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Why the Academic Study of Western Esotericism is not as Popular as Critical Theory and Women’s History?

Thoughts on Wouter J. Hanegraaff about “Rejected Knowledge” in Hermes Explains: Thirty Questions about Western Esotericism (page 149-151). This is not a commentary about the full chapter, but is related to Concerning the Practice of Concealing Esoteric Truths from The Masses: Esotericism Ancient and Modern.

Should this be a topic to tip toe over, or be careful? There are things that must be considered first. While so many people have become interested with deconstructing the hegemonic grand narratives of Western culture, racial prejudices and women’s history, the field of the ‘study of esotericism’ is not a central popular concern as ‘critical theory’ or women’s history is.

This is what Wouter J. Hanegraaff brings to attention in his chapter in Hermes Explains: Thirty Questions about Western Esotericism, and I have nearly something to say about every sentence in the chapter.

It is due to the fact, that many of the reformers, intellectuals and revolutionaries involved in opposing the traditional exclusion and marginalization of women, black people and other people, including non-dominant genders and sexualities, as Wouter J. Hanegraaf puts it in his chapter, “Rejected Knowledge,” still worked within the framework of traditional church polemics and beliefs. While yes, we can for example speak of those that worked outside of that framework, the marginalized that were fighting for their equal rights, who simply wanted to be accepted also as a brother in Christ by the race that established its rule and domination over them, took preference in those working from non-traditional sources, and political ideologies like socialism.

Christianity is still the dominant religion among most Black people in the U.S., and then one must consider important Islamic influence. It must be remembered, that persecutions and rejected knowledge create sub-divisions within religions themselves. Being Black and either an atheist, agnostic, Muslim, Buddhist, vegetarian or “esotericist” all present a unique difficulty, because it challenges very limited stereotypes. Yet this surely doesn’t stop anybody in our day from embracing their difference, atleast in countries where laws permit such diverse thought.

As to hegemonic narratives, even Black people that embrace non-dominant religions and esoteric perspectives carry an ideological prejudice that studies esotericism through a racialist and conspiratorial lens. In such view, “White Europeans” and even Arabs are constantly accused of stealing ancient Egyptian and African identity, distorting their archaic secret doctrines, or suppressing the “true identity of Black people.”

I have met such persons, who take every chance to rage with debate against me about how Muslims are racist, having said no word to them. Muslims themselves combat these prejudices within Islam themselves. I have never come across a positive attitude about the contributions of Max Müller, Gerald Massey, Helena P. Blavatsky, and others in such circles with such opinions — on the basis of them being of a “colonial mind” or simply “White.”

Some non-dominant alternative religions within the Black community do not believe in Jesus-worship, but the overwhelming majority of these alternative religious ideas do. Even when they step out of traditional church dogma, there are those whom psychologically still cannot escape their primary belief in Jesus as god, and accept the basis of the church’s doctrine of Christ.

On such basis, many think that White people are incapable of comprehending the esoteric teachings of ancient Egyptian religion, African occultism and the forged religions of the descendants of various African ethnic groups. Then again, if the sources were appreciated better, they’d come across H.P. Blavatsky, a Russian/Ukrainian Buddhist convert and Theosophist, critiquing those same “White” European scholars as being incapable of the same.

In my context, I am not at complete liberty to have civil discourse with persons I know, close to me, even relatives about my beliefs, as it always stirs emotion and temper. I am not as interested in changing minds this way. Wouter J. Hanegraff explains, that “the fundamental grand narratives of Western culture have been constructed on the very basis of “Othering” and rejecting precisely everything that is studied under the “esotericism” label today!” Wouter J. Hanegraff explains (p. 150).

Yes, these are grand narratives, that I reject. I do not carry the negative perceptions and attitudes against so-called ancient pagans, magic, and witches. The standard story we are told of Muhammad, the Reformation and the foundations of Catholicism, to the story of monotheism in the Torah is built on narratives of victories over idolatrous paganism, demonic magic and superstitious heresies. Those same narratives take effect within the religions among sects and thinkers that accuse other sects of practicing idolatry, paganism, and magic. Thereafter, in the conflict between religion and modern science, intellectuals and historians of the Enlightenment framed their victory as one over traditional Christian irrational superstition and ‘occult pseudo-scientific superstitions.’

History becomes then viewed as progress, thus the History of Religion is interpreted as detailing a progression from simplistic primitive animism to complex superior and triumphant monotheism — the “end of history.” But is this so?

Lastly, the complexity of monotheism is highly exaggerated when it is merely understood as a dimension between weak monotheism to strict monotheism, which is why recommending the works of thinkers like Henry Corbin on the theory of monotheism remains important.

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