Lost Christianity: A Journey of Rediscovery to the Center of Christian Experience - Johannes Aagaard
by Jacob Needleman, Doubleday and Co., Inc., Garden City, NY, 1980. Reviewed by Dr. Johannes Aagaard, Aarhus University, Denmark.
Jacob Needleman is a long-standing scholar in the field of new religious movements. Associated with the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, he has written numerous valuable books on the subject. As a seeker after truth himself, Needleman (whose heritage is Jewish) has been guided especially by the teachings of Gurdjieff. Lost Christianity describes a recent Needleman odyssey--his trips and conversations with people who are searching, as he himself is, for "the center of Christian experience."
Among those many sources it is clear, however, that Gurdjieff’s pupil Father Sylvan, who emerges throughout the book, is the most important. One suspects that he is the author’s alter ego. Father Sylvan represents original gnosis (knowledge) before it degenerated into Gnosticism, and that is exactly Needleman’s own orientation. Such gnosis, for him, is "the center of Christian experience." For example, in the concluding section of the book he writes:
Mysticism and spirituality by themselves are not enough. Social action and therapeutic caring by themselves are not enough. Nor is it enough merely to reach for both at the same time. The lost element in our lives is the force within myself that can attend to both movements of human nature within my own being and can then guide the arising of this force within my neighbor in a manner suited to his understanding. To communicate that idea has been the single aim of this book (p. 222).
That is a surprising ending because the terminology there is different from the rest of the book. In it "the force within myself" or "the arising of this force"--expressions which are normally associated with current kundalini ideology--are not discussed. Moreover, in the rest of the book Needleman attempts to find the human center, or soul, as the dominant picture, or rather "to bring back the symbolic power of the idea of the soul" (p. 189). The soul as idea has a symbolic power that cannot be dispensed with. Therefore, Needleman aims toward the "formation within human nature of true individual being, the creation of intermediate man, who alone in the cosmic scheme can care for or harmonize or relate all the forces of creations (p. 181).
The expression "intermediate man" is his key idea, and he gets that from Gurdjieff. By it he seeks to define that which is between God and animal (p. 152), that which is between "sin and salvation" (p. 122). His thesis is that without "the intermediate" or "the symbolic power of the idea of the soul...the teaching of Christ (can) have no real action on our being" (p. 152), for "the teachings of Christ as we know them are meant for people of a higher level than ourselves" (p.155). It is at that point that Needleman in truth not only represents gnosis but is Gnostic. The fundamental idea is that "levels of Christianity" exist and are parallel to "graduations of the being of man" (p. 125). Today we are "subnatural men," and as such we cannot hear and apply Jesus’ teachings. It is hopeless to refer only to "the ultimate or final reality of life" (p. 128) because we cannot arrive there. As we have emphasized the goal of human life, we have neglected "the middle realms" or "the instrumentality by which the goal may be reached" (p. 128). The instrumentality for Needleman is raising the "attention" (that is, attainment of clear consciousness) of men and women. Only then can the message--Christ’s teachings, the gospel--be both communicated and understood intelligibly.
It is the soul’s birth in the human that must be aimed for. That is the prerequisite for the true Christianity which is now lost. Needleman argues fundamentally from a totally pessimistic standpoint: true Christianity can no longer be found (p. 88f); modern men and women’s prayers have no effect (p. 95); and Christendom has "no force, no power to bring about change" (p. 119). The presupposition for that judgment seems to be Gurdjieff’s moralistic view that "a Christian is a man who is able to fulfill the Commandments" (p. 170). Gurdjieff, therefore, calls humans "pre-Christian" (p. 171). Needleman thinks a change in that condition can occur only by reviving "the esoteric tradition. (p. 187), because "the symbol guides the search" (p. 188). It is the symbol’s power, which issues from the idea of the soul, that must be restored. The esoterica are "ideas, practices and methods of living that support the process of awakening" (p. 122).
But Needleman realizes that is only possible for a very few informed people; namely, those who have "the spark of God within them" and whose goal must be "to sever their bondage to the world and its people, to remember their real origins and escape from the death-dealing pleasures and pains of the created universe in which they find themselves" (p. 201). Although those are Father Sylvan’s words, I wonder if they aren’t also Needleman’s. In the final analysis, only "these special individuals" interest him. "There are two species of human beings; one at home in this darkened, deceptive and evil world; the other an ‘alien race’ thrown into this world" (p. 203). Those two races are in all of us, and all people are called to catholicism. Gnosis, if we receive it, shows us our lack of response to that call (p. 204).
Needleman is fascinated with catholic, orthodox Christianity. One can say that the book is both an explanation of his unhappy love affair with that ideal and a search for the people and places where possibilities exist for that old faith to give meaning to the new humanity. Whereas people like Needleman embody humanity’s futile search, they still hope to find their home in the mother Church and the catholic, orthodox teachings. With a discovery of the human self, or the soul, the "intermediate man" can take effect and give greater meaningfulness to lower reality. How the soul in fact achieves that one cannot know, but there is reason to believe that it happens through meditative gnosis a la Gurdjieff and Father Sylvan.The Holy Spirit never appears on Needleman’s horizon. Whereas he seeks the spirit as mankind’s great possibility, he does not acknowledge the Holy Spirit as God’s bridge to us all--to all of our pre-Christian, subhuman, low misery. That is so much the more strange since Needleman begins Lost Christianity with a powerful interview with metropolitan Anthony Blum who indirectly gives him the answer to all of his searching. "The proper response to love is to accept it. There is nothing to do. The response to a gift is to accept it. Why should you wish to do anything?" (p. 33).