How do we transform our lives? Finding most of the self-help literature opaque on this point, I thought of studying the greatest example of personal transformation on a large scale that I am aware of – that of the “Jesus movement” in the first three centuries AD. And I have come to some surprising – and I hope useful – conclusions. To be provocative – but not without good reason – I conclude that for the modern equivalent of the Jesus movement, we should look not to any of the modern churches, but to high-growth start-ups, to some colleges and universities, and to organizations that take intensity to the extreme.
My purpose here is not to try to shed light on religion, but on personal effectiveness, power, and transformation. So whether you have any interest in Christianity or none at all, please bear with me. I believe there are insights here we can all use to great advantage.
We have real problems thinking about the beginnings of Christianity – partly because it was so diverse, but mainly because the mental picture 99.99 percent of us have of early Christianity is so flawed. We have to forget what we think we know, to begin to understand it at all.
Happily, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other documents of the couple of centuries immediately before and after the life of Christ have painted a new picture of the early church and other Messianic groups. Christianity did not come as a bolt from the blue. As scholars such as Rudolf Steiner, Andrew Welburn, and Karen Armstrong have shown, the emergence of Christianity can only be understood against the backdrop of other similar communities, notably the Essenes and the Gnostics; and of Greek, Indian, Jewish, and pagan ideas that came together at the time to form an explosive cocktail for personal and social transformation.
Christianity was a synthesis of many strands of thought and action. It was also incredibly varied and versatile in the first three centuries, with different interpretations, competing gurus (some of whom were bishops), and a huge diversity of thought, that was only hammered into a coherent shape – rather badly, in my opinion – after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 312. But this is a short blog, so I am going to simplify what the Jesus movement was all about. There were three common strands:
If I had to select just one motif, it is this – the first Christians were incredibly serious about a total transformation of humankind, one by one. This was the first flowering in history of extreme individualism, but within a fervent community.
The central discovery was of the individual spiritual Self – the Kingdom of Heaven was to come on earth by a breakthrough in individual consciousness. It began with a mystical, esoteric movement within Judaism – the Essenes – who formed a community of some hundreds at Qumran by the Dead Sea in the two centuries before Christ and in early Christian times. Illumination required a long period of spiritual preparation, followed by baptism which marked the dying of the old self and rebirth to a higher life. Essene initiation gave gnosis – a special knowledge and spiritual vision. The individual was transformed through an inner awakening. There were two ways in life – the way of Light, God’s way; and the way of Darkness, that of Satan. The individual had to become aware of this inner battle, and struggle to defeat the darkness within himself by the light God awakened in him. Christianity took over this idea and took it a stage further. (Many Essenes recognized this and became Christians.)
You may recall that Mark’s Gospel starts with the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, who if not one of the Essenes was strongly influenced by them. The Spirit of God descends upon Jesus, and off he goes on his ministry. Saint Paul taught that the resurrection and ascension of Jesus started a new era, where men could gain direct access to the power of God through Christ. Again through baptism, the individual dies to his old Self and takes on the new Self, so that the Christ-presence begins to permeate the world. The Gospel of the Hebrews probably contains several passages edited out of the original Gospel of Mark, containing the secret deeds and sayings of Jesus, the “great mysteries” that were only available to those followers initiated by baptism.
We don’t fully know what these mysteries were. But it is clear from parts of the New Testament – especially the letters of Paul, and the Gospel of John – that there was something mystical – almost magical – about the personal transformation of the early Christians. In his first letter to the Corinthians (2:6-8) Paul makes a stunning claim that they enjoyed esoteric knowledge:
For we speak a wisdom among the initiated, a wisdom not of his aeon, nor its world-rulers who are passing away. We speak a wisdom of God in a mystery, an occult wisdom which God ordained before the aeons for our glory, which none of the world-rulers of this aeon knows.
What we do know is that the early Christians sought a union of individual humans with God, who released his power and magic to them to reach a higher and more ethical Self – as Paul said, “no longer I, but Christ in me”.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells his close followers, in the familiar words, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily laden, and I will give you rest.” In the Gospel of the Hebrews, Jesus elaborates: “He that seeks will not rest until he finds; but he that has found shall wonder; and he that has wondered shall reign; and he that has reigned shall rest.” The idea is developed in remarkably modern language. Inner awareness generates increasing openness to the reality of the universe, the ability to tap its power, and to gain psychic equilibrium by mastery of the Self, resulting in calm and mystical “rest”.
The transformation that is both demanded and facilitated by the new era of humankind that Jesus initiated is one of love. This is not a wishy-washy concept, but incredibly far-reaching and demanding, and part of the ongoing battle between good and evil, the battle that happens in the universe and in the individual. There is remarkably little clear doctrine in the New Testament, and what there is, is contradictory – not a problem for a vibrant group that was busy rediscovering itself, rather than attempting to construct a religion. But in so far as there is theory – and especially in practice – the injunction to a new level of love and care for humanity is what marks Christianity out from anything that came before. To some extent, we are immunized by familiarity, but Jesus’ words were revolutionary:
You have heard it said [not least by the Essenes] “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy”, but I say, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.
The Essenes were Dualists – they believed in a power of Light and a power of Darkness. Jesus says that a higher grade of love is necessary and that it will prevail – through the acts of his followers. Paul believed that Christ’s death and resurrection enabled the self to be empowered, to become aware of its infinity. Power and Love worked together within the autonomous Self. To it, all things are permitted.
It is almost too obvious to need stating, but personal transformation and heightening of individuality took place within a tight-knit group of highly motivated men and women, who shared their experiences and the mysteries of the highest cosmic truths, and worked as a community – usually to the exclusion of what we would call a proper job. They were always in each other’s houses and were conspicuous by their joy and fellow-feeling – which, far more than any doctrine, was the reason why the Jesus followers experienced exponential growth in their numbers. Of course, they had their conflicts and differences of emphasis. As Karen Armstrong says, “Pagans were particularly impressed by the welfare system that the churches [in each town] had established and by the compassionate behaviour of Christians towards one another … the Church had evolved an efficient organization that was almost a microcosm of the empire itself: it was multi-racial, catholic, international, ecumenical, and administered by efficient bureaucrats.”
There was no conflict between the highest levels of individuality and of community; the two were mutually reinforcing.
What About Today?
Where do we find the modern equivalents to extraordinary personal transformation, to esoteric knowledge, to a high degree of community, and to the highest standards of love in the battle between good and evil?
Not in most churches, which neither encourage individuality, nor demonstrate real community, nor exemplify the highest practical forms of love, nor even truly believe that they know something exceptionally powerful in the daily lives of their members.
The shortest answer is that we don’t often find these qualities anywhere, not all together at least.
But if I personalize the question, and ask myself when I have felt closest to exceptional self-development, individuality, community, esoteric knowledge, and a sense that we were on the side of the angels in a real battle against inferior ways of doing things, then I do have some answers. (Perhaps you could ask yourself the same questions.)
One of my answers is my time as an undergraduate at Wadham College, Oxford. Individuality and personal transformation – yes, through esoteric knowledge, yes, and with a strong sense of personally-supportive community, and a belief that we were doing good – pretty much yes too.
Another answer might surprise you, and it did surprise me – my time as a consultant in the early days of Bain & Company, and in the company which two partners and I founded afterwards, LEK. There was the same sense of personal transformation, learning new things, experimenting, gaining personal power, within a band of brothers and sisters, of being successful – an overlooked ingredient of any genuine transformation – and of being on the right side in the war of competition. Not so much the battle of good versus evil, but the battle of better ideas for how to transform other communities – our client companies.
I’m also struck by how the most successful start-ups and young companies have all these qualities. Steve Jobs, for example, was terribly demanding, yet transformed the lives of the colleagues who could cope with his demands. He believed that the battle between Apple on the one hand, and (at different times) IBM, Microsoft, and Google was the war of good versus evil. No doubt there was an element of theatre to this, but Jobs genuinely believed it. The effect must have been infectious.
The real problem is that it is hard to do these things – to have these special organizations – on a large scale. It is easier to grow fast and combine individuality, community, and passion, when you are new and small. The solution for individuals is obvious – seek out these exceptional places. The solution for society is not obvious – beyond saying we should break up large organizations, roll back government (but not its purposes), and break up countries into smaller entities that have real power and communities. But then, it is always easier to know what to do as an individual or small group than as a society. So let’s start with what is within our own power, and seek personal transformation in an appropriate community.
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