Anthroposophy: Rudolf Steiner’s ‘Spiritual Science’

by Rob Boston

© Church & State, April 1996, reproduced by permission

Americans United for Separation of Church and State

Promoters of Waldorf education insist that the movement’s schools are non-sectarian. Critics disagree, asserting that the institutions are based on an occultic religion known as “Anthroposophy.”

What is Anthroposophy? Answering that question requires a look at the views of the man who founded the Anthroposophical Society–Rudolf Steiner.

Rudolf Steiner
Rudolf Steiner

Steiner’s movement grew out of the spiritualist craze that swept Europe and the United States in the late 19th century. Steiner, an Austrian scholar who had edited the works of German dramatist/poet Johann Wolfgang Goethe, developed an interest in mystic philosophy that over the years acquired a Christian veneer.

Steiner, who lived from 1861 until 1925, believed in the existence of a spiritual world that is accessible to pure thought only through the highest faculties of mental knowledge. Long ago, he held, humans possessed the ability to fully take part in the spirit world, but they had lost the ability due to an undue attachment to the material world. Anthroposophy, which Steiner called a “spiritual science,” was designed to train people to rise above the material and once again focus on the spiritual world.

According to Steiner, people existed on Earth since the creation of the planet. Humans, he taught, began as spirit forms and progressed through various stages to reach today’s form. Humanity, Steiner said, is currently living in the Post-Atlantis Period, which began with the gradual sinking of Atlantis in 7227 B.C. (According to legend, Atlantis was an island-continent that sank into the Atlantic Ocean many ages ago.) The Post-Atlantis Period is divided into seven epochs, the current one being the European-American Epoch, which will last until the year 3573. After that, humans will regain the clairvoyant powers they allegedly possessed prior to the time of the ancient Greeks.

In 1902, Steiner was elected to the leadership of the German Theosophical Society, a movement founded in 1873 by spiritualist leader Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Blavatsky believed that humankind was moving through a series of stages that would result in the creation of purely spiritual beings. The key to advancement, she believed, was found in the “ancient wisdom” of early cultures such as the Egyptians and Greeks. Such wisdom was often said to be “occult” or hidden.

But Steiner’s views failed to mesh fully with the Theosophists. He believed, for example, that ancient mystics had paved the way for Christ’s appearance on Earth and taught that Christianity had supplanted Eastern religions. By contrast, Theosophists believed that Christ was simply another teacher in a long line of mystics and that Christianity was no better than other religions.

The rift between Steiner and the Theosophists grew as he began publishing his ideas. In 1912 he formally split from the Theosophical Society and formed the Anthroposophical (literally “knowledge about man”) Society, headquartered in Dornach, Switzerland. In 1919 Steiner was invited to give a series of lectures to workers at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany. After the lectures, the factory’s owner asked him to open a school for the children of the workers, hence the name “Waldorf school.” The first U.S. Waldorf school opened in New York City in 1928.

In 1922 Steiner and his followers formed an allied religious body called the Christian Community, which offered a liturgy and rituals for Anthroposophists. By 1925 Anthroposophy had spread throughout Europe and had established a toehold in the United States. Never a large movement in America, Anthroposophy had no permanent U.S. presence until the establishment of the first Christian Community in 1948. Although the Anthroposophical Society and the Christian Community are now formally separate, religion scholar J. Gordon Melton notes in The Encyclopedia of American Religions that the two groups retain close ties and that both “function as a religious body….”

Today there are 100 Waldorf schools in the United States and Canada with another 115 in the process of officially becoming Waldorf institutions. The schools are also common in other countries, where they are called “Steiner schools.” More than 600 Waldorf schools operate in 32 countries, serving approximately 120,000 students.

Waldorf schools reflect Steiner’s education theories, which hold that children advance through three stages. Anthroposophists believe that during the first stage, birth to age 7, the spirit inhabiting the body of the child is still adjusting to its surroundings, hence lower grades in Waldorf school offer minimal academic content. Reading is not introduced until second or third grade. During the second stage, ages seven to 14, children are said to be driven primarily by imagination and fantasy, so students are introduced to mythology. After age 14, the third stage, an astral body is believed to be drawn into the physical body, creating the onset of puberty.

Waldorf schools place a heavy emphasis on the arts. All students are taught to knit and play the recorder. Four “seasonal festivals” are celebrated in school &emdash; Michaelmas, Christmas, Easter and St. John’s Day &emdash; with the aim, as Waldorf literature states, to “connect humanity to the rhythms of nature and of the cosmos.”

The drive to make some Waldorf schools “public” through charter programs is ironic, considering Steiner’s views on government assistance. Asked about the issue once, Steiner replied, “It seems dubious to me that it should be possible to run a school with the aid of state subsidies. For I very much doubt whether the government, if it pays out money for such a school, would not insist on the right to inspect it. Therefore, I cannot believe that a free school could be founded with state subsidies, which in themselves imply supervision by inspectors from the education authorities.”

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