Friday, February 21, 2014

Burns on gnosis/esotericism/mysticism distinction+terminology debates

"Yet is there moreto be gained from careful attention to this language than ground in scholarly turf-wars? Yes: Precise surveys of terminology are not a matter of philological arcana.For instance, Wouter J. Hanegraaf has argued that the Hermetica assign a spe-cial status to the term “gnosis” as a kind of superior knowledge derived from visionary states, crowning a hierarchy of epistemological initiations

 However, even the casual reader of this volume willsee how relatively unimportant the term “gnosis” was to even the “Gnostics”themselves; rather, a wide range of epistemological lexemes were employed todiscuss matters of revelation and secret knowledge. Moreover, Christian Bull’sarticle in the volume carefully demonstrates that Hermetic mystery-language was ‘more concerned with the hidden forces residing within the cosmos than ith hypercosmic realities’ that are ‘directly accessible’ to a visionary (p.422).If we agree with both analyses, should we draw a systematic distinction betweenHermetic “gnosis” (visionary knowledge of the beyond) and Hermetic “mys-tery” (visionary knowledge of the cosmos)? Of course not, because the sources themselves imply no such grand distinction between “gnosis” and “mystery”.This volume’s attention to the language of mystery and secrecy in ancient religions shows how wary scholars ought to be of over-systematizing the very diverse vocabulary used by a diversity of ancients to discuss a range of discourses and practices. This is not to say that a more generalizing approach to the problem of secrecy and esotericism in ancient religion ought to be avoided in future scholarly  work. On the contrary, the facts that 1) few of the papers explain why we should find mystery-language a compelling subject in the history of religions,2)still fewer engage previous work on thesubject(i.e.,by engaging Simmel and Stroumsa), and 3) no paper engages scholarship on “Western Esotericism” per se should inspire further engagement between the contributors to this volume and readers of this journal. If “esotericism”(or“gnosis”,if the researcher prefers) qua absolute knowledge mediated within a discourse of secrecy and revelation is a modern scholarly construct we can use to understand neglected currentsin the history of Western thought, we should expect a diversity of terminology to have been used by past participants in these currents"