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Shattered dreams/intellectual freedom

Aug 08, 1996 11:17 AM
by K. Paul Johnson

Lately, as indicated in a previous post, I've been rereading
Bruce Campbell's Ancient Wisdom Revived, published in 1980.  I
have wondered why he never published again, and think perhaps
this passage explains something:

     Most of the writing on Theosophy up to the present has
evidenced two approaches.  Writings by non-Theosophists have
often been accusatory in tone.  They focused on the negative:
charges of fraud, deception, and improper conduct by the
founder.  Most of the responses written by Theosophists have
manifested a second bias.  They have offered blanket defenses
of Theosophy, often responding to critics not in terms of the
substance of charges but by repeating old arguments or trying
to discredit the critics personally.
     Both attitudes have important effects on the understanding of
Theosophy and, in combination, tend to perpetuate the
antagonistic relation between the Theosophical movement and the
general culture.  The first approach lacks appreciation for,
and thus cuts us off from, a significant part of our cultural
heritage, a pioneer movement with important consequences both
East and West.  The second, which often involves a refusal to
confront the issues raised by the first approach, displays a
polemical defensiveness and thus prolongs a situation in which
important internal problems within the Theosophical movement go
unexamined.  This book attempts a third approach in the hope
of moving discussion beyond the limitations of these two
positions.  On the one hand, it views appreciatively the
contributions of the Theosophical movement to culture and
society; on the other hand, it discusses Theosophy's problems
and internal conflicts.
Judging from the 16 years since this was published, it does not
seem likely that Campbell was satisfied with the results of his
attempt to move discussion "beyond the limitations of these two
positions."  The same summer that Campbell's book appeared,
Marion Meade's Madame Blavatsky was published.  Both were
ignored if not attacked within the Theosophical organizations,
and there was simply no effort to engage their arguments within
the movement.  Then, two years later, Tillett's masterful The
Elder Brother appeared.  Its only acknowledgment in the Adyar
TS was references to "a certain book" (by Dora Kunz and Radha
Burnier) which made allegations about Leadbeater that were not
worth answering.  Except for a favorable piece in the Eclectic
Theosophist about Tillett's book, I can think of no sign at any
time in the 1980s that any Theosophical organization was
willing to move discussion of Theosophical history beyond the
simple attack/defend polarity of the past.  Never was the work
of Campbell, Meade or Tillett treated as anything other than
enemy attacks.

In the 1990s, it was my turn, along with Joscelyn Godwin and Peter Washington,
to be attacked or ignored by the Theosophical organizations.
Again, three authors attempted to promote a new and more
nuanced, balanced approach to HPB and her influence.  Again, as in the
eighties, attempts to move discussion of Theosophical history in a more
productive and less polarized direction were stifled by the orthodoxy of the
Theosophical organizations.  In Wheaton, Pasadena, and the ULT, Sylvia
Cranston's hagiographical HPB was acclaimed as the only
worthwhile book on Theosophical history, and all others
dismissed, ignored or attacked.  So in 1996, we are not a step
further along the path toward intellectual freedom in the
discussion of Theosophical roots than we were in 1980.  In
fact, we are going in the opposite direction, with less and
less indication that Theosophists will ever be encouraged by
their leaders to consider any alternative views different from
those preached in Theosophical publications of the past.

In response to Paul K.'s question about why Theosophists can't
admit the truth about HPB's claims regarding Atlantis: there
has been absolutely no precedent set within the movement to my
knowledge that would allow members to seriously entertain the
possibility that HPB was wrong about anything, ever.  People
are therefore stuck on a "sandbank of thought."  All the
organizations have chosen to adopt a "high tension" position
vis-a-vis the values of society at large (including scientific
advances) rather than a "low tension" position that would
encourage rapprochement and reevaluation of dogmas.  High
tension groups maintain a strong internal cohesion, but at the
cost of becoming steadily less relevant and influential.

Part of the downfall of the Three Objects in this century has
been due to the unwillingness of Theosophical organizations to
adhere to the first and second objects when it comes to
evaluating their own history.  If they cannot do that in a
brotherly/sisterly and objective fashion, why should they be
trusted in realms more remote from their own backyards?

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