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Wouter Hanegraaff

Tuesday, August 11:30 a.m. | HS 5
Fantastic Religion: Esoteric Fictionality and the Invention of Tradition

Wouter Hanegraaff, University of Amsterdam

The focus of this lecture is on the ambiguous interface between fiction and historical narration in literary, religious, and scholarly texts that are concerned with delineating “esoteric” traditions. The “invention of tradition” is a well-known and crucial dimension of esoteric identity-formation, from Renaissance concepts of a prisca theologia to Rosicrucian or Masonic narratives about secret brotherhoods, and from Theosophical accounts of fabulous lost civilizations to contemporary New Age visions of Sirius or the Pleiades as the cosmic source of spiritual wisdom. While such stories may strike us as obvious fantasies, it is by no means evident that influential academic narratives by bona fide scholars (for instance Frances Yates’ “Hermetic Tradition”, or Eric Voegelin’s tradition of “gnostic politics”) fall in an entirely different category: on the contrary, it is not very difficult to show that these authors likewise invented the very traditions that they believed they had discovered. All these narratives seem to have at least one thing in common: their power to persuade and convince is based not primarily on scholarly arguments or factual evidence but, rather, on their ability to speak to the imagination. It follows that in order to handle the interface between historicity and fictionality, we need to improve our understanding of how the human faculty of imagination functions in historical scholarship. What does it really mean to say that certain historical narratives about religious traditions “speak to the imagination”? What are the chief “affordances” that make it possible even for a partly or completely fictional narrative to affect the imagination of readers in such a way that they are likely to accept it as plausible and persuasive? Modern scholars of religion tend to be somewhat suspicion of the imagination as a focus of intellectual reflection and analysis, mainly because of the widespread reaction since the 1980s against neo-Romantic “religionist” perspectives and their apparatus of mythical archetypes, universal symbols, or a mundus imaginalis. But to neglect or ignore the imagination for such reasons would be a clear case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Instead, scholars who are working with critical empirical and historical methods need to reclaim the imagination from religionist discourse, and reconceptualize it as a crucial focus of investigation and Analysis.