Posts

Concepts and Symbols, What Does It All Mean? Examining Immigrant Buddhists in Toronto

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 13 November 2013, in response to D. Mitra Barua’s interview on Immigrant Buddhism in the West  (11 November 2013).

Talal Asad, in Genealogies of Religion, sets out an argument by which he hopes to improve upon Clifford Geertz’s anthropological method of examining a culture’s symbols in an effort to analyze the meanings that these symbols hold “of” and “for” a culture’s religious character. He points out that although “[r]eligious symbols… cannot be understood independently of their historical relations with nonreligious symbols…” (53) “It does not follow that the meanings of religious practices and utterances are to be sought in social phenomena, but only that their possibility and their authoritative status are to be explained as products of historically distinctive disciplines and forces. (54) In short, any culture cannot be said to be a fixed point to be dissected as such, but rather, a stream or flow of histories whose “power” and influence received from prior discourse must be taken into account as a process of cultural, and therefore religious, creation.

Webb Keane takes Asad’s emphasis upon socio-historical discourse being a process through which meanings can be analysed and provides a term for this concept that he feels is better able to be wielded by the ethnographer, namely, the utilisation of “semiotic forms”. Semiotic forms, Keane argues, are “social categories” which are “recognizable as something knowable”. He continues, “they must, that is, have some material manifestation that makes them available to, interpretable by, and, in most cases, replicable by other people: bodily actions, speech, the treatment of objects, and so forth.” (114) Seeing as how, for Keane, “[s]emiotic forms are public entities…” they are “objects for the senses…” and “as such, they have distinctive temporal dimensions…” however, “[b]ecause they are repeatable, they have the potential to persist over time and across social contexts.” (114-115). In this specific context, Keane only examines one example of a semiotic form for the sake of illustration- speech; however, Mitra Barua hits upon this exact idea in his conversation with Chris Silver. We start to get an idea of Barua’s work when he tells us of his interest in how Buddhism has been transmitted into new locations (inter-cultural dimensions of Buddhist transmission) and between first- and second-generation immigrants living in diaspora (inter-generational dimensions).

Working with Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhists (presumably Sinhalese) who form a disaporic group in Toronto, Canada, Barua is able to link his work with that of Asad and Keane by adding to his two dimensions of Buddhist transmissions an overall sense of time, or discourse. He identifies three primary historical periods of migration within which he frames his work; namely, the Colonial, Post-Colonial and Diaspora periods. None of these have any ontological purchase independently; rather, only as a spectrum, each blending into the next (ignoring firm historical dates one must assume and only focusing on the state of transmission of teachings which does not generally change, or stop-start, with any firm temporal grounding). His interest lies in how Buddhism has been and continues to be transmitted from older, first-generation migrants who came from Ceylon to Canada, to their children who were raised in Canadian culture; or, inter-cultural and inter-generational dimensions of transmission and the problems that arise therefrom.

What he finds is perhaps a bit unsurprising; the younger generation who have grown up in a “secular”, Western culture have different views and emphases regarding how to balance their secular and their religious livesthan their parents. Additionally, Barua finds that there is a serious concern within the older members of the community regarding the “religiosity” of Buddhism being not only separated out, but also lost in favour of a more secular, functional usage of concepts like samatha/vipassana or group temple worship.

Concerning this worry surrounding the “dilution” of Buddhism that Barua identifies amongst the Buddhist immigrants in Toronto, some important questions arise for scholars of religion as a whole. Throughout the interview terms like “religion”, “faith”, “theology” are thrown about, ironically often in close proximity to discussions on how Buddhism is tied into not just the immigrants religious lives but also and perhaps most importantly their culture. During the first third of the interview, Dr. Barua even explains how these immigrants have changed the adjectives of the Buddhist Eight-fold Path, from “right” speech, thought, action, etc. to “harmonious”. Why does this bi-polarity seem to weigh so heavily on this group of immigrants, on the one hand being self-conscious enough to feel it necessary to change the language of one of their most fundamental principles, while at the same time wanting to save the “religiosity” of Buddhism from complete secularisation? Further, do Christo-centric terms like faith and theology even work within a Buddhist setting, and if not, why does this community feel it useful or indeed necessary to use them? Does the very act of using foreign, Christian terms contribute to the undermining of the very sense of importance and individuality that the Buddhist elders are trying to stave off; and most intriguingly, if religion (in this case Buddhism) is indeed not sui generis but rather, linked wholly with a society’s culture; are these immigrants not so much concerned with the loss of their religion, but instead and more disconcerting, with a loss of their culture and self-identity? In a response to a similar question from Chris Silver, Dr. Barua does give us a related answer when he affirms, that he found these Buddhists to self-identify as indeed in some ways more religious in Canada than they were in Sri Lanka.

By way of conclusion with the understanding that cultural (and therefore religious) symbols and concepts are intrinsically intertwined within the socio-temporal spectrum of a group of people, as scholars of religion some pressing questions now pop up for further inspection, perhaps most importantly are some that are self-reflexive: are we truly Post-Orientalist/Colonialist? Do we, living in primarily First and Second World countries, take for granted our contemporary cultural hegemony? What can we learn about immigrant groups who find their most effective recourse to be utilising OUR terminology to describe THEIR culture? Perhaps the era of colonisation is not quite over.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

References

  • Asad, Talal. 1993. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York. Basic Books
  • Keane, Webb. 2008. ‘The evidence of the senses and the materiality of religion’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Volume 14: 110-127.

Religion and the Media

The study of religion in the media is an interdisciplinary field which has been of interest for scholars in media studies, religious studies and sociology among others. In this interview, Christopher Cotter and Teemu Taira discuss the relevance of study of religion in the media from the religious studies point of view as well as the media discourse on religion – the ways in which media covers religion, functions as defining what counts as religion and negotiates its social location. Dr Taira points out the possible contribution of religious studies, addresses some methodological questions in studying religion in the media, examines media’s approaches to religion, and finishes with a look at the potential futures of the area of study.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk link to support us when buying your important books etc.

The interview refers to the project ‘Media Portrayals of Religion and the Secular Sacred: A Longitudinal Study of British Newspaper and Television Representations and Their Reception’ in which Taira worked at the University of Leeds between 2008 and 2010. It was part of the AHRC/ESRC ‘Religion and Society’ Programme, conducted by Kim Knott, Elizabeth Poole and Teemu Taira. The main output of the project is the forthcoming book Media Portrayals of Religion and the Secular (Ashgate), co-authored by Knott, Poole & Taira.

Dr. Teemu Taira holds a research fellowship at the Academy of Finland at the department of Comparative Religion, University of Turku, Finland. He received his PhD in 2006 from the University of Turku and his recent research has focused on three areas: (1) religion and the secular in the British and Finnish media, (2) the new visibility of atheism, and (3) discursive study on ‘religion’. Taira’s current project examines discourse on religion and the secular in the Finnish media. For a selection of his English language publications relevant to this interview, see ‘further reading’ (below). For a full list of Taira’s publications in English and Finnish languages, see Studying Nonreligion within Religious Studies.

Teemu has also prepared the following very helpful further reading list:

 

  • Hjarvard, Stig & Lövheim, Mia (eds) 2012. Mediatization and Religion: Nordic perspectives. Gothenburg: Nordicom.
  • Lynch, Gordon & Lövheim, Mia (eds) 2011. Special issue on the mediatization of religion. Culture and Religion 12(2).
  • Mutanen, Annikka 2009. To Do, or Not Do God: Faith in British and Finnish journalism. Reuters Institute Fellowship Paper. http://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/fileadmin/documents/Publications/fellows__papers/2008-2009/Mutanen_-_To_do__or_not_do_God.pdf
  • Poole, Elizabeth & Taira, Teemu 2013, forthcoming. Researching religion in British newspapers and television. Linda Woodhead (ed.), How to Research Religion: Handbook of methods in practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Stout, Daniel 2012. Media and Religion: Foundations of an emerging field. London: Routledge.
  • Taira, Teemu 2010. Religion as a discursive technique: The politics of classifying Wicca. Journal of Contemporary Religion 25(3): 379–394.
  • Taira, Teemu 2013. Making space for discursive study in Religious Studies. Religion 43(1): 1–20.
  • Taira, Teemu 2013, forthcoming. Does the old media’s religion coverage matter in time of digital religion? Tore Ahlbäck (ed.), Digital Religion. Åbo: Donner Institute for Religious and Cultural History.
  • Taira, Teemu; Poole, Elizabeth & Knott, Kim 2012. Religion in the British media today. Jolyon Mitchell & Owen Gower (eds), Religion and the News. Farnham: Ashgate, 31–43.
  • Knott, Kim; Poole, Elizabeth & Taira, Teemu 2013, forthcoming. Christianity, secularism and religious diversity in the British media. David Herbert, Marie Gillespie & Anita Greenhill (eds), Social Media, Religion and Spirituality. Berlin: De Gruyter.
  • Knott, Kim; Poole, Elizabeth & Taira, Teemu, forthcoming. Media Portrayals of Religion and the Secular. Farnham: Ashgate.

 

The Twilight of Esoteric Wanders and Academic Ponders

If one is to understand esotericism as a general term of identification reproduced through articulated fields of discourse, Western esotericism can be treated as a historical phenomenon without being nominalistic or idealistic, but instead as a field of discourses of interpretation interacting.

The Twilight of Esoteric Wanders and Academic Ponders

By Damon Zacharias Lycourinos, University of Edinburgh

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 24 October 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Wouter Hanegraaff on Western Esotericism (22 October 2012).

One of the most influential scholars in the contemporary academic study of Western esotericism is beyond doubt the erudite and highly productive Wouter J. Hanegraaff, professor of History of Hermetic Philosophy and related currents at the University of Amsterdam. Some of his major publications, and especially the ones that I have read and enjoyed, are Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture; New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought; Hidden Intercourse: Eros and Sexuality in the History of Western Esotericism, which he edited with Jeffrey J. Kripal; Gnosis and Hermeticism from Antiquity to Modern Times, edited with Roelof van den Broek; and finally his paper ‘How magic survived the disenchantment of the world’ in Religion, 33:4, 357-380.

Having spent a good deal of time last year wandering and pondering over notions, definitions, and methodologies pertaining to the study of Western esotericism, I happened to come across Hanegraaff’s works quite frequently, as one would expect. My initial response was a profound interest in way that Western esotericism is described as ‘rejected knowledge’. According to various sources, Western esotericism, as a self-designating term, is used by contemporary scholars according to certain typological and historical constructs. Hanegraaff refers to the term as a typological construct related to secrecy and knowledge reserved only for an elite. Regarding how the term ‘esotericism’ can be applied as a typological construct Hanegraaff states,

As we have seen, this usage is in line with the original connotations of both the adjective and the subjective. In this typological sense, the term ‘esotericism’ can be applied freely within any religious context, for concerns with secret knowledge reserved for elites can be found throughout history, and all over the world… The same is true for another, related typological understanding of the term, that associates it with the deeper, ‘inner mysteries of religion’ as opposed to its merely external or ‘exoteric’ dimensions.[1]

In relation to historical constructs, Western esotericism can be understood as embodying specific currents of religious and cultural fields of discourse, displaying metaphysical similarities and historical parallelisms. According to Antoine Faivre and Karen-Claire Voss, “The term “Western” here refers to the medieval and modern Greco-Latin world in which the religious traditions of Judaism and Christianity have coexisted for centuries, periodically coming into contact with those of Islam.”[2]

Although my first reaction to the manner in which Faivre and Voss have employed the term ‘West’ was one of suspicion of personal agendas and exclusivist representations, I believe that there is no need to presently dwell on this further, as scholars such as Kocku von Stuckrad[3] and Robert Mathiesen[4] have already reacted through constructive criticism to Faivre’s and Voss’ usage of the term ‘West’. What I would like to address though is my initial impression regarding the academic study of Western esotericism identifying the sometimes, and somewhat simplistic binary opposition embodied in Western epistemology between Greek rationality and Christian faith, or more specifically between ‘mythic thought’ and Aristotelian logic. This ‘esoteric’ knowledge summoned by currents of Western esoteric spirituality can be “characterised by a resistance to the dominance of either pure rationality or doctrinal faith.”[5] According to Roelof van den Broeck and Hanegraaff, “The adherents of this tradition emphasized the importance of inner enlightenment or gnosis; a revelatory experience that mostly entailed an encounter with one’s true self as well with the ground of being, God.”[6] This shifting of positions has endowed esoteric phenomena, under contemporary academic scrutiny, with a sense of fluidity and recognition of it as being the ‘third pillar’ of Western religious and cultural historiography, erected between secularisation on the one hand, and on the other sterile dogmatism.

Despite the possibilities of unveiling other dimensions that constitute the religious and cultural landscapes of Europe through further representation of this ‘romantic’ struggle, some concepts and perceptions remain unclear and biased, undermining emic accounts and further methodological evaluations. For example, the interpretation of the term ‘gnosis’ differs considerably according to different historical contexts. This alone indicates that conceptualisation of various features pertaining to ‘traditions’ of Western esotericism may be viewed as academic constructs, with the intention of providing an understanding of diverse traits and currents that might have similarities, but also significant differences in form and content.

Various methodological paradigms that have been employed to distinguish and define a variety of phenomena that can be labelled as ‘esoteric’ within a Western context should merely be treated as abstract tools. Although this might appear to function theoretically by classifying something as ‘esoteric’ when the constituting components are present, in practice however this is not as simple as it appears. To be able to locate these components the scholar of Western esotericism must go beyond doctrinal tenets and discover evidence of ‘esoteric presence’ in the manifestation of forms, symbols, and styles. A challenge for scholars of esotericism has been to identify material belonging to an esoteric corpus, yet lacking the constituting components of esoteric form of thought. Textual materials belonging to an esoteric current, with the constituting components present explicitly or implicitly,[7] may not pose an immediate challenge to esoteric scholarship, but textual materials belonging to an esoteric current, yet not displaying the constituting components, can and have complicated matters of research. The conclusion that the scholar would have to draw would be to categorise a textual material as ‘esoteric’ only if it displays the constituting components of esoteric scholarship in an explicit or implicit fashion. The same can be applied to the “migration of esoteric ideas into non-esoteric materials”[8] where it is common practice to discover esoteric ideas, symbols, and gestures in non-esoteric settings and climates. This can be seen by treating a piece of fiction which refers to ideas and practices such as magic and alchemy as ‘non-esoteric’ mainly because it is a non-esoteric usage of an esoteric concept or technique.

Many of the foundational evaluations and critiques of academic endeavours to define and study esotericism in a Western context have not yet managed to connect esotericism in the sense of a ‘name’ that esotericists and esoteric scholars give to a certain discourse related to religion and scholarship. This view is also expressed by Bergunder, initiating the necessary reflection of this connection. Starting from this connection, Bergunder introduces the cultural studies approach where the perspective of the academic stands in an interrelationship with the subject of research,

In cultural studies orientated approaches the definition of a research subject takes place in the prevailing discursive practise of a society, because the topics of cultural studies research are no more than historical artefacts and historical patterns of behaviour and thought.[9]

Research into Western esotericism has been clearly associated with the contemporary esotericists’ self-conceptions, which indicates that this must be considered explicitly in academic representations of the esoteric. The nominalistic endeavour to separate them can only focus on the subject definition and the academic definition. One problematic area of concern is whether and to what extent academic research into esotericism is in any way ‘esoteric’ in itself. Hanegraaff emphasises the incompatibility of academic research with an esotericist agenda.[10] However, such a view fails to grasp the reality of how academic research into areas of esoteric fields of discourse has affected and continues to affect the esoteric discourse and, very importantly, the opposite is true. From this perspective academic research into Western esotericism should not act as an autonomous autocrat, due to the fact that the self-realisation of the interrelationship of ‘academic esotericism’ and ‘applied esotericism’ have become a part of the history of esotericism. Questions of identity are a crucial element in the conceptualisations of Western esotericism, with esotericism acting as a form of identity marker. This approach manifests the multi-layered areas of activities that affect the study of Western esotericism through the identity positioning of esotericists themselves, where apart from positioning themselves as esotericists the individual may also identify with other areas of self-expression, such as an academic, a humanist, a Christian, a Jew, a Pagan, and so on. This then designates a general concept that makes identification possible.

The next step for the unfolding of a more inclusive approach to a multi-dimensional study of esotericism would be to represent it as a social practice with innovative methodological applications. This would necessarily embrace a discourse community not identical with only esotericists, but all who participate in its articulation.

If one is to understand esotericism as a general term of identification reproduced through articulated fields of discourse, Western esotericism can be treated as a historical phenomenon without being nominalistic or idealistic, but instead as a field of discourses of interpretation interacting. To be able to reconstruct Western esotericism as a historical phenomenon worthy of research, diachronic and synchronic dimensions of methodological application are vital. The synchronic dimension of methodological application would present esotericism as distributed through various discursive networks simultaneously, which the participants re-negotiate. This can only obtain meaning when it is registered in the totality of synchronic fields of discourse. The diachronic criterion, however, demands that we can only refer to the historical manifestations of esotericism when the synchronic elements stand in a diachronic relation to previous synchronic fields of discourse. Whether currents or individuals are set within these parameters depends entirely on the time and place of observation.

Finally, regarding the study of definitions with the framework of Western esotericism, one should begin by examining the point of entry set down by the individuals within the particular field of discourse, instead of assigning a point of entry at the beginning of an alleged tradition, which in the following merely treats it as an academic construct. This is obvious when one historically investigates the usage of the term ‘esotericism’ and discovers that before the second half of the nineteenth century, those involved with ‘esoteric’ pursuits did not explicitly refer to the concept of ‘esotericism’. Although this does not antagonise the diachronic criterion, the synchronic criterion should be employed to examine the self-representations of elements similar to the reception of the term ‘esotericism’, and especially the category of ‘Western esotericism’.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Damon Zacharias Lycourinos has an academic background in the fields of anthropology and religious studies from the University of Wales, Lampeter, the University of Oxford, and the University of Cambridge. He is currently engaged in a Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh exploring the meanings and weavings of ritual, the body, and magic within contemporary Western contexts, employing both theoretical analysis and ethnographic fieldwork. He is also the editor of Occult Traditions (Numen Books, 2012), to which he contributed papers on various aspects of the Greek Magical Papyri, Hellenistic theurgy, the role and nature of Seth, and the esoteric ideas of Julius Evola’s sexual metaphysics. In addition, he is also completing an academic journal paper titled ‘From Corpus to Spiritus Mundi: A Study of Ritual Behaviour, Occult Cognition, and Enchanted Worldviews’. When not engaging with academia, he can be found embodying Hellenic goēteia and Hellenistic theourgia through intense study and performance, wandering the wilderness, and engaging in martial arts. He currently resides in Edinburgh, but when not he can be found in Athens or on the volcanic island of Thira overlooking the Aegean.

 


[1] Hanegraaff, Wouter J., ‘Esotericism’. In Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, Wouter, J. Hanegraaff, Roelof van den Broeck, and Jean-Pierre (eds.). Leiden: Brill, 2006, p. 337.

[2] Faivre, Antoine and Voss, Karen-Claire, ‘Western Esotericism and the Science of Religions’. In Numen, Vol. 42, No. 1, p. 50.

[3] Stuckrad, Kocku von, Western Esotericism: A Brief History of Secret Knowledge. London: Equinox Publishing Ltd., 2005, p. 5.

[4] Mathiesen, Robert, ‘Byzantium’. In Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, edited by Wouter, J. Hanegraaff, Roelof van den Broeck and Jean-Pierre Brach. Leiden: Brill, 2006, p. 218-222.

[5] Broeck, Roelef van den and Hanegraaff, Wouter J., Gnosis and Hermeticism from Antiquity to Modern Times. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998, p. vii.

[6] Broeck, Roelef van den and Hanegraaff, Wouter J., Gnosis and Hermeticism from Antiquity to Modern Times. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998, p. vii.

[7] As esoteric materials are normally composed by esotericists for other esotericists, the constituting components are not always presented explicitly and many are taken for granted.

[8] Bogdan, Henrik, Western Esotericism and Rituals of Initiation. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007, p. 20.

[9] Bergunder, Michael, ‘What is Esotericism? Cultural Studies Approach and the Problems of Definition in Religious Studies’. In Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 22, 2010, p. 19.

[10] Hanegraaff, Wouter, J., ‘Beyond the yates paradigm: The study of western esotericism between counterculture and new complexity’. In Aries 1, 2001, p. 29-30

Podcasts

Concepts and Symbols, What Does It All Mean? Examining Immigrant Buddhists in Toronto

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 13 November 2013, in response to D. Mitra Barua’s interview on Immigrant Buddhism in the West  (11 November 2013).

Talal Asad, in Genealogies of Religion, sets out an argument by which he hopes to improve upon Clifford Geertz’s anthropological method of examining a culture’s symbols in an effort to analyze the meanings that these symbols hold “of” and “for” a culture’s religious character. He points out that although “[r]eligious symbols… cannot be understood independently of their historical relations with nonreligious symbols…” (53) “It does not follow that the meanings of religious practices and utterances are to be sought in social phenomena, but only that their possibility and their authoritative status are to be explained as products of historically distinctive disciplines and forces. (54) In short, any culture cannot be said to be a fixed point to be dissected as such, but rather, a stream or flow of histories whose “power” and influence received from prior discourse must be taken into account as a process of cultural, and therefore religious, creation.

Webb Keane takes Asad’s emphasis upon socio-historical discourse being a process through which meanings can be analysed and provides a term for this concept that he feels is better able to be wielded by the ethnographer, namely, the utilisation of “semiotic forms”. Semiotic forms, Keane argues, are “social categories” which are “recognizable as something knowable”. He continues, “they must, that is, have some material manifestation that makes them available to, interpretable by, and, in most cases, replicable by other people: bodily actions, speech, the treatment of objects, and so forth.” (114) Seeing as how, for Keane, “[s]emiotic forms are public entities…” they are “objects for the senses…” and “as such, they have distinctive temporal dimensions…” however, “[b]ecause they are repeatable, they have the potential to persist over time and across social contexts.” (114-115). In this specific context, Keane only examines one example of a semiotic form for the sake of illustration- speech; however, Mitra Barua hits upon this exact idea in his conversation with Chris Silver. We start to get an idea of Barua’s work when he tells us of his interest in how Buddhism has been transmitted into new locations (inter-cultural dimensions of Buddhist transmission) and between first- and second-generation immigrants living in diaspora (inter-generational dimensions).

Working with Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhists (presumably Sinhalese) who form a disaporic group in Toronto, Canada, Barua is able to link his work with that of Asad and Keane by adding to his two dimensions of Buddhist transmissions an overall sense of time, or discourse. He identifies three primary historical periods of migration within which he frames his work; namely, the Colonial, Post-Colonial and Diaspora periods. None of these have any ontological purchase independently; rather, only as a spectrum, each blending into the next (ignoring firm historical dates one must assume and only focusing on the state of transmission of teachings which does not generally change, or stop-start, with any firm temporal grounding). His interest lies in how Buddhism has been and continues to be transmitted from older, first-generation migrants who came from Ceylon to Canada, to their children who were raised in Canadian culture; or, inter-cultural and inter-generational dimensions of transmission and the problems that arise therefrom.

What he finds is perhaps a bit unsurprising; the younger generation who have grown up in a “secular”, Western culture have different views and emphases regarding how to balance their secular and their religious livesthan their parents. Additionally, Barua finds that there is a serious concern within the older members of the community regarding the “religiosity” of Buddhism being not only separated out, but also lost in favour of a more secular, functional usage of concepts like samatha/vipassana or group temple worship.

Concerning this worry surrounding the “dilution” of Buddhism that Barua identifies amongst the Buddhist immigrants in Toronto, some important questions arise for scholars of religion as a whole. Throughout the interview terms like “religion”, “faith”, “theology” are thrown about, ironically often in close proximity to discussions on how Buddhism is tied into not just the immigrants religious lives but also and perhaps most importantly their culture. During the first third of the interview, Dr. Barua even explains how these immigrants have changed the adjectives of the Buddhist Eight-fold Path, from “right” speech, thought, action, etc. to “harmonious”. Why does this bi-polarity seem to weigh so heavily on this group of immigrants, on the one hand being self-conscious enough to feel it necessary to change the language of one of their most fundamental principles, while at the same time wanting to save the “religiosity” of Buddhism from complete secularisation? Further, do Christo-centric terms like faith and theology even work within a Buddhist setting, and if not, why does this community feel it useful or indeed necessary to use them? Does the very act of using foreign, Christian terms contribute to the undermining of the very sense of importance and individuality that the Buddhist elders are trying to stave off; and most intriguingly, if religion (in this case Buddhism) is indeed not sui generis but rather, linked wholly with a society’s culture; are these immigrants not so much concerned with the loss of their religion, but instead and more disconcerting, with a loss of their culture and self-identity? In a response to a similar question from Chris Silver, Dr. Barua does give us a related answer when he affirms, that he found these Buddhists to self-identify as indeed in some ways more religious in Canada than they were in Sri Lanka.

By way of conclusion with the understanding that cultural (and therefore religious) symbols and concepts are intrinsically intertwined within the socio-temporal spectrum of a group of people, as scholars of religion some pressing questions now pop up for further inspection, perhaps most importantly are some that are self-reflexive: are we truly Post-Orientalist/Colonialist? Do we, living in primarily First and Second World countries, take for granted our contemporary cultural hegemony? What can we learn about immigrant groups who find their most effective recourse to be utilising OUR terminology to describe THEIR culture? Perhaps the era of colonisation is not quite over.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

References

  • Asad, Talal. 1993. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York. Basic Books
  • Keane, Webb. 2008. ‘The evidence of the senses and the materiality of religion’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Volume 14: 110-127.

Religion and the Media

The study of religion in the media is an interdisciplinary field which has been of interest for scholars in media studies, religious studies and sociology among others. In this interview, Christopher Cotter and Teemu Taira discuss the relevance of study of religion in the media from the religious studies point of view as well as the media discourse on religion – the ways in which media covers religion, functions as defining what counts as religion and negotiates its social location. Dr Taira points out the possible contribution of religious studies, addresses some methodological questions in studying religion in the media, examines media’s approaches to religion, and finishes with a look at the potential futures of the area of study.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk link to support us when buying your important books etc.

The interview refers to the project ‘Media Portrayals of Religion and the Secular Sacred: A Longitudinal Study of British Newspaper and Television Representations and Their Reception’ in which Taira worked at the University of Leeds between 2008 and 2010. It was part of the AHRC/ESRC ‘Religion and Society’ Programme, conducted by Kim Knott, Elizabeth Poole and Teemu Taira. The main output of the project is the forthcoming book Media Portrayals of Religion and the Secular (Ashgate), co-authored by Knott, Poole & Taira.

Dr. Teemu Taira holds a research fellowship at the Academy of Finland at the department of Comparative Religion, University of Turku, Finland. He received his PhD in 2006 from the University of Turku and his recent research has focused on three areas: (1) religion and the secular in the British and Finnish media, (2) the new visibility of atheism, and (3) discursive study on ‘religion’. Taira’s current project examines discourse on religion and the secular in the Finnish media. For a selection of his English language publications relevant to this interview, see ‘further reading’ (below). For a full list of Taira’s publications in English and Finnish languages, see Studying Nonreligion within Religious Studies.

Teemu has also prepared the following very helpful further reading list:

 

  • Hjarvard, Stig & Lövheim, Mia (eds) 2012. Mediatization and Religion: Nordic perspectives. Gothenburg: Nordicom.
  • Lynch, Gordon & Lövheim, Mia (eds) 2011. Special issue on the mediatization of religion. Culture and Religion 12(2).
  • Mutanen, Annikka 2009. To Do, or Not Do God: Faith in British and Finnish journalism. Reuters Institute Fellowship Paper. http://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/fileadmin/documents/Publications/fellows__papers/2008-2009/Mutanen_-_To_do__or_not_do_God.pdf
  • Poole, Elizabeth & Taira, Teemu 2013, forthcoming. Researching religion in British newspapers and television. Linda Woodhead (ed.), How to Research Religion: Handbook of methods in practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Stout, Daniel 2012. Media and Religion: Foundations of an emerging field. London: Routledge.
  • Taira, Teemu 2010. Religion as a discursive technique: The politics of classifying Wicca. Journal of Contemporary Religion 25(3): 379–394.
  • Taira, Teemu 2013. Making space for discursive study in Religious Studies. Religion 43(1): 1–20.
  • Taira, Teemu 2013, forthcoming. Does the old media’s religion coverage matter in time of digital religion? Tore Ahlbäck (ed.), Digital Religion. Åbo: Donner Institute for Religious and Cultural History.
  • Taira, Teemu; Poole, Elizabeth & Knott, Kim 2012. Religion in the British media today. Jolyon Mitchell & Owen Gower (eds), Religion and the News. Farnham: Ashgate, 31–43.
  • Knott, Kim; Poole, Elizabeth & Taira, Teemu 2013, forthcoming. Christianity, secularism and religious diversity in the British media. David Herbert, Marie Gillespie & Anita Greenhill (eds), Social Media, Religion and Spirituality. Berlin: De Gruyter.
  • Knott, Kim; Poole, Elizabeth & Taira, Teemu, forthcoming. Media Portrayals of Religion and the Secular. Farnham: Ashgate.

 

The Twilight of Esoteric Wanders and Academic Ponders

If one is to understand esotericism as a general term of identification reproduced through articulated fields of discourse, Western esotericism can be treated as a historical phenomenon without being nominalistic or idealistic, but instead as a field of discourses of interpretation interacting.

The Twilight of Esoteric Wanders and Academic Ponders

By Damon Zacharias Lycourinos, University of Edinburgh

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 24 October 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Wouter Hanegraaff on Western Esotericism (22 October 2012).

One of the most influential scholars in the contemporary academic study of Western esotericism is beyond doubt the erudite and highly productive Wouter J. Hanegraaff, professor of History of Hermetic Philosophy and related currents at the University of Amsterdam. Some of his major publications, and especially the ones that I have read and enjoyed, are Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture; New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought; Hidden Intercourse: Eros and Sexuality in the History of Western Esotericism, which he edited with Jeffrey J. Kripal; Gnosis and Hermeticism from Antiquity to Modern Times, edited with Roelof van den Broek; and finally his paper ‘How magic survived the disenchantment of the world’ in Religion, 33:4, 357-380.

Having spent a good deal of time last year wandering and pondering over notions, definitions, and methodologies pertaining to the study of Western esotericism, I happened to come across Hanegraaff’s works quite frequently, as one would expect. My initial response was a profound interest in way that Western esotericism is described as ‘rejected knowledge’. According to various sources, Western esotericism, as a self-designating term, is used by contemporary scholars according to certain typological and historical constructs. Hanegraaff refers to the term as a typological construct related to secrecy and knowledge reserved only for an elite. Regarding how the term ‘esotericism’ can be applied as a typological construct Hanegraaff states,

As we have seen, this usage is in line with the original connotations of both the adjective and the subjective. In this typological sense, the term ‘esotericism’ can be applied freely within any religious context, for concerns with secret knowledge reserved for elites can be found throughout history, and all over the world… The same is true for another, related typological understanding of the term, that associates it with the deeper, ‘inner mysteries of religion’ as opposed to its merely external or ‘exoteric’ dimensions.[1]

In relation to historical constructs, Western esotericism can be understood as embodying specific currents of religious and cultural fields of discourse, displaying metaphysical similarities and historical parallelisms. According to Antoine Faivre and Karen-Claire Voss, “The term “Western” here refers to the medieval and modern Greco-Latin world in which the religious traditions of Judaism and Christianity have coexisted for centuries, periodically coming into contact with those of Islam.”[2]

Although my first reaction to the manner in which Faivre and Voss have employed the term ‘West’ was one of suspicion of personal agendas and exclusivist representations, I believe that there is no need to presently dwell on this further, as scholars such as Kocku von Stuckrad[3] and Robert Mathiesen[4] have already reacted through constructive criticism to Faivre’s and Voss’ usage of the term ‘West’. What I would like to address though is my initial impression regarding the academic study of Western esotericism identifying the sometimes, and somewhat simplistic binary opposition embodied in Western epistemology between Greek rationality and Christian faith, or more specifically between ‘mythic thought’ and Aristotelian logic. This ‘esoteric’ knowledge summoned by currents of Western esoteric spirituality can be “characterised by a resistance to the dominance of either pure rationality or doctrinal faith.”[5] According to Roelof van den Broeck and Hanegraaff, “The adherents of this tradition emphasized the importance of inner enlightenment or gnosis; a revelatory experience that mostly entailed an encounter with one’s true self as well with the ground of being, God.”[6] This shifting of positions has endowed esoteric phenomena, under contemporary academic scrutiny, with a sense of fluidity and recognition of it as being the ‘third pillar’ of Western religious and cultural historiography, erected between secularisation on the one hand, and on the other sterile dogmatism.

Despite the possibilities of unveiling other dimensions that constitute the religious and cultural landscapes of Europe through further representation of this ‘romantic’ struggle, some concepts and perceptions remain unclear and biased, undermining emic accounts and further methodological evaluations. For example, the interpretation of the term ‘gnosis’ differs considerably according to different historical contexts. This alone indicates that conceptualisation of various features pertaining to ‘traditions’ of Western esotericism may be viewed as academic constructs, with the intention of providing an understanding of diverse traits and currents that might have similarities, but also significant differences in form and content.

Various methodological paradigms that have been employed to distinguish and define a variety of phenomena that can be labelled as ‘esoteric’ within a Western context should merely be treated as abstract tools. Although this might appear to function theoretically by classifying something as ‘esoteric’ when the constituting components are present, in practice however this is not as simple as it appears. To be able to locate these components the scholar of Western esotericism must go beyond doctrinal tenets and discover evidence of ‘esoteric presence’ in the manifestation of forms, symbols, and styles. A challenge for scholars of esotericism has been to identify material belonging to an esoteric corpus, yet lacking the constituting components of esoteric form of thought. Textual materials belonging to an esoteric current, with the constituting components present explicitly or implicitly,[7] may not pose an immediate challenge to esoteric scholarship, but textual materials belonging to an esoteric current, yet not displaying the constituting components, can and have complicated matters of research. The conclusion that the scholar would have to draw would be to categorise a textual material as ‘esoteric’ only if it displays the constituting components of esoteric scholarship in an explicit or implicit fashion. The same can be applied to the “migration of esoteric ideas into non-esoteric materials”[8] where it is common practice to discover esoteric ideas, symbols, and gestures in non-esoteric settings and climates. This can be seen by treating a piece of fiction which refers to ideas and practices such as magic and alchemy as ‘non-esoteric’ mainly because it is a non-esoteric usage of an esoteric concept or technique.

Many of the foundational evaluations and critiques of academic endeavours to define and study esotericism in a Western context have not yet managed to connect esotericism in the sense of a ‘name’ that esotericists and esoteric scholars give to a certain discourse related to religion and scholarship. This view is also expressed by Bergunder, initiating the necessary reflection of this connection. Starting from this connection, Bergunder introduces the cultural studies approach where the perspective of the academic stands in an interrelationship with the subject of research,

In cultural studies orientated approaches the definition of a research subject takes place in the prevailing discursive practise of a society, because the topics of cultural studies research are no more than historical artefacts and historical patterns of behaviour and thought.[9]

Research into Western esotericism has been clearly associated with the contemporary esotericists’ self-conceptions, which indicates that this must be considered explicitly in academic representations of the esoteric. The nominalistic endeavour to separate them can only focus on the subject definition and the academic definition. One problematic area of concern is whether and to what extent academic research into esotericism is in any way ‘esoteric’ in itself. Hanegraaff emphasises the incompatibility of academic research with an esotericist agenda.[10] However, such a view fails to grasp the reality of how academic research into areas of esoteric fields of discourse has affected and continues to affect the esoteric discourse and, very importantly, the opposite is true. From this perspective academic research into Western esotericism should not act as an autonomous autocrat, due to the fact that the self-realisation of the interrelationship of ‘academic esotericism’ and ‘applied esotericism’ have become a part of the history of esotericism. Questions of identity are a crucial element in the conceptualisations of Western esotericism, with esotericism acting as a form of identity marker. This approach manifests the multi-layered areas of activities that affect the study of Western esotericism through the identity positioning of esotericists themselves, where apart from positioning themselves as esotericists the individual may also identify with other areas of self-expression, such as an academic, a humanist, a Christian, a Jew, a Pagan, and so on. This then designates a general concept that makes identification possible.

The next step for the unfolding of a more inclusive approach to a multi-dimensional study of esotericism would be to represent it as a social practice with innovative methodological applications. This would necessarily embrace a discourse community not identical with only esotericists, but all who participate in its articulation.

If one is to understand esotericism as a general term of identification reproduced through articulated fields of discourse, Western esotericism can be treated as a historical phenomenon without being nominalistic or idealistic, but instead as a field of discourses of interpretation interacting. To be able to reconstruct Western esotericism as a historical phenomenon worthy of research, diachronic and synchronic dimensions of methodological application are vital. The synchronic dimension of methodological application would present esotericism as distributed through various discursive networks simultaneously, which the participants re-negotiate. This can only obtain meaning when it is registered in the totality of synchronic fields of discourse. The diachronic criterion, however, demands that we can only refer to the historical manifestations of esotericism when the synchronic elements stand in a diachronic relation to previous synchronic fields of discourse. Whether currents or individuals are set within these parameters depends entirely on the time and place of observation.

Finally, regarding the study of definitions with the framework of Western esotericism, one should begin by examining the point of entry set down by the individuals within the particular field of discourse, instead of assigning a point of entry at the beginning of an alleged tradition, which in the following merely treats it as an academic construct. This is obvious when one historically investigates the usage of the term ‘esotericism’ and discovers that before the second half of the nineteenth century, those involved with ‘esoteric’ pursuits did not explicitly refer to the concept of ‘esotericism’. Although this does not antagonise the diachronic criterion, the synchronic criterion should be employed to examine the self-representations of elements similar to the reception of the term ‘esotericism’, and especially the category of ‘Western esotericism’.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Damon Zacharias Lycourinos has an academic background in the fields of anthropology and religious studies from the University of Wales, Lampeter, the University of Oxford, and the University of Cambridge. He is currently engaged in a Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh exploring the meanings and weavings of ritual, the body, and magic within contemporary Western contexts, employing both theoretical analysis and ethnographic fieldwork. He is also the editor of Occult Traditions (Numen Books, 2012), to which he contributed papers on various aspects of the Greek Magical Papyri, Hellenistic theurgy, the role and nature of Seth, and the esoteric ideas of Julius Evola’s sexual metaphysics. In addition, he is also completing an academic journal paper titled ‘From Corpus to Spiritus Mundi: A Study of Ritual Behaviour, Occult Cognition, and Enchanted Worldviews’. When not engaging with academia, he can be found embodying Hellenic goēteia and Hellenistic theourgia through intense study and performance, wandering the wilderness, and engaging in martial arts. He currently resides in Edinburgh, but when not he can be found in Athens or on the volcanic island of Thira overlooking the Aegean.

 


[1] Hanegraaff, Wouter J., ‘Esotericism’. In Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, Wouter, J. Hanegraaff, Roelof van den Broeck, and Jean-Pierre (eds.). Leiden: Brill, 2006, p. 337.

[2] Faivre, Antoine and Voss, Karen-Claire, ‘Western Esotericism and the Science of Religions’. In Numen, Vol. 42, No. 1, p. 50.

[3] Stuckrad, Kocku von, Western Esotericism: A Brief History of Secret Knowledge. London: Equinox Publishing Ltd., 2005, p. 5.

[4] Mathiesen, Robert, ‘Byzantium’. In Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, edited by Wouter, J. Hanegraaff, Roelof van den Broeck and Jean-Pierre Brach. Leiden: Brill, 2006, p. 218-222.

[5] Broeck, Roelef van den and Hanegraaff, Wouter J., Gnosis and Hermeticism from Antiquity to Modern Times. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998, p. vii.

[6] Broeck, Roelef van den and Hanegraaff, Wouter J., Gnosis and Hermeticism from Antiquity to Modern Times. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998, p. vii.

[7] As esoteric materials are normally composed by esotericists for other esotericists, the constituting components are not always presented explicitly and many are taken for granted.

[8] Bogdan, Henrik, Western Esotericism and Rituals of Initiation. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007, p. 20.

[9] Bergunder, Michael, ‘What is Esotericism? Cultural Studies Approach and the Problems of Definition in Religious Studies’. In Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 22, 2010, p. 19.

[10] Hanegraaff, Wouter, J., ‘Beyond the yates paradigm: The study of western esotericism between counterculture and new complexity’. In Aries 1, 2001, p. 29-30