Hermes in the Academy: Ten Years' Study of Western Esotericism at
the University of Amsterdam by Wouter J. Hanegraaff and
Joyce Pijnenburg (Amsterdam University Press) In 1999, an innovative chair and expertise center was created at
the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Amsterdam, focused on
the history of Western esotericism from the Renaissance to the present. The
label "Western esotericism" refers here to a complex of historical
currents such as, notably, the Hermetic philosophy of the
Renaissance, mystical, magical, alchemical and astrological currents, Christian kabbalah, Paracelsianism,
Rosicrucianism, Christian theosophy, and the many occultist and
related esoteric currents that developed in their wake during the
19th and the 20th centuries. This complex of "alternative" religious
currents is studied from a critical historical and interdisciplinary perspective, with the intention of studying the
roles that they have played in the history of Western culture.
In the past ten years, the chair for History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents has succeeded in establishing itself as the most important center for study and teaching in this domain, and has strongly contributed to the establishment of Western esotericism as a recognized academic field of research. This volume is published at the occasion of the 10th anniversary. It contains a history of the creation and development of the chair, followed by articles on aspects of Western esotericism by the previous and current staff members, contributions by students and Ph.D. students about the study program, and reflections by international top specialists about the field of research and its academic development.
Creative innovation in the humanities is usually not a top-down but a bottom-up phenomenon. It happens when individual scholars begin to ask questions that have not been asked before, and come up with new approaches that challenge the academic status quo. But, in order to be successful, not only do such new perspectives have to be recognized as fruitful by the wider academic community, they also need to become embedded in institutional contexts, which allow them to actively participate in scholarly debate and educate new generations of students. The chair group for History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents (GHF) is a perfect example of such a successful combination of scholarly innovation and academic institutionalization. As documented in this anniversary volume, over the last ten years it has established itself as the leading center of a new field of international research, referred to as the study of Western esotericism.
By the end of the 1990s, that term still caused some eyebrows to be raised. It was not yet so clear to everybody that, far from being a synonym for New Age, the label "Western esotericism" covered a wide range of important and influential currents in intellectual history from the Renaissance to the present, with roots in Late Antiquity; and there were still some suspicions, here and there, that scholars of esotericism might in fact turn out to be closet esotericists... But as the high quality of research in this domain became evident, such doubts quickly began to vanish. GHF has been consistent in setting standards of excellence through the many publications of its staff members, with the two-volume Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism (Brill, 2005) as a highlight that deserves to be mentioned here in particular. As documented in this anniversary volume, the study of Western esotericism has succeeded in becoming a normal presence on the international academic scene, with professional research organizations, peer-reviewed journals and monograph series, many conferences and, of course, teaching programs. The field is generating great enthusiasm and commitment not only among established scholars, but also among students and burgeoning academics, many of whom have received their education in this field at GHF and are now pursuing Ph.D. projects both in Amsterdam and at other universities worldwide.
When 1 first heard that there were plans for creating a chair devoted to the history of Hermetic philosophy at the University of Amsterdam, 1 could only pinch my arm very hard, to check whether I was dreaming. This was in the autumn of 1997. Twelve years later, having seen how a dream can become reality in the prosaic context of a modern academic institution — and how that reality, in turn, can allow new generations to pursue their dreams — sometimes I still feel a need to check that I am awake.
During my studies at the Faculty of Letters of the University of Utrecht, in the second half of the 1980s, I had come across a book that I now recognize as a pioneering effort in the study of Western esotericism. Written with infectious enthusiasm and impressive erudition, Will-Erich Peuckert's Pansophie (1956) evoked an exciting intellectual culture that had flourished during the time of the Renaissance, with major representatives such as Marsilio Ficino, Paracelsus and Jacob Böhme, but that seemed to have been almost forgotten by contemporary scholarship. I started asking my professors about these personalities and their ideas, and quickly began to make the typical experience with which all scholars in our field are familiar. The cultural domain discussed by Peuckert seemed to make my teachers quite uncomfortable, and to my repeated requests for information and suggestions, they responded by tossing the embarrassing topic on to another colleague as if it were a hot potato. Nobody seemed willing to touch it, and it did not take me long to decide that if this were the case, then somebody had to do it. My decision to specialize in the domain of what has sometimes been called "rejected knowledge"' was the best one I have made in my life.
Eventually I discovered that although good scholarship in this domain was indeed not so easy to find, it did, of course, exist. Like every novice in the field, I devoured the pioneering books of Frances A. Yates, which had put the study of Renaissance hermeticism on the map in the 1960s,2 and, a bit later on, I discovered the work of a French professor at the Sorbonne who was just beginning to get more widely known internationally, and whose many books and articles covered the field from the 15th century to the present under the rubric L'ésotérisme occidental, Western esotericism.' At a memorable conference in Lyon in 1992,4 I had the chance to meet this Antoine Faivre in person, along with other major scholars whose work I was busy discovering. Joscelyn Godwin, Massimo Introvigne, Thomas Hakl and many others who would become friends and fellow-travelers in the years to come were all there. This meeting in Lyon, then, was the beginning of an extremely fruitful academic collaboration that has continued up to the present day in the context of the Amsterdam Center for History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents (henceforth GHF, the abbreviation referring to the Dutch title) and, later, the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE). Faivre and I agreed that something needed to be done to create a podium for the study of Western esotericism, and together with Karen-Claire Voss we succeeded in convincing the International Association for the History of Religion (IAHR) to let us organize a series of sessions on this topic in the context of its 17th quinquennial conference in Mexico City, 1995.6 This initiative was well received, and has been continued at subsequent IAHR conferences (Durban 2000; Tokyo 2005).' With hindsight, it proved to be the first beginning of what has become a rather big wave in the international conference circuit: today it is difficult for any scholar to keep track of all the academic meetings devoted to esotericism and related topics, and impossible to attend even just a few of them.
By the second half of the 1990s, and as networks developed, it was becoming clear that although the number of generalists was still relatively small, there was certainly no lack of good scholars specializing in various aspects of Western esotericism. Often they proved very enthusiastic about meeting and collaborating with colleagues within that larger context, particularly because (as many of them have told me over the years) the price they often had to pay for their research interests was a certain degree of isolation within their own institutions or disciplines. That good scholars in the field of Western esotericism were available in abundance, but just needed to come out of the woodwork, was demonstrated by the circa 150 international specialists who agreed to contribute to an ambitious project initiated by Hans van der Meij of Brill Academic Publishers — whose continuous support for our field has been invaluable — not long before we heard the sensational news about the chair in Amsterdam: the Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, which would eventually see the light of day in 2005.
That it fell to me to be appointed at this unique new chair, in my very city of birth, was another occasion for me to pinch myself hard. And I needed to be awake, indeed, for there was work to be done! During the first academic year (1999-2000), 1 was running an academic team consisting of only myself, assisted from December 1, 1999 on by our first secretary, Drs. Andrea Kroon, who eventually decided to pursue a different kind of career and was succeeded on February 1, 2001, by Dr. Hilda Nobach, who is still with us today. A first priority was, of course, to fill the two assistant-professor vacancies, and, in spite of the unfamiliarity of the field, it proved possible to find two very good scholars. Out of 52 candidates, the selection committee made a unanimous decision in favor of Dr. Jean-Pierre Brach for the history of Western esotericism from the Renaissance through the 18th century, and Dr. Olav Hammer for the period from the 19th century to the present. Brach was able to begin his work on September 1, 2000, and Hammer started a few months later, on January 1, 2001.
While interdisciplinary by the very nature of its field of study, GHF was embedded as a "chair group" ("leerstoelgroep") in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies of the Faculty of Humanities, which was merged a few years later with the new Department of Art, Religion and Cultural Sciences. Its course program was, and still is, part of the Religious Studies program. Prior to the introduction of the new Bachelor/Master structure, that program was still rather modest during the first few years. It consisted of a "minor" of three modules: a general introduction to Western esotericism in lecture format ("Hermetica I") and two seminars on essential sources and selected themes ("Hermetica II" and "Hermetica III"). The program was popular from the beginning: up to the present day, the number of students registering for Hermetica I has never been less than 50.
The first GHF team remained intact for about two years, after which there followed a somewhat complicated period, due to several personnel changes combined with the introduction of the Bachelor/Master system in the academic years 2002-2003. Jean-Pierre Brach was elected as Antoine Faivre's successor for the Chair of "History of Esoteric Currents in Modern and Contemporary Europe" at the 5th section of the École Pratique des Hautes Etudes (Sorbonne) on September 1, 2002; and not very much later, starting on January 1, 2004, Olav Hammer became associate professor and, very soon after, full professor in the Study of Religion at the University of Southern Denmark, Odense. During the same year when, following Brach's departure, we found ourselves temporarily reduced to only two permanent staff members, the "minor" was reconceptualized in view of the new Bachelor program, and a new Master program had to be introduced. The "minor" now assumed the basic shape it still has: after the general introduction of Hermetica I, Hermetica II was henceforth focused on the early modern period, and Hermetica III on the period of the 19th century to the present. At a later stage, in 2006-2007, it was further expanded with a module focused on Antiquity and the Middle Ages (called Hermetica II: the other two seminar modules now became Hermetica III and IV). The Master program came to consist of three modules with fixed titles, but each with a content (formulated in the subtitle) that alternated on a two-year basis. The rationale for this was to maximize the choices available for students in the 2-year Research Master Study of Religion: for example, a student with a special interest in the early modern period had the option of following Renaissance Esotericism I and II consecutively, while someone else specializing in contemporary esotericism might decide to follow Occult Trajectories I and II, and so on.
Obviously the teaching load was increased considerably by the introduction of the new Bachelor/Master system, and it was important to have a complete team in place as quickly as possible. Out of 20 candidates, Dr. phil. habil. Kocku von Stuckrad was elected as Brach's successor, and he joined GHF on March 1, 2003. The vacancy of Hammer's position occurred soon after, and out of 21 candidates, Dr. Marco Pasi was elected, who began working with us on July 1, 2004. This was the beginning of the second GHF team, which has remained intact for a period of five years. Only very recently, Kocku von Stuckrad was elected full professor for the Study of Religion at the University of Groningen. Since his new job begins on September 1, 2009, his departure coincides exactly with the end of GHF's first 10-year period. With his imminent succession by Peter Forshaw, the beginning of the second decade will also mean the start of a new phase.
With the introduction of the Bachelor/Master system and the completion of the second team, continuity and stability had been achieved for the teaching program at GHF. During the first two years, the number of Master students was still rather small; but as the publicity machine of the Faculty of Humanities professionalized and the existence of our program became quite well known internationally, the number of applications increased rapidly. This made it possible to apply quite stringent admission criteria for international students, resulting in a level of academic quality during the last few years which, we are proud to say, is excellent by any standard. Over these last years, the number of students in all Master seminars has been somewhere between 15 and (exceptionally) 25, with a majority of international students who come to Amsterdam especially for our program. The general degree of focus and commitment among all of them —including of course the Dutch students, who have been able to profit from one or more of the Bachelor courses as well — has been more than satisfactory, and is making the teaching job a challenge and a pleasure. Perhaps most important of all, several students each year succeed in being admitted into a Ph.D. program, sometimes at very prestigious universities such as Yale or Cambridge. This means that a new generation is now being educated with a solid knowledge of Western esotericism, many of whom will eventually land academic positions in various disciplines at universities worldwide. Their presence will make it much easier for the generations after them to pursue studies in this domain. In this manner, we believe that GHF, along with the programs in Paris and Exeter, is laying important foundations for the future expansion of Western esotericism as a field of research.
This brings me to the doctoral program. Next to the three permanent staff members and a secretary, the available budget makes two Ph.D. positions possible on a permanent basis. Finding suitable candidates was not easy during the first years, for the simple reason that there were not yet any students who had graduated from the program. Fortunately, however, there are always a few individuals who discover a field like this on their own. One morning in April 2000, I found myself listening to a young art historian who had just finished her graduate thesis and wanted to study the relation between hermetism and art theory in the Renaissance. Having read her thesis, I realized that she might be just the right person for the job. Marieke van den Doel was indeed selected for the position, and was appointed as our first Ph.D. student on April 1, 2001. Over the following years she successfully met the challenge of mastering a complicated field of philosophical and religious speculation for which her previous studies had hardly prepared her, and, on February 12, 2008, she defended her dissertation Ficino en het voorstellingsvermogen (Ficino and the Imagination): an important event for her personally, but also for GHF, which proudly produced its first Doctor. Van den Doel's successor, Osvald Vasicek, has been working on his dissertation on the Christian kabbalist Johannes Reuchlin since June 1, 2006. Having graduated in Religious Studies at the University of Amsterdam, with a specialization in Western esotericism, Vasiek was the first of our Ph.D. students to have come out of our own program.
The second Ph.D. position, for esotericism in the 19th and 20th centuries has had a somewhat more uneven development. Roelie van Kreijl was appointed at GHF from 2003 to 2007, and since January 16, 2008, her successor, Tessel Bauduin, has been working on a dissertation about the relation between surrealism and esotericism. Bauduin's double major in Art History and Cultural Studies included several GHF modules, and one of her two theses was about an art collection grounded in esoteric symbolism. Shortly after Bauduin's appointment, the number of Ph.D. students working under GHF supervision expanded quite suddenly. An international student from Norway, Egil Asprem, finished the Research Master in the Study of Religion with a specialization in Western esotericism, and succeeded (on his first attempt) in earning one of the prestigious "Top Talent" scholarships of the Dutch Organization of Scientific Research (NWO). Having started on September 1, 2008, he is now engaged in a research project about the relation between esotericism and scientific naturalism in the 20th century. Finally, still in 2008, the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica decided to further expand its activities by employing a Ph.D. student as a temporary staff member. The choice fell on Joyce Pijnenburg, another Dutch student who has completed the Master Study of Religion at the University of Amsterdam with a specialization in Western esotericism. Connected to GHF as a "recognized external Ph.D. student" she is working on a dissertation about the role of imagery in Giordano Bruno. With these four talented young scholars all working on their dissertations, the prospects of GHF on the Ph.D. front are looking very healthy.
The basis of any successful academic institution is the excellence of its scholarly output. The research of GHF was registered during the first academic year under the heading of a new program titled "Western Esotericism and Modernization," which became part of the history section of the Research Institute Culture and History (ICH). In 2006, it was succeeded by a new program titled "Western Esotericism: Continuities and Discontinuities." The publication output has been more than satisfactory from the beginning, as can be seen from the lists of publications available in the online annual research reports of GHF (www.amsterdamhermetica.nl) and the printed annual reports of ICH. In the ten years of its existence, there have appeared 10 monographs (five of which also appeared in one or more translations), 11 books (including two multi-volume ones), circa 200 articles (not counting very small dictionary entries) and circa 45 book reviews. Restricting ourselves here only to book-length publications devoted to esotericism specifically, they fall within a range of various categories: critical editions and monographs devoted to central figures (Lodovico Lazzarelli, Guillaume Postel, Emanuel Swedenborg, Aleister Crowley); general treatments of the history of Western esotericism, astrology, modern kabbalah, and modern shamanism; thematic treatments of esoteric strategies of epistemology, polemics, and the role of eroticism and sexuality in Western esotericism; plus a Festschrift and a large reference work.
Another important dimension of academic success concerns contributions made to international scholarly media, research meetings, and organizations. Over the last ten years, members of GHF gave circa 150 lectures at universities and conferences in many countries, and they were active in organizing 11 international conferences or conference sessions themselves. Thus, in the context of the International Association for the History of Religion (IAHR), sessions on Western esotericism have been organized in 2000 (Durban) and 2005 (Tokyo); as part of the affiliated European Association for the Study of Religion (EASR), such sessions have been organized since 2006; and in the context of the American Academy of Religion, annual sessions with protected "group" status were first introduced in 2005. Specialized conferences 0n Western esotericism with specific thematic focuses were organized as part of the organization Politica Hermetica in 2005 (Esotericism and the Feminine), at the Esalen Institute in California during four consecutive years between 2004 and 2007 (focusing respectively on Religious Experience, Eros and Sexuality, Literature, and Altered States of Consciousness), and at the University of Amsterdam in 2004 and 2007 (on astrology and modern kabbalah).
If these conferences involved GHF members traveling to conferences worldwide, well-known scholars were coming to Amsterdam as well, to give lectures or seminars. The Canadian specialist of medieval magic Claire Fanger gave a lecture on May 26, 2000; the American historian on the Enlightenment and Freemasonry Margaret Jacob on May 1, 2002; and the English expert of Giordano Bruno Hilary Gatti on June 7, 2002. From November 2-3, 2004, the American specialist on the history of alchemy Lawrence M. Principe gave a lecture and a seminar for Master students; the Israeli scholar of kabbalah Boaz Huss lectured on September 22, 2005; and finally, the American Eliott R. Wolfson, another maj0r kabbalah specialist, gave a lecture and a seminar for master students on March 13-14, 2008. Furthermore, several international Ph.D. candidates or postdoctoral students (for some reason, all of them from Scandinavian countries) have spent periods of time at GHF to profit from the opportunities it offers for collaboration and exchange. Thus Henrik Bogdan from Sweden was in Amsterdam during the first half of 2002; and two Finnish postdoctoral researchers, Titus Hjelm and Kennet Granholm, were there in the academic years 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 respectively.
On the editorial front, members of GHF have been active as editors not only of collective volumes (see above), but also of scholarly journals and monograph series: Aries: Journal for the Study of Western Esotericism (since 2001) and the affiliated "Aries Book Series" (since 2006), both published by Brill;'° the series "Gnostica: Texts & Interpretations," originally published by Peeters, later by Equinox;" the electronic journal Esoterica, the annual French series Politica Hermetica, and the journal The Pomegranate. But their editorial activities are not limited to media devoted specifically to Western esotericism: the active presence of our staff members in broader interdisciplinary contexts, notably the study of religion and of new religious movements, is reflected in their editorship and board membership in major journals like Numen, Religion, Journal of Contemporary Religion, Nova Religio, Religion Compass, and Journal of Religion in Europe, and in such rmonograph series as "Religion and Society" (Walter de Gruyter) and the "Numen Book Series" (Brill).
It has now been ten years ago that — due to the original vision of Rosalie Basten and the determination and professional expertise of Roelof van den Broek and Willem Koudijs — the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Amsterdam courageously embarked on a unique academic venture, the viability of which still had to be demonstrated. At that time, the study of Western esotericism was still very much an idea in the heads (and, of course, the writings) of a limited group of devoted scholars, rather than a manifest and established reality in the international academic world. Today this situation has changed irreversibly. There are now three academic chairs (Paris, Amsterdam, Exeter), with successful teaching programs that produce new generations of young scholars each year; with the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE) and the American Association for the Study of Esotericism (ASE) there are now two professional organizations for scholars in the field, who meet at large conferences each year; with Aries and the "Aries Book Series" the field has its own specialized academic journal and an affiliated monograph series, next to a wide variety of other journals and series with related or overlapping interests; and that sessions devoted to the study of Western esotericism are routinely present at large conferences such as those organized by the AAR or the IAHR is no longer surprising or controversial.
For me personally, and probably for many colleagues with me, the inaugural conference of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism in Tubingen, 2007, organized by Andreas Kilcher and Philipp Theisohn, was a kind of crowning event in this context. When I walked on to the podium to give my welcome address as the president of the society, the realization hit me of how far we had come. The large university auditorium was completely full, and in the crowd I saw the faces not only of many of the most important international scholars in our field, but those of an incredible number of young and upcoming academics as well, including a large group of students from Amsterdam who were now busy making friends with their colleagues from Exeter and elsewhere. The enthusiasm that our field is generating among these new generations is, without any doubt, the most gratifying phenomenon of all, because it means that a process has been set in motion that will be taken into the future and is no longer dependent on the small group of dedicated scholars who started it in the 1990s.
Still, the fact that much has been accomplished since that period, and since the beginning of GHF in 1999, should not be a reason for complacency. Old patterns only change slowly, and although scholars of Western esotericism may sometimes feel that the battle for academic acceptance has been won, in fact it is only just beginning: rather, what we need to do during the next decade is move that battle to new fronts. Most attention so far has gone to securing a place for our field in the context of the study of religion, and with considerable success; but one of the most attractive aspects of esotericism is the fact that it refuses to be constrained within the limits of one academic domain only. As demonstrated by the many disciplinary backgrounds of the international students who come to Amsterdam to follow our program each year, Western esotericism can be studied from perspectives as different as history, philosophy, art history, the history of science, musicology, classics, anthropology, sociology, psychology, politics and, occasionally, even such technical disciplines as linguistics, architecture or mathematics. There is still a world to be won in each of these domains, and sometimes even the barest foundations still need to be created. In this sense, the first ten years of GHF at the University of Amsterdam have been only the very first beginning of a development that is bound to continue and expand over the next decades. Solid foundations have now been created, but in a field as complex and endlessly fascinating as ours, only the sky should be the limit.
Polemical Encounters: Esoteric Discourse and Its Others by Olav Hammer, Kocku Von Stuckrad (Aries Book Series: Brill Academic) In its historical development from late antiquity to the present, western esotericism has repeatedly been the issue of polemical discourse. This volume engages the polemical structures that underlie both the identities within and the controversy about esoteric currents in European history. From Jewish and Christian kabbalah through heretical discourse and interconfessional polemics in early modernity to the legitimization of esoteric identity in modern culture, the 12 chapters, accompanied by an editors' introduction, provide a cornucopia of relevant cases that are interpreted in a framework of polemical discourse and 'Othering'. This volume sheds new light on the ultimately polemical structure of western esotericism and thus opens new vistas for further research into esoteric discourse.
Excerpt: When adherents of one set of religious discourses and practices encounter other traditions, responses can vary across a spectrum from dialogue and peaceful coexistence via apologetics and controversy to outright conflict. This volume deals with a specific subset of such responses, as they have taken place within the religiously plural European milieu: polemics involving discourses and practices associated with western esotericism.' Such ideologically laden discourses have, of course, often been directed by outsiders—Christian theologians, rationalist skeptics, and others against esotericists. However, there are many instances of polemics addressed by adherents of specific esoteric currents at those they perceive as their foes.'
`Polemics' is a term used to identify a rhetoric strategy that exceeds simple 'debate' in many ways. In classical rhetoric, 'polemics' (Gk., polemike téchne) stands for an overpoweringly argumentational discourse. Its intent is the annihilation of the opponent's position, but often also even the annihilation of his or her very person. In so doing, it addresses an audience—which can be fictitious, to be sure that offers support for the polemical position. The corresponding antonym is 'apologetics' (Gk., apologetikós, ' [discursively] defending'), as a technique of reacting to polemics defensively and in an attempt at justification. The two concepts are inextricably entwined: by defending one's own position, one questions that of others; by denouncing the doctrines and practices of others as false, one asserts one's own claims to orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Together, both rhetorical genres can take on a wide variety of forms and interact in diverse ways.
Christianity has, since its earliest sources, been profoundly shaped by such boundary-constructing discourse. Several of the texts that came to form part of the New Testament canon insist that there is one and only one way to salvation, namely via Christ. The Gospel of John 14:6 famously lets Jesus proclaim that 'I am the way and the truth and the life. No one can come to the Father, but by me'. Similarly, Acts 4:12 asserts that 'Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved'. Much of the early Christian literature, unsurprisingly, builds on this exclusivism, in an attempt to distinguish the "correct" mode of obtaining salvation from various "false" doctrines.
A sizeable proportion of such early apologetic-cum-polemical writing was directed against the Jews.' Early Christian writers developed a genre of literature that contrasted the two traditions, consistently to the detriment of the Jews. The Church fathers insisted that the covenant as formulated in the Hebrew Bible was superseded, that Christian doctrine was superior to that of the Jews, that Jews misread their own scriptures by failing to apply an appropriately allegorical reading. Where Jewish doctrines were opposed to those of emerging Christianity, it was even possible for Christian polemicists to insist that Jews had corrupted and falsified their own scriptures.
Although the fascination with the classical heritage led to a much more ambivalent attitude to "paganism" than toward Judaism, Christian writers did wage a war of words—and often enough not only of words—also with their Roman and Hellenistic competitors. From Origen's Against Celsus to Augustine's City of God and beyond, "paganism" was reviled for being superstitious, for failing to deliver on its promises, or for causing immoral behavior among the population. A range of opponents, from Pliny the Younger to (the early) Firmicus Maternus, in turn attacked the first Christian communities in vicious verbal tirades, not least because their exclusivism made their loyalty to the Roman state seem doubtful.
Early Christian writers not only fought perceived enemies from outside their own tradition, but also from within it. Christian orthodoxy thus took shape through centuries of polemics and apologetics against "false" interpretations of the nature of Christ and of his message. Out of a pluralistic milieu with many coexisting Christianities, an increasingly streamlined religion was slowly constructed.' Valentinians, Marcionites, Donatists, Arians, Manichaeans, and a host of others were depicted as deluded souls, in need of guidance and correction. Conversely, the proto-orthodox views were portrayed as natural consequences of revealed truth. The written word and the pressure of political authority went hand in hand in this disciplining process. In a polemical tour de force, Augustine managed to convey the idea that when dissenters were terrorized into submission, it was for their own good. When directed against heretics, intolerance and violent repression are signs of love:
Why, therefore, should not the Church use force in compelling her lost sons to return, if the lost sons compelled others to their destruction? [...] Is it not a part of the care of the shepherd, when any sheep have left the flock, even though not violently forced away, but led astray by tender words and coaxing blandishments, to bring them back to the fold of his master when he has found them, by the fear or even the pain of the whip, if they show symptoms of resistance [...].
As Marie Theres Fögen has brilliantly demonstrated, the same attitude was also part and parcel of the early Church's fight against Manichaeism on the one hand, and against astrology, divination, and magic, on the other. 'Only after a sufficient amount of people where convinced that Jesus was not a magician, could Christian emperors risk to condemn all magicians in the world'. The fourth-century juridical discourse is an example par excellence of a polemical debate, as it involved both the juridical `Othering' of the enemy and his physical annihilation.
From now on the demons and their representatives were "juridified". It is this process that differentiates fourth-century law from Roman law of earlier times: Communication about right and wrong did not pertain just to the magicians; it divided the world into friends and foes, defining the former not only as right believers but also as rightful contemporaries, whereas it condemns the latter not only as dangerous but also as unrightful existences. [...] The magicians were only the prototypes of the inimici; they were the first heretics defined by law, the claws of which legions of subsequent heretics during centuries could not escape.
A war of words was thus part and parcel of the emerging Christian tradition, and vast amounts of polemical texts against external and internal enemies have continued to be produced over the centuries. On the one hand, encounters with further non-Christian traditions produced polemical literature against perceived external foes. From the late seventh century, Islam in particular was singled out for attack for its perceived doctrinal errors. On the other hand, Christianity as a whole has been characterized by innumerable schisms, resulting up to the present day in high levels of verbal hostility directed toward dissenting voices. The Reformation, in particular, triggered an intense preoccupation with religious boundary work, to the extent that a self-styled polemical theology emerged. Robert Bellarmine's Disputations de controversiis Christiane fidei or Controversiae (1586-1593) became an important point of departure for a Catholic theology intent on combating the Reformed churches. In Protestant circles, similar currents emerged in the seventeenth century.
In the contemporary period, liberal spokespersons for the Christian tradition have placed an increasingly negative valuation on polemics. The late nineteenth century saw the emergence of a movement for a "dialogue of religions", with the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions as its prototypical event. Whereas some elements of the conservative wing of Christianity have been reticent in accepting, much less embracing, the religious diversity of the contemporary world, to the point of accusing other religions of being satanic inventions, the irenic attitude toward others has become an important element in the self-understanding of a broad sweep of Christianities. Secular, liberal humanists portray themselves in a similar way, stressing tolerance and acceptance of others as key virtues. Tolerance, however, cannot extend equally toward everyone; one can only be tolerant toward specific groups, opinions, and practices. If a Christian fundamentalist preacher rants against Islam, one can choose to have a positive attitude toward Christian fundamentalism, or toward Islam, but it is difficult to see how one could be positive toward both without tying oneself into logical knots. Some level of hostility, it would seem, is inevitable in the encounter between different ideologies. In addition, it is a crucial element of all discourses of tolerance that tolerance presupposes disagreement; in a climate of indifference or consensus there is no need for tolerance.
Although space has permitted only the sketchiest of summaries, it is clear from the above that the history of religions in Europe has been marked by an extreme pluralism and also by a high level of antagonism toward other religious alternatives than one's own." Given this pervasive atmosphere of hostile interchanges, it is only to be expected that the rise and development of western esoteric currents should also have been profoundly affected by polemics. Indeed, Wouter J. Hanegraaff goes so far as to argue that the very emergence of western esotericism as a category is ultimately an effect of a 'grand polemical narrative' with which the various currents have been met." Further elaboration of this discussion notwithstanding, it does indeed seem that "esotericism" is an analytical category closely related to polemics. If we address esotericism as a structural element of European cultural discourses,' rather than as a typological label for a collection of "currents", the relation between esotericism and polemics becomes even more apparent.
The present collection of papers takes a more detailed look at three particular forms of boundary-drawing between esoteric discourse and its Others.
The first section concerns the encounter of Christian Europe with Jewish mysticism, and the polemics surrounding the role of kabbalah in the western religious landscape.
Kocku von Stuckrad takes a closer look at the emergence in the late fifteenth century of a Christian kabbalah. In particular, he directs our attention at the intellectual milieus where Christian and Jewish scholars could meet. In these circles, there was a lively interchange of information, and Jewish scholars played a significant role in translating and commenting kabbalistic texts for the benefit of their Christian counterparts. Nevertheless, Christian participants in these encounters largely used the information they were given in order to polemicize against Judaism. Predictably, Jewish kabbalists reacted with intense hostility, especially to various attempts to read Christian meanings into their mystical texts. These interconfessional circles (to borrow a term from Steven M. Wasserstrom) were united by their passion for kabbalah, yet riven with tension because of their competing ways of understanding the materials with which they worked.
In his contribution, Konstantin Burmistrov takes his readers up to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, surveying the role of kabbalistic concepts and terms in Russian intellectual life. The interest in kabbalah shared by a number of Russian Masons was a topic of contention. On the one hand, Masonic authors placed themselves out of the bounds of Christian orthodoxy, and were therefore reviled by mainstream Russian Orthodox theologians. On the other hand, their interest in Jewish esotericism rendered them suspect in the eyes of Enlightenment thinkers. Squeezed between two foes, Masons made uneasy attempts to align themselves with orthodoxy, suggesting that their own doctrines were scripturally sound, in fact more so than the misrepresentations of Scripture supposedly propagated by the churches. Despite of such controversies, interest in kabbalah spread from Masonic circles, and in thoroughly reinterpreted shape--became a major influence in nineteenth-century Russian thought.
Steven M. Wasserstrom's chapter on Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969) portrays a scholar with a conflicted attitude toward kabbalah. The profoundly irreligious Adorno repudiated Judaism as a lived religion. His intense distaste for anything that could be construed as "irrational" made him loathe occultism. All the more surprisingly, Adorno was interested in at least some aspects of kabbalah, e.g. kabbalistic views on language, albeit in a suitably de-Judaized and demythologized form, and deferred to Gershom Scholem's expertise in unraveling the complexities of Jewish mysticism. Despite their many differences, a friendship and extended collaboration developed between Scholem, who labored to retrieve and revalidate an important sector of the Jewish tradition, and Adorno, the militant anti-religionist who ultimately used kabbalah in order to reject Judaism.
Boaz Huss examines the relations between kabbalah scholarship and kabbalah advocacy in a post Jewish context. The crucial role played by Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) in introducing an academic readership to Jewish esotericism is well known. An often overlooked aspect of Scholem's work on kabbalah is his intense distaste for various esoteric, neo-Romantic, and popular understandings of kabbalah. Although by no means a kabbalist himself, Scholem took on the role of caretaker for what he saw as authentic Jewish mysticism", in opposition to various "debased" forms. Scholem's influence in this respect has been so great that contemporary writers have inherited this tendency to pass theological judgments on their object of study, and to polemicize against insufficiently purist kabbalisms.
The second section considers various ways in which interconfessional polemics have been instrumental in the formation of a distinct identity for esoteric currents.
Wouter J. Hanegraaff grapples with the history of esotericism more broadly, suggesting that a crucial element in the politics of identity that set esoteric currents apart from mainstream ideologies as different from each other as secular science and Church-endorsed theologies was their different attitudes to images and to discursive reasoning. Hanegraaff argues that there is a strong tendency in western culture to pit the abstract, omnipresent and limitless one God of monotheism against the immanent pagan gods, visible in their statues and images, and to denounce the imagistic cult of the latter as fundamentally misguided. Images, he suggests, have an unsettling power that monotheisms will typically reject as "idolatrous". Esoteric currents become identified as such by a process of rejection that bundles together a most diverse range of worldviews and practices because they are imagined to share a positive interest in images.
Hanns-Peter Neumann examines the religious plurality characteristic of Germany in the second half of the sixteenth century. Various movements and authors attempted to navigate in this religious landscape by polemically constructing themselves as "orthodox" and their opponents as "heretics". The Paracelsians, in particular, attempted to "reform the Reformation". Some of Paracelsus' followers constructed intricate syncretisms, in which e.g. alchemy was related to the Christian history of salvation and creation. Such Paracelsian theologies were obviously quite distinct from contemporary ecclesiastical orthodoxy, and occasioned the emergence of a double polemics. On the one hand, Paracelsian readings of the Christian tradition were seen as "heretical" by a number of their opponents. On the other, the Paracelsians condemned what they felt was the hypocrisy of theologians and church officials.
Peter Hanns Reill discusses the case of Johann Salomo Semler (1725-1791), a leading Enlightenment theologian who toward the end of his life—and to the consternation of many of his contemporaries—embraced alchemy. Whereas these interests have usually been dismissed as irrelevant to his Enlightenment theological project, Reill argues for a different reading of Semler's pursuits. Semler attempted to create a form of Hermeticism imbued with Enlightenment values and explicitly distanced himself from the types of esotericism propounded by his contemporaries. Semler was one of a number of Enlightenment thinkers engaged in a polemical war on three fronts. They fought against a religious orthodoxy that they felt was outdated. They battled against an emerging mechanistic world-view. They also, however, polemicized against other esotericists, not in order to reject esotericism as such, but to create what they saw as an adequately modernized version thereof.
Renko Geffarth examines one of the more spectacular incidents in the history of eighteenth-century Freemasonry, that of Johann Georg Schrepfer (1739-1774). A self-made man, Schrepfer created his own set of (para-) Masonic rituals, and thereupon engaged in a long series of polemical interchanges with his detractors from within the Masonic milieu, as well as in surrounding society. While it may seem obvious that any organization is man-made and any rituals—Schrepfer's as well as those of more traditional Masons—are historical constructions, Schrepfer's innovations were perceived by many as inauthentic, while Schrepfer himself was described as an impostor. Schrepfer replied to his critics in similar terms, questioning the legitimacy of the more established Masonic groups. His fantastic necromantic rituals were attacked by skeptical critics as crude trickery. On the other hand, he attracted numerous supporters, people who e.g. declared that they had been eye witnesses to Schrepfer's magical feats. The conflicts surrounding the controversial necromancer came to an end only after his suicide.
The third section focuses on the role of polemics in the shaping of esoteric discourses in the context of modernity.
Whereas popular esotericism in contemporary society is routinely depicted in hostile texts as the epitome of unreason, esoteric discourse will readily counter by accusing their secular as well as Christian opponents of intolerance and bigotry. In their attempts to formulate a culture critique, it will often be tempting to construct a counter-argument revolving around a past, golden age. Brannon Ingram's chapter on Traditionalism focuses on the primeval wisdom that, according to founding figure Rene Guénon, guided mankind before the spiritual fall of modernity took place. Two prominent aspects of Guénon's rhetoric stand out in Ingram's analysis. Guénon's nostalgia for the primeval wisdom of the past is predicated on the very modernity that was so distasteful to him. It also led him to formulate his writings in a remarkably vitriolic tone.
Popularized esoteric discourse is at odds with the normative epistemologies embraced by the natural sciences. Although most members of the scientific community presumably have neither the time nor inclination to fight esoteric pursuits, specific interest groups have taken on this battle. Olav Hammer's contribution on the verbal battles between dowsers and skeptics outlines how both sides in the argument over the validity of dowsing accuse their counterparts of holding preconceived ideas and of not being open to the evidence at hand. By doing so, however, dowsers who engage the skeptics in this war on words have already conceded one important point to their opponents, namely that dowsing has the same epistemological status as a science. Literature directed at other dowsers, however, shows a quite different picture: here, the practice of dowsing is represented as a pursuit with distinctly spiritual overtones.
A similar return to the past as in Rene Guénon is described in Dylan Burns' contribution. Rather than decrying the present by constructing an entirely mythical historiography, a number of different contemporary authors have seen the gnosticizing Gospel of Thomas as documenting an alternative and more humane version of Christianity. Within the broad New Age milieu, diverse interpretations can redescribe the original text as a path toward psychological individuation, an exposition of the perennial philosophy, a tract embodying a holistic cosmology, even as an exhortation to follow the principles of macrobiotics. An important aspect of such Gospel of Thomas receptions is the way in which current scholarship on this text is appropriated for purposes for which it was presumably never intended. Modern esoteric authors selectively side with researchers whose results they feel support their own contentions, and will do so e.g. by rephrasing tentative hypotheses as if they were unproblematic truths. Other authors and other opinions with perhaps similar support from the community of Thomas scholars are not even mentioned, much less engaged with.
Despite the heated verbal interchanges between esotericists and surrounding society, esotericists, for legal, financial, and other reasons often find themselves dependent on various forms of official recognition. Titus Hjelm addresses this issue by examining a local case: the attempt by adherents of contemporary Witchcraft in Finland to have their tradition accepted as a religious community under Finnish law. Contemporary Witches form a very loosely united milieu of individual practitioners, with their perceived historical victimization by outsiders as one of few uniting factors. Modern Witches have, for instance, reacted against media stereotypes depicting their practices as at best a fad of the youth subculture. One way of addressing such issues has been by adopting a double strategy. On the one hand, Witches who wish to underscore the "seriousness" of their tradition can doubt the motives of new recruits to the movement. On the other hand, one umbrella organization has without success attempted to apply for the status of registered religious community. This failure has led at least some Witches to call for a more intense maintenance of doctrinal purity among their co-religionists.
The twelve papers in the present collection span more than half a millennium, from the Renaissance to the present day, and present details of a quite divergent set of case studies. Nonetheless, these chapters are not "just case studies". They should be read as exempla for the complex dynamic of polemics and esotericism in western culture. Following Jonathan Z. Smith's dictum, exempla should have three characteristics:
First, that the exemplum has been well and fully understood. This requires a mastery of both the relevant primary material and the history and tradition of its interpretation. Second, that the exemplum be displayed in the service of some important theory, some paradigm, some fundamental question, some central element in the academic imagination of religion. Third, that there be some method for explicitly relating the exemplum to the theory, paradigm, or question and some method for evaluating each in terms of the other.'
Against such a methodological background, several trends can be spotted in the material presented in this volume. All contributions affirm the centrality of polemical writings in creating boundaries around one's own doctrines and practices, forging alliances with select others and demarcating oneself in opposition to perceived ideological foes. They underline the complex ways in which polemics adapt to the tacit presuppositions of each historical period. They point at the ways in which individuals and groups at the receiving end of polemical discourse have adapted their claims in order to present themselves as orthodox, as worthy of serious consideration, or as rational. Not least, they underline the centrality of verbal, as well as concrete physical, hostility in European history of religion, against a romanticizing, even sentimentalist historiography that prefers to focus on what today has become known as the dialogue of religions.
Research in social psychology shows that exposure to a variety of divergent opinions on a controversial issue reinforces polarization." Rather than fostering tolerance or relativism, broad and diverse information tends to strengthen one's commitment to the views that one already holds. One sobering conclusion from the present collection of papers is that the same mechanisms would seem to apply to the domain of religion. One of the earliest Christian writers, Justin Martyr (100-165), entitled his polemical tract against the Jews Dialogue with Trypho. Since then, countless representatives of various traditions have regularly entered into dialogue with each other, but their goal in doing so has, more often than not, been to strengthen the position of their own community, at the expense of their interlocutors.
Polemics can, in a more ironic sense, foster rapprochement. Several contributions show how the weaker interlocutor in a polemical interchange will accept the rules of the discourse, as dictated by the stronger party. Diviners in contemporary society, e.g. dowsers, are ridiculed by skeptics for not being able to produce empirical evidence for the validity of their claims. Anthropological studies of divination suggest other models that make more sense of divination than to regard it as a "failed science". Following a classic discussion by Philip Peek, divination could be seen as a way of enabling diviners to tap into a more intuitive mode of thinking.' Alternatively, Roy Rappaport's theory of ritual could make sense of divination as a way of embedding the here-and-now of the client (the self-referential messages, in Rappaport's terminology) in a culturally accepted, meaningful setting (Rappaport's canonical messages)." Although these and other options would potentially be open to diviners interested in defending their practices, the skeptical agenda dominates the field to such an extent that the polemical interchange between dowsers and skeptics is carried out on the terms of the latter. Similarly, as we have seen, at least some Witches in Finland have attempted to gain state recognition by adapting to legal, normative standards of what counts as a "genuine religion".
As suggested above, the contemporary period has seen religious polemics relegated to the more conservative sectors of Christianity. Attitudes toward the esoteric clearly reflect this trend. Various Christian churches adopt a wide variety of approaches in addressing the most popular and widespread manifestations of esoteric thought today: the New Age." At the most conservative end of the spectrum are evangelical and fundamentalist writers who in New Age thinking see a wholesale onslaught against the spiritual foundations of modern civilization. The conclusion that some draw from this premise, is that
New Age thinking, despite its overt individualism and diversity, must be a massive conspiracy, ultimately guided by the Devil. Liberal churches tend rather to watch New Age enthusiasms with a certain bemusement, or perhaps with a sentiment that these "alternative" trends are symptomatic of a spiritual hunger that Christians should attempt to understand and address.
The fact that Christian polemics is no longer as shrill as it once used to be, by no means implies that esotericists can ply their trade in peace. The role of prime critic has been taken over by interest groups presenting a perspective based on the natural sciences. In a programmatic statement posted on its web site, the best-known skeptical organization, CSICOP, proclaims that its purpose is to 'encourage the critical investigation of paranormal and fringe-science claims from a responsible, scientific point of view and disseminate factual information about the results of such inquiries to the scientific community and the public'. Admittedly, far from all of the topics discussed in skeptical publications are esoteric or part of the New Age, even by the most generous definition. Nevertheless, characteristic New Age practices such as divination, complementary and alternative medicine in its many guises, UFO's, channeling, and so forth, are prime targets of debunking. The main religious traditions present numerous controversial empirical claims, from prophetic revelation to the Resurrection, but these non-esoteric claims are much less often challenged.
Finally, a survey of the crucial issues that have divided the various groups that engage in verbal aggression tends to show that practically anything can serve as grist for the polemical mill. Under the sweeping accusations of being immoral, deluded, or heretical, lurk precise points of disagreement that differ radically from one polemical context to another. A sweep over the history of religions in the West will come up with a catalogue of at times truly exotic reasons for distancing oneself from others. Three cases of religious polemics and schism, taken more or less at random from the mass of potential examples, are the question of whether the serpent in the garden of Eden communicated in a human language when it spoke to Eve in the third chapter of Genesis,' the issue of whether the sign of the cross should be made with two or three fingers, and the concern over whether it was permissible for a Byzantine emperor to remarry four times or only three. The question whether interreligious polemics, despite such overt disparity, can be subsumed under any core characteristics is by no means settled. Wouter J. Hanegraaff sees polemics as a struggle between ideas, and suggests that fundamental conflicts between monotheism and polytheism/paganism are crucial to the polemics between mainstream Christianity and its Others." An alternative reading of polemical discourse would argue that conflicts between religious factions can be understood primarily in sociological terms, i.e. as struggles over influence and as ways of marking and stereotyping social identities." If the conflict between ideas is subservient to such social processes, this would help to explain why apparently minute theological differences become so laden with significance.
Although such common trends are readily apparent from the present collection of case studies, this volume also demarcates a field where research is clearly still in its infancy, and implicitly points out potential avenues of research. Two desiderata, in particular, emerge from this endeavor. The first is the application to religious polemics whether or not these involve western esoteric currents of the many insights into combative speech, gained in other disciplines. Discourse analysis in its many guises, argumentation theory," the psychology of stereotyping and the research into the social construction of categories such as "deviance" are some of the areas where advances have been made in understanding how words can construct cultural realities, not least in-groups versus out-groups.The second, more distant but obviously related goal, is the development of a grammar of alterity, sophisticated enough to take into account the polemics and counter-polemics between spokespersons of various religious communities." Jonathan Z. Smith has famously remarked that we already have a surplus of data, but sorely lack theories that can account for the data." The study of religious polemics as an element in the European history of religion generally, and in the emergence of esoteric discourse in particular, is still so young that, pace Smith, more data are welcome indeed. Nevertheless, here as in so many other sectors of the study of religion, we do need theorizing that can make better sense of the many ethnographic and historical details.
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