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Three Epochs in the Religious Education of Man

A Lecture given
by Rudolf Steiner
Ilkley, England
August 12th, 1923
GA 307

It is the 11th of 19 lectures given by Rudolf Steiner at Ilkley, England in August of 1923. The series of lectures is entitled: The New Art of Education. They were published in German as: Gegenwaertiges Geistesleben und Erziehung.

This lecture was translated from a shorthand report, unrevised by the lecturer, by an unknown translator. It is presented here with the kind permission of the Rudolf Steiner Nachlassverwaltung, Dornach, Switzerland. From GA# 307.

Copyright © 1927
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Three Epochs in the Religious
Education of Man


A lecture delivered during the Course on Education, given at Ilkley, Yorkshire, on Sunday, August 12th, 1923. The fourteen lectures on Education will shortly be published in book form by the Anthroposophical Publishing Company, London.

IF we survey history as one great whole, we see it — in spite of the many valleys and lowlands breaking the heights of the ascending development of man — as a continuous education of the human race, as a process whereby a religious, a divine consciousness penetrates ever and again into mankind.

In every epoch of human evolution there has existed some kind of Initiation Science, analogous, in its own way, to the Initiation Science outlined in my book Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and its Attainment. What I have there described is the Initiation Science of the present age, and it leads us from a mere knowledge of Nature to a knowledge of Spirit.

To this Initiation Science the course of human evolution is revealed in a threefold light. We can look back to a very ancient epoch which came to a close about the year 800 B.C. Then we see an epoch radiant in the light of the Mystery of Golgotha, when through Christ Jesus an everlasting impulse entered into human evolution; and so too, there can arise in our vision a third epoch, an epoch in which we stand to-day and which, by a new Initiation Science, we have to bring to a deeper reality.

Now over and above what is imparted to man by his natural development, intelligence, reason, will, feeling and by his earthly education, each of these three epochs has striven for something else. In each of these epochs man has sensed the existence of a mighty riddle, deeply interwoven with his destiny. And always this riddle has assumed a different form because the human race has passed through different conditions of soul in the several epochs. It is only in the modern age of abstractions, since the inception of the theory — invalid though it be — that the soul of man has evolved from the animal state, that the human soul could be thought of as having remained unchanged through the ages.

Those whom a deeper science has enabled to gaze with unbiased vision into the reality of life, realise that the constitution of the human soul in the first epoch of evolution was not by any means the same as in the epoch crowned by the Mystery of Golgotha. Again there is a difference in our own times, when we must learn to understand this Mystery of Golgotha if it is not to be lost as a fact of knowledge.

In this sense, then, let us consider the nature of the human soul in the ancient East, in an age which produced the wisdom contained in the Vedas and the Vedanta philosophy. Everywhere to-day men are turning back, and often with great misunderstanding, to the Vedas and the Vedanta. If we look at the souls of men in this ancient East, even at souls living in the old Chaldean-Assyrian-Babylonian civilisation and on into the earliest Greek period, we find that they were of quite a different nature from the souls of men living to-day. The souls of men in those ancient times passed through a much more dreamlike, spiritual existence than the souls of modern men, who in their waking life are wholly given up to sense impressions, to all that the intellect can derive from these sense impressions and the substance flowing into the human memory from them. What really constitutes the substance of the soul of man to-day, did not bear the same form in the souls of the ancients. These men possessed a much more instinctive wisdom of the inner life of soul and Spirit. What we to-day would speak of as the faculty of clear and conscious discernment, did not as yet exist. Man experienced a weaving, moving inner life, the shadowy echoes of which remain in our present dream-life. It was an inner life, in which man not only knew with certainty that a soul was weaving and moving through his body, forming part of his true manhood, but in which he also knew: A soul, born from a divine-spiritual existence before a body clothed me in my earthly existence, is living within me.

In those ancient times man experienced his own being in a kind of waking dream. He knew himself as soul and in this inner, living experience felt the body as a kind of sheath, merely an instrument for the purposes of earthly existence. Even in his waking hours man lived in this consciousness of soul — dreamlike though it was. And he knew with clear conviction that before a physical body clothed him on Earth, he had lived as soul in a divine-spiritual world. Direct inner perception revealed to him this life of soul and Spirit, and, as a consequence, his consciousness of death was quite different from that of modern man. To-day man feels that he is deeply linked with his body. His inner consciousness of soul is not detached from his bodily life as was the case in earlier times. He looks upon birth as a beginning, death as an end.

So living and intimate was the experience of the permanent, eternal nature of the soul in the ancients, that they felt themselves raised above birth and death in their contemplation of this life of soul. Birth and death were states of growth, metamorphoses of life. They knew the reality of a pre-earthly existence and hence with equal certainty that they would live on beyond the gate of death. Birth and death were transitory occurrences in an unceasing life.

It has, however, always been necessary for man's immediate experience to be widened and deepened by knowledge that penetrates to the spiritual world, by an Initiation Science that tells him more than can arise within his inner being or is imparted to him in ordinary life by earthly education. It fell to the old Initiates, the teachers of that ancient humanity, to give the answer to a definite riddle that arose in the souls of men. As I have said, these men knew of the soul' and Spirit in immediate experience. But there was a great riddle and it arose in the soul in this form: Through conception and birth I pass into physical life and move upon Earth; I am clothed in my physical body and this body contains the very same substances as those of dead, outer Nature. I am clothed in something that is foreign to my being. Between birth and death I live in a body — a body of Nature. I am born in a physical sense but this physical birth is foreign to my inner sense of being.

The mighty riddle before the man of very ancient times, as he gazed into his innermost being, was not a riddle connected with the soul or Spirit, but with Nature. And it arose before him as he sensed the full inner reality of soul and Spirit and then felt the need to understand why he was clothed in a physical body so foreign to his real being. It was the task of Initiation Science to teach man how he could direct the same forces which enabled him to gaze into the life of soul and Spirit, to outer Nature as well — to Nature whose manifestations are otherwise dumb and inarticulate. And if after adequate training — so it was taught by that ancient Initiation Science — man directs to stone, plant, animal, to clouds, stars, to the courses of Sun and Moon, the forces which otherwise lead only to inner knowledge, he can know and understand outer Nature as well. Then he beholds the Spiritual not only in his inner being but also in bubbling spring, flowing river and mountain, in the gathering clouds, in lightning, thunder, in stone, plant and animal.

Thus did an ancient Initiation Science speak to man: “Gazing into thine own being, thou hast living experience of soul and Spirit, thou hast found the Divine within thee. But Initiation Science trains the power which otherwise beholds the Divine in man alone, also to behold the Divine in the whole life of Nature. Thou art clothed in an outer physical body. Know that this body too is from God. Physical birth hath brought thee into an earthly existence which is itself of a Divine origin.”

And so the task of ancient Initiation Science was to give man this sublime teaching: “Know that thou art born of God not only when thine eyes gaze inwards. In the body that comes into the world through physical birth — there also thou art born of God.” And all that the old Father Initiation placed before the soul of man was expressed, in after times, in three penetrating words:

Ex Deo Nascimur.

This was the first way in which Initiation Wisdom worked upon man and awakened a religious consciousness within him.

The old heathen cults assumed the form of Nature-religions because man felt the need for a justification of his physical birth in Nature. The riddle of Nature — this was what confronted his soul; and in this Ex Deo Nascimur the riddle of Nature was solved and he could feel his earthly existence hallowed, although in his waking life he still felt himself a being of Spirit and soul, transcending the Physical.

* * *

As the course of evolution continued, man's early, dreamlike experience of soul and Spirit — which was indeed a kind of innate knowledge of his true inner being — faded gradually into the background. He began more and more to use the instruments afforded by his physical body. Let me express it as follows: The dreams of a life of soul and Spirit that characterised a primal instinct in the human race, faded away into darkness, and for the first time indeed in the last few thousands of years before the Mystery of Golgotha, men learnt to make use of their outer senses and of the intellect bound up with these outer senses. What we to-day call “Nature” appeared before men as an actual experience. It was the task of the old wise Initiates to unfold the spirituality of Nature to the human soul. The purely physical quality of outer Nature was now there as a question before the soul. To the old riddle of man's earthly existence there was added the second great riddle in the history of evolution — that of man's earthly death.

It was only in the last few thousands of years before the Mystery of Golgotha that man really came to feel death in earthly existence with any intensity. Whereas in earlier times he had little sense of his body and a strong sense of soul and Spirit, he now felt and experienced his being in the physical body. And death, the enigmatic event that is bound up with the physical body, was experienced by him as the greatest riddle of existence in this second epoch. This riddle of death emerges with great intensity among the ancient Egyptians, for instance. They embalmed their corpses because they; experienced the terror of death, because they were aware of the kinship of the physical body (in which they sensed their own existence) with death. “How do I live in my earthly body?” This had been the first riddle. “How do I pass through earthly death?” — this was the second.

In the days when man had gazed upwards to the soul and Spirit, when the soul and Spirit were immediate experience to his instinctive clairvoyance, he knew: When the chains that bind me to this earthly existence fall away, I shall belong to the Earth no more. My earthly being will be changed and lo! I shall once again live in the super-earthly kingdom, I shall be united with the stars. — For the soul knew the stars spiritually in the living, instinctive existence of days of yore. Man read his destiny in the stars. He felt himself united with Sun and Moon; he knew the stars. “From the Spirit in the stars, from a pre-earthly existence I have come forth. To the stars to the Spirit in the stars — I shall return, when I pass through the gate of death.”

But now all this became a riddle. Man confronted death, beholding in death the body's end. He felt his soul inwardly bound to the body and with a deep awareness of this riddle he asked himself: “What becomes of me after death? How do I pass through the portal of death?” And to begin with, there was nothing on the Earth which could help him to solve this riddle.

The old Initiates knew how to explain to man the riddle of Nature. Ex Deo Nascimur — this was how they answered, if we translate their words into a later tongue. But now, all consciousness of the pre-earthly existence whither man would return after he had passed the gate of death, all that was so clearly revealed to the ancients, was obliterated from the human soul. The instinctive knowledge, arising in man as his life of soul and Spirit flowed upwards to the stars, was no longer there. And then a mighty event occurred. — The Spirit of the world of stars — He Whom a later age called “Christ” and an earlier Greek age, the “Logos” — descended upon Earth, descended in His Substance as a Spiritual Being and took flesh upon Himself in the human body of Jesus of Nazareth. It was given to mankind to experience the greatest event of earthly existence. He Whose life had been divined by the ancients as they gazed upwards to the stars, the Godhead of Whom the Divine-Earthly is also part, passed through earthly life and through death. For the death and resurrection of Christ were, in the first place, the most essential features for those who truly understood Christianity.

And so, this passing of the God Who in earlier times only revealed Himself from the stars — this passing of the Godhead through a human body — contained the solution of the second riddle of existence, the riddle of death, inasmuch as the mystery was revealed in the so-called Gnosis by the Initiates of the age of the Mystery of Golgotha. The Initiates could now teach men: The Being Who erstwhile dwelt in Eternity, in the stars, has descended into a human body and has vanquished death in a human body. The Christ has now become an “extract” of the Spirit, of the Logos, of the Universe. The old Initiates had pointed to Nature, saying: “Out of God is this Nature born.” Now the Initiates could teach man how he can be united with the Divine Being Who descended into Jesus of Nazareth, Who in the man Jesus of Nazareth passed, as all men pass, through the gate of death, but Who had conquered death. And once again it was possible for man to solve this second riddle of death, even as he had formerly solved the riddle of Nature.

In Buddhism we are told that the Buddha found the four great Truths, one of which awoke within him at the sight of a corpse, when he was seized by the despair of the human body in death. About six hundred years before the Mystery of Golgotha, as a last remnant of ancient thought, the Buddha had the vision of death. Six hundred years after the Mystery of Golgotha, men began to gaze at the dead human form on the Cross. And just as Buddha believed that in the corpse he had discovered the truth of suffering as a last fragment of ancient thought, so now a humanity permeated with the Christ impulse gazed at the dead figure on the Cross, at the crucifix, and felt in this figure the heavenly guarantee of a life beyond death — for death had been conquered by Christ in the body of Jesus.

Because of their fear of death, the Egyptians embalmed their corpses, to preserve, as it were, the Nature-forces in man from death. This was in the age of Ex Deo Nascimur. The early Christians, in whom the impulse of esoteric Christianity was still living, buried their dead but held divine service over the grave in the sure conviction that death is conquered by the soul that is united with Christ; the tomb became an altar. From the Mystery of Golgotha flowed the certainty that if man is united with Christ, Who as the spiritual essence of the stars descended upon Earth and passed through life, death and resurrection in a human form, he himself as man, will conquer death.

Thus God the Father was the answer to the riddle of Nature. Christ was the answer to the riddle of death. Death had lost its sting. Henceforth death became a powerful argument (which formerly had not been necessary) for the metamorphosis of life.

The Gnosis — which was later exterminated, and of which fragments only have been preserved — proves that as the Christian Initiates contemplated the Mystery of Golgotha, in the certainty that Christ had descended to Earth and had awakened to new life the death-bringing forces in the Earth, they were able to instil into humanity the truth of the union of mortal man on Earth with Christ. Through Christ, man redeems the forces of death within him and awakens them to life. And so the Initiates were now able to impart a new consciousness of immortality to men, saying: “Your souls can be united with Him Who passed through the Mystery of Golgotha; you can live in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. If your earthly life is more than a mere natural existence, if it is such that. Christ's Kingdom is awakened in your dealings with all your fellow-men, you live in communion with Christ Himself. Christ, the Divine Being, becomes your brother; in death and in life you die in Christ.” The truth of life in God the Son, in Christ, could now be added to the primeval truth of birth from God the Father, and to Ex Deo Nascimur was added:

In Christo Morimur.

“In Christ we die” — that is to say — “As soul, we live!”

Such was the wisdom of man in the epoch that began about a thousand years before the Mystery of Golgotha and came to its close in the fifteenth century A.D. We are now living in a third epoch which we must learn to understand aright. So in the education of the human race directed by the great Divine Teachers of the world, there was added to the truth “Out of God the Father we are born” — this truth — “In Christ the Son we die, in order that we may live.”

* * *

The great riddles of the first and second epochs stand clearly before us when we look back over history. The riddle of the third epoch in which we have been living for some centuries is as yet little known or felt, albeit it exists subconsciously in the feeling life of man and he yearns for its solution as deeply as he once yearned for the solution of the riddle of his earthly nature and then of his earthly death.

Since the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries man has acquired a knowledge that penetrates deeply into Nature. Think only of the starry heavens which were once revealed to the dream-consciousness of the ancients and from which they read their destiny. External calculations, geometry and mechanics have taught man more and more about the stars since the approach of our present age. The science of the stars, of animals and plants has spread abroad in the form of a pure science of Nature. It was very different in the first epoch of human evolution and different again in the second, when in the depths of their souls men knew the truth of that which the old clairvoyant powers of the soul read in the stars, and which had descended in Christ into the body of Jesus of Nazareth. Thus Christ lived among men, and men of the second epoch looked to the Christ, felt Him in their hearts and in this deep communion with Him they experienced what the Spirit of the Cosmos had once revealed to an old dreamlike clairvoyant consciousness as the justification of earthly existence. In the second epoch, man lived in cosmic spheres, as it were, inasmuch as he lived in communion with the Christ Who had descended from these cosmic spheres to Earth.

Then came the third epoch, when the world of stars was understood merely through calculation, when men looked through the telescope and spectroscope and discovered in the stars the same dead elements and substances as exist on the Earth. In this epoch men can no longer see Christ as the Being Who descended from the stars, because they do not know that the stars are the expression of the Spiritual Essence weaving through the Cosmos. And so the Cosmos is void of God, bereft of Christ, for mankind to-day.

Therefore it is that the inner consciousness of man is now menaced by the danger of losing Christ. The first signs are already visible. The ideas of Divine Wisdom, of Theology, which for centuries contained full knowledge of the Christ revelation, are now in many respects powerless to find the Christ, the God in the man Jesus of Nazareth. Many who contemplate the age of the Mystery of Golgotha no longer find Christ as a Cosmic Being, they find only the man — Jesus of Nazareth. The starry heavens are bereft of God, they are a part of Nature and men can no longer recognise in Him Who passed through the Mystery of Golgotha, the Being Whose “physical kingdom” is the whole cosmos, but Who dwelt in, the man Jesus of Nazareth in the age of the Mystery of Golgotha.

Inasmuch as these things can be deeply experienced in the inner being, there is a difference between one who treads the path of Initiation Wisdom and one who merely stands within external Natural Science. This Natural Science has lost the Spirit of the Cosmos and the danger approaches that humanity will also lose sight of the Christ in Jesus of Nazareth.

Therefore it is that those who in our age penetrate more deeply into the knowledge of Nature that has blossomed forth in the third period of evolution since the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries, feel the third great riddle of man's earthly development. They look back in history to the first great riddle — that of man's earthly nature; to the second riddle of his earthly death. And the third riddle arises within them, whispering something that as yet they do not like to face, although they feel it subconsciously and with a certain emphasis in their hearts. The Initiates of our age say to themselves: “We are living in the world which once spoke to man from out of the cosmos — spoke as the Spirit. In days of yore man lived a life of full wakefulness in the cosmos. Gradually this waking life in the cosmos, this feeling of oneness with the Christ Who descended to Earth as the Being Who preserves this awareness of the spiritual cosmos in man, faded away, and we are now living in a cosmos that is revealed to us merely in its outer aspect. Cosmic ideas are experienced by us only in dreams. The cosmos is weighed in the scales of a balance, observed by the telescope. Such is our dream! And instead of uniting us with the Spirit of the cosmos, this dream separates us from Him.”

And so the third great riddle of the sleep of knowledge, the sleep into which mankind has fallen, stands before those who live in the third epoch of evolution, the third epoch, not only of “uninitiated” but of Initiation Science.

Deeper spirits of the human race have felt this. Descartes felt it, for he finally began to doubt the validity of all knowledge yielded by outer Nature. But, to begin with, it was felt only dimly. More and more deeply there must enter into men the consciousness that the whole domain of knowledge of which they have been so proud for some five centuries, represents a sleep of existence. This third great riddle must stand more and more clearly before them. Why do we dwell in an earthly, physical body? Why do we pass through earthly death? And in the third epoch this question arises in the hearts of men: Why this sleep of a knowledge directed merely to outer Nature? How can we awaken from the dream that this “calculated” universe represents, how can we pass from this cosmos whose external aspect is revealed through Astro-Physics and Astro-Chemistry, and stand face to face with the cosmos that in the depths of our innermost being unites us once again with its deepest Essence? How can we wake from the dream into which knowledge has fallen in recent times?

Ex Deo Nascimur — this was the answer given by the Initiates in the earliest times to man's question, “Why do I live in an earthly body?” In the age of the Mystery of Golgotha the Initiates sought to solve the riddle of death by linking man with Christ Jesus Who had passed through the Mystery of Golgotha, answering in the words of a later tongue, In Christo Morimur. And it is the task of modern Initiation Science in this our age and in the following centuries, gradually to lead mankind to a divine consciousness, to a religious life, and make it possible for him to awaken in his innermost being a spiritual knowledge of the cosmos. The Initiation Science that must arise through Anthroposophy does not wish merely to be an extension of our present sleeping knowledge — although men are proud of this knowledge and its outer successes have been so splendid. Anthroposophical Initiation Science would awaken this sleeping knowledge, would awaken man, who is fettered in the “dreams” of reason and intellectuality.

Hence, the Initiation Science that would be borne by Anthroposophy is not a mere extension of facts and discoveries of knowledge, but an impulse to an awakening, an attempt to answer the question: How can we wake from the sleep of life? And so, just as the earliest Initiates had explained Ex Deo Nascimur, and those who came later In Christo Morimur — the Initiation Wisdom which bears within itself a future life of conscious spiritual knowledge, a life leading to a deepening of religious feeling, a divine consciousness — this Initiation Wisdom would fain lead man once again to know that the Christ Who passed through the Mystery of Golgotha is the Logos, weaving and working through the cosmos. And inasmuch as man will gradually grow to be conscious of his cosmic existence, the Initiation Science that is intended to inaugurate a spiritual Christology in the truest sense (as well as an Art of Education, for instance, in a narrower sphere), will strive to bring a religious mood into the practical life it ever seeks to serve. — “Out of God we are born as physical human beings” — “In Christ we die” — that is to say, “As soul, we live.” To these truths Initiation Science will ever strive to add the third: “When we press forward through the new Initiation to the Spirit, then even in this earthly existence we live in the Spirit.” We experience an awakening of knowledge whereby all our life is bathed in the light of true religion, in the light of a moral goodness proceeding from inward piety. In short, this new Initiation Science endeavours to supplement the answers to the first and second riddles of Initiation as expressed in Ex Deo Nascimur and in, In Christo Morimur — although at the same time it solves them anew and restores them to the soul of man. It endeavours to bring afresh and in full clarity to the human heart, this other truth — a truth that will awaken the Spirit in heart and soul: In the understanding of the living Spirit, we ourselves, in body, soul and Spirit, shall be re-awakened —

Per Spiritum Sanctum Reviviscimus.

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