Since the earliest days of organized religious expression there have always been those who preferred seeking the individual mystical experience as their personal doorway to other dimensions of reality and the world beyond death. These mystics found the doctrines and dogmas of structured religion to be too inhibiting, too restrictive, and not at all conducive to the kind of personal relationship with the holy which they so desperately sought. Regardless of the religion or the culture from which they sprang, all mystics have as their goal the transcendence of the earthly self and union with the Absolute.
While the ancient mystery schools were built upon the worship of a particular god or goddess, the contemporary mystery schools have been built around the charisma and the spiritual teachings of a psychic sensitive, a medium, or a prophet. Since the latter part of the nineteenth century, in Europe, Great Britain, Canada, and the United States, the men and women who are most often attracted to the modern mystery schools are those who have grown dissatisfied with the teachings of Christianity and what they consider to be its restrictive religious doctrines concerning the afterlife and rebirth. Each of the contemporary mystery schools examined in this section—Anthroposophy, the Association for Research and Enlightenment, and Theosophy—accept the concept of reincarnation and blend many of the beliefs of Christianity and Judaism with traditional teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism.
In his classic work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James (1842–1910) has this to say regarding the oneness and unity of the mystical traditions: "This overcoming of all the usual barriers between the individual and the Absolute is the great mystic achievement. In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness. This is the everlasting and triumphant mystical tradition, hardly altered by differences of climate or creed. In Hinduism, in Neoplatonism, in Sufism, in Christian mysticism…we find the same recurring note, so that there is about mystical utterances an eternal unanimity…perpetually telling of the unity of man with God."
Many scholars of the early Christian church believed strongly that the various church councils had erred in removing reincarnation from official doctrine. The Gnostics, who strongly influenced early Christian doctrine, believed in reincarnation, and when the teachings of Origen (185 C.E.–254 C.E.), who championed preexistence, was anathematized in 553, they, along with other believers in reincarnation, were condemned as heretics. In later centuries, those who held Gnostic views were forced to remain silent regarding their beliefs in reincarnation, so they very often formed their own sects and schools of thought, such as the Cathars, the Knights Templar, the Rosicrucians, and the Albigenses.
Because many serious-minded Christians believe that there is evidence in the gospels that Jesus (c. 6 B.C.E.–30 C.E.) himself believed in reincarnation, they are comfortable with Hindu and Buddhist concepts of past lives and karma and see no conflict with their traditional belief in Christianity. Dr. Gladys McGarey is a member of the Association for Research and Enlightenment, the contemporary mystery school based on the medical and past-life readings of Edgar Cayce (1877–1945). The daughter of Christian missionaries and a medical doctor who employs the concepts of past lives in her practice, McGarey has expressed her belief that Jesus came to offer humankind the law of grace to supersede the law of karma.
"I believe sincerely that when Jesus said that he came to fulfill the law and not destroy it, he was referring to the law of karma, the law of cause and effect, which is superseded by the law of grace," she said. "If we are functioning under the law of karma, it is as if we are walking away from the Sun and walking into our own shadow—which means we are walking into darkness. But if we turn around and walk toward the Sun, then we are walking toward the Light, and that is great. To me, the light of the Sun—whether you spell it son or sun is a symbol of moving in the law of grace. The law of grace does not take away the karmic pattern, it just makes it so I don't have to hurt myself as I move through the karma that I have created."
In A Psychological and Poetic Approach to the Study of Christ in the Fourth Gospel (1923), Eva Gore-Booth explains the role of Jesus the Christ from the perspective of a reincarnationist and states that he is the way-shower in God's Great Plan, the intercessor who offers humankind release from the cycle of rebirth, the "circle of wanderings." In this view, Jesus became the anointed one who achieved Christ consciousness and thereby was allowed to offer eternal life to all people, a "deliverance from reincarnation, from the life and death circle of this earthly living."
In the latter part of the nineteenth century, Charles Fillmore (1854–1948) and his wife founded what eventually became known as Unity School of Christianity. Fillmore once observed that a large part of the Western world looked upon reincarnation as a heathen doctrine and that many people closed the doors of their mind without waiting to find out what message it may have for them, interpreted in the Light of Truth. According to Fillmore's view, Christ released humanity from the bondage of karmic law, thereby allowing each individual to make the most of each incarnation.
Edgar Cayce (1877–1945), the famous "sleeping prophet" of Virginia Beach, was a solid Baptist and a Sunday school teacher, but while in a trance, he gave past-life readings to thousands of men and women. Cayce believed that each soul enters the material plane not by chance, but through grace and the mercy of a loving Father-God. As to whether the soul is developed or retarded during these various incarnations is left to the free will of the individuals as they live through the errors incumbent in the life process or rise above them in their journey toward Oneness.
Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925) was the head of the German Theosophical Society until 1912, when he broke away to form his Anthroposophical Society. Steiner's objections with the Theosophists were mainly that they didn't revere Jesus and Christianity as special. However, he had no problem incorporating reincarnation and karma into his beliefs.
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–1891), the founder of Theosophy in collaboration with Henry Steele Olcott (1832–1907), had no problem with Christianity, but she preferred focusing on its esoteric traditions, which united it with all other religions. She popularized the study of reincarnation and past lives in Europe and the United States and introduced many occult and metaphysical concepts which flourished in the New Age Movement of the 1970s.
The contemporary mystery schools accept the doctrine of reincarnation as completely as did the ancient mystery religions. And just as the ancient mysteries departed from the state religions to form secret groups that required special initiations to ensure oneness with the gods, so have the contemporary mysteries departed from the organized religions of their cultures to form groups that require special memberships to establish a mystical union with the Absolute.
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