Esotericism, Religion and Science in Toronto – report on the IAHR (part 1)

As shamelessly advertised on this blog before, there were several esotericism-and-science-related things happening at this years quinquennial world congress of the International Association of the History of Religion (IAHR) in Toronto. There was a three-session panel on esotericism, organized by my colleague Marco Pasi, and a two-session panel on science, religion and the arts in the early 20th century (under the title Seduced by Science), organised by my colleague Tessel Bauduin and myself. Having had more than a week now to overcome what was only a minor jet lag after all, it is time for a short report on events.

As there appears to be quite a lot to say about all this (the kind of thing you only find out when you start writing), I will split this post into two installments. In part one I will report on Seduced by Science, in the second post we will look closer at some, in my view, very interesting and important debates in the study of esotericism which came to the fore in the second panel.

First then, some quick comments on my own Seduced by Science panel. We had two sessions on Tuesday. In the first one we heard about the various uses of science  in the publications of the Rosicrucian Order AMORC (Cecile Wilson); changes in the “religion of art” as represented by certain “scientific connoisseurs” (George. C. Duncan, Richard Charles Jackson, and Ernest Savory) of the Edwardian era (William Ramp); and the influence of occult discourse, particularly Theosophy and Spiritualism, on the one hand, and scientific concepts of time and space on the other, in the art of Kandinsky and other avant-garde artists (Tessel Bauduin).

In other words there was an art theme, which was thoroughly explored in the half-hour discussion round afterwards. Some interesting distinctions emerged at this point about the influence of changes in the ealry 20th scientific culture, particularly the strain between two different tendencies: one towards increased professionalisation, the other towards popularization. Tessel’s artists were clearly chipping in on the cultural prestige of science by reading up on popularising accounts on revolutionary discoveries. William’s connoisseurs were seriously trying to apply their scientific training in methodology and the application of new devices in order to establish the authenticity of works of art (an in my view illuminating analogy was made to Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle’s hero solves mystery precisely by the type of trained observation associated with the new forensic sciences and professionalised investigation practices) – while also engaging in new ways of fooling the uninitiated by creating elaborate forgeries. Another interesting distinction arose from the fact that William, a Durkheimian sociologist of religion, employed Durkheimian notions of implicit religion to interpret the culture of art, while Tessel was looking at more explicitly “spiritualising” perspectives on art, and the influence and appropriation of ideas formulated in occult contexts. Unfortunately, though, all these interesting aspects gave us less time to discuss the strategies employed by AMORC.

In the second session Gemma Kwantes talked about the 20th century Kabbalist Yehuda Ashlag and the genealogy leading from his democratizing and sometimes scientizing vision of Kabbalah down to present-day organizations such as the Kabbalah Center and Bnei Baruch. This paper gave occasion for a discussion of certain tensions, i.e. the simultaneous fascination and disgust triggered by science in certain religious spokespersons. Ashlag tried to scientize parts of his own system, and wielded at times a decent understanding of recent scientific discoveries in his articles, while at the same time arguing for its degenerative effects on society and upholding Kabbalah as a superior form of knowing.

Orlando Fernandez then entertained us with a paper on David Bohm, the eminent quantum physicist who became a disciple (or at least eager correspondent) of the failed Theosophical messiah, Jiddu Krishnamurti. Orlando tried to show us how Bohm, in his later career an icon for parts of the New Age movement, went from an esoteric understanding of the cosmos whenever he attempted to formulate grand cosmological ideas – particularly regarding “the Implicate Order”.

The final paper was Francisco Santos Silva’s, about Aleister Crowley,  his concept of the unconscious, and its role in Crowley’s theorizing about magic and religion. In short, Francisco went from Crowley’s short essay, the “Initiated Interpretation of Ceremonial Magic”, circulated with his edition of the Goetia of the Lemegeton. This is an interesting essay, as it shows Crowley developing a disenchanted, physiological and psychiatric idea of magical efficacy (I have actually written quite a bit about it myself, including in this blog post). This is an important moment in what I personally see as the “naturalization of magic”.

All in all an interesting program, which drew quite a crowd (but maybe that’s got to do with our competition with the not always as popular “cognitive theory of religion”-crowd – which was extremely visible at the conference).

In part two, I will look closer at the three sessions on esotericism, which focused on a particularly pertinent and persistent conceptual, methodological, possibly even political, problem in research on esotericism. To round off this one, though, I add some pictures that are relevant enough for the science-and-esotericism theme: The First Church of Christ, Scientist, the church of the Christian Science crowd in Toronto. It happened to be just a block away from my hotel.

First Church of Christ, Scientist. Founded in 1889, it's one of the older congregations of Christian Science.

"Subject for Sunday: Mind". Nothing new there, then.


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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hi thanks for your note on my Livejournal I have replied there. Very much digging your blog (loved the alchemy conference photos–all the scholars I was most glad to meet/were kindest to me at the Alchemy conference I attended in Philadelphia) and I hope to have some intelligent comments to make one day soon. I’ve been working lately on some blog posts responding to Principe and Newman on theorizing alchemy and the “spiritual alchemy” interpretations, which I hope to have a chance to finish and post once my thesis draft is ready. Also a long-unfinished paper on Giordano Bruno and Plotinus, inspired by Clucas’ paper “simulacra et signacula”

    Ted Hand
    MA student, Graduate Theological Union

    • Sounds great! Looking very much forward to both your responses to Newman-Principe, your thesis, and of course anything on Bruno.

  2. I’m not sure what you mean by “chipping in on the cultural prestige of science”. Can you explain? Thanks.

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