents; maybe I loved them most of all, but they were also the most fallible people you could find to love. My grandmother saw more gnomes than a waldorf teacher (oh, maybe not, that was an exaggeration; she had parkinson’s disease, and side-effects of her meds were sometimes very very weird…). In a way, I probably wasn’t critical toward her at all, I just learnt pretty early which sorts of things were to be taken with a big grain of salt.

    In some sense, perhaps they were too close to me to be venerated. I probably admired them, but in a sort of too complex manner. And other people, who were not as close, I usually wanted as little to do with as possible; being afraid of them rather than being able to admire them, much less venerate them. I think fear got in the way quite a lot — preventing me from seeing awsomeness even if it was present.

  3. The same quotes in Christopher Bamford’s translation

    “Some children look up to those whom they revere with a holy awe. Their profound respect for these people works into the deepest recesses of their hearts and forbids any thoughts of criticism or opposition to arise. Such children grow up into young people who enjoy looking up to something that fills them with reverence. Many of these young people become students of esoteric knowledge.”

    One differnce that strikes me is that there’s no mention of “recruitment” which sounds more passive — these young people “become students” which seems more active and more “free”.

    “Whoever possesses an innate tendency toward feelings of devotion, or has been lucky enough to receive an education that cultivated those feelings, is well prepared in later life to seek the way to higher knowledge.”

    This also has a more active and free ring to it — because he avoids using the word “inculcate”.

    Both Metaxa’s and Bamford’s translations speak of childlike veneration of persons/others becoming veneration for truth and knowledge; as does the German (Wahrheit and Erkenntnis). Which means, I suppose, any changes were made earlier, and the “problem” isn’t cured by reaching for German editions.

    The two quotes in German (because I’m reading them now, not because it is really important…)

    “Es gibt Kinder, die mit heiliger Scheu zu gewissen von ihnen verehrten Personen emporblicken. Sie haben eine Ehrfurcht vor ihnen, die ihnen im tiefsten Herzensgrunde verbietet, irgendeinen Gedanken aufkommen zu lassen von Kritik, von Opposition. Solche Kinder wachsen zu Jünglingen und Jungfrauen heran, denen es wohltut, wenn sie zu irgend etwas Verehrungsvollem aufsehen können. Aus den Reihen dieser Menschenkinder gehen viele Geheimschüler hervor.”

    “Wer in seinen Anlagen die devotionellen Gefühle hat, oder wer das Glück hat, sie durch eine entsprechende Erziehung eingepflanzt zu erhalten, der bringt vieles mit, wenn er im späteren Leben den Zugang zu höheren Erkenntnissen sucht.”

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