CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne

Dictionary of Gnosis & Western Esotericism. Ed. by Wouter J. Hanegraaff with Antoine Faivre, Roelof van der Broek, and Jean-Pierre Brach. Leiden: Brill, 2005. 2 vols. 1228 pp. $289.00US.

A Review by J. Gordon Melton

Of the several enterprises undertaken in the last generation in religious studies, few have been as arduous as that of defining Western Esotericism as a recognizable major tradition in religion—one that has existed for the late two millennia over against the overwhelmingly dominant Western Christian tradition. Given Christianity's special role in the West, Esotericism has existed largely on the social and intellectual fringe—at various times being labeled heretical and becoming the object of persecution. Attempts to suppress it caused the loss of many of its defining documents, while authorities hounded many of his large representative groups out of existence.   

Even today, in spite of an amazing comeback, Esotericism remains a decided minority and has yet to found many of the institutions that would give it greater stability and continuity, especially institutions of higher learning (the equivalent of Christina seminaries). However, it is the significant growth of the Esoteric community, especially in Europe and North America in the last fifty years, that makes this new volume, the Dictionary of Gnosis & Western Esotericism, both possible and necessary.

Much has been written about Esotericism in the last two centuries. There are even a number of scholarly books and articles though the majority still reflect the Christian disdain for the subject, usually dismissing it as mere occultism. Esotericism has faired little better from the hands of post-Enlightenment secular scholars most of whom have seen its growth as a real threat to Western culture, or at best dismissed it as irrelevant superstition (like religion in general).  In spite of the anti-Esotericism bias, with the steady opening of social space since the seventeenth century, the esoteric community has made steady progress and now counts its adherents in the millions.

What we call Esotericism is a set of more-or-less related movements, personalities, and volumes of writings that have appeared through the centuries, which offer a quite distinct religious vision from that being professed by orthodox Christianity. Given the differences within the Christian tradition (whose umbrella covers such diverse groups as Roman Catholicism, the Presbyterian Church, the Hutterites and the Jehovah's Witnesses), it is not surprising to find a similar diversity among Esoteric groups and writers. The spectrum would include ancient Valentinians, medieval alchemists, and modern theosophists, and at every period that is the same gap between elite intellectuals and popular practitioners found in all traditions. Contemporary expressions of the tradition would include New Thought mystics, commercial astrologers, sex magicians, and UFO channelers.

With roots in the ancient Mediterranean Basin, Esotericism emerged clearly in the second century CE around a variety of teachers often grouped together as the Gnostics. One quite legitimate way, but only one, of looking at the tradition is to see it as the history of those groups and teachers who have continued, rediscovered, and/or perpetuated the themes articulated in the early Gnostic texts. In saying that, as with most assertions about Esotericism, one must immediately step back and in this case, for instance, acknowledge the role of other early movements like Hermeticism and Neo-Platonism. That being said, there is widespread agreement that the tradition passed through movements like the Bogomils, the Cathars, Kabbalah, alchemy, and Rosicrucianism. Today the movement exists in literally hundreds of groups and organizations and tens of thousands of individual practitioner-believers.

So what is it that ties these people together through the centuries? Though a few particular groups and teachers might dissent from any one or two of these ideas, most would find a commonality in a set of affirmations that distinguish the esoteric gestalt from that of traditional Christianity. First, Esoterics generally affirm a radically transcendent deity about which little to nothing can be said or known, and to whom personal attributes are inappropriate. God is at best known via the spiritual cosmos, which exists not as the creation of this deity by fiat, but by emanations of his spiritual substance. The material world is ultimately unreal, metaphysically speaking. Humans are thus not as distinct from God as Christians affirm—creatures vs. Creator—but are part of the spiritual world and ultimately not qualitatively unlike God.

The idea of an utterly transcendent unknowable God among Esoteric believers has had a variety of consequences. For example, it has promoted an emphasis on intermediary beings, who may show up in a variety of guises from angels to ufonauts; it can and has led to atheistic forms of Esotericism, there being little difference between an inaccessible God and no God; and it has usually created religious lifestyles void of worship, the transcendent deity having no use for such acknowledgement.

Esotericism also has a different idea of the human condition, usually beginning with the entrapment of the spiritual essence of the individual self in the metaphysical unreality of matter. The work of the esotericist is to discover his/her true nature and then find the means of escaping the situation in which s/he is found. The answer to the human condition is some form of gnosis, esoteric wisdom, which may be seen as mere knowledge, secret wisdom, or a mystic knowing that only comes in the experience of it. The tools utilized to gain such gnosis include the whole spectrum of occult arts and a range of spiritual exercises from meditation to kundalini yoga, from divination to magic.

It is this tradition of esoteric teachings, leadership, and movements that are covered in the new Dictionary of Gnosis & Western Esotericism. It comes at a timely moment and will be recognized as a watershed in the development of the study of its subject matter. It is the first reference work to benefit fully from the last two decades of work on the Esoteric tradition and it authors includes many if not most of those scholars who have developed some special expertise in the field. Editor Wouter Hanegraaff, as chair of the first department of Esoteric Studies, located at the University of Amsterdam, is eminently qualified to oversee this project. Thus this volume can be seen as an expression of the present state of Esotericism studies.

The 1220+-page work includes only some three hundred entries, which allows some in-depth coverage of the selected topics. Approximately half of the entries are biographical studies of the most important representatives of the tradition through the centuries. A few will be familiar, but many are quite unknown outside the still small community of Esotericism scholars. These biographical entries are among the major contributions of the Dictionary to the larger community of religious studies scholars and historians. The bibliography will provide guidance to librarians attempting to build representative collections as the study of esotericism is added to college curricula.

The next largest selection of entries cover the major Esoteric movements. Most contemporary practitioners will find either their individual group only mentioned in passing if at all, but the big movements both past and present are highlighted. Finally, a few entries call attention to some ideas well known for their ubiquity throughout the Esoteric world. Again, while possibly no concept is accepted absolutely everywhere, these ideas are encountered enough as to assist anyone in identifying an Esoteric group or book—correspondences, secrecy, number symbolism, orientalism, reincarnation—to name a few.

Each entry is followed by an extended set of bibliographical references that will greatly extend the Dictionary's usefulness as a desk reference.

In recent years, I have on several occasions delivered lectures to audiences of scholars of New Religions, especially ones with young scholars, in which I have advocated their redirecting their focus to Esoteric groups and movements.  This Dictionary is another sign that Esotericism will be an area of significant research and knowledge expansion in the years immediate ahead of us.

There is a massive agenda for the next generation of scholars. There is first and foremost a need to continue the gathering and preserving of the documents produced by the many contemporary Esoteric groups. Much literature is still produced informally and circulated to a relatively few. There is the on-going scholarly task, still in its infancy, of building the history of Esotericism, both as a social movement that has helped shape Western culture and an intellectual movement that has passed ideas and perspectives through the centuries. To balance the loss of so many documents, perhaps permanently, we have been blessed with new methodologies that help us tease information from the material we have.

The Dictionary of Gnosis & Western Esotericism is a must for any who would consider themselves a scholar of Esotericism, and should at the very least be in every academic library in the English-speaking world.

And having rendered proper homage to a book that must get four stars in any review, I will venture one statement less than praise. If the Dictionary has any shortcoming, it would be in its treatment of Freemasonry, not that there is anything wrong with the information offered, but that the single entry on Freemasonry is so short--a mere six pages compared to alchemy (46 pages) or hermetics (70 pages). This brevity truly represents an oversight. Freemasonry remains the hidden key to understanding the modern development of Esotericism. It inherited the thrust created by Rosicrucianism, was the vehicle for the radical expansion of Esotericism in the eighteenth century, and a supplied knowledge, rituals, organizational models, and/or founding personnel for all of the major new nineteenth-century Esoteric movements. The politicization and secularization of Freemasonry in the late-nineteenth century should not obscure the essential Gnostic myth that underlies it and the hard-to-underestimate role it played in shaping the contemporary community.