Research Agenda

RENSEP’s mission is to promote and advance the interdisciplinary and comparative study of esoteric practices from a global perspective, foremost through its online platform that allows theoretical and practical researchers from different backgrounds and disciplines to meet and exchange their analyses and interpretations of esoteric practices from an open-minded, data-based, apolitical, and non-ideological perspective. Besides this online platform, RENSEP provides funds for the study of esoteric practices, e.g., for queries and other forms of data-collection, for building databases, for organising conferences and workshops, for awarding short-term (e.g. travel) grants as well as longer-term PhD fellowships, for supporting related network initiatives, or for financing relevant publication projects. RENSEP’s research agenda is multidisciplinary , yet it has a particular focus on the core disciplines of the history of religion, anthropology, psychology (including the cognitive science of religion as well as neurosciences), and arts.

With regard to research in the history of religion, RENSEP is not in the position to fund fully-fledged research projects on the history of esoteric practices, which typically consume significant timely and monetary resources. Yet, RENSEP wishes to further historical research into esoteric practices through providing short-term grants (1-3 months) for visiting manuscript libraries or archives, depending on the relevance and originality of the respective research project.

Through its focus on the field of anthropology, RENSEP wishes to move beyond Western or Europeanist research foci and adopt a global perspective on esoteric practices. Again, RENSEP cannot fund fully-fledged anthropological research projects, apart from granting occasional PhD fellowships. RENSEP’s strategy is here to systematically collaborate with CAS-E, the Center for Advanced Studies ‘Alternative Rationalities and Esoteric Practices from a Global Perspective’ at the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, and potentially other anthropology-oriented research institutes that focus on esoteric practices. RENSEP’s first PhD project in the field of anthropology is that of Zheng Liu on the curriculum on a contemporary Chinese I Ching diviner. Furthermore, RENSEP will launch the video project ‘gems from the field’ which presents unpublished original video footage from fieldwork in the anthropological study of esoteric practices with commentaries and interviews.

RENSEP’s approach to psychological research will be three-pronged. RENSEP acknowledges recent approaches in the cognitive study of religion which have mapped and explored mental processes that increase the likeliness of human actors to believe in counterintuitive agents or to ascribe outer-worldly efficacy to rituals. Whereas this type of research is now well-established, RENSEP intends to move beyond the current psychological paradigm in two directions. First, RENSEP intends to fund research projects that work with re-enactments of ritual procedures, particularly of group rituals, in a controlled and systematic manner in order to explore the effects of such rituals on the human psyche as well as further repercussions. Second, RENSEP wishes to engage in research that systematically tests the efficacy of select esoteric practices in a controlled, experimental manner. In doing so, RENSEP will neither endorse a practitioner – or religionist – perspective on esoteric practices, nor content itself with the common academic habit to explain away the purported effects of esoteric practices by pointing to socio-psychological or cognitive ‘make-believe’ processes. Especially when it comes to the realm of magical efficacy, a systematic and experimental study of magic has yet to emerge, hence the validity of both perspectives – the a priori acceptance or the a priori rejection of extra-mental efficacy – hitherto remains entirely speculative, or even purely ideological, and thus open to critical scholarly assessment. RENSEP promotes the emergence of an evidence-based study of magic that moves beyond these two suppositions and explores the topic in a truly scientific, i.e., inquisitive, neutral, open-ended, and non-ideological manner. RENSEP is willing to fund experimental studies that push the boundaries of accepted academic enquiries further into this unexplored territory.

RENSEP also has a special interest in esoteric art as it is a medium that may thematise esoteric practices vis-à-vis the wider public, but that may also become esoteric practice in and of itself. It is particularly the latter phenomenon – the entanglement of esoteric and artistic practices – that interests RENSEP, in line with its praxeological approach. Through art’s transgressive nature in cultural discourses as well as its potential to play with subtleties, nuances and ambivalences, art has the potential to promote interest in esoteric practices and propel lively interactions and discussions across various discourses and milieus. RENSEP therefore funds short-term (1-3 months) artist’s projects and activities in connection with its research partners ( HHP, Cini, Fulgur ), and envisages a huge, collaborative conference in 2024 on the relationship between art and esoteric practices.

Priorities for 2023

2023 will be the first year of RENSEP’s scientific activities and funding scheme, hence its priorities lie on projects that (a) strongly correspond to and exemplify RENSEP’s research agenda; (b) have a strategic component in that they enhance RENSEP’s collaborations with pivotal research partners (e.g., HHP, CAS-E, Rice); (c) fill current gaps in scholarly research on esoteric practices, thus heightening RENSEP’s perceived academic value and reputation; (d) stretch and transcend common boundaries of research into esoteric practices by engaging with topics that university-funded research tends to avoid, and by establishing strategic collaborations with practitioners for the co-production of knowledge on esoteric practices; and (e) have an extraordinary or unusual scope, thus heightening public perception and awareness of RENSEP. In general, as funds are limited, RENSEP’s approach should invest in projects where minimal funds may yield the greatest outcome.