Jacob Boehme (Jakob Böhme) (1575-1624) was a Christian mystic born in northern Germany, near Goerlitz. He grew up as a Lutheran, and worked as a shoemaker in Goerlitz.

Böhme had mystical experiences throughout his youth, culminating in a vision in 1600 which he believed revealed the spiritual structure of the world and the relationship between good and evil. He did not speak of this experience at the time, but continued to work and raise a family. Then after another vision in 1610, he began writing his first treatise, Aurora, or Die Morgenroete im Aufgang. Aurora was circulated in manuscript form until a copy fell into the hands of Gregorious Ritter, the chief pastor of Goerlitz, who considered it heretical and threatened Böhme with exile if he did not stop writing. After years of silence, Böhme's friends and patrons persuaded him to start again, and circulated his writings in handwritten copies. His first printed book, Weg zu Christo (Way to Christ) (1623), caused another scandal; he spent the last year of his life in exile in Dresden, returning to Goerlitz only to die. In this short period, Böhme produced an enormous amount of writing, including his major works De Signatura Rerum and Misterium Magnum, and he developed a following throughout Europe, where his followers were known as Behmenists. His full works were not published until 1730.

The chief concern of Böhme's writing was the nature of sin, evil, and redemption. Consistent with Lutheran theology, Böhme preached that humanity had fallen from a state of divine grace to a state of sin and suffering, that the forces of evil included fallen angels who had rebelled against God, and that God's goal was to restore the world to a state of grace. Where Böhme appeared to depart from accepted theology (though this was open to question, due to his somewhat obscure, oracular style) was in his description of the Fall as a necessary stage in the evolution of the universe.

In Böhme's cosmology, it was necessary for humanity to depart from God, and for all original unities to undergo differentation, desire, and conflict—as in the rebellion of Satan, the separation of Eve from Adam, and their acquisition of the knowledge of good and evil—in order for creation to evolve to a new state of redeemed harmony which would be more perfect than the original state of innocence, allowing God to achieve a new self-awareness by interacting with a creation that was both part of and distinct from God. Thus, free will was the most important gift God gave humanity, allowing us to seek divine grace as a deliberate choice while still remaining individuals. Böhme saw the incarnation of Christ not as a sacrificial offering to cancel out human sins, but as an offering of love for humanity, showing God's willingness to bear the suffering that had been a necessary aspect of creation, while also conveying the message that a new state of harmony is possible. This was somewhat at odds with Lutheran dogma, and his suggestion that God would have been somehow incomplete without the Creation was even more controversial, as was his emphasis on faith and self-awareness rather than strict adherence to dogma or scripture.

Böhme's writing shows the influence of Neoplatonist and alchemical writers such as Paracelsus, while remaining firmly within a Christian tradition. He has in turn greatly influenced many anti-authoritarian and mystical movements, such as the Religious Society of Friends and Theosophy, and was an important source of the philosophy of German Romanticism and Hegel in particular.


Works