Saturday, June 16, 2018

Esotericism and Criticism: A Platonic Response to Arthur Versluis


The establishment of Western esotericism as a field of academic research since the 1990s has been accompanied by a good deal of theoretical and methodological debate. However, because scholars are understandably passionate about their work, such discussions always run the risk of degenerating into negative polemics and personal invectives, and our young field has certainly had its share of those. It is a fact of human psychology that if opinions that we personally cherish are being criticized by others, nothing is easier than to experience such criticism as a personal attack. Once this happens, most of us find it hard to keep listening accurately to what our opponents are trying to say – it is all too easy to begin imagining them as “enemies” rather than as colleagues whose opinions and commitments just happen to be different from our own and who might have something to say that we do not yet see. On the following pages I will be discussing a strong example which seems representative of an unfortunate rift that has appeared in the community of esotericism scholars. This case concerns an attack on my own work that is just a bit too extreme to be ignored, but I hope to avoid falling into the retaliatory trap of tit-for-tat. Rather, I want to do my best to re-open an important discussion in the study of esotericism that has clearly turned sour and negative. The occasion for making this attempt is a chapter in Arthur Versluis’s recent volume Platonic Mysticism: Contemplative Science, Philosophy, Literature, and Art (State University of New York Press: Albany 2017).

To understand what is happening in this chapter, a bit of context and background is needed. Arthur and I have known each other since the early 1990s, when he visited the Netherlands, and we saw quite a lot of each other in the years that followed. He spent time at my place in Utrecht, and I came to visit him for days at his amazing house in the midst of the Michigan cornfields. Since we were both passionate about the project of promoting the study of Western esotericism, we engaged on a course of fruitful and friendly collaboration, as can be seen from a whole series of articles that we contributed to one another’s publication projects. It was pretty clear from the beginning that we came from very different academic traditions and our approaches to “esotericism” were quite different as well, but for a long time this did not cause serious problems. Of course we had our moments of disagreement or mutual puzzlement about one another’s positions, but the basic situation was one of mutual respect, friendship, and appreciation.
That all changed in 2013, when I published a large review article “Textbooks and Introductions to Western Esotericism,” including a section titled “Esoteric Religionism” about Arthur’s Magic and Mysticism: An Introduction to Western Esotericism (Lanham 2007). Here I introduced him as “the most prominent American representative, in his generation, of a pure religionist approach to esotericism in the tradition of Eliade, Corbin or the younger Faivre” (186). My discussion focused on what I saw as a lack of textual organization and careful editing, on some questionable choices concerning what to include and exclude, and most importantly, on what struck me as a “lack of real interest in confronting the problems and dilemmas of modern historical scholarship” (187). I personally considered it a critical but fair review, and this remains my honest opinion as I re-read it today. Arthur, however, responded with great anger. He clearly experienced the review as a personal attack, and our contact came virtually to an end. This was a sad experience for me, as I’m sure it must have been for him, but I had no other choice than to accept it.
            Although my review article is never mentioned, Arthur’s chapter “The Externalist Fallacy” (Platonic Mysticism, 71-84) is clearly his response to it. My critiques of his 2007 book are passed over in silence, but what appears to have incensed him is being described as a “religionist” (worse: a “pure” one!). This is because he believes – incorrectly, as I will try to explain – that I use “religionism” as a pejorative label for approaches I dislike; or in other words, he seems to think I was accusing him of being that most despicable thing – a religionist. Starting from this incorrect assumption, Arthur embarks on a whole series of allegations, some of them very much ad hominem. The final result is a picture of my work and its “malign” (72) intentions that, as I hope to show, bears almost no resemblance to my actual perspective. If I were to return the compliment and suspect Arthur of “malign” intentions towards me, there would be no point in responding. However, the fact is that I do not doubt his honesty – I readily assume he believes sincerely in the accuracy of his interpretation. This gives me some hope that I might perhaps be able to correct the picture. As far as I can see, it can be broken down into six interrelated claims about me and my ideas. I will discuss them one by one.

Wouter hates religionism

Arthur quotes my technical definition of “religionism” – a term, by the way, which I did not invent but that was current at least as early as the 1990s – as “the project of exploring historical sources in search of what is eternal and universal” (75, referring to Esotericism and the Academy, 296). Therefore he knows what I mean by it. Nevertheless, elsewhere he claims that critics like me dismiss as a religionist “anyone who takes seriously the philosophical and religious perspectives that he or she is studying” (27). Now this is something else entirely: presumably I believe that scholars of esotericism should not take those whom they are studying seriously! To be honest, this claim makes my head spin. How, I wonder, could anybody who has read my work draw such a conclusion? I am all about trying to do justice to esoteric traditions, thinkers, and ideas that have been unjustly marginalized for a long period but deserve to be taken seriously. I’m not sure how it happened, but somewhere along the way, Arthur seems to have gotten me confused with a certain type of debunking skeptic, a hyper-rationalist of the old school who considers it the sacred duty of academics to expose esotericism as “irrational rubbish.” In fact all my work is directed against such attitudes.

Religionists: Gilbert Durand, Henry Corbin, and Antoine Faivre at Eranos (1970s)
How to explain such a monumental misperception? As far as I can see, two things are going wrong in the chapter. First, Arthur seems to think that “taking esoteric beliefs seriously” means affirming that they are true. If an esoteric Platonist professes belief in the eternal ideas, then I am not taking him seriously unless I say “yes, you are right, the eternal ideas exist!” Second, Arthur seems to assume that one cannot have respect or appreciation for any perspective with which one does not personally agree. Therefore if I disagree with religionist methodologies for technical reasons, this must mean that I have no respect or appreciation for them or their representatives.
Both assumptions are wide of the mark. In fact I take any belief seriously if I can see that it is being held with sincerity and conviction – but obviously that does not mean that I necessarily share it. Only by taking someone seriously can I empathize with him or her, and it is my duty as a scholar (a very pleasant one, I might add) to do what I can to imaginatively “enter” the world of those I study, so as to understand as well as possible what they are saying and doing, or why. I am not saying that the task of the scholar ends there. Once having immersed oneself deeply in a text or a tradition, there comes the point where one has to step back and create sufficient distance to see the topic from a wider and more independent perspective. The ability to do both, and do it well, I see as a boundary condition for quality in scholarship. As for the second point: it is certainly true that I have serious objections to religionist theories and their methodological implications, but this has absolutely nothing to do with respect or appreciation. Perhaps the best example is my longstanding friendship with Jeffrey J. Kripal, the most sophisticated “neo”religionist scholar of religion known to me (he himself accepts the label as “not inappropriate,” see page 129 here). I have reviewed his work critically, and he has returned the favour (see pp. 125-132 here), but our discussions have always been grounded in mutual respect and, indeed, admiration. I wouldn’t teach his approach to my students, but I do make them read his work and tell them they have to consider it seriously. If they end up following Jeff's course, they have my blessing.
       The simple truth is that I do not hate religionism at all. On the contrary, I see it as an inherently problematic but very important intellectual tradition. Religionist scholarship has always been an endlessly fascinating phenomenon for me, and I have the greatest respect for its famous representatives (plus some of its less famous ones). So what do I find so “problematic”? Simply the fact that you cannot write the history of something that transcends history. Still, the very impossibility of resolving this paradox, which I believe lies at the heart of religionism, has led to brilliantly creative and profound attempts at resolving it nevertheless. That is where the fascination lies, at least for me. In this regard – and here Arthur and I find ourselves in agreement – the religionism of Eranos is somewhat similar to the great tradition of Platonism, which I admire even more, and which lives from the deep contradiction between Being (the eternal forms or ideas) and Becoming (our world of impermanence and change). Being able to hold two contradictory notions in one’s mind at the same time is not a sign of intellectual weakness: on the contrary, all the great metaphysical thinkers in the Platonic tradition (think for instance of Cusanus or Bruno) have known that, once you go beyond first appearances in exploring reality, you encounter logical paradoxes all the way down – or rather, into infinity.
So no, Arthur, believe me: I don’t hate religionism. I don’t despise it. I don’t try to exclude it. Sure: I do not share its approach to the study of religion, and I do advocate different methodologies in esotericism research. But I do so openly, explicitly, with respect, and with arguments. If there is anything that has disappointed me about this debate since the 1990s, it is that so few scholars on the “religionist” side (Jeff Kripal being a notable exception) have been interested in listening to critics and engaging their arguments in a constructive manner. Instead, what almost always happens is that critics are simply dismissed out of hand, and perceived as “inquisitors” with “malign” intentions who try to “exclude” or even “excommunicate” those with whom they disagree. This brings me to the second point.

Wouter is a Protestant heresiophobe
who wants to dump esotericism into the dustbin

From my discussion of the Protestant “anti-apologetic” tradition and its battle against Hellenistic paganism in the early modern period (Esotericism and the Academy, ch. 2), Arthur appears to have concluded that I am on the side of the heresy-hunters and applaud their ideas! They were sworn enemies of esotericism, and so am I (75ff). This misinterpretation is so bizarre that, frankly, I had trouble believing my eyes when I first read it. But I had to believe them, for one page later it got even worse:

It is perhaps worth noting … that Wouter Hanegraaff’s father was a Protestant minister and theologian and that one of the most prominent American evangelical authors is in fact Hanegraaff’s relative, Hank Hanegraaff, who has produced antiesoteric, antioccult resources online, derived from a combination of, yes, biblical Protestantism (he is known as the “Bible Answer Man”) and opposition to what he perceives as irrational or demonically inspired superstition (76).

Is this supposed to be the smoking gun? It is certainly correct that my father was a Protestant minister. His brother Hans – also a minister – emigrated to the United States, and Hank Hanegraaff is one of his sons, so we are cousins. We met just once in our lives, when Hank was visiting the Netherlands. We had one friendly chat in my mother’s garden, and everybody was careful not to mention religion. Anyone who is remotely familiar with my work knows how strongly I feel about the study of religion as a secular discipline incompatible with doctrinal theology of any kind. As for Hank, with all due respect, his ideas about cults and the occult as demonic threats could not be further removed from mine, as anybody will see who just cares to compare our writings. So what is the point of Arthur bringing this up? Does he want his readers to think of me as some kind of sinister double agent, a Christian fundamentalist in disguise who is out to destroy esotericism under the pretense of studying it?
Johann Jacob Brucker
My actual argument, of course, is the very opposite. Protestant heresiophobes (Arthur's term: see p. 81) like Jacob Thomasius and Ehregott Daniel Colberg created the intellectual foundations for an “anti-apologetic” tradition (a systematic attack on the Platonizing patristic theology of the so-called “Christian apologists”) that made it possible for Jacob Brucker – whose work came to dominate the field of history of philosophy during the 18th and early 19th centuries – to expurgate everything we now see as “esotericism” from the history of legitimate academic philosophy and dump it into the “wastebasket” of history. Like his predecessor Christoph August Heumann, he would like to see it all vanish “into the sea of oblivion,” to be forgotten forever. In a nutshell, this is how and why esotericism came to be excluded or “exorcized” from academic research since the period of the Enlightenment and throughout the 19th century. Obviously I do not consider that a good thing, as Arthur seems to believe. On the contrary, it was an intellectual disaster that has distorted our very understanding of Western culture up to the very present; and the entire rest of my book describes the difficult process of restoring esotericism to the academy from the 20th century on. In short, the modern study of esotericism is all about undoing the damage done by those Protestant heresiophobes and their agendas. Nevertheless, Arthur seems to have made up his mind that I am on their side and secretly applaud their anti-Platonist and anti-esoteric alarmism. On page 75, he triumphantly quotes me for endorsing their polemics as “exactly the right combination.” In fact, if you read those words in context you will see that I was saying something different:

[T]he anti-apologetic historiography pioneered by Jacob Thomasius, Colberg, and Brucker … was characterized by a methodology of historical criticism combined with a theoretical focus on the manifold effects of the encounter between Hellenistic paganism and biblical traditions. This, I suggest, was exactly the right combination. If this basic agenda had been continued and further developed after the Enlightenment (presumably shedding its normative theological assumptions in the process), the study of “Western esotericism” might well have established itself on secure historical foundations already in the nineteenth century. As it happened, this line of inquiry was cut short … leading to a scholarly “Waste Land” instead.

There is no cure for sloppy reading. What I am advocating here is not some heresiophobic agenda congenial to Protestant fundamentalists such as Colberg or my cousin Hank. Instead, I am making two points. First, to understand what “esotericism” is all about, from a historical and theoretical point of view, the history of the encounter between Hellenistic paganism and biblical traditions is absolutely central. Second,  I advocate the methods of historical criticism as crucial to studying this field. Of course, one might agree or disagree with that agenda. Other scholars may well propose different ways of conceptualizing and studying the field, and that is perfectly fine. What is not fine is to distort an argument beyond recognition and then score points against the caricature.

Wouter “orientalizes” Platonism


The general point of Arthur’s book is that Platonism should be restored to its original position as the central tradition of what has come to be called “mysticism.” In his second and third chapters, he shows how the rise of cross-cultural comparativism during the 20th century resulted in an eclipse of the original understanding of mysticism as Platonic. This is a strong argument with which I agree completely. It is all the more regrettable that Arthur completely misses the point of my concept of “Platonic Orientalism” and thinks it is inspired by some kind of Protestant anti-Platonic agenda.
         Nothing could be farther from the truth. Arthur notes correctly that the term “Platonic Orientalism” was coined by John Walbridge, but mistakenly claims that “much of [Walbridge’s] work is dedicated to critique of the French scholar of esoteric Islam, Henry Corbin” (79). In truth, Walbridge’s books are deep and sensitive studies of the key Islamic thinker Suhrawardi; but the mere fact that he dares to disagree with Corbin’s reading of Suhrawardi seems enough for Arthur to see him as yet another enemy out to attack Corbin. As for my own understanding of “Platonic Orientalism,” once again Arthur creates a caricature by either ignoring or misrepresenting everything I have written about it. In fact the term refers, quite simply, to a very influential tradition that saw Platonism not as a rational philosophy created by Plato but as a spiritual wisdom tradition rooted in pre-Platonic sources such as Pythagoras, Moses, Zoroaster, or Hermes. Ironically, this should be quite congenial to Arthur’s own understanding of Platonism as a spiritual tradition. What seems to have provoked his ire, however, is the term “Orientalism,” which he thinks is “of course, a pejorative” (79). Never mind that both Walbridge and myself are explicit in pointing out that the terminology should not be confused with Edward Said’s famous notion but is wholly independent of it. Arthur simply ignores these statements, or refuses to believe them. He goes so far as to claim, without providing any evidence, that I use the term “not despite but because of the pejorative implications of ‘orientalism’” (79, emphasis in original) because it provides me with an excuse for not having to take Platonism and Platonic mysticism seriously “on their own terms” (ibid.).
Again, this is completely wrong. Nothing in my work (or Walbridge’s, for that matter) suggests a pejorative understanding of “Platonic Orientalism” – quite the contrary. Far from wanting to “dismiss” it, I want to restore it to academic agendas. Moreover, I happen to agree with Arthur that what he calls the “mystical” dimension of Platonism must be taken very seriously indeed (not just in Plotinus or Dionysius, but also in Plato himself). Again, my true agenda is to expose the long-term negative effects of the Protestant heresiological imagination and its Enlightenment continuations, so that it may be possible for Platonism to be seen in its true light. How is it possible that Arthur got it so wrong? The only explanation I can think of is that, having already decided that I am a Protestant heresiophobe with malign intentions, just reading the term “Orientalism” caused his irritation to rise to such heights that he stopped reading and began jumping to conclusions all of his own.

Wouter embodies 
the externalist fallacy

In passing, I should mention that the other scholar of religion singled out in Arthur’s chapter as exemplifying “the eternalist fallacy” is Daniel Dubuisson. Because we are both critical of “religionism,” readers could get the impression that Dubuisson’s perspective must be similar to my own. Certainly Arthur thinks that this is the case, but in fact it is not. While Dubuisson’s ideas would require a separate discussion, I do not at all share his extreme ideological viewpoint according to which fascism and antisemitism are structurally encoded in the type of (“religionist”) scholarship represented by Eliade (for this point, see Esotericism and the Academy, 302-3 nt 169, with special reference to the cogent refutation of such arguments by Elaine Fisher). Arthur does not mention this political dimension, but it might help explain the “withering scorn” (72) with which Dubuisson writes about Eliade. This is not my attitude at all, but Arthur suggests a connection by describing us both as guilty of the “externalist fallacy”:

What authors like Dubuisson and Hanegraaff assert is a radical externalism. Hanegraaff claims that the “experiential dimension that transcends history … will always remain inaccessible to scholarly research by definition” (78).

It is very strange that Arthur objects so much to this, for if you read the quotation closely and think it over, you will see that it describes exactly his own point of view!  And more than that, it is a view with which I wholly agree. I know that this statement is likely to make his head spin, so let me explain.
The externalist fallacy, as Arthur puts it, is “that one can do justice to esoteric religion from an exoteric perspective” (82), or “that what is most meaningful can be understood only through external discursive analysis” (82-83). Against this externalist fallacy, he quotes Peter Kingsley as saying that “there is no entrance to the esoteric from the outside” (82). Arthur might be amazed to hear it, but that is exactly what I am saying as well. Just compare those two statements by Kingsley and myself, and you will find they reach the same conclusion: if there is an “esoteric” dimension that transcends history, then obviously it will not be accessible by scholarly methods. I could not agree more. The externalist fallacy does not apply to me, so let me try to put the record straight once and for all. I do not at all believe “that one can do justice to esoteric religion [here understood in Arthur’s sense of the word, as an absolute reality that transcends history] from an exoteric perspective.” Nor do I believe “that what is most meaningful can be understood through external discursive analysis, as if one sought to realize the beauty of a magnificent Hudson River School landscape painting through analysis of its chemical content” (82-83). How could I possibly mean something so ridiculous? Again Arthur has gotten me confused with some old-fashioned reductionist of the crudest and stupidest variety.
In fact I stated as early as 1995 – and have kept repeating ever since – that what I advocate is an empirical/historical methodology grounded in methodological agnosticism. Sometimes I wonder how often I’ll need to explain what that means and what it doesn’t. Here is one of my latest attempts:

[T]he academy has no instruments for gaining direct access to the true and absolute nature of reality that is claimed to exist according to [the religionist] model, and it has no methodologies for either verifying or falsifying the claim that such a reality exists in the first place. The Absolute or the Divine is simply not a possible object of research: all that scholars can do is study the beliefs, convictions or theories that have been formulated about it, but as scholars they are not qualified to assess their truth or falsity. … [I]t is simply a matter of recognizing the limitations of what scholarly research can and cannot do. Some academics claim that since science and scholarship cannot discover the divine or the absolute, it therefore does not exist. However, it is logically more consistent to admit that we simply do not know – and cannot know. This position, which neither affirms nor denies that it might be possible to discover the true nature of reality by other means than science and scholarship (such as spiritual techniques or mystical contemplation), is technically known as “methodological agnosticism.” (Western Esotericism: A Guide for the Perplexed, 11-12)

How much clearer could I put it? What this means is that science and scholarship are modest and limited instruments that cannot claim to provide access to the “esoteric” realm of the transcendent or the absolute; and therefore scholars, as scholars, are not in any position to either affirm or deny its existence. Ironically, this is in perfect accord with the very heart of Platonic mysticism as understood by Arthur himself. In this same passage, I even take care to reject the reductionist interpretation that he imputes to me (the argument that “since science and scholarship cannot discover the divine or the absolute, it therefore does not exist”), pointing out that we should better admit that we simply do not know. To put the record even straighter, this also means that I respectfully disagree with the position of methodological naturalism, which “sees any non-natural explanations that we may encounter on the emic level as irrelevant” and argues that “any explanation that is not in accord with our best present knowledge of how the world works …, or which lacks any plausible support by such knowledge, is … automatically disqualified from the accounting of things” (Egil Asprem, Problem of Disenchantment, 85 nt 118).

Wouter wants to exclude 
the study of consciousness

The problem with Arthur’s chapter is that he reads my work selectively on the basis of what appear to be preconceived notions. As a result, he misses most of what I say. When I write (in the quotation just given) that as scholars we can neither verify nor falsify the reality of the transcendent, this implies that there might be other (non-scholarly) means of doing it, and I explicitly mention “spiritual techniques or mystical contemplation.” Arthur, for his part, states (more reductively than he might intend) that “[u]ltimately, the study of esoteric religion is the study of different levels or kinds of consciousness” (83), and advocates practices of mystical contemplation. From that perspective, he writes, “the externalist fallacy is to believe that one can accurately convey or depict esoteric religion from outside, without respecting the fact that esoteric religious traditions allude to changes in consciousness” (83-84). As already explained above, this externalist fallacy is nowhere to be found in my work: all I ever do is insist that we should not confuse scholarly methods with mystical contemplation or other spiritual techniques. Both are equally valuable on their own terms, as far as I am concerned, but they are not good for the same things. A spoon is helpful for eating soup and a hammer for hitting nails into the wall, but you won’t get far hitting nails with a spoon or eating soup with a hammer. It is really as simple as that: scholarship is not mysticism, and mysticism is not scholarship.
            As for the study of consciousness, it so happens that my true perspective is very close to the “radical empiricism” and philosophical pragmatism associated with William James. The relevant quotation is so famous that I hesitate to give it once again, but it simply cannot be said any better than James said it, so here we go:

[O]ur normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite discarded. How to regard them is the question, – for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness (James, Varieties).


For quite a long while now, in many publications, I have been calling attention to the role of “alterations of consciousness” in Western esotericism (including, of course, the Platonic tradition, or more precisely – sorry Arthur! – Platonic Orientalism). If you look closely at the relevant texts and traditions, again and again you will find practioners experimenting with how to apply the “requisite stimuli” for influencing or altering human consciousness, resulting in visions, voices, mystical experiences, and so on. I have come to consider this absolutely central to the study of esotericism (it's been at my suggestion that the 2019 ESSWE conference, in Amsterdam, will be devoted to this topic), so how could I reasonably be suspected of attempting to exclude consciousness from the field? Nevertheless, Arthur takes me for an “externalist” who wants to censor experiential dimensions and prohibit scholars from even mentioning them. He thinks I blame him for discussing such dimensions in one of his books about Christian Theosophy: “Were I to remove [the experiential accounts of esoteric practitioners],” he protests, “it would no longer give the reader a sense of the theosophical tradition from the perspective of the theosophers, but rather would only give names, dates, and data.” Quite so! How could I possibly disagree? Just look at how much attention I give to such experiential accounts in my own publications, which are by no means restricted to just names, dates, and data. In short, again Arthur has gotten me confused with some other guy.
            The only real difference that I see between Arthur’s perspective and mine – but it is a very important one – is that I believe scholarly method should not be confused with mystical contemplation or other spiritual techniques. I see no reason why these two could not learn to co-exist in friendship and mutual respect, but trouble will arise if we require carpenters to use spoons or expect soup to be eaten with hammers. This means that in my capacity as a scholar (a carpenter) I will be using the tools of my trade: hammers, not spoons. Of course those tools will not allow me to have direct experiences of the transcendent: that is simply not what they are designed to do. But they can do many other things that I consider extremely valuable and important, which is why I am a scholar. When my working day as a carpenter is over, perhaps I will decide to take a cup of soup! That is a personal choice for which I’ll definitely need a spoon, and I’ll be happy to use it. But it will not be of much help to me during working hours.

Wouter is a self-appointed inquisitor

We finally come to what might be the core of the conflict. Judging from the book as a whole – and this is what I already suggested in 2013 – it seems that Arthur has rather little interest in secular methods as tools to be used on their own terms and valuable for their own purposes. Such approaches he seems to perceive as either inherently meaningless “nihilistic” pursuits (86) or as destructive instruments for expelling esotericism, mysticism, or Platonism  from the academy (see for instance his discussions of various secular approaches on pp. 62-64, 125-18). This argument might seem surprising at first sight: after all, esotericism found itself excluded from the academy to begin with, and only thanks to the application of standard secular methods did it finally get included as an academic field. But in fact this is exactly what seems to be the problem, the real source of the pain: “in the name of ‘academic respectability,’ exactly what is esoteric about esoteric religion is excluded, making the field into a kind of ironically empty exercise” (82). In other words, Arthur thinks that the field has sold its soul in exchange for “academic respectability.” As one of the chief culprits responsible for this development, I am being framed throughout the chapter as a “self-appointed inquisitor” (83) who wants to “exclude” (72, 79, 82), “excise” (8), or “excommunicate” (72, 84) dissenting approaches from the academy.

Giordano Bruno before the Holy Inquisition

This is a very serious allegation, but the truth of the matter is rather different, and in fact very simple. I am trying to advance what I see as proper scholarly methods, and this involves not getting them confused with non-scholarly pursuits such as mystical contemplation or spiritual techniques (no matter how valuable I may – and in fact do – find those in and for themselves). For reasons already explained above, I believe that scholarly methods are simply incapable of gaining direct access to whatever transcendent reality might exist out there. They can only approach it indirectly and at second hand, and therefore they cannot give scientific proof of its truth and real existence. All they can do is report what practitioners are saying about it, and then try to analyze or interpret (by whatever methods, from hermeneutics to neurobiology) what might be going on in such transcendental experiences. Is it possible then to scientifically disprove the truth and real existence of transcendent realities? Here opinions differ. I would personally argue that it is not possible, which makes me an advocate of methodological agnosticism; others, along the lines of methodological naturalism (see above), seem to assume that it is possible. In this debate, the jury is still out. In any case, we are not dealing here with some conspiracy of academic “externalists” against Platonism or esotericism, but with a serious and legitimate debate about the limits of scientific method.
            I do not see anything “inquisitorial” about my concern with the boundaries of proper scholarly method. A better analogy is that of a professional teacher of music (a former occupation of mine). If a student fails her conservatory exam in classical guitar because she cannot play her scales and keeps hitting the wrong chords, nobody will accuse the teacher of “excluding” or “excommunicating” her from the profession. Nor will anybody be surprised to see her rejected if she does not take her guitar to the exam but insists on performing a dance instead (no matter how skillful!). Scholarship is scholarship; it has methods and standards. Mysticism is mysticism; it has other methods and other standards. The teacher of mysticism will send me home if I insist on sending him a research paper instead of practicing my meditation. And he will be right: he is not being inquisitorial, he is just doing his job.
           Finally: has the study of esotericism been selling its soul in exchange for academic respectability? I do not think that such a thing is possible. The soul of our field is embodied in the texts and traditions and practices that we study: it cannot be destroyed by whatever we may be saying about them as scholars. As for the tradition of critical scholarship: it has a soul of its own, which thrives on honest dedication to the pursuit of knowledge.

The practice of criticism

Let me sum it all up. I do not hate religionism; I am not a Protestant heresiophobe; I do not want to dump esotericism into the dustbin; I do not want to dismiss Platonism as “Orientalist”: I do not embody the externalist fallacy; I do not want to exclude the study of consciousness; and I am not inspired by any inquisitorial motives. Arthur’s list of accusations is so long and so seriously mistaken that, coming as it does from a well-known and prominent figure in the field, it just couldn’t be left unanswered. That I have chosen to respond on a public blog is for two reasons: firstly, I do not want this debate to be hidden behind the paywall of some closed-access academic journal, and secondly, the blog format makes it possible for readers to respond. I would welcome further discussion, for my rejoinder is not just addressed to Arthur personally but to the wider field of academics in the study of esotericism, where some might be getting the wrong ideas about what I advocate or represent. As I wrote at the very beginning, an unfortunate rift seems to have appeared in the community of esotericism scholars, and this is my attempt at reaching out to the other side.
        Therefore I would like to end on a positive note. One thing that Arthur and I have in common is that we share a deep love and admiration for the Platonic tradition. We both see it as absolutely central to the intellectual and spiritual culture of Europe, and we agree that Western esotericism would be inconceivable without it. But perhaps the choices we make within that tradition are slightly different. Arthur highlights the magnificent metaphysical architecture of Plotinus and Dionysius the Areopagite, with its splendid multi-leveled hierarchy ranging from the multiplicity of material realities to the ineffable One above Being itself. This perspective is admirable, beautiful, and profound – no question about it. As for me, my ultimate allegiance is not to these later Platonists, or even to Plato himself, but to Socrates. It is in Socrates that I find my model for the “methodologically” agnostic scholar, who is in search of knowledge because he knows he does not have it but cares about the truth.
In the Symposium we read how he became a philosopher: it was because the seeress-priestess Diotima initiated him into the mysteries of Love and taught him to seek Wisdom (Symp. 201d-212a). Ever since, Socrates has known that he does not have wisdom – only the love for it. He is not up there in the world of eternal ideas but down here in the world of impermanence and change, together with his pupils, ignorant of the truth but filled with desire to find it. Sometimes he gives speeches while in a state of divine inspiration (as in the Phaedrus), but far more often he engages in dialogue: critical dialogue, sharp and precise, with the knife on the table, argument against argument, no quarter given! Socrates does not place himself above his pupils, proclaiming the Truth and expecting them to just accept it or raise themselves up to his superior level. On the contrary, he takes his position next to them, as their equal: he is just another human being like themselves, ignorant of the truth but searching for clarity. I am very well aware of how far the modern Academy has drifted away from its original Socratic model, but this is still what I think it should be: not an arena for power play and ego gratification, not a school where professors tell their students what they should do or believe, but a community of the ignorant devoted to the search for knowledge. In such a context, the practice of criticism has nothing to do with one person attacking another, for it is not a game with winners and losers, but a method for learning in which everybody wins. It is in this spirit that I have tried to respond to Arthur’s chapter, and I hope it will be understood as such.

32 comments:

  1. Part 1 or 2 (characters limit compels me to break comment in two’
    I read it with great interest. First, a footnote. I and some of my colleagues in the field of new religious movements (including J. Gordon Melton) have crossed swords with Hank Hanegraaff for years. His magazine published some very aggressive and unfair Christian counter-cult pieces, against which we reacted. However, we respected Hank as somebody open to discussion and to being corrected when factually wrong, which is not necessarily the case for other Evangelical counter-cultists. It came as a surprise to us to learn that in 2017, he abandoned Protestantism and was baptized into the Greek Orthodox Church. He was immediately accused by fellow counter-cultists of having joined a “cult” himself, as some of them believe that both Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy are “cults,” and all this when he was (and still is) struggling with cancer. I met him some months ago, and it seems that these personal developments led him to revise some of his views of “cults.” This was at a Greek Orthodox conference in Washington DC and his personal testimony about fighting cancer was very moving. I didn’t know he is Wouter’s cousin. I disagree with him on almost everything but respect him as a man trying to do well.
    Second comment: the article is important and there are parallel conflicts in the study of new religious movements, not to mention the study of religion in general. I agree with Wouter, and I believe part of the misunderstanding here is in the formula “methodological agnosticism.” As scholars, our agnosticism should be “methodological,” i.e. we should not discuss nor assess the theological claims of the religious or spiritual or esoteric perspectives we study. When I write a book on Mormonism, I should not be expected to pass judgement on whether Mormon theology is true or false, and should be judged only on whether my reconstruction of its theology is accurate or inaccurate. This is attacked by most Christian counter-cultists as “cult apology.” In their view, in order not to be “pro-Mormon,” a study of Mormonism should expose Mormonism as “false” or “heretic.”
    However, “methodological agnosticism” does not compel the scholar to be an agnostic in his or her personal life, and here lies a possible misunderstanding.
    Rodney Stark, who went in his personal life from agnosticism (not only methodological) to his own personal brand of Christianity (I say his own because he didn’t join any denomination) has lampooned those claiming that sociologists of Religion should be “personally” agnostic, comparing them to scholars of aviation who would argue than in order to write about aviation you should never have boarder a plane.
    Perhaps some of Stark’s most recent books crossed the line between methodological agnosticism (as practiced by somebody who is not personally agnostic) and Christian apologetics, but his comment remains valid.
    Books on new religious movements by myself, Gordon Melton, and Eileen Barker are in a way very similar. We share a general way of working and have often been studied together as representative of a certain scholarly approach to NRMs. However, Eileen Barker is personally an agnostic, Gordon Melton is an ordained Methodist minister, and I am a Roman Catholic. The objection by counter-cultists that the fact that I and Melton are believing Christians does not show in our writings about NRMs we take as a compliment. It means that we do practice “methodological” agnosticism. But that does not compel us to be agnostics in our private life. We have both written texts in a different vein, explaining carefully that we were writing them for our co-religionists from a believer’s point of view and that we did not regard them as part of our scholarly work.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wouter HanegraaffJune 17, 2018 at 12:36 PM

      Thank you Massimo. Yes, that Hank became Greek Orthodox came as a big surprise when I heard of it. For someone with his degree of fame and visibility in the US evangelical milieu, it must have taken quite a lot of courage and conviction to take such a step. As for agnosticism vs methodological agnosticism: yes, it’s extremely important to insist on that difference. And also, on the fact that agnosticism is not some slightly politer variant of atheism, as is often assumed. By the way, Egil Asprem has some great discussions of the historical origins of agnosticism in his Problem of Disenchantment.

      Delete
  2. Part 2 of 2
    In Italy, Luigi Berzano is regarded as a leading sociologist of religions. He teaches dressed in civil garbs and most of his students do not even know he is a Catholic priest. Nor would the reader of his books detect this easily. That means he practices methodological agnosticism. However, he also posts every Sunday on Facebook his homilies for the Sunday mass. They are often provocative and liberal, and I for one read them with gusto, but I understand the difference with his scholarly work.
    These examples lead me to conclude that even in the world of esoterica one can perhaps NOT be a “religionist” if he or she is rigorous in practicing “methodological agnosticism,” even if at the same time maintains a personal persuasion that certain esoteric propositions are true. I also agree with Wouter that one can be an unreformed “neo-religionist” such as Jeff Kripal and still write important books very much worth reading, although their particular style should be identified as such. As for scholars who are themselves members of esoteric orders or organizations, they should simply state it at the beginning of their books and articles (this is a professional rule for sociologists according to the ethical code of most sociological associations; I don’t know about historians but something similar should exist). Membership in the organization one writes about makes it perhaps more difficult to practice methodological agnosticism—but not impossible, and we all know of fine books and articles about Swedenborg having been written by Swedenborgians (such as the late Jane Williams-Hogan) and on Theosophy by Theosophists. They disclosed their affiliation to the readers, and readers were able to judge by themselves. When relevant, I always make it clear that I am a Roman Catholic. And I have a lot of fun seeing some trying desperately to find a “Catholic bias” in my discussion of Theosophy, or the Mormons, or Scientology. Should they find elements of it, this would actually help me perfect my own methodological agnosticism. But they rarely do.


    ReplyDelete
  3. Very interesting post. Unfortunately, his ad hominem arguments seem to have undermined his methodological criticism which could have triggered a most interesting and fruitful debate. I haven’t read the book in question, but based on your post it gives me the impression he is writing from a foundationalist perspective. I wonder when some disciplines will move beyond the internalism versus externalism and the sacred-secular divide. Also, I wonder up to what point concepts such as "consciousness" and "rationalism" are often misused in religious studies and Western esotericism, because they are quite often interpreted within a culturally embedded perspective.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Amen, and amen. The great irony here: your critic declares himself guilty of the very crime he accuses you of -- seeing with one eye, and that plagued with cataracts! And speaking as an Islamicist, it's precisely the cyclopean religionist antihistoricist approach that -- working zealously in tandem with its scientistic opposite -- has disappeared the bulk of the Western occultist tradition as not-(Christian) religion, which is to say decidedly natural-scientific on the one hand and Islamicate on the other. Talk about afterlives of the Inquisition (and the Crusades). How can you possibly be an anti-Platonic Orientialist when we still have no reliable history of Suhravardian philosophy and its many legacies, much less Islamic Neoplatonism and Neopythagoreanism more broadly, due precisely to the antihistoricism of the religionists? As you argue and I of course vehemently second, it's past time to mend these yawning orientalist-colonialist rifts -- by means of proper historicist, methodologically agnostic philology!

    ReplyDelete
  5. During the mid-2000s I was an avid, young North American student of Western Esotericism, and then, as now, I did not know much. I approached Versluis (via email) with a short query seeking guidance and a prospective institution. The conversation was completely disconcerting and rude. I ended up at Exeter with NGC. Interestingly, I have had brief communications with Wouter and other leading European scholars who have always been kind, approachable, and ready with professorial guidance and leadership––a pleasantry for young, timid 'wannabe' scholars like myself.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. A friendly request to Anonymous and any other potential respondents: if you take part in this discussion, please be so kind as to identify yourself so that everybody can see who you are. To do so, make sure *not* to select the "Anonymous" button.
      Apart from this: I would like to avoid personal attacks in this thread. Of course I'm glad to hear that you had good experiences with me, and sorry that your experiences with Arthur were not so good, but let's not judge too quickly. To be honest, everybody is far too busy these days, and under stress it can easily happen that sometimes we don't answer an email as politely as we should have done. I'm not blameless in this regard either, and wouldn't hold it against Arthur.

      Delete
  6. Antoine Faivre tells me that he has technical problems with the "reply" button, so here is what he wanted to write:

    Thank you, Wouter, for having just gone to all the trouble of trying to dispel that ever-recurring misunderstanding.
    You already did so, cogently and convincingly, but this time Arthur’s misreadings were a good opportunity to come back to it. Let’s hope he will not turn a deaf ear… but I’m afraid we will never be definitely over with that matter….
    And thank you, Massimo, for your excellent and informative comments.
    (P.S. : I appreciate the adjective that Wouter honestly used before my name [« the younger Antoine Faivre »], in the passage dealing with Eranos).

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thank you, Wouter for this article.

    I think that the assumption that terms such as 'religionist' are pejorative is an easy one to make - or at least infer - especially from your 2013 article and others of that time - since 'religionism' takes such a hammering that it (- correctly in my opinion -) is shown to have little to offer the development of esoteric studies within the modern academy. Of course, this was necessary boundary-work, and the formal academic voice also disadvantages a more cordial discussion. Add to this terminology that is loaded with 'negative valence', such as 'wastebasket', and you have much that is open to (mis-)interpretation or hostility: no one likes to be told that their passion is something that has been consigned to the wastebasket of civilisation, or that their methodologies contain glaring omissions and assumptions, even if these are bitter pills to swallow.

    However, I can't help feeling that he is being wilfully averse to your position: your more recent papers make it explicit that you are not discounting the experiential from Western Esoteric Studies. Your outline of Western Esotericism 3.0 as an interdisciplinary project hints at this, and your piece on teaching experiential dimensions was - I thought - excellent and took exactly the right approach: treat experience as real and meaningful to the actors - something that is vital to building up any sort of accurate emic analysis of one's subject.

    The problem with religionist approaches for me, is what do they reveal in addition to what Versluis might define as 'reductive' approaches? I have read works by Versluis, Voss and a bit of Kripal, but I find it hard to discern what the added value often is in scholarly terms. I love aspects of their work, for example, I think that Voss' work is really good in a 'therapeutic' and creative context and I have taught her methodology of the imagination to sonic arts students as a way to conceive various hermeneutic approaches to sound material - but I can't see how any insights from it can really be mapped onto historical studies without a vast amount of untenable anachronism. The conception of WE3.0, on the other hand, hints at ways in which experience - and even experience of living parties, can be integrated into research practice more coherently.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Phil, I am not doing historical studies, therefore wouldn't expect my work to be mapped onto it. In so far as we study western esotericism, it is as contributing to transformative learning which is a pedagogical discipline with its own methodological approaches - entirely distinct from history. In my view, there is room for as many approaches to this subject as there are researchers, and I certainly learn from all of them.

      Delete
    2. Thank you for the clarification Angela! I hope you can see how a misinterpretation may arise, though: your 2009 article on the Methodology of Imagination cites Versluis a number of times for its theoretical justification, and one of the most prominent examples discussed regarding the relationship between a researcher and their research (Joanne Snow-Smith) is also in the context of historical studies. I gather now, from your post, that perhaps your current work and its aims take place in a context that is distinct from both religionist and naturalist approaches to WES insofar as they attempt to explicate historical esotericism? That said I am sure that all scholars - even the reductive ones - experience their own 'tropological' and 'anagogical' moments in their work, although whether they choose to put it into words is another matter! ;)

      Delete

  8. Part 1 of 2

    Thank you so much for this blog post. It’s always a sincere pleasure to read your balanced and nuanced arguments about any subject. I am a student of religion (not an academic yet!) and I admit that I tend more towards a religionist approach. As such I would like to make a couple of commentaries regarding the points you make about religionists. I’m sorry for not using a refined academic style but I’d rather enter the debate now instead of carefully writing a small essay.
    I think that it is clear, especially when reading your debate about the Serpent’s Gift with Jeffrey Kripal, that your projects are fundamentally different. I believe that Kripal hints at this every time he speaks of your positions as not being a “zero-sum game” and you hint at this yourself in your essay “Empirical method in the study of esotericism” when you say that “‘both parties are operating with mutually exclusive definitions and are not, in fact, talking about the same thing.”
    You are absolutely right here. However, this is not enough to establish that religionist approaches use spoons to work with nails. What we need to establish first is: Is there room in the academy for any pursuit that is not agnostic in its methodology? I would say that the common sense answer would be yes. Philosophy, theology, gender studies and even certain strands of semiotics and hermeneutics are disciplines that are not agnostic at all in their practices and methodologies but find their place in the academy. So, in establishing that non-agnostic subjects may exist in the academia (especially in the Humanities), now we just have to justify the existence of a religionist tradition.
    I do agree that an agnostic approach to esotericism is absolutely fundamental, especially to preserve the various practices and philosophies in an unbiased way and to make them available for an academic study. I suspect that without a serious agnostic study of religion, religionist approaches would not even be possible. And I also admit that the agnostic study of religion is part of other, larger academic entreprises, in your particular case historiography.
    However, I am convinced that what religionists want is to have an academic space that is distinctively different from an esoteric space (just like religion itself is different from theology) but that is closer to philosophy, theology and speculative metaphysics while still drawing on sound historical work (a case in point would be the work of Henri Corbin as you refer yourself).

    ReplyDelete
  9. Part 2 of 2

    I am convinced that religionists have solid grounds to want this. Eliade’s scholarship is a tremendous intellectual work that cannot be simply defined as religious or esoteric in the same way as Splendor Solis. It belongs in academia by virtue of its historical and philosophical rigour, and because of the enormous intellectual work that allowed it to exist. The same can be said of Henry Corbin whose books, despite having very specific metaphysical and theological interpretations, are grounded on an immense historiographical and linguistic scholarship of the highest standard. And this is true not only in regard to the nature of the work, but also in style. Very few non-academics would even have the patience to read his long footnotes, that are sometimes longer than the book itself. However, I agree that religionist authors cannot pretend to be unbiased and agnostic, and must be extremely aware of their own biases. I believe Corbin attempts to do this and is more or less successful.
    There is a philosopher of science called Paul Feyerabend that came up with the very interesting concept of counterinduction in the book Against Method. His idea is basically that radically different methodological approaches to the same subject in an academic environment are what allows the subject not to fall into a kind of fundamentalism. I believe this is particularly obvious in your friendly rivalry with Kripal. You are the intellectual force that does not allow Kripal’s scholarship to develop into a proto-religious movement, and he is the force that reminds you that a truly agnostic and unbiased scholarship is perhaps an impossible undertaking. I wrote in an essay of mine some months ago that it is a delightful coincidence that the book both of you wrote together is called “Hidden intercourse” because the title shows the relationship-dynamic between your two kinds of scholarship.
    I am truly sad that many religionist authors don’t feel comfortable engaging in debates and get easily annoyed by criticism, and I am sorry that you have been so deeply misread. I hope that in the future academics of religion develop the fair play you and Kripal have with each other. It is truly inspiring.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Dear Wouter, I have always appreciated your honesty and true openness to dialogue and constructive criticism. As a former student, this horizontality and humble approach you have to the search of knowledge was truly a breeze of fresh air in a world that is full of Ego-battlefields.
    It is very tender to read your well constructed attempt to reach out and explain with delightful clarity each of your arguments. I feel your honest heart trying to build that bridge. I hope your invitation is accepted and more honest approaches towards knowledge (and less personal power struggles) become the norm.
    I can't agree more with your Socratic model, and please, keep doing your best to restore it; I know your students appreciate it.
    As far as I am concerned, you know I chose 'spoons' full time, but if I ever explore the world of 'carpenters', it makes me happy to know that there are people with honesty and integrity that do their hammer work with your socratic aspiration to glimpse Truth.
    Big hugs dear Wouter, beautiful read.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Simão, you may be interested to know that Huston Smith wrote an article suggesting that Feyerabend's work be imported into religious studies. It is in the edited compilation "A Magic Still Dwells".

    Unfortunately, as far as I know Smith did not deal in depth with Feyerabend's analysis of history and myth, which in my opinion is a crucial part of his argument and also key to understanding how it might be used in religious studies.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for this! I will look into it.
      I believe Feyerabend's analysis of history and myth is fascinating, but I am convinced that he would not want it to become too hegemonic either! :)

      Delete
  12. Wouter, many thanks for sharing your lucid and rich response to Arthur’s recent statements. Here comes The Debate again, and hopefully this time it will lead to some resolution. But I wonder if it’s possible. At the end of the day, where’s the rub? It can’t be overt hostility toward religionism on your part, as you have never shown any. In fact, you’ve done cartwheels to show otherwise. In your drawing of the boundaries of scholarly activity, methodological agnosticism and naturalism are in, but religionist approaches are out. You respect religionism, but do not give it the specific type of respect you give to scholarship. The rub may be there. Your differences with those who take a religionist approach are not differences resolvable through scholarly discussion, because by your definition the religionists are not engaged in scholarship. They are outside the tent. If academia is a place for scholars, and religionist approaches are not scholarly, your statements could be taken to imply that religionists should not be in academia. I can imagine that for those who take a religionist approach and who make their living (and form their identity) as members of academic departments at universities, this exclusion by definition might be felt as a threat. Have I drawn a false inference here? (And, in a different vein, I think “religionism” is an ugly word, and I rather sympathize with those on the receiving end of the label who squirm about it. I know it’s a technical term with a non-pejorative definition. But it sounds unpleasant. And that could also be a subtle part of the problem. I too have had those discussions with certain people who can’t be convinced that the term isn’t an insult – the resistance might be on some level aesthetic, not rational.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wouter HanegraaffJune 18, 2018 at 10:42 AM

      Thanks Leonard, that’s very helpful and very carefully formulated. However, yes, I do think you draw a false inference: I really, honestly, do not think that “the religionists are not engaged in scholarship”. Corbin for instance was deeply engaged in scholarship; the same goes for Jeff Kripal today, and so on. Even my favourite scholar Scholem could be considered a religionist, as I argue in my 2012 book. My point is the one I’m always making: it’s a specific type of scholarship that rests on the unresolved and probably unresolvable contradiction of trying to write the history of something that has no history. That’s where the rub is. I’m not saying that religionists should be excluded from the academy; what I’m saying is that there is a structural problem with their approach, and it would be good if they would recognize it as something to be taken seriously, rather than denying that there is any problem and responding with anger to those who suggest that there is one.

      Delete
  13. A true Platonic article. Absolutely impossible to tell pharmakon from pharmakin! My admiration for your skills.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I wonder whether a Buddhist perspective could be useful in defining the "rub" a bit more clearly. I am thinking of the teachings about "view" (diṭṭhi). The Wikipedia definition is almost ideally suited to this discussion: "In Buddhist thought, a view is not a simple, abstract collection of propositions, but a charged interpretation of experience which intensely shapes and affects thought, sensation, and action." Furthermore, "Views are produced by and in turn produce mental conditioning. They are symptoms of conditioning, rather than neutral alternatives individuals can dispassionately choose." These teachings go further, using terms that are typically translated in English as "right" or "wrong" views, But such translations, unfortunately, themselves imply views. My understanding is that any view, if one is attached to it, is or can become a "wrong view." It interrupts the process of achieving enlightenment--and I intend the word "enlightenment" to do double duty as a marker of spiritual and scholarly aspiration. The passion of defending or attacking a view indicates attachment to that view and thus could be described as a "wrong view" in terms of the definition given above. The Buddha is said to have achieved an ideal state of "viewlessness" as part of the process of enlightenment. So-called "methodological agnosticism" seems to me an attempt to achieve such viewlessness. It is in essence a spiritual practice, never quite achievable, always to be aspired to. History is a narrative and can never be complete, meaning that our unrecognized views determine what we include or leave out and how we arrange the details or what conclusions we draw from them. There cannot be a viewless history. Only the mind of some vastly superior and viewless being could hold it. But that does not mean we should not write histories, only that the most intelligent procedure is to identify and eliminate the views we receive as conditioning and readmit what has been left out (such as esoteric views, as per Wouter's writings). So-called religionists acting as scholars (as a scholar of the theosophical current working from within the Theosophical Society, I perhaps deserve the label) may have a greater challenge in identifying or questioning the views that condition their writing. If Wouter is calling for greater mindfulness about unrecognized views, this is a challenge to ALL scholars to aspire toward unachievable viewlessness. If some scholars take this challenge personally, they may be too personally identified with their views, which, to my mind, fully justifies Wouter's challenge. However, I agree with Leonard about the pejorative implication of "religionist," which too easily can create an "us and them" mentality. The reframing I am suggesting here is that there is naturally a greater and lesser mindfulness about views among scholars of all types and the call to greater mindfulness by aspiring toward unachievable viewlessness, as in the case of methodological agnosticism, is a legitimate, necessary, and helpful form of criticism, such as the Buddha himself may have exercised. But let us not go so far as to call Wouter the Buddha of Amsterdam, as Suzuki called Swedenborg the Buddha of the North!

    ReplyDelete
  15. I should mention by the way that I am not a practicing Buddhist. Yet I use the Buddhist concept of views as a method of reading and a guide to writing. Many Westerners, especially of the "spiritual but not religious" bent are shocked by the Buddhist teaching that the idea of the soul is said to be a "mistaken" view. Many Buddhists seem not to realize that when defined as such and held as a dogma, the idea of the soul as a "mistaken" view itself becomes a "mistaken" view. I see the teaching on views as a challenge to mindfulness along the lines of: "meditate on the view that there is no soul and see how it changes the view that there is." Translating this into the realm of scholarship, a view is clearly a lens. The value of lenses lies in the new insights they reveal. The limitations lie in all that lenses leave out. The most skillful scholar is the one who can negotiate the movement into, out of, and between lenses in ways that reveal insights and illuminate limitations. This methodology represents what I have called an aspiration to viewlessness. The problem I often see in scholarly writing, even among non-religionists, is that the "ism" fads of of the day become unrecognized views, as in the definition of view given previously: "a charged interpretation of experience which intensely shapes and affects thought, sensation, and action" and producers and symptoms of "mental conditioning . . . "rather than neutral alternatives individuals can dispassionately choose." Polemics and ideologies have their place in academia as a means of promoting intellectual and political change. But as a reader of texts in which lenses are adopted as counter lenses to so-called "wrong views," I try to be aware of the insights and limitations of the chosen lenses on both sides. I often see that as followers are gained and reputations developed, there is a tendency for scholars to be identified and perhaps to identify themselves in terms of their lenses or views--and the result may become a form of brand-name marketing. In this sense, the text that Wouter is in dialog with is a clear statement of Arthur Versluis's views, lenses, and brand. It is unfortunate that he chose Wouter as the negation of everything that stands against his brand. Though it is often true that it is easier to define something in terms of what it is not, I am sure there are more academically respectable ways of doing this than making ad hominem attacks. Still, as a reader/spectator of the resulting debate, I am grateful for the illumination it provides on various views/lenses in use in the field of Western Esotericism and on the notion of views/lenses. I will certainly carry the insights gained into future reading and writing.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Here's an additional explanation in response to a FB question by Amy Hale. I think it's also relevant to the comments of some other respondents, especialy Phil Legard and Simao Cortes:

    Many people seem to understand religionism more broadly than I do (or rather, have come to do). Religionism I define technically as “The project of exploring historical sources in search of what is eternal and universal”. So it’s about doing history, and is far less relevant to for instance anthropology. Because the “eternal and universal” almost always means belief in some kind of transcendent reality, there is a natural link to religious or theological beliefs, but that link is not strictly necessary, or at least it can be extremely tenuous. See for instance my discussion of Gershom Scholem in my book: there is no overt theology there, much less dogmatism about any transcendent reality, but there is the “messianic hope” that somehow, against all likelihood and against all human reasoning, the transcendent or absolute might manifest itself one day in the future. Scholem knows (as expressed in a famous quotation) that he is wandering around in the “mists of history” in search of a “mountain of revelation” that he has never seen and the very existence of which he cannot prove from the perspective where he finds himself; yet all his work is inspired by the crazy hope that it might yet exist. In the meantime, he is doing history, because that is what he *can* do. The difference between technically “religionist” approach and purely secular theology is subtle, but it is there, and it explains why he saw Corbin as an “esoteric blood brother”. Many (most?) of my readers don’t seem to see the significance of fact that while I’m critical of religionist method, I still highlight Scholem as my personal favourite model of the “historian’s historian”. This is because, like Scholem, my thinking is dialectical, not black-and-white. I’ve written about that in the blogpost that precedes the present one: “Imaginary Homelands”.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Based on the clarification Wouter has just posted explaining his definition of religionism, I have been playing with a thought experiment. I imagine a continuum with two extremes. The extreme on the left defines history as chaos organized only by human thought, feeling, and action along cultural lines, including economics, politics, religion, philosophy, the arts, etc. There is no determining factor but intentions as expressed by individuals through language/rhetoric to persuade and actions designed to enforce the implementation of these intentions. There is no purpose, no apparent evolution or progress, no goal except survival and dominance. The same personal and social issues recur generation by generation and eon by eon in different contexts with the same net zero learning or achievement. All cultural products, including history are relative and ephemeral and reveal or conceal intentions as it is useful to do so for purely local and contingent purposes--even when there is a hope to be remembered by later generations as one who has "made history." I am not sure what this extreme should be labeled, "naturalism," perhaps, though I think it might go farther than self-identified naturalism-ists (naturalists would be confusing here) would go. With some irony, it could be called an objectivist/pessimist position.

    On the extreme right would be a subjectivist/optimist position (also proposed with irony), corresponding in some ways with the religionist perspective defined by Wouter. At this extreme, all history has meaning, implies progress and evolution, and is pointed toward a goal defined by some transcendent level of being or consciousness("redemption," or if the word is too charged, something like an evolution back to oneness with a postulated Source of All Being or an escape from the realm in which history unfolds that is not identical with mere annihilation). From this perspective, all cultural products have meaning as they seem to support or negate progress or evolution, as they attempt to uphold or subvert whatever is or can be "known" about a transcendental plan and the level of being that conceives and directs the unfolding of such a plan. All the historical forces described previously as "intentions as expressed by individuals through language/rhetoric to persuade and actions designed to enforce the implementation of these intentions" operate here as well, but are classified by historians as revelations of aspects of the transcendental plan that have shown themselves by their consequences as upholding or subverting it. There is of course a fallacy in using the consequences of an a priori plan to prove the existence of that plan. Also, the nature of that plan will be subject to what I wrote earlier in my posts here on views, including incompleteness: "There cannot be a viewless history. Only the mind of some vastly superior and viewless being could hold it."

    The middle point of this continuum could be identified as methodological agnosticism. Between this midpoint and the two extremes, there could be a halfway point on either side. On the religionism side, that halfway point could be represented, for Wouter, by Aleichem and Corbin. Wouter's own position would perhaps lie somewhere between that halfway point and the midpoint of methodological agnosticism (as an always aspired to but never fully achievable viewlessness). Beyond the halfway point would lie ever increasing religionist perspectives, maybe Guenon and Evola. For Wouter, Versluis apparently lies to some degree beyond that boundary.

    The similar halfway point on the opposite side might be represented by the naturalist position, but I am not able to supply any names as examples.



    ReplyDelete
  18. Lest my definition of the extreme religionist perspective be perceived as biased because it seems rosier than its opposite, keep in mind that I hinted that my naming the poles of the continuum of objectivist/pessimist and subjectivist/optimist was ironic. The ultimate extreme of religionism would be an entirely predetermined order in which the transcendental plan controls every aspect of history, repeating itself in endless cycles until we find some way to free ourselves from it. This is the only "worthy" opposite to the complete chaos at the other extreme.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Versluis' idea is that the 'externalist fallacy' makes scholarly, academic, 'external' work on the more recondite types of esoteric knowledge a doomed project: if one has to be a mystic to appreciate mysticism, then there is no point in work like Hanegraaff's. Fine. But what about work like Versluis' own? Here he seems to have a problem; is he writing scholarship, and, if so, what is the secret ingredient which makes it able to appreciate mysticism? Later in Platonic Mysticism he posits a possible solution to this impasse, a kind of 'esoteric hermeneutics for scholars', which is actually very intriguing, but it's unclear why such a reading methodology could not be (or indeed is not) exercised by scholars like Hanegraaff. Versluis' comments against boneheaded reductionists who are completely tone-deaf to their subject-matter ring true, but no one who knows the work of Hanegraaff and many other 'methodological agnostics' writing today in the field will recognise them as such boneheads unless they have some other bone to pick or don't read them carefully.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Thinking about the cogent comment from Voss, it may be that Versluis simply does not see himself as doing historical scholarship of the kind Hanegraaff and others are doing - we should remember that Corbin explicitly denied that he was a historian, laying claim instead to the territory of the theologian. This is a fair position, but it ought to be made clear: it is perhaps not Corbin's fault that his work his given rise to an utterly ahistorical Suhrawardi, whose entire neo-Aristotelean philosophical project is trimmed away as negligible (despite its truly enormous historical importance), but it is certainly an undesirable result of Corbin's having seemed to present the philosophy of Suhrawardi as though he never wrote a word about physics or other aspects of natural science. Corbin wasn't writing history, but people read him as thought he were. Versluis might want carefully to define how he regards his work. Is it historical scholarship?
    I was left feeling that Versluis' book's multiple errors of fact and detail hurt it, while the intriguing points and interesting possible avenues for thought and research were damp squibs, since there was never any argument for their usefulness, just pronouncements, bolstered by comments on the stupidity of people who might not accept what he says. He should definitely do his work more justice, both by engaging in positive argumentation (not just why others are wrong, but why he is right) and defining the way he sees his project, which might give us pointers on how it is to be read and avoid confusion.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Georgia van RaalteJuly 6, 2018 at 11:55 AM

    [Copied in sections from an essay inspired by this post, written on facebook]

    I have been trying to write a brief report of the recent AOTO conference. What has issued forth at the whim of my muse appears instead to be a meandering meditation on the study of esotericism, the problems of being a practitioner and an academic, the everyday sexism of academic conferences, and the desperate need for esoteric theology.
    It isn't polished enough for a blog post, but I hope it may inspire some conversation:
    The academic study of esotericism has had a difficult history, and it only exists in its current form due to the tireless efforts of Dr Wouter Hanegraaff. Part of the process by which it became an acceptable part of the academy was by drawing a clear line between the academic study of esotericism, and the practice of esotericism in its various forms. However, now this line has been established, the contemporary field, particularly in the UK, is moving towards reconciling the academic study and the practitioner milieu (a movement being enacted coextensively with the dropping of the term ‘western’ from the study of western esotericism). Examples of this movement can be found in the journal Correspondences recent statement on removing the word western from its title, and their upcoming issue on autoethnography; as well as in recent conferences such as Trans-States and Conjuring Creativity which sought to bring together practitioners and academics to speak on occult topics
    Still, within the academic study of esotericism it remains the norm to keep one’s practice or personal experience out of the picture. This is a juncture at which I differ dramatically from the norm. I studied theology for my undergraduate degree, where 80% of my classmates were training for the ministry, and 90% of my teachers were ordained ministers in their various Christian denominations. In this context theology, biblical studies, church history and religious studies (each of these subjects being considered equally academic, and requiring research and referencing to highest academic standard) were done side by side, to the mutual benefit of all. I believe that a number of approaches are needed for a healthy, flourishing academic milieu around any given religious tradition.
    The desire for the academic study of esotericism to be one that takes place from a position of supposed objectivity is a view is propounded most clearly by Wouter, particularly in his recent blog post. He argues that he does not consider a religionist perspective 'less' than religious studies one, but different—however he does state that he feels “the study of religion as a secular discipline incompatible with doctrinal theology of any kind.” I find this dismissal of theology puzzling (and admit I may be misunderstanding how he defines doctrinal theology); Wouter seems to suggest that theology is not properly academic in the same way religious studies is, but considering he accepted my BA in Christian Theology as appropriate grounding for his MA in Religious Studies, I do not quite understand how this can be the case. I have the greatest respect for Wouter, and I know that I would not be able to do the research I am engaged in now without the work he did before me. However I believe the religious studies and theological approaches must operate side by side (it is important to note in the context of Wouter’s article that I do not conflate the theological approach with the religionist one, the grand narratives of which are diametrically opposed to the theological school of ontology of which I consider myself a part).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Georgia van RaalteJuly 6, 2018 at 11:56 AM

      Now, although it is rare to label this form of work theology, I am hardly alone in this tendency and desire to bring the insights of contemporary practice and the contemporary milieu into the world of academia. The key locus of this has so far been art—because, I believe, it offers an objective object which represents an experience—a sensory representation of a numinous concept. However, this focus on art has enabled the tendency to jump over that awkward epistemological gap of what this stuff actually is, and what it does. Since its inception a strange agnosticism and ambivalence towards esoteric practices has been propagated by the academic field. Since esoteric practices are already (indeed, according to George Hansen, necessarily) liminal, this acts as yet another way to deny the validity of contemporary esoteric practice as a meaningful religious/spiritual experience/commitment. It is almost as though one is ‘allowed’ to talk about occultism in the context of art and media, because that means we don’t have to face up to what exactly the epistemological status of this stuff is—since magicians themselves cannot agree if it is religion or science or experience or what, it is hardly surprising the academy flees from this juncture. But to me, speaking about art and literature can offer ways into speaking about the experiential aspects of esotericism in an academic way. I believe and hope that, as the focus on occult art makes way for a focus on occult literature, this will become increasingly clear.
      It was for these reasons, among others, that I ultimately chose to do my PhD in literature, rather than in Religious Studies. This was an area which is deeply neglected; it would give me a venue to combine emic and etic perspective without explicitly positioning my work as problematising the contemporary field of esoteric religious studies. As a literature scholar, I find myself with more freedom to utilise insight from my personal practice, gnosis and insight in my exploration of the writing, use and effects of occult literature. Without this, I would have found it near-impossible to accurately conceptualise initiation. Without emic reflection, speaking of the effects of an initiatory text is impossible, and it is for this reason, I believe, that the textual, initiatory esoteric tradition has been neglected within the academy for so long (and when it is spoken about, so quickly falls prey to religionism, as in Arthur Versluis’ Restoring Paradise).
      All this is to serve as an overly-long introduction to the fact that I had very high hopes for June’s AOTO conference. I was excited to see how these various academics would present their work in a practitioner-heavy context, and in what ways the non-academic presenters would contribute. Thus, however, we come to my first criticism. For, despite calling itself the Academia OTO conference, and despite the fact that I was told one must be an affiliated academic in order to be a member of this, almost half of the speakers were not academics. This is not a problem in itself—both Trans-States and Conjuring Creativity had a roughly 50/50 split of academics and practitioners/artists. Further, the conference was not affiliated with an academic institution. What I did find uncomfortable, however, was that the non-academic speakers (with one exception) did not talk about personal spiritual, practical or artistic insight, but gave faux-academic presentations, offering personal opinions as academic research.

      Delete
    2. Georgia van RaalteJuly 6, 2018 at 11:57 AM

      I got the overwhelming sense that myself and the other bona fide academics there had been used to give academic credence to those who did not have it themselves. I found this deeply problematic in itself, but more importantly I believe that this actively hurts the work that I and others in the field of esotericism are trying to do. Because of the difficulties in claiming academic legitimacy for our field, papers in esotericism tend to be extremely strong academically (more so than those I have seen in the fields of literature, philosophy, and other areas of religious studies), and our field has a reputation for academic rigour because of this. I found myself feeling that this conference piggy-backed on the credibility of our field, while dragging this credibility down.
      One academic said that he felt one of the non-academics could be considered an honorary academic because of his work with the OTO archives. Now, there are a number of independent scholars who can properly be considered academics, because they have engaged in publishing thoroughly researched and peer-reviewed publications. This individual has not—access to archives does not make one an academic, and I find it insulting to the work of myself and my colleagues that such a title can be ‘bought’ so easily. I would have been more than happy to hear talks of personal insight, if this was explicitly presented as such, or if it was used to strengthen academics arguments—but I felt that the modus operandi of this conference presents a deep problem for a field attempting to reorient itself, and it worries me that the organisers, all respected academics, did not seem to recognise this.
      In addition, there was another aspect of the conference which I found deeply problematic, though for a different reason… Though I cannot help but think this aspect would not have been so prevalent if the conference had been under the auspices of a University. This was the instances of sexism occasioned at this conference.
      When the conference poster was released, I was very surprised. The ratio of women to men was 3:10. In UK academia, at least, this ratio is understood to be unacceptable. I know many prestigious female academics who will refuse to attend conferences where there is not a reasonably equal proportion of female and male academics. It is true that the keynote of this conference was a woman, but that does not change the overall figures. The fact that the organisers had proudly blazoned the names of the speakers thus disproportionately represented on the poster surprised me. I posted on a public forum that I found this problematic, and my post was replied to by one of the organisers, who stated that as only two women from the AOTO had applied, there was not much he could do. He was even mildly accusative, blaming the problem on the fact that there were not enough women in the field—which is simply untrue, for I could list a number of women working in this area off the top of my head. Further, I knew at least one of the other speakers was not a member of the AOTO, being neither an academic nor an Order member. I was thus surprised at this answer, but did not wish to argue in that venue, and decided to hold out judgement until after the conference. Imagine my surprise to find that several of the male speakers were either not academics, or not order members. These people must have been invited to speak and the conference. I could not understand, therefore, why they had not invited any non-OTO women academics to speak—or indeed, non-academic female order members.

      Delete
    3. Georgia van RaalteJuly 6, 2018 at 11:58 AM

      In the panel of which I was a part, I was told, publicly, at the beginning of my presentation that, as we were running late, it was extremely important to keep to time. Which I did, even rushing so as not to go over by one minute. The speaker after me continued for 5 minutes after his allotted time. He then stopped, acknowledged that he was doing this, then continued to speak for ten more minutes. The chair made little attempt to stop him. I found this deeply unprofessional, but also inherently sexist. I have yet to see a female speaker ever act like this, but unfortunately it is far from the first time I have seen a male speaker act thus.
      When I had a private word with said speaker after the panel was over, he told me that what he had done did not matter, because he was not a professional. This was hardly the only aspect of unprofessional conduct during this conference, and as someone who finds professionalism extremely important, particularly given the intricacies of the subject matter we study, I found his hugely problematic. This kind of behaviour further problematises the emic/etic divide—for if non-academic speakers will not even attempt to act professionally, then how can we possibly move towards including them in academic conferences, without diminishing what it means to be an academic in esotericism?
      The final sexist incident was, again, the very public actions of one of the non-academic male speakers who, during the keynote lecture, publicly laughed at and mocked the younger, female translator who was doing an extremely impressive job of translating written Spanish, with spoken interjections, into to spoken English, but who did not know the pronunciation of some specialist occult words. He continued to do this, even when the translator showed signs of being deeply uncomfortable. Never mind the sexism that allowed the person to do this per se—that he thought it was appropriate to do this explicitly and publicly in an academic conference absolutely horrified me, and proved that this conference could neither be properly seen as academic, nor as professional.
      These are the aspects of everyday sexism that are rarely reported—it often seems petty and unprofessional to mention them, no young female scholar (except masochistic old me) wants to upset their established male colleagues, and thus such behaviour continues unchecked.
      Considering the current controversies going on within the OTO, I believed that a particular effort may be made by members to show that they were not sexist; instead, multiple participants acted publicly in a sexist way, confirming not only that they are sexist, but that they have no problem acting in a sexist way in public. When everyday sexism is propagated by people at the very top of the order, it is hardly surprising that they have no will to act against the widespread systematic instances of this.

      Delete
    4. Georgia van RaalteJuly 6, 2018 at 11:59 AM

      I also feel the need to mention the utter discourtesy I was treated with by a number of colleagues. As far as I was concerned I was engaging in an emic debate—since the academic study excludes this, I believed it would be treated as irrelevant to my appearance at the conference in an academic capacity. I realise now this was very naïve—the strictures work in one direction only—and that is, anyway that is beneficial to those already well-established. The impetus for Wouter’s recent blog post was the thorough lack of professional courtesy with which he had been treated by a colleague. My experience at the AOTO conference echoed this; supposedly professional people who were unable to separate the personal and the professional. I was aware of a number of reasons why academics of esotericism were opposed to engaging theologically; I naively had not considered the extent to which personal politics would come into play. I have been so used to Christian theologians, who can have great, decades-long doctrinal disputes and still be good friends, that I did not expect professional courtesy to disappear the minute I expressed a problematic opinion. At least I now understand the state of play rather better. The emic/etic divide is presented as a methodological problem, when it is in fact a political one.
      Finally, I would like to speak from the other side of this divide, as a practitioner in a practitioner-milieu. We’re in a difficult situation with esotericism, for esotericism is in itself a deeply intellectual tradition. And because of the issues of gnosis and experience and subjectivity occultists are often dismissive of academics—and it is true, I believe, that academics need to re-centralise the importance of subjectivity and experience in esotericism. However, the emic world needs to understand, in turn, that its tendency to conflate historical fact and experience, however necessary, is also problematic, and is one of the key reasons the tradition has remained such a liminal form of knowledge. Whether you care that the message reaches more people, or whether you care that so many must still keep their practice secret—or even if you don’t care at all—academia means something specific, and it has specific uses within the knowledge economy; it has specific benefits we are unable to claim while we insists that academia is just privilege in action. Yes, academia is privileged and partial; but the answer to academia being overly privileged is not to reject it, for its power, and its ability to speak for the practitioner milieu, will continue. Knowledge has power, and in the contemporary knowledge economy the Academy is important. If we do not engage, then the conversation will continue without us.
      Without the Academy, the best thinkers in other disciplines will not explore esotericism—links will not be made between esoteric religions and practices, and more mainstream forms of spirituality. We will remain isolated and liminal—and I increasingly wonder whether this is what many occultists really want. But these people should learn their history better. Once again, we are called back to the 1930s, to the likes of Yeats and Pound and Lawrence taking up occultism to support ideas of natural nobility, to enforce a dying class elitism—and this is still going on today. It is doomed to fail, because it was already the dying gasp of a dying group. We find ourselves in a post-postmodern world, trying in vain to do high modernism—and, just like in the 1930s, it just makes us look like fools. Natural nobility, if such a thing exists, does not lie in obfuscating language, but in the development of the knowledge economy.

      Delete
  22. I think this could be taken for as an opportunity to impulse reflections and generate thoughts about conflict resolution within the discipline (completely agree with prof. Hanegraaff, and I thank you, for making it public to its readers). Think on sexism, lack of professionality (noticed by Dr. Ms Van Raalte, Btw whose answer as being too long saturates the thread considering this is a comment section, at any case), even the lack of interest in taking care and action over quality of research, intolerance and segregation in universities (Dr. Granholm actually faced it, as he has reported in his personal website) can be added to discussions within classrooms.

    Different postures illustrates how complex and rich we are, so will conflict derived of which will never end, so we must try to live and deal with it; differences are inherent events to scientific enterprises, the point is that they could derive to questionable ethical (even political) actions we must assume; at least that's what I have learned since conflict resolution is part of universities curriculum within my country.

    For instance: thinking on how Prof. Versluis has addressed his difference whit prof. Hanegraaff makes me think to what extent could be considered licit to discredit or disinform over the work of another scholar whose position is different after our work, in other words, means do justify the ends?. As readers, we should think about this whatever our position is in favor of religionist or agnostic/'externalist'. Have in mind that not all of us could write as prof. Hanegraaff praiseworthy did a gentle and thoughtful blog post, discussing piece by piece the arguments his detractor wielded against, giving room even to comments; others would be more sensitive and could react differently so it would be opportune to train us students also in this matters.

    ReplyDelete