Is spirituality the same as religion

Esotericism and religion: all the same, right?

The outrage was great when it became public in recent weeks that a very large amount was being spent by public authorities on an "esoteric" who allegedly wanted to build an energetic "protective ring", its exact function and shape, as part of a hospital building in Vienna has not yet been given a real definition. The amount that was rumored - 95,000 euros - is indeed exorbitant by all known standards and the call for political responsibility soon showed its consequences. It was noticeable how much this discussion excited the minds. Discussion forums - not only those in the STANDARD - exploded and in particular the activists of the so-called "Skeptiker", the Austrian offshoot of the "Society for the Scientific Investigation of Parawisssenschaften" (GWUP), were able to contribute their expertise by primarily dealing with the "nonsense "Highlighted the character of such a company. The fact that the argument was less "skeptical", but sometimes extremely dogmatic, is another matter.

The Catholic Church reacted cleverly to the scandal and said: "A simple blessing would have been cheaper". Which touches on a topic that will be considered in more detail below. Subliminally present in the discussion is the thesis that something is being presented here that can generally be grouped under the label of religion. Is esotericism simply religion or maybe something completely different that "has nothing to do with religion", as is often claimed in the opposite direction?

Subtle matter, clairvoyance, secret doctrine

Indeed, a scholar of religion can gain quite a bit from the fundamental equation. Purely from the external description there are many elements in the context of esotericism that cannot be distinguished from religious contexts. The very present claim to have a quasi authoritative "higher" knowledge or to have gained insights into otherworldly realities, have a good religious tradition and are not only relevant for various religious founders, but they also play a role in the various religious histories. In both cases something is asserted that eludes empirical verification and from which the "recipient" draws an authority which in turn gains in importance in the interrelation with his environment, which perceives him as a "teacher".

As far as the subject matter of esotericism is concerned, there is often the erroneously asserted thesis that these emerged completely detached from any traditions. It is not so. The material that the Russian author Helena P. Blavatsky (1831-1891) collected in her publications at the end of the 19th century can be described as fundamental for large stretches of what is confronted in the form of common everyday sesotericism. Many common contents, such as the thesis of otherworldly worlds, with which one can come into contact or from which various spiritual "teachers" and intermediary figures would work, the talk of "subtle matter" as a quasi underfing of reality, "clairvoyance" as special Talent or the search for a unifying "secret doctrine" that would form the basis of all religions and philosophies is already formulated in her.

Your important work "The Secret Doctrine" ("Die Geheime Doctrine") contains, for example, at the beginning of a text called the "Book of Dzyan" from an alleged original religion that is said to be the basis of all later religions. On closer inspection, it turns out to be a combination of different quotations, mostly from translations of Indian religious texts known at the time. Despite all the criticism, however, the effect of Blavatsky's writings must not be disregarded. She was undoubtedly a charismatic teacher whose ideas and impulses were effective far beyond the narrow circle of her followers within the framework of the so-called "Theosophical Society".

New Age and the Age of Aquarius

With her work, Blavatsky forms a veritable quarry, which then experienced massive popularization in the twentieth century in the stream of the so-called New Age movement. This current, emanating from the USA, then formed large stretches of contemporary esotericism, both in terms of content and forms of organization. The decisive factor here was the technique of so-called "channeling", that is, the idea that people can function as a "channel" for unearthly messages. Countless "media" were now contacted by all possible otherworldly worlds and the angelic beings living there and entrusted with an allegedly new teaching. The need for communication of the supernatural powers was mostly astonishingly high, which turned many of these conglomerates into extremely extensive compendia, at least in terms of quantity.

In terms of content, however, in most cases there is a constant, mostly tiring, circling around different subject areas. In the often meandering remarks there is talk of the dawn of a new age that would stand under the sign of Aquarius and open to a new "spirituality" - an astonishingly undefined term that can be filled in as you wish - the teachings of rebirth play a major role and the power of Inner life to be discovered. These are only a few fixed points of the surprisingly similar explanations of the communicating spirit beings - from whatever dimensions.

The New Age experienced global popularization, not least because of the high level of interest on the part of well-known personalities and actors. The work of the American actress Shirley McLaine, who landed a bestseller in 1983 with her book "Out on a limb", is almost paradigmatic. In it, she describes her own journey through the many offers of the New Age, which was virtually omnipresent, especially on the American west coast. The film adaptation from 1987, a five-hour TV mini-series broadcast in several parts, in which many of the esoteric offers of the time are presented, led to the worldwide dissemination of central theses. The 80s and 90s were undoubtedly the culmination of this specific tradition.

Trailer for Shirley Maclaine's mini-series "Out on a limb".

No organization

Esotericism definitely has a history with important teachers and reference texts. With all similarities, however, differences must also be noted, which exist primarily between religion in the sense of the traditional "religions = religious communities" and the various forms of esotericism. The forms of organization in particular are very different from religions in terms of their traditional and institutionalized character. In the context of esotericism, there is either no organization at all or a large variety of small-scale forms of organization and only a few esoteric traditions have created institutions that are comparable to traditional forms of religious organization. There are, for example, simple book authors whose books can be bought by interested parties. However, a real following can develop here as well. A good example is the development around the publications of the US American successful author Neal Donald Walsch, who presented an esoteric bestseller with the trilogy "Conversations with God", which is now being worked on worldwide in regular reading groups and read together.

The classic form is the teacher of a small community, who is accepted by them because of his authority. In most cases, the content of these is based on the patterns of the esoteric tradition already mentioned, but of course they also have to vary. The mutual competition for potential customers, incidentally mostly female, is very great. A closer look at such communities reveals the growing authority and the gradual expansion of the content and the often changing stylization of the founder.

The organizational level and, above all, the absence of structures in the context of esotericism, however, also has content-related consequences. In esotericism, there tends to be a single teacher who claims to present a "new", more genuine teaching. In most cases, the offers are astonishingly similar, which is why a kind of overbidding competition is automatically triggered. Although the lack of a religiously legitimized hierarchy is at first glance something positive, it does result in an area in which there are no regulations for deviations and problematic developments. It can sometimes be observed that such small-scale structures can develop restrictive features because they can (but do not have to!) Create a distinct contrast between "inside" and "outside". There is just such a thing in traditional religious communities, but there should be less one-sided focus on a single person because a superordinate apparatus sets limits - the religious hierarchies in turn create other problems is another matter.

Important impulses

The scientific examination of the culturally highly significant tradition of esotericism also has a long scientific tradition. In Amsterdam in particular, a center for research in the area known as "Western Esotericism" was established, where an attempt is made to establish a well-founded cultural-historical classification based on strictly scientific criteria and based on texts and their traditions. What became clear in the course of this research is the great importance of this tradition and its presence in many areas. Esoteric teachings, for example, provided important impulses, especially in the context of art or literature. It is precisely this that has to be stated without coming straight away with the "nonsense club".

In addition, the esoteric tradition apparently fulfilled a certain function, particularly in the context of the changes in the religious landscape in Europe in the 20th century. Esotericism, which was originally more of an elitist phenomenon for artists and intellectuals, became really widespread, especially from the late 1970s, when the exodus from the traditional communities, i.e. in particular the Christian churches, created a vacuum that at times coincided with the Tradition of esotericism was filled. Here one must not fall into the mistake that leaving the churches almost "automatically" leads to other religious forms.

"Sects" and exploitation

The competition with traditional religions just outlined also led to an increasing critical perception of esotericism, which came from different sides and is still having an impact today. In addition to ecclesiastical-theological objections, which mostly still offered the most well-founded form of discussion, there were reservations on the part of psychology or general ideological-philosophical criticism - for example the perception of a return of gnosis - which were also felt in the 80s and 90s. Years was very closely interwoven with the then highly topical "sect" discussion. Parts of it continue to have an effect to this day when, for example, the supposedly high "exploitative character" of the esoteric providers is pushed to the fore in the criticism. This cannot really be established empirically and the question of whether individual cases are dragged forward here may at least be asked.

The numbers that are repeatedly rumored about the "esoteric market" are also pure conjectures that have never been subjected to any real empirical investigation. The main question would be what would be included in these alleged amounts in the millions. In any case, various assumed figures appeared in the media from the end of the 1980s and have been increased by astonishing exponents every decade since then - probably in the sense of adjusting inflation. Nothing at all is secured. And it is in contradiction to the few studies on the reality of esoteric providers, who in very few cases can make a living from their programs and offers. And by the way, they don't really want to: Courses in this segment are often taken in order to gain personal experience.

From the church - into esotericism?

In this context in particular, one has to note in relation to the current situation that esotericism has seen better days. The thesis that people who leave the churches automatically fall prey to either "sects" or "esotericism" has not really been fulfilled. Rather, most people leave religious institutions in an indifferent attitude, sometimes combined with a very critical attitude towards religion itself. The often invoked "return of religion" or the - mostly very vaguely defined - "spirituality" arose more from the wishful thinking of those who propagated it. In the form of the colorful tradition of contemporary esotericism, it was certainly not carried out. (Franz Winter, 9.5.2018)

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