Methodology in Western Esoteric Studies

At the last international meeting (May 2008) of the Association for the Study of Esotericism (ASE), we had over 50 presentations representing 13 different academic disciplines. Among these the most prevalent discipline was Religious Studies; however, even among those in Religious Studies there was a wide range of methodological approaches. Because the area of study is relatively new in academia, commonly shared methodologies gave some emphasis to three approaches: historical development, primary textual analysis, and various forms of ritual practice. American scholars tended to be comparative and also to express great interest in non-verbal “texts” such as images, diagrams, art, music, and various forms of symbolism. Underlying this diversity of interests was a sophisticated use of theories that reflected transdisciplinary thinking and analysis. A striking feature of the conference was the tendency of scholars to treat the subject matter with respect and appreciation while offering interpretive perspectives that pushed beyond any literal interpretation of contents. Without doubt, the demand for authentic scholarship requires an epistemological engagement that moves from the literal and historical into the imaginal worlds of esotericism by recognizing a deeper symbolism beyond simple, accurate representation. A fundamental characteristic of esotericism is the attempt by practitioners to actualize and embody visionary worlds whose contents are subtle, elusive, and embedded in ontological claims that cannot be reduced to rational schemes and social or cultural contexts. The blunt fact of psychic or subtle claims, of magical practices or alchemical transformations, requires sophistication in symbolic thinking that preserves the integrity of the claim while simultaneously exploring the ramifications of symbolic processes reflective of broader fields of meaning. The participatory nature of esotericism - its gnostic and mystical depths, its subtle psychism, and its transformative, enactive paradigms – cannot be comprehended from a strictly “objectivist” position that would deny the ontological significance of both practice and theory among esotericists. By “ontological significance” I refer to participatory being, to the transrational nature of human discovery, and the impact of encounter on the mind and heart of the individual practitioner. Much like the enactive and participatory aspects of traditional religions, mature esotericists claim authentic engagement with being that is, for them, transformative and non-reductive to local context or to a specific cultural psychology. While context, locality, and individual

characteristics may influence such claims, the more substantive goals of esotericism extend beyond the immediacy of historical circumstances to embrace a deeper human potential than what local context usually offers. And thus the heart of the symbolic nature of esoteric discourse - be it verbal, artistic, imaginal, or fictive - is reliance upon expressive media that seek to embody in some meaningful ways, this transrational, deep, transformative encounter. The scholarly goal should be to engage the full scope of esoteric claims, to respectfully and critically examine its transrational engagement with being, and to offer models of interpretation that fully involve an often imaginal epistemology as embodied in a dedicate, serious way of life by practitioners. And practitioners should strive to overcome enclosure in a specific discourse that would deny the validity of comparative study or place their own practice as superior to the practices of others. What is required, by scholars and practitioners alike, is a sense of humility in the face of being, a sense of respect for differences, and a genuine, deep appreciation of diversity as an expression of a profound mystery that is transrational, imaginal, and ontologically vast and complex. The interpretation of esoteric beliefs or practices is additive when it acknowledges a methodology that recognizes an open horizon in human potential. If we hope to develop a fully robust field of scholarly inquiry, it is imperative that we do not reduce the human potential to a false image of rationalism nor to an inflated sense of grandeur. In walking the middle road, what is required is respect, creative inquiry, and a compassionate desire for discovery that allows for significant growth in the scholar and practitioner alike. Our work is a form of partnership and our goal is not simply the creation of an academic discipline, but the further deepening of human knowledge in the face of being – that is a task truly worthy of our full and complete dedication. Lee Irwin, Elder Scholar

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