Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
I’m planning on doing a series of posts on “cosmotheism,” or at least the way the Wouter Hanegraaff describes the concept in his book Esotericism and the Academy. But before I do so, I thought it best to review Hanegraaff’s book, which I had been meaning to do for a while now.
For anyone who attended MHA session on the reassessment of John Brooke’s Refiner’s Fire, both Brooke and I mentioned this book a number of times, and I would simply state here that there isn’t a book that I would recommend more highly for anyone interested in situating Mormonism both historically and intellectually within Christian history.
Western esotericism, Hanegraaff explains, was a series of ideas and practices that various Protestant and Enlightenment thinkers sought to expunge from Western thought and practice. Such ideas often related to supernatural invocations that these thinkers would label “superstition,” “magical,” and “occult” as a means of discrediting them. This expunging project was highly successful as esoteric ideas came to be viewed as illegitimate objects of study and only served as a reminder of the foolish past that the Enlightenment had left behind. “Our imaginal constructs of esoteric or occult otherness are simultaneously constructs of ourselves,” argues Hanegraaff (3).
Such a project did considerable violence to the western intellectual tradition, because it wasn’t until the Enlightenment that these ideas began to be classified as “other.” In reality, the esoteric ideas and been fully integrated in western thought and practice and thus the Enlightenment project greatly obscured our own past.
A major target of those seeking to remove false ideas was Plato. Early modern Protestants in particular saw Plato as a corrupting force and were appalled by contemporary Christians who had embraced Plato. The problem for these Protestants was that as they went back to early Christianity for an ideal model, they found that many of the fathers had embraced Plato as well. Thus they constructed the claim that these fathers had been corrupted by Greek thought and were not reliable guides to Christian thought. Protestants used such a claim to denounce both Catholics and contemporary Platonists.
The rules-of-thumb that seventeenth and eighteenth-century Protestant thinkers developed for determining who was a corrupt Platonists was if they rejected creation ex-nihilo and if they believed in continuing revelation. They chose creation ex-nihilo because it had been developed by early Christians to reject Plato’s model of God creating out of mater in his Timaeus (a common idea in antiquity, creation ex-nihilo was a unique Christian idea that was developed in the second or third century). Platonists tended to reject creation ex-nihilo: a sign of their heterodoxy, said these Protestants. Such thinkers chose belief in revelation as a marker because they argued that mystics beliefs like Quakers’ belief in the inner light was based on Plato’s concept of the nous, or the uncreated, divine part of the soul that if one listened to would lead one back to God and eventual deification.
Yet many Protestant intellectuals wanted to engage in philosophy but felt they had to come up with a way to study Plato without being corrupted by him. Those who developed the modern discipline of the history of philosophy, therefore, invented the bifurcation of “reason” and “revelation.” The Greek philosophers engaged in reason, they argued, but not revelation; revelation was found in scripture (but not in continuing revelation, that made one a corrupt Platonism who believed in the nous). What was important was to keep reason and revelation separate. You could engage in philosophy or “reason” but don’t mix it with religion as the corrupt early fathers had. The Neoplatonists were the worst offenders since they were so blatantly religious in their quest for union with God, and Plato himself was refashioned into a purely and expounder of reason and not religion.
Ultimately, though Hanegraaff never mentions Mormonism, Esotericism and the Academy is extremely valuable for understanding how modern thinkers have categorize modes of thought in opposition to ideas that Mormonism would embrace, and this understanding helps us better situate Mormonism within the history of Christianity.
 Stephen Webb notes the problems with modern views of Plato in his Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn From the Latter-day Saints (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). “This story,” argues Webb, “has to deal with the fact that Plato himself was a lover of stories and many of the stories he told were about heavenly realities and mystical visions.” “The standard story of philosophy, however, treats [stories like] the charioteer as a myth that Plato used for rational, not religious, purposes. The standard story denies that Plato took any of the details of the myth literally (or even seriously).” “By treating Plato as a lover of stories that he did not believe,” Webb complains, “the standard story of philosophy is as hard to believe as any of the stories that Plato told.” Because the Neoplatonists were overtly religious, asserts Webb, “modern philosophers often show little interest in them, and the many thinkers who populate the Platonic tradition … are rarely taught in undergraduate courses.” That the Neoplatonists were seen to be involved with magic makes them even worse in contemporary philosophers minds, argues Webb, and leads such scholars to try to separate the Neoplatonists from Plato. “Plato is the West’s greatest thinker, and to associate him with someone like Iamblichus is to impugn his reputation,” is the attitude of contemporary philosophers, argues Webb. Mormon Christianity, 35, 53-54, 61, 68.