The Divine Microcosm
Clare Goodrick-Clarke surveys the life’s work of a talented film-maker, writer and humanist. Where on Earth is Heaven? by Jonathan Stedall, Hawthorn Press, 2009. ISBN 9781903458907.
Jonathan Stedall has been actively engaging with this question for most of his life. Where on Earth is Heaven? charts not only Stedall’s own creative and spiritual quest, but also the 20th-century trend away from conventional religion towards a freer spirituality, with an emphasis on the intuitive, the primacy of experience, and the value of the imagination.
Thoughtfully and clearly written, the book is also rich in humour, kindness, and the altruism of the open heart.
One of the most striking things to emerge from the book is how much good television there once was. Stedall had the good fortune to work on many excellent TV series such as One Pair of Eyes, Everyman and The Long Search. Now that oldies are regularly denigrated on TV, it is heartening to have in this book a flavour of the real wit and wisdom of John Betjeman, Cecil Collins, Alan Bennett and the irrepressible Malcolm Muggeridge, all in the afternoon of their lives.
In his films of Tolstoy, Jung and his interpreter, Laurens van der Post, Stedall, a gifted film director, explores big questions through lives that have left an indelible impression on the 20th century.
There are interviews with scientists who have given us a new view of the world: Fritjof Capra and Bernard Lovell. With Fritz Schumacher, Stedall discussed Gandhi as an economist who realised that in large populations production by the masses was a cleverer solution than mass production. They also discussed ideas of interdependence and the evolutionary potential of the human race – ideas which are the central concerns of the book.
Travelling the world and making remarkable documentaries of ideas and people that had interest and meaning for him, Stedall had an unprecedented opportunity for encountering Everyman, and much of the richness of the journey has come from the insights of those living ‘ordinary’ lives.
Most impressive has been Stedall’s work with the Camphill movement, perhaps the finest flower of all the altruistic initiatives that blossomed from Rudolf Steiner’s inspiration.
The loving environment of the Camphill communities enables those with ‘special needs’ to discover their own independence and value. The unassuming work somehow manages to slip the bonds that hold the autistic child in thrall, opening out a way into communication, artistry, gratitude and compassion. Stedall is always a concerned, grounded and perceptive guide.
Never simply a bystander, he sees as an artist does, and shows us how to see the story as a whole, always as a sum greater than its parts.
A surprising error, given his interest in Steiner, is Stedall’s insistence that “Steiner was never actually a member of the Theosophical Society”. Steiner became General Secretary of the Society in Berlin in 1902 and only severed ties with the organisation a decade later when he could no longer reconcile his Christo-centric views with the orientalising tendencies of the Adyar Theosophists. However, Steiner was indebted to Theosophy for his notions of reincarnation and karma.
Stedall’s vision of heaven on Earth mixes Anthroposophical ideas of reincarnation with Teilhard de Chardin’s thesis of the ‘Christification’ of matter and the evolution of spirit. In Stedall’s version of cosmic optimism he sees the emergence of self-aware, responsible, altruistic communities across the world that will work to put right the many ills that flesh is heir to, and ultimately fix the karma of history.
The creation of heaven on Earth will call for the evolution of consciousness, allowing “compassion to catch up with our cleverness”.
Recognising that the task is immense, Stedall imagines many, many lifetimes – however many it takes to eradicate the suffering and conflict that dog human affairs – seeing the gap between lifetimes as no more than a protracted absence, rather like the absence of consciousness in sleep.
Stedall, well-read in contemporary philosophy and psychology, quotes extensively from treasures garnered into his notebook over the years. In less skilful, less thoughtful hands, the sheer quantity of quotations might seem like window dressing, but Stedall has clearly pondered each one deeply and they are here because, like Ron Eyre and Laurens van der Post, they have become his good friends.
This is a rich, thought-provoking and challenging book which, like Stedall’s films, bears eloquent testimony to the vital, life-changing, life-enhancing, creative power at work in all individual lives.
Important for us all is the notion of the human world as the microcosm of the divine macrocosm, an idea that ultimately points beyond our own individual shortcomings to the awesome mystery no single life can fathom.