In his twenty-fifth year, Jakob Böhme, a cobbler, saw in a vision the origin of all things. When the manuscript in which he tried to expound the vision (later named “The Aurora”) came to the attention of the local pastor, he was forbidden by the civil authority to write anything more. This was 1612. Although he complied, he became the center of a growing circle of admirers, kept up a wide correspondence, and was active in a secret brotherhood. Except for village schooling, he was self-taught. Among his friends, however, were persons of quality who lent him books and introduced him to theosophical and alchemical writings. About 1619 he resumed writing and allowed his manuscripts to circulate. The Way to Christ, comprising three short devotional pieces, is the only one of his manuscripts that was published during his lifetime. Written in 1622, it shows him turning back from theosophical speculation to the tradition of German mysticism. Böhme intended no break with official Lutheranism, it but is clear that his affinities lay elsewhere, and it comes as no surprise that English Behmenists allied themselves with the Quaker movement.

Böhme’s The Way to Christ originally consisted of three tracts: “Of True Repentance,” “Of True Resignation,” and “Of Regeneration.” In subsequent editions, from three to five additional tracts written during the same period were always included. The period was one of revivalist intensity: Böhme himself had experienced a new illumination and had assumed the role of a lay evangelist. The three tracts that made up the original collection were clearly intended for the newly converted. The same might be said of the “Dialogue Between an Enlightened and an Unenlightened Soul” (1624). “The Supersensual Life” (1622), however, was addressed to the mature disciple.

“Of True Repentance,” as the author wrote to a friend, was the outgrowth of a new conversion that Böhme himself had lately experienced. “As this tract will lead you to the Praxis, you will experience its good since it was born through the fire of an anguishable twig, and it was and still is my own process through which I have attained the Pearl of divine knowledge.” It is an awkward composition. Addressing persons who feel an inclination to repent but were unable to act, he begins by recounting reasons for repenting and follows these with various considerations that ought to lead one to take the needed steps, among them the enormity of the Fall. Consider, he says, “the noble image in which God fashioned [human beings] to his likeness.” (Böhme is thinking not so much of Adam as of the Heavenly Man, rival of Lucifer, described in the Cabala.) Then consider what the human being has become instead, “a formless grub, like a hellish worm or abominable animal, an enemy to God, to heaven, and to all holy angels and men; and that his intercourse is—and forever shall be—with devils and hellish worms in gruesome darkness.” Böhme intersperses persuasion with prayer, and through the whole he weaves an allegory of the soul engaged in knightly combat, hoping to receive a crown from the hand of the Virgin Sophia. What is the Way? Even the same as Evangelist showed Christian (though Böhme never achieves anything approaching John Bunyan’s pathos): “He who does not forsake wife, children . . . even his earthly life, is not worthy of me.” “Gracious reader, this is no joke,” Böhme warns; “Better to be judged early in youth before the Devil has bastioned his robber’s castle in the soul!” Of the Sophia-tale, he advises, “Dear reader, Do not consider this an untrue myth. This is the . . . sum and substance of Sacred Scriptures . . . clearly presented to the eyes just as it became known to the author, for this has been his whole process.”

In “Of True Resignation,” the second tract, Böhme makes use of the term Gelassenheit (from lassen, leave alone), which Tauler had helped to popularize. In more ordinary speech, what is here demanded is humility or, as the Psalmist expressed it, “a broken and a contrite heart.” The examples of Lucifer and of Archetypal Man show what happens when God grants reason to even the most promising of his creatures. Reason is the best of treasures, but “we also see that in our technically trained men, when they acquire the light of external reason as their own, nothing results but pride.” Böhme translates into his own jargon Christ’s parable about the unclean spirit which, returning to finding his old quarters empty and garnished, reoccupies them together with seven other spirits more foul than himself. Says Böhme:As the creaturely will-spirit rises with the rational light into the center, that is, into selfhood, and begins self-delusion, it again departs from God’s light. Now the Devil finds a gate opening up into him, and a garnished house, or rational light, for habitation. Then he appropriates to himself the seven forms of the life-properties which have departed from God into selfhood. Then he becomes self-conscious and sets his desire into the inclination toward his own self and into a false imagination.

In short, those who think that the light of reason is sufficient for salvation are easy game for the Devil. Instead of looking to external reason, one must descend into oneself and become dead to the world, resign oneself to Christ, and do what Christ wishes to do with his own instrument. This is the praxis; but Böhme is always ready with the theoria. The question how the creature can have any will at all, as distinct from that of its Maker, was one that Böhme was prepared to answer. There are two poles in God, as Böhme had been shown: his Love-will and his Wrath-will. These same two poles are present in every creature also. When God created Lucifer and Heavenly Man (a glorious androgynous being), he did so out of love and looked for love in response. The rest of the story is well known: The two splendid...

(The entire section is 2450 words.)