Western Esotericism and the Science of Religion

Western Esotericism and the Science of Religion

Ed. Antoine Faivre and Wouter J. Hanegraaff
Leuven, Belgium: Peeters (Herndon, VA: Books International), 1998, Paperback, xviii +309 pages.

The study of esotericism has become an academic discipline- not widespread, but intensely pursued by a dedicated group of scholars. The preface and first three papers of this volume consider formal aspects of the discipline. The remaining nine papers treat particular esoteric subjects, including contrasting views of the Otherworld, alchemy, Kabbalah, Illuminism, and an essay by Garry W. Trompf on "Macrohistory in Blavatsky, Steiner and Guenon," examining the cosmology and planetary history set forth by Blavatsky and elaborated or reacted to in various ways by others.

Jan Snoek's paper, "On the Creation of Masonic Degrees: A Method and Its Fruits," can be taken as a sample of what this volume provides. Snoek offers a theory of the origin of "higher" Masonic degrees, that is, degrees other than the three basic ones of Craft Masonry. It uses a "Sherlock Holmes" or detective method of historical research, which seeks to explain a phenomenon by looking for a practical problem that the phenomenon was designed to solve.

Snoek's proposal links three events in early Masonic history: a published "exposure" of Masonic secrets in 1730 (just thirteen years after the London organization of the Grand Lodge); a schism in Masonic organization between a new group calling themselves the "Ancients" and the original Grand Lodge, which the schismatics called the "Moderns"; and the development of new degrees in addition to the original three. The proposal, briefly, is as follows.

The Third Degree ritual involves a dramatic representation of the murder, burial, and raising of the chief architect of King Solomon's Temple, Hiram, with the initiate playing the central role. The 1730 exposure included the following question and answer describing part of that drama:

Where was Hiram inter'd? [Response:] In the Sanctum Sanctorum.

The "Sanctum Sanctorum'' is the Holy of Holies of the Temple- the inmost shrine, where the Arc of the Covenant was kept and where God himself resided. No merely human body could be buried there. Since Hiram was buried there, he must have been God, who was slain and was to be resurrected. That is, the Masonic ritual was a true Mystery drama, the purpose of which was to effect the union of the initiate with the divine, achieved by a symbolic death and resurrection.

The revelation of this secret meaning of the Masonic ritual in the 1730 exposure was a scandal for two reasons. It made public the central mystery of the Freemasonic ritual; and it was heresy in the eyes of the established Church-asserting, as it did, a way to achieve unity with the Godhead-outside ecclesiastical jurisdiction. As a consequence, the Grand Lodge immediately expurgated the ritual by dropping the explicit burial of Hiram in the Holy of Holies.

The loss of the central clue to the meaning of the Masonic drama created a problem for those Freemasons who honored the esoteric value of their ritual. Some sought to restore the integrity of the Mystery ritual by forming a new Grand Lodge, calling itself "Ancient" because it wanted to preserve the landmark divinizing the initiate, as distinct from its excision by the "Modems." Others began to develop alternative workings that preserved the Grand Secret, possibly beginning as early as 1733 with Scots Master Masons lodges in London and Bath, and later with the development of additional degrees, including the Royal Arch and still later the Christianized Rose Croix degree.

Snoek marshals many details from early Masonic practice that his theory explains. His theory also makes sense out of the curiously mutilated version of the ritual drama in contemporary Masonic practice, which descends from the Grand Lodge's expurgated version. Furthermore, it is interesting because it casts light on the origins of a controversy in present-day Freemasonry, some of whose members see the Craft as devoted to social interests (in either sense of "clubby" or "socially conscientious") whereas others see it as an Esoteric Mystery practice of a transformative nature. There is, as Ecclesiastes says, nothing new under the sun.

The new scholarly study of esotericism, in which Faivre and Hanegraaff are moving figures, has much to offer all who are interested in the subject, either as outside observers or as inside participants.


January/February 2001