Keeping the Faiths | Our Town | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Our Town

Keeping the Faiths

They're all OK with the Wheaton-based Theosophical Society.



Wheaton may be the holiest city in Illinois. Like Jerusalem, it contains the shrines of many faiths. Wheaton College was the training ground of fundamentalist Billy Graham. Gary Memorial United Methodist Church is renowned for its stained glass windows. And on the northern fringe of town, set like a country manse among 42 arbored acres, is Olcott, the headquarters of the Theosophical Society in America.

The cloister-brick building, constructed in the days of Calvin Coolidge, could be a hall on the campus of some modest midwestern liberal arts collegeexcept there's this far-out mural in the lobby. Spirochetes and jellyfish hover around a pastel star. Dinosaurs, dodos, and woolly mammoths march across the ceiling. Naked women swim through the ether toward a Star of David. And an all-star team of holy men is painted on a plaster wall: Buddha, Moses, Thor, an Indian priest with a snake, an Orthodox bishop, a druid brandishing a golden sickle.

Billy Graham would not approve. In fact, Wheaton College students used to gather on Olcott's lawn to pray for the salvation of those inside. But the theosophistswho believe all religions are expressions of a single truthlike the Reverend Graham just fine.

"We would maintain that all religions at their core maintain many of the same beliefs," says John Algeo, the society's president. "They are culturally divergent expressions of something that is deep inside, and the differences are superficial."

The theosophistswho begin their day with meditation, hold yoga classes at lunchtime, and may end with an evening lecture on Anglo-Saxon runesare grandparents of the New Age movement. But the society likes to think of itself as "more intellectual, more concerned with philosophy," says Algeo. The Theosophical Society was instrumental in introducing Oriental religion to the West. William Butler Yeats was a member. His poemsespecially "The Second Coming"were influenced by theosophy's belief that history is cyclic. Theosophists were into the Dalai Lama way before Richard Gere was: their publishing arm, Quest Books, issued a volume of his teachings in 1968. When the Dalai Lama visited the United States in 1981, he spent a night at Olcott.

The concept that all faiths spring from one source is an old idea, say theosophists, but it was revived for the modern age by the society's founder, Madame Helena Blavatsky, a 19th-century Russian-born mystic. Blavatsky traveled to Tibet in the late 1850s in search of religious knowledge. In the 1870s she emigrated to New York (she supposedly traded her deluxe accommodations on the steamship to a poor family in steerage) and set herself up in an apartment called the "lamasery," a salon for the discussion of Egyptian symbolism, the cabala, and various occult topics. While investigating reports of ghosts at a Vermont farmhouse, Blavatsky met Henry Steel Olcott, a retired Civil War colonel, lawyer, and newspaperman. They founded the Theosophical Society in 1875, then sailed off to India together a few years later. Blavatsky, who revered Indian religions, set up the society's world headquarters in the city of Adyar, near Madras (now Chennai). Eventually she retired to London, where she wrote The Secret Doctrine, which lays out the basics of her extremely esoteric philosophy.

Theosophy is not a religion, say its followers, but it is religious. Dispensing with creeds and priests, theosophists believe it's up to the individual to discover truth. Hence their emphasis on the introspective practice of meditation.

"Beliefs are the things that hem you in, keep you from expanding," says Olcott's coordinator of public programs, Ruthann Fowler. "Theosophists don't want to be told where it is. They want to discover where it is. They don't want the intermediary."

Of course some disciples disagreed about the correct path. Like most of the religions it studies, theosophy has had a schism. In the 1890s, after Blavatsky's death, the movement split into two factions, aligned behind Olcott and another acolyte. To this day, there is a second Theosophical Society, located in Pasadena, California.

Theosophy found its way to the western suburbs in the 1920s. At that time the president of the society's American chapter, L.W. Rogers, was a Chicagoan. Traditionally the national headquarters had been in the president's hometown. But Rogers decided that this country's theosophists needed their own shrine and study center. The spiritand a good deal on some landdrew him to Wheaton.

Since then, Wheaton has attracted a steady trickle of pilgrims. Jeffrey Gresko's attachment to Olcott goes back to the 1970s. In those days he was a hippie living in Charlotte, North Carolina, practicing transcendental meditation and following the other teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, best known as the onetime guru to the Beatles.

"At the time I was an agnostic at best, but the experiences I had when I was meditating opened me up, made me think there was a spiritual side to life," Gresko recalls.

Some meditating buddies told him about the Theosophical Society. In the summer of 1978 he visited Wheaton while taking a van trip across the country, "trying to find myself." Olcott turned out to be the place he was looking for. It was August, and the grounds were at their lushest: "It looked very appealing." That fall, Gresko read a want ad for a maintenance man at the society. He took the job, and he's been living at Olcott on and off ever since. Life has taken him on sojourns to Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, and San Francisco, but he's always returned to his spiritual home in Wheaton. At first he roomed in the dormitory, which is home to many young staffers. A lanky man with thinning gray hair, Gresko met his wife through the society, and they now live in one of the five houses on the grounds. Over the years he's risen from janitor to operations manager, responsible for the upkeep of Olcott.

Clearly theosophy is at the center of Gresko's life. He meditates with the staff every morning, and he's devoted to theosophy's teachings on vegetarianism and service to humanity. At noon he usually eats a communal meal in the cafeteria, which serves only meatless fare and requires all diners to do their own dishes. (A sign by the sink offers this reminder: "Even Zen Masters Wash Their Own Bowls.")

"I've integrated it so much into my life, being a resident staffer," he says. "This is really my faith community. Something that we very often say to people is we're not a religion, but if it fulfills the role of religion, then what's the difference?"

Gresko pauses by the labyrinth, a twisting path of stepping-stones that's supposed to aid walkers in thought and meditation. The road to enlightenment is never straight, so the labyrinth turns back on itself many times before reaching the stone at the center. Gresko has never actually walked the labyrinth, but it could symbolize the spiritual search he's undertaken since arriving at Olcott 23 years ago.

"I feel like the path is an arduous one," he says, "but some of the New Age is you get one book, then you've reached enlightenment."

Olcott is a magnetic place. A man named Donald Greenwood came here to plant trees and stayed for 20 years, until he felt the job was done. Floyd Kettering quit his job as a management consultant with Coopers & Lybrand to become the society's business manager. His colleagues thought he was nuts to move his family onto the grounds of a religious commune. But Kettering and his wife have been at Olcott for nearly three decades. It's his job to say no to developers who want to turn the campus into a grocery store or a subdivision.

"It's a sanctuary," Kettering says. "This is like an oasis type of sanctuary in the middle of urban life. May and October are the two most beautiful times of the year. It's very idyllic."

As a businessman, Kettering believes the Theosophical Society was ahead of its time in the care and feeding of its employees. The 8:30 AM gatherings in the meditation room and the free vegetarian lunches presaged companies that offer massages and other perks to make the workplace feel homey. "The society has always looked at the whole person," Kettering says.

Perhaps the most unusual of Olcott's seekers is Govert Schuller. He doesn't work at Olcott. He's a waiter at a local restaurant and a devotee of Krishnamurti, the Indian guru who was a protege of Annie Besant, one of the society's early presidents. As a young man in Holland, Schuller became a follower of Krishnamurti, who some believe is theosophy's greatest teacher (though he dropped out of the movement).

Every year until Krishnamurti's death in 1986, Schuller hitchhiked to Switzerland to hear the master lecture. Five years ago he moved to Wheaton to do research in Olcott's library, which has a large selection of books and magazines on Krishnamurti. (The wood-paneled library is overseen by a portrait of the Virgin Mary.) Now he visits the center every Tuesday for yoga and study. Afterward he may go down to Starbucks to debate theology with Wheaton College students.

"For me, the essence of theosophy is it's an ethical philosophy, and the application of that in your daily life and your relationships with people, and also a transcendence within yourself," Schuller says. "It is different for me than a religion. A religion has too much to me to do with a dogma and a leap of faith."

During the working day, John Algeo shambles around Olcott in suspenders, corduroy trousers, and sandals without socks. It's easy for him to dress casually, because, number one, he's the president, and, number two, he and his wife live in a two-room suite in the dormitory, so he never has to leave the building. Algeo, who has the mien and voice of John Huston, is a retired University of Georgia linguistics professor who took over the society eight years ago. He has been a theosophist since the 1950s, when the study of Eastern religions was more than exotic. It was heresy to the Catholic church in which Algeo grew up.

"The Jesuits converted me," he says from behind a desk in his office, which is cluttered with papers and religious artifacts. "I was studying for confirmation. The parish library had a series of little booklets on dangerous heresies, and one of them was on theosophy. I thought, doesn't this sound interesting? Then I read an ad in the Miami Herald, and I went to a meeting. And they were nice people, these dangerous heretics."

Algeo was never confirmed as a Catholic. Instead he became an Episcopalian, because that church allows its members to study theosophy. He still calls himself Episcopal, "if pressed," but he no longer practices. When he addresses classes at Wheaton College (over the years the school has become more tolerant of theosophy's tolerance), Algeo is invariably asked, "Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior?" He invariably answers, "Yes, but I also accept Buddha and Zoroaster and..."

"In my view," he says, "theosophy provides a total explanation of life which is more satisfying than any other I've seen. It postulates that there is no difference between spirit and matter. All life is one. All reality is one. It means that one does not devalue materiality, nor does one devalue spiritual things."

There is debate, even within the society, over the compatibility of Christianity and theosophy. It's a particular problem for theosophists in the West. Can a Christian be a theosophist, since Jesus declared, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one gets to the father except through me"? Last fall, Olcott hosted a conference on this topic. Algeo feels theosophy has deepened his understanding of his native religion. At the "Christianity-Theosophy Conference," for example, one of the participants pointed out the similarity between Jesus's sacrifice on the cross and Buddhism's bodhisattva idealan enlightened man refrains from entering nirvana in order to save others. Algeo has found an analogue to karma in the biblical verse, "As ye sow, so shall ye reap."

"You learn about yourself, or what is closest to you, by studying what is different, or farthest away," he says.

One of theosophy's boldest goals is bringing about brotherhood between all religions. They haven't solved the Arab-Israeli conflict, or the troubles in Northern Ireland, but they did resolve a touchy situation just before the second Parliament of the World's Religions, which was held in 1993 in Chicago. Children of all faiths were meeting to prepare for the parliament, but, Algeo says, "Jewish parents didn't want their children to go to a mosque, and Moslem parents didn't want their children to go to a synagogue." So they gathered at Olcott. "We were a neutral site," Algeo says, "They got along splendidly."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  →