I just returned from Erfurt, Germany, where I attended a conference on Esotericism and Deviance put on by the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE). I want to record some of my impressions of the conference and take-aways.
The word esotericism comes from the adjective esoteric, which has been used since ancient times to refer to religious movements and philosophical schools that keep at least some of their knowledge secret, so that it is reserved only for the members who join the group. So in the case of the ancient texts I study, esotericism is equivalent to religious secrecy, and it is very easy to explore how groups tried to capitalize on the secrets for group bonding, and guard any deviant behavior or ideas within this secrecy so that the deviance is shielded from external gaze and retribution from society.
My paper ("Deviant Christians") was on how this worked out for early Christian groups and affected their ability to recruit and survive intergenerationally.
The problem with esotericism comes when academics who study esoteric religious movements since the Renaissance have decided to call their field Esotericism. You might not think this problematic until you realize that the term runs into trouble when esoteric religions meet popular culture in modernity and we end up with the wide distribution of occult secrets, a process that is now being called Occulture (occult+culture). So Esotericism is no longer defined by religious secrecy. It has become openly distributed knowledge.
What about deviance? Is Esotericism then defined by deviancy? It was clear from the papers at the conference that there was trouble in trying to deal with religious deviance and its relationship to Esotericism. Scholars at the conference expressed great discomfort with the idea that Esotericism has to be deviant. And I saw no real model emerge to handle this problem meaningfully.
I think the main trouble comes from the fact that to really work with the concept of deviance, you really have to do so from a sociological perspective. You have to understand local culture and its dominant norms and what the esoteric movement is doing with them. This means that what is deviant is going to change from locale to locale with many shifts over time and geography. What is culturally deviant at one time, may become mainstream down the road. So an esoteric movement might be deviant one day, and maybe move into the mainstream later on. Does the religious movement remain esoteric in this case?
I would argue that this question is not the question that needs to be answered. What makes more sense to me is to problematize the issues that esoteric movements face and outline the patterns of response that result from the movements trying to handle these issues. We can do this with ancient groups and modern groups the same.
- How is the movement using religious secrecy as social capital and as a shield for its deviance?
- What social strategies does the group turn to in order to construct a movement that restricts its internal social network? Why do this?
- How does the esoterized group deal with issues like isolation and recruitment?
- Does the group lessen its deviance and begin to open its social network to outsiders?
- How does the group accommodate to societal expectations and traditional religious perspectives?
- How far does the group go public and reveal its secrets to increasing larger social networks?
- Or does the group stay isolated and secret, or become more isolated and secret over time?
- Why does the group choose these options?
- How do these options affect the long term survival of the group?
If we move to this kind of sociological problematizing, then deviance is most likely in the picture somewhere. It is just a matter of trying to understand the dynamics of deviance within esoteric group formation and development. No esoteric group is stable on any of these issues. Esoteric movements are special because they choose to reserve their internal network to members only, and to bond around religious secrets which are very often deviant or countercultural. This can only be mapped and understood on a case-by-case basis, which will reveal to us both variety and patterns of similarity. It will tell us everything about the social process of esoterization and nothing about Esotericism.
All of this is to say that Esotericism as a field cannot be defined by deviancy, but it is essential for scholars who are involved in the field of Esotericism to unpack sociologically the relationship between deviancy and any given esoteric group. While Esotericism cannot be defined by deviancy, it is a sociological dynamic experienced by esoteric groups that needs much more careful theoretical and historical attention.