Pagan University – The Ritual of Graduation

Graduation is a pagan ritualYesterday I took part in a pagan ritual. No, I did not dance naked around a camp fire or undertake an invocation of ancient gods. The heathen ritual I took part in was a contemporary university graduation to receive my MBA degree.

The pomp and circumstance of the academic dress and procession seem to be innocent reminders of ancient traditions to add gravitas to the moment of graduation. The ritualistic aspects of the ceremony and the continuous doffing of the at the chancellor are, however, all part of an elaborate pagan ceremony.

One particular moment, the conferring of the degree, can only be described as magical. Not magic in the sense that the ceremony has an ethereal atmosphere, but magic in the literal sense of the word. The conferring of the degree is in its very essence a mystical moment.

All graduands were standing and the Chancellor conferred the degree upon us. Even though she did not use any incantations nor did she invoke any occult forces, the conferring of the degrees is a moment of magic. It is only from that point forward that I could by right call myself a Master in Business Administration. Even those who decided not to attend the ceremony did not escape the magic powers of the Chancellor, as also they had their degrees conferred upon them by the power invested in her.

It seems rather strange that a rational organisation such as a university uses archaic and irrational practices to finalise several years of intense rational work. Although the purpose of academic education is to hone rational thinking skills, the process is concluded in an irrational moment.

Although it might not be sensed by contemporary graduands as being just that, there is no significant difference between the conferring of the degree and the activities of a witch doctor or priest bestowing a blessing.

Given the fact that the vast majority of graduands chose to attend the ceremony, rather than being provided with their degree  through the mail, shows that no matter how rational we think we are, we all require a magical and non-rational moments.

Immanuel Kant the Mystic?

Immanuel Kant the Mystic?I recently bought an English translation of the Critique of Pure Reason, which has this picture on the front page.

The interesting thing about this engraving is that Kant is surrounded by the mythical snake Ouroboros. I have yet to find out exactly what is meant with this etching, as the combination of Immanuel Kant and mysticism is a bit puzzling.

According to the book, it is an engraving by J. Chapman. There is an American artists named John Gadsby Chapman (1808–1889) who was a Freemason, judging by his painting The Masters Carpet in the George Washington Masonic National Memorial.

I would love to know more about this portrait of Kant and what the idea is between the combination of him and the mystical snake. Any suggestions?

Pyramidology or pyramidiot?

pyramidologyOne of my favourite past times is reading different theories about the Egyptian pyramids. I am collecting books on this topic from every available perspective—from the factual archaeological approach, to the, sometimes outlandish, alternative approaches.

An interesting spin-off of this phenomenon is the debate between the rational scientists and the proponents of alternative theories, between the Egyptologists and pyramidologists.

Some scientists refer to alternative theories as Pyramidiocy. I agree that the majority of pyramidological theories is based on speculation and unwarranted arguments. The scientists are, however, missing an important point. There is more to pyramidology than meets the eye. The ongoing disenchantment of the world and the decrease of organised religion causes people to search for meaning outside the normal parameters. The Egyptian pyramids, and many other ancient archaeological sites, are a great vehicle for meaning.

They are enigmatic for many reasons: they are enormous structures, built with perplexing accuracy, built by a civilisation that did not have access to modern technology and that left no writing behind regarding their construction and function.

Because historiographical methodology is not able to provide any certain truth about events from the past, there is a lot of room for alternative explanations. While the Egyptologists, for example, are convinced that the pyramids were tombs, pyramidologists point out that there is no evidence to prove this fact. From a methodological point of view, pyramidologists are justified in denying this. Just because there is an artifact inside the pyramid of Khufu that looks like a sarcophagus does not mean that it is a necessary truth that it is a tomb. History can only deal in likelihoods, not in absolute truth.

It is essential for the pyramid to be a vehicle for meaning that the Egyptologists are proven ‘wrong’. Egyptological explanations can not provide meaning because it deals in historiographical, not philosophical truth. Egyptology as a science is necessary rational and dry and stays away from speculation. Pyramidology uses the vacuum created through this exsanguated approach by developing theories that go beyond science. The pyramids thus become a vehicle for meaning, rather than just a huge ancient tomb.

Pyramidology has been around for a while, but has been no more prolific than the second half of the last century. It is an interesting cultural phenomena and scientists should not waste their time on deciding truth or falsity of these theories, but investigate the broader philosophical perspective.

The Occult in Modern Culture

Masconic headstone at Malbork castle.

Masconic headstone at Malbork castle.

The occult—literally the hidden—plays a very minor role in contemporary society. This is, however, only a recent phenomenon as esotericism has played an important role in Western culture until the early twentieth century.

Several well known artists such as Mondriaan, Duchamp and Kandinsky were heavily influenced by esoteric traditions. Nowadays, followers of occultism are placed in the same category as those who believe that Elvis is still alive.

The social status of occultism has been demoted. The most important cause of this, according to Gibbons (2003), is the meeting between the Beatles and Maharashi Mahesh Yogi in 1967 and the subsequent mass-popularisation and vulgarisation of esoteric knowledge, commonly known as New Age.1

I concur with Gibbons that the proliferation of New Age as a social movement and the vulgarisation of esoteric knowledge is one of the reasons that esotericism is now not acknowledged as one of the major sources of Western culture. The advent of science has, of course, a role to play as well. History is always a rewriting of past events and in most current histories, the influence of the occult on Western culture is simply ignored. It is no secret that Newton, the genius of modern science, was preoccupied with alchemy. History writing does, however, make the assumption that his alchemy and his physics are two separate entities. In many histories esotericism is viewed as an aberration in cultural history.

During a recent visit to Poland I came across some nice examples of esoteric symbolism. This photo is taken at Malbork castle, a former stronghold of the Teutonic knights. This is a detail of a headstone showing some Masonic symbols. The Teutonic knights were a crusading order of knights under Roman Catholic religious vows. Their Christianity obviously did not prevent them from using occult symbolism, a combination which nowadays would be met with great suspicion.

The serious study of esotericism unveils forces within the history of Western culture that contemporary cultural studies ignore. Whether you are a believer or not, the influence of the occult on Western culture cannot be ignored.

  1. Tom Gibbons, The occult and early modernism, Quadrant (November 2003), p. 82-84. 

The Validity of Religious Experiences

The Blues Brothers having a religious experience

The Blues Brothers having a religious experience

The question of the epistemology of religious experience deals with the issue whether information obtained through religious experiences can be considered valid knowledge. For a brief introduction into different forms of religious experience, see my paper on that subject.

Information obtained through religious experiences, which I shall further refer to as Revelation, is not considered valid knowledge in contemporary society mainly because the information obtained through revelation can not be verified. Religious experience is thus a very personal experience and unique knowledge, only available to the person receiving the revelation. The receiver of the information is the only one who is able to interpret the revelation and communicates it as thus to the wider world.

In pre-industrial society power was vested in the intermediaries between the transcendent and the immanent. The Latin word Pontifex (priest) illustrates this beautifully as it also means ‘bridge’. The priest as bridge builder between the material and the spiritual worlds.

Knowledge gained through revelation is unique and invests power into the person receiving that knowledge as they are the only ones capable of interpreting the information. Knowledge in this sense is esoteric, only available to a small group of people.

Empirical philosophy has, in combination with rationalism, revolutionised human knowledge of the material world. This combination has been an important and powerful tool. Where does this leave revelation? Can we simply say that revelation is not relevant and that religious experiences are mere delusions?

Because revelation is always esoteric knowledge, every experience is interpreted different, depending on the cultural and psychological dispositions of the person receiving the revelation. An important question to be asked is why a Hindu does not receive revelations concerning Jesus Christ or any other cross cultural experiences?

Religious experiences are particular and esoteric. In a society where knowledge is available to anyone through empiricism (although this is not completely true as we do not all have a particle accelerator in our backyard) the Pontifex has lost his power over society as the sole interpreter of knowledge.

The consequence of this, however, is that we have thrown the baby with the bathwater by ignoring religious experience as a valid source of knowledge.

I believe that religious experience can be a valid source of information to make decisions about non material things. It can people guidance about their life, which can have a very profound impact on their lives in the ‘real’ world. Religious experiences also have an effect on how we interpret the material world which shapes our world views.