What is the “Glass Bead Game”? in the idyllic poem, “Hours in the Garden” (1936), which he wrote during the composition of his novel, [Hermann] Hesse speaks of “a game of thoughts called the Glass Bead Game” that he practiced while burning leaves in his garden. As the ashes filter down through the gate, he says, “I hear music and see men of the past and future. I see wise men and poets and scholars and artists harmoniously building the hundred-gated cathedral of the mind”.
These lines depict as personal experience that intellectual pastime that Hesse, in his novel, was to as “the unio mystica of all separate members of the Universitas Litterarum” and that he bodied out symbolically in the form of an elaborate game…
The Glass Bead Game is an act of mental synthesis through which the spiritual values of all ages are perceived as simultaneously present and vitally alive.
Theodore Ziolkowski, "Foreword,"The Glass Bead Game, p. XI
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The Glass Bead Game: Then and Now
Hermann Hesse is considered one of the finest novelists of the 20thcentury. There has, gratefully so, been a renaissance of Hesse’s writings in a last decade after a lull in interest for about 30 years. There are reasons for this given Hesse’s impact and popularity from about 1955-1975. Sadly so, Hesse was often misread in his high point of popularity, hence dismissed when the age and ethos of the counterculture seemed to be passé. But, with the passage of the years, a more mature and fuller read of Hesse is finally afoot.
Hermann Hesse won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946, and such an affirmation had much to do with his immense literary and artistic output over many a decade. Needless to say, his life spanned some of the most tragic events of the 20thcentury and Hesse was never shy about commenting on such realities. The publication of Hesse’s The Journey to theEast in the early 1930s was, in many ways, a primer and pointer to his more developed novel, The Glass Bead Game (published in German in 1943). The role of Leo and the League in The Journey to the East anticipates, in most ways, the more sophisticated Joseph Knecht and Castalia in The Glass Bead Game. The nature of the game, as mentioned above by Ziolkowski, is about the threading together, in one grand synthesis and unity, the best that has been thought, said and done throughout the history of human time across civilizations, cultures, religions, literatures, philosophies, music and the arts. Obviously, such a catholic sweep of thought towards a higher unity is meant to correct and question the tendency towards disunity, fragmentation, nationalisms and all those tribalist tendencies that are so much a part of the human condition and world history. The vision of the Castalians was, therefore, to bring together that which was separate, to unite that which was fragmented, to offer peace rather than war, to envision that which might be rather than what is. In short, Castalians were visionaries of an idealistic unity rather than a crude realism that divides one from the other. The irony of The Glass Bead Gameis, of course, the inability of the Castalians (and Joseph Knecht-Magister Ludi) to thread together thought and action, ideal and reality, intellectual and historic events. This was Hesse’s time tried warning by a sage of sorts who had seen, all too clearly, the consistent gap between those who envision a higher unity at the level of thought yet at the level of action, armies and power do ever undermine the idealists dream of unity. The tensions that exist between those, at an intellectual level, who create paradigms, models, glass bead games of unity and those, at a historic level of life in the valley (rather than the mountain peaks of untroubled historic reality) who undermine such an intellectual game is at the heart and core of Hesse’s probes in The Glass Bead Game.
I mentioned above that The Glass Bead Game was published in German in 1943 and, in English in 1969. The tome of sorts with many genres dwells in the nexus of ideal and reality, unity and divisiveness, intellectual and historic events. The message offered cannot be missed.
The translation of the longing for some higher unity of thought is often thwarted in the realm of human doing, willing and action. Even the final death of Knecht leaves the future open, but if the past was to be any teacher into the future, utopian idealism had to be seen for what it was. Who, though, are some of the contemporary Castalians and Glass Bead Players of the early decades of the 21stcentury and what might Hesse’s epic novel yet speak to them? I will, for the remainder of this essay, ponder 8 glass bead game players and their clan.
The Four Horsemen of the New Atheists
There has, in the last few years, emerged a group of thinkers called the four horsemen of the New Atheism: Hitchens, Dennett, Harris and Dawkins. Hitchens died a couple of years ago, and with the addition of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the group might be called the four riders of the New Atheism. Needless to say, the intellectual game played by this group tends to pit science against religion (rather dated and superficial) to the detriment of religion and elevation of science. This approach to the historic religion-science conflict is neither good religion nor science—it is scientism and religiosity.
But, the New Atheists do not see it that way. They are on a crusade in which the ideas and reality of science are threaded together in the game in such a way that science is, almost, seen as the saviour of the world and religion the means of its deterioration. This either-or, black-white way of thinking, obviously so, leads to an ongoing conflict between religion and science and tends to be rather crude and simplistic. Most thoughtful theologians and sophisticated religious thinkers and activists can scarcely recognize themselves in such a notion of religion and few are the good scientists that are fully on board with the New Atheists. There is at a much higher level a fine dialogue (and has been for centuries) between religion and science, theology and legitimate scientific research. It is important to note, though, that this played game, by the New Atheists, although far from Hesse’s vision of integration and unity tends to be trendy at a popular level these days, and, as such, needs to be flagged but not taken with a great deal of seriousness. Those who are truly serious about the religion-science issue should turn to more sophisticated sources (and there are many).
The New Physics, Taoism and Religion
If the New Atheists tend to pit religion against science in their glass bead game of sorts, the New Physics is more interested in bringing together religion and science. There is an unhelpful tendency amongst some of those committed to the New Physics to pit Newtonian thought against the more modern ideas of physics. The publication in 1975 of Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics brought together, in a creative manner, spirituality and science. Capra’s The Turning Point (1982) inspired the 1990 movie, Mindwalk. Capra has played a significant role in bringing together ecology, spirituality and science and his recent book, The Systems of Life,embodies this unified vision—the glass bead game does ever continue. Capra, an Austrian, worked together with David Steindl-Rast (A Christian Benedictine monk) to publish Belonging to the Universe in 1991. The fact that Capra and Steindl-Rast have much in common on their journey has made it more than clear that religion need not be pitted against science. There are many who have heeded and heard Capra’s clarion like call which is quite different than the New Atheists. There is a sense, of course, in which Capra (and peers) are very much well heeled Castalians and play the game of integration, systems and unity well and wisely. Capra has, legitimately so, tapped into Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions to highlight the fact that science, like any other intellectual activity, works with interpretive models and when the interpretive model does not adequately deal with the new facts, new models must be brought to the fore. Such was the move made by Capra to articulate how physics, when read and interpreted in a certain way, need not be in opposition to religion and spirituality. There are many who nod a hearty amen to Capra and tribe in their approach and, in many ways, Hesse would be impressed by how well such a game is being played. How close, though, are such Castalians to the historic events troubling Europe and North America at the present time? We hear little from them in a substantive way other than idealistic slogans and clichés—such would be Hesse’s warnings and insights.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Thomas Berry: Evolution and Spirituality
There can be no doubt that Pierre Teilhard de Chardin has waxed in significance and import since his death in 1955. The fact that de Chardin attempted, as an archeologist-paleontologist-theologian to overcome the sad and tragic schism between science and religion is part of his appeal and genius. De Chardin also attempted to spiritualize the evolutionary process in a way that undercut a purely materialist read of the unfolding of human and natural history. It was this synthesis of religion and science, a reading and interpreting of evolution that blended matter and spirit and his Christological telos of sorts that has made De Chardin a mentor for many in the post-de Chardin era. The fact that de Chardin was marginalized by the Roman Catholic establishment in his life (as was Galileo) adds to the appeal, for many, of de Chardin’s insights and significant contributions to the science-religion-evolution dialogue. We have certainly moved a substantive distance from the confrontational approach to religion-science in the New Atheists when we encounter the more subtle, integrative and probing work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. There can be no doubt, though, that de Chardin is engaged in a playing of the glass bead game in which he is seeking to unify the ideas and reality of religion, spirituality, science and evolution within a grander meta-narrative or epic sweep of thought—such is the vocation of Castalians.
Many are those who have come to focus on de Chardin and ways and means to interpret him. There are many more, though, who draw from the well of de Chardin’s thinking but go beyond his approach in the playing of the game of integrating ideas: such is the creative life of Thomas Berry. There is a sense in which Berry is a more interesting thinker than de Chardin for the simple reason he is integrating more into his field of thought than de Chardin did. Berry saw himself as an “ecotheologian”, “geologian” and “earth scholar” who, rightly so, realized a “New Story” had to be told about how humanity was to live within the unfolding reality on earth, our island home. The fact that Berry was as interested in healing the religion-science divide as he was the larger political and economic issues makes him a compelling glass bead player—he was, in most ways, threading beads of thought together that de Chardin never did. Berry thought the “great work” before us was to integrate a fourfold realm of synthesis: political-legal, economic-industrial, education and religion. It was this fourfold work that was before humanity in the next phase and stage of the evolutionary process in our global village. The fact that Berry’s work was included in the fine 2007 film, What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire, should be duly recognized. There can be no doubt that Berry is a Castalian of the highest order and he has been amply rewarded for playing the game well and wisely. Magister Ludi would have nodded a gracious amen to the work of Thomas Berry—he has certainly carried the work of de Chardin to a higher level and, as such, should be recognized and honoured for doing so. But, as Hesse rightly noted in The Glass Bead Game, such intellectual acts and events of unity in the world of the Castalians often bear little fruit in the actual world of the vita activa in the valley of historic political and economic events.
The work of de Chardin and Berry continues to ripple forth in the work, to a lesser degree, of Brian Swimme. Swimme, like de Chardin and Berry, is engaged in overcoming the chasm between religion and science, and Swimme’s earlier academic life with Matthew Fox and tribe embodies such a furthering forth into such terrain. Swimme’s commitment to evolutionary cosmology or the epic of evolution, in a positive and upward sweep, is generously reflected in his 2011 Canticle to the Cosmos. There can be no doubt that Swimme is carrying forth the vision of De Chardin and Berry in a way that, in thought, if not in realized deed, reflects the ongoing nature of the glass bead game: integration, unification, dot connecting and concord. I would suggest, though, that of the three thinkers mentioned, Berry is by far the most creative and advanced glass bead game player.
The 2ndAxial Age: Karl Jaspers and Ewert Cousins
Karl Jaspers was, probably, one of the most creative philosophers of the 20thcentury. His friendship with Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger makes for a significant study in and of itself. But, it was Jaspers’ theory of axial ages that is most pertinent for us. Jaspers suggested that from the 8th-2ndcenturies BCE there was an emergence of creative spirituality that altered the direction of world history: Buddhism, Jewish prophets, Plato-Aristotle, Indian Upanisads, Confucius-Lao Tzu and Zoroastrianism emerged on the stage of world history and offered a deeper and fuller notion of the faith journey than mere superstition and tribalism. The emergence of a sort of implicit universalism was birthed at such a period of the 1staxial age. But, such a birthing never truly matured and bore much fruit other than in different religions (that often turned on one another). It was with the tragedy of WWII that Jaspers sensed that we had entered the 2ndaxial age. The evidence of both humanity slaughtering one another and the possibilities of a higher theological and philosophical unity pointing the way to a new age became evident to Jaspers. The world had shrunk with modernity, cultures and civilizations lived nearer one another and the potential existed for such religions to
be committed to their deeper and more explicit unity. The age of Christendom and Christianity was past. The 2ndaxial age would bring together all the major and minor religions of the world for a higher global end and purpose—such was the promise and hope of the post WW II 2ndaxial age and, in some ways, the United Nations was on the forefront of such an experiment.
Jaspers’ enucleation of the 2ndaxial age beginning after WWII has become a developed manifesto of sorts for many in the game of religious and political synthesis since Jaspers death in 1969. One of the leading lights of such a visionary and unfolding evolutionary perspective is Ewert Cousins. Cousins was one of the front edge thinkers in the latter half of the 20thcentury in the area of contemplative interfaith dialogue, and his leadership in such comprehensive texts in spirituality, Classics of Western Spirituality and World Spirituality: An Encyclopedic History of the Religious Quest have positioned Cousins at the forefront of modern glass bead game players. The fact Cousins assisted in the coordinating of the “Spiritual Summit Conference” at the United Nations in 1975 and in 1998 co-created “The World Commission on Global Consciousness and Spirituality” cannot be missed. Cousins has certainly updated and threaded together (with many other Castalians), in this our 2ndaxial age, a vision of ecological spirituality that brings together the best and noblest within each of the religions of the emerging world consciousness as a vanguard of sorts. The publication of Cousins Christ of the 21stCentury in 1992 augured the way forward from which Cousins went much further in his global synthesis and interfaith meta-narrative. There are many who have both drawn from Jaspers and Cousins (since Cousins death in 2009), including John Hick and the more popular Karen Armstrong, but the point to note is that each and all are engaged in threading together on the neckless of thought the combined contemplative wisdom of world religions as we move ever forward, on the inevitable evolving human journey, to a better, more just and peaceful world. How would Hesse and Magister Ludi respond to such contemplative and wisdom seeking Castalians?
The Bahai Tradition: A Castalian Synthesis
The 19thcentury witnessed the emergence of many religious groups but “The Bab” and “Baha-u-llah” embodied a form of religious synthesis that went beyond Islam and many Arab religions. Baha-u-llah let it be known by 1863 that a new vision for humanity was afoot that would transcend each of the world religions and find a new unified centre. Each of the historic religions were to be honoured yet raised to a higher unified level
which was embodied in “Baha-u-llah’s” courageous life and teachings. Needless to say, there was no notion at this point of a 2ndaxial age, but the underlying premises of the Bahai Tradition anticipates (as do other groups in the 19thcentury such as the Theosophical Society) many of the same ideas that Jaspers, Cousins and others of 2ndaxial age ideology hold near and dear. It is rather pertinent and significant to ponder why many within the 2ndaxial age tribe have not become Bahai or why Baha’s have not joined the 2ndaxial age tribe. There are some obvious differences in whose synthesis should be accepted and why. This is always a telling and perennial dilemma for those who play the glass bead game of unity and harmony. What should be drawn from various traditions, what rejected and whose synthesis should be heeded and why? This is a common challenge for those who play the glass bead game and the stubborn fact that there are various types of Castalians who don’t agree with one another on what should be unified and why, in a Hegelian like dialectic, must be faced into and not flinched from. But, the Bahai tradition certainly is a formal and institutional way of playing the game, but many from the traditions it claims to draw from strongly disagree with how their traditions are read and interpreted to fit into the unified puzzle of religious unity and concord. It is important to note, in this overview, that the Bahai tradition is but a player in the glass bead game, although many differ and disagree with its end point and penultimate synthesis. Again, whose version of unity should have the final word and why?
The Primordial Tradition: Exoteric and Esoteric Religion
The Primordial Tradition has held the attention and interest of many for a significant amount of time. Some of the finest thinkers and activists are committed to such a perennial way. What, in short, is the essence of the Primordial Tradition and who are some of its finest apologists? The core of the Primordial Tradition can be summed briefly by this approach—there is an exoteric pathway within all the major and minor religions in which theology, myths, liturgies, philosophy, rituals and sacred texts define the tradition. The realms of the exoteric are legitimate and necessary pathways to transformation, insight, enlightenment and wisdom. Each and all on their journey should belong to a specific tradition that points to greater depths and heights. But, the exoteric route is but a lower level on the pilgrimage and quest for meaning. It is the mystics, contemplatives or sages within each tradition that, at an esoteric level, embody the essence of each tradition, and, at an essential and esoteric level, all the religions converge and are one. It is this exoteric-esoteric distinction that defines the Primordial tradition and illuminates why those committed to such a way are Castalians and glass bead players.
Who are some of the thinkers of such a heritage? Some of the most prominent are Rene Guenon, Fritjof Schuon, Martin Lings, Ananda Coomaraswamy and Seyyed Nasr to name but a few. Huston Smith is, probably, one of the best popularizers of such a tradition just as Nasr’s Gifford Lectures, Knowledge of the Sacred (1981), in a thoughtful and probing detail describes such a historic and philosophic position. William Quinn’s The Only Tradition (1997) and Darrol Bryant’s Woven on the Loom of Time: Many Faiths and One Divine Purpose (1999) reflect such a perspective, Bryant, in many ways, an echo of Huston Smith.
There can be no doubt that the Primordial Tradition reflects a subtle way of playing the glass bead game. It is questionable, though, whether mystics and contemplatives at the esoteric level are on the same page not only within traditions but between traditions. Again, we are faced with the question of whose version of the Ultimate has final authority, hence what will be ignored from the exoteric level on the way to the integrative esoteric level? There can be no doubt that the players from the Primordial Tradition have been trained well in their version of Castalia, but their version of concord and unity is not necessarily the same as other Castalians and glass bead players—such is the perennial tensions and clashes within the family of Castalians.
- Bede Griffiths and Universal Wisdom
Bede Griffiths was a dear friend of C.S. Lewis and Lewis dedicated his 2ndautobiography, Surprised by Joy, to Griffiths. Lewis and Griffiths journeyed to Christianity together, but as the life of Griffiths unfolded he became one of the most significant Roman Catholic contemplatives of the 20thcentury. Much attention tends to be focussed on Thomas Merton in the West, but Griffiths had an equal range of depth and breadth. The further Griffiths faith pilgrimage, the greater his interest in Indian-Hindu-Christian dialogue and, in time, his growing commitment to spirituality-science (de Chardin, Rupert Sheldrake and Thomas Berry to name a few), ecology, feminism and social justice. The many books and articles Griffiths published speak legions about the way he, like a conductor in an orchestra, brought all the musicians and instruments together to play in one great harmony—such is the glass bead game and Griffiths was, in many ways, a Magister Ludi, true to Hesse’s notion of Joseph Knecht as one who serves. The edited tome by Beatrice Bruteau (yet another player of sorts), Bede Griffiths and the Hindu-Christian Dialogue: The Other Half of my Soul, goes well beyond Griffiths in depth commitment to Christian-Hindu dialogue—poetry, science, memories of Griffiths as a person, 2ndaxial age devotees such as Paul Knitter, Matthew Fox and, of course, Wayne Teasdale grace the pages, each and all being integrative glass bead players. The close relationship between Griffiths and Raimon Panikkar should be noted also, both men front and centre in articulating a larger vision of concord and unity, common grace and general revelation. The final tome by Griffiths, edited by Roland Ropers, Universal Wisdom: A Journey through the Sacred Wisdom of the World is a must read for those keen to enter the ever-expanding range of Griffiths’ life and thought. Many have been the followers of Griffiths, but Wayne Teasdale (more than most when alive) conducted yet more the grand orchestra. The New Camaldoli Monastery in Big Sur/California is a site and centre of Griffiths’ admiration and support. I was fortunate in April 2018 to be a “Scholar in Residence” at the Monastery (I have been there previous years) and lived in Bruno Barnhardt’s cell. Barnhardt, Robert Hale, Thomas Matus and the present Prior, Cyprian Consiglio, are each and all, in their different ways, on much the same page as Griffiths—exquisite glass bead players and Castalians in a monastic context—Hesse would understood the appeal and need for such a lived contemplative community in which to string together the beads of thought to make yet a finer necklace for the future.
Ken Wilber and Integration
Ken Wilber has been a guide and tutor for many in the last few decades, as a generalist of sorts, committed to integrating various ways of thinking into one grand and visionary whole. Wilber has tried to bring together spirituality, science, politics, ecology and many other aspects of the human journey that are often kept separate and discrete. Again, such an approach is a critique and counter to various forms of postmodern fragmentation and divisiveness-the large and epic interpretive narrative points the way to a future of unity. Needless to say, we have travelled a long journey from the New Atheists by the time we have heeded and heard Wilber (and others I have mentioned in the last few sections). Wilber, as founder of the Integral Institute is, as the name suggests, about integration and his latest book, The Religion of Tomorrow: A Vision for the Future of the Great Traditions, engages in his notion of integration. As mentioned above, many are those inclined towards unity, integration and concord, but the tension emerges when each and all differ on how such an integration is to occur and why. The situation is much the same within the Great Traditions who hold high a sacred text as their authority yet differ on how the text is to be interpreted and why.
Each group within a Tradition thinks their read is the best and others differ with them, hence divisions within a Tradition. The same is the case with those who play the glass bead game—whose version should heeded and why? Wilber is one version of integration but there are others. It is significant in The Glass Bead Game that when Joseph Knecht visited Father Jacobus at Mariafels Monastery these very issues were front and centre for them. But, deeper still, there is an appeal, charm and allure to the history of intellectual events and an orchestral concert of thought by those who participate in the game. But, what is the relationship between being cloistered away at an aesthetic and uplifting event for soul and mind, imagination and harmony that, when concert is done, the busy world of the vita activa of historic events has not really changed? What, in short, is the relationship between the level of visionary thought about unity, concord, harmony, integration and oneness and the real world of historic event where human nature and public life collide and counter such idealistic and utopian notions? Such was the final note of warning by Hesse in The Glass Bead Game. If idealists do not factor into their reflections the complex, contradictory, layered and duplicitous tendencies of human nature, then the finest ideas will never substantively root and bear fruit. This was Hesse’s warning—don’t be naïve about the possibilities of intellectual activities bringing together a better world—there are those who have power and will another agenda. Hesse lived through WW I and WW II and he knew of what he spoke. The Glass Bead Game is a perennial reminder of tensions between idealism and realism, unity and divisiveness, thought and will or, to use St. Augustine’s distinction (Hesse died in his sleep with a copy of Augustine’s Confessions on his chest), caritas and cupiditas.
The Glass Bead Game raises questions at two levels and such questions will ever be with us: 1) whose version of unity, integration, concord, harmony and oneness should be heeded and why and 2) what is the relationship between those who play the contemplative and wisdom glass bead game of unity and the reality of actual political events in the world which seem to simply ignore the players of the game who often dwell in a naïve and cloistered intellectual enclave? The fact Magister Ludi died as he made the transition from Castalia (drowning in the lake as he was about to instruct the young Tito) can be read in different ways. Was a death needed by both Castalians (contemplative intellectuals) and activists to, phoenix like, bring in a new way of reconfiguring the vita contemplativa-vita activa or were the Titos of the future forever fated to live within such an unresolved and unresolvable tension and dilemma? Such are the questions Hesse left us with in, probably, one of the finest novels of the 20thcentury and all time—a must read for those grappling with the substantive issues of thought and action on our all too human journey.