Welcome to part one of an ongoing series exploring Portland's civic and social organizations. Despite their wealth of wisdom, many of these organizations find themselves competing with the sway of the digital world for the attention of younger generations, and their memberships are in serious decline.
Theosophy is a very old word meaning, from the Latin, "wise concerning God" (or, if one prefers, the more concise "god-wise"). But in New York City, in 1875, the old word was given a more specific meaning by a trio of individuals who founded the Theosophical Society in order to celebrate and comparatively study the faiths, philosophies, sciences and ideas of peoples of all colors, creeds and cultures—to aggregate scientific and spiritual concepts.
If that weren't ambitious enough, consider this: the movement has at is pinnacle one prize—the spiritual evolution and enlightenment of its members, and of humanity at large. And through cultural inclusiveness, Theosophy holds that there are many paths to achieving this.
Of course, Theosophy, like any religion, study or discipline, has a story to tell. And for well over 100 years, it's had plenty of storytellers. But to tell a story, one needs listeners. And for some time, Theosophy has been running low on listeners. Without listeners, you risk running out of storytellers and, one day, your stories may cease to be told.
And so the Theosophical Society, present in 70 countries and in more than 100 U.S. cities, with an abundance of elders who know its story well, finds itself competing with the sway of the digital world, and with the simple routine of daily life, for the attention of younger generations interested in exploring civic and social organizations at local levels.
"We have a seriously declining membership," says Wallace Rainey, a remodeling contractor who's running for his second a term on the Theosophical Society in America's (TSA) national board of directors, and who presides over Portland's lodge, which celebrates its centennial this August.
In 2009, the Portland lodge had more than 30 members, but that number fell to the mid-20s in 2010. The average age, nationally, of a member, Rainey says, falls somewhere between 60 and 70 years. To illustrate his point, he says TSA doesn't even offer senior discounts until a member turns 85. The oldest Portland member is 94.
There are a few possible explanations, Rainey says, including location. Since the 1950s, the lodge has met in the drawing room of an old blue, historically protected Victorian home on NW Kearney, between 23rd and 24th avenues. But practical features—in particular the three sets of stairs leading from the street to the drawing room, and from the drawing room to restrooms in the basement on the second floor—can prove challenging for an aging membership.
And while the lodge does promote its activities and discussion groups by leafleting bookstores, it doesn't, so to speak, evangelize.
"My opinion is, when you're ready, you'll find us," says Rainey. That's what he did 20 years ago. Scientifically and philosophically curious, Rainey roamed for years as a "spiritual tourist," and became a "sponge" of what he calls the "isms." Having rejected the absolute certainty found in many of the world's major religions, Rainey was at an intellectual impasse until he stumbled upon the TSA.
The TSA, he says, spoke to him because it presented "only questions and explorations, not answers." It instead seeks out the common threads of all beliefs and shows how each belief, at its root, comes from the same place, like the center of a Venn diagram in which spiritualities, philosophies and sciences intersect.
"I've always believed this stuff," he says, "I just didn't know what to call it."
In many ways, Theosophy is not unlike C.G. Jung's idea of our shared collective unconscious, or scholar Joseph Campbell's theory that from our collective countless creation myths emerges but one story.
The Theosophical Society has at times been maligned as a cult. The TSA has been out in front regarding this misconception, saying that the society is not a cult but is made up of searchers and seekers, fueled by curiosity, who explore through discussion, study and meditation the occult, or the hidden nature of the universe, which they believe unites the possibilities of the human experience.
The story of Theosophy, at a compact 135 years, is, in fact—at first—marked by controversies, betrayals, scandals and schisms too complicated to enumerate. Born in the midst of the Industrial Revolution at a time when spiritualism was ripe, Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the most charismatic of the the society's three founders, who claimed to glean secrets of the universe while traveling in Tibet, was condemned by some as fraud but was exonerated by scientific scholars. There were power struggles, and the society splintered into different fragments, including, later, a fundamentalist branch.
After its first two decades, it was embroiled in a custody battle in India over the young philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, who was groomed to be a spiritual savior before he would abandon Theosophy and the concept of saviors in general. The society also expelled the educator, philosopher and activist Rudolf Steiner, who would later found the Waldorf School. And perhaps most potentially damaging, Aryans launched their own movement by appropriating and perverting Theosophical ideas and concepts.
But if those first 50 years proved dramatic, the TSA has settled in the last 85 years into an organization whose members are free to quietly work at their own pace as they explore the unexplainable. Rainey also says spiritual luminaries like the Dalai Lama have credited Theosophical teachings as a profound source that helped shape how they learned to respect and to draw upon the spiritual teachings of other cultures. (In July, the Theosophical Society hosts a two-day symposium in Chicago with the Dalai Lama.)
Lately, Rainey adds, the TSA's national leadership has been preparing for its next generation of storytellers, who might not be aware of Theosophy’s message, mostly by increasing its online presence.
"At the national headquarters, there is a lot of discussion about the electronic age," he says. "Young people have evolved past email."
That's why TSA's national website has been relaunched and streamlined in to a comprehensive resource for those interested in Theosophy, including an index of articles, videos, essays and a complete electronic archive of their monthly publication, Quest. You can now like them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter. They've even got a YouTube channel.
That's how Portland's Inna Kalinkin, a 37-year-old Russian interpreter, found them. She's one of the lodge's newest members, and one of five thirtysomethings to gravitate to the Portland lodge since last November.
"I went online and joined the national lodge," she explains. "Then I searched whether we had anything going on locally, and found to my great joy that we had a local lodge. I contacted Wallace and (TSA National President) Betty Rogers via email through the TSA's national website.
Within two weeks, she'd joined the lodge and has been participating ever since in its Wednesday night study groups and Sunday afternoon programs, which are open to the general public. She also plans on exploring the lodge's metaphysical library, which includes selections of more than 3,500 books authored by scholars of all the world's major religions, as well as literary explorations on subjects like myths, science, psychology, masonry, magic, Tarot, alchemy, music and Gnosticism.
Rainey himself was a young man when he first visited the lodge, not to join, but to simply listen in on a lecture about the pyramids of Egypt. The pyramids captured his attention, but it was the elders who captured his imagination.
"The thing that impressed me a lot was that there was a lot old people here," he says, "and by that, I mean a lot of wisdom. I was home."
If the recent spike in members of a certain age is any indication, it's possible that the elders will get their listeners after all.
Portland's Theosophical Society in America lodge turns 100 on August 10. They will celebrate their centennial with the public at the Scottish Rite Center, September 23-25, featuring national and local historians and archivists.