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Sacred Tribes Journal

Volume 5 Number 1 (2010):45-58 ISSN: 1941-8167

FROM THE OCCULT TO WESTERN ESOTERICISM: CATCHING UP WITH CHANGES IN THE NEW AGE MOVEMENT J. Gordon Melton Institute for the Study of American Religion

In 2005, Issue Group 16 at the Forum for World Evangelism held by the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelism issued a report on its assigned topic of “Religious and non-Religious Spirituality in the Western World. That paper built on the foundation laid by the “Thailand Report on New Religious Movements” issued by the Lausanne Committee in 1980. The 1980 paper identified the followers of the new Western spiritualities and the Western converts to Eastern religions as an object of Christian concern. These papers offered, even with only a cursory reading, a significant improvement on the more popular Christian literature reflecting upon those religious groups and movements which collectively we had come to think of as making up the “New Age Movement” or more pejoratively, the “occult.” In contrast, the more recent paper, in particular, draws heavily from the descriptive literature on the New Age generated in the last decades of the twentieth century and critiques the different approaches to it, developed within the Christian community. It represents a great leap forward in its attempt to understand the New Age and is of special significance in the priority it assigns to what it terms a “critical incarnational approach” that begins with the Great Commission as opposed to the more familiar confrontational approaches that had their foundation in an apologetic theology. Recognizing continued progress in our understanding of the New Age, this paper will attempt to build on the 2005 report and respond to it by drawing on developments in the field of religious studies relative to the emerging understanding of Esotericism as the third religious tradition in the West. It should be noted that the sub-discipline within religious studies that focused on new religions had appeared in the 1960s, but was diverted in the 1970s by the widespread social panic relative to cults.

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Concern with the seemingly sudden appearance of so many new religions found a potentially dangerous tool in a new pseudoscientific theory of brainwashing and the accompanying practice of deprogramming advocated by a small group of psychologists. The 1980s was spent in examining the theory which was in 1987 denounced in no uncertain terms by the American Psychological Association and other scholarly organizations. Between 1990 and 1995 the courts acted by refusing to hear advocates of the now discarded theory and issuing a severe judgment on the Cult Awareness Network, the primary organization that had perpetuated the practice of deprogramming. The 1995 ruling growing out of the attempted deprogramming of Jason Scott, a Pentecostal Christian, led to the bankruptcy of the Cult Awareness Network and effectively ended the “Cult Wars,”1 at least their North American phase. With the issues of brainwashing and deprogramming no longer dominating discussions, scholars could return to the many tasks of understanding the multi-faceted changes that were so altering the religious landscape of America and the West. The Eastern religions that had come to the West had grown strong and were no longer based in isolated guru cults and meditation groups. Youthful leaders of the 1970s groups had reached middle age and were no longer engaged in the naïve activities that had earned them the disdain of their elders two decades earlier. With its notable success, the Charismatic movement now demanded a place at the religious establishment’s table even as its more innovative wing announced a third wave of Pentecostal life based on apostolic authority and prophetic guidance. When the New Age movement suddenly collapsed at the end of the 1980s, observers wondered what was next. With the immediacy of the “cult” issue no longer dominating research, a broader more-historical perspective could begin to take center stage in scholarly discourse concerning new religions. Also, as a new generation of groups emerged, we could re-evaluate the significance of the dramatic surge of religious life initiated in the late 1960s. We can see the long-term trends toward differentiation in all religious traditions, a trend that is bolstered by cultural emphasis on freedom of choice and the accompanying withdrawal of the coercive powers of the state in religious matters. Wherever freedom of religions has been introduced into the legal system and some degree of separation of religion and government institutionalized, new religions hadve appeared and continued to appear decade by decade. Today, the only countries without a spectrum of new religions are those in which the coercive power of the state is employed to suppress them. In the modern West, new religions are largely an urban phenomenon, the population density of the cities supplying founders with the most available supply of potential recruits (the religiously nonattached and loosely attached).

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Volume 5 Number 1 (2010):45-58 ISSN: 1941-8167

The relative leisure of the post-Cult War years has also allowed us room to reflect on the seemingly diffuse world of the New Age. In the 1980s, even scholars bemoaned their inability to get a handle on the chaos of religious phenomena they were encountering under the large tent labeled “New Age.” What could make sense of channeling from the inhabitants of flying saucers, tarot card readers, the rituals of the Wiccans, the offense of Satanism, the wild claims of crystal enthusiasts and even wilder ones of astrology, meditation for executives, therapeutic touch for hospital patients, Aryavedic medicine, affirmations for financial prosperity, and new waves of communal poverty—all of which, and more, coexisted amiably at different New Age events. The mapping of Western Esotericism created the needed overview of the old New Age. The Esoteric World

Though present since the colonial years, what we now call Western Esotericism burst into the public consciousness with the appearance of Spiritualism in the middle of the nineteenth century. That consciousness increased with the subsequent founding of Theosophy and the host of movements that grew out of it. Growth of the Esoteric community was slow, however, until the 1970s when two movements birthed in Great Britain, the New Age movement and Neo-Paganism, spread throughout the Western world. In the United States, Neo-Paganism assembled a following measured in the tens of thousands, while provoking significant emotional response in its adoption of the self-identifying label “Witchcraft.” The New Age Movement, however, gained followers measured in the hundreds of thousands and eventually the millions, and influenced the popular consciousness in ways unimagined by the NeoPagans. Today, polls indicate that two to three percent of the public identify with the alternative Spirituality it espoused, while twenty to thirty percent now accept a belief in reincarnation and an even higher number have a positive if superficial view of astrology. This presence in the culture stands in sharp contrast to, for example, Buddhism, which has built a community of some four million divided between approximately three million first and second generation immigrants from predominantly Buddhist countries in Asia and less than a million Western converts. Thus in approaching the community of believers in the alternative spiritualities, we are not dealing so much with a marginal phenomenon, but a significant aspect of the popular culture. To understand the challenge presented by Esotericism, it is helpful to begin with an overall perspective of the development of American religion.

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Overview of the Religious Situation

Religious life in America has shifted significantly in the last half of the twentieth century, and that shift begins with Christianity. From the founding of the United States to the recent past, Christianity has been on an upward trajectory. When the dust of the American Revolution settled and the new constitution took effect, adherence to the Christian cause was at a low ebb. Only 10 to fifteen percent of the public were church members. This is understandable in light of the fact that the American colonies had been populated by those Europeans who had the weakest ties to traditional social structures built around the land, family life and the church in the countries from which they came. While some very religious people came to the colonies to experience religious freedom, they were but a small minority. The vast majority came to escape oppressive economic conditions. The history of religion through most of the nineteenth and twentieth century has been one of the growth of Christian churches and their spread to every corner of the nation. Through camp meetings and the new measures they birthed, and later an innovative urban evangelism, by the end of the nineteenth century, church membership reached above 30 percent and by World War II finally claimed half of the population. By the end of the twentieth century, Christian church membership has reached above 70 percent of the population. Present-day America is the heir of an unprecedented history, with seventy plus percent of its citizenry having freely chosen to identify themselves as Christians quite apart from the physical pressure of the government. Amid all the jeremiads about America as a post-Christian land, we should be aware that our image of the post-Christian world has largely emanated from Europe, also a unique contemporary phenomenon as the only place on the globe where religions seem to be in decline. Meanwhile, in America, we reside in a land in which the major religious trend of the previous century has been the decline in the number of religiously unaffiliated from above 60 percent to less than 15 percent and the growth of Christianity from 35 percent to over 70 percent. Whatever we say about the growth of other religions in America, such growth has occurred simultaneously with the even larger growth of Christianity. Much of the expansion of America Christianity has been obscured by its many divisions. There are over 1000 Christian denominations in America, and among Evangelicals there has been an active search for a post-denominational structure. We tend to judge the relative vibrancy of the Christian world through the lens of our individual placement within the larger community and what is occurring in our own denominational home. Many have been affected by the stagnancy in growth or even decline in some older groups as Christianity has saturated the American population. Others have been disturbed by the seeming inability of the

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country to pass “Christian” legislation in the name of respect for minority views. Understanding the Christian community via its many divisions has its limitation. In fact, over half of all American believers have chosen to join one of a mere 23 Christian denominations, whose sum membership now totals over 150,000,000. That consensus is bolstered by an additional 75 denominations, each of which has over 100,000 members. Together these 100 denominations create a real religious environment in the United States in which the other 900 Christian denominations and the 1000 non-Christian groups have to exist.2 It is in the context of the growth of Christianity through the twentieth century and the convergence of believers around the 23 larger denominations (many of which were actually formed in the last half of the 20th century) that all the other trends must be seen. It is the case that the late twentieth century saw the emergence of viable Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and organized Atheist/Humanist communities in America. However, these communities remain miniscule relative to Christianity, none able to claim more than two percent of the population. Western Esotericism

Only slowly gaining recognition has been the third traditional religious community in the West—Western Esotericism. Some comprehension of its existence slowly emerged through the 1960s as scholars began to assemble the bits of pieces of its story in the initial attempts to document alternative religious life in the modern West.3 Initially, it became evident that a different religious community had appeared in the seventeenth century under the name Rosicrucianism, which had given birth to a variety of similar movements—NeoTemplarism, Theosophy, ceremonial magic, Wicca—decade by decade to the present. Slowly, the missing pieces were added—Freemasonry, Swedenborgianism, Mesmerism, and the more popular movements of Spiritualism, Christian Science, and New Thought.4 The difficulties of seeing these organizations and movements as sharing a unified tradition were many. As a group, these had been among the most despised of religions in the West, dismissed under a barrage of pejorative labels—occultism, black magic, spiritism—labeling that was given support by the permeation of Spiritualism with fraudulent mediums passing off stage magic as genuine contact with the continuing spirits of the deceased. At the same time, individual Esoteric groups tend to be ahistorical. Advocates rarely presented their history as extending beyond the career of their founder or usually failed to acknowledge the

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founder’s mundane sources for the group’s teachings. Additionally, in Europe, even well into the late twentieth century, alternative religions continued to be persecuted, and Esoteric groups frequently survived by presenting themselves as something other than a religion—a perspective that has become institutionalized in a variety of ways. We see it commonly in Esoteric circles whose adherents speak of themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” This non-religious self-understanding obscured a final essential building block of modern Esotericism— Freemasonry. Only by seeing Freemasonry as the primary eighteenthcentury exemplar of Western Esotericism can the historical lineages of contemporary Esoteric groups be assembled. The more recent development of Freemasonry in, for example, France (where an atheist form dominated) and the United States (where it devolved into a secular businessman’s club) further obscured its religious roots. Once we understand the existence of the Western Esoteric tradition as outlined above, we can make sense of the widely variant phenomena as the New Age movement. The New Age movement emerged suddenly in the mid 1970s and died out at the end of the 1980s. It is best seen as a revitalization movement that swept through the Esoteric community where hundreds of groups, most little known outside of the community, were open to the positive millennialism that the image of a New Age of love and wisdom offered. All aspects of the Esoteric community grew substantially through the 1980s and numerous new groups were spawned. The larger revivalistic movement died out in the early 1990s as faith in its millennial hopes dissolved, but, since millennialism had never been the main idea upon which Esotericism was built, the community that had been constructed by the New Age remained and continues today as a post-New Age Esoteric community, now greatly enlarged in size and equipped with a much more positive public image. We can better understand the different segments of the Esoteric community by analogy to Christianity. To an outsider, it might be difficult to make sense of grouping the Salvation Army, the Hutterites, the Armenian Orthodox Church, Missouri Synod Lutherans, the Sabbath Day Church of God, Primitive Baptists, the Exclusive Plymouth Brethren, the Apostolic Pentecostals, and the Jesuits as all being part of the same religious tradition. We do so in part by tracing them back to points of common origin, then forward through variant national/linguistic environments and local divergences in theological, liturgical, and behavioral emphases. In like measure we can see the unity of the Esoteric community by similarly tracing presently existing groups backwards to points of common origin and seeing the subsequent emergence of different groups in distinct national/linguistic settings and local divergences in theology, ritual, and behavioral emphases. Also, everywhere affecting Esoteric organizations has been its existence as a marginalized, underground, alternative, and periodically persecuted tradition.

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The New Age movement allowed the Esoteric community to shed much of its image as a despised community. Also, while Esotericism had produced a number of outstanding theoreticians (equivalent to Christian theologians)—from Paracelsus (1493-1541) to Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), the New Age movement nurtured a new cadre of scholars and intellectuals who were ready to argue the credentials of Esotericism as an intellectually sound perspective, and who are also possessed of an awareness of their intellectual and theological roots. Calling together this new generation of scholars has been French scholar Antoine Faivre, who held the first chair of Esoteric studies at the Sorbonne. Gnosticism

The emergence of Western Esotericism was accompanied by the fallout of a significant event in Western religious studies, the midtwentieth-century discovery of the library of scrolls at Nag Hammadi in the desert of Egypt. The library included a number of heretofore unknown Gnostic texts and several known only from surviving fragments, most notably the Gospel of Truth by Gnostic leader Valentinius. The Nag Hammadi library is now leading to a complete rewriting of the history of ancient Gnosticism. Meanwhile, it has had two notable phenomena relevant to the subject of our discussion. First, the last generation saw the founding of new Esoteric groups that, while drawing heavily on Theosophy, directly claim the Gnostic heritage and have adopted parts of the Nag Hammadi library as sacred text. Second, the new Gnostic texts have inspired modern Western Esotericists to push their lineage back to the first century and claim their legacy of a heritage that begins with the Valentinian Gnostics and continues through the Neoplatonists, Manicheans, the Bogomils, the Albigensians/Cathars, the Hermeticists, the alchemists, and the cabalists (to name just the high points). This lineage provides the foundation for viewing Esotericism as the third religious tradition in the West. It is, prior to the sixteenth century, admittedly a broken tradition, due to the fact that many of its exemplars were persecuted out of existence, but it found ways to persist to the present. Most Esotericists would also claim as their own many of the medieval mystics, especially those like Meister Eckhart (1260-1328), who were more theocentric than Christocentric in their writings. While Esoteric scholars have developed a variety of definitions of Esotericism, and have yet to create a history of Esoteric theology, one can fruitfully begin to view Esotericism as an alternative to the “orthodox� Christianity (that flowed from Nicea in the fourth century).

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Esotericism has a right to be seen as a separate complete religious tradition in itself, like Buddhism or Hinduism, however, the fact that is has developed, especially over the last millennium in a dominating Christian environment to which it has been forced to react, invites an examination of the alternative it offers. In particular, we can make note of the very different basic theological Gestalt it offers relative to Christianity and the manner it has molded its belief and practice in order simply to survive. Christianity developed as a salvation-oriented faith, in which a personal God acts to save human beings He has created through the atonement offered by the God-man Jesus Christ. Those who are saved are called to a life of piety and moral endeavor. Gnosticism is, in contrast, an enlightenment-oriented faith in which the world comes into existence by the emanation of successive realms of existence from an impersonal unknowable deity. In the last realm of existence the spiritual mixes with the material, which rather than good because God created it, is a lesser reality (metaphysically unreal). Humans are not created beings distinct from god, but sparks of god and thus in some manner of God’s essence. Humans have fallen into matter (rather than into separation/sin) and now have forgotten their divine origin. The role of “religion” is to remind humans of their divine origin and then teach them the method(s)/technique(s) by which they may realize their true nature, escape their material prison, and return to the divine realm. The idea of humans as souls trapped in a body often leads to a belief in reincarnation, which would in turn support practices that explore an individual’s past lives. In this regard, Western Esotericism shares much with Hinduism and especially the Sant Mat tradition of the Punjab.5 The tools for gaining enlightenment (of both the practical realities of the mundane world and one’s ultimate destiny) are widely diverse, though meditation (in its variant forms) and astrology have proved by far the most popular. They are joined by various kinds of alternative healing and body work, health and freedom from disease being a logical precondition for progress in the other areas. In magical groups, meditation is usually eschewed in favor of practices that focus one’s concentration and will. Astrology, a traditional means of divination, has been transformed in the twentieth century into an instrument for psychological self-understanding, as have the other traditional divinatory arts—tarot, palmistry, and the I Ching. The transformation of the divinatory arts reminds us that just as Christianity has evolved from the distinctive supernatural world of the Medieval Period, so too has Esotericism. The Esoteric tradition existed over the centuries with a world populated by the pantheon of demons and spirits from the beings whose names still cling to the astrological signs to the entities invoked in magical ceremonies. Just as science depopulated the invisible realms for most of us, so a similar depopulating of the

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invisible realms occurred among Esoteric groups. Such teachers as Eliphas Levi (1810-1875), Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) and Dane Rudhyar (1895-1985), and psychotherapists like Carl Jung (1875-1961) and Roberto Assagioli (1888-1974), are remembered for their psychologizing of the Esoteric realms, seeing them less as objective realms and more as states of consciousness. Even the Spiritualists, who built their movement around communication with the spirits of the deceased, banished the great majority of the different supernatural creatures that had populated the imagination of the pre-scientific, preEnlightenment, pre-Protestant world of the West. Over the centuries, as Christianity became dominant and aligned itself with the ruling secular authorities, Esotericists developed a variety of survival strategies. Most notably, many Esotericists adopted the same Christian language used by orthodox Christianity and poured their own meaning into it. As Gnostic history has been reconstructed, it now appears that a variety of Christian teachers from at least the late first century were Gnostics to some degree and at different times and places were leading different segments of the church.6 The church itself was a relatively small, marginalized movement thinly spread through the Roman Empire with limited options in policing doctrinal or behavioral deviations. There is every reason to believe that early Gnostic tendencies within the church are being referred to (and refuted), for example, in the Johnnine literature in the Bible, and that through the second century teachers such as Marcion, Basilades, and Valentinus developed followings that continued into the third and fourth centuries. By the fifth century, Gnostic teachings remained alive and well in such places as the monastic centers of Egypt, where they may have given intellectual support to the excessive asceticism found among the monks. Many of the medieval mystics appear to have adopted an Esoteric perspective and survived by endowing it with Christian terminology. In recent centuries, many modern Esotericists have argued for the “Christian� nature of their teachings, and disagreements over the role of Christianity was at issue in a number of splits within the Esoteric community. Rosicrucianism in the fifteenth century, of course, was started by a Lutheran pastor and adopted its name and basic symbolism from Luther’s personal seal. In the eighteenth century, Swedenborg, the son of a Lutheran bishop, presented his teachings in the form of extensive biblical commentaries while calling for a Church of the New Jerusalem. In the nineteenth century, Spiritualists divided over how Christian their movement should be. Early in the twentieth century Annie Besant and Rudolf Steiner parted company when Steiner asserted the superiority of Christ over Buddha. He would later found a

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specifically Christian Esoteric group, the Christian Community. A short time after Steiner withdrew, other Theosophists would found an auxiliary movement, the Liberal Catholic Church, which attempted to present Theosophy to people more comfortable with Christian symbols and the Catholic and Anglican liturgies. The Unity School of Christianity withdrew from the International New Thought Alliance after the alliance refused to endorse the school’s specifically Christian form of New Thought. The “I AM” Religious Activity and the Church Universal and Triumphant assert their status as Christian organizations and present their unique teachings as partly derived from the Ascended Master Jesus. Even among groups that make no claims to a place in the Christian tradition, and that have adopted a system of belief and practice that does not utilize Christian language or symbols, one notes more or less selfconscious efforts to accommodate to the dominant Christianity of the West. Scientology has, for example, adopted as its major symbol an eight-pointed symbol that on first sight appears to be simply a Latin cross with four rays of light, calling to mind Christian variations like the Celtic cross.7 Groups within the Theosophical tradition, especially Liberal Catholic Churches and those within the “I AM” tradition, will have images of the Ascended Master Jesus (that closely resemble popular representations of Jesus Christ from the early twentieth century) prominently displayed at their centers. A number of channeling groups, most notably those that use A Course in Miracles, have published texts believed to be a modern communication from Jesus Christ.8 Many Esoteric movements argue that they have revived elements of ancient Christianity that were lost, forgotten or consciously dropped by the Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches over the centuries. This thrust is most visible in the attention given in Esoteric circles to legends of Mary Magdalene, the Celtic traditions of Great Britain, and the publication of apocryphal gospels. Is Western Esotericism Religion?

In the face of possible persecution from Christians who held the authority of the state, Gnostics have often claimed that their beliefs and practices, however spiritual, do not constitute a religion. Such apologetics clearly emerged within Freemasonry whose early lodges presented themselves as mere speculative discussion groups attached to builders’ guilds. Swedenborg wrote in Latin, suggesting that he was simply publishing books for scholarly discussion rather than to influence the masses. To this day, in France, Rosicrucian, Neo-Templar, and Masonic groups staunchly assert their nonreligious nature, a stance that has allowed them to flourish in the face of an antireligious government that privileges atheism. Freemasonry has similarly survived in Italy and Spain where governments favored Catholicism. In recent decades we have watched European governments move to suppress religious “sects”

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while simultaneously accepting the “nonreligious” labels and excluding Esoteric groups from their suppressive activities.9 Over the last century, as some Esoteric groups used the nonreligious apologetic for utilitarian reasons, others focused upon potential converts who had left the religion of their parents and held negative images of religion. Thus emerged the popular position taken by many Esoteric groups that they are “spiritual but not religious.”10 This perspective largely succeeds due to the different ways the term religion is used in modern society, there often being a gap between the definitions of religion in academic and legal discourse, as opposed to the use of the term when referring to the disagreeable attributes of an abandoned religion. Most often, I suggest, there exists little evidence to confirm it. When asked to further explain what they mean, those who offer the initial position of being “spiritual without being religious” will articulate a loose association/affiliation with an Esoteric group. Prolegomena to a Christian Response

To this point, I have argued that there has existed in the West, from the first century to the present, a third religious tradition distinct in relationship to Christianity and Judaism. Although its representative members show the same wide variance in belief and practice that is found in other large religious traditions, there are a set of distinguishing beliefs and a historical continuity that ties its individual communities together and makes it possible to speak meaningfully of Western Esotericism with some consensus of which groups and thinkers are included under that designation. After centuries as an underground and persecuted tradition, Esotericism has undergone significant development in the last century as it produced several hundred practicing organizations and saw its ideas gain a significant beachhead in Western culture, culminating in a period of explosive expansion in the 1970s and 1980s. As a result of the New Age movement, the Esoteric tradition attained a new more positive image in the culture and is now rapidly gaining a historical consciousness and a place in the academic curriculum. Any assessment of Western Esotericism suggests that it has established itself as a stable religious community that will have an increasing and long-term presence in the West. It is possessed of a basic religious story that, like the story of Buddha, has proved compelling to millions over the centuries and continues to attract large numbers today. Like the Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim communities in America, it has established a spectrum of institutions to serve its needs and is generating

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leadership to build its thought-world and administer its communal structures. It now has an articulate and academically trained intelligencia, though it is yet to be seen what role the emerging leadership will assign Western Esotericism in the larger religious world and to what degree the next generation will seek to involve themselves in the interfaith community. Wiccans and Neo-Pagans have taken the lead in seeking participation in such activities as the Parliament of the World’s Religions, internationally, and in national and local interfaith councils. If we see Western Esotericism as a distinctive religious tradition analogous to Sikhism or Buddhism, then our approach to it as Christians would seem necessarily to also change. On a basic theoretical level, how we relate to people who identify themselves with one segment or another of the Esoteric world is, as with all our relations, dictated by the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. I take that to mean that first we are called to love all and to communicate that love in our words and deeds. Relative to the Esoteric community we have as Christians a history of hateful and unloving acts and of speech that is nothing less than shameful. While thankfully most of those actions occurred before we were born, remnants continue. Insulting speech continues to perpetuate false and prejudicial images of Esoteric practitioners, not unlike those that circulated until recently about Jews. It would appear that minimally, we in the Christian community should acknowledge our failure in living up to the Great Commandment relative to Esoteric practitioners. Secondly, we have the task of the Great Commission, to share our life in Christ with everyone. I assume that the Great Commandment and the Great Commission to be intimately interconnected and the marching orders to share the faith include sharing it in word, deed and personal demeanor. Sharing the faith in our actions and in the way we carry ourselves in the world becomes even more important in situations in which verbal sharing is either not allowed (under threat of legal consequences) or grossly inappropriate (as when a person has let us know that s/he does not wish to hear). Even in these situations, the Great Commission remains. Given the likely future of the Western Esoteric community, it is highly probable that we will be increasingly encountering people who adhere to Esotericism and do so openly. Just as we may have neighbors, members of the local parent-teacher associations, or fellow employees who happen to be Muslims, Hindus or Taoists, so we may as a matter of daily routine encounter Esoteric practitioners. Thus it would appear that (1) we should discard any remaining disdain we might carry for this large community in our midst, and begin to familiarize ourselves with Western Esotericism, that (2) we should include it in our comparative religion curriculums, and that (3) we need to nurture Christian specialists who

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know Esoteric history, understand Esoteric theology, and have an appreciation for the life of the Esoteric community, just as we have with the other large religious traditions. __________________

1 “Cult Wars� is a reference to the widespread and intense debates on the nature of new religions that occurred between approximately 1975 and 1995 which had a heightened significance as they spilled over from academic institutions into the state and national legislatures, the courts, and police officer training courses, and altered interfaith relationships. 2 J. Gordon Melton. Nelson's Handbook of Denominations (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007). 3 On the development of the Esoteric tradition in the last generation see J. Gordon Melton, Finding Enlightenment: Ramtha's School of Ancient Wisdom (Hillsboro, OR: Beyond Words Publishing, 1998), especially pp. 31-44, and chapters 18-20 of J. Gordon Melton, Encyclopedia of American Religions (Detroit: Gale Group, 2003). An updated 8th edition of the encyclopedia is scheduled to appear in January 2009 4 Cf. J. Stillson Judah, The History and Philosophy of the Metaphysical Movements in America (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1967); Antoine Faivre, Theosophy, Imagination, Tradition: Studies in Western Esotericism (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000); and Joscelyn Godwin, The Theosophical Enlightenment (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994). Possibly the most prominent sociological essay on the Esoteric community is Colin Campbell "The Cult, the Cultic Milieu and Secularization," in A Sociological Yearbook of Religion in Britain 5 (1972), 119-36. Campbell essay is most illuminating about the operation of the Esoteric world, but quickly looses its application when applied to the larger world of new religions. 5 It became noticeable in the 1980s that New Agers resonated on many levels with Hinduism and Sant Mat (and some traditional Chinese teachings that emphasized teachings about the cosmic energy, chi), but less so Buddhism and its belief in the nonsubstantial soul. While groups from India often appeared at New Age conventions, Buddhist groups were rarely if ever represented. That relative affinity (or lack thereof) has continued to the present.

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6 See Karen L. King, What Is Gnosticism? (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005); Birger Pearson A., Ancient Gnosticism: Traditions And Literature (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007); and Richard Smoley, Forbidden Faith: The Secret History of Gnosticism (New York: HarperOne, 2007). 7 Scientologists, of course, are quick to point out that their eightarmed symbol is not a cross, but, in fact, derived from their founder’s teaching about the eight dynamics of existence, a basic building block of Scientology thought. 8 Esoteric groups are by no means the only groups that claim to have contemporary communications from Jesus. A variety of Roman Catholic groups have published similar communications differing only in the content of the messages. 9 The most controversial issues over the religious nature of Esoteric groups have swirled around (1) the Church of Scientology, which has asserted its existence as a religion, while resembling a host of European Esoteric groups that do not claim to be religious, and (2) the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC), an international Esoteric group that has generally claimed not to be a religion, but then asserted its religious nature in court while handing the situation resulting from it deposing its former international leader. 10 In the 1960s, the Transcendental Meditation movement adopted the position that its teachings and practices were spiritual but not religious, which allowed it to spread those teachings and practices through public institutions. In subsequent decades, it has repeatedly approached governments seeking public monies for the spread of what it terms. Editor’s Note: Visit www.sacredtribespress.com if interested in purchasing Michael T. Cooper’s Perspectives on Post-Christendom Spiritualities: Reflections on New Religious Movements and Western Spiritualities.

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Announcing New Titles from   Sacred Tribes Press for Spring 2010 

Melton: From the Occult to Western Esotericism

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Apologetics, Mission and New Religious Movements:  A Holistic Approach  By Philip Johnson    "It is this search for balance, and his real desire to speak into living situations, that sets Johnson’s  work apart from earlier studies of cults and  new religions. At the same time his work is innovative in  other  ways.  Recognizing  the  limitations  of  a  purely  rationalistic  approach  to  the  beliefs  of  non‐ Christians,  he  points out the importance  of understanding  why  people  believe what they  believe, and  the  social  costs  and  benefits  of  such  beliefs."    Professor  Irving  Hexham,  Department  of  Religious  Studies, University of Calgary 

Man of Holiness: The Mormon Search for a Personal God  By John L. Bracht    “Serious  efforts  to  understand  Mormonism  in  a  non‐confrontational,  non‐polemical  way  are  few  and  far  between.  In  this  book  the  author,  John  Bracht,  has  drawn  together  a  multitude  of  LDS  sources in order to demonstrate differences between Mormonism and ‘traditional’ Christian views on  the nature of God and the Godhead. While most LDS readers would no doubt disagree with some of  Bracht’s conclusions, they would at least have to admit that he has paid a price to grapple solidly with  the  available  evidence  and  has  done  so  in  an  irenic  and  dignified  manner.  This  is  a  work  worth  engaging.”    Robert  L.  Millet,  Professor  of  Ancient  Scripture  and  Religious  Education,  Outreach  and  Interfaith Relations at Brigham Young University

Perspectives on Post‐Christendom Spiritualities: Reflections on New  Religious Movements and Western Spiritualities  Edited by Michael T. Cooper    "The  chapters  that  follow  are  especially  significant  for  several  reasons.  First,  the  authors  draw  upon  the  best  of  recent  scholarship  in  the  field,  and  indeed  among  the  contributors  are  some  of  the  leading  scholars  in  the  study  of  new  religious  movements.  There  is  here  a  wealth  of  information  and  careful  analysis  which  will  enable  better  understanding  of  an  often  confusing  subject.  Second,  the  authors  adopt  a  respectful  tone  toward  their  subject,  rejecting  the  “cult  bashing”  attitudes  of  some  Christians. The concern throughout is to understand the phenomena, not to castigate or ridicule. Third,  while the contributors’ objective is to understand these movements and to portray them accurately they  also  write  from  a  desire  that  followers  of  the  new  religious  movements  would  come  to  faith  in  Jesus  Christ."    Harold  A.  Netland,  Professor  of  Philosophy  of  Religion  and  Intercultural  Studies  at  Trinity  Evangelical Divinity School 

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