The divine in nature can only be met through a mediator. We may stand in awe before the wisdom, beauty and sublimity of nature, we may experience it as a creation, but we cannot have an immediate experience of the divine through the entities and beings of nature, because nature follows its own rational and understandable laws. Where those laws are at work, there cannot be any moral forces at work as well. In nature, we may look in vain for mercy and charity. (Whether a bridge between the spiritual and the physical world is possible is a very valid question, and Rudolf Steiner calls it “the central question”. However, it would be beyond the scope of this essay to discuss it here.)
Moral forces are at work whenever people meet. Kindness, forgiveness and love can only be experienced between people, never in nature, and these forces are associated with the divine. The divine can only manifest itself in the world by going through the soul of a human being. The encounter between people is in its purest form a religious experience. The fact that evil also enters the world in the same way does not falsify the theory, but rather proves that heaven and hell can only enter the physical world through somebody's soul and can only become real in that way.
As long as religious beliefs are based on testimonies and therefore posit a certain religious content, they are always and without exception only partial aspects of a universal faith. If we ask for the one rightful and true faith, in the sense of testimonial religious beliefs, the only answer can be Schiller's words: “The history of the world is the judgement of the world.”
For the young child, the distinction between the laws of nature and morality is not real. The child lives in the feeling that the world and nature are divine creations, and rightly so. This is a basic religious notion the child feels towards the world and, based on it, it is easy to plant gratitude in the child's soul. The task for the teacher of a seven to fourteen year old is to awaken love in the child, love in the most general sense, on the foundations of gratitude. Based on gratitude and love, a sense of duty grows in the child's soul, a duty to act morally in the world; this sense of duty cannot be prescribed. Rudolf Steiner calls this type of widespread misguided prescription the Stove-Imperative: “You are a stove, your purpose is to heat, therefore heat!” (i) The stove cannot follow such an order. But if it were to be fuelled and lit, it would just do its duty automatically. Accordingly, we cannot command a human being to act in a religious-moral way. However, we can supply the fuel of gratefulness and love, lay it into the child, as it were, and light it. Thus, a sense of moral duty develops naturally in the depths of the human individuality. This happens when the human being slowly becomes conscious of the separation between natural laws and morality. Gratefulness and love are the two forces inherent and rooted in the human being. They enable us to overcome the aforementioned separation in the world and thus to look for the immediate experience of the divine no longer in nature but in the fellow human being. Not taking this step is the reason for the gradual dying of religious feelings in the soul or for living a “religion of festivals” which is not rooted in daily life.
If we emphasize religious dogmas and testimonies, we are quickly forced into irreconcilable positions. But in the approach described above lies the key to finding peace concerning religious questions.
This approach is essential for Waldorf schools because it allows every school in every cultural context to implement the pedagogical concept of the school movement in their own way. At the same time it allows to attend to religious beliefs. Attending to religion is indispensable within our pedagogical concept and it is truly enriching that every culture implements it in its very own particular way.
Translated by Karin Smith
(i) Rudolf Steiner, lecture on 12. March 1908, GA 56
Stefan Grosse is a member of the board of the German Waldorf Steiner Association. Since 1984 he has been a class teacher in Esslingen/ Germany; since 1986 he has also been teaching RE. Furthermore, he is a member of the German and international committee for RE at Waldorf Steiner schools.