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Helmut Zander Interview in Swiss-Info

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  • Tom Mellett
    Swiss-Info Interview with Helmut Zander, March 13, 2011
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 15, 2011
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      Swiss-Info Interview with Helmut Zander, March 13, 2011


      Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) left behind a immense body of work that followers and opponents still argue about today.



      By Etienne Strebel

      The charismatic anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner would have been 150 years old this year. Today it's often said that you either revere him or else you can't stand to go near him. The theologian Helmut Zander sees it a bit differently in this interview with SWISS-INFO.


      Translated from the German by Tom Mellett


      SWISS-INFO: You've dealt exhaustively with the vast corpus of Rudolf Steiner's work and even applied that knowledge in publishing a biography of Steiner. However, you yourself did not become an anthroposophist. Why is that?

      HELMUT ZANDER: When you delve so deeply into Anthroposophy and Christianity --- I'm also a theologian --- you will always find matters of fundamental differences that are incompatible.

      An essential point: Rudolf Steiner's great hope was that we could all achieve an objective, absolute knowledge which would, in principle, solve all the mysteries of the universe.

      But I remain convinced that there are certain things we will never know. Along with that comes the reality that we have to get by with a knowledge that is limited, regional, and very personal.


      SWISS-INFO: What bothers you more? Steiner's spiritual world, or else the practical things he brought us from there?

      HELMUT ZANDER: We can appreciate and adopt most of the practical developments. That's the view of most people who send their children to a Waldorf school, use a Weleda ointment or eat biodynamically-grown Demeter-tomatoes --- yet none of them has a clue about anthroposophy.

      But the moment you really investigate the underpinnings of these practical applications and the ideological foundation of anthroposophy --- well, that requires a meticulous discussion of Steiner's ideas --- for instance, his image of the human being, which involves reincarnation.


      SWISS-INFO: Are Steiner's teachings still relevant today?

      HELMUT ZANDER: For most non-anthroposophists, it's really just an oddity. But for the experienced orthodox core of Anthroposophists, Steiner continues to be their center of gravity.

      Yet even for conventional medicine, it is still relevant, not only because of its unique dimensions, its unique way of imaging human diseases, but its ability to visualize the whole human being --- just as Steiner reveals it in anthroposophical medicine.

      In scientific theories, we distinguish between validation and explanation. Anthroposophists validate everything with the spiritual world, alluding to spiritual influences from angels to cosmic forces.

      Even outside the anthroposophical milieu things can still be justified. For example, "The reason Anthroposophical doctors are so good is that they take more time."


      SWISS-INFO: Steiner managed to incorporate an unbelievably wide range of subjects into his work. Was he one of the last universal geniuses?

      HELMUT ZANDER: For anthroposophists he was a universal genius. Critics say he was a universal dilettante. In many areas, he has remained superficial. But --- and this is the fascination of anthroposophy --- he built a superstructure to fit in many unique and disparate themes. Maybe picture a large anthroposophical bowl where so many varied ingredients are mixed together.

      With any anthroposophical theory, Steiner always felt entitled to claim various disconnected parts for himself and assign them a place in the anthroposophical cosmos. Good examples include: expressive dance (anthroposophical eurhythmy), architecture, medicine, education or agriculture/gardening.


      SWISS-INFO: So, was Steiner was a copy-cat?

      HELMUT ZANDER: Steiner would copy and transform. Whatever he took in, he invariably adapted it.

      He copied homeopathic medicine in a big way. But he integrated that into the overall program of anthroposophical medicine. And of course, by doing so, he also modified homeopathy a little bit.


      SWISS-INFO: We often hear: Oh, with Steiner you either revere him or oppose him. Can't we really describe the "hardcore Steiner followers" as in a cult?

      HELMUT ZANDER: That's difficult for me because "cult" is such a negatively loaded word. For me, it's first and foremost a community with a shared world-view, a religious community, like all the others.

      But when you really look closer --- how it actually functions --- I would say that the authoritarian structures are chiseled in quite a bold relief --- at least in the orthodoxy of anthroposophy.

      This can also lead to problems: I am thinking of the sometimes very prickly debates about Steiner's racist statements in recent years. With anthroposophists, you get a feeling that you need to be very selective with Steiner; that you have to decide whether or not you should really adopt everything that the doctor has said.


      SWISS-INFO: Must we categorize certain statements of Steiner as racist?

      HELMUT ZANDER: Oh, yes, those statements of his are racist. However, whatever we read in them cannot simply be transported into the present day --- as if Auschwitz, persecution of the Jews and European imperialism never existed.

      Even to this day, Anthroposophy has yet to deal with its own roots in a historically critical way.

      Steiner belongs to the European tradition of the 19th Century which had created nationalism, nations, peoples, races --- all measured according to its own standards. In Hegel's works, incidentally, you see very similar things.

      When we hear Steiner expressions today, such as "degenerate Indians, passive Asians, instinct-driven Blacks," --- that was perfectly normal in the late 19th Century.

      The problem is that anthroposophists convey this mindset as a supersensible dogma that continues unfiltered even to this day. Same with the subject of Atlantis: Steiner was convinced that we should teach it in school. But today, this is, plain and simple, not the status quo of scientific debate.

      Our understanding of science has dramatically changed since Steiner's day. In the humanities, we now work with plausibilities --- on claims supported by argument and accurate interpretation. We know that this knowledge has a short "half-life." After us will come people who will interpret it differently.

      Steiner's understanding of science is, in this sense, beholden to an extinct tradition.


      SWISS-INFO: Who will survive? The critics or the orthodox anthroposophists?

      HELMUT ZANDER: I imagine both will survive. The orthodox faction is likely to remain a very small part. By contrast, the more open group will grow, precisely because of the practical applications.

      The anthroposophists always get a little annoyed with me when I tell them that they do not operate primarily as scientists, but rather as "meaning endowers." ***

      In the end, the people who "follow this star," are not really seeking knowledge, but much more they seek to find a meaningful order to their world. And that is what I believe is the attractiveness of this milieu.


      Etienne Strebel, SWISS-INFO


      ***[TR. NOTE: The German word here is hard to translate without a long sentence. It is "Sinnstiftung" and literally means "meaning-endowment." Or "sense-construction." Zander is making the contrast to objective science so this is an arbitrary, subjective endowing of things in the world with meaning or significance. I could also say "significance creators," which explains why Anthroposophists will interpret mundane trivial events as so deeply and world-historically significant.]

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