Who was Rudolf Steiner?
To attempt an answer to this question is like trying to drink water out of one's hands—most of it escapes. It is a soul question, not one of biography as we know it. Even an attempt to describe his words (which, as fruit is to tree, is essentially a soul question) meets with familiar fate. In the first paragraph of the preface of his book, The Essential Steiner (1984), Robert A. McDermott said that countless anthologies of Steiner's works, with the same title, could be written without duplication. The very thought of trying to answer this question calls up the closing thought in John's gospel.
But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were ever one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that could be written.
What this really says is that there is no earthly possibility of any person or institution, even that which calls itself Christendom, fully capturing such a being.
And like the quest for Christ, one seeking to know Steiner deeply can walk but one of countless paths, eventually only to find that he is, and can only be, an intensely personal revelation.
Historically, he was born February 27, 1861 in Kraljevic, Austria and died March 30, 1925 in Dornach, Switzerland.
Numerous excellent biographies have been written. Several are listed in the bibliography in The Burning Bush, where it also points out that the Rudolf Steiner Library, in Ghent, NY, has a total of one hundred twenty-one, of which thirty three are in English and the rest in German. A commendable brief sketch can be found in the Britannica. And in an effort to present as complete a bibliography as possible on his works then available in English, I listed in The Burning Bush approximately nine hundred of his titles either currently in print or at the library. Others have recently been added, and there remains to this day a significant segment not yet translated.
In spite of his prodigious life and work, he is still largely unknown in the English-speaking world. Four reasons are suggested for this in the General Introduction to The Burning Bush, namely:
1. His teachings do not fit neatly with much ecclesiastical dogma;
2. His works are so extensive and interrelated that great commitment of time and effort is necessary to comprehend them;
3. The world conditions were not conducive to the spread of a German's spiritual teachings beyond the borders of Europe. Two world wars involving his country separated by the direst economic conditions in his native land in the twenties and then worldwide in the thirties, followed after World War II by the greatest explosion of materialism the world has ever known; and
4. Not until 1965 were even small volume printings of any of his works available in English, and even now perhaps less than a third of the number of his total works can be purchased in the English language, and only if one knows where.
Perhaps a fifth one, in part an elaboration on the first, should be added, namely, that there is a general tendency in both academic and conventional pursuits to be wary of apocalypse, that is, of revelation based upon pure intuition. And along with his immeasurable intellectual genius, Steiner insisted, and his followers accept, that his teachings were intuited insights. Still he urged that his hearers and readers not accept his disclosures without first testing their truths in every manner possible. No human being, himself included, is totally free of error; but the reports of those who through the ages have intuited from he spiritual world are more consistent with one another than the writings of historians (and one could add scientists) even of a single generation. Most of his followers reach a point beyond which there is an inherent trust in the general validity of his teachings.
For more conventional biographical description, even if unmercifully compressed, the following is taken from the back cover of his unfinished deathbed autobiography, Autobiography, Chapters in the Course of My Life: 1861-1907/Rudolf Steiner:
During the last two decades of the nineteenth century the Austrian-born Rudolf Steiner became a respected and well-published scientific, literary, and philosophical scholar, particularly known for is work on Goethe's scientific writings. After the turn of the century he began to develop his earlier philosophical principles into an approach to methodical research of psychological and spiritual phenomena.
His multifaceted genius has led to innovative and holistic approaches in medicine, science, education (Waldorf schools), special education, philosophy, religion, economics, agriculture (Bio-Dynamic method), architecture, drama, the new art of eurythmy, and other fields. In 1924 he founded the General Anthroposophical Society, which today has branches throughout the world.
Steiner coined the term anthroposophy as the name for (the character of) his teachings, compounding the two Greek words, anthropos (human being, but with a higher connotation than the Latin homo, which is etymologically related to the Greek chthon meaning earthly) and sophia (wisdom). Literally, it thus means the wisdom of the human soul.
While not everyone will be ready in his lifetime to accept it, Steiner's mission was totally and specifically Christ centered. That Christendom has been slow to embrace it, aside from the reasons suggested above, is perhaps pointed to by a two-lecture cycle he gave in Munich in 1907 entitled, Christianity Began as a Religion but is Greater than all Religions (including, one must conclude, what presumes to call itself Christianity). Though never a member of any religious confession, he lauded the truly religious nature and insisted that his teachings were not intended to establish a new religion but were for the enlightenment of all. He pointed to the existence of a higher spiritual reality of the Christ and spiritual world to be sought that would bring all creation into harmony. As a religion, rather than a spiritual reality itself, Christendom had yet to rise to that level.
While I have since come to see in Steiner's other works, such as his scientific, a truer relation to observed phenomena than that in many of the principles or "laws" widely accepted as "scientific fact," the "testing" of his works that originally convinced me related primarily to the Bible. Having studied it all my life and taught it for twenty-five years before ever hearing the name Rudolf Steiner, what I found in his lectures on esoteric science and the Bible untied one theological (hermeneutical or interpretive) knot after another. The Bible's meaning, consistent from beginning to end, became far more clear and meaningful than anything I had seen or heard in my previous fifty-six years. Using the guideline, "You shall know them by the fruit," I must add to this poor, personal effort to identify him, that he is a prophet of the highest order in every sense of the word. And in keeping with that character, his life was one of sacrificial service even to the point of virtual martyrdom.