Is the esoteric Kabbalah approaching legitimacy at all?

Esotericism: Is that still who? Or what?

Is that still who? Or what? - Page 1

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) adopted an unusually polemical tone. Anyone who sees ghosts is probably a "candidate for the hospital". Relevant visions were evidently based on a "hypochondriac wind in the bowels" which would have simply taken the wrong direction, namely upwards instead of downwards. The target of Kant's ridicule was a certain Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), a Swedish scientist and theosophist, one of the most famous esotericists of his time.

Sober Kant never liked the "wonderful". He once wrote in a letter that he never believed in ghosts or feared cemeteries; he always followed common sense. And yet Swedenborg's reports from another, higher world impressed him too. After all, this man who claimed to be intimate with spirits and angels had astonishing knowledge.

Swedenborg was supposed to be able to report in great detail about a fire in Stockholm, even though he was many kilometers away at the time. Also in his writing Dreams of a ghost seer (1766) Kant could not refute Swedenborg's visions, but that did not seem necessary to him. Probably Swedenborg simply suffers from a "deceptive imagination", that is, from delusions. A scientific knowledge of the other world is not only impossible because it exceeds the limits of reason, but also simply dispensable. Reason should rather deal with this world than chase after an ominous shadowy realm. And those "half-citizens of the other world" who, like Swedenborg, felt at home in higher spheres, simply belonged better in the madhouse.

Many enlightened people today see it in a similar way to Kant. Esoteric thinking is seen as irrational nonsense, as superstition from the premodern era. Relevant content and practices seem to be incompatible with our secular worldview. In a disenchanted world there is no place for angels, ghosts and magic. Anyone who still believes in the supernatural today is quickly seen as a weirdo who no longer needs to be taken seriously. And yet it seems as if we cannot get rid of the spirits of esotericism: The market is booming - from book bestsellers such as The Secret up to Higher Self-Courses and Kabbalah seminars. Many still expect healing and enlightenment from esotericism - and access to a higher, spiritual world. But what is behind this need? What "knowledge", what sense does esotericism actually have to offer? And what is the difference between science, religion and philosophy?

Even the term "esotericism" itself is controversial, and especially the question of what belongs to it and what does not. One can perhaps best agree that it is always about the search for a higher, hidden knowledge and a spiritual transformation. We allegedly acquire this knowledge through mystical vision, through the mediation of higher beings, or through personal experience. This particular approach already distinguishes esotericism from natural science as well as from religion. Esoteric knowledge is not based on the rational consideration of reasons, nor does it arise solely from divine revelation.

From an esoteric point of view we have the ability to gain access to the higher world, to the divine ourselves. The only evidence is the personal spiritual experience of the "initiates" who are ready to walk the path to higher knowledge. That sounds like pure irrationalism. And yet one does not do justice to the esoteric tradition if one simply reduces it to a pre-enlightened, primitive worldview.

The Greek word esoterikos actually means "directed inwards, not accessible to the public", in contrast to exoterikos (external, understandable for laypeople). Esotericism - from the Greek esoteros for "further inside (located)" - in a historical sense means a doctrine that is only accessible to a small circle of initiates or the chosen: This is how the term was developed in the 19th century by the French Éliphas Lévi (1810–1875 ), one of the first and most influential occultists.

According to the influential definition of the religious scholar Antoine Faivre, "esotericism" is a form of thought that is characterized by four necessary characteristics:

1. the idea of ​​correspondences or correspondences between the different levels of reality, for example between planets, plants and human body parts, whereby these connections are not to be understood as causal, but symbolic. Such correspondences form the basis of astrology, magic, and alchemy; the idea can still be found today in alternative medical treatment methods such as homeopathy.

2. the idea of ​​a living, ensouled nature that underlies these correspondences; the basic idea of ​​a is based on this magia naturalis, with which people with certain higher abilities can intervene in the living cosmos.

The roots of esotericism

3. the idea of ​​a spiritual imagination that connects us to the "other world" through the mediation of higher beings, such as Swedenborg's angels and spirits.

4. esoteric content and practices are about transmutation, about transformation. Through active imagination, the adept attains a higher mental state - and ultimately a spiritual "second birth".

Two further, albeit contingent, characteristics of esotericism are, according to Faivre, the search for a "common denominator" between the various esoteric traditions and the transmission of esoteric knowledge through initiation.

One can object to Faivre's definition, however, that it does not cover all areas of esotericism. At the same time, it can be argued whether esotericism is actually a clearly delimited historical phenomenon or rather a "discursive element" of cultural processes, namely in religion, science, philosophy or art, as the cultural historian Kocku von Stuckrad thinks. According to his definition, the "esoteric" includes the assertion of higher knowledge, the rhetoric of "secret" truths that can only be obtained in a special way, and the idea of ​​a fundamental otherness or deviance. For some, the esoteric tradition simply represents an enchanted, pre-enlightened worldview, for others it forms a kind of counterculture to science and religion in secular modernity. Yet other researchers, such as Faivre or the Romanian historian of religion Mircea Eliade (1907–1986), see a buried "original" dimension of religion itself in the esoteric tradition.

The roots of esotericism go back to the beginnings of western philosophy. As early as the 7th century BC, strange stories were circulating in Greece about souls who had escaped from bodies and finally returned to them. Today one would speak of "out-of-body experiences". In fact, some of the famous early philosophers can be called esoteric: Pythagoras was said to have magical and clairvoyant abilities. The philosopher Empedocles claimed to be able to remember various of his incarnations as well as to be an immortal god himself. To prove his divinity, he is said to have even jumped into the volcano Etna - but then the magic apparently failed.

Plato designed the cosmos as an animated living being endowed with reason, in which everything is connected with everything. The immaterial, immortal soul of man has its origin in the divine; it is a "heavenly plant" whose roots reach into the higher, spiritual world of ideas - a microcosm that corresponds to the macrocosm. That is precisely why it strives to imitate the world soul - and thus to return to its divine source. But the body is a "prison", a "grave" from which the soul must first escape.

Only through higher, philosophical knowledge, which frees itself from all physical desires, does the soul break through the cycle of rebirths and finally enter the true world of the divine. The living cosmos, the immortal soul, the unity of man and the world - that is perhaps the original philosophical idea of ​​esoteric thinking in general.

For the Neo-Platonist Plotinus, man fell from the spiritual sphere. He has forgotten his origin in the divine. But the tape was not completely torn. Although the human soul has moved away from the world soul, it is still part of the cosmic context. It can turn back to the origin by shedding the material things - and uniting itself with the "one", that divine principle from which it arose. Plotinus described this process as a kind of metamorphosis in which we return to our true selves as "standing still in the divine".

Neoplatonism developed into a spiritual worldview, at the center of which the liberation of the soul through higher knowledge (gnôsis) was standing. So-called "Gnostic" religious teachings are based on a dualism of good and bad, of light and darkness. From a Gnostic point of view, the earthly world is the realm of darkness, it is "everything that is in the fall" (Peter Sloterdijk). But there is a spark of divine light trapped in all the darkness. Those who attain this higher knowledge can ultimately escape from the earthly prison - and return to the original light.

In the Hellenistic culture of late antiquity, Greek philosophy and mythology combined with various indigenous religious traditions, such as those of the Egyptians. A central figure in the esoteric tradition is Hermes Trismegistus, a syncretic god from the Egyptian Thoth and the Greek Hermes, both bustling messengers of the gods. In a collection of esoteric texts from the 2nd or 3rd century, come to be known as Corpus Hermeticum He reveals to initiated priests the true nature of God, man, and the world. These texts also deal with spiritual ascent and liberation, cosmic correspondences ("As above, so below") and the divine presence in the world. The rediscovery of the Corpus Hermeticum in 1463 contributed significantly to a renewed upswing of esotericism in the Neo-Platonism of the Renaissance, even if it later turned out that the texts contained therein were not of Egyptian origin at all, but came from early Christian antiquity.

The influence of the church

Neoplatonic philosophers such as Plethon (approx. 1355–1452), Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494) and Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499), who wrote the Corpus Hermeticum Translated into Latin, saw the newly discovered scriptures as a universal doctrine of wisdom. At the same time they discovered the mysticism of numbers in the Jewish Kabbalah. It is no coincidence that esotericism flourished so much in the Renaissance, at a time of religious turmoil and the emergence of modern science. Magic, astrology and alchemy, the symbolic doctrine of the transformation of the elements, offered methods for studying the secret laws and dynamics of nature. The idea behind the "occult science" was that all natural processes participate in the divine, spiritual sphere - and can therefore be influenced with spiritual forces.

According to Christian teaching, black magic was forbidden because it was associated with the evocation of evil forces. But the magia naturalis escaped Christian censorship. According to it, the cosmos is permeated with a divine energy which man can influence because he is part of this cosmos.

The teachings of Paracelsus and Anton Mesmer (mesmerism), which play a major role in alternative medicine to this day, are based on this basic idea. According to historians of religion, esoteric practices such as magic and alchemy are at the interface between demonism and natural science - so they have nothing to do with religion. Rather, it is an attempt to explain puzzling phenomena "scientifically"; but not through physical laws, but through occult forces.

In a time of religious upheaval and scientific innovations, the rediscovered esoteric teachings offered themselves as alternatives for all who strived for higher knowledge. At the same time, however, the old esoteric knowledge was gradually excluded from the scientific discourse as well as from denominational religions. Esoteric ideas are a "radical counterpart to everything that educated people are supposed to believe," writes the religious historian Wouter Hanegraaff.

From the Hellenism to the Renaissance to the 19th century one can often observe that waves of esotericism emerged as a reaction to the collapse of social orders. From the beginning of the 19th century religion fell into a crisis from which it could no longer recover. Enlightenment and secularization - the abolition of traditional ecclesiastical rule and conversion into secular (state) possessions - ushered in secularization. Religion and belief are now increasingly competing with the "validity claims" of reason. The influence of the church as the highest spiritual and spiritual authority in society is waning - despite its power and wealth.

In the modern age it becomes one institution among many. Like everyone else, it must specialize, enter into political and economic relationships with the outside world, and submit to the area of ​​responsibility assigned to it: civil privacy. Against the "superstition" of the manifold offerings of meaning in modern consumer society, it positions itself as the true community of convictions. But the huge ecclesiastical administrative apparatus and the rigid patriarchal hierarchies can no longer meet the spiritual expectations of the individual. Today institutionalized Christianity has a massive problem of credibility and legitimation. Above all, it has become clear that countless clergymen systematically abused minors and women in their ranks. But not only the church, also the enlightened modern age has an image problem: the institutionalized religion looks backward, as if it had fallen out of time - the modern age could not keep its promise for the future. The civilizational progress that rationality, freed from mythical-mystical impurities, was supposed to bring, culminated in the technocratic barbarism of the Third Reich. And, as many fear, it is now even ensuring that all earthly livelihoods are destroyed. How do we get out of there?

The desire for healing, transformation, re-enchantment is greater than ever - this has long been recognized by the staunch rationalist Jürgen Habermas. Already in 2001, in the year of 9/11, Habermas called our society "post-secular". Even more: three years later, in a discussion with the later Pope Benedict XVI. before the "impasse of hybrid self-empowerment" into which "reflective reason" could get when it denies "its origin from another, whose fateful power it must acknowledge". Must reason bow to this powerful other? What is the special quality of esotericism today?

The course of barrier-free esotericism as we know it today - as "secret knowledge" that is open to almost everyone - we find in America in the early 20th century. Simultaneously with the growing standard of living and the first large department stores, which often resembled lavishly decorated cathedrals and oriental palaces, a new non-denominational "religiosity" began to establish itself there. Not only as a corrective to the materialistic culture, which is often perceived as immoral - also as its logical correspondence or further development.

Suddenly there was a great demand for an ethical compromise between the consumer pleasure of the "American way of life" on the one hand and the traditional Christian worldview on the other. As early as the 1850s, American Protestantism had developed from strict Calvinism to the "revival movement" of a relatively liberal, non-denominational evangelicalism: It was a conservative Christianity that proclaimed positive messages instead of raving about human sinfulness.

From witch to energy coach

After 1870, however, it was more and more the "Mind Cure" movement that most accommodated the spiritual needs of Americans. To these groups - with whom many through William James ’work The diversity of religious experience (1902) came into contact - counted various healing-therapeutic orientated, among them also the Neugeist direction and the theosophists.They all mixed the most liberal tendencies of evangelicalism with the "pursuit of happiness" ideology, positive thinking and pragmatism into an esoteric cocktail that promised success and redemption in this world and placed the highest value on individual autonomy.

The multifaceted "Mind Cure" marked the beginning of a capitalist and holistically oriented esotericism, which today finds its followers in the whole civilized world; which ensures that subjective experiences of transcendence are easily accessible beyond banal reality; and most of them carry the label "Spirituality".

The modern media, mainly the Internet, have ensured a never-ending boom in the most varied of esoteric formats. From holistic therapist to visionary, from witch to energy coach - the new low-threshold spirituality is always about a fundamental transformation of the individual, his inwardness and his body.

No longer the deification of an otherworldly power, but something that, along with the Austrian-American sociologist Thomas Luckmann (1927–2016), can be called the "sacralization of the ego", constitutes the core of the - commercially available - modern spirituality. Those whose egos find a new home through courses, seminars and exchanges with a community of spiritually like-minded people can assure themselves of the importance of their existence without having to fundamentally question their lifestyle. Self-transformation projects are not historical news. For the Stoics of late antiquity, for example, working on oneself was a lifelong process, as Michel Foucault (1926–1984) has shown. Ritualized mental and physical exercises (askésis) of self-care served to gradually peel the "truth" (aletheia) of a certain ethos out of oneself: "By spirituality I mean that," says Foucault, "which relates very precisely to the access of the subject relates to a certain way of being and to the transformations that the subject has to go through in order to arrive at this way of being. "

In contrast to the stoic, modern self-transformation has a strong feel-good character. It is based on a hodgepodge of different sources and methods. A good example is "visionary" and social media star Laura Malina Seiler, who in her "Happy, holy & confident" podcast on topics such as "Create your world and show the world who you are", "Believe in yourself." "and" 6 characteristics to successfully start your own business "creates intuitive, quasi-organic cross-connections between materialism and immaterialism, self-love and narcissism, transcendence and self-optimization.

In their universe, which is inspired by Buddhism, Stoicism and Oprah Winfrey, nobody needs to feel guilty because they are committed to mindfulness and at the same time obey the imperatives of capitalism. Seiler's courses, which are sold out quickly, and their "university" are aimed at young, success-oriented people who are not satisfied with pure self-optimization in the areas of job, sport, nutrition and fashion and who want a spiritual superstructure for their life, which has been divided into separate modules. A superstructure that, unlike a classic esoteric teaching, does not have to be studied for a long time, but can be enjoyed bit by bit in atmospheric communal experiences. It is not their proven theoretical expertise, but rather their perceived authenticity that makes spiritual coaches such as Seiler a figure of identification for countless women of the same age, mostly of the same age. In fact, women are the main providers and consumers of the spiritual scene. The younger, more ambitious want to give their comprehensive striving for perfection a profound note. The fact that people over 40 and 50, who feel unfree or even underprivileged despite their relative autonomy, are so into spiritual transcendence and transformation experiences seems to be due to the subjective increase in power that gives them training to become Reiki masters, for example. Spirituality seems to many today to be the most rewarding path to female self-empowerment.

As rational people, we should not condemn esotericism in toto. We should not only look at the sometimes malignant seductive power that emanates from it - we also have to recognize its special quality: to impart theoretical "knowledge" and practical skills that lie outside the competencies of both philosophy and institutionalized Christianity. Modern forms of esotericism and spirituality have no answers to all questions. You cannot eliminate the climate crisis, social inequality, or even the most pressing social challenges. With the mostly chargeable "evidence" that they bring to countless people, they too do not provide ultimate truths.

Perhaps the attraction of esotericism today lies in its healing character. She manages to satisfy the longing for (self-) transformation through extraordinary, meaningful experiences; to holistically reintegrate the separate spheres of the modern world; to give a transcendent significance to our accidental individual existence in the cosmos, which gives comfort whenever one desires it. With the answers it gives, esotericism asks us questions that our reason cannot reject, but must take seriously. Answers that lead us back to the beginnings of philosophy, when reason and belief were not yet a contradiction in terms; when philosophizing still meant experiencing a higher, purely spiritual reality - and transforming oneself in this experience.

This article first appeared in "Hohe Luft Magazin" No. 01/2020.