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Modern Esoteric Spirituality: World Spirituality: An Encyclopedic History of the Religious Quest.

"Listen," wrote Hildegard of Bingen, "there was once a king sitting on his throne. Around him stood great and wonderfully beautiful columns ornamented with ivory, bearing banners of the king with great honor. Then it pleased the king to raise a small feather from the ground and he commanded it to fly. The feather flew, not because of anything in itself but because the air bore it along. Thus am I...." And thus did Hildegard, 12th-century mystic, poet, naturalist, composer and visionary describe herself and the essence of esoteric spirituality.

Most NCR readers are probably more acquainted with esoteric spirituality than they might think. Any background in liberal arts would make one at least vaguely familiar with Dante, Chaucer, the Arthurian legends, Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, Cabala, the New England transcendentalists, Paracelsus, Rudolph Steiner and Carl Jung. However diverse the above names and movements, all express elements of esotericism and contribute something to its thrust.

Antoine Faivre, Jacob Needleman and Karen Voss have edited the 21st volume of an encyclopedic series that "seeks to present the spiritual wisdom of the human race in its historical unfolding... from prehistoric times to the meeting of traditions at the present." Some 500 scholars have been working on the project, 13 of whom contributed to this volume, some in translation.

The book, by and large in chronological order, examines modern esotericism -- that is from 1500 on -- but begins with an overview of its various expressions that include Hildegard of Bingen and the mythic Hermes Trismegistis, legendary author of works on alchemy and magic. "Hermeticism" thus refers not only to the works attributed to Hermes Trismegistis, but to the whole body of literature inspired by those works, as well as other aspects of Western esotericism, such as alchemy and astrology.

Alchemy never has claimed to be a religion or even a great tradition, but like magic, whose object is to make the hidden known, it acts as mediator between the realms of matter and spirit by reaffirming the relationship of one to the other. In fact, in his introduction to this volume, Needleman asserts that the presence within the human person that attempts to reconcile the outer and inner worlds is what is authentically termed "esoteric."

Since reading Chaim Potok's The Book of Lights some years ago, I have been intrigued by Cabala, that body of mystical teachings based on an esoteric interpretation of Hebrew scriptures. Since the appearance in the Renaissance of a Christian strain, some have viewed Cabala as a means of universal salvation that has opened the minds of at least some Jews and Christians to share a spiritual mysticism vital to both traditions.

Besides being a viable practice in its own right, Cabala enriches other esoteric sprituality from Rosicrucianism to Freemasonry and the even more recent development of theosophy.

The images of rose and cross are what Jung would later characterize as archetypes, symbols that evoke powerful emotions by awakening some unconscious memory. Rosicrucians regard themselves as direct descendants of Christian Cabalists infused with Pythagorean doctrine and directly influenced by Paracelsus. Their mythical hero Christian Rosenkreuz was, in fact, prefigured by Paracelsus, a physician-philosopher-theologian who celebrated the immense human power of discovery and creation.

The various degrees conferred in Freemasonry have biblical and cabalistic roots, but rather than being a religious tradition, Freemasonry leads its members to discover the transcendental truths of their own faiths. The esoteric nature of Freemasonry consists not only of the "secretness of their society" but the strivings of its members to attain "exceptional spiritual insight, special grace or admission to a proper brotherhood endowed with the means of leading members to such knowledge."

Ultimately, however, Cabala is a theosophy; that is, "wisdom concerning God or things divine": a way by which God makes God's self known. In short, it is a philosophy of revelation that depends on insight, not intellect, a version of which is the transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau. Perhaps the greatest contribution of theosophy in modern times has been the breaking down of Western prejudices about Eastern religions so that today interest abounds in Eastern traditions.

Early theosophist Jakob Bohme, Rudolph Steiner (founder of anthroposophy, still another way of knowing higher spirituality) and Rene Guenon, whose occult tradition awakens in humans a forgotten intelligence, are but three among dozens of philosophers, visionaries and mystics who deal in occult, alchemy, numerology and various other pursuits and who have contributed to modern esoteric spirituality.

Carl Jung, on the other hand, founder of archetypal psychology, never thought of himself as an esoteric but as a doctor concerned with the sickness of human beings. However, by discerning the link between dreams and other products of the unconscious with spiritual traditions, and then by using this understanding in the healing process, he at least has one foot firmly planted in the esoteric.

Besides that, Jung had long been fascinated by early esoteric Christians who saw gnosis, that is, spiritual knowledge, as a way to help the imprisoned soul become conscious of itself and thus pave the way to redemption. Then, with his insights bolstered by a growing awareness of alchemy, he assigned it a pivotal position as a bridge between gnosticism and the modern psychology of the unconscious.

Jung considered himself a Christian, wholly rooted in Christian conceptions, yet he was "convinced that present-day Christianity does not represent the ultimate truth ... and that a fundamental further development of Christianity is absolutely necessary."

Esotericism is present today more than ever, writes Faivre in his introduction, as an attitude, an ensemble of spiritual forms, a counterpart to our scientific and secularized versions of the world and a way to reconcile the polar extremes of mythic and rational thought.

Volume 21 of Western Spirituality, though not an exhaustive history, is a varied and representative guide through the labyrinth of gnosticism. Throughout nearly two millennia, humans have yearned to climb the high tower, drink from the deep stream, approach the shining altar and see the face of the Beautiful One. And so the book concludes, "The spirit blows where it will."
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Author:Bromberg, Judith
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 5, 1993
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