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Spirituality

To discuss ‘spirituality’, we are joined by Boaz Huss and Steven Sutcliffe. We discuss the genealogy of ‘spirituality’, and its contemporary significance, with particular reference to the New Age movement. The second half focuses on how spirituality may trouble the religion / secular distinction, and its implications for the critical study of religion.

‘Spirituality’ is a term with enormous currency in contemporary discourse on religion, but despite this, it remains under-theorised. Little consideration is given to its development, and most scholarly work simply dismisses ‘spirituality’ as shallow and commercialised. Boaz Huss argues that “the vehement and disparaging criticism of contemporary spirituality is stimulated by the threat that this new cultural category poses to entrenched scholarly assumptions and research practices” (2014, 58).

To discuss ‘spirituality’, we are joined by Boaz Huss and Steven Sutcliffe. We discuss the genealogy of ‘spirituality’, and its contemporary significance, with particular reference to the New Age movement. The second half focuses on how spirituality may trouble the religion / secular distinction, and its implications for the critical study of religion.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Spirituality

Podcast with Boaz Huss and Steven Sutcliffe (11 June 2018).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Huss and Sutcliffe – Spirituality 1.1

David Robertson (DR): Spirituality is a term with enormous currency in contemporary discourse in religion but, despite this, it remains under-theorised. Little consideration is given to its development, and most scholarly work simply dismisses it as shallow and commercialised. To discuss spirituality I’m joined today by Boaz Huss, a professor of Jewish thought at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and also by Steve Sutcliffe who is senior lecturer in Religious Studies, here at the University of Edinburgh, where we’re speaking today. So, we thought we could maybe start, then, by setting out . . . well, setting out the stall. Tell us about spirituality, and particularly the way it emerges as an identifier during the New Age and the post-war period.

Steven Sutcliffe (SS): Ok. Well I could start and say something about that. But it’s very good to have Boaz here to join in the discussion. So, welcome to Boaz.

Boaz Huss (BH): It’s good to be here.

SS: I came across spirituality, and became pretty-much convinced of its significance as a cultural category, when I was researching the so-called New Age movement. And in the work that I did on that, I came to the conclusion that there wasn’t a very strong movement that we could call New Age. There was a term New Age, which was mobilised in a whole series of networks, but, increasingly, what scholars were calling the New Age movement after the 1970s was better understood as a network of people whose preferred term was becoming spirituality, sometimes qualified by “mind-body-spirit spirituality”, and sometimes “holistic spirituality”. Often just “spirituality”. And that this kind of shift seems to have been happening particularly, I would say, since after the 1960s, or the post-war period, is important as well. But of course there’s also a complicated and lengthy genealogy of the term emerging, and a number of different groups as well. So it’s a very complex but lively cultural category about which we still know very little, I think.

DR: And what are some of the sort-of themes and motifs that we can pick out in this discourse of spirituality, and the various other terms?

SS: Well I think, I mean, Boaz will have his own ideas here. For me, I’ve been interested in how it is often a kind of signifier for a form of what we might call vitalism, in some ways. There’s something more bubbling away in social life, and beyond social life, that the old category of religion, for users, doesn’t adequately tackle. Spirituality – a bit more nebulous, a bit more amorphous, but actually does quite a good job, through that nebulosity and amorphousness, in pointing to something that people feel. You know: “There’s a something more going on here. Things have got more life to them. They’ve got more energy. There’s something else going on.” So that’s been the route which I’ve been interested in, in the term. Why people are using it to point to this feeling that there’s something more going on in life.

DR: And maybe we can turn to Boaz, then. How does this . . . ? There’s a shift there. When spirituality starts to get picked up by the New Age movement, it changes its meaning. It’s not a new term, but it takes on a new set of connotations.

BH: Yes, yes definitely. I think there is . . . . Very similar to Steven, I was very much impressed by the prominent presence of spirituality as a term in contemporary New Age movements when I was working on in Israel – contemporary Kabbalistic movements – and, actually, also amongst my friends. It’s a term that’s very much alive and very easily used by people to define themselves. Now what, for me, was striking – maybe because I’m a historian and I started my work working on evil in Judaism and religions in the early modern period – is this really significant shift of meaning in spirituality. Because spirituality is a very old term, actually. It is a Biblical term, very prominent, signifying spirit in contrast to the body, to materiality, corporeality. And it played a very important role in medieval Christian theology, in translation – also in Jewish theology. And it seemed to me that the use today is very different and, actually, I think the two main centres of the use of the term in early modern period changed (5:00). One is the juxtaposition of spirituality to corporeality and materiality, which was very central. And today people use the term spiritual applying it to corporeal, material things: yoga, sports, martial arts, healing etc. And the other thing was the detachment from religion. Because spirituality was considered the core of religion, related, part of religion, and really the core of Christianity and religion. And today, I think the term that caught my attention was “spiritual but not religious”. Which . . . I think people tend to dismiss it. Well a lot of people use it, but some scholars, at least, dismiss this notion as they’re saying it. But actually they are religious or secular. But I think we should take it very seriously that people choose to define secularity in opposition to a term that spirituality came from and that is religious.

DR: Except, yes, as well as the “spiritual but not religious”, you are seeing very recently – in the last ten years or so – the churches making a kind-of reclaiming of that. And you’ll see “spiritual AND religious” pop up. So it’s not so much that . . . . I mean, from the point of view of these religious practitioners, spirituality is still the ur-concept with religion being part of that. So it’s shifting in different ways, even in the last few years.

SS: Well it’s a very user-friendly concept, isn’t it? And it’s also a multi-functional concept, I think. So the user-friendliness is that it’s got a warmth and a vitality to it, I think, that religion doesn’t have. And religion in popular parlance has been demonised, in a sense – stereotyped as this oppressive, institutional force. You’ll often hear the term “institutional religion” which is juxtaposed to “free-floating spirituality” or something like that. So it’s a kind of attractive word for people. But it’s also multi-functional, I think. It does various things at different levels for different audiences. And I think, for the folks who might have been involved in New Age and related networks, it fulfils that function of a fairly free-wheeling, personal, networked approach and discourse. But it’s also been picked up – and this is interesting as well, I think – it’s also been picked up in sort-of Government policy, educational health circles. So we have, here in the UK – as you probably know, Boaz – we’ve got spiritual chaplains now, in NHS hospitals. We have spirituality as a kind of perennial all-encompassing term in interfaith circles. We have various think-tank’s exploring the meaning of spirituality in cultural life. And so it’s a term . . . these uses of the term are not all doing the same thing. Sometimes they’re camouflaging various positions behind them. They’re ways of putting new pawns on the chess board to advance rather concealed causes. And other times they’re much more grass-roots and naive in their use.

DR: And that reminds me of the way that interfaith is often used, with a rather ecumenical agenda behind it: “We might as well team up in order to promote religion in the public sphere.” And spirituality is another way of doing that, of course. Because if you accept that, “OK, maybe religions don’t have a place, but spirituality does.” And so, “Who shall we get to speak for spirituality? Let’s get, you know, somebody from the Church of England.”

SS: Yes. Indeed

BH: I think it shows the cultural power of this term, that it’s adopted. Now what’s interesting . . . you know the people related to churches don’t go back to, I don’t know, early spiritual practices. They adopt spirituality from its modern, unchurched use and it comes together. It enters the churches with yoga, with Tai Chi classes, with other New Age . . . . So I see that as part of, really, the language of New Age and spirituality, also entering new places. And you said, also, of course medicine, government and business.

SS: Yes – business, indeed.

BH: Business is very strong. So I think that shows really, somehow, the relevance: it’s a good term for people today – if not, they wouldn’t use it. There’s something very, I think, serious and significant about it. (10:00) And I think the tendency of some scholars to dismiss it – it’s really, you know, not looking at something very interesting that’s going on around us.

SS: Yes. Yes. That might be an opportunity, some of the scholars . . . two books come to mind that have been very critical, often in a slightly polemical way about this, which is Kimberley Lau’s book: New Age Capitalism, and then, also, Jeremy Carrette and Richard King’s book: Selling Spirituality. Now, both of those books have got a similar purpose. Kimberley Lau works out quite a sophisticated account of ideology, and how spirituality is an ideology, in her book – but she’s still got this kind of criticism. In the case of Jeremy Carrette and Richard King’s book, it seems to be more about a slightly nostalgic reach back to authentic, good-old religion, as opposed to this nasty, sort-of . . .

BH: Capitalist . . .

SS: Yes. However, what I was going to say is, if it is a multi-functional term, there is one angle of it that it seems to me in which the Carrette and King critique is correct: in businesses, as we just mentioned, there can be a sense in which spirituality is a way of producing a happier work force, a more comfortable workforce, a more productive workforce. But that doesn’t seem to me to be the whole of the picture. So that was what I was saying about how it’s a multifunctional kind of discourse. It’s layered or stacked with different kinds of uses or goals.

DR: I think an important aspect of it, to take in parallel with that sort-of neoliberal critique, is the Jungian kind of psychological idea. And those aren’t separate, but you see the growth of psychological Jungian ideas in the business sphere, particularly because it’s well, you know . . . . The Marxist critique is that by treating the mental health issues that arise because of neoliberalism, then it allows neoliberalism to continue as an economic model. But of course, that’s also the foundational model of large parts of the New Age movement.

SS: Right.

DR: You know – the sense of the self, and the purpose of life being to develop the self. Which, as well, maybe points to this blurring between the idea of the spirit as something not the body, but simultaneously also the body.

SS: Yes, that reminds me a bit of Paul Heelas’ work on self-spirituality or self-religion that he was developing a while ago, where- I mean he’s been critiqued by Matthew Wood and others, for having a rather asocial model of the self – which I think is right. But nevertheless he was pointing, in some of his early work, to one of these telephone marketing companies who were working on the idea that if you were in touch with your “true whole self” when you were at work, you would get better business results in your cold-calling of people. If you were doing that, and were “present in yourself”, that would have an impact.

DR: You would have authenticity.

SS: Yes. And you would be “at cause” and not “at effect”, which is what happens if you are not in touch with yourself – you are just acted upon. So there seems to be something about being in touch with the self that is an important part of the ideology of spirituality – whether that comes through practice is another thing.

BH: I want to go back to this point of neoliberalism, because I think it’s important. I think, definitely, the recognition that there is a connection is true. I think it merges neoliberal ideology, and post-modern culture, and post-capitalistic global economics: they and spirituality all emerge at the same period, and sometimes there’s an overlap between the social compositions of the people who are involved. But I think the fact that there are similarities, and there is interconnection between, doesn’t mean that spirituality is a disguised neoliberal ideology. It can be also a response, sometimes, to neoliberalism. So, from that point of view, I think the connection is definitely there. As I said, we can look at spirituality as a kind of post-modern, new cultural formation, and New Age also, but that doesn’t mean that it identifies with other post-modern cultural formations. And, again sometimes it is. I think, on the one hand, you can show points where it strengthens neoliberal ideology, but also other groups – there are so many varieties of spiritualties and New Age – that are a response and trying to undermine it. But still, again, I’ve seen it’s something very relevant. And, you know, we live in a post-modern, late-capitalistic society. The cultural formations that we use – and I think all of us are part of them, to a certain degree – you know, they are those which are relevant to our society, and of course they are interconnected (15:00). But this nostalgia that you mentioned, I think it’s not relevant to criticise spirituality. I don’t see my role as a scholar to give marks or grade religious and spiritual phenomena, but to try to understand the function.

SS: Yes.

DR: Because of course, I mean, the churches in the early twentieth century or earlier – kind-of in the earlier economic systems with the nation state and these kind of things – there are examples of institutional religion working with the state, and working against the state, then. And there are examples of New Age and spirituality working with the state and against the state now. It’s no different. But, of course, if you’re looking at it from a nostalgic point of view, with this modern organisation of the state, and you’re looking for things that look like the church you grew up in, then maybe you are going to come to that conclusion.

SS: In terms of that counter-cultural impetus, I think Paul Heelas talks about what he most recently calls New Age Spiritualties of Life. He says something like “a gentle counter-flow” or something like that. He’s kind-of not going full on for the kind of counter-cultural stances of the ’60s, but he’s saying there is some kind of modest critique here, in the stuff he’s looking at. And sort-of connected with that, with the data for the Kendal project – that Spiritual Revolution book that Paul did with Linda Woodhead. And there they did quite a lot of valuable data – I mean, now it’s a little bit old perhaps, the early 2000s it was – but there was clearly a correlation between the folks participating in the holistic milieu in Kendal and environmental, ecological, Green values. And there was also a correlation, when asked in the various questionnaires and interviews, with left-of-centre political attitudes as well. So I go some way towards saying, here’s one small body of evidence that bears out what you’re saying, Boaz. It’s not only a question of being subsumed by neoliberal positions. There is agency here in a more political – small p . . . .

DR: But this language is also taken up wholesale amongst the sort of New Right, and the conspiracy milieu that I look at. I mean, when I was down looking at . . . . Ok, so most of the case studies I looked at were left-leaning. But certainly in the right wing – it’s a little bit blurred because we tend to focus on US data, and of course US data strongly identifies as Christian. But if you look at the right outside of the US, there’s a strong association with spirituality. And you can find, for example, Red Ice Radio podcast, on a TV show out of Sweden, started off doing very much kind of New Age and healing kind of stuff and have gradually moved over until they’re now just completely right-wing, pagan-identifying. But you can see in the space of a few years there, as they make that shift, you still have language of spirituality and “higher purpose” and all these kind of things, focus on health practices – all of these things are still there, so that discourse is not restricted to the left at all.

BH: A few years ago we had a project on the politics of the New Age. Actually, my interest in spirituality started from that project. And, again, it became very clear first of all that, in difference to the self-declaration of many spiritualist and New Agers, “We are not interested in politics”, they are involved in politics. But you can find the combination, you can find New Age practices and use of spiritual terminology in the extreme right, religious, national right in Israel and, of course – what you would more expect – in the left and Green movements, etc. So it really is applied . . . and I think, again, showing that it’s a key cultural concept that can be used by very different political and ideological agendas. And I think it’s interesting. Actually, I think the use is quite similar. It’s not that they just use it and each one gives it a completely different . . . . They integrate it in very different ideologies, but the practices themselves: you go and do some kind of violent political act in the evening, and in the morning you grow organic vegetables and do meditation practices etc., and connect with the nature around you!

SS: (Laughs) OK. Yes!

DR: And lots of food! (20:00) You know, like eating pro-biotic and vegetarian diets and all this stuff. It’s right across the board.

BH: It’s very interesting, the use of the New Age terminology to justify, for instance, violence. That’s a natural, you know, part of the . . . . But the extreme right movements will say revenge is something very basic. And because of that, we can do revenge acts. Because that’s part of going back to nature, connecting with the earth. It’s amazing to see this combination!

SS: And so that raises the question: it sounds to me as though you’re saying that spirituality, as a concept, has travelled very well in Israel for example, in non-Christian contexts. Because it’s often seemed to me that there are some kind of affinities with a kind of a post-Christian culture and a spirituality discourse. But it seems clear, even if that’s the case, that it can acculturate elsewhere quite happily. So there’s no problem with secular Jews, religious Jews, all kinds of folk picking up the term in an Israeli context?

BH: Yes. I think it would be all across the board. But I think you will find some kind of American / Western connection. Even in ultra. Because many of the ultra-Orthodox movements, many of the people, of the members, are actually returning to religion. So, actually, they’ve had that grounding or acquaintance. But it’s so available and present here, that even if you grew up in an ultra-Orthodox family you know, it’s available, the practices and terminology are there. So they are easily reached. And I believe it’s similar in, at least in Westernised and middle-class populations also in other non-Christina cultures: Turkey, Indonesia, Morocco, you will find, again, language of spiritual and definitely the New Age practices.

SS: Yes.

BH: Very interesting to look at . . .

DR: And in Asia as well. In Japan and China, particularly.

BH: Japan, definitely, yes.

DR: Yes. Which you actually mentioned something about this, Boaz, in one of the papers I read, about how this was essentially swapping a dualistic Western model for an Eastern monistic model. And I wonder if actually that would indicate that this would have quite a lot of currency in Asian countries? Because it kind of maps much better than the imported model of religion, and spirituality.

BH: Yes, I’m not sure how it goes in all this. It’s the pizza effect. You know of coming . . . receiving back Indian meditation practices after they were Westernised, and then incorporating them back. Similar things with Kabbalah for instance, with New Kabbalah and then integrated. So there is some kind of coming back, but I think I would be hesitant to say that there’s something . . . . Definitely many practices were borrowed from non-Christian cultures, but to say that they’re more open to them because of that . . . . I would put more emphasis on the globalisation. This is part of that.

DR: I haven’t made myself very clear. What I mean is that the model of talking about spirituality, rather than talking about religion and the secular, makes more sense in an Asian country where they were never things that were separate to start with.

SS: Oh I see, right, right.

DR: So if you were going to import a Western construct, then spirituality works better than religion and the secular. Does that make sense?

SS: Yes. That’s clearer, yes. But I mean, so what is it? It starts the same . . . . I mean, I’m not convinced that there is one discourse. There are several different layered and stacked discourses, but they probably share something in common. What is it they share in common? And why are these discourses so attractive? What are they doing? What kind of empowerment, or status or capital are they giving people? Do you have any developed thoughts on this, Boaz? What’s the attraction?

BH: Not today! (Laughs).

DR: (Laughs) Not right now, yes!

SS: (Laughs) But this is the million-dollar question, I think, yes.

BH: But again, I think some of the emphasis of the New Age practices and this concept spirituality are really in line with contemporary ideologies, ways of living. As I suggested, and as you just said, the strict separation between religious and secular had its role in modernity. And it seems it doesn’t have that role (now) (25:00). And people can use something new – which, again, I don’t want to say it’s a new way of going back to religion, because I think it’s something different. But, really, having a position which they don’t have to define as secular or religious, and making those borders between them, and then really giving what is called spiritual meaning for body practices, for instance, seems positive, in a positive way, regarding the body – giving it a value that wasn’t there, I think, in Christian medieval early modern culture. Maybe the globalisation tendency . . . I think of all of us, of tourism, of cultural consumption etc. – so you can pick from many different cultures, all those practices – this is something the concept of spirituality enables, which the concept of religion didn’t. You know, you couldn’t go to church and practice yoga. It was uncomfortable, I assume, in the early twentieth century! Today, you can go to church and have a yoga practice. And, exactly as you said, this is justified using the term spirituality.

DR: And I suspect, as well, that modern communications technology means that although people would have been doing heterodox practices – sometimes practices from outside but sometimes folk kind of things – the degree to which we were aware that other people were doing them was limited. You know, you’d have to know somebody pretty well to know that they were also making charms or doing healings or these kind of things. Whereas now we know that everywhere . . . It’s vernacular and there are all sorts of heterodox things going on in every Christian group. But when we didn’t have those ways of communicating, and all the knowledge was mandated from the church authorities, that wasn’t the impression you would have got. So it’s not only changed the degree to which these are available, it’s changed the fact that we now know that it’s been available and everybody does it. And it’s fine.

BH: The idea of self, for instance: it’s so central to our culture. Criticise it or not, we are not in a communal culture any more. And so the self – I think that’s a wonderful expression. And Paul has hit the nail, you know, with this “self-spirituality”. It’s not God spirituality and it’s not . . . the self is in the centre. Self-improvement, self-progress: that’s the core value of our society. I think, in a way, we’re all part of it. I think similar things happen in the university. What happens now . The whole concept of knowledge as something practical, something that improves our life. That’s the most important thing. And that’s exactly what spirituality offers people: a way of having something practical that doesn’t take too much of your time – which, again, it’s not necessarily negative.

SS: Is it a bit like having your cake and eating it? You know that phrase where you kind-of can have the best of both worlds. You can – at the personal, embodied and relational level – you can have something more than is vouchsafed by a purely secular materialist regime. But one does not have to go the whole hog. One does not have to go the whole way into a more developed, or fully blown, practice or identification.

BH: Yes, I think it’s a bit too critical for my part . . .

SS: (Laughs).

BH: Because, again, I . .

SS: Well, I mean it descriptively rather than . . .

DR: (Laughs).

BH: You want your cake and not! (Laughs).

SS: Well, that’s true!

BH: I don’t know. The difference between psychoanalysis and contemporary clinical psychology, which is treatment: I think it’s the same direction, and it’s not necessarily bad. You don’t have the time, or you don’t have the justification of, you know, digging into your past for hours on the sofa. That’s something that was ok for certain people, of course – quite limited to people in the early mid-twentieth century! Now, today, people want to go to a session that will improve their mental or psychological (wellbeing), going for three or four times, having some time. And I think that’s also what spirituality . . . . You don’t have to read the whole Hindu literature in order to do yoga! (Laughs).

DR: Yes. Well, you know, in which case that fits neoliberalism quite well! Because we’re getting to increasing productivity and minimalising work (30:00).

SS: (Laughs).

BH: Yes, that’s part of it. But it’s not necessarily the same.

SS: OK. Well in that case, what about the question of secularisation? Because in one or two of your writings you have suggested that there is some kind of push back here, or a reversing of the conditions of secularisation, or of the qualifications, shall we say, of the conditions of secularisation. But in fact what you’ve just said would be used by strong secularisation theorists to say, “Well, that’s exactly it! This is just a kind-of boost of secular conditions.”

BH: No I think secularisation and religionisation . . . . We’re speaking about secularisation, but actually the interesting term – one interesting term – is “religionisation”

SS: Religionisation.

BH: Because the assumption that there is a process of . . . . Secularisation assumes that before, there was a state of religion, of religiosity, and then secularisation came and started, you know, going forth and maybe now coming back. I see the process of secularisation working in tandem with the process of religionisation. These are two concepts that started in Western Europe in early-modern/ modern period and were applied to other cultures. It wasn’t there before – neither religion, nor secularity. And then we had this process. And I think now we have a different process. It’s not that it’s going back. It’s still in play, of course. Religionisation is looking at things and saying, “Ahh! This is a religion.” Or looking at myself and saying, “I’m religious, so I’m behaving in such and such. . . . That’s what I believe.” That’s the process of religionisation. Or secularisation – the same thing: “This is secular, so it’s supposed to behave like secular. . . . I’m secular so there are certain things that I do, and that I don’t do.” And I think that’s not relevant to many people today, who say, “No I’m not secular, I’m not religious, it’s not relevant, I’m spiritual.”

SS: Yes. Right.

BH: And then they start doing things which are really . . . and look – kind-of things like yoga and going to church sometimes, and swimming. And saying, “Wow, I have a spiritual experience now!” And all those new things. So I don’t see it as part of secularisation. It’s something basically different.

SS: So is it the case that just as people like Timothy Fitzgerald have argued that the religious and the secular are kind-of co-constitutive, so secularisation and religionisation are kind-of mutually generating each other? And what we have here is now a different kind of situation that transcends that, or has moved beyond those kinds of concerns?

BH: Yes. I think that spirituality actually corroborates and strengthens the position of Fitzgerald and McCutcheon and Talal Asad, because it shows that not only in non-Western cultures or pre-modern cultures, there was no concept of religion and secular – also in our society, Western society, they knew it. It didn’t disappear, this concept. I don’t think they will disappear. But there is a new option which is neither secular nor religion. So I think that strengthens their point that it’s not something universal.

DR: Yes. Well. Any last thoughts on the sort-of . . . the situation in the field, in our field? How do we move forward? How do we start to deal with this within Religious Studies?

SS: Good question. Well I don’t know about you, Boaz, and I know a bit about David, but teaching this material is an interesting challenge. And here, in many ways, this is a whole topic in itself. David has written an edited work on this. But we tend to still . . . . In Religious studies, or the Study of Religions, we’re very much constrained by a very hegemonic model of religion as World Religions: these big institutional blocks of things that are almost like corporate institutions that are said to have these kinds of identities. And that really does constrain how you can insert this material into the curriculum to teach to students. Because I do think as well as theorising this material, and researching it, we need to be able to try and educate the next generation of students who will come and take our place so that we can get more work done on this. I mean it’s not just an idle contemporary issue. One would say that they – whole worlds of what gets called the occult, the esoteric – have been very, very important in the last couple of hundred years at least, but are scarcely researched at all (35:00). They scarcely get the resources to work with them that, you know, Judaism, the various Christianities, the various Judaisms get. So, it’s a real question about how we can bring to people’s attention the significance of this stuff, working with such conservative paradigms of religion – which themselves are the product of the very conditions you’re describing.

DR: Religionisation!

SS: I mean, I teach a course called “New Spiritualties” and I’ve been beavering away at this course for years. I don’t know if you do any teaching in this line, about this material, where you are, Boaz?

BH: Yes. I’m in a different position, because I’m in a department of Jewish Studies. But in a way, it’s similar, because it’s also very conservative. I think not many departments of Jewish thought would . . . But, definitely, I give courses on New age Kabbalah, contemporary Kabbalah, sometimes even wider New Age ( topics) – although that’s stepping the line, because it’s not even Jewish!

All: (Laugh).

BH: But definitely, I think – and it’s good that we are doing it. When I started, I received very negative reactions from some of my colleagues who really sneered at: “You’re not doing serious scholarship! What happened Boaz? You were a serious scholar. How can you leave manuscripts and go and study . . . !” But I think, slowly – that was twenty years ago – I think our work is . . . . I think it’s changing, and people are much more in academia now, open to working, and recognising the significance of the (audio unclear) or what you’re calling spirituality or New age or religiosity.

SS: Well I do think the key there, in terms of the academic capital of the project, is to connect the debates with larger debates about religion and modernity, religion and secularisation, consumption, political ideologies, economics, all that kind of thing. And, I think, when we start to do that we find more colleagues taking us seriously, both in the field of various studies of religion, but outside of that in cultural studies and Sociology. Do you think that’s the case, David? Because you’ve always connected these things to wider processes.

DR: Yes. And partly the problem is that there also hasn’t been a lot of work on this kind of material from within the Critical Religion . . . you know, that approach. That’s tended to focus more on historical genealogy. And we’re now starting to get things like Aaron Hughes’ work on Islam, for instance. But there still needs to be a focussed project looking at the emergence of New Age spirituality and other alternative religious movements, within the critical history of the idea of religion and the category of religion. But absolutely, yes, that’s how we need to establish the importance of what we’re doing. And that will also help us to move . . . as so much of that work is done from an insider perspective, unfortunately. It’s a whole other conversation, but it’s worth mentioning. But yes, absolutely, I agree with what both of you are saying. We just need to get enough of a foothold in the academy that we can actually do this work. And I think, with hindsight, it will be clear what the importance of it was.

SS: Right.

BH: I think it’s also a question of connecting. Because I think there’s more work done than you’re aware of. Sometimes I meet someone: “Wow! You’re doing the same! I didn’t know that you were working on that!” So there’s a group working on new religiosities in Turkey – very interesting. Quite a large group. Many of them Francophones – so that maybe where there’s less connection. There’s also the question of different academic cultures. But there are people working on it in Morocco, and I think that’s fascinating. And I ‘m very happy to be here to meet you! I think those connections between scholars who are working, sometimes, in corners – that’s also very important.

DR: Because, of course, there are no institutes where we can do this work! That’s the problem!

SS: No, I think that’s right. I mean Jean-Francois Mayer, the Swiss scholar, put me onto a paper, through his Relgioscope Foundation, about new spiritualties in Azerbaijan, for example. Very interesting paper. And then as you say, there’s Morocco, there’s Turkey, but there’s also new spiritualties in sort-of Catholic contexts like Mexico, as well. So you’re probably right.

BH: South America – there’s a lot going on there.

SS: Sure. So here’s . . . It’s a question of connecting, and a question of resources to do the connecting as well, of course. Because, in my view, academia doesn’t free-float. It’s always dependent on money and institutional support.

DR: OK. Well that’s a good point to end on, I think. It’s relatively positive, but realistic! (40:00)

All: (Laugh).

DR: So – thanks to you, Boaz, and to Steve, for this very stimulating conversation. Thank you both.

BH: Thank you, David.

SS: Thank you.

Citation Info: Huss, Boaz, Steven Sutcliffe and David G. Robertson. 2018. “Spirituality”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 11 June 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 7 June 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/spirituality/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Unwitchers and Witchcraft Discourse as Social Control: In Response to Mirjam Mencej

In a recent interview with the Religious Studies Project, Mirjam Mencej, PhD, Professor of Folklore Studies and Comparative Mythology at the Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Ljubljana speaks about her ethnographic research and findings which are presented in her 2017 publication Styrian Witches in European Perspective: Ethnographic Fieldwork.

Dr Mencej’s research provides a unique perspective into cultural and social Witchcraft in the rural and isolated communities of Slovenia. She prefaces her discussion by stating a) that contemporary Witchcraft appears in many guises, b) how Witchcraft has become a commodity in modern times, and c) how, for many in the West, Witchcraft is now the trademark of radical feminists. Thankfully, Dr Mencej goes on to state how the above has nothing to do with actual Witchcraft.

Conducting ethnographic field research in isolated communities in Slovenia provides Dr Mencej and her investigators an exceptionally rich opportunity to examine the historical, anthropological, social, and cultural impact of both Witchcraft and Witchcraft discourse in a region where the commodification of Witchcraft has not taken root. Her field research allows scholars, researchers, and practitioners an alternative understanding to various forms of Witchcraft and exemplifies the power of Witchcraft discourse as a form of societal control.

The one response that Dr Mencej’s field research obtained that is truly linked to other societal assumptions of Witchcraft is that Witchcraft served as an explanation of a perceived ‘misfortune’.  This perceived ‘misfortune’ caused by Witchcraft could be personal or practical such as a physical or mental illness in the family, failed crops, a broken fence, a lame animal, etc. In these rural communities, the origins of misfortune are social—envy often being cited as the main reason for accusations of Witchcraft against neighbours within the affected community.

The field research in Slovenia demonstrates how the community formed a consensus about Witchcraft and how Witchcraft discourse was used as a tool for social conformity and control. It is commonly understood that most of the individuals accused of Witchcraft over the centuries have been predominantly women. Argumentative, intelligent, inquisitive women were often accused as Witches by their fellow community members. Widows and unmarried women were a threat to the community as their social status was unclear in a rigid patriarchal society. Without a husband to protect them from social accusations, these women had no system to defend against these often-unsubstantiated allegations. This demonstrates how Witchcraft discourse was used as a powerful tool for the control of ‘rogue’ women with dubious social positions in the community. The folklore narratives these communities embraced and perpetuated served as a behavioural control mechanism. No one wanted to be accused of practicing Witchcraft, and, therefore, women who were labelled as ‘suspect’ would alter their behaviour to escape suspicion or accusation. The difficulty remains that a source for the perceived ‘misfortune’ must be found and eradicated. Believing an outside source as the responsible catalyst for one’s misfortune, the Neighbourhood Witch or Village Witch was often identified as the scapegoat.

The exceptional findings in the field research conducted by Dr Mencej is the role of the ‘Unwitchers’ or ‘Counter-Witches’ who functioned within these remote communities. As mentioned previously, Witchcraft, or individual Witches, were often blamed for causing another’s misfortunes. Threatened with losing what little social standing these women often held in their communities, the Unwtichers were fortune tellers who could counteract the perceived ‘misfortune’ or identify the responsible Witch. Unwitchers often granted the accusing member of the community the opportunity to come face-to-face with the agent of their misfortune. And while one might conclude that the Unwitchers were the natural enemies of local Witches, this is not the case. In fact, according to Dr Mencej, Unwitchers often assisted women in these times of economic insecurity by helping them maintain their social position (status) within their own community. The Unwitchers could accomplish this by helping to transfer the blame to another (often towards an outsider).

However, Unwitchers no longer exist in the region explored by Dr Mencej’s field research. Only the stories remain. The last known member of a famous Unwitcher family of fortune tellers passed away in the 1980’s effectively ending the Unwitcher’s role in the rural Slovenian communities.

Their position has been taken over by what Dr Mencej calls ‘New Age therapists’.  In true psychological fashion, the New Age therapists redirects the blame for the perceived ‘misfortune’ from an outside force (e.g the local Village or Community Witch) to inner psychic forces—it is the ‘inner witch’ that is now to blame as the therapists help community members understand that individuals are responsible for their own misfortunes.

While the Witchcraft discourse continues in rural Slovenia, the understanding of perceived ‘misfortune’ and the ancient accusation of Witchcraft is being radically altered with the perception of the individual as responsible.  This is a major shift in the Witchcraft discourse, and Dr Mencej’s field research is a valuable resource in understanding Witchcraft as a powerful tool for both social control and change.

 

Timeless Yoga and Sinister Yogis: David Gordon White’s Brief History of Yoga

Research on the history of yoga has steadily grown throughout the past two decades, focusing primarily on developments and transformations since the height of the colonial period in India. Exemplified by scholars such as Elizabeth De Michelis, Joseph Alter and Mark Singleton, efforts have been made to trace threads of practice and philosophy from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century, illustrating how popular forms of yoga today gradually took shape. This research has been instrumental in highlighting the influence of orientalists such as Henry Thomas Colebrooke, Indian public figures such as Swami Vivekananda, and groups as diverse as the Theosophical Society, to European bodybuilding and gymnastic groups (De Michelis, 2005; Singleton, 2010). It is widely accepted within academic communities that contemporary yoga (if we can indeed speak of it in the singular) has been highly influenced, directly or indirectly, by orientalist scholarship. This is particularly evident in the ongoing popularity of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, seen as authoritative guides to the theory and method of ‘classical yoga’ – despite being largely forgotten by the fifteenth century, only gaining prominence thanks to Colebrooke’s work. Texts directly inspired by the Yoga Sutras such as Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga were instrumental in encouraging romantic narratives of yoga as a timeless, pristine tradition – and part of an apparently monolithic Hindu religion. Furthermore, these romantic orientalist ideas have proliferated within contemporary yoga, and are used to sanction and legitimate practices (Singleton, 2008).

I find it useful to approach historical studies of yoga with this romantic narrative which we are persistently confronted kept in mind. The current proliferation of studies exploring the development of contemporary yoga can be seen as a direct challenge to popular perceptions of yoga as a timeless and unified practice which are reproduced (often as a marketing ploy) in non-academic contexts. Indeed, for the sake of historical accuracy it is important to attempt to expand this somewhat simple narrative and to encourage deeper understanding of yoga’s more complex history. This becomes an equally important part of challenging romantic orientalist views of India (and other parts of the world), often used in the contemporary ‘New Age’ milieu without question. The question of whether many practitioners, whose involvement with yoga is primarily influenced by experiencing physical or emotional benefits, will be aware of this challenge, or indeed care, is to be seen.

It is from this background that I also approach David Gordon White’s work on yoga. White takes on the mammoth task of giving a broad history of yoga – from the term’s early appearances in the Rig Veda up to the present.  Although he notes points of similarity between contemporary yoga and older forms, his focus is firmly on the points of difference. By taking this as his focus, he strengthens the ongoing drive to unpack the historical developments of yoga, and helps to complicate an otherwise simplistic, linear narrative.

Unlike other studies of the history of yoga, White looks much further back in time. By delving into yoga in India’s early and medieval periods, White makes valuable additions to current scholarship and further highlights the great extent to which yoga has changed throughout the past two millennia. Perhaps the simplest way that White highlights this transformation is his exploration of the term’s semantic range. His emphasis on the martial connotations of ‘yoga’ in the Bhagavad Gita implies a sharp contrast with yoga as we know it today, and he acknowledges how this historical use of the term surprises many yoga practitioners.

The most striking difference, however, is found in White’s exploration of ‘yogi practice’. Yogi practice, for White, includes practices aiming toward the attainment of supernatural powers – which primarily entails gaining control over the bodies of others by manipulating methods of perception. As White introduces the idea of ‘sinister yogis’ (the subject of one of his books), perceived as dangerous and powerful figures due to their magical prowess, the listener is once again inclined to compare this with the stereotypical image of a contemporary yogi. White’s presentation of alchemy and certain Tantric practices can also serve a similar comparative function. In his construction of a two-sided picture of yoga (yoga practice vs. yogi practice), with an emphasis on little-known philosophies and practices, White’s work can be used as an effective counterpoint against the romantic myth of yoga as a monolithic, timeless practice.

Leading on from this, White raises the issue of how yoga can be represented differently according to social and cultural context (although he doesn’t probe these ‘culture wars’ in detail here). As such a popular global practice, representations of yoga take on a political dimension, and various parties have a vested interested in how yoga and its history are presented. As I write, International Yoga Day approaches – a day adopted by the UN on the suggestion of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who referred to yoga as ‘an invaluable gift of our ancient tradition’ (www.iyd.yoga). Even to those with minimal knowledge of Modi’s controversial Hindu nationalism, the aim of this statement is somewhat transparent. However, his description also illustrates the extent to which yoga’s history has been obscured.

Clearly, it is important that research such as White’s continues to emphasise the diverse and complex history of yoga, including practices and philosophies which do not conform to current popular understandings. However, it is equally important that such research does not pass judgement on contemporary forms of yoga. It seems that some historians of South Asian traditions (and particularly those traditions undergoing a renewed explosion of popularity such as yoga and tantra) convey a preference for historical, textual presentations of yoga – before discourses of orientalism and forces of capitalism left their imprint. Fusions of South Asian practices with ‘New Age’ philosophies (which often become commercialised and commodified) can be seen as uninformed hybrids by those with more detailed historical knowledge. As such, the risk remains that a preference for the ‘ancient’ or ‘traditional’ can be reproduced, even in the work of accomplished academics. Thankfully, White largely avoids passing judgement and allows the listener to make their own comparisons between contemporary yoga and the variety of historical forms that he presents.

References

Alter, J. Yoga in Modern India: The Body Between Science and Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press

De Michelis, E. 2005. A History of Modern Yoga: Patanjali and Western Esotericism. London, New York: Continuum

Singleton, M., 2008. ‘The Classical Reveries of Modern Yoga’. In: Singleton, M., and Byrne, J., 2008. Yoga in the Modern World: Contemporary Perspectives. Abingdon: Routledge

Singleton, M. 2010. Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press

International Yoga Day website: http://www.iyd.yoga/

UFOs, Conspiracy Theories… and Religion?

Area 51, Ancient Aliens, endemic child abuse at the BBC, Reptilians, Watergate, 9/11, renegade preachers rising from the dead, the grassy knoll, The Da Vinci Code, Hydra, climate change, the moon landings, Satanic Ritual Abuse, The X Files… the popular imagination is rife with stories of secret plans and cover-ups, agencies working behind the scenes, grand plans carried without the knowledge of the unsuspecting masses, lies, deceit, and an elect few who know ‘the truth’. Sometimes, stories which at one time seemed far-fetched receive widespread acceptance and become the hegemonically accepted norm. At others, they remain the preserve of relatively small groups of “nutters”, and become designated as “conspiracy theories” by those who have the power to do so. What might this popular discursive trope be able to tell us about contemporary Western society? How might scholars go about studying it, particularly when they themselves are frequently implicated as working against the truth by “insiders”? And what might all of this have to do with the contemporary academic study of religion?

9781474253222To discuss this tantalizing subject, we are joined today by a scholar who will be no stranger to regular listeners of the Religious Studies Project, Dr David Robertson. The interview begins with David’s own journey to this research field, before considering some basic questions such as “what is a conspiracy theory?” David then lays out the historical context of the parallel development of contemporary millennial and conspiracist discourse, and his case studies – Whitley Streiber, David Icke, David Wilcock, and their audiences. Discussion then turns to the meat of Robertson’s theoretical conclusions concerning epistemic capital, popular epistemic strategies, the UFO as a discursive object connecting two fields of discourse, power, and prophecy. The interview concludes with discussion of the relevance of this field of study to Religious Studies more broadly, and some challenging admonitions to for the discipline.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, like David Robertson’s new book, and more.

See you in the next life? Cognitive foundations of reincarnation beliefs

Human reincarnation: Same person, different body, another life. From established theological doctrines to local folk beliefs, the idea that deceased individuals may be “reborn” into the body of another can be found all over the world (White, In press). Since the writings of philosopher John Locke in the 17th century, establishing personal identity has primarily focused on memory. The interplay between memories and what constitutes a person’s identity plays an interesting role in reincarnation beliefs. For example, when juxtaposed alongside theologies that teach that the individual undergoes mental or physical changes in the process of rebirth, how can this same individual be identified in the new life if they have undergone changes (White, 2015)? In this podcast, Dr. Claire White brings the tools of cognitive science of religion (CSR) to bear on this question and several others surrounding reincarnation beliefs.  

Dr. White begins  by discussing the ongoing research at her laboratory at California State University, Northridge. She goes on to introduce the topic of reincarnation, noting that only recently has CSR paid much attention to these types of beliefs. While conceptual scaffolding surrounding the idea of reincarnation can vary widely from culture to culture, Dr. White draws on some of her recent research pointing out that many similarities exist in how individuals reason about and discern the pre-rebirth identities of the reincarnated. In closing, Dr. White shares some preliminary insights gathered from her ethnography of “past-life groups” in the western United States. Interested in why some individuals may be attracted to these groups, she suggests the groups may function as a form of psychotherapy and self-actualization for those attending.

Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts on Religion and Memory, and Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Religion. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, small dinosaur figurines, poppy seeds, and more.

Many thanks to NAASR for facilitating the recording of this interview.

References

  • White, C. (2015). Establishing Personal Identity in Reincarnation: Minds and Bodies Reconsidered. Journal Of Cognition And Culture, 15(3-4), 402-429. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/15685373-12342158
  • White, C. (In press). The Cognitive Foundations of Reincarnation. Method and Theory in the Study of Religion.

‘Religious Innovation and Religious Change in the 21st Century’ – 2015 CESNUR Conference Report

CESNUR (Centre for Studies on New Religions, Torino) Annual Conference 2015, Tallinn University, Estonia, 17-20 June. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Prof. Carole M. Cusack, Department of Studies in Religion, The University of Sydney

The 2015 CESNUR conference was held at University of Tallin, Estonia, and was organized by Dr Ringo Ringvee (The Estonian Ministry of Interior). The theme was ‘Religious Innovation and Religious Change in the 21st Century’. There were no plenary lectures, although the interesting address by Massimo Introvigne (President of CESNUR) at the conference dinner at the Von Krahl Theatre, on Friday 19 June, ‘The Sociology of Religious Movements and the Sociology of Time in Conversation’ performed something of that function. As CESNUR is an organization that welcomes members of new religions, there were ‘insider’ papers and responses from members of the Twelve Tribes, the Plymouth Brethren, and the Church of Scientology, among others.

Academic presentations included: Liselotte Frisk and Sanja Nilsson (Dalarna University), ‘Upbringing and Schooling of the Children of the Exclusive Brethren: The Swedish Perspective’; Bernard Doherty (Macquarie University), ‘Spooks and Scientologists: Secrecy, Surveillance, and Subversion in Cold War Australia, 1954-1983’; Tommy Ramstedt (Abo Akademi University), ‘Credibility, Authority, and the Paranormal: The Relation Between Science and Paranormal Claims Within the Finnish Alternative Spiritual Milieu’; Timothy Miller (University of Kansas), ‘Will the Hutterites Survive the 21st Century?’; Carole M. Cusack (University of Sydney), ‘Gurdjieff and Sufism: A Contested Relationship’; and Christopher Hartney (University of Sydney), ‘Kenja: Unique Australian NRM or Auditing Without an E-Meter?’

Tallinn, Estonia

The International Society for the Study of New Religions (ISSNR) held its third two-yearly meeting since it began in 2009 during the conference. This was a successful gathering that acknowledged the quality of the first five years of the International Journal for the Study of New Religion (Volumes 1-4 under the editorship of Carole M. Cusack and Liselotte Frisk, and Volume 5 under the current editorial team of Alex Norman and Asbjørn Dyrendal) and developed plans for the future, as the new President, Milda Ališauskienė (Vytautas Magnus University, Lithuania) was elected. The meeting thanked the outgoing President, Jean François Mayer (Religioscope Institute, Switzerland). The ISSNR sponsored sessions at CESNUR as did it at the EASR in Budapest in September 2011.

The conference was well-attended, though the absence of long-time CESNUR stalwart J. Gordon Melton (Baylor University and the Institute for the Study of American Religion) due to extreme weather conditions that presented him travelling was noted by all. At the conference’s close after lunch on Saturday 20 June, members were taken by bus to the first of a series of sacred sites in Tallin, the Song Festival Grounds (Lauluväljak). The bus then dropped the group off in Toompea, the upper town, and Ringo Ringvee guided through sites including: the Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox Cathedral (from the outside); St Mary’s Cathedral (Dome Church or Toomkirik), the oldest church in Tallinn, formerly Catholic and now Lutheran; and the fascinating Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which is a unobtrusively nested within the town walls, with a crypt filled with folk art, and a church with a distinctive iconostasis. The dedication is to the Virgin With Three Hands, and the complex also houses a crafts business, a small monastery, and the Ukrainian Cultural Centre. CESNUR 2016 will be in Seoul, Korea, from 28-30 June.

— Carole M. Cusack, University of Sydney

CSENUR 2015 online conference proceedings available HERE.

 

 

 

“For a Secret Teaching, They Sure Do Write A Lot About It” – Is There a Gurdjieff Studies or only a Gurdjieff Industry?

flash2

In David Robertson’s interview with Professor Carole Cusack of the University of Sydney and Steven Sutcliffe, Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion at the University of Edinburgh, the Religious Studies Project has curated a rich and wide-ranging discussion introducing – if David and Chris’ evident excitement during the podcast is any indication – an increasingly receptive audience of the next generation of scholars to critical approaches to Gurdjieff and the study of religions, an embarrassment of riches against which I now have the great but difficult fortune of contributing some of my own observations from the field. The interview is based on their February 2015 special issue of the Journal for the Academic Study of Religion on Gurdjieff and his followers and the book they are now writing on the subject.

As it’s not every day an ‘independent scholar’ who is invited to write about their narrow area of expertise is gifted with such an obvious self-reflexive starting point in order to begin with both disclosure and gratitude, I hope I can be forgiven quoting myself being quoted by one of the great contributors to religious studies, Carole Cusack:

“My former Ph.D. student David Pecotic who did a Ph.D. on Gurdjieff’s cosmology … used to say, the article he was living to write was ‘If Gurdjieffians are supposed to be so secretive, why the hell do they write so much?’ – and it really is true …”

This is not that article, but it is a question I hope they will address in their book. What I want to do here is to focus on the three themes raised in the interview that I think are the most bound up in whatever the answer to this question may look like – category formation/disciplinary boundaries of ‘Gurdjieff studies’; the epistemological problems/solutions of archival study of esotericism in the digital age; and the way academia is inescapably enmeshed in the ‘Gurdjieff industry’, i.e., revelations of primary sources that occur in the inevitable sectarian conflicts that arise in heterodox ‘invented traditions.’

Category formation/disciplinary boundaries – will the ‘real’ Gurdjieff please stand up?

 

While there is little disagreement as to the basic content of Gurdjieff’s spiritual teaching, there is currently no concrete proposal about the place of Gurdjieff within the broadly scientific study of religions. Various categories have been or are currently on offer; leaving aside the old saw of page102_1his soteriological mission to be able to consciously act as a different person to better ‘match’ different people. To approach in an integrated way a man that was, among other things, a composer, choreographer, author, paranormal powers, just to name a few, would require a more sustained inter-disciplinary and collaborative approach in the future, and Sutcliffe and Cusack’s current collaboration are steps in the right direction.

The epistemology of esoteric archives – the source(code) of and solution to the category problem

3As definitions and theories rely on availability of evidence, archival access and what counts as a primary source (and who gets to decide) is a consequential problem. I agree with their observations regarding basic chronology and the epistemological problems implicit in relying on practitioners for publication of and access to esoteric archives. Yet it was their brief point about the effect of the internet that resonated more for me as a researcher. An esoteric field is no longer about scarcity but abundance. Researchers increasingly have the opposite problem of managing an accelerating quantity of primary source materials. Indeed, there is a need for critical editions if only to better deal with the proliferation of online document access to which both scholars and practitioners alike find increasingly difficult to quality control I would argue that digital technologies began to turn the tide of access in 2004 when the Gurdjieff bibliographer J. Walter Driscoll moved from the print version of his standard reference to the online publication ‘Gurdjieff – A Reading Guide’. Even the more ‘orthodox’, hierarchical groups that teach Gurdjieffian principles and exercises in a formalised manner have taken to the Internet via the Gurdjieff International Review. But there are also crowdsourced domains like The Gurdjieff Internet Guide which despite being officially ‘retired’ in 2012, has 10, 000 visits a month and continues to be an online archive for even the wilder engagement.

Cusack was right to highlight the recent publication flurry of new source material on Gurdjieffian practices, something that has been a special focus of my research (akin to Jay Johnston’s interview on the ‘The Subtle Body’ and David Gordon White’s response) such as what_would_george_gurdjieff_do_swivel_usb_flash_drive_-r5321371fdba3422385fc1c395cf0e0ae_zkhjh_324ed what amounts to a ‘Gurdjieff industry.’ While it is important that institutions like Yale University Library have archived the Thomas de Hartmann Papers, Maurice Nicoll Papers, P. D. Ouspensky Memorial Collection, it also represents a lost opportunity for the reconstitution of a more critical study of Gurdjieff in the context of the digital humanities which can enable more critical cross-fertilisation if not deeper ethnographic collaboration between scholars and practitioners.

 

The industrial struggle of the magicians and unweaving the wicked Webb

There are also demographic and generational reasons why previously secreted Gurdjieffian source materials are coming online apace. As Johanna Petsche, another former Ph.D. student of Cusack’s has pointed out, dramatic changes were made by Jeanne de Salzmann after Gurdjieff’s death, when hierarchical ‘Foundation’ groups emerged that subsequently formalised Gurdjieffian principles and exercises. As Cusack noted, de Salzmann was the first Gurdjieffian and not Gurdjieff. Not all of Gurdjieff’s followers amalgamated into this network; an assortment of Gurdjieff-based groups remained outside of it. It is these ‘independent’ and ‘fringe’ groups that are experiencing the most rapid growth and reform; the more orthodox groups are literally being ‘outbred.’

It is in this context that ‘insider’ scholars like insider/outsider process — “where one stands determines what one sees and what one can know” Capps (1995: 334-5). Similar explosions of understanding have occurred in analogous new fields: Wouter Hanegraff (in a previous RSP interview) has described Western esotericism as ‘one of the biggest last undiscovered niches in the academic study of religions.’ For all the above reasons, Gurdjieff may be the next in the field to be discovered. I look forward with keen interest to any critical reflections on my own observations, as well as to Sutcliffe and Cusack’s contributions in the light of themes I hope they will be able to investigate.

References

Azize, Joseph. 2013. ‘“The Four Ideals”: A Contemplative Exercise by Gurdjieff’ Aries 13(2) 173-203.

Capps, Walter H. 1995. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. Fortress Press: Minneapolis.

Hanegraaff, Wouter. 1996. New Age Religions and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought. E.J. Brill: Leiden.

– 2006. The Brill Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism. E.J. Brill: Leiden.

Heelas, Paul. 1996. The New Age Movement: Celebrating the Self and the Sacralisation of Modernity. Blackwell: Oxford.

Pecotic, David. 2004. ‘Gurdjieff and the Fourth Way: Giving Voice to Further Alterity in the Study of Western Esotericism’ Sydney Studies in Religion, 86-120.

Partridge, Christopher (ed). 2014. The Occult World. Routledge.

Rawlinson, Andrew. 1998. Book of Enlightened Masters: Western Teachers in Eastern Traditions. Open Court.

Petsche, Johanna. 2013. ‘A Gurdjieff Genealogy: Tracing the Manifold Ways the Gurdjieff Teaching has Travelled’ International Journal for the Study of New Religions 4(1), 1-25.

Gurdjieff and the Study of Contemporary Religion

gurdjieffGeorge Ivanovich Gurdjieff was born around 1866 in Russia and came to prominence in the inter-war years in Europe and the US as a “spiritual teacher” or proto-New Age guru. As well as a complex cosmology, Gurdjieff taught that the average human being was literally asleep, and that “waking up” required a great deal of work and “conscious suffering” His work was continued by his pupils following his death in 1949, and a number of books on his teachings remain in print today. To discuss his importance to the study of religion, David Robertson speaks to two remarkable scholars, Carole Cusack of the University of Sydney, and Steven Sutcliffe of the University of Edinburgh.

We discuss Gurdjieff’s image as a “guru”; how deliberate was it, and where did he learn about the Eastern teachers he modelled himself upon? We discuss how much we should treat Gurdjieff as a sui generis “special case”, as Gurdjieffian scholars have tended to, or whether we would be better to treat him as a type, like Blavatksy, Steiner, Crowley and others. This then turns the discussion to the issues of researching figures like Gurdjieff whose legacies (and archives) are tightly controlled by their followers, and who often aren’t seen as worthy of study by the academy and publishers. We conclude with a consideration of Gurdjieff’s importance (or lack thereof) on the later New Age milieu, and popular culture more broadly.

And did Robert Fripp hire Toy Levin for King Crimson because he looks like Gurdjieff?

You may enjoy our previous interviews with Carole Cusack on “Cultural Production” and “Invented Religions”.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying books, yoga mats, plant pots, llama-shaped snacks and more.

Authors meet Critics: “New Age Spirituality”

Following from our interview on Monday with Ingvild Gilhus, today’s podcast presents an “authors meet critics” session on the new edited volume by Ingvild Gilhus and Steven Sutcliffe, New Age Spirituality: Rethinking Religion. This was recorded at the University of Edinburgh at the launch of the book, and features the editors, Steven Sutcliffe and Ingvild Gilhus, and critics Bettina Schmidt, Marion Bowman and David Robertson, and was ably hosted by Afe Adogame.

Steven Sutcliffe introduces the book, describing the plan to curate a volume which approaches empirical research into “New Age” religiosity through broader “theories of religion”. As Gilhus then suggests, our theoretical positions are impoverished if they don’t address “religion” in both classical and modern contexts.

Marion Bowman takes this up in her response, which addresses the similarity between this project and her own “vernacular religion” project. Bettina Schmidt addresses this disconnect between theories of popular and institutionalised religion from a anthropological point of view, pointing out that many phenomena have been removed from sociological view due to their perceived marginality, and because they don’t offer a clear box to be ticked in censuses. Finally, David Robertson critiques how the critique of “New Age” is positioned within academic, practitioner and popular discourses, and how it may reinforce, despite itself, the very categories it seeks to dissolve.

For anyone interested in New Age, the intersection between category formation – and the practicalities and politics of challenging them – this episode will be essential listening.

“Unruly Angels”: An Interview with Ingvild Gilhus

What is an angel, and why have they exerted such a fascination on the public imagination since antiquity up to the present day? In this interview with David Robertson (our 100th “official” podcast!), Ingvild Gilhus, a historian of religion with considerable experience in dealing with popular religion in both the ancient and modern worlds, discusses where the concept of angels comes from and how they have been variously constructed, from the white-suited messengers of the New Testament to the embodiment of the “higher self” in New Age accounts.

In particular, she explains that angels seem always to break boundaries. Neither human nor god, male nor female, whether Christian or otherwise, angels seem always to have functioned as representatives of an unruly popular religious impulse which seems to sit just below the elite constructions with which the study of religion has traditionally concerned itself.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

Oh, and stay tuned at the end for two special guest appearances!

Podcasts

Spirituality

To discuss ‘spirituality’, we are joined by Boaz Huss and Steven Sutcliffe. We discuss the genealogy of ‘spirituality’, and its contemporary significance, with particular reference to the New Age movement. The second half focuses on how spirituality may trouble the religion / secular distinction, and its implications for the critical study of religion.

‘Spirituality’ is a term with enormous currency in contemporary discourse on religion, but despite this, it remains under-theorised. Little consideration is given to its development, and most scholarly work simply dismisses ‘spirituality’ as shallow and commercialised. Boaz Huss argues that “the vehement and disparaging criticism of contemporary spirituality is stimulated by the threat that this new cultural category poses to entrenched scholarly assumptions and research practices” (2014, 58).

To discuss ‘spirituality’, we are joined by Boaz Huss and Steven Sutcliffe. We discuss the genealogy of ‘spirituality’, and its contemporary significance, with particular reference to the New Age movement. The second half focuses on how spirituality may trouble the religion / secular distinction, and its implications for the critical study of religion.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, doughnuts, wedding rings, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Spirituality

Podcast with Boaz Huss and Steven Sutcliffe (11 June 2018).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Huss and Sutcliffe – Spirituality 1.1

David Robertson (DR): Spirituality is a term with enormous currency in contemporary discourse in religion but, despite this, it remains under-theorised. Little consideration is given to its development, and most scholarly work simply dismisses it as shallow and commercialised. To discuss spirituality I’m joined today by Boaz Huss, a professor of Jewish thought at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and also by Steve Sutcliffe who is senior lecturer in Religious Studies, here at the University of Edinburgh, where we’re speaking today. So, we thought we could maybe start, then, by setting out . . . well, setting out the stall. Tell us about spirituality, and particularly the way it emerges as an identifier during the New Age and the post-war period.

Steven Sutcliffe (SS): Ok. Well I could start and say something about that. But it’s very good to have Boaz here to join in the discussion. So, welcome to Boaz.

Boaz Huss (BH): It’s good to be here.

SS: I came across spirituality, and became pretty-much convinced of its significance as a cultural category, when I was researching the so-called New Age movement. And in the work that I did on that, I came to the conclusion that there wasn’t a very strong movement that we could call New Age. There was a term New Age, which was mobilised in a whole series of networks, but, increasingly, what scholars were calling the New Age movement after the 1970s was better understood as a network of people whose preferred term was becoming spirituality, sometimes qualified by “mind-body-spirit spirituality”, and sometimes “holistic spirituality”. Often just “spirituality”. And that this kind of shift seems to have been happening particularly, I would say, since after the 1960s, or the post-war period, is important as well. But of course there’s also a complicated and lengthy genealogy of the term emerging, and a number of different groups as well. So it’s a very complex but lively cultural category about which we still know very little, I think.

DR: And what are some of the sort-of themes and motifs that we can pick out in this discourse of spirituality, and the various other terms?

SS: Well I think, I mean, Boaz will have his own ideas here. For me, I’ve been interested in how it is often a kind of signifier for a form of what we might call vitalism, in some ways. There’s something more bubbling away in social life, and beyond social life, that the old category of religion, for users, doesn’t adequately tackle. Spirituality – a bit more nebulous, a bit more amorphous, but actually does quite a good job, through that nebulosity and amorphousness, in pointing to something that people feel. You know: “There’s a something more going on here. Things have got more life to them. They’ve got more energy. There’s something else going on.” So that’s been the route which I’ve been interested in, in the term. Why people are using it to point to this feeling that there’s something more going on in life.

DR: And maybe we can turn to Boaz, then. How does this . . . ? There’s a shift there. When spirituality starts to get picked up by the New Age movement, it changes its meaning. It’s not a new term, but it takes on a new set of connotations.

BH: Yes, yes definitely. I think there is . . . . Very similar to Steven, I was very much impressed by the prominent presence of spirituality as a term in contemporary New Age movements when I was working on in Israel – contemporary Kabbalistic movements – and, actually, also amongst my friends. It’s a term that’s very much alive and very easily used by people to define themselves. Now what, for me, was striking – maybe because I’m a historian and I started my work working on evil in Judaism and religions in the early modern period – is this really significant shift of meaning in spirituality. Because spirituality is a very old term, actually. It is a Biblical term, very prominent, signifying spirit in contrast to the body, to materiality, corporeality. And it played a very important role in medieval Christian theology, in translation – also in Jewish theology. And it seemed to me that the use today is very different and, actually, I think the two main centres of the use of the term in early modern period changed (5:00). One is the juxtaposition of spirituality to corporeality and materiality, which was very central. And today people use the term spiritual applying it to corporeal, material things: yoga, sports, martial arts, healing etc. And the other thing was the detachment from religion. Because spirituality was considered the core of religion, related, part of religion, and really the core of Christianity and religion. And today, I think the term that caught my attention was “spiritual but not religious”. Which . . . I think people tend to dismiss it. Well a lot of people use it, but some scholars, at least, dismiss this notion as they’re saying it. But actually they are religious or secular. But I think we should take it very seriously that people choose to define secularity in opposition to a term that spirituality came from and that is religious.

DR: Except, yes, as well as the “spiritual but not religious”, you are seeing very recently – in the last ten years or so – the churches making a kind-of reclaiming of that. And you’ll see “spiritual AND religious” pop up. So it’s not so much that . . . . I mean, from the point of view of these religious practitioners, spirituality is still the ur-concept with religion being part of that. So it’s shifting in different ways, even in the last few years.

SS: Well it’s a very user-friendly concept, isn’t it? And it’s also a multi-functional concept, I think. So the user-friendliness is that it’s got a warmth and a vitality to it, I think, that religion doesn’t have. And religion in popular parlance has been demonised, in a sense – stereotyped as this oppressive, institutional force. You’ll often hear the term “institutional religion” which is juxtaposed to “free-floating spirituality” or something like that. So it’s a kind of attractive word for people. But it’s also multi-functional, I think. It does various things at different levels for different audiences. And I think, for the folks who might have been involved in New Age and related networks, it fulfils that function of a fairly free-wheeling, personal, networked approach and discourse. But it’s also been picked up – and this is interesting as well, I think – it’s also been picked up in sort-of Government policy, educational health circles. So we have, here in the UK – as you probably know, Boaz – we’ve got spiritual chaplains now, in NHS hospitals. We have spirituality as a kind of perennial all-encompassing term in interfaith circles. We have various think-tank’s exploring the meaning of spirituality in cultural life. And so it’s a term . . . these uses of the term are not all doing the same thing. Sometimes they’re camouflaging various positions behind them. They’re ways of putting new pawns on the chess board to advance rather concealed causes. And other times they’re much more grass-roots and naive in their use.

DR: And that reminds me of the way that interfaith is often used, with a rather ecumenical agenda behind it: “We might as well team up in order to promote religion in the public sphere.” And spirituality is another way of doing that, of course. Because if you accept that, “OK, maybe religions don’t have a place, but spirituality does.” And so, “Who shall we get to speak for spirituality? Let’s get, you know, somebody from the Church of England.”

SS: Yes. Indeed

BH: I think it shows the cultural power of this term, that it’s adopted. Now what’s interesting . . . you know the people related to churches don’t go back to, I don’t know, early spiritual practices. They adopt spirituality from its modern, unchurched use and it comes together. It enters the churches with yoga, with Tai Chi classes, with other New Age . . . . So I see that as part of, really, the language of New Age and spirituality, also entering new places. And you said, also, of course medicine, government and business.

SS: Yes – business, indeed.

BH: Business is very strong. So I think that shows really, somehow, the relevance: it’s a good term for people today – if not, they wouldn’t use it. There’s something very, I think, serious and significant about it. (10:00) And I think the tendency of some scholars to dismiss it – it’s really, you know, not looking at something very interesting that’s going on around us.

SS: Yes. Yes. That might be an opportunity, some of the scholars . . . two books come to mind that have been very critical, often in a slightly polemical way about this, which is Kimberley Lau’s book: New Age Capitalism, and then, also, Jeremy Carrette and Richard King’s book: Selling Spirituality. Now, both of those books have got a similar purpose. Kimberley Lau works out quite a sophisticated account of ideology, and how spirituality is an ideology, in her book – but she’s still got this kind of criticism. In the case of Jeremy Carrette and Richard King’s book, it seems to be more about a slightly nostalgic reach back to authentic, good-old religion, as opposed to this nasty, sort-of . . .

BH: Capitalist . . .

SS: Yes. However, what I was going to say is, if it is a multi-functional term, there is one angle of it that it seems to me in which the Carrette and King critique is correct: in businesses, as we just mentioned, there can be a sense in which spirituality is a way of producing a happier work force, a more comfortable workforce, a more productive workforce. But that doesn’t seem to me to be the whole of the picture. So that was what I was saying about how it’s a multifunctional kind of discourse. It’s layered or stacked with different kinds of uses or goals.

DR: I think an important aspect of it, to take in parallel with that sort-of neoliberal critique, is the Jungian kind of psychological idea. And those aren’t separate, but you see the growth of psychological Jungian ideas in the business sphere, particularly because it’s well, you know . . . . The Marxist critique is that by treating the mental health issues that arise because of neoliberalism, then it allows neoliberalism to continue as an economic model. But of course, that’s also the foundational model of large parts of the New Age movement.

SS: Right.

DR: You know – the sense of the self, and the purpose of life being to develop the self. Which, as well, maybe points to this blurring between the idea of the spirit as something not the body, but simultaneously also the body.

SS: Yes, that reminds me a bit of Paul Heelas’ work on self-spirituality or self-religion that he was developing a while ago, where- I mean he’s been critiqued by Matthew Wood and others, for having a rather asocial model of the self – which I think is right. But nevertheless he was pointing, in some of his early work, to one of these telephone marketing companies who were working on the idea that if you were in touch with your “true whole self” when you were at work, you would get better business results in your cold-calling of people. If you were doing that, and were “present in yourself”, that would have an impact.

DR: You would have authenticity.

SS: Yes. And you would be “at cause” and not “at effect”, which is what happens if you are not in touch with yourself – you are just acted upon. So there seems to be something about being in touch with the self that is an important part of the ideology of spirituality – whether that comes through practice is another thing.

BH: I want to go back to this point of neoliberalism, because I think it’s important. I think, definitely, the recognition that there is a connection is true. I think it merges neoliberal ideology, and post-modern culture, and post-capitalistic global economics: they and spirituality all emerge at the same period, and sometimes there’s an overlap between the social compositions of the people who are involved. But I think the fact that there are similarities, and there is interconnection between, doesn’t mean that spirituality is a disguised neoliberal ideology. It can be also a response, sometimes, to neoliberalism. So, from that point of view, I think the connection is definitely there. As I said, we can look at spirituality as a kind of post-modern, new cultural formation, and New Age also, but that doesn’t mean that it identifies with other post-modern cultural formations. And, again sometimes it is. I think, on the one hand, you can show points where it strengthens neoliberal ideology, but also other groups – there are so many varieties of spiritualties and New Age – that are a response and trying to undermine it. But still, again, I’ve seen it’s something very relevant. And, you know, we live in a post-modern, late-capitalistic society. The cultural formations that we use – and I think all of us are part of them, to a certain degree – you know, they are those which are relevant to our society, and of course they are interconnected (15:00). But this nostalgia that you mentioned, I think it’s not relevant to criticise spirituality. I don’t see my role as a scholar to give marks or grade religious and spiritual phenomena, but to try to understand the function.

SS: Yes.

DR: Because of course, I mean, the churches in the early twentieth century or earlier – kind-of in the earlier economic systems with the nation state and these kind of things – there are examples of institutional religion working with the state, and working against the state, then. And there are examples of New Age and spirituality working with the state and against the state now. It’s no different. But, of course, if you’re looking at it from a nostalgic point of view, with this modern organisation of the state, and you’re looking for things that look like the church you grew up in, then maybe you are going to come to that conclusion.

SS: In terms of that counter-cultural impetus, I think Paul Heelas talks about what he most recently calls New Age Spiritualties of Life. He says something like “a gentle counter-flow” or something like that. He’s kind-of not going full on for the kind of counter-cultural stances of the ’60s, but he’s saying there is some kind of modest critique here, in the stuff he’s looking at. And sort-of connected with that, with the data for the Kendal project – that Spiritual Revolution book that Paul did with Linda Woodhead. And there they did quite a lot of valuable data – I mean, now it’s a little bit old perhaps, the early 2000s it was – but there was clearly a correlation between the folks participating in the holistic milieu in Kendal and environmental, ecological, Green values. And there was also a correlation, when asked in the various questionnaires and interviews, with left-of-centre political attitudes as well. So I go some way towards saying, here’s one small body of evidence that bears out what you’re saying, Boaz. It’s not only a question of being subsumed by neoliberal positions. There is agency here in a more political – small p . . . .

DR: But this language is also taken up wholesale amongst the sort of New Right, and the conspiracy milieu that I look at. I mean, when I was down looking at . . . . Ok, so most of the case studies I looked at were left-leaning. But certainly in the right wing – it’s a little bit blurred because we tend to focus on US data, and of course US data strongly identifies as Christian. But if you look at the right outside of the US, there’s a strong association with spirituality. And you can find, for example, Red Ice Radio podcast, on a TV show out of Sweden, started off doing very much kind of New Age and healing kind of stuff and have gradually moved over until they’re now just completely right-wing, pagan-identifying. But you can see in the space of a few years there, as they make that shift, you still have language of spirituality and “higher purpose” and all these kind of things, focus on health practices – all of these things are still there, so that discourse is not restricted to the left at all.

BH: A few years ago we had a project on the politics of the New Age. Actually, my interest in spirituality started from that project. And, again, it became very clear first of all that, in difference to the self-declaration of many spiritualist and New Agers, “We are not interested in politics”, they are involved in politics. But you can find the combination, you can find New Age practices and use of spiritual terminology in the extreme right, religious, national right in Israel and, of course – what you would more expect – in the left and Green movements, etc. So it really is applied . . . and I think, again, showing that it’s a key cultural concept that can be used by very different political and ideological agendas. And I think it’s interesting. Actually, I think the use is quite similar. It’s not that they just use it and each one gives it a completely different . . . . They integrate it in very different ideologies, but the practices themselves: you go and do some kind of violent political act in the evening, and in the morning you grow organic vegetables and do meditation practices etc., and connect with the nature around you!

SS: (Laughs) OK. Yes!

DR: And lots of food! (20:00) You know, like eating pro-biotic and vegetarian diets and all this stuff. It’s right across the board.

BH: It’s very interesting, the use of the New Age terminology to justify, for instance, violence. That’s a natural, you know, part of the . . . . But the extreme right movements will say revenge is something very basic. And because of that, we can do revenge acts. Because that’s part of going back to nature, connecting with the earth. It’s amazing to see this combination!

SS: And so that raises the question: it sounds to me as though you’re saying that spirituality, as a concept, has travelled very well in Israel for example, in non-Christian contexts. Because it’s often seemed to me that there are some kind of affinities with a kind of a post-Christian culture and a spirituality discourse. But it seems clear, even if that’s the case, that it can acculturate elsewhere quite happily. So there’s no problem with secular Jews, religious Jews, all kinds of folk picking up the term in an Israeli context?

BH: Yes. I think it would be all across the board. But I think you will find some kind of American / Western connection. Even in ultra. Because many of the ultra-Orthodox movements, many of the people, of the members, are actually returning to religion. So, actually, they’ve had that grounding or acquaintance. But it’s so available and present here, that even if you grew up in an ultra-Orthodox family you know, it’s available, the practices and terminology are there. So they are easily reached. And I believe it’s similar in, at least in Westernised and middle-class populations also in other non-Christina cultures: Turkey, Indonesia, Morocco, you will find, again, language of spiritual and definitely the New Age practices.

SS: Yes.

BH: Very interesting to look at . . .

DR: And in Asia as well. In Japan and China, particularly.

BH: Japan, definitely, yes.

DR: Yes. Which you actually mentioned something about this, Boaz, in one of the papers I read, about how this was essentially swapping a dualistic Western model for an Eastern monistic model. And I wonder if actually that would indicate that this would have quite a lot of currency in Asian countries? Because it kind of maps much better than the imported model of religion, and spirituality.

BH: Yes, I’m not sure how it goes in all this. It’s the pizza effect. You know of coming . . . receiving back Indian meditation practices after they were Westernised, and then incorporating them back. Similar things with Kabbalah for instance, with New Kabbalah and then integrated. So there is some kind of coming back, but I think I would be hesitant to say that there’s something . . . . Definitely many practices were borrowed from non-Christian cultures, but to say that they’re more open to them because of that . . . . I would put more emphasis on the globalisation. This is part of that.

DR: I haven’t made myself very clear. What I mean is that the model of talking about spirituality, rather than talking about religion and the secular, makes more sense in an Asian country where they were never things that were separate to start with.

SS: Oh I see, right, right.

DR: So if you were going to import a Western construct, then spirituality works better than religion and the secular. Does that make sense?

SS: Yes. That’s clearer, yes. But I mean, so what is it? It starts the same . . . . I mean, I’m not convinced that there is one discourse. There are several different layered and stacked discourses, but they probably share something in common. What is it they share in common? And why are these discourses so attractive? What are they doing? What kind of empowerment, or status or capital are they giving people? Do you have any developed thoughts on this, Boaz? What’s the attraction?

BH: Not today! (Laughs).

DR: (Laughs) Not right now, yes!

SS: (Laughs) But this is the million-dollar question, I think, yes.

BH: But again, I think some of the emphasis of the New Age practices and this concept spirituality are really in line with contemporary ideologies, ways of living. As I suggested, and as you just said, the strict separation between religious and secular had its role in modernity. And it seems it doesn’t have that role (now) (25:00). And people can use something new – which, again, I don’t want to say it’s a new way of going back to religion, because I think it’s something different. But, really, having a position which they don’t have to define as secular or religious, and making those borders between them, and then really giving what is called spiritual meaning for body practices, for instance, seems positive, in a positive way, regarding the body – giving it a value that wasn’t there, I think, in Christian medieval early modern culture. Maybe the globalisation tendency . . . I think of all of us, of tourism, of cultural consumption etc. – so you can pick from many different cultures, all those practices – this is something the concept of spirituality enables, which the concept of religion didn’t. You know, you couldn’t go to church and practice yoga. It was uncomfortable, I assume, in the early twentieth century! Today, you can go to church and have a yoga practice. And, exactly as you said, this is justified using the term spirituality.

DR: And I suspect, as well, that modern communications technology means that although people would have been doing heterodox practices – sometimes practices from outside but sometimes folk kind of things – the degree to which we were aware that other people were doing them was limited. You know, you’d have to know somebody pretty well to know that they were also making charms or doing healings or these kind of things. Whereas now we know that everywhere . . . It’s vernacular and there are all sorts of heterodox things going on in every Christian group. But when we didn’t have those ways of communicating, and all the knowledge was mandated from the church authorities, that wasn’t the impression you would have got. So it’s not only changed the degree to which these are available, it’s changed the fact that we now know that it’s been available and everybody does it. And it’s fine.

BH: The idea of self, for instance: it’s so central to our culture. Criticise it or not, we are not in a communal culture any more. And so the self – I think that’s a wonderful expression. And Paul has hit the nail, you know, with this “self-spirituality”. It’s not God spirituality and it’s not . . . the self is in the centre. Self-improvement, self-progress: that’s the core value of our society. I think, in a way, we’re all part of it. I think similar things happen in the university. What happens now . The whole concept of knowledge as something practical, something that improves our life. That’s the most important thing. And that’s exactly what spirituality offers people: a way of having something practical that doesn’t take too much of your time – which, again, it’s not necessarily negative.

SS: Is it a bit like having your cake and eating it? You know that phrase where you kind-of can have the best of both worlds. You can – at the personal, embodied and relational level – you can have something more than is vouchsafed by a purely secular materialist regime. But one does not have to go the whole hog. One does not have to go the whole way into a more developed, or fully blown, practice or identification.

BH: Yes, I think it’s a bit too critical for my part . . .

SS: (Laughs).

BH: Because, again, I . .

SS: Well, I mean it descriptively rather than . . .

DR: (Laughs).

BH: You want your cake and not! (Laughs).

SS: Well, that’s true!

BH: I don’t know. The difference between psychoanalysis and contemporary clinical psychology, which is treatment: I think it’s the same direction, and it’s not necessarily bad. You don’t have the time, or you don’t have the justification of, you know, digging into your past for hours on the sofa. That’s something that was ok for certain people, of course – quite limited to people in the early mid-twentieth century! Now, today, people want to go to a session that will improve their mental or psychological (wellbeing), going for three or four times, having some time. And I think that’s also what spirituality . . . . You don’t have to read the whole Hindu literature in order to do yoga! (Laughs).

DR: Yes. Well, you know, in which case that fits neoliberalism quite well! Because we’re getting to increasing productivity and minimalising work (30:00).

SS: (Laughs).

BH: Yes, that’s part of it. But it’s not necessarily the same.

SS: OK. Well in that case, what about the question of secularisation? Because in one or two of your writings you have suggested that there is some kind of push back here, or a reversing of the conditions of secularisation, or of the qualifications, shall we say, of the conditions of secularisation. But in fact what you’ve just said would be used by strong secularisation theorists to say, “Well, that’s exactly it! This is just a kind-of boost of secular conditions.”

BH: No I think secularisation and religionisation . . . . We’re speaking about secularisation, but actually the interesting term – one interesting term – is “religionisation”

SS: Religionisation.

BH: Because the assumption that there is a process of . . . . Secularisation assumes that before, there was a state of religion, of religiosity, and then secularisation came and started, you know, going forth and maybe now coming back. I see the process of secularisation working in tandem with the process of religionisation. These are two concepts that started in Western Europe in early-modern/ modern period and were applied to other cultures. It wasn’t there before – neither religion, nor secularity. And then we had this process. And I think now we have a different process. It’s not that it’s going back. It’s still in play, of course. Religionisation is looking at things and saying, “Ahh! This is a religion.” Or looking at myself and saying, “I’m religious, so I’m behaving in such and such. . . . That’s what I believe.” That’s the process of religionisation. Or secularisation – the same thing: “This is secular, so it’s supposed to behave like secular. . . . I’m secular so there are certain things that I do, and that I don’t do.” And I think that’s not relevant to many people today, who say, “No I’m not secular, I’m not religious, it’s not relevant, I’m spiritual.”

SS: Yes. Right.

BH: And then they start doing things which are really . . . and look – kind-of things like yoga and going to church sometimes, and swimming. And saying, “Wow, I have a spiritual experience now!” And all those new things. So I don’t see it as part of secularisation. It’s something basically different.

SS: So is it the case that just as people like Timothy Fitzgerald have argued that the religious and the secular are kind-of co-constitutive, so secularisation and religionisation are kind-of mutually generating each other? And what we have here is now a different kind of situation that transcends that, or has moved beyond those kinds of concerns?

BH: Yes. I think that spirituality actually corroborates and strengthens the position of Fitzgerald and McCutcheon and Talal Asad, because it shows that not only in non-Western cultures or pre-modern cultures, there was no concept of religion and secular – also in our society, Western society, they knew it. It didn’t disappear, this concept. I don’t think they will disappear. But there is a new option which is neither secular nor religion. So I think that strengthens their point that it’s not something universal.

DR: Yes. Well. Any last thoughts on the sort-of . . . the situation in the field, in our field? How do we move forward? How do we start to deal with this within Religious Studies?

SS: Good question. Well I don’t know about you, Boaz, and I know a bit about David, but teaching this material is an interesting challenge. And here, in many ways, this is a whole topic in itself. David has written an edited work on this. But we tend to still . . . . In Religious studies, or the Study of Religions, we’re very much constrained by a very hegemonic model of religion as World Religions: these big institutional blocks of things that are almost like corporate institutions that are said to have these kinds of identities. And that really does constrain how you can insert this material into the curriculum to teach to students. Because I do think as well as theorising this material, and researching it, we need to be able to try and educate the next generation of students who will come and take our place so that we can get more work done on this. I mean it’s not just an idle contemporary issue. One would say that they – whole worlds of what gets called the occult, the esoteric – have been very, very important in the last couple of hundred years at least, but are scarcely researched at all (35:00). They scarcely get the resources to work with them that, you know, Judaism, the various Christianities, the various Judaisms get. So, it’s a real question about how we can bring to people’s attention the significance of this stuff, working with such conservative paradigms of religion – which themselves are the product of the very conditions you’re describing.

DR: Religionisation!

SS: I mean, I teach a course called “New Spiritualties” and I’ve been beavering away at this course for years. I don’t know if you do any teaching in this line, about this material, where you are, Boaz?

BH: Yes. I’m in a different position, because I’m in a department of Jewish Studies. But in a way, it’s similar, because it’s also very conservative. I think not many departments of Jewish thought would . . . But, definitely, I give courses on New age Kabbalah, contemporary Kabbalah, sometimes even wider New Age ( topics) – although that’s stepping the line, because it’s not even Jewish!

All: (Laugh).

BH: But definitely, I think – and it’s good that we are doing it. When I started, I received very negative reactions from some of my colleagues who really sneered at: “You’re not doing serious scholarship! What happened Boaz? You were a serious scholar. How can you leave manuscripts and go and study . . . !” But I think, slowly – that was twenty years ago – I think our work is . . . . I think it’s changing, and people are much more in academia now, open to working, and recognising the significance of the (audio unclear) or what you’re calling spirituality or New age or religiosity.

SS: Well I do think the key there, in terms of the academic capital of the project, is to connect the debates with larger debates about religion and modernity, religion and secularisation, consumption, political ideologies, economics, all that kind of thing. And, I think, when we start to do that we find more colleagues taking us seriously, both in the field of various studies of religion, but outside of that in cultural studies and Sociology. Do you think that’s the case, David? Because you’ve always connected these things to wider processes.

DR: Yes. And partly the problem is that there also hasn’t been a lot of work on this kind of material from within the Critical Religion . . . you know, that approach. That’s tended to focus more on historical genealogy. And we’re now starting to get things like Aaron Hughes’ work on Islam, for instance. But there still needs to be a focussed project looking at the emergence of New Age spirituality and other alternative religious movements, within the critical history of the idea of religion and the category of religion. But absolutely, yes, that’s how we need to establish the importance of what we’re doing. And that will also help us to move . . . as so much of that work is done from an insider perspective, unfortunately. It’s a whole other conversation, but it’s worth mentioning. But yes, absolutely, I agree with what both of you are saying. We just need to get enough of a foothold in the academy that we can actually do this work. And I think, with hindsight, it will be clear what the importance of it was.

SS: Right.

BH: I think it’s also a question of connecting. Because I think there’s more work done than you’re aware of. Sometimes I meet someone: “Wow! You’re doing the same! I didn’t know that you were working on that!” So there’s a group working on new religiosities in Turkey – very interesting. Quite a large group. Many of them Francophones – so that maybe where there’s less connection. There’s also the question of different academic cultures. But there are people working on it in Morocco, and I think that’s fascinating. And I ‘m very happy to be here to meet you! I think those connections between scholars who are working, sometimes, in corners – that’s also very important.

DR: Because, of course, there are no institutes where we can do this work! That’s the problem!

SS: No, I think that’s right. I mean Jean-Francois Mayer, the Swiss scholar, put me onto a paper, through his Relgioscope Foundation, about new spiritualties in Azerbaijan, for example. Very interesting paper. And then as you say, there’s Morocco, there’s Turkey, but there’s also new spiritualties in sort-of Catholic contexts like Mexico, as well. So you’re probably right.

BH: South America – there’s a lot going on there.

SS: Sure. So here’s . . . It’s a question of connecting, and a question of resources to do the connecting as well, of course. Because, in my view, academia doesn’t free-float. It’s always dependent on money and institutional support.

DR: OK. Well that’s a good point to end on, I think. It’s relatively positive, but realistic! (40:00)

All: (Laugh).

DR: So – thanks to you, Boaz, and to Steve, for this very stimulating conversation. Thank you both.

BH: Thank you, David.

SS: Thank you.

Citation Info: Huss, Boaz, Steven Sutcliffe and David G. Robertson. 2018. “Spirituality”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 11 June 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 7 June 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/spirituality/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Unwitchers and Witchcraft Discourse as Social Control: In Response to Mirjam Mencej

In a recent interview with the Religious Studies Project, Mirjam Mencej, PhD, Professor of Folklore Studies and Comparative Mythology at the Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Ljubljana speaks about her ethnographic research and findings which are presented in her 2017 publication Styrian Witches in European Perspective: Ethnographic Fieldwork.

Dr Mencej’s research provides a unique perspective into cultural and social Witchcraft in the rural and isolated communities of Slovenia. She prefaces her discussion by stating a) that contemporary Witchcraft appears in many guises, b) how Witchcraft has become a commodity in modern times, and c) how, for many in the West, Witchcraft is now the trademark of radical feminists. Thankfully, Dr Mencej goes on to state how the above has nothing to do with actual Witchcraft.

Conducting ethnographic field research in isolated communities in Slovenia provides Dr Mencej and her investigators an exceptionally rich opportunity to examine the historical, anthropological, social, and cultural impact of both Witchcraft and Witchcraft discourse in a region where the commodification of Witchcraft has not taken root. Her field research allows scholars, researchers, and practitioners an alternative understanding to various forms of Witchcraft and exemplifies the power of Witchcraft discourse as a form of societal control.

The one response that Dr Mencej’s field research obtained that is truly linked to other societal assumptions of Witchcraft is that Witchcraft served as an explanation of a perceived ‘misfortune’.  This perceived ‘misfortune’ caused by Witchcraft could be personal or practical such as a physical or mental illness in the family, failed crops, a broken fence, a lame animal, etc. In these rural communities, the origins of misfortune are social—envy often being cited as the main reason for accusations of Witchcraft against neighbours within the affected community.

The field research in Slovenia demonstrates how the community formed a consensus about Witchcraft and how Witchcraft discourse was used as a tool for social conformity and control. It is commonly understood that most of the individuals accused of Witchcraft over the centuries have been predominantly women. Argumentative, intelligent, inquisitive women were often accused as Witches by their fellow community members. Widows and unmarried women were a threat to the community as their social status was unclear in a rigid patriarchal society. Without a husband to protect them from social accusations, these women had no system to defend against these often-unsubstantiated allegations. This demonstrates how Witchcraft discourse was used as a powerful tool for the control of ‘rogue’ women with dubious social positions in the community. The folklore narratives these communities embraced and perpetuated served as a behavioural control mechanism. No one wanted to be accused of practicing Witchcraft, and, therefore, women who were labelled as ‘suspect’ would alter their behaviour to escape suspicion or accusation. The difficulty remains that a source for the perceived ‘misfortune’ must be found and eradicated. Believing an outside source as the responsible catalyst for one’s misfortune, the Neighbourhood Witch or Village Witch was often identified as the scapegoat.

The exceptional findings in the field research conducted by Dr Mencej is the role of the ‘Unwitchers’ or ‘Counter-Witches’ who functioned within these remote communities. As mentioned previously, Witchcraft, or individual Witches, were often blamed for causing another’s misfortunes. Threatened with losing what little social standing these women often held in their communities, the Unwtichers were fortune tellers who could counteract the perceived ‘misfortune’ or identify the responsible Witch. Unwitchers often granted the accusing member of the community the opportunity to come face-to-face with the agent of their misfortune. And while one might conclude that the Unwitchers were the natural enemies of local Witches, this is not the case. In fact, according to Dr Mencej, Unwitchers often assisted women in these times of economic insecurity by helping them maintain their social position (status) within their own community. The Unwitchers could accomplish this by helping to transfer the blame to another (often towards an outsider).

However, Unwitchers no longer exist in the region explored by Dr Mencej’s field research. Only the stories remain. The last known member of a famous Unwitcher family of fortune tellers passed away in the 1980’s effectively ending the Unwitcher’s role in the rural Slovenian communities.

Their position has been taken over by what Dr Mencej calls ‘New Age therapists’.  In true psychological fashion, the New Age therapists redirects the blame for the perceived ‘misfortune’ from an outside force (e.g the local Village or Community Witch) to inner psychic forces—it is the ‘inner witch’ that is now to blame as the therapists help community members understand that individuals are responsible for their own misfortunes.

While the Witchcraft discourse continues in rural Slovenia, the understanding of perceived ‘misfortune’ and the ancient accusation of Witchcraft is being radically altered with the perception of the individual as responsible.  This is a major shift in the Witchcraft discourse, and Dr Mencej’s field research is a valuable resource in understanding Witchcraft as a powerful tool for both social control and change.

 

Timeless Yoga and Sinister Yogis: David Gordon White’s Brief History of Yoga

Research on the history of yoga has steadily grown throughout the past two decades, focusing primarily on developments and transformations since the height of the colonial period in India. Exemplified by scholars such as Elizabeth De Michelis, Joseph Alter and Mark Singleton, efforts have been made to trace threads of practice and philosophy from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century, illustrating how popular forms of yoga today gradually took shape. This research has been instrumental in highlighting the influence of orientalists such as Henry Thomas Colebrooke, Indian public figures such as Swami Vivekananda, and groups as diverse as the Theosophical Society, to European bodybuilding and gymnastic groups (De Michelis, 2005; Singleton, 2010). It is widely accepted within academic communities that contemporary yoga (if we can indeed speak of it in the singular) has been highly influenced, directly or indirectly, by orientalist scholarship. This is particularly evident in the ongoing popularity of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, seen as authoritative guides to the theory and method of ‘classical yoga’ – despite being largely forgotten by the fifteenth century, only gaining prominence thanks to Colebrooke’s work. Texts directly inspired by the Yoga Sutras such as Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga were instrumental in encouraging romantic narratives of yoga as a timeless, pristine tradition – and part of an apparently monolithic Hindu religion. Furthermore, these romantic orientalist ideas have proliferated within contemporary yoga, and are used to sanction and legitimate practices (Singleton, 2008).

I find it useful to approach historical studies of yoga with this romantic narrative which we are persistently confronted kept in mind. The current proliferation of studies exploring the development of contemporary yoga can be seen as a direct challenge to popular perceptions of yoga as a timeless and unified practice which are reproduced (often as a marketing ploy) in non-academic contexts. Indeed, for the sake of historical accuracy it is important to attempt to expand this somewhat simple narrative and to encourage deeper understanding of yoga’s more complex history. This becomes an equally important part of challenging romantic orientalist views of India (and other parts of the world), often used in the contemporary ‘New Age’ milieu without question. The question of whether many practitioners, whose involvement with yoga is primarily influenced by experiencing physical or emotional benefits, will be aware of this challenge, or indeed care, is to be seen.

It is from this background that I also approach David Gordon White’s work on yoga. White takes on the mammoth task of giving a broad history of yoga – from the term’s early appearances in the Rig Veda up to the present.  Although he notes points of similarity between contemporary yoga and older forms, his focus is firmly on the points of difference. By taking this as his focus, he strengthens the ongoing drive to unpack the historical developments of yoga, and helps to complicate an otherwise simplistic, linear narrative.

Unlike other studies of the history of yoga, White looks much further back in time. By delving into yoga in India’s early and medieval periods, White makes valuable additions to current scholarship and further highlights the great extent to which yoga has changed throughout the past two millennia. Perhaps the simplest way that White highlights this transformation is his exploration of the term’s semantic range. His emphasis on the martial connotations of ‘yoga’ in the Bhagavad Gita implies a sharp contrast with yoga as we know it today, and he acknowledges how this historical use of the term surprises many yoga practitioners.

The most striking difference, however, is found in White’s exploration of ‘yogi practice’. Yogi practice, for White, includes practices aiming toward the attainment of supernatural powers – which primarily entails gaining control over the bodies of others by manipulating methods of perception. As White introduces the idea of ‘sinister yogis’ (the subject of one of his books), perceived as dangerous and powerful figures due to their magical prowess, the listener is once again inclined to compare this with the stereotypical image of a contemporary yogi. White’s presentation of alchemy and certain Tantric practices can also serve a similar comparative function. In his construction of a two-sided picture of yoga (yoga practice vs. yogi practice), with an emphasis on little-known philosophies and practices, White’s work can be used as an effective counterpoint against the romantic myth of yoga as a monolithic, timeless practice.

Leading on from this, White raises the issue of how yoga can be represented differently according to social and cultural context (although he doesn’t probe these ‘culture wars’ in detail here). As such a popular global practice, representations of yoga take on a political dimension, and various parties have a vested interested in how yoga and its history are presented. As I write, International Yoga Day approaches – a day adopted by the UN on the suggestion of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who referred to yoga as ‘an invaluable gift of our ancient tradition’ (www.iyd.yoga). Even to those with minimal knowledge of Modi’s controversial Hindu nationalism, the aim of this statement is somewhat transparent. However, his description also illustrates the extent to which yoga’s history has been obscured.

Clearly, it is important that research such as White’s continues to emphasise the diverse and complex history of yoga, including practices and philosophies which do not conform to current popular understandings. However, it is equally important that such research does not pass judgement on contemporary forms of yoga. It seems that some historians of South Asian traditions (and particularly those traditions undergoing a renewed explosion of popularity such as yoga and tantra) convey a preference for historical, textual presentations of yoga – before discourses of orientalism and forces of capitalism left their imprint. Fusions of South Asian practices with ‘New Age’ philosophies (which often become commercialised and commodified) can be seen as uninformed hybrids by those with more detailed historical knowledge. As such, the risk remains that a preference for the ‘ancient’ or ‘traditional’ can be reproduced, even in the work of accomplished academics. Thankfully, White largely avoids passing judgement and allows the listener to make their own comparisons between contemporary yoga and the variety of historical forms that he presents.

References

Alter, J. Yoga in Modern India: The Body Between Science and Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press

De Michelis, E. 2005. A History of Modern Yoga: Patanjali and Western Esotericism. London, New York: Continuum

Singleton, M., 2008. ‘The Classical Reveries of Modern Yoga’. In: Singleton, M., and Byrne, J., 2008. Yoga in the Modern World: Contemporary Perspectives. Abingdon: Routledge

Singleton, M. 2010. Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press

International Yoga Day website: http://www.iyd.yoga/

UFOs, Conspiracy Theories… and Religion?

Area 51, Ancient Aliens, endemic child abuse at the BBC, Reptilians, Watergate, 9/11, renegade preachers rising from the dead, the grassy knoll, The Da Vinci Code, Hydra, climate change, the moon landings, Satanic Ritual Abuse, The X Files… the popular imagination is rife with stories of secret plans and cover-ups, agencies working behind the scenes, grand plans carried without the knowledge of the unsuspecting masses, lies, deceit, and an elect few who know ‘the truth’. Sometimes, stories which at one time seemed far-fetched receive widespread acceptance and become the hegemonically accepted norm. At others, they remain the preserve of relatively small groups of “nutters”, and become designated as “conspiracy theories” by those who have the power to do so. What might this popular discursive trope be able to tell us about contemporary Western society? How might scholars go about studying it, particularly when they themselves are frequently implicated as working against the truth by “insiders”? And what might all of this have to do with the contemporary academic study of religion?

9781474253222To discuss this tantalizing subject, we are joined today by a scholar who will be no stranger to regular listeners of the Religious Studies Project, Dr David Robertson. The interview begins with David’s own journey to this research field, before considering some basic questions such as “what is a conspiracy theory?” David then lays out the historical context of the parallel development of contemporary millennial and conspiracist discourse, and his case studies – Whitley Streiber, David Icke, David Wilcock, and their audiences. Discussion then turns to the meat of Robertson’s theoretical conclusions concerning epistemic capital, popular epistemic strategies, the UFO as a discursive object connecting two fields of discourse, power, and prophecy. The interview concludes with discussion of the relevance of this field of study to Religious Studies more broadly, and some challenging admonitions to for the discipline.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, like David Robertson’s new book, and more.

See you in the next life? Cognitive foundations of reincarnation beliefs

Human reincarnation: Same person, different body, another life. From established theological doctrines to local folk beliefs, the idea that deceased individuals may be “reborn” into the body of another can be found all over the world (White, In press). Since the writings of philosopher John Locke in the 17th century, establishing personal identity has primarily focused on memory. The interplay between memories and what constitutes a person’s identity plays an interesting role in reincarnation beliefs. For example, when juxtaposed alongside theologies that teach that the individual undergoes mental or physical changes in the process of rebirth, how can this same individual be identified in the new life if they have undergone changes (White, 2015)? In this podcast, Dr. Claire White brings the tools of cognitive science of religion (CSR) to bear on this question and several others surrounding reincarnation beliefs.  

Dr. White begins  by discussing the ongoing research at her laboratory at California State University, Northridge. She goes on to introduce the topic of reincarnation, noting that only recently has CSR paid much attention to these types of beliefs. While conceptual scaffolding surrounding the idea of reincarnation can vary widely from culture to culture, Dr. White draws on some of her recent research pointing out that many similarities exist in how individuals reason about and discern the pre-rebirth identities of the reincarnated. In closing, Dr. White shares some preliminary insights gathered from her ethnography of “past-life groups” in the western United States. Interested in why some individuals may be attracted to these groups, she suggests the groups may function as a form of psychotherapy and self-actualization for those attending.

Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts on Religion and Memory, and Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Religion. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, small dinosaur figurines, poppy seeds, and more.

Many thanks to NAASR for facilitating the recording of this interview.

References

  • White, C. (2015). Establishing Personal Identity in Reincarnation: Minds and Bodies Reconsidered. Journal Of Cognition And Culture, 15(3-4), 402-429. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/15685373-12342158
  • White, C. (In press). The Cognitive Foundations of Reincarnation. Method and Theory in the Study of Religion.

‘Religious Innovation and Religious Change in the 21st Century’ – 2015 CESNUR Conference Report

CESNUR (Centre for Studies on New Religions, Torino) Annual Conference 2015, Tallinn University, Estonia, 17-20 June. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Prof. Carole M. Cusack, Department of Studies in Religion, The University of Sydney

The 2015 CESNUR conference was held at University of Tallin, Estonia, and was organized by Dr Ringo Ringvee (The Estonian Ministry of Interior). The theme was ‘Religious Innovation and Religious Change in the 21st Century’. There were no plenary lectures, although the interesting address by Massimo Introvigne (President of CESNUR) at the conference dinner at the Von Krahl Theatre, on Friday 19 June, ‘The Sociology of Religious Movements and the Sociology of Time in Conversation’ performed something of that function. As CESNUR is an organization that welcomes members of new religions, there were ‘insider’ papers and responses from members of the Twelve Tribes, the Plymouth Brethren, and the Church of Scientology, among others.

Academic presentations included: Liselotte Frisk and Sanja Nilsson (Dalarna University), ‘Upbringing and Schooling of the Children of the Exclusive Brethren: The Swedish Perspective’; Bernard Doherty (Macquarie University), ‘Spooks and Scientologists: Secrecy, Surveillance, and Subversion in Cold War Australia, 1954-1983’; Tommy Ramstedt (Abo Akademi University), ‘Credibility, Authority, and the Paranormal: The Relation Between Science and Paranormal Claims Within the Finnish Alternative Spiritual Milieu’; Timothy Miller (University of Kansas), ‘Will the Hutterites Survive the 21st Century?’; Carole M. Cusack (University of Sydney), ‘Gurdjieff and Sufism: A Contested Relationship’; and Christopher Hartney (University of Sydney), ‘Kenja: Unique Australian NRM or Auditing Without an E-Meter?’

Tallinn, Estonia

The International Society for the Study of New Religions (ISSNR) held its third two-yearly meeting since it began in 2009 during the conference. This was a successful gathering that acknowledged the quality of the first five years of the International Journal for the Study of New Religion (Volumes 1-4 under the editorship of Carole M. Cusack and Liselotte Frisk, and Volume 5 under the current editorial team of Alex Norman and Asbjørn Dyrendal) and developed plans for the future, as the new President, Milda Ališauskienė (Vytautas Magnus University, Lithuania) was elected. The meeting thanked the outgoing President, Jean François Mayer (Religioscope Institute, Switzerland). The ISSNR sponsored sessions at CESNUR as did it at the EASR in Budapest in September 2011.

The conference was well-attended, though the absence of long-time CESNUR stalwart J. Gordon Melton (Baylor University and the Institute for the Study of American Religion) due to extreme weather conditions that presented him travelling was noted by all. At the conference’s close after lunch on Saturday 20 June, members were taken by bus to the first of a series of sacred sites in Tallin, the Song Festival Grounds (Lauluväljak). The bus then dropped the group off in Toompea, the upper town, and Ringo Ringvee guided through sites including: the Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox Cathedral (from the outside); St Mary’s Cathedral (Dome Church or Toomkirik), the oldest church in Tallinn, formerly Catholic and now Lutheran; and the fascinating Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which is a unobtrusively nested within the town walls, with a crypt filled with folk art, and a church with a distinctive iconostasis. The dedication is to the Virgin With Three Hands, and the complex also houses a crafts business, a small monastery, and the Ukrainian Cultural Centre. CESNUR 2016 will be in Seoul, Korea, from 28-30 June.

— Carole M. Cusack, University of Sydney

CSENUR 2015 online conference proceedings available HERE.

 

 

 

“For a Secret Teaching, They Sure Do Write A Lot About It” – Is There a Gurdjieff Studies or only a Gurdjieff Industry?

flash2

In David Robertson’s interview with Professor Carole Cusack of the University of Sydney and Steven Sutcliffe, Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion at the University of Edinburgh, the Religious Studies Project has curated a rich and wide-ranging discussion introducing – if David and Chris’ evident excitement during the podcast is any indication – an increasingly receptive audience of the next generation of scholars to critical approaches to Gurdjieff and the study of religions, an embarrassment of riches against which I now have the great but difficult fortune of contributing some of my own observations from the field. The interview is based on their February 2015 special issue of the Journal for the Academic Study of Religion on Gurdjieff and his followers and the book they are now writing on the subject.

As it’s not every day an ‘independent scholar’ who is invited to write about their narrow area of expertise is gifted with such an obvious self-reflexive starting point in order to begin with both disclosure and gratitude, I hope I can be forgiven quoting myself being quoted by one of the great contributors to religious studies, Carole Cusack:

“My former Ph.D. student David Pecotic who did a Ph.D. on Gurdjieff’s cosmology … used to say, the article he was living to write was ‘If Gurdjieffians are supposed to be so secretive, why the hell do they write so much?’ – and it really is true …”

This is not that article, but it is a question I hope they will address in their book. What I want to do here is to focus on the three themes raised in the interview that I think are the most bound up in whatever the answer to this question may look like – category formation/disciplinary boundaries of ‘Gurdjieff studies’; the epistemological problems/solutions of archival study of esotericism in the digital age; and the way academia is inescapably enmeshed in the ‘Gurdjieff industry’, i.e., revelations of primary sources that occur in the inevitable sectarian conflicts that arise in heterodox ‘invented traditions.’

Category formation/disciplinary boundaries – will the ‘real’ Gurdjieff please stand up?

 

While there is little disagreement as to the basic content of Gurdjieff’s spiritual teaching, there is currently no concrete proposal about the place of Gurdjieff within the broadly scientific study of religions. Various categories have been or are currently on offer; leaving aside the old saw of page102_1his soteriological mission to be able to consciously act as a different person to better ‘match’ different people. To approach in an integrated way a man that was, among other things, a composer, choreographer, author, paranormal powers, just to name a few, would require a more sustained inter-disciplinary and collaborative approach in the future, and Sutcliffe and Cusack’s current collaboration are steps in the right direction.

The epistemology of esoteric archives – the source(code) of and solution to the category problem

3As definitions and theories rely on availability of evidence, archival access and what counts as a primary source (and who gets to decide) is a consequential problem. I agree with their observations regarding basic chronology and the epistemological problems implicit in relying on practitioners for publication of and access to esoteric archives. Yet it was their brief point about the effect of the internet that resonated more for me as a researcher. An esoteric field is no longer about scarcity but abundance. Researchers increasingly have the opposite problem of managing an accelerating quantity of primary source materials. Indeed, there is a need for critical editions if only to better deal with the proliferation of online document access to which both scholars and practitioners alike find increasingly difficult to quality control I would argue that digital technologies began to turn the tide of access in 2004 when the Gurdjieff bibliographer J. Walter Driscoll moved from the print version of his standard reference to the online publication ‘Gurdjieff – A Reading Guide’. Even the more ‘orthodox’, hierarchical groups that teach Gurdjieffian principles and exercises in a formalised manner have taken to the Internet via the Gurdjieff International Review. But there are also crowdsourced domains like The Gurdjieff Internet Guide which despite being officially ‘retired’ in 2012, has 10, 000 visits a month and continues to be an online archive for even the wilder engagement.

Cusack was right to highlight the recent publication flurry of new source material on Gurdjieffian practices, something that has been a special focus of my research (akin to Jay Johnston’s interview on the ‘The Subtle Body’ and David Gordon White’s response) such as what_would_george_gurdjieff_do_swivel_usb_flash_drive_-r5321371fdba3422385fc1c395cf0e0ae_zkhjh_324ed what amounts to a ‘Gurdjieff industry.’ While it is important that institutions like Yale University Library have archived the Thomas de Hartmann Papers, Maurice Nicoll Papers, P. D. Ouspensky Memorial Collection, it also represents a lost opportunity for the reconstitution of a more critical study of Gurdjieff in the context of the digital humanities which can enable more critical cross-fertilisation if not deeper ethnographic collaboration between scholars and practitioners.

 

The industrial struggle of the magicians and unweaving the wicked Webb

There are also demographic and generational reasons why previously secreted Gurdjieffian source materials are coming online apace. As Johanna Petsche, another former Ph.D. student of Cusack’s has pointed out, dramatic changes were made by Jeanne de Salzmann after Gurdjieff’s death, when hierarchical ‘Foundation’ groups emerged that subsequently formalised Gurdjieffian principles and exercises. As Cusack noted, de Salzmann was the first Gurdjieffian and not Gurdjieff. Not all of Gurdjieff’s followers amalgamated into this network; an assortment of Gurdjieff-based groups remained outside of it. It is these ‘independent’ and ‘fringe’ groups that are experiencing the most rapid growth and reform; the more orthodox groups are literally being ‘outbred.’

It is in this context that ‘insider’ scholars like insider/outsider process — “where one stands determines what one sees and what one can know” Capps (1995: 334-5). Similar explosions of understanding have occurred in analogous new fields: Wouter Hanegraff (in a previous RSP interview) has described Western esotericism as ‘one of the biggest last undiscovered niches in the academic study of religions.’ For all the above reasons, Gurdjieff may be the next in the field to be discovered. I look forward with keen interest to any critical reflections on my own observations, as well as to Sutcliffe and Cusack’s contributions in the light of themes I hope they will be able to investigate.

References

Azize, Joseph. 2013. ‘“The Four Ideals”: A Contemplative Exercise by Gurdjieff’ Aries 13(2) 173-203.

Capps, Walter H. 1995. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. Fortress Press: Minneapolis.

Hanegraaff, Wouter. 1996. New Age Religions and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought. E.J. Brill: Leiden.

– 2006. The Brill Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism. E.J. Brill: Leiden.

Heelas, Paul. 1996. The New Age Movement: Celebrating the Self and the Sacralisation of Modernity. Blackwell: Oxford.

Pecotic, David. 2004. ‘Gurdjieff and the Fourth Way: Giving Voice to Further Alterity in the Study of Western Esotericism’ Sydney Studies in Religion, 86-120.

Partridge, Christopher (ed). 2014. The Occult World. Routledge.

Rawlinson, Andrew. 1998. Book of Enlightened Masters: Western Teachers in Eastern Traditions. Open Court.

Petsche, Johanna. 2013. ‘A Gurdjieff Genealogy: Tracing the Manifold Ways the Gurdjieff Teaching has Travelled’ International Journal for the Study of New Religions 4(1), 1-25.

Gurdjieff and the Study of Contemporary Religion

gurdjieffGeorge Ivanovich Gurdjieff was born around 1866 in Russia and came to prominence in the inter-war years in Europe and the US as a “spiritual teacher” or proto-New Age guru. As well as a complex cosmology, Gurdjieff taught that the average human being was literally asleep, and that “waking up” required a great deal of work and “conscious suffering” His work was continued by his pupils following his death in 1949, and a number of books on his teachings remain in print today. To discuss his importance to the study of religion, David Robertson speaks to two remarkable scholars, Carole Cusack of the University of Sydney, and Steven Sutcliffe of the University of Edinburgh.

We discuss Gurdjieff’s image as a “guru”; how deliberate was it, and where did he learn about the Eastern teachers he modelled himself upon? We discuss how much we should treat Gurdjieff as a sui generis “special case”, as Gurdjieffian scholars have tended to, or whether we would be better to treat him as a type, like Blavatksy, Steiner, Crowley and others. This then turns the discussion to the issues of researching figures like Gurdjieff whose legacies (and archives) are tightly controlled by their followers, and who often aren’t seen as worthy of study by the academy and publishers. We conclude with a consideration of Gurdjieff’s importance (or lack thereof) on the later New Age milieu, and popular culture more broadly.

And did Robert Fripp hire Toy Levin for King Crimson because he looks like Gurdjieff?

You may enjoy our previous interviews with Carole Cusack on “Cultural Production” and “Invented Religions”.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying books, yoga mats, plant pots, llama-shaped snacks and more.

Authors meet Critics: “New Age Spirituality”

Following from our interview on Monday with Ingvild Gilhus, today’s podcast presents an “authors meet critics” session on the new edited volume by Ingvild Gilhus and Steven Sutcliffe, New Age Spirituality: Rethinking Religion. This was recorded at the University of Edinburgh at the launch of the book, and features the editors, Steven Sutcliffe and Ingvild Gilhus, and critics Bettina Schmidt, Marion Bowman and David Robertson, and was ably hosted by Afe Adogame.

Steven Sutcliffe introduces the book, describing the plan to curate a volume which approaches empirical research into “New Age” religiosity through broader “theories of religion”. As Gilhus then suggests, our theoretical positions are impoverished if they don’t address “religion” in both classical and modern contexts.

Marion Bowman takes this up in her response, which addresses the similarity between this project and her own “vernacular religion” project. Bettina Schmidt addresses this disconnect between theories of popular and institutionalised religion from a anthropological point of view, pointing out that many phenomena have been removed from sociological view due to their perceived marginality, and because they don’t offer a clear box to be ticked in censuses. Finally, David Robertson critiques how the critique of “New Age” is positioned within academic, practitioner and popular discourses, and how it may reinforce, despite itself, the very categories it seeks to dissolve.

For anyone interested in New Age, the intersection between category formation – and the practicalities and politics of challenging them – this episode will be essential listening.

“Unruly Angels”: An Interview with Ingvild Gilhus

What is an angel, and why have they exerted such a fascination on the public imagination since antiquity up to the present day? In this interview with David Robertson (our 100th “official” podcast!), Ingvild Gilhus, a historian of religion with considerable experience in dealing with popular religion in both the ancient and modern worlds, discusses where the concept of angels comes from and how they have been variously constructed, from the white-suited messengers of the New Testament to the embodiment of the “higher self” in New Age accounts.

In particular, she explains that angels seem always to break boundaries. Neither human nor god, male nor female, whether Christian or otherwise, angels seem always to have functioned as representatives of an unruly popular religious impulse which seems to sit just below the elite constructions with which the study of religion has traditionally concerned itself.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

Oh, and stay tuned at the end for two special guest appearances!