Until recently the academic world paid almost no attention to the Western mystical and esoteric traditions. If any scholars strayed into these areas, they did so gingerly and apologetically, often feeling the need to sneer at these currents as a way of safeguarding their reputations.
This situation began to change in the 1980s. A small group of academic scholars in mainstream universities began to pay serious attention to esotericism as a formative part of the Western spiritual and intellectual culture.
Arthur Versluis (left) is one of the central figures in this development. Chairman of the department of religious studies at Michigan State University in the US, he has helped form a community of academics that share these interests. He is the founding president of the Association for Esoteric Studies, the leading academic research group in the US in this field, and founder of the online journal Esoterica.
Versluis’s books include The Secret History of Western Sexual Mysticism: Sacred Practices and Spiritual Marriage (2008), Magic and Mysticism: An Introduction to Western Esotericism (2007); The New Inquisitions: Heretic-Hunting and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Totalitarianism (2006); Restoring Paradise: Esoteric Transmission through Literature and Art (2004); The Esoteric Origins of the American Renaissance (2001); Wisdom’s Book: The Sophia Anthology (2000); Wisdom’s Children: A Christian Esoteric Tradition (1999); and American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions (1993).
His 2014 book, American Gurus: From Transcendentalism to New Age Religion, traces the rise of spiritual teachers outside the folds of religious traditions. Many of them claim to teach various forms of instant or immediate enlightenment.
In October 2015, I conducted an e-mail interview with Versluis to discuss American Gurus.
RICHARD SMOLEY (RS): One of the main themes of American Gurus is a phenomenon called immediatism. Could you talk a little bit about that?
ARTHUR VERSLUIS (AV): Immediatism refers to a religious assertion of spontaneous, direct, unmediated spiritual insight into reality (typically with little or no prior training), which some claim is enlightenment. It refers to a claim of a “pathless path” to religious enlightenment, because the immediatist says “away with all ritual and practices!” and claims that direct spiritual awakening or enlightenment is possible at once, without meditation or years of guided praxis. In American Gurus, I show that an immediatist approach to enlightenment is deeply embedded in the contemporary religious scene, and is fundamentally a modern New Age phenomenon with some historical antecedents.
RS: How has this quality of immediatism played itself out in the America of the last 150 years?
AV: As I said, immediatism as discussed in the book is really a phenomenon of the last several decades. Of course, some antecedents are visible in Anglo-European American literature in much earlier authors. I argue that if contemporary American immediatism has a single ancestor to whom it owes the most, that figure is Ralph Waldo Emerson. In the book, I show that Emerson is much more deeply influenced by Platonism than is usually acknowledged today, and further, I discuss his work in terms of Emerson’s own gnostic experience. Literary critic Harold Bloom was right when he said that in American literature, the titanic figure is Emerson, and one can measure American literature as being before and after Emerson. Of course, Bloom wants to cordon off the term Gnostic to refer to the world-rejecting perspective attributed to it by Hans Jonas and those who follow his existentialist, early-twentieth-century interpretation of “Gnosticism” in late antiquity. However, in my usage, gnosis and gnostic have only their generic implications of one who claims direct spiritual insight, a “gnostic” being someone who experiences gnosis, or illumination. Emerson is the archetypal American figure in this regard.
But strictly, speaking, Emerson is best described as a Platonist, whereas immediatism discussed in the latter half of the book is a contemporary or relatively recent New Age phenomenon based to a considerable extent, though by no means exclusively, in Neo-Advaitic Hinduism, or what is known as the “satsang movement.”
RS: You contrast immediatism with Platonism. What are some of the main differences between the two?
AV: Platonism, like Buddhism and Hinduism, includes contemplative practices and rituals. As I show in my new book Perennial Philosophy [see excerpt, ‘Leaving the Cave’, on page 60], Platonism centres on the contemplative ascent and illumination, and although it does not exclude the possibility of immediate illumination without praxis, it also certainly is not based in that. Immediatism, on the other hand, typically represents a claim that one does not need practices or ritual, but simply needs to be in the presence of a guru, or, sometimes, that one needs to do nothing at all. Immediatism is quite attractive in a New Age consumerist marketplace because it doesn’t ask anything in particular of us, but tells us that we’re “always already” “enlightened.”
RS: Which of these do you feel more in sympathy with?
AV: My admiration for and understanding of Platonism continues to grow. Plotinus is an extraordinary figure, whose work Enneads should be read by everyone in the West who feels called to an inner life. But Platonism is not like Buddhism, which has so many available teachers and gurus, as well as a wide range of practices and traditions.
RS: One figure that you discuss at length is Robert Anton Wilson. Both in Wilson and the Discordian movement there’s obviously a great deal of spoofing going on. Where do you think the joking stops and the serious message begins? Could you comment on Wilson’s work a little and say why it’s significant?
AV: Robert Anton Wilson is an entertaining figure, and of course Discordianism and variants of or like it are often quite funny. I think one of the more interesting connections mentioned in the book are the links between Wilson and various magical practitioners, authors, and groups, including Christopher Hyatt, Lon Milo DuQuette, and others who might be grouped roughly in the category of “left-hand” magic. In fact, one of the other authors in a volume Wilson contributed to says directly “We are Black Magicians.” I think Wilson’s work needs to be understood in the context of overcoming monotheistic and other forms of what he would call “programming” as well as in the context of going beyond dualities, but as an individualist and a spiritual anarchist. He specialises in semantic disorientation toward those ends.
RS: Could you comment about William S. Burroughs and his relation to this tradition?
AV: Burroughs is quite different from many of the other figures discussed in the book. He rejects traditional religions, and offers instead what he calls a “Magical Universe” full of gods and demons in conflict. His magical world is harsh, demonic, characterised by paranoia, and could be described as a kind of cosmic confidence game. He is a somewhat sinister and fascinating figure. I’d suggest readers take a listen to the Bill Laswell album that includes Burroughs reading passages from his novel The Western Lands to get a sense of his unmistakable voice. Critical accounts of his work have not fully taken into account his occultism, for the most part. But his work represents more of a reference point in the book, not a main subject.
RS: Could you talk a little bit about the Traditionalist Frithjof Schuon and the kind of Sufism that he came to embrace?
AV: The book really doesn’t focus on Schuon or Traditionalism, but rather mentions them in passing as a reference point. Broadly speaking, I think Traditionalists would dismiss many of the more recent figures discussed in the book as spiritually harmful and deluded. I think it’s pretty clear that Schuon and his circle emphasise spiritual practices and thus aren’t immediatist in the way that, say, Andrew Cohen might be.
RS: Another figure you discuss is Peter Lamborn Wilson, who has embraced what he regards as a radical, heretical Islam. What would you say are some of the most significant things about Wilson and his work?
AV: I know Peter – we published my conversation with him in JSR: Journal for the Study of Radicalism a few years back. I talk to him from time to time. He is one of the liveliest intellects I know, a voracious reader, and full of interesting and surprising ideas. I think the radical, antinomian aspects of some offshoots of Sufism both influenced and appeal to him. He is fundamentally what I call a spiritual anarchist, and a real American character.
RS: At the end of your book you discuss a number of self-styled enlightened masters ranging from Andrew Cohen to Franklin Jones (Adi Da) to Ken Wilber. You mention that teachings of love and compassion seem more or less absent from their discourse. Could you say a little bit about why?
AV: In the last chapter, I quote Georg Feuerstein’s critique of some of the guru figures you mention. He argues, as do a number of others, that it’s possible to believe one has reached the end of a spiritual path when one actually has only gone partially down it, for instance. It might well be that some people who claim enlightenment have realised something, but have not gone through all the stages as described, for instance, in Buddhist descriptions of the stages leading to enlightenment. Lama Surya Das refers to such claims, cleverly, as “premature immaculation.” One can’t discount the possibility of less charitable interpretations as well, of course.
RS: One of the most striking conclusions in your book is that the whole immediatist strain in American spirituality could be viewed as part of the absorption of Asian religions, notably Hinduism and Buddhism, in American culture. Many of the self-styled enlightened masters seem to have an affinity for the Hindu Advaita tradition in particular. Could you suggest why this might be?
AV: One of two epigraphs for the book as a whole is a remark by pollster George Gallup, Jr., who observed, “Americans want the fruit of religion, but not its obligations.” I think there’s a lot of truth to that, and it does help explain why what’s called “Neo-Advaita” Vedanta is popular; it tends to require only that one show up for satsang, or an audience with a Neo-Advaitic guru. But there’s a larger frame, which is the emergence of the New Age movement more generally. The basic idea of a “New Age” is that it just happens to you; it is fundamentally more passive and consumerist than based in traditional practices. It lends itself to spiritual consumerism.
RS: How do you believe these impulses – notably the influence of Asian religions – will develop in our civilisation in the time to come?
AV: This is really an interesting question to explore. Asian religions in America, in particular Buddhism and Hinduism, but also Taoism and others, are becoming acclimated, but also are beginning to be Americanised and, more broadly, Westernised. Thus there are a number of practitioners and teachers who see themselves as maintaining the essence of the religious tradition, but at the same time adapting it to the modern American or Western context. Of course, one argument is that some of them, for instance, many Neo-Advaitin teachers, have so essentialised the tradition as to have created something else, which critics argue is diminished into a variant of New Age consumerism. And that is the argument that may often be wielded. But one also has to recognise that as Asian religions become rooted in the West, especially the gnostic initiatory lineages, it is inevitable they also adapt and are adapted to new and very different cultural contexts. An example of this would be the German teacher of Zen Buddhism and mysticism, Willigis Jäger. Another would be B. Alan Wallace, who has a Ph.D. in religious studies and is also a teacher of Tibetan Buddhism. And there are many others, in different traditions. This phenomenon will continue to develop, I’m sure – it is arguably the most important religious development in the West since the emergence of Protestantism.
American Gurus: From Transcendentalism to New Age Religion (Oxford University Press, 2014) is available from all good bookstores and online sellers. Professor Arthur Versluis has a website at www.arthurversluis.com.
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