Definitions are a tricky business in the present-day humanities. Recent debates about critical categories in the study of religion, and about the problem of essentialism, in particular, suggest that the time of monothetic or otherwise substantialist definitions of esotericism, occultism, magic, or any other basic category in the study of religion, is over. RENSEP therefore opts for a multifactorial heuristic working definition of esoteric practices that, much like a typological matrix, combines four dimensions. The matrix reflects our conviction that esoteric practices are part and parcel of the history of religions in more general terms, but that there are four distinctive elements that help demarcating these practices from other types of religious behavior: 1) Controllability; 2) Individualisation; 3) Self-empowerment; 4) Experience. These distinctive elements may also be interpreted as positionings on one side of four polar spectra.
Esoteric practices tend to be characterised by a controllability of spiritual matters, processes, or encounters, often through elaborate ritual techniques; on the other side of the spectrum is the assumption that spiritual matters, external spiritual entities, or one’s destiny, are largely uncontrollable, stereotypically condensed in the monotheistic creed ‘Thy will be done’.
Esoteric practices tend to focus on the individual will, on self-development, and on individualised forms of spiritual truth-seeking; on the other side of the spectrum is the focus on the collective, on religious communities or traditions, and on complying with the respective norms and truth claims.
Esoteric practices tend to ascribe substantial power or ritual agency to the individual practitioner; on the other side of the spectrum is the ascription of agency to external actors, institutions, or entities, e.g., to priests, churches, or God’s.
Esoteric practices tend to stress the importance of personal experiences which may, over time, lead to the development of elaborate systems of experience-based praxis-knowledge, and strategies of secrecy due to the ineffable nature of these experiences; on the other side of the spectrum is the more or less unquestioned belief in given doctrines or truth claims of religious communities or leaders, devoid of any intense personal experiences.
The RENSEP team believes that, ambivalences notwithstanding, this multifactorial working definition helps to identify esoteric practices within and beyond larger religious traditions and institutions. The matrix may be used pragmatically to test whether any particular case or practice can be considered esoteric – and thus relevant for the work of RENSEP –, according to its positioning on all four of the above-mentioned spectra. Applying and fine-tuning this matrix is an ongoing and shared endeavour, wherefore we hope to get constructive feedback, critique as well as improvement suggestions by all RENSEP members.