The purpose of this unit is to promote, expand, and constructively critique the academic study of esotericism. “Esotericism” is now conventionally seen as an umbrella term covering a range of historical currents associated with notions of “hidden knowledge” that have been conceived of – by historical actors or by later scholars – as “alternative” to or “rejected” by established religious institutions in Europe and beyond. In this sense it typically includes a wide range of currents such as Gnosticism, Hermetism, and theurgy, occult sciences and ritual magical traditions, Paracelsism and Rosicrucianism, Mesmerism, spiritualism, and Theosophy, and various forms of “alternative” spirituality. The unit continues to supports new work on all aspects of such currents, from antiquity to the present day. However, it specifically encourages work that 1) challenges the cultural and geographic demarcations of the field by looking at esotericism in e.g. Islamic and Jewish contexts, colonial and post-colonial societies (e.g. India, South America, Africa, the Pacific); 2) seeks new ways to engage in cross-cultural comparisons of esoteric practices and discourses; and 3) explores innovative theoretical and methodological approaches to esotericism and interrogates key terms in the field (e.g. esotericism, gnosis, secrecy, initiation, marginality and rejectedness). By encouraging such work, the unit is committed to refining “esotericism” as a critical concept in the study of religion, and opening up and expanding the field through an engagement with other disciplines and theoretical perspectives.
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Call for Proposals for November Meeting
For all proposals, we especially encourage papers that employ innovative theoretical or methodological approaches and that consider cross-cultural perspectives.
In addition, we will consider proposals for pre-arranged panels on a specific topic. We encourage panel organizers to consider the composition of panels which reflect diversity, which can include gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, and academic rank.
This year we invite proposals for the following themes:
Esotericism and (Non)Violence
In Jane Robert’s 1970 channeled text The Seth Material, Seth declared with authority that “There is never any justification for violence.” In lieu of the Presidential Theme of the 2024 meeting, we welcome papers that explore the complex relationship of esotericism, violence, and nonviolence. Possible subjects could include but are not limited to:
- Rhetoric of violence (or nonviolence) in esoteric texts or practices, such as Buddhist tantras or New Age channeled texts,
- Esoteric beliefs or practices that result from or interact with moments of historical violence (i.e. Spiritualism in the wake of the Civil War and widespread racial violence),
- The relationship between violence and secrecy in accusations of violent practices directed at esoteric religious groups, or alleged in broad terms in normative discourses surrounding such groups (i.e., accusations of poisoning against alchemists, etc.)
- Historical and contemporary connections between esotericism and violent politics: including colonialism, far-right/fascist movements, and in the works of specific figures like Julius Evola.
- Historical moments of violence and/or violent rhetoric directed towards esoteric religious groups (i.e. the Inquisition and execution of figures like Giordano Bruno, violent anti-Sufism in Muslim communities, etc.)
- Esotericism and ethics in broad terms, including nonviolence, vegetarianism, moral regard for humans and nonhumans, etc.
Madonna and Kabbalah. The greater Oprah spiritual universe. Aleister Crowley on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s. Celebrity culture has been a persistent vector for the popularization and dissemination of esoteric beliefs and practices. The Esotericism Unit invites proposals on the intersection of esotericism and celebrity in a variety of contexts, including but not limited to:
- Specific celebrities and their esoteric practices (astrology in the Reagan White House, the varieties of New Age practices described on daytime talk shows with figures like Oprah Winfrey),
- The celebrity of major esoteric figures, like Helena Blavatsky,
- Esotericism as described or practiced in popular music or other media, such as the Five Percenter Islam of hip-hop artists like the Wu-Tang Clan,
- Esoteric practices of devotion related to celebrities, fandom, and parasocial relationships.
We welcome papers on the relationship between Yoga and esoteric ideas and practice. Contact Anya Foxen (email@example.com) with questions.
The 19th and 20th centuries saw a boom in what might today be considered “spiritual but not religious” movements. Spiritualism, Theosophy, Anthroposophy, to name only a few, synthesized – often uncritically – post-Protestant Christianity with imported traditions from central and south Asian yoga and tantric traditions, along with a vast array of symbolic and mythological themes drawing from gnosticism to medieval alchemy to astrology. How might contemporary scholars locate much less “define” the boundaries between “mysticism” and “esotericism” – and, are these terms even useful in organizing and categorizing these areas? This panel invites papers which address issues of hybridization in mysticism and esotericism, particularly from outside of European traditions, as well as challenge methodological and definitional assumptions, particularly a too rigid separation of “the esoteric” from “the mystic.”
Call for Proposals for Online June Meeting
For a possible online session, we welcome individual paper or panel proposals on any aspect of the study of esotericism.
Statement of Purpose
Steering Committee Members
Marina Alexandrova, University of Texas, Austin1/1/2024 - 12/31/2029
Anya Foxen, California Polytechnic State University1/1/2023 - 12/31/2028
Joshua Gentzke, Monmouth College1/1/2024 - 12/31/2029
Fredrik Gregorius, Linkoping University1/1/2024 - 12/31/2029
Liana Saif, University of Amsterdam1/1/2022 - 12/31/2027
Hugh B. Urban, Ohio State University1/1/2023 - 12/31/2028