A Theosophical View of Christianity

Richard Brooks – USA

[This article was previously published in The Theosophist, 127.3 (December 2005): 93-98]

The Theosophical view of the early history of Christianity and of its founder, Jesus the Christ, is very different from that found in more orthodox sources, the latter being generally accepted without question by most Christians. Furthermore, while most Christians interpret their scriptures in a historical sense, theosophists see them as allegories and interpret them metaphorically. There are some Christians who are aware that the historical interpretation of, say, the Gospels presents serious problems, since their accounts are mutually inconsistent. But they have worked out what they consider to be a reasonable solution to those problems, retaining a historical account of the life of Jesus and his disciples based on those Gospel stories. Since the orthodox view is probably familiar to most readers, I will not attempt to detail it here, but rather will concentrate on a theosophical interpretation of early Christianity.

According to C. W. Leadbeater, G.R.S. Mead, Geoffrey Hodson, and other Theosophical writers, Jesus (or Iesus) was born naturally, not miraculously of a virgin, about 105 BC. His Jewish parents, according to this account, were highly evolved individuals and initiates of one of the several mystery schools of the day. His parents schooled him in those teachings and it is even claimed that he was taken as a young man to India by his uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, so he was probably familiar with the Vedic (and presumably esoteric Upanishadic) beliefs of that country. Some claim he even went to Tibet where he learned about Tibetan Buddhism, but that seems unlikely since Buddhism had not reached Tibet at that time and the dominant religious ideas were pre-Buddhist and based on thaumaturgy. About age thirty-two, Jesus began teaching this doctrine publicly, much to the consternation of orthodox Jews. Geoffrey Hodson claims, on the basis of his clairvoyant retro cognition of the event, that members of that sect of Jews stoned Jesus to death and hung his body upside down on a tree as a sign of ignominy. The Romans could not have killed him, according to this account, since they had not yet invaded the Holy Land.

There is also in Theosophical literature a claim that another person named Jesus (which was, after all, a common name at that time), born just prior to the beginning of the Christian era, was crucified by the Romans as a rabble-rouser and outspoken opponent of Roman rule in Palestine. It is said that later Christians confused these two men (either unintentionally or deliberately) and that is the reason for the present claimed historical account of the life of Jesus. One has also to remember that the various Gospels were not written, according to scholarly analysis, until several years — some say as many as thirty years — after the death of that second Jesus. The memory of actual events, therefore, could very well be inaccurate. And from a Theosophical point of view, those accounts could very well have attempted to portray the Theosophical ideas in a concealed form. One has also to remember that in addition to the four canonical Gospels there were several other scriptural accounts of the life of Jesus, the Gospel of Thomas being only one of them. They were discarded by early synods of the Roman Church, and along with them the early Christian teaching of reincarnation. All this has been amply documented by both Theosophical and scholarly sources, therefore does not need to be detailed here.

To determine for oneself whether or not the Theosophical history of early Christianity is reasonable, one should consult G. R. S. Mead’s Did Jesus Live 100 BC? (TPH, 1903; reprinted by University Books, 1968) or Annie Besant’s Esoteric Christianity (TPH, 1901; many reprints) for a detailed account of the documentary evidence. But there is another approach which, it seems, supplements the purely historical analysis, and that is a mythological, symbolic, or metaphorical approach. It has been observed by linguists (e.g. Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980) that when we talk about abstractions, we use metaphors, since literal language is inadequate or even inappropriate. It seems to me spiritual matters are probably the most abstract of all. Hence, to interpret religious scriptures literally misses their point.

As Geoffrey Hodson has pointed out in The Christ Life from Nativity to Ascension (TPH, 1975), the life of Jesus, as depicted in the Gospels, is actually an account of the spiritual evolution of humanity. In Theosophical terminology, these expansions of consciousness are termed Initiations. Hence, the metaphorical interpretation of the Birth of Jesus is called the First Initiation; the Baptism at the hands of John is called the Second Initiation; the Transfiguration is called the Third Initiation; the Crucifixion and Resurrection are called the Fourth Initiation; and the Ascension is called the Fifth Initiation. I will attempt only an outline of the metaphorical story. The interested reader should consult Hodson’s book for a more detailed account.

The first thing to notice about the story of the Nativity is that it is claimed to have taken place at midnight between 24 and 25 December, i.e., when the midday sun is nearest the horizon in the northern hemisphere—just before it becomes apparent at the winter solstice that the sun is beginning its journey northward to its highest point above the horizon at the summer solstice. The date of 25 December was actually selected by early Christians to correspond with the Roman festival of Saturnalia (which started on 17 December and extended for several days afterwards), which was a holiday for Roman citizens; thus the early Christians hoped to avoid detection by the authorities who persecuted them. It has been suggested that the historical Jesus was probably bom some time in the spring. In other words, the date symbolically represents, for an agrarian society, the ‘rebirth’ of the Sun-God. Jesus is said to have been born of a virgin, a physiological impossibility. But in fact the sun was, at that time, in the astrological sign of Virgo, hence the idea of a virgin birth is a metaphor, not a literal truth.

Jesus was said to have been born in a manger, i.e., a humble place, since, according to Biblical accounts there was no room for his parents ‘in the inn’. But an inn was (as usually still is) a place of worldly activity and the birth of the Christ consciousness simply cannot take place in such a setting. Furthermore, a manger is a place where domesticated animals are kept. Those animals, metaphorically, represent our own animal nature (physical, emotional, mental) in a person about to take the First Initiation, disciplined to be subservient to the spiritual consciousness which has awakened within him or her. The three wise men (or kings) who travel to present their gifts — traditionally identified as gold, frankincense, and myrrh — represent metaphorically forces of the mental, emotional and physical planes, since gold is associated with a purified mind, frankincense (a very sweet-smelling incense) is associated with purified emotions, and myrrh (a very strong, almost choking, incense) is associated with death, i.e., the physical body. It is also interesting to note that the king who offers myrrh is usually depicted as black, again symbolizing our physical nature. In other words, they represent the purification of the human personality. Leadbeater points out that the star which guided the wise men is actually representative of a star which literally shines in the inner world above the head of the new Initiate.

In the Biblical account, Herod, the ruler of that portion of the Holy Land, is informed of the birth and told that the new child will become a king, thus threatening Herod’s rule. Herod, therefore, seeks to kill the child, but Jesus’ parents, being warned of that danger, flee into Egypt to save Jesus. Herod, thus, represents the force of habit (or perhaps, our past karma) which tries to preserve the status quo in its ‘kingdom’, i.e., the personality. But note that Egypt was, at that time, the place where the mysteries were still practiced, so the flight would represent schooling the child in the hidden wisdom of Nature. Also, the word ‘Egypt’ means ‘dark’ or ‘black’ (probably derived from the rich soil along the Nile River), hence from a metaphorical point of view the flight suggests turning within in order to fully understand the new teachings. We may note that Jesus and his parents do not return to the Holy Land until Herod has died, i.e., until all past habits had been eliminated (or past karma resolved).

Daisy E. Grove {The Mystery Teachingof the Bible, TPH, 1925,1962) has pointed out that the geography of the Holy Land symbolizes the human personality, Judea (the southernmost part) being representative of the physical plane, Samaria (the middle part) being representative of the emotional or ‘astral’ plane, and Galilee (the northernmost part) being representative of the mental plane. The birth takes place in ‘Bethlehem of Judea’. The term ‘bethlehem’ translates as ‘house [or place] of bread’, i.e., the birth of our spiritual consciousness occurs as a result of our deeper understanding of our worldly experience. It cannot be otherwise. How else would one even consider attempting to get in touch with one’s higher nature unless one believed that such a nature exists? Note also that Jesus, during his life, admonishes a woman of Samaria that drinking water from a well there would not quench one’s thirst — i.e., purely psychic phenomena (as occur on the plane of emotions) do not lead to a real understanding of ourselves. As the Mahatmas warned A. P. Sinnett (letter 42, chron. edn; 43, Adyar edn):

... try to break thro’ that great maya against which occult students, the world over, have always been warned by their teachers — the hankering after phenomena. Like the thirst for drink and opium, it grows with gratification. The Spiritualists ... are thaumaturgic sots. If you cannot be happy with out phenomena you will never learn our philosophy.

Galilee, then, represents our mental nature, perhaps what is termed buddhi- manas, or the intuitive mind. And it is there that Jesus is said to have walked on water, i.e., risen above the purely psychic side of his nature, indicating his dominion over it, since water is often used as a metaphor for the psyche. But notice that the River Jordan connects the Sea of Galilee with the Dead Sea in Judea, indicating that there is a connection between those various aspects of our nature. And, of course, it is in that river that Jesus is baptized.

The baptism, symbolic of the Second Initiation, occurs at the hands of John. It is interesting that the name ‘John’ (or ‘Ioannes’) may very well be the Hebrew way of saying the Sanskrit dhyana (in Pali dhyan\ in Chinese chaw, in Japanese zen in Senzar dzyan, the latter actually pronounced like John’). If so, that, again, suggests a deepening of one’s spiritual understanding, since dhyana is the stage just prior to complete spiritual awakening, termed in Sanskrit prajna. And the fact that the baptism occurs in the River Jordan suggests metaphorically that the event occurs within oneself. In the Biblical account of the baptism, a dove (symbolizing the Holy Spirit) descends upon Jesus, again indicating a deepening of one’s spiritual realization. It is also interesting to note that it is after that event that the major ‘miracles’ Jesus is said to have performed occur. But note that the

Greek word translated ‘miracle’ is terata, which simply means ‘wonder’ and implies not departure from natural law, as the word ‘miracle’ does. It is stated in Theosophical literature that expansion of one’s consciousness enables one to understand the deeper laws of Nature and to perform what seem to ordinary people to be miracles. But it is also clear that many — if not all — of those miracles can be given a deeper (i.e., metaphorical or theosophical) interpretation.

The Transfiguration symbolizes the Third Initiation. The Biblical account again is very suggestive. First of all, it takes place on a ‘mount’, symbolic of a higher state of consciousness. Three of Jesus’ disciples are with him on the ‘mount’: Peter, representing faith, i.e., our emotional nature; James, representing our lower mental nature; and the disciple John, James’ brother (not to be confused with John the baptizer), representing our higher mental or intuitive nature. During the transfiguration, when Jesus’ face ‘did shine as the sun’ (Matt., 17:2), Moses and Elias appeared with Jesus. It seems that they symbolize the past (Moses, the law-giver) and the future (Elias, the prophet). It is Peter who suggests that they build three tabernacles there to commemorate the event, but a voice is heard coming out of a ‘bright cloud’ informing the disciples: ‘This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.’ Whereupon, after the disciples had fallen on their faces and were told by Jesus to arise, they ‘saw no man, save Jesus only’. (Matt., 17:5, 8)

In other words, Jesus (or, more correctly, the Christ consciousness), at that point, represented the past, present and future, since it is claimed that at the Third Initiation one gets a glimpse of history seen from the perspective of eternity. Or, from a different point of view, both the Mosaic law and the prophetic future are seen as part of what has been called the Eternal Now.

The Crucifixion and subsequent Resurrection represent, according to Theosophical sources, the Fourth Initiation. From that point of view, it is not so much that Jesus was crucified on a cross as that his real spiritual nature was crucified in his cruciform body, for if one stands erect with arms outstretched on either side, one forms a cross. In other words, one’s true spiritual consciousness is now a normal part of one’s ordinary consciousness. It is said that Jesus remained with his disciples for forty days after this event, suggestive of 4 x 10, i.e., perfecting (symbolized by 10) the lower quaternary (physical, etheric, emotional, and lower mental nature — in other words, one’s personality). Only then does the Ascension occur, symbolic of the Fifth Initiation, which takes one out of direct contact with the world of humanity.

There is, of course, much more one could point out about the metaphors that occur in the Gospel stories, some of which are extremely interesting — and some of which are not really discussed in any theosophical literature. The above is merely an outline of the esoteric interpretation of the story. The interested reader should consult the books I have mentioned, especially Wilmshurst’s lovely and insightful Contemplations on Mystic Christianity (Watkins: London, 1928), unfortunately now out of print and very difficult to find. And then one needs to use one’s knowledge of Theosophical teachings and one’s intuition to work out the other stories for oneself. But what I have outlined above will give some indication, I hope, that the Biblical accounts of the life of Jesus are best interpreted as metaphors, not as history. History, after all, is past, gone, dead — and of no direct relevance to our present lives except in terms of a causally incoherent (as well as rather immature) idea of vicarious atonement. But metaphor is eternal, relevant to us, constantly alive, and offering an indication of the glorious future that lies ahead of us when we, too, tread what has been called ‘the way of the cross’. When viewed from that perspective, Christianity can commend itself to any reasonable person as a valid religion. Certainly one to which a theosophist can offer his or her enthusiastic support.

***

As one of the greatest reformers, an inveterate enemy of every theological dogmatism, a persecutor of bigotry, a teacher of one of the most sublime codes of ethics, Jesus is one of the grandest and most clearly-defined figures on the panorama of human history . . . the grand figure of the philosopher and moral reformer instead of growing paler will become with every century more pronounced and more clearly defined. It will reign supreme and universal only on that day when the whole of humanity recognizes but one father — the UNKNOWN ONE above — and one brother — the whole of mankind below.

H. P. Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled, II

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