Saturday, November 22, 2008

Evangelicals and Western Esotericism

At the Trinity Consultation on Post-Christendom Spiritualities held at Trinity International University last month, one of the plenary sessions addressed developments in the "New Age movement" as part of a broader history of Western Esotericism. This session involved a paper presented by the noted new religions scholar J. Gordon Melton of the Institute for the Study of American Religion. (This session and others can be viewed at Sacred Tribes Journal for those who create a user ID and then Login and click "Course Lectures.") During his presentation Dr. Melton reminded evangelicals that Western Esotericism is a significant religious tradition no longer relegated to the margins of popular culture that needs to be taken seriously and interacted with more positively. This positive engagement involves a number of areas, including a more informed and accurate understanding of the tradition, respect for its adherents, and in engagement with its growing numbers of practitioners.

I was fortunate to be the respondent to Dr. Melton's paper, and among other things I shared the following:
"[W]hile evangelicals have tended to marginalize and dismiss those involved in Western Esotericism with simple labels like “the occult,” often followed by simplistic responses that involve denunciation through biblical proof-texting, Dr. Melton reminds us that “we are not dealing so much with a marginal phenomenon, but a significant aspect of the popular culture.” Although the numbers of people involved directly with Western Esotericism remains small, as Dr. Melton himself has discussed, nevertheless the impact of Western Esotericism in popular culture is significant, so much so that scholars like Christopher Partridge refer to “popular occulture.” In Partridge’s discussion of this he states “(1) that occultural worldviews have been an important source of inspiration for popular culture, (2) that popular culture has in turn been an important source of inspiration for the formation of occultural worldviews, and consequently, (3) that popular culture is beginning to have a shaping effect on Western plausibility structures.” Western Esotericism represents a respectable and enduring religious phenomenon that must be taken seriously by evangelicals in the twenty-first century.

".. near the end of his paper in his brief sketch of an initial Christian response to Western Esotericism Dr. Melton includes several helpful thoughts, including the need to conceptualize it as “a distinctive religious tradition analogous” to various world religions rather than as a deviant tradition to be marginalized, the call for the Christian community to own up to and move beyond its unloving and unChristian responses to esotericists that fall far short of the divine calling to love our neighbors as ourselves, and the reminder that in our daily experience we are likely to live and work with esotericists and thus new ways of living the Christian faith must be developed that move us positively into the future."

It is my hope that viewpoints like those expressed at the recent conference at Trinity, the Trinity conference itself, and volumes like Gus diZerega and Philip Johnson's Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue (Lion, 2008), represent new and increasingly influential senses of understanding of the new religions, including Western Esotericism, and a new ways of interacting with its practitioners. Even so, while a new evangelical model is gaining strength it does so against the backdrop of more traditional evangelical treatments of the new religions and the Western Esoteric tradition as evidenced by new books appearing this year, including those commented on previously on this blog: Dillon Burroughs and Marla Alupoaicei's Generation Hex (Harvest House, 2008), and Linda Harvey's Not My Child: Contemporary Paganism and New Spirituality (Living Ink Books, 2008). A new book has recently been released that adds to the evangelical literature from this perspective, the late Walter Martin, Jill Martin Rische, and Kurt Van Gorden's The Kingdom of the Occult (Thomas Nelson, 2008). I have high expectations for this recent volume in that I hope it rises above the recent volumes on Western Esotericism that operate from a confrontational tone. In addition, I hope that this new book engages the growing body of academic literature on Western Esotericism, and compliments more informed understandings of this religious tradition with more positive aspects of engagement such as interreligious dialogue.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the heads up John

SteveA said...

It seems that the heyday of the New Age spirituality was the 1980's. Perhaps it has achieved a certain unobtrusive level of acceptance and no longer is seen as a novelty. I subscribed to Gnosis magazine
( for most of its run from 1985-1999, more out of curiosity and yearning for liberation from reductive physicalism than from assent with it. Western esotericism has a long history and it seems to me has some things to teach us.

Jeff said...

Hey John,

I have not looked at the book, nor do I have plans to do so. You made this comment at the end of your post:

I hope that this new book engages the growing body of academic literature on Western Esotericism, and compliments more informed understandings of this religious tradition with more positive aspects of engagement such as interreligious dialogue.

Not sure why you would state such a thing without first looking at their purpose (intended audience, etc.) for the book. While your own hopes about a publication are Ok to have, to project what you think should be done onto someone elses publication is certainly unnecessary.

John W. Morehead said...

Jeff, thank you for sharing your comment and perspective on the new book and my comments related to it. In response, please consider the following.

First, the intended evangelical audience for this book does not mitigate against the need for the book to have a more positive tone than most evangelical books on new religions, or that it be better informed about the Western Esotericism it critiques. This is not a matter of inappropriate projection on someone else's work, but rather, a hopeful expectation of what an informed and carefully articulated piece of work should look like when it puts ideas into the public arena and critique's someone else's practices and beliefs.

Second, you have missed the thrust of my post entirely. As you may know, historically Christians, particularly evangelicals, have demonstrated a poor track record in portrayals and critiques of the beliefs of others, particularly in the Western Esoteric tradition. Since one of the commandments of the Judeo-Christian tradition warns us against bearing false witness against our neighbor, and my expectations for this new book would help avoid this problem, I would think that you and the book's authors would share in these expectations.

Although I now pursue my work in new religions in a different paradigm and outside the counter-cult community, I still hope that in the future counter-cult members might become more receptive to higher standards in their work and that they not allow their defensiveness to cause them to miss calls for fair and balanced analysis.

Anonymous said...

John, thanks for the heads up on the Lausanne Connecting Point article