The heavenly host

The anthroposophical festival of Michaelmas is upon us, celebrated in Steiner schools and other anthroposophical institutions all over the world. The celebration of Michaelmas goes back much further than Rudolf Steiner of course. It is the historical Christian feast of Saint Michael, also known as the Archangel Michael. Falling on September 29th, in bygone times it was one of the “quarter days” which evenly marked time through the year as one season merges into the next. It was a time not only for celebration but also for hiring new servants, calling in debts or renewing contracts. The word Michaelmas is still in use in legal circles and in the older British universities as the name for the first term of the academic year.

For Steiner, Michael had particular significance. He is in fact an ‘Archai’ – a spiritual being one level higher than an Archangel. Here’s Roy Wilkinson on Steiner’s hierarchical view of the spiritual world:

“One stage further developed than man are the Angels. They have no physical body and no need to incarnate. The Angels have the task of watching over man and guiding him in certain matters for which he himself does not as yet have the capacity… We speak of a Guardian Angel, or Guiding Spirit.

The Archangels are not concerned with individuals but with groups of people, e.g. nations. The expression ‘folk-soul’, although generally used in an abstract sense, can be taken to indicate a reality.

The next rank is that of the Archai, the Primal Beginnings or the Spirits of Personality. Whereas Angels are concerned with individuals and Archangels with race, the Archai have the guidance of a whole epoch as their mission. The expression ‘Spirit of the Times’ can also be taken as a reality. The Archai have the task of guiding a particular period which is not restricted to a particular people.”

Rudolf Steiner: An Introduction to His Spiritual World-view, Anthroposophy by Roy Wilkinson, pp 197-198

Of what relevance is this to education? Well, the importance of sleep is often emphasised by Steiner educators, not only for its restorative mental and physiological benefits and the consolidation of learning but also because sleep gives us the opportunity to connect directly with the spiritual world. As Kevin Avison puts it in his Handbook for Waldorf Class Teachers:

“Recall is a fundamental part of the Morning Lesson…. without active recall the teacher cannot claim to be including the spiritual world, the activity of the night, in the lesson. Recall time is the moment in the lesson when what is beginning to individualise itself in the child through their unconscious communication with the hierarchies (especially the Angels, Archangels and Archai…) during sleep can express itself.”

Avison, Handbook for Waldorf Class Teachers, p42, SWSF 2007

Avison also recommends communing with the angels “when nothing seems to be working”:

“Wrestling meditatively with a few paragraphs from Allgemeine Menschenkunde [Study of Man] will also help, especially when accompanied by the angels of the children (interest in every detail of their development) and your own work with those Beings that concern themselves most closely with education.”

Avison, Handbook for Waldorf Class Teachers, Appendix I, p86, SWSF 2007

It would be worrying if a naive Steiner teacher took any concerns to the angels before turning to more experienced colleagues or a child’s parents.

For anthroposophists, the Archangel Michael was elevated to an Archai when the current ‘Age of Michael’ began, very precisely, in late November 1879. It is expected to end in 2239, when another of the seven Archangels will take their turn as the spirit of the next epoch. Michael’s previous reign coincided with the life of Christ, which for Steiner was an especially significant period in human history. Dorit Winter, Director of the Bay Area Center for Waldorf Teacher Training, talks especially eloquently of the significance of this for education:

“For Rudolf Steiner, the connection between Michaelmas, Michaël, and the Christ Impulse was straightforward… When we celebrate Michaelmas, we are celebrating the Christ Impulse. As teachers we should not have any doubts as to what we are doing. We are not celebrating the story of St. George and the Dragon. George (who was claimed by the church as a saint, and thus deprived of his cosmic heritage) and the story of the dragon he slays to save a village are earthly cloaks for mighty, cosmic, spiritual realities.

But then, our entire Waldorf curriculum is an earthly picture of mighty, cosmic, spiritual realities. Or should be.”

“The Chariot of Michael”, Dorit Winter, in “And who shall teach the teachers?”, Waldorf Research Institute, 2007

She goes on to explain the purpose of Steiner education as a means to bring about the next transformation in human consciousness. As is to be expected in the second Age of Michael, this will be nothing less than the second coming of Christ:

“so sensitive are our schools to the sting of the epithet “religious” that, in our attempt to avoid it, we become removed from our source, anthroposophy, let alone its source, the Christ Impulse. It is not far-fetched to say that anthroposophy is the Logos of the consciousness soul, and its garment is Waldorf education.

Here is Rudolf Steiner’s picture for this: “Michaël needs, as it were, a chariot by means of which to enter our civilization… By educating in the right way we are preparing Michaël’s chariot for his entrance into our civilization.”

In other words, as the entire lecture cycle (The Younger Generation, from which these words are taken) makes clear, Waldorf education is the vehicle for Michaël, the “Messenger of Christ,” the “Herald of Christ.”

ibid

This is heady, fantastical stuff from authoritative figures in the world of Steiner education. It is very hard to reconcile this kind of Messianic fervour with the way the schools outwardly present themselves. I think all the quotes here demonstrate that we are far removed from the realms of merely personal belief. You might now understand why Steiner schools take the ancient festival of Michaelmas so seriously.

Statue of the Archangel Michael in the grounds of Hereford Steiner Academy

Statue of the Archangel Michael in the grounds of Hereford Steiner Academy, by David England.

The role of karma in Steiner education

Jeremy Smith – aka the anthropopper – has replied to my question about the role of karma in Steiner education. I’m grateful for his considered, detailed response.

Jeremy prefaces his reply with the following:

“I think it’s fair to say that Mark’s blog is not friendly towards Steiner schools and his question has a hostile intent behind it. However, it seems to me that Mark is asking a genuine question in a civil manner so I’m going to do my best to answer him.”

I think this reflects an unfortunate tendency among anthroposophists to view any form of criticism as inherently hostile and potentially malicious, even if it is a genuine question asked in a civil manner. Anthroposophists aren’t alone in this of course: it’s commonly found in adherents of other faiths and even scientists (human as they are) aren’t immune. People don’t like having their beliefs questioned.

Let me reassure Jeremy that my intent is not hostile. Later in his reply he says:

“In the UK at least, you have plenty of choice of schools and if the ideas outlined here don’t appeal to you, then please put your child in a different system.”

It’s for precisely this reason that I think it’s important that anthroposophy is openly discussed with families investigating Steiner education as a possibility for their children. The purpose of this blog and my question on karma was to help encourage that.

So, on to karma. Jeremy begins by underlining the importance of the concept:

“Rudolf Steiner considered it his main life task to increase people’s understanding of the laws of karma and reincarnation and their operation in our lives. I call them ‘laws’ because they operate as inevitably as any other law of nature such as gravity or action/reaction.”

I think that by comparing the “laws of karma and reincarnation” with the laws of physics, Jeremy means that they operate in a very real, objective sense whether or not you believe they do. I’d rather take the more pragmatic view that a ‘law’ can always be proven wrong, or shown to work only within certain limits. I don’t think that ‘spiritual laws’ fit that description and are therefore not comparable with physical laws.

Jeremy goes on to define karma and to give it some historical context as a belief shared by ‘millions of people across the world.’ The anthroposophical version of karma is derived from theosophy. One of the ways in which theosophical karma differs from, say the traditional Buddhist concept, is that it is not only a characteristic of the individual but can also be identified with groups at all levels: families, schools and other communities, countries and whole races. This is reflected in Jeremy’s words:

“The teacher will assume that there is some kind of link between his or her own karma and that of the children and that they are therefore there to learn from and to help one another.”

In other words, it is the mutual karmic destiny of teacher and pupils in a Steiner class to be together. This begs the question: what happens when things go wrong, if a child is a ‘bad fit’ for that school, for that teacher? I’m sure there is always something to be learned in this situation, but is this still their inevitable karma?

Jeremy also has this to say about the attitude of ‘reverence’ expected of a Steiner teacher:

“The teacher receives the child in trust from its parents but also with the understanding that the child was in the heavenly world until its recent birth”

Here it seems Jeremy is referring to a child’s pre-earthly existence in the spiritual world, prior to birth. Roy Wilkinson in his book ‘The Spiritual Basis of Steiner Education’ expands on this idea:

“From the spiritual world the human being comes into earthly incarnation with certain tendencies, potentialities and ambitions, acquired as a result of experiences in previous existences …[T]he purpose of Steiner education is to help the individual fulfil his karma. The teacher is an intermediary and his task is to guide the incarnating individualities [i.e., children] into the physical world and equip them for earthly existence, bearing in mind what they bring with them from the past and what they are likely to take with them into the future.”

The task of the Steiner teacher is overwhelmingly a spiritual one. The spiritual wellbeing of a child in their care is inextricably linked to their karma, to events in past lives and their potential in this life and future lives. On the other hand, and here I agree with Jeremy:

“I have never heard a teacher say anything that would seem to indicate that they know what a child’s past life had been or how its karma would unfold in the future. Indeed, unless you are a great initiate or at least a clairvoyant of prodigious insight, how could anyone make such a statement without inviting derision?”

I certainly wouldn’t want a clairvoyant with delusions of spiritual grandeur teaching my child. Clearly then, karma is not a sound basis on which to make pedagogical decisions and yet… “it has the most wonderful and enlivening effect” on teaching practice. Something doesn’t add up here. I look forward to my next incarnation with interest. 🙂

A question for the anthropopper

An interesting new blog has appeared: anthropopper by Jeremy Smith. Smith is well known in UK Steiner circles: he has worked as an executive member of the SWSF, acted as a school trustee and is currently a lay inspector of Steiner schools for Ofsted.

In his first post giving his reasons for starting the blog, Smith explains:

“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… 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.”

Knowing such things with absolute certainty is of course a characteristic of religion, although most anthroposophists are keen to disassociate themselves from that word.

Continuing his theme of reincarnation, Smith’s next post reminds us of the story of English footballer Glenn Hoddle (via a talk given by Alan Swindell, principal of the new Steiner Academy Exeter, at the 2014 Anthroposophical Society of Great Britain Summer Conference). Hoddle was dismissed as manager for the England team after expressing his view that disability is related to karma, being a direct result of actions in a past life.

Smith fulminates about the ensuing “media witchhunt” and the apparent monopoly “materialists” have on public opinion. He goes on to say that:

“In such a climate of opinion, those of us who think that anthroposophy has something to offer could be forgiven for keeping our heads below the parapet. Our views are seen as heretical in the prevailing orthodoxy.”

I believe that Hoddle had every right and anthroposophists have every right to express their beliefs in public and agree with Smith that the world is a poorer place if they feel unable to do so. However, the flip side of this is that disability advocates and others have every right to be offended by them. Whether it was right for Hoddle to lose his job, I don’t know, but I am certain that his beliefs have nothing do with football.

Unlike Smith, I do not believe that:

“Glenn Hoddle was articulating something, however clumsily, that many people know instinctively and have a great need to express.”

I think that most people (in the Western world at least) would not instinctively make the link between disability and karma and would never feel the need to express it. Now, there are some Buddhists, for example, who also happen to be disabled and they do find this idea personally helpful to them. To those people I say, good luck. To others, I say: feel free to discuss the subject but be prepared to say why it is a useful concept, or risk being seen as merely offensive.

Smith also explains the appeal of anthroposophy for him as a source of inspiration for practical endeavours in agriculture, education etc. My question is: what role and purpose, if any, does karma have in Steiner education? We know that anthroposophy is the basis for Steiner education. It’s time for Steiner advocates to put their heads above the parapet and engage in a public discussion on the details.