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The Theosophical Masters - replies

Nov 27, 2000 01:32 AM
by Dr Gregory Tillett

Re: The Theosophical Masters

I would like to thank all of those who responded to my posting ŒThe Theosophical Masters². In the first place I should note that I am not a subscriber to this list and heard of the original discussions from Greg Tillett,whose email I used to post my comments. Thus it was that a couple of respondents assumed it was Greg replying (even though my name, Brendan French, was attached to the bottom of the piece), so I should make it clear that all such commentary is my own.

It might prove easiest to reply to each respondent individually.

Mr. Weeks commented ŒLordy Gregory (sic), what a turgid letter you have written!ı. I am sorry that he felt my words were unclear or impenetrable - but I did preface my piece with a clear indication that what followed wasgoing to be presented in a scholarly idiom. It seems to me that much of the contemporary discourse on occultism (and, it seems, particularly Theosophy) can only be described as alarmingly unfocussed and, frankly, uninformedand tedious. I am afraid that most modern Theosophists are their own worst enemy as far as disendowing occultism of its absurdist elements. Theosophy began as a scholarly collective, and was expressly intended to satisfy an intellectual spiritual hunger - one that avoided the barrenness of ossified dogmatism and ³blind faith². This is not to say that all Theosophists are ipso facto academics - far from it - but one might hope that Theosophists would welcome a sympathetic scholarly hearing. In any event, I wouldlike to think that a site of this kind could accommodate scholarly analysis as easily as general commentary and, letıs face it, more than occasional drivel.

Mr. Weeks also took exception to the following comment of mine: Œ[I]n an era characterised by an emphasis on facticity, Blavatsky was simply playingHermesian games by exploring the transformative potential of mythic facts and factual myths. For in order to attract the attentions of a physical Master, the aspiring chela needed to be prepared by achieving a comprehensiveknowledge of Theosophy via the Theosophical canon (Isis Unveiled, the Mahatma letters, and The Secret Doctrine). Yet in a classical artifice, such preparation itself enacted a form of initiatory transformation which would obviate the necessity for a Master. Thus it was that fact bred mythology and mythology bred factı.

Mr Weeks has suggested that in this I am wrong, for Œ[b]oth HPB and her gurus made clear that knowledge of Theosophical doctrines was of little consequence in determining their acceptance of a discipleı. Although it might be noted that on several occasions Blavatsky and the Masters did indeed encourage aspiring chelas to study the canon as a prelude to chelaship (viz.The Mahatma Letters [1993 Chronological edition], ed. Hao Chin, Letter No.60, p.156), my point is somewhat more to do with the dynamics of Theosophical instruction.

There is a classical genre of what might be called initiatory tracts, dating mostly from the first few centuries of the common era. Notable among these are such third-century texts as Porphyryıs ŒOn the Life of Plotinus and the Order of His Booksı, Gregory Thaumaturgosı ŒThanksgiving Speechı, the Nag Hammadi Hermetic tractate ŒDiscourse on the Eighth and Ninth [or Ogdoad and Ennead]ı, and the Nag Hammadi Gnostic tractate ŒAllogenesı. At the risk of appearing Œturgidı I might note that I believethe initiatory transformations which these texts engendered equate with Blavatskyıs intentions for her Theosophical works. In Gregoryıs ŒThanksgiving Speechı, he speaks about his instruction under the polymath Origen - and how the latter taught him the means to ascend to what Gilles Quispel has called the ŒDeifying Visionı. For me there is a two-fold dynamic in operation here. In the first place, there is the literal-historical sense in which two historical personages (the Œchelaı Gregory, and the ŒMasterı Origen) are involved in an exercise of spiritual instruction in which one guides the other to ascend to a vision of the divine, and then encourages him to descend in order to teach others (and - as is often the case in this genre - later take the place of the ŒMasterı himself). There is, however, a second hermeneutical (that is, interpretational) level; as the reader follows Gregoryıs levels of instruction, he or she also Œascendsı in a concomitant initiatory scale. Thus it is that the reader could well be the intended Œchelaı through his or her identification withthe historical personage of Gregory. This is a process which Richard Reitzenstein has termed the ³literary mystery² (³mystery² as in mysterycult).

It is my theory that the ŒMasterı is imminent in the initiatory texts themselves; i.e., Isis Unveiled, the Mahatma letters, and The Secret Doctrine. Through reading, the latent ŒMasterı is released to activate the numinous and otherwise ineffable experience of initiation in the actual initiand: the reader. Such a dynamic in no way denies the physical existence ofthe Masters, but it does expand the initiatory potential of the Theosophical canon beyond its historical narrative and into an atemporalised readership. This, surely, is why people still read Theosophical works even though the Theosophical Masters have been quiet (at least in the Society) for manyyears.

It is my belief that Blavatsky - brilliant textualist that she was - employed a deliberate textual subversion in her writings. Those who read Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine believed that their spiritual formation could only be fully realised by individual chelaship under a personal Master. In order to achieve this end, the aspiring chelas inevitably read more and more of the Theosophical canon in preparation for the longed-for event. Ironically, perhaps, this bias against text paradoxically urged the aspirant to learn ever more from authoritative published accounts of the Mastersı teachings. In the end, of course, the process produced many highly Theosophically-literate esotericists - many of whom felt nevertheless unfulfilled by having failed (as they saw it) to attract the attention of a Master. Yet the dissatisfaction felt by such otherwise ardent Theosophists must be seen in the light of the transformations which the texts themselves worked upon the readers; after all, a belief in the Masters - fostered and fertilised by the Theosophical canon - had wrought exactly the changes which Blavatsky had sought in her Society members: a rejection of religious dogmatism and of the dreaded materialism, and an informed, educated acceptance of the veracity of the Ancient Wisdom. It might be added that many of Blavatskyıs most earnest followers eventually abandoned the Society because the Masters did not appear. The most profound irony, of course, is that a great number went on to found their own occult groups on the basis of the great erudition which they had gained by means of their Theosophical apprenticeships.Thus it is that - in my opinion - the question of the Mastersı physicalexistence is overshadowed by their more subtle, but altogether more important, presence in the texts themselves. That so much commentary is devoted by present-day Theosophists to questions of the physical existence of the Masters, rather than to their pivotal place in the dynamics of personal transformation, is to me a sadness - and to Blavatsky, I feel, a tragedy.


Max responded to my original posting by suggesting that, even though Blavatsky appeared to doubt the possibility of the continued presence of the Masters in the Society in the years following her death, such claims to contactproliferated. In an apposite metaphor which I feel Blavatsky would have much enjoyed, he suggested that such developments can be likened to Œthe inbreathing and outbreathing cycles [of] the consciousness of manı.

I have several theories as to why the Masters have become such a mainstay phenomenon of late modern esoteric and occult movements. Some are clearly to do with charismatic authority (and, as such, are more properly a factor of the sociology of new religious movements), others relate to what might betermed an ³apostolic lineage² (the desire to trace oneıs initiation to an original Œdivineı source).

For myself, though, I feel that the main reason that the idea of the Master(or what Antoine Faivre has called Œthe topos of the Hidden Masterı) has enjoyed such ubiquity has to do with Orientalism. I must stress here that this has nothing to do with the importation into the West of specific religious idioms of the East - I, for one, believe that the Oriental component of Theosophy has been grossly exaggerated. Rather, I think that the popularity of the Master can be traced, perhaps unsurprisingly, to the ancient world.

Put briefly - indeed, roughly - the Roman religious world was divided between two often competing factions: the Oracular and the Philosophic. The former was a species of cultic praxis which concentrated upon divination and oracular pronouncements. The latter, of course, is best represented by suchGraeco-Roman schools as the Stoic, the Platonic, and the Epicurean. In other words, there was no really satisfying combination of the oracular and philosophic standpoints. This, of course, goes far to explaining the attraction of Christianity which combined revelatory authority [the oracular] with a comprehensive ethical, moral, and cosmological teaching [the philosophic]. Indeed, Christianity - it is crucial to remember - was itself an Oriental import, for the Orient had always been believed (rightly or wrongly) tobe able to provide this synthesis of divine revelation and reasoned philosophy. (For esotericists, this combination is nowhere better exemplified than in the figure of Hermes Trismegistus who provided both a divine warrant and a satisfying philosophical world view).

It is my contention that this form of Orientalism (for Orientalism it must surely be) is what has supported the attraction of the figure of the Master, and helps to explain why - almost without exception - contemporary Masters are deemed to come from outside of the Western complex. The Master, after all, combines modern philosophical epistemology (forms of thinking) with a divine dictate; he is the bridge, if you like, which traditionally was held to exist only in Œthe Eastı.


The Compilerıs response to my posting was to question why, if there are/were no Masters, Blavatskyıs Œscientific track recordı can have been regularly Œproven rightı, and how it could be that she was able to produce her works Œwith almost no books and references to speak ofı.

First, I must repeat that at no time in my published or unpublished research have I denied the existence of the Masters. The simple fact is that I have no methodological apparatus which allows me to prove or to disprove thatthey exist. As with all faith claims, they operate beyond the bounds of empirical survey. As a matter of fact, I am myself entirely uninterested inall questions of their physical ontology (existence), for a very simple reason. What matters is that people believe they exist - to me that is by far the more enticing subject.

Second, my field is the history of ideas (and theology). I am no scientist. Nevertheless, I have examined extensively those scientifically-determinable claims made in behalf of Blavatskyıs and Leadbeaterıs occult insights. In the latter case, the survey makes interesting reading. Many, many religionist Leadbeaterians have attempted to verify his ŒOccult Chemistryı claims (particularly the existence of such particles as the ŒAnuı) with no discernible success. Stephen M. Phillipsı many works (Extra-Sensory Perception of Quarks, 1980, etc) simply do not hold up under any scrutiny, and have been dismissed by able observers. They are valiant attempts to resuscitate Leadbeaterıs reputation as a clairvoyant proto-atomicist, but fail from the first. Blavatskyıs scientific claims are rather more subtle, and - typically - are couched in a historiography which covers many billions of years. Nevertheless, most of her more empirically-testable claims have been dismissed, particularly her ideas of polar shift and inverse magnetism. None of this, of course, should dismiss her claims in other fields (though it should be noted that her philology, archaeology, paleoanthropology, etc. etc. have been comprehensively dismantled). In the end, though, Blavatsky (and, to a lesser degree, Leadbeater) was a metamythographer, who seized ³magpie-like² upon any opinion or observation which she couldincorporate into her vast macrohistorical programme. Surely, this was herskill, and to attempt to fix upon tiny aspects of her oeuvre in order to Œproveı or to Œdisproveı her occult faculties is to Œignore the wood for the treesı.

Third, by the way, is the myth of the creation of Blavatskyıs vast writings ex nihilo (from nothing). Olcott makes it quite clear that she had about 100 books at the Lamasery and some less charitable critics (such as William Emmette Coleman) have found little in Isis Unveiled which she could not have cribbed from these texts. Further, Countess 
Wachtmeister and the Keightleys make it clear that Blavatsky had a large library at hand for the writing of The Secret Doctrine, and employed these and library texts regularly - calling for certain books at need. Of course, the possession of such texts in no way denies her (or, indeed, the Mastersı) authorship of her works, but indicates the breadth of her reading (which should surely be a compliment and not a criticism!).

Fourth, I have been asked by a number of Theosophists how I would feel if (somehow) it was able to be proved that the Masters never did exist. All I could say is that my respect for Blavatsky would not plummet, but soar.


Mr. Merriott offered a number of responses which I will examine separately:

1) He asks Œwhether there are any significant differences between [my] findings on ŒThe Theosophical Mastersı and those of other spiritual traditions [such as verifying] the actual existences of personages such as Sri Krishna, Maitreya, Patanjali, & so onı.
My research project was devolved squarely upon Theosophy, so Iım afraid comparative work in this field awaits a scholar with better skills in sub-continental religion than I possess. Nevertheless, I do feel that there are some aspects of the Theosophical religious structure that are unique. Though fundamentally a peculiarly nineteenth century neognosticism - and as such dependent upon classical religious formulae - Theosophy erupted in a timeof tremendous epistemological change, particularly pertaining to history and mythology. Blavatskyıs Theosophy accommodated the vast prehistories of Lyell, Huxley, and Darwin, and it also absorbed the metamythography of Payne-Knight, Jacolliot, and Higgins (et alii). Thus Blavatsky always - and mostly successfully - walked a fine line between historicity and mythology.So, too, did her Masters. Living in an increasingly secular age she knew- as I have written elsewhere - that Western society would be more prepared to accept a god-like man than a man-like god. Thus where other divine figures of ambiguous ontology could occupy a mesocosm of religious myth (Œthe imaginalı - which is not, I hasten to say, the imaginary), a nineteenth-century semi-divine figure would have to walk the ground of fact. This, clearly, posed a remarkable challenge, not encountered in earlier centuries.

2) Mr. Merriott rightly questions my terminology in the following passage:ŒPredictably, perhaps, claims such as those made by Blavatsky and Leadbeater (and their numerous disciples and continuators) have almost without exception been dismissed by commentators on the basis of evidential facticity. Unless the doubting Didymuses [Thomases] can put their Œhands in the sideı of the Masters, then the latter ipso facto cannot be considered to existı.
My intention here - which Mr. Merriott recognised - was not to suggest thatno one other than Blavatsky or Leadbeater accepted the veracity of the Masters. Indeed, belief in the Masters was a theologoumenon (a generally accepted doctrinal principle) for many thousands of Theosophists from 1875 to the present day. In fact Mahatma letters (of varying degrees of interest and -letıs face it - occasionally dubious authenticity) were received by about 30 persons over a 50 year time span, and in excess of two dozen eye witness accounts exist. Most of these really do need to be taken seriously. Rather, what I was suggesting was that, in certain academic circles, phenomenology (that is, the study of a phenomenon such as the belief in the Masters with no preordained bias) holds less weight than facticity. In other words, it is still often a matter of Œchapter-and-verseı in so far as a young scholar (such as I) will be asked to justify his project on the basis of whether there is discernible proof of the subject under scrutiny. I myself found some instances of this in my own university, where people thoughtthat if I studied the Masters it would automatically and necessarily (and properly!) lead to a dismissal of all faith claims - a ridiculous proposition. One could just as easily (perhaps, indeed, more easily) argue that thesermon on the mount never happened and that it was a literary invention bythe evangelists. My response was always to suggest that, although this may well be true, it doesnıt alter the fact that a belief in the eventıs historicity has changed countless lives.

3) Mr. Merriott has noted that Œan important part of our difficulty because [of] our cultural and societal bias in this modern era is to assume, perhaps unconsciously, that if scholars cannot verify the truth of something,then it must automatically mean it is false or not worth much further investigationı. I have found in my own researches that many occultists have been very wary of meeting with me because they have felt I have had an undisclosed agenda which was to (surreptitiously) expose their beliefs to the withering glare of science. What many religionist Theosophists (and other esotericists) might find illuminating is that some (at least) in the academyhave recognised the truth of the insight/prophecy which Blavatsky had had a century ago; and that is that the bastard child of religious dogmatism and materialist science would be a ³scientism² which would appear like science but be held in the same awe as traditional religion. This is why, itseems to me, many now view secularist science as, ironically, the only true postmodern religion. My own researches were designed (or so I hoped) to illuminate this mongrel attitude which has somehow sidled into our hallows.I wished to represent a phenomenon of religion not as something somehow aberrant, perverse, antisocial, antimodern, or deviant (all ridiculous notions - why was Waco more absurd than Masada, or Hare Krishna proselytising more confronting than the Book of Acts?), but as an expression of religiositywhose externals I could compare and contrast, but whose numinosity I, as an outsider, could not reduce to any convenient (and thus easily dismissible) category.

4) The latter part of Mr. Merriottıs posting concerns the vexed questionof terminology, with particular reference to such words as Œreligiousı, Œspiritualı, and Œbeliefı. His comments are illuminating and welcomed. I am unsure whether I have the space here to discuss my approaches to these terms, so I will restrict my comments accordingly. Much of my interest lies in the field of methodology of study. This doesnıt just mean how something is done, or in what order. Rather, it concerns how one approaches data so as to deal with it sensitively, and yet come away with a moreintense feel for the data and its possible applicability for future scholars. (Academic work is, after all, just a post-adolescent game of building blocks - hoping that oneıs own small effort will lay the mortar for some future genius to erect a towering edifice). I would suggest anyone interested in this field read the works of Prof Wouter J. Hanegraaff of Amsterdam (who writes mostly in English); see especially his ŒEmpirical method in the study of esotericismı in Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, 7:2, (1995), 99-129. Hanegraaff has employed two terms which might help inthe examination of esotericism and occultism: Œemicı and Œeticı. The Œemicı are the believersı modes and categories of thought and explanation; the Œeticı are the scholarıs (or commentatorıs) modes andcategories of thought and explanation. My own research was based, in the first instance, on amassing as extensive a range of Œemicı data as possible. This means that I was - as far as I was able - protected from imposing my own preexisting Œeticı structures onto the materials from the start. By beginning with sifting through thousands of pages of believersı material, I was thus able (again, as far as possible) to withhold any of my own judgements or personal bias from intruding on the research. Only afterthis process was completed was I able to examine the material contextually- that is, in reference to other historical, social, religious, economic, and other factors, and present my own Œeticı categories. This process means, of course, that there can never be anything other than interpretational outcomes: after all, I was not out to Œproveı anything, but simply to examine a phenomenon and discern whether the Theosophical Master might have a great many more resonances than previously imagined. Naturally, all of my conclusions are provisional, and await further testing and discussionby scholars and interested parties. Thus, for me, the terms Œreligiousı and Œspiritualı offer little semantic or lexical value; when I write Œreligious beliefı, I mean the Œemic' contention that the Masters exist physically and historically. Nevertheless, I recognise that there is a semantic difference in belief as doctrine, belief as empirically-replicable observation, and belief as personal gnosis. Interestingly, for Blavatsky, in the main each of these categories was coeval.

4) As for Mr. Merriottıs point about an Œapprenticeı and ŒMaster Craftsmanı, these are issues germane to religious paedeutics (or instruction) generally. The literature on this area is vast and growing daily. I dealt with this theme in my thesis in a chapter devoted to Blavatsky and a Russian term, ŒStarchestvoı which means Œspiritual eldershipı. I examined the influence of Russian Orthodoxy and paganism on Blavatskyıs notion of eldership, and concentrated on her reading of Dostoevskii (part of The Brothers Karamazov, of course, she translated into English for the firsttime). Part of my contention - heresy to some Theosophists, I imagine - is that Blavatskyıs presentation of the Masters was partially modelled on Orthodox monasticism (particularly Russian Hesychasm and Coptic Pachomian communities). Anyone who has spent time in a monastery with an elder monk will read the Mahatma letters in an entirely different light thereafter.


Mr Schullerıs concise statement encapsulated my position beautifully: ŒAs long as we donıt have repeated personal experiences of these beings they stay objects of faith, however well reasoned and plausibleı. I would only add one caveat: even if we have had repeated personal experiences, they nevertheless remain within the boundaries of faith experience for the simple reason that numinosity is by definition ineffable and incommunicable. When, however, such experiences are undergone communally and - ugly term that it is - have reached Œcritical massı, then a faith movement begins which is predicated on mass witnessing of meta-empirical phenomena. Inevitably, though, history intervenes, witnesses die, documentary records are doubted, and what had once been presented as a widely-attested interpenetration between the mundane and the supramundane is reduced to its original personal belief structures (often with a credal formula attached to remind one of the Œhistorical factı of the religious phenomena). It seems to me that those contemporary creeds which emphasise perichoresis (interpenetration) are also those which are endangered by claims of fraudulence and faulty historiography. Theosophy in the years after Blavatsky suffered enormously because its claims were simply too grand. It is surely commensurate that the more a religious leader claims that God is close, the more the faithful will want to ³see² God (if only to assess the difference between this reality and the absolute Other).

Mr. Schuller has posed what might be the million-dollar question for Theosophy, or so it seems to me. To this end, I shall quote his comment in full:Œ[1] Can you maybe also enlighten us about your understanding of phenomenology in connection with the investigation of religious phenomena; [2] its importance to the scholarly study of theosophy; [3] and maybe even - and this is what Iım really interested in - share with us if you see a possibility of an overlap between a phenomenologically based theology and the philosophical aspects of theosophyı?

[1] Phenomenology (a not terribly attractive term) was employed by Kant and Hegel (and a host of others) in various ways. Normally these days phenomenology is seen as the study of the data of experience, or, in other words, what is discerned from the appearance and manifestations of a thing.This is often contrasted, interestingly, with Œnoumenologyı, which isthe study of a thing in itself, in its essence. I would argue that the latter objective is idealist and unobtainable, and that the former is the only appropriate path for the scholar of esotericism. The reasons for this are as follows:
1) If I examine a religious structure I cannot ever Œgraspı it from the outside - indeed, it is arguable that I could not even grasp it from the inside.
2) Even through Œparticipatory/observationalı techniques I still bringto my observation a load of prejudices and preordained opinions which I cannot simply Œpeel awayı. Most modern scholarship accepts that oneıs foundational structures are not disposable.
3) ŒNuminosityı (which has become synonymous, somewhat problematically,with heightened religious states) is by definition a personal experience incommunicable to observers.
4) The phenomenological approach allows comparisons to be made across religious experience and cultures, but absolutely disavows any sort of metacultural or metahistorical conclusions. (Surely the last century will be seen as the battleground of anti-historical idealism - a child of such metahistorical conclusions).
5) Phenomenology is by nature self-limiting. In my own work I could acknowledge immediately that the phenomenon I was addressing was a belief in Masters - humans with supranormal endowments - but that because I was basing my research on Œappearance and manifestationı it was inherently subjective, but of no lesser value as a religious phenomenon for that very subjectivity.
6) Experience of religious states, even if collected into dogma and presented as doctrine, are vastly differentiated among communities and even individuals.

[2] The phenomenological approach (which is often deemed synonymous with the empirical approach - though there are some interesting differences) is, I believe, crucial for the study of Theosophy and of esotericism generally. Until recently, esotericism in whatever garb (and particularly occultism) have been viewed as aberrant fields for study. The only real work that has been done- much of it traceable to certain fascist regimes, it seems to me - has been on the sociology of the occult, which, in fact, is simply a nicer term for the sociology of deviance. People were deemed to be attracted to the occult because it was anti-scientific, anti-modern, anti-ecclesial, anti-authoritarian, anti-moral, anti-national - in fact, Œantiı just about everything. Thus it was that the theory developed that such movements as Theosophy were based upon a ³flight from reason²; that is, they represented a revolt against modernity - a reactionary development whichurged people to return to a sort of mediaeval superstition.

I find such approaches offensive, tedious, and - worse - unscholarly. The fact remains that some of the great minds of modernity have exercised themselves upon the heritage of esotericism, and the question still remains: why? It is my belief that such a question can only be addressed appropriately, particularly as far as Theosophy is concerned (for which there is a huge primary literature), by employing phenomenological methodology. Thus, the scholar (a term I employ for anyone who chooses to examine the materials inextenso) can examine the data of Theosophical history and extrapolate fromthat data certain observations which may or may not hold to a consensus view - at that time or later. It is my hypothesis, for example, (and this follows the work of Wouter Hanegraaff and others), that occultism is not a reaction against modernity, but an engagement with modern paradigms - such asevolutionary theory and progressivism - in order to fashion a modern religiosity. This modern religiosity I have elsewhere called the ŒTertium Quidı - the ŒThird Wayı - between a godless Œcreationı (as exemplified by scientific rationalism) and an unsympathetic dogmatism (as exemplified by exclusivist ecclesiasticism). I also argue that - as ever - the presiding deity of the ŒTertium Quidı is Hermes, who Blavatsky reconfigured as the Theosophical Master. This is my hypothesis; many may disagree.

[3] Mr Schullerıs question: whether I Œsee a possibility of an overlap between a phenomenologically based theology and the philosophical aspects of theosophyı is actually, it seems to me, a question about the long-term feasibility of the Theosophical Society, which I am not the best to judge since I am not a member. Nevertheless, if I can be forgiven the hubris, I will note the following. It seems to me that Theosophy emerged from the crucible of Spiritualism - which is not to suggest that Spiritualism isthe natural parent of Theosophy (of this I remain unconvinced, but interested). Theosophy, for all of its early theurgic aspirations (for which see the masterful work of John Patrick Deveney and Joscelyn Godwin) did seem togo out of its way to attract those who were intellectually-inclined to thestudy of comparative religion. One needs only to review early copies of The Theosophist, Lucifer, The Path, etc., to recognise that the leaders were, for the main, engaged in constructing a new set of Œmagicalı correspondences via comparative mythology. Indeed, I wonder if we can even imaginethe heady days when manuscript after manuscript illuminated the (sometimes deceptive) commonalities of the worldıs religious and mythological structures. Every time a putative messiah appeared in a newly-translated text,it became grist to the mill of Theosophical relativism. Just see, for example, the way in which Blavatsky literally pounced on the translations by Mead and Kingsford of the Gnostic materials; it all added to the ever-expanding Weltanschauung (world view) of Theosophy which had it that all phenomena was a leaf from the tree of the Œprisca theologiaı (the original pure revelation).

The problem, of course (as alluded to supra) was the question of revelation. Unless cosmo-philosophical teachings issue from a divine source, they will immediately be viewed as arbitrary, contingent, and temporal. Blavatsky- like all the great religious conceptualisers - needed a warrant of universality for her decrees, and the Masters provided the key. Whether the Masters existed physically, of course, is moot, but is actually peripheral to this dynamic. After all, Blavatsky would bear the brunt of the opprobrium,but also the hagiographic attention from disciples; she was the Œmouthpieceı - for good or ill.

The question, then, devolves upon the notion of revelation. Technically, of course, all the materials in the Theosophical canon (Isis Unveiled, the Mahatma Letters, The Secret Doctrine) are the direct or indirect vox dei, ifyou like. That is, all of Theosophyıs core teachings claim a revelatoryauthority which exists on the level of a divine dictate (which is to say they accord with the progressivist cosmo-historical structures which instantiate the Œdivineı in the Theosophical idiom). Which returns me to Mr. Schullerıs question: if the philosophical aspects of the teachings are removed from the revelatory authority (what he calls, attractively, Œa phenomenologically based theologyı), do they still have credence or value.

I would be disingenuous if I didnıt state that there are several components of the Theosophical corpus which give me pause, and a few which I believe will ultimately need to be excised. As an Australian (though not an indigene) I an upset by the gross ŒRaceı theory which Blavatsky employed - based, no doubt, on Herbert Spencer. I am disappointed that some textual-literalist Theosophists attempt to perpetuate some of the more confronting racist stereotypes of Blavatskian ŒAnthropogenesisı. I am even more concerned that several aspects of Theosophical teachings (from The Secret Doctrine, inter alia) have contributed to truly heinous racial apartheids - oneneed only look at certain figures in the Reich to appreciate the dissemination of such Theosophical ŒRaceı theory.

I mention this particular construct because it seems to me to elucidate a particular problem for many religionist Theosophists. Is such ŒRaceı theory divinely inspired (which is to say, founded on the Mastersı teaching)? The answer is clearly ³yes², particularly when the Mahatma letters are consulted, some of which would today be legally actionable in certain countries. Nevertheless, it seems to me that Theosophy as a revolutionary movement (for such it was, in a limited way), is predicated upon what Cardinal Newman (a contemporary of much of the Theosophical endeavour) called Œdoctrinal developmentalismı. He argued (I here interpret his works in a liberal vein) that the Spirit (or Geist) of the Age spoke in a language understandable and appropriate for the people. This might sound somewhat banal these days, but was quite challenging at the time, when it was consideredthat revelation was closed and that interpretation was devolved solely upon the episcopacy (of which, unsurprisingly, he was part).

Thus it is that Theosophy, arising as it did in a period in which revelation could be Œdevelopedı, is enabled to offer many and varied revelationsas long as they stay (roughly) within the Blavatskian template. The problem with this position, of course, is that it opens the door for quite baroque variations: some inside the Society (such as Leadbeater), others outside(such as Bailey, the Ballards, the Prophets). It seems that it is not possible to have oneıs cake (doctrinal developmentalism) and eat it (factionalism, schism, contradictory revelation).

In short, the quandary is in many ways the same as that for other creeds which are based upon a meta-empirical revelation vouchsafed to one individualwho subsequently dies. The charismatic authority which resides in that person is rarely transferred successfully to another as competing claims to authority intervene, and peoplesı views of Œorthodoxyı vary.

Is it possible to have a Theosophy without the Masters? Or, indeed, the Masters without Theosophy? Is it possible to find in Theosophy a religious or ethical system removed from its metaphysical dimension; in other words, is it OK simply to say that although Blavatsky might have made it all up, itıs still valuable - if not divinely revealed? Or, indeed, is it possibleto say that the Masters most certainly exist, but that what Blavatsky published in their names is wholly fraudulent, and thus vacuous and useless?

Interestingly, each of these positions has been followed by various partiessince 1891, none - dare I say - wholly successfully. In my view, the problem has been tragically simple and, perhaps amusingly, mundane. The Society has been caught up in exactly the same existential paradox as those creeds it was created to counter: IS THE GOD-MAN REAL? What is crucial, in my opinion, for the future of Theosophy - indeed, what will save both its revelatory authority (its Œphenomenologically based theologyı) and its transformative potentiality (its Œphilosophical aspectsı) - is for Theosophists not so much to come to terms with the Œgod-manı, but to redefine what it means to be Œrealı.


MKR has asked that I Œsummarize [my] views and conclusions in a simpler language and a shorter postingı. I appreciate his point, and can only apologize for my tendency to write length pieces. Unfortunately (for me) communication without ink is all rather a new experience, and I sometimes lament the loss of the reasoned argument. Having noted this, I realise that this particular posting is becoming rather long, and might upset the horses. If anyoneıs interested I might summarize my ideas at a future point - though I canıt promise Œsimpler languageı; after all, isnıt one of Theosophyıs central agendas that of conscious evolution?

By the way, for those who were interested in my thesis/dissertation, it is being examined at the moment and (Deo volente!) will pass muster. Soon thereafter I shall begin the arduous task of reshaping it into a book. Do youthink anybody would read it though?

I remain,
yours sincerely

Brendan French

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