It is quite possible that belief in the supernatural results from chemical imbalances in the brain or other physiological malfunctions. Of course, some supernatural beliefs may be true. But our disposition to harbor such beliefs apparently has a physiological basis, and this may cause us to develop beliefs that are quite mistaken. People who see ghosts or angels, to cite two common instances, may be accurately perceiving reality — or they may be suffering from various forms of misapprehension.
A particular chemical seems to play a special role in our tendency to believe in the supernatural. If you are plentifully supplied with this chemical, you are likely to be a believer as a result. If your system provides less of the chemical, your inclination to believe drops proportionately:
"Whether or not you believe in the paranormal may depend entirely on your brain chemistry.
"...Peter Brugger, a neurologist from the University Hospital in Zurich, Switzerland, has suggested before that people who believe in the paranormal often seem to be more willing to see patterns or relationships between events where skeptics perceive nothing.
"To find out what could be triggering these thoughts, Brugger persuaded 20 self-confessed believers and 20 skeptics to take part in an experiment.
"Brugger and his colleagues asked the two groups to distinguish real faces from scrambled faces as the images were flashed up briefly on a screen. The volunteers then did a similar task, this time identifying real words from made-up ones.
"Believers were much more likely than skeptics to see a word or face when there was not one.
"...The researchers then gave the volunteers a drug called L-dopa ... Both groups made more mistakes under the influence of the drug, but the skeptics became more likely to interpret scrambled words or faces as the real thing.
"That suggests that paranormal thoughts are associated with high levels of dopamine in the brain." — Helen Philips, “Paranormal Beliefs Linked to Brain Chemistry,” NEW SCIENTIST, July 2002. http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn2589.
All forms of belief may be tied to dopamine. Our beliefs trigger warm flows of dopamine, while challenges to our beliefs shut off the flow. When we consider ideas that we embrace, we receive the reinforcement of a feel-good chemical and we see little or no reason to question either these pleasant ideas or the pleasant sensations they produce. But when we are confronted by ideas that we dislike, we may feel compelled to think hard — we go through the difficult process of reasoning and analyzing, looking for weaknesses in the challenge to our beliefs. We hardly ever look for similar weaknesses in our own cherished views.
An article in the NEW YORK TIMES explores the ways we typically operate when espousing and defending our beliefs, even those that are wholly mundane:
"In September 1909, Dr. Frederick A. Cook and Robert E. Peary each returned from the Arctic with a tale of having reached the North Pole. Neither provided any solid proof or corroborating testimony; both told vague stories with large gaps ... Yet each explorer’s claim immediately attracted its supporters, and no amount of contradictory evidence in the ensuing years would be enough to dissuade the faithful.
"The believers who have kept writing books and mounting expeditions to vindicate Cook or Peary resemble the political partisans recently studied by psychologists and sociologists. When the facts get in the way of our beliefs, our brains are marvelously adept at dispensing with the facts.
"...[According] to researchers who have studied both Democrat and Republican partisans using brain scans and other techniques[:]
"When we contemplate contradictions in the rhetoric of the opposition party’s candidate, the rational centers of our brains are active, but contradictions from our own party’s candidate set off a different reaction: the emotional centers light up and levels of feel-good dopamine surge.
"With our rational faculties muted, sometimes the unwelcome evidence doesn’t even register, and sometimes we use marvelous logic to get around the facts.
"In one study, Republicans who blamed Saddam Hussein for the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were presented with strong counter evidence, including a statement from President George W. Bush absolving Hussein. But most of the people in the study went on blaming Hussein anyway, as the researchers report in the current issue of Sociological Inquiry.
"Some of the people ignored or rejected the counter evidence; some 'counterargued' that Hussein was evil enough to do it; some flatly said they were entitled to counterfactual opinions. And some came up with an especially creative form of motivated reasoning that the psychologists labeled 'inferred justification': because the United States went to war against Hussein, the reasoning went, it must therefore have been provoked by his attack on Sept. 11." — John Tierney, "A Clash of Polar Frauds and Those Who Believe", NEW YORK TIMES, Sept. 8, 2009.
The TIMES article did not extend its argument to supernatural beliefs, but we can do so easily. Anthroposophists, I would suggest, often behave like true-believing advocates of political opinions. They do not reason so much as rationalize; they stick with what feels good to them, regardless of evidence or logic to the contrary.
I've pointed out, elsewhere, the logical contradiction in a basic Anthroposophical position: In order to know spiritual truths, you have to start from an attitude of veneration. This is a tautology: To learn to believe, you have to start by believing.
The role played by dopamine adds a second layer to this. Steiner's position is not only illogical, it is irrational — that is, it is rooted in emotion. Essentially, he and his followers say: Your mood is what counts. Don't think, feel. This is what they mean by having heartfelt thoughts, experienced thoughts, living thoughts. But the problem is that such “thoughts” are not really thoughts at all. They are emotionally charged affirmations of attitudes and beliefs that produce a flood of good feeling — that is, the flow of dopamine.
The "thinking" advocated in Anthroposophy is not the active, difficult use of the brain. Steiner denied that the brain has anything to do with the acquisition of truth. “[T]he brain and nerve system have nothing to do with actual cognition.” — Rudolf Steiner, THE FOUNDATIONS OF HUMAN EXPERIENCE (Anthroposophic Press, 1996), p. 60.
Anthroposophical "thinking" is the unresisting reception of beliefs brought to us from out of the great beyond. “The cosmic ether, which is common to all, carries within it...those living thoughts of which I have repeatedly spoken in our anthroposophical lectures, telling you how the human being participates in them in pre-earthly life before he comes down to Earth. There, in the cosmic ether, are contained all the living thoughts there are; and never are they received from the cosmic ether during the life between birth and death. No; the whole store of living thought that man holds within him, he receives at the moment when he comes down from the spiritual world — when, that is, he leaves his own living element, his own element of living thought, and descends and forms his ether body. Within this ether body, within that which is the building and organising force in man, are the living thoughts; there they are, there they still are.” — Rudolf Steiner, CURATIVE EDUCATION (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1972), lecture 2, June 26, 1924. GA 317.
Note that these "thoughts" do not come out of your own brain; they are not ideas that you think of yourself; they are prepackaged ideas that are planted in you before birth. You find and accept them through clairvoyance or intuition, using second sight to gaze within. This is meditation, or feeling deeply; it is not rational thought, which is so damaging, according to Steiner. “The intellect destroys or hinders.” — Rudolf Steiner, WALDORF EDUCATION AND ANTHROPOSOPHY, Vol. 1 (Anthroposophical Press, 1995), p. 233. But the alternatives offered by Steiner — clairvoyance, living thoughts, the cosmic ether — are delusions. Anthroposophical "thinking" is the happy affirmation of the views that make Anthroposophists feel good; it is not the perception and analysis of reality.
We all want happiness, we all want to feel warm and certain. But the only real certainty comes from truth, which we must find with our minds. Fantasies — ideas or beliefs that we cannot justify on the basis of real knowledge and reasoning — provide only the illusion of certainty: They provide a chemical bath that sure feels good but that has no real ideational content.
[R. R., 2010.]
— Roger Rawlings
For more on the pursuit of happiness
in Anthroposophy and Waldorf education,
The following is from the Waldorf Watch Annex
Efforts at communication between Anthroposophists and their critics are difficult. Often people on opposite sides of the divide use language in different ways and admire different forms of thought. Still, the efforts are probably worthwhile, even if they rarely lead to true mutual understanding.
One venue for an ongoing conversation is the Waldorf Critics website [http://groups.yahoo.com/group/waldorf-critics/messages/]. This is not a neutral forum — Anthroposophists who visit there are entering a more or less hostile environment. Still, some do visit, and sometimes interesting messages are passed back and forth.
Today one Anthroposophist decided to quit the discussion there. Here is a portion of her departing message, followed by a message I posted in response:
[message from departing Anthroposophist]:
"--- In firstname.lastname@example.org, "carynlouise24" <carynlouise24@...> wrote:
"Alas though I can't hang around your fun anymore personally I find it rather dull and stupid."
[message from Roger Rawlings]:
"Anyone who wants to get a handle on Anthroposophy would do well simply to come to this site and read the messages posted here by Anthroposophists. They speak for themselves.
"Like many — perhaps all — forms of faith, Anthroposophy appeals to souls in pain. The mean-spiritedness found in so many Anthroposophical messages often has its roots in suffering.
"One quick example: Anthroposophist Robert Sardello — who explicitly identifies himself as a soul in pain — offers a catalog of the things he finds distressing:
“'Medicine, education, money, food, energy, media, technology, religion, buildings, economics — all of these organizing forms that together ought to make culture no longer do so but instead are making a pathological civilization. The new symptoms are fragmentation, specialization, expertise, depression, inflation, cruelty, hardness, violence and absence of beauty. Our buildings are anorectic, our business paranoid, detached, and abstract, our technology manic.' — Robert Sardello, FACING THE WORLD WITH SOUL (SteinerBooks, 2004), pp. 15-16.
"This is a virtually all-encompassing catalogue of complaints about life in the modern world. And it is the view of life typically promoted at Waldorf schools: Everything in the modern world is horrid. Humankind has gone wholly off track — except us, here, in our lovely, superior, little cultic community.
"Steiner said that Anthroposophy is meant to be a balm for tortured souls. He spoke of '[T]he longing human soul in its yearning, tormented emptiness' [THE SPIRITUAL HIERARCHIES AND THE PHYSICAL WORLD: Reality and Illusion, p. 224] and he offered his system as an antidote to suffering: '[W]e may point to spiritual science as a bearer of the redemption of human longing ... [S]piritual science now provides what tempestuous but also woeful human beings have sought for a long time.' [Ibid., p. 231].
"The mean-spiritedness that we so often find in Anthroposophists’ messages derives, at least in part, from pain. We should be sympathetic — although this can be hard when the nastiness is directed at us individually. I myself have (gasp!) not always been utterly Christlike in my responses to attacks directed at my sweet self. But I do try to remind myself sometimes that every Anthroposophist I have ever known has been a good person, or has aspired to be a good person, and the suffering these good persons have inflicted can often be attributed to the suffering they either feel or desperately try to deny.
"- Roger" [1-5-2011 http://groups.yahoo.com/group/waldorf-critics/message/22228]
Humans have long turned to alcohol at least in part due to its capacity to raise dopamine levels in the brain
(e.g., "Just the taste of an alcoholic drink can trigger dopamine release in the brain" — Medical News Today).
Here is an item from the Waldorf Watch "news" page:
Steiner's capacity to surprise and perplex never dimmed. He claimed to find immense spiritual significance in the most surprising places. Here he tells us that without booze, we would not have become human — that is, we would not have developed our individual spiritual egos. These egos, if you remember, are what separate us from the animals.*
“Men have not always used alcohol ... Wine, alcohol, only appeared at a certain time in the history of humanity and the world ... Alcohol was the bridge which led from the group-ego to the independent, individual ego; without the material effect of alcohol man would never have made the transition from the group-ego to the individual ego.” — Rudolf Steiner, THE GOSPEL OF ST. JOHN (Basle) (London Reference Library, 1942), lecture 8, GA 100.
This quotation — describing the spiritual-evolutionary benefits of alcohol — is taken from a typescript posted at the Rudolf Steiner Archive. Its accuracy is somewhat doubtful. However, essentially the same statement in a different translation can be found on pp. 85-86 of THE GOSPEL OF ST. JOHN (Anthroposophic Press, 1962). In other texts, Steiner is further quoted associating alcohol with the ego or “I” — see, for example, p. 111 of BEES (Anthroposophic Press, 1998). As was true of so many topics, Steiner’s views on alcohol were complex. In general, he advised against the use of alcohol. On the other hand, one of his more prominent supporters has told us that Steiner partook of alcohol in order to suppress the form of clairvoyance he had when young; he wanted to “clear the decks” so that he could develop a superior form of clairvoyance: “Steiner himself as a child brought with him into the world a vestigial relic of the old clairvoyance, the old ‘original’ participation [i.e., clairvoyant participation in the spirit realm]. Biographies and his own autobiography bear witness to it. And it is credibly reported of him that he took deliberate steps to eliminate it, not even rejecting the help of alcohol, in order to clear the decks for the new clairvoyance it was his destiny both to predict and to develop.” — Owen Barfield, “Introducing Rudolf Steiner” (TOWARDS, Fall-Winter, 1983).
* Of earthly beings, Steiner taught, only humans have individual souls or individual spiritual egos. Other, lower beings have shared, "group" souls. Group souls are, in their own way, quite wonderful, he said. “[A]ll the animals of a particular species have a group ego or group soul. All individual lions, for example, are part of one group ego, as are all tigers or all pike ... The individual animals are simply the limbs of what dwells in the astral world [i.e., the group ego]. These animal egos are different from the human ‘I’, although comparable from a spiritual point of view. An animal ego is an extremely wise entity, far wiser than an individual human soul.” — Rudolf Steiner, WHITSUN AND ASCENSION (Rudolf Steiner Press, 2007), p. 47. I wonder if he was tipsy when he said such things.
Anthroposophy makes its adherents happy.
It comforts, excites, and flatters them.
But does it give them truth?
Here are a few more items from the Waldorf Watch "news" page:
“The essential difference between animal and man is, according to Steiner, the fact that the human being possesses a fourth member [in addition to physical, etheric, and astral bodies] — the ‘ego’ or ‘I.’ The ego represents the factor of individualization, that which guarantees the uniqueness of every man, woman and child. The word ‘I’ is itself unique in that no person can use it to designate another.” — Waldorf teacher Gilbert Childs, STEINER EDUCATION IN THEORY AND PRACTICE (Floris Books, 1991), p. 27.
This is what passes, in Anthroposophy, as a profound insight. Here is Steiner’s original formulation of the point about the wonderful term "I": "I am an I only to myself; to every other being I am a you.” — Rudolf Steiner, OCCULT SCIENCE - AN OUTLINE (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1979), p. 49.
Steiner's statement is true, as far as it goes. Yet what is it except a self-evident point about pronouns? As for the “profundity” of this “insight “— it is minimal. Most children grasp the essential distinction between "me" and "you" quite early.
I don't mean to trivialize. We are touching, here, on the central appeal of Anthroposophy (and many other anthropocentric ideologies). Humans are often wracked with doubt verging on despair. We are often unsure that our lives have meaning or value; we often feel small and insignificant, tiny residents in a vast, impersonal universe. How delightful it is to be told that each of us is a precious, unique individual of tremendous importance. Delightful. Alluring. Seductive. But before we build our lives around any particular ideology, no matter how alluring, we should make sure that the ideology in question makes sense. Is it grounded in reality? Are its component parts true? Anthroposophical notions about the marvelous, unique individuality of the human "I" — central though they are to the Anthroposophical worldview — collapse on close inspection.
Let's return to "the essential difference between animal and man." Steiner and Childs are simply, factually wrong about this subject. Animals are individuals. No two dogs, or cats, or parakeets, or cows, or horses, are entirely alike. Some are smarter, stronger, bigger, braver than others. Moreover, we have clear evidence that many types of animals comprehend themselves as individuals. Dolphins and chimpanzees, for instance, recognize themselves when looking into mirrors. Moreover, chimps and gorillas who have learned sign language (consider how much intelligence this requires) tell us about their desires, their wishes, their thoughts. We are smarter than they are — their thought usually seem juvenile to us — but they are sentient beings, individuals.
The chief problem with Waldorf schooling is that — like the ideology behind it — it is detached from reality. It is a jumble of fantasies, delusions, and “truths” that crumble when we examine them. Anthroposophists desperately want to believe that human beings stand at the center of the universe — they want to believe that we humans are incomparably more wondrous than any other form of life in the material universe. We can all sympathize with this desire. [See "Center" and "Tenth Hierarchy".] But humanity cannot elevate itself by telling itself lies. We must build our philosophies on the firm foundation of solid truth. Sadly, Waldorf education is built on the shifting sands of half-truths and untruths.
“Not only does [a] purifying and ennobling process continue throughout a single lifetime, but through many, as the ego evolves to higher and higher stages of development through successive lives or re-embodiments ... [T]he twin concepts of reincarnation and karma or destiny are central to [Steiner’s] spiritual-scientific system.” — Gilbert Childs, STEINER EDUCATION IN THEORY AND PRACTICE (Floris Books, 1991), p. 28.
There is no science in Anthroposophy (i.e., “spiritual science”). And, sadly, there is very little real spirit in it, either.
Anthroposophists disparage reality, calling the physical universe a “materialistic” sphere of entropy and death. They want to inhabit a higher, immaterial universe of living spirits. Probably most human beings can sympathize with this aspiration. We all want meaning and magic in our lives. But unless we open our eyes to factual truth — what we might call reality — the aspiration in and of itself will get us nowhere. Consider. We know for certain that some forms of life exist: ourselves, dogs, cats, whales, cattle, horses... And where do they exist? Right here, in the real, physical universe.
And what about spirit? Do we know for certain that some forms of spirit exist? Of course. The spirit of friendship, the spirit of love, the spirit of mercy, the spirit of honesty, the spirit of truthfulness, the spirit of reverence... And where do these forms of spirit exist? Right here, in the real, physical universe; they exist in the hearts and minds that we, as real forms of life, possess.
To anyone who wishes for a universe of living spirit, I would say: Open your eyes. It is right here. It is all around you. In the real, physical universe. You don't need to flee to your fantasies; stand instead, proudly, on fact.
Anthroposophists often quote Steiner as saying that the gods worship us. For instance, "[H]igher beings, the gods, also have a religion: they too look up to something in awe and reverence. What is this religion of the gods? What is it that the gods revere? It is man. Man is the religion of the gods." — Rudolf Steiner, quoted by Charles Kovacs, THE SPIRITUAL BACKGROUND TO CHRISTIAN FESTIVALS (Floris Books, 2007), pp. 72-73.
Steiner's doctrines certainly attribute to humanity a central, august place in the great scheme of things: “The aim of the creative activity of the Gods is the Ideal Man. That Ideal Man does not really come to life in physical man as he is at present, but in the noblest spiritual and soul life that is possible through the perfect development and training of aptitudes which this physical man has within him. Thus a picture of Ideal Man is ever present to the mind of the Gods. This is the religion of the Gods.” — Rudolf Steiner, THE INNER NATURE OF MAN AND LIFE BETWEEN DEATH AND REBIRTH (Kessinger Publishing, 1998), p. 18.
We can all sympathize with the desire to believe that God loves us — or that the gods do. We all want to believe that we are important, that our lives have meaning and value, that what we think and do is significant. We want to assure ourselves that we are not mere assemblages of dust, not robots made out of meat, not naked monkeys. We quite rightly want to deny that our lives are random, empty affairs that end quickly and pointlessly. Such ideas appall us. No! We are important! Our lives are important!
This deeply felt human desire explains the appeal of Anthroposophy. Not only are we important, Steiner taught — we stand at the absolute center of the created universe. Everything revolves around us; everything was made for us. Verily, the gods lavish their care and concern on us.
These are alluring ideas, certainly. But are they based on anything except our fear that, actually, we are small and ephemeral? Are they anything more than rather pathetic attempts to prop up our frail egos, telling ourselves lies about ourselves?
History shows that for millennia, we have told ourselves such lies. The Earth is the center of the universe. The Sun orbits the Earth. We are wholly superior in all ways to all the other creatures who share our planet. Most assuredly we did not evolve from apes.
History also shows that, gradually, we have had to wean ourselves from such beliefs. It is still hard for us to let these ideas go, but let them go we must. And as we toss them away, we need to toss out Anthroposophy as well. It is merely one of the more recent versions of our ancient self-deceiving misconceptions about ourselves.
But where does this leave us? Does this mean that our lives are meaningless and we ourselves are unimportant? Of course not. We are capable of love, intelligence, creativity, joy, pity, kindness, altruism, reverence. Our lives are blessings, gifts. We stand upright in a universe of beauty and majesty. But we do not magnify any of this by lying to ourselves; indeed, we only diminish ourselves through such lies. Our glory must be that we embrace life as it truly is, and that — with our eyes open and reverence in our hearts — we rise to the potential that we have to live compassionately, humbly, and wisely. We need to grow up, affirm what is true, and set aside the myths we believed as children.
THE COMFORTS OF BELIEF
Whether or not brain chemistry is involved, belief in the supernatural often stems from a desire to be comforted. Faith can ease our pain. Belief in divine beneficence offers us happiness — or, if not that, then at least surcease of sorrow.
Adopting beliefs for the solace they offer is sometimes called “credo consolans” — Latin for “I believe what consoles me.” Probably most people who turn to faith for consolation don’t put the matter to themselves in explicit terms like this. Often, the decision to believe is made almost subconsciously, as if no decision is really involved at all — one gravitates spontaneously toward a comforting body of teachings sucn as Anthroposophy, and the process seems natural, unarguable. Still, a decision is made, and many people of faith both recognize and affirm this. A leap of faith is required, and therefore one leaps.
The problem, clearly, is that seeking comfort is not the same as seeking truth. To derive comfort from a belief system, you must believe that the system is true. But if your real motivation is seeking comfort, you may wind up affirming the “truth” of propositions that you otherwise would consider unfounded.
Here are a few descriptions and analyses of “credo consolans.” Most of them speak of belief of disbelief in God — a single, supreme deity. Discussions of Anthroposophy entail a polytheistic vision rather than monotheism, but the underlying issues are much the same. Do you believe or not, and in either case, why?
“'Credo consolans' or 'I believe because it is comforting/consoling.' Not exactly a rare attitude amongst religious people: what's rare is that anybody is quite as open and up-front about it as is the American mathematician and philosopher Martin Gardner (b. 1914), whose book THE WHYS OF A PHILOSOPHICAL SCRIVENER is a superb read. Gardner is quite candid about the fact that he is a theist because he likes the idea: he fully accepts not only that there is no good evidence for a God but that the evidence positively leans the other way — his 'rationale' for theism is that he finds the idea comforting. He doesn't even try to defend it with so-called 'evidence' or back it up with reasoning: he simply finds the idea consoling.
“Such candour does him credit. I'd say that this attitude applies to a good many religious people, but not too many are prepared to come right out and say it. My criticism of it is simply that anybody who quite openly and honestly admits that this is their one and only reason for believing in a God is fooling themselves — they're 99.9% of the way to atheism already. It seems to be an exercise in wilful self-deception.” [http://www.rationalskepticism.org/general-faith/credo-consolans-t255.html]
“Credo Consolans: More than any other, the reason people believe weird things is because they want to. It feels good. It is comforting. It is consoling. According to a 1996 Gallup poll, 96% of American adults believe in God, 90% in heaven, 79% in miracles, and 72% in angels (WALL STREET JOURNAL, January 30, p. A8). Skeptics, atheists, and militant anti-religionists, in their attempts to undermine belief in a higher power, life after death, and divine providence, are butting up against ten thousand years of history and possibly one hundred thousand years of evolution (if religion and belief in God have a biological basis, which some anthropologists believe they do). Throughout all of recorded history, everywhere on the globe, such beliefs and similar percentages are common. Until a suitable secular substitute surfaces, these figures are unlikely to change significantly.
“To the frequently asked question: ‘What is your position on life after death?’ my standard response is ‘I'm for it, of course.’ The fact that I am for life after death does not mean I'm going to get it. But who wouldn't want it? And that's the point. It is a very human response to believe in things that make us feel better.” [http://hwarmstrong.com/why-people-believe-weird-things.htm]
“In the end, the final reason for faith is simply this: Credo Consolans. I believe because it comforts me. We know about wishful thinking. We know about how confirmation bias makes us remember the hits and forget the misses. But the world is scary and the random chaos of life is scary and the certainty of death is scary. Believing in an invisible, immaterial, transcendent God who loves us is comforting. Having someone to thank for the lovely and the numinous and the fortuitous is comforting. The simple, unchallenging hymnody and sonorous prayers and pompous circumstances of liturgy is comforting.” [http://bill-sheehan.livejournal.com/159489.html]
“I think ‘credo consolans’, whilst the only gig in town for a sceptic wishing to maintain some semblance of religious belief, is pretty meaningless. It does nothing to advance our knowledge or understanding ... [I]t's admitted self-deception rather than some connection to an actual higher power ... [It's] a placebo created by the conscious mind to help numb the pain of existence." [http://www.internationalskeptics.com/forums/showthread.php?p=3255726]
“[I’m] actually a big fan of credo consolans for those who feel drawn to that way of living their life. Creating intellectual systems that respond to human needs is perfectly valid — from my pragmatic persepctive. Martin Garder argued beautifully that emotional reasons are the only reasons to make metaphysical leaps. For me, though, I am happy to simply stop at the level of positing axioms and/or basic beliefs and build from there.” [www.patheos.com/blogs/.../leaps-of-faith-in-science-and-religion.html?]
The pursuit of happiness at Waldorf schools can take surprising forms.
Here is yet another item from the Waldorf Watch "news" page:
Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School (GBRSS) presents “A Circus Day in the Park,” starring 7th and 8th graders in an extravaganza of juggling, jumping, balancing, tumbling, clowning and twirling fun for the whole family ... GBRSS Athletic Director and circus creative director Krista Palmer commented, “Circus arts are part of the physical education curriculum at the Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School. Through activities like tumbling and acrobatics, children are encouraged to feel comfortable moving their bodies as well as extending into the space around them, and their strength is felt both physically and emotionally. The adult capacities of being flexible, leading a balanced life, helping and supporting others and juggling life’s tasks are exercised in childhood through circus arts.”
A small but growing number of Waldorf schools train their students in "circus arts." Thus, you may occasionally see Waldorf help-wanted ads like the following:
Study of circus arts is even included in some Waldorf teacher-training programs. The following is from the Rudolf Steiner Institute (RSI) in Massachusetts, USA:
Creativity and the ArtsONE-WEEK INTENSIVE: JULY 18–243 SESSIONS PER DAY
To take this course, you will need to have done either this year's Level 1 (see the RSI week one course "Courage to Be — A Clowning Course") or a similar course. This Level 2 course continues the Level 1 work offering further practice of clowning with the focus on structure and relationship. The more demanding aspects of this level come from a need to practice responsiveness to, and awareness of, your partner on stage, your audience and the images, stories and characters that emerge during improvisation. [http://www.steinerinstitute.org/courses/our-courses/one-week-intensive-2/clowning.aspx]
What in the world is going on?
At one level, all of this clowning is simply good public relations. Offering colorful, jovial events such as student circuses puts a happy face on a form education that, at its core, is anything but lighthearted. Rudolf Steiner and his followers have not been distinguished by laughter and whimsy. Indeed, recognizing that the teachers at the first Waldorf school tended to be overly serious and even dour, Steiner took them to task, instructing them to leaven their work with humor. [See "Faculty Meetings".] The effort was not wholly successful — the teachers were true-believing Anthroposophists who saw nothing funny about their work — but it has continued, in various forms, down to the present. Waldorf faculties strive to be more jolly, or at least to seem to be so. And how better to do this than by staging school circuses?
At another level, classes in circus arts can be seen as part of the Waldorf effort to educate the whole child — "head, heart, and hands." [See "Holistic Education".] Virtually all activities at Waldorf schools have spiritual purposes; the religion of Anthroposophy undergirds everything. [See "Schools as Churches".] Because, in Anthroposophical belief, spirit pervades everything — even at the physical level of existence — all manner of apparently secular activities can be undertaken at Waldorf schools, as long as the teachers honor their spiritual essence. Thus, Waldorf schools often place great emphasis on arts and crafts and even, sometimes, athletics. If the spiritual purposes of Waldorf education are not always apparent in such things as knitting, soccer games, and circus performances, such purposes can be readily discerned in artistic endeavors such as painting, music, and dance. Steiner taught that the fine arts connect us to the spirit realm. [See "Magical Arts".] Lower forms of art — such as circus arts — may be taught with a similar intention, although the underlying, unspoken rationale may be more tortuous.
You should also realize that Waldorf education contains a deep strain of anti-intellectualism. Although Waldorf schools claim to educate heads as well as hearts and hands, in fact they often downplay the significance of brainwork. Instead, the children are encouraged to play a lot, and to use their imaginations rather than the reasoning centers of their brains — approaches that may segue into clowning and other circus arts. If the fine arts put us directly in touch with the spirit realm, circus arts may at least loosen us up, get our creative juices flowing, and stimulate our imaginations. Circuses are fantasy lands that reinforce the fantastical, otherworldly atmosphere found in Waldorf schools. They work to unplug the rational mind. In service to such objectives, Waldorf teachers sometimes enroll in special training courses to learn how to bring circus activities into their work. [See, e.g., the announcement of clowning courses offered at the Rudolf Steiner Institute: http://www.steinerinstitute.org/courses/09courses/clown-facilitator-training.aspx.]
The time spent in Waldorf schools on knitting, painting, playing, juggling, clowning, etc., has to come from somewhere, and generally it comes from periods that might otherwise be spent on serious schooling: brainwork. Rudolf Steiner's followers think that the brain is not a terribly important organ. No real thinking occurs in the brain, they believe. Thus, Steiner made such remarkable statements as "[T]he brain and nerve system have nothing at all to do with actual cognition" and "Within the brain nothing at all exists of the nature of thought." [See "Steiner's Specific".] Consequently, Waldorf educators think that training and informing the brain are not high priorities; instead, they explain their approach by saying, for example, “The success of Waldorf Education...can be measured in the life force attained. Not acquisition of knowledge and qualifications, but the life force is the ultimate goal of this school.” — Anthroposophist Peter Selg, THE ESSENCE OF WALDORF EDUCATION (SteinerBooks, 2010)‚ p. 30. [See the section "Waldorf education - goals" in "The Brief Waldorf / Steiner Encyclopedia".]
Anthroposophy is, in many ways, an optimistic faith, and Waldorf schools often reflect this optimism. There is frequently a sheen of smiles and uplifting sentiment at the schools. [See "Glory".] In a sense, the objective of Anthroposophy and the objective of the Waldorf movement is to find happiness — the high, spiritual happiness of redemption. Circuses do not bring redemption, and in some ways their frivolity contravenes the deep seriousness of spiritual aspiration. But circuses are undoubtedly venues of happiness; hence the pursuit of circus arts in Waldorf schools is explicable. From the Waldorf perspective, good cheer, optimism, and fantasy may lead indirectly toward the bright, glowing, upward path of Anthroposophy — the search for supernal happiness — so they should certainly be cultivated.
If you attend a Waldorf circus, enjoy yourself. But realize that there is much more behind the smiling clown faces than may be immediately apparent. Everything at Waldorf schools has an esoteric purpose — even clowning around.
Relevant? From an Anthroposophical perspective,
learning to be a clown may lead toward deep levels of mysticism:
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"Clown. The buffoon-jester is only one type of clown. Far older historically, more widespread, and of greater significance is the clown-magician with cosmic powers who acted as an intercessor between his people and the gods — also, the souls of the dead." — George Riland, THE NEW STEINERBOOKS DICTIONARY OF THE PARANORMAL (Rudolf Steiner Publications, 1980), p. 53.
[R. R., 2013.]