In my last post, “Apocalypse Now, Progressive Style,” I spoke about both the messianic tendencies that arise in traditional religious cultures the world over and the surprisingly similar tendencies toward eschatological thinking that we see even in progressive culture. I asked how we can find our way to a legitimate idealism about the development of human culture without falling prey to the mind-trap of messianic thinking.
A few years ago, I was doing research on an article on messianic thinking, and I came across a fascinating historical tidbit from the nineteenth century about Anne Besant, who had been a women’s rights activist in London before joining the Theosophical Society and eventually becoming its president. Besant was an interesting character for many reasons, but she is perhaps best known for her efforts to find the young boy who was supposed to grow up to be the World Teacher of the Theosophical Society. That boy was Jiddu Krishnamurti, the great twentieth-century teacher who rejected his association with Theosophy along with any sort of messianic titles and became a powerful independent philosopher/teacher in his own right.
It’s a fascinating story in many respects, but what struck me at the time was the reason for Besant’s messianic turn. It seems that she was incredibly passionate about progressive causes at the time, and amidst difficult conditions of the poor, and the squalor and poverty of an industrializing London, she began to lose faith in the modernizing forces at work in the economics of the day. After a flirtation with Marxism she met Helen Blavatsky, founder of Theosophy, and became interested in those esoteric teachings.
I’m sure there were many reasons for Besant’s interest in Theosophy, not the least being her own longtime spiritual interests, but one reason struck me as important: she was losing faith in the capacity of progressive causes to make a difference in the rapidly industrializing homeland. Continue reading…