Theosophy: Tradition, Mystery, and Daily Life

By Jim Belderis

Theosophy is derived from the ancient Greek theosophia, which means "god wisdom" or "wisdom of things divine." It was first used by Neoplatonic philosophers who taught the essential unity behind different philosophical systems. Along with several related terms, theosophia was also used by early Christian writers who referred to a hidden wisdom that transcended all worldly wisdom. Its use continued in various movements in medieval Europe — alchemists, kabbalists, rosicrucians, hermeticists, and freemasons described theosophy as a universal tradition of ancient wisdom, which formed the core of all religious and philosophical systems.

The concept of a universal wisdom tradition can be found in cultures all over the world. Throughout history there have always been sages and seers with a deeper sense of the reality of things, and their wisdom is recorded in countless sacred texts and philosophical writings. This tradition was given a new momentum in 1875 by those who founded the Theosophical Society.

The principal founders were Helena Blavatsky, Henry S. Olcott, and William Q. Judge, and through their efforts the Society became a worldwide organization. The underlying purpose of the Society is to promote the idea of universal brotherhood. By studying ancient and modern religion, science, and philosophy, and the mysteries of human potential, the Theosophical Society works to demonstrate the essential unity of all that lives.

There are three basic principles in theosophy, called the Three Fundamental Propositions. Perhaps the most familiar is the Third Proposition, which involves the essential oneness of existence. It proposes that all forms of life are essentially spiritual beings that spring from the same divine source. All are evolving their spiritual potential, all are part of a living universe, and the well-being of the whole depends on the welfare of every part. No matter how different we appear from other beings in the physical world, each of us has the same spark of divinity within us. It is this connection that gives us a sense of the great Mystery of our existence.

Here, within the great Mystery, is the source of a universal desire: to find out who we really are. Every form of life is transformed by the potential of this desire on every level of being. From the ethereal to the physical, from spirit to matter, the transformation of life works through cycles of living and evolving, withdrawing back to the Source, and manifesting again to continue our evolution. This cyclical nature of life is called the Second Fundamental Principle.

The process of "the One becoming the many" involves the organization of consciousness into a multitude of patterns and conditions. Interpenetrating all these forms is the unfathomable principle behind consciousness itself, unconditioned and unalterable, infinite and eternal. As the First Fundamental Principle, it is beyond every conception, beyond all things that exist. It can never be described, yet it has been given names that tell us what it is not — such as the Unknowable, the great Void, the Causeless Cause, and the Boundless.

These three concepts — the Boundless, the One, and universal cycles — are all "propositions." They are put forward for our consideration, not laid down by a religion or any kind of authority to be accepted without question. Strange as it may sound, theosophical ideas are meant to be questioned. The wisdom tradition even has a truth-testing axiom: "as above, so below." This allows each of us to use our own experience to test the validity of any philosophy, because there is a correspondence between the universe and every human being. If a philosophical teaching helps us understand how nature works as a whole, it should also give us insight into what is happening in our lives. Moreover, we can test these insights by putting them into practice, and then life itself becomes the teacher.

Suppose we want to test the principle of unity — that there is a spiritual reality that binds us all together, and that the balance of nature as a whole depends on how we think and act. Once we try to live according to these ideas, we start watching our own behavior, and we end up asking questions of ourselves: When we work with nature for the benefit of the whole, what do we experience? When we're careful how we treat life, how does life treat us? And what happens when we're careless, when we work against nature, when we have only our own interests in mind?

This kind of self-examination can literally awaken the seer within us by giving us a deeper sense of reality. We sense that whatever we see with our physical eyes also exists on other levels, and it transforms our entire vision of life. With imagination and intuition we can see worlds within worlds, all of them forming an interdependent whole. We know we are part of that whole, that these worlds are within us, and that each of us is a great mystery. Once we become fascinated by the microcosm of our own nature, it gives us insight into the macrocosm of the universe. We realize that no outside authority can take the place of what life can teach us. Even when we misread the signals, make mistakes, and work against nature — we will learn far more from life's lessons than from any other source.

Ultimately, every experience can tell us something about who we are. When we trust the process of our own self-directed evolution, we discover that we ourselves are part of the wisdom tradition. Our identity is unveiled by the cycles of the universe. We are the One. And in a way that will ever be a mystery, we are the Boundless.

(From Sunrise magazine, June/July 2005; copyright © 2005 Theosophical University Press)


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We rarely hear the inward music, but we're dancing to it nevertheless. — Rumi