AAR Day One: Western Esotericism, Extremism, and COG Hospitality

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  November 20, 2011 — 29 Comments

One thing is certain, the American Academy of Religion’s Annual Meeting is overwhelming in its scope and it’s easy to get lost among the hundreds of panels, discussions, and lectures on offer each day. On Saturday I was lucky to attend two very thought-provoking panel presentations that should be of interest to Pagan and esoteric practitioners. The first was a sprawling forum entitled: “Demons In The Academy? Renouncing Rejected Knowledge, Again.” The panel centered on the study of Western Esotericism, and asked a central question: Is it possible to practice esotericism while also engaging in its research within an academic context? Also discussed were issues of interdisciplinary approaches to Western Esotericism, and the need to focus more on esotericism as experienced by modern pracitioners, not merely from a historical point of view.

Dr. Amy Hale presenting.

Dr. Amy Hale presenting.

The second panel I attended, Politics and Western Esotericism, explored extremism, both left and right, and its interactions with esoteric beliefs and practices. Papers presented here covered everything from obscure socialist authors to Portugal’s Fifth Empire. Perhaps of greatest interest were the presentations on esoteric extremism in Germany and Greece, these talks were at times comical in the absurdity, yet all the more horrifying when you realized that these beliefs are taken in deadly earnest by growing numbers of individuals. It was hammered home that esoteric extremism grows not from one isolated political ideology but from shared hunger for suppressed knowledge about the truth, a traditon of rejected knowledge that provides answers in times of social and political unrest.

Julian Strube, University of Heidelberg

Julian Strube, University of Heidelberg

Finally, I was lucky enough to attend a social gathering organized by the Northern California Local Council of the Covenant of the Goddess that paired representatives from a large number of Bay Area-based Pagan organizations with visiting scholars. COG, OBOD, Solar Cross, The Troth, and several other representatives were there, and I ended up meeting and discussing religion, Paganism, and current scholarship with a number of delightful people.

Pagans socializing.

Pagans socializing.

Today I’ll be attending a number of panels presented or co-presented by the Pagan Studies group, and I look forward to sharing my impressions of them with you!

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    “Is it possible to practice esotericism while also engaging in its research within an academic context?”

    Funny, you never get asked if you can be a practicing Christian and still study Christianity in an ancademic context…

    • Harmonyfb

      Baruch, that’s exactly what crossed my mind. I’d like to think that attendees mentioned that very thing.

      • In fact, Dr. Hale remarked “It’s funny, but nobody would question you if you were Lutheran and did research into the types of Jello molds you find at Midwestern Lutheran potlucks.”

        • Anonymous

          …as long as it isn’t lutefisk.

  • This is fantastic. Thank you for posting.

    A question… how are people of other faiths reacting to the Pagan presence? Confrontational? Taking Pagans seriously? Accepting? Interest?

    • Panmankey

      The AAR is pretty liberal, not one negative comment over my two days there.

  • Gwendolyn Reece

    “Is it possible to practice esotericism while also engaging in its research within an academic context?”

    As was pointed out elsewhere, no one demands that scholars of Christianity not be Christian, but the challenge is deeper than this. I was in one of the most prestigious doctoral programs in religious studies back in the early 90’s trying to study esotricism as a witch. I eventually left and got my doctorate in a different field. I’m glad that the AAR has this section now. This is a definite sign of progress, but even so, I’m not sure that my main concerns that drove me to change disciplines are addressed.

    The main problem is that esoteric practitioners from any tradition claim and value epistemologies that are different than those that are accepted in the academy. Central to esotericism is the acceptance of and reliance on ways of knowing that are non-rational (note, not irrational), and interact with levels of consciousness and reality that are not rooted in the physical world. So, as a scholar, you can talk about what people believe. You can analyze history. You can talk about what any aspect of the tradition looks like from a sociological angle. You can describe rituals and beliefs and talk about their meaning through the lens of sociology or psychology. But what you can’t ever do is to really take what they say about the nature of reality seriously. Or if you do (and, frankly, most religious studies scholars that deal with many of the more esoteric religions and/or tribal religions, etc. will tell you in private of experiences that indicate that they get it) you’d better be really quiet about it if you don’t want to undermine your reputation as a scholar.

    So, as an example, there is a famous and influential article that talks about a group of women who work in oppressive labor conditions in Asia who believe they are attacked by spirits. These attacks are interpreted as a response to the labor conditions…but the one thing that is never even for an instance considered as a viable hypothesis is that maybe the reason women are claiming to be attacked by spirits is because…they are being attacked by spirits. There is an automatic assumption that the “native” belief is a blind for something else.

    A similar problem is the way in which any experiments that take seriously the investigation of epistemologies that esotericists accept as vertical are classified as parapsychology. Why? What makes Ian Stevenson’s work on reincarnation, in which he amassed tons of evidence suggesting reincarnation “para”psychology. This classification kept it ghettoized and separate from the mainline academy. It wasn’t his methods. It was his topic. I dearly wish some of the postmodernists would turn their lens on themselves and look at the field of parapsychology through that lens.

    There are some brave souls who are challenging the epistemologial strangle-hold that certain discourses have over the academy. It is my hope that they succeed and, in my own way from my chosen position on the fringes of the academy, I try to be supportive and I hope that the orthodoxies of materialist reductionism and the tendency to reduce everything to commentary about social power breaks open a bit more so there is more room for alternative views of the nature of reality.

    • Nick Ritter

      Very well said, and I agree with what you say about this “epistemologial strangle-hold that certain discourses have over the academy”.

      Right around the turn of the century, I was accepted at the University of Chicago as an applicant to the Grad Program in Religious Studies. I intended to study pre-Christian religions of Europe, one of which I practice (at least, I attempt to practice it, to the best of my knowledge and ability). I had some concerns about how my religious practice would be accepted, if it became known, and how it would affect my academic reputation and standing. These concerns were somewhat eased when I brought them up to one of the professors.

      However, in my interview with the professor who would have been my advisor, I mentioned two academic authors who have had a profound affect on my thinking about religion, one of whom (Mircea Eliade) was very explicit about the necessity of studying religion *as religion*, that is, as something in itself, with its own being and meaning, and certainly not as a blind for anything else. This was met by the professor with derision, he being one of the kind who views religion as “commentary about social power”, and he told me more or less not to come to U. of Chicago to study. That was the end of my aspirations to a career in academia, although I have continued to pursue my studies as an amateur.

      • If memory serves me Eliade taught at the University of Chicago, no?

        I was lucky to have some good professors in Religious Studies, even getting to go on archaeological digs with one for a few summers (of course, at the time, my studies were in Biblical and Rabbinic Hebrew, the Hebrew Bible and early Judaism as these were my pre-pagan days). On the down side, though, the Religious Studies department at my school was pretty young and didn’t offer much of a variety in terms of course selection. There was one obnoxious professor in the department who I couldn’t stand and avoided after one class with him (funnily enough, though, he seemed to like me).

        • Nick Ritter

          “If memory serves me Eliade taught at the University of Chicago, no?”

          Indeed. The professor I interviewed with had been one of Eliade’s students, someone who did valuable work early in his career, but since then had devoted much of his career to badmouthing his teacher, among others (I did not know about this at the time, or I might have been more discreet).

          • It’s hard to imagine: someone with such good fortune to have studied with Eliade and then to not only squander that opportunity, but to actively work to denigrate the man.

  • Actually, in Religious Studies (and related disciplines) there is a great deal of pressure on scholars who happen to be Christian, or adherents of any other religious or spiritual tradition, to “keep it to themselves”. So the real issue is not whether or not it is possible to practice what one studies, but whether or not one can publicly do both.

    • Gwendolyn Reece

      Very good point. Again…what you’re not allowed to do is to take the religious experiences seriously. At the time I was more centrally involved in this, there was a bit of a haven among scholars of Indian religions, but that may no longer be the case.

    • I definitely recall that as a religious studies major there was a great deal of gossip and speculation about the religious beliefs of our professors since more of them were not public about that.

      • Nick Ritter

        I was told once by a Hellenist friend that she strongly suspects that more than one published scholar of Greek culture and religion “throws the barley” in private.

        • the German classical philologist Walter F. Otto (1874-1958) privately admitted, that he prays to Zeus … in public, he rejected this and was accused by other scholars and by christian theologians to be a pagan (probably he was one of the few genuine pagans in this period in Germany)

          • Fascinating! An honest-to-Gods modern-day crypto-Pagan!

          • in a way, his “theology” is laid down in the posthumously published book Theophania. Der Geist der altgriechischen Religion (1959, ‘Theophania, The spirit of the old Greek religion’), don’t know if any of his books are translated into English … some more contemporary scholars like Walter Burkert or Marcel Detienne critizise Otto’s theories for downplaying the “wild” elements of ancient Greek rituals and myths

          • Yet another reason to brush up on my Deutsch.

          • Nick Ritter

            “Yet another reason to brush up on my Deutsch.”

            The language of the country of poets and philosophers is often maligned, but reaps rewards for the sincere student.

          • Nick Ritter

            For a moment, I thought you meant Rudolf Otto (author of ‘Das Heilige’), and got excited; but no, that would not have made sense.

        • Nick: “I was told once by a Hellenist friend that she strongly suspects that more than one published scholar of Greek culture and religion ‘throws the barley’ in private.”

          All classical scholars and especially all scholars of ancient religions are either friends or foes. That does not that each one must be either a full-on Pagan or a paid up member of Opus Dei, but you gotta serve somebody, as the song says.

    • Jack Heron

      That’s well said. Look at the example of Ronald Hutton, who has consistently refused to confirm or deny whether or not he considers himself a pagan, in order to prevent that issue clouding people’s reading of his historical works.

  • Lyradora

    If anyone is looking for a religious studies program that actually *welcomes* practitioners of “alternative spiritualities” who also follow those paths, I highly recommend Claremont Graduate University in California. While earning my master’s degree in women’s studies in religion, I found the faculty and other students incredibly welcoming and supportive. Heck, I even got to do my thesis on the Fellowship of Isis. 🙂

  • This is a definite sign of progress, but even so, I’m not sure that my main concerns that drove me to change disciplines are addressed.

  • Hugin

    Would you mind describing the funny and horrifying aspects of the Greek and German esoteric extremism you discussed?

  • AMH

    Thanks for posting about this. There were some really good comments posted such as the one by Gwendolyn Reece, Nick Ritter and even the usually very pro pagan Apuleius Platonicus. These comments were really mind opening and comforting to me today and I didn’t know how much I needed to hear them until I read them. Thank You all for your well grounded and logical contributions. Academia is indeed it’s own world where literal belief is suspended for the sake of research and in order for me to function as a whole and mentally healthy person, I need to have access to both points of view. I am working on an Interdisciplinary degree and up until this summer had taken four years off from school, so I am now a senior and I have one year left to go at the end of this semester. My concentrations are in Health and Management with a minor in History. I am also a Licensed Massage Therapist and have been for over ten years. I never chose to get a additional certification in any Complimentary or Alternative Medicine Therapy or CAM practice. I have known many MT’s in various States, some of whom practiced a form of their own energy therapy without a traditional certification in a field such as Reiki which is probablly the best known example, but I chose to stop doing this in my treatments after a little more than a year as a MT. There is a Licensing issue that arises and creates a dichotomy between where the appropriate boundary is between the rights of a Profession to regulate itself, and the religious practices of a group in addition to MANY other manifestations of similar problems in epistemology and methodology on multiple levels. Next semester, I have signed up to take a course being offered thru my schools History department, which is about the Philosophical Borders between Science and Religion. My hope is that thru this class, to become better acquainted with the historical and academic perspectives involved and when i graduated and begin to use my degree to be better able to support and manage such practices in a Resort Spa setting where there may be people practicing such CAM therapies with various religious and theological approaches to how and why such treatments work and why they are beneficial. There are often situations that arise where in a Spa client may or may not be open to such a treatment baed on their understanding of the spiritual or religious trappings that accompany the practice. This was a timely read for me and I appreciate both the spiritual and scholarly feedback from the members here.

  • To everyone interested in the question: “Is it possible to practice esotericism while also engaging in its research within an academic context?” – the issues many of you have raised are exactly what we were there to discuss. The program and list of abstracts here: http://phoenixrising.org.gr/en/3627/phoenix-rising-at-the-aar-meeting-next-week/#.TsyYVWNv-rg and as we recorded the whole session, the recordings and most of the papers presented will be made available through our website very soon.