Gurdjieff, Beelzebub’s Tales, and Christianity
There are a number of visible signs indicating that Christianity occupies a central and unique role among the several religious exposed in Beelzebub’s Tales. Of course, the fact that I am Christian, raised and to some extent a practicing Catholic, I may be seeing things that are not there. But I will try to be as objective and impartial as I can. I want to explore this issue and I know I cannot change my past.
And the past brings us to the matter of the childhood of Mr. Gurdjieff and how this childhood may have been influenced by Christianity. Let’s explore this issue in more details and then we go to the book, to our dear Beelzebub’s Tales.
Influence of Christianity on the young Gurdjieff
G. I. Gurdjieff spent great part of his childhood in the city of Kars, a city of many churches and one famous Russian military cathedral whose dean was Dean Father Borch. Dean Borch soon becomes Gurdjieff’s tutor and assumes responsibility for his private education, co-opting as tutors four graduates of the Theological Seminary. One of these four tutors is Bogachevsky or Father Evlissi who in time becomes “the assistant to the abbot of a chief monastery of the Essence Brotherhood, situated not far from the shores of the dead sea” (from Meetings with Remarkable Men). In that book Gurdjieff states that later in his youth Bogachevsky became his one and only confessor. Of course, one would have to explore in greater details what he really meant with this statement.
We then see that from childhood and all through his teen years Gurdjieff is exposed to strong Christian influences, very specifically within the teachings and ritual of the Russian Orthodox Church. That is an undeniable fact. But we also know from reading Meetings and examining Beelzebub’s Tales we see that during his long trips into the Middle East and Asia, he was also exposed to other influences such as Buddhism, Sufism, Hinduism, and others we even cannot recognize. However, it seems that Gurdjieff the individual remained Russian Orthodox all his life. We can claim this on the basis that he was born into this Church and died within this Church too. Every year on October 29th, I used to attend mass in New York City in commemoration for the death of Mr. Gurdjieff. The service is not in a Synagogue or in a Mosque. The service is always at the Armenian Cathedral on 42nd and Third Avenue (the Armenian Orthodox is part of the Eastern Orthodox encompassing Russian and Greek Orthodox.)
Gurdjieff arrives in Moscow in the winter of 1912. He is ready to start spreading a teaching he has tried to reconstruct for himself and for humanity. For the work for humanity, Gurdjieff begins to teach. He forms groups and gathers a number of people who become interested on his teaching. One of them is the journalist-mathematician P. D. Ouspensky. Much later he records in a very faithful way a book with the fragments of knowledge Gurdjieff brings to them in Russia. To a question from a disciple who wanted to know about the source of this knowledge, Gurdjieff responds very vaguely saying that for the sake of those who know and understand Christianity, his teaching can be called Esoteric Christianity. Many have seen in this statement an affirmation by Gurdjieff of the fact that Christianity was the main influence affecting the fragments of knowledge he wants to bring to the West. However, one has to take what Gurdjieff says in pieces and with great care. For instance, he tells his people in Russia that Christianity existed thousands of years before the birth of Christ, in time known as Egypt before the sands. What to make of all this?
In any case, there were instances in which Gurdjieff referred to God in very strict terms as far as the Christian teaching is concerned. For instance, in the so-called Paris War Meetings, he said that none has seen God because the law of contact is very strict. And during the teaching of movements, he would say: “Now you say Lord have mercy.”
Christianity in Beelzebub’s Tales
In the first chapter of Beelzebub’s Tales, with the title The Arousing of Thought, Gurdjieff tells us what he plans to do with his book and how we will benefit from it. He lays out for us his mission statement.
We have to go now to Gurdjieff’s Oppus Magnum, Beelzebub’s Tales, and explore all the information about Christianity found there. We then go to those parts of the book where Christianity is discussed. These parts are the chapter Religion of the book and parts of the chapter America where Beelzebub lectures a young Persian on the importance of Christianity in the life of humanity.
The chapter on Religion of Beelzebub’s Tales is one of the most beautiful one in the Book. In it Gurdjieff pays homage to the five great Founders of the five great Religions: Buddha, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, and Lama. It is worth noticing that out of all these five founders, only Jesus Christ is acknowledged as the Divine Teacher Jesus Christ. Al the others are addressed as Saints or Sacred Individuals. But the word Divine is reserved only for the Divine Teacher Jesus Christ. He is also referred to as the full-of-love Jesus Christ. In any case, we would have to examine in more details what is the function of Divine as compared with Sacred and Saint. My self-remembering is not deep enough to understand this matter and explore it in greater depth.
The chapter Religion of Beelzebub’s Tales then gives a hint to the importance for Gurdjieff of Jesus Chris at as a teacher. No other teacher is above him as indicated by His function of a Divine Teacher. But that only suffices when Jesus Christ is compared to the other four founders of four of the great Religion founded on Earth. But what about the religion founded on the teaching of the Divine Teacher Jesus Christ now known as Christianity? The real question is this: Is Beelzebub’s Tales Christianity? We have to go to other parts of the book in order to address this question.
In this respect, I personally love an ex change that takes place in the chapter France and later extends to chapter America. The exchange is between Beelzebub and a young Persian who came to the West early in his youth. They meet in a restaurant-bar in Montmartre, Paris, and become good friends. By the time of their first meeting, it is obvious that the sympathetic young Persian, as he is referred in the book, has been corrupted by alcohol, drugs, and sex. He complains to Beelzebub that this corrupted state of presence would have never been crystallized in him had he not left Persia. This confession is the starting point for a serious exchange between him and Beelzebub on the difference between Christianity and the Mohammed religion. For the convenience of the narrative and aim of the book, the exchange is to be found on pages 1000-1003 of the chapter America. For the purpose of this paper, I will quote few paragraphs exposing this exchange (the sympathetic young Persian calls Beelzebub Doctor).
“My highly esteemed and honorable Doctor!
“‘During my acquaintance with you I have become quite convinced that you are well educated and as is said very well read.
“‘Will you be so kind as to give me your weighty opinion, so that I might at last understand and solve one problem which during recent years has aroused my curiosity and which when I am comparatively sober often arises in me and disturbs my thoughts.
“‘The point is, that living here in Europe where people profess the religion whose followers compose almost half the world, I have not up to now come across a single good custom in their ordinary life, whereas among us who profess the Mohammedan religion, there are very many
“‘What is wrong? What is the cause of it? Were there no good ordinances foredesigned by the Founder of that great religion for the ordinary life of people, the followers of that religion . . . ?’
“Well, my boy, as this young Persian had become sympathetic to me during our acquaintance, I could not refuse him this request, and I decided to explain the question to him, but also, of course, in such a form that he would not even suspect who I was and what was my genuine nature.
“I told him:
“‘You say that in the religion which half the world professes, and you probably mean the ‘Christian religion,” there are not such good customs as in your Mohammedan religion?
“‘Are there not? On the contrary; in that religion there were many more good customs than in any of the religions of today; in none of the ancient religious teachings were so many good regulations for ordinary everyday life laid down as in just that teaching on which this same Christian religion was founded.
“‘If the followers of this great religion themselves, especially those who are called the “elders of the church” of the Middle Ages, treated this religion, step by step, as “Bluebeard” treated his wives, that is to say, put them into derision and changed all their beauty and charm – that is already quite a different matter.
“‘In general you must know that all the great genuine religions which have existed down to the present time, created, as history itself testifies, by men of equal attainment in regard to the perfecting of their Pure Reason, are always based on the same truths. The difference in those religions is only in the definite regulations they lay down for the observance of certain details and of what are called rituals; and this difference is the result of the deliberate adoption by the great founders of these regulations which suited the degree of mental perfection of the people of the given period.
‘The great founders of the Christian religion, having taken the Judaic doctrine as their basis, changed only its outer details according to the degree of mental development of the contemporaries of Jesus Christ, and in it they effectively provided for everything necessary for the welfare of people.
Provision was made in it as is said both for the soul and for the body; and it even provided all the necessary regulations for a peaceful and happy existence. And this was all surpassingly wisely provided for in such a way that this religion might be suitable also for people of much later epochs.
Had the doctrine of this religion remained unchanged, it might even perhaps have suited these contemporary people, who, by the way, our Mullah Nassr Eddin defines by his expression, “He will blink only if you poke his eye with a rafter.”
After having quoted profusely from Beelzebub’s Tales about Christianity we can go to an outside source in order to find out more facts. This is a short exchange from the so-called Paris War Meetings in Paris, around 1940-1943
I have an ideal, I have always been a Catholic. But I no longer see Jesus Christ in the same way.
In the beginning Catholicism was very good, but then not. They searched for midday at two o’clock; they diluted everything. In the beginning it was superior to the Orthodox religion and to all others.”
From Meetings with Remarkable Men, we conclude that Gurdjieff was Christian all his life, in what concerns having a religion. His first tutor is a dean of a cathedral and four more tutors were members of a Theological Seminar. One of these four eventually became his confessors. Gurdjieff is born in the Russian Orthodox Church and Gurdjieff dies in the Russian Orthodox Church. Maybe this explains his mysterious statement:
“My work began in Russia and my work ends in Russia.”
From Beelzebub’s Tales and a short passage from the Paris War Meetings, we conclude that for Gurdjieff Jesus Christ is the only Divine Teacher and that Christianity is the best religion that has ever existed on Earth. Moses, Buddha, Mahomet, and Lama, are referred to a Saints or Sacred. And it is said, among other things: “in that religion there were many more good customs than in any of the religions of today; in none of the ancient religious teachings were so many good regulations for ordinary everyday life laid down as in just that teaching on which this same Christian religion was founded.”
Of course, no everybody will agreed with this conclusion. Many from Buddhism have pointed to the fact that the teaching in Beelzebub’s Tales is simply Buddhism. Then there is one of the first doctoral dissertation with the title “Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson: A Sufi Story.” And finally it is the fact that the writer of this paper was born in the Catholic Church and has asked to be buried within the rituals of the Catholic Church. The best that would be said about this writer is probably this: “Poor fellow, if he would observe himself with impartiality and objectivity, he would see how much conditioned and attached he is.”