The Western Esotericism Group of the American Academy of Religion had its most successful year at the 2007 meeting in San Diego, California.
In two sessions, one focused on esotericism as an act of transgression and the other jointly sponsored with the New Religious Movements Group, well over 100 people were in attendance at panels over the weekend.
The first session, chaired by Allison Coudert, presented papers ranging from the early fourteenth-century writings of Marguerite Porete, condemned as heretical by the Catholic church and ultimately leading to her execution, to contemporary fieldwork in Oregon on an Ordo Templi Orientis lodge. The five papers presented were all well-received and developed themes related to the interplay of transgression and hegemony in the creation and growth of esoteric currents.
While each incorporated the theme of transgression differently, the creation of a different definition of correct practice while maintaining the necessity of some boundary was a common motif throughout the panel. White versus black magic, esoteric versus exoteric, and antinomian versus orthodox, were among the topics examined that reflected on the creation of alternative practices and beliefs. One scholar discussed the process by which an experimental or marginalized religious expression becomes mainstream in relation to the Swedenborgian church in nineteenth-century America. Another argued that the cultural shift from seeing mysticism pejoratively to viewing it as a normal if not normative form of religiosity should be replicated in esoteric studies. The benefits and desirability of bringing the marginalized to the center were explored, and some concluded that at least for the purposes of academic study, such a move would both expand the academy’s field of vision and serve as a theoretical reflection on the function of boundaries in both lived experience and in scholarship. A lively discussion followed that touched on linguistic differences in relation to the history of terms like “mysticism” and whether esotericism easily lent itself to binary formations like insider and outsider distinctions.
The session jointly sponsored with the New Religious Movements Group was also extremely successful, with over seventy attendees for the panel chaired by Sarah Pike. Focusing on “exchange and innovation” in new religions, the four papers presented ranged from the melding of Asian enlightenment traditions with American psychological discourse to the esoteric underpinnings of Fourierist socialism. Another discussed the creation of Halcyon, an intentional community in California in the early twentieth century that was based on Blavatsky’s theosophical teachings in conjunction with speculation on the religious possibilities of electricity. Lastly, a paper was given on the suitability of the terms “outsider” or “visionary” art in relation to the work of Edith Tenbrink: the author argued that “initiatory” art was a more apt category and delineated what may usefully be considered initiatory in esoteric art forms.
The overwhelming success of all of the papers was the highlight of the AAR this year. The Western Esotericism Group had its first business meeting where the topic for next year and the length of terms for membership on the steering committee were discussed. The particular interest sparked by the discussion of esoteric art led the steering committee to dedicate its Western Esotericism session to the visual imagination and the call for papers for the 2008 meeting in Chicago has been submitted with this focus. Thanks to the quick diligence of Allison Coudert, several other groups have already expressed interest in jointly sponsoring an additional session at that meeting and at this writing the decision about which additional sessions will be offered has not yet been made. However, the success of this year’s panels and the multiple groups that have expressed an interest in working with the Western Esotericism Group suggest that it will continue to thrive at the AAR for the immediate future.