Historian as Heretic: Conflicting Perspectives on Theosophical History

by K. Paul Johnson, 2003

The 1990s were fruitful years for books on religious history and biography. With a increase in publications came a corresponding increase in controversy. Several books reconstructing the historical Jesus were widely read, but provoked strong negative reactions from some Christian believers. My own books on Madame Blavatsky presented a radical new interpretation of Theosophical origins that aroused controversy among Theosophists. In the course of my research I came to know two academicians who became highly controversial in their own faith communities, Baha'I and Radhasoami respectively, after writing scholarly books about their founders. Juan Cole is the leading academic author on the subject of Baha'u'llah, founder of the Baha'i Faith, and was for many years a devoted member of the movement. Ultimately he was forced out of the religion because its leaders perceived him as an internal enemy, due to issues involving history and academic freedom. David Christopher Lane is the leading academic author on the subject of the Radhasoami movement and its many gurus and offshoots. He has been burglarized by the followers of one American Radhasoami offshoot, sued by two such groups, and ordered by his own guru to close down a website devoted to the movement's history—which he refused to do. Seventh-day Adventists reacted very negatively toward the Adventist scholar Ronald Numbers, whose biography of Ellen G. White showed that she had plagiarized much of her health-related writings. Numbers is the foremost scholar on White, the first author to publish a study of her with a university press (as was Cole in the case of Baha'u'llah) and was more or less ostracized for his scholarly research.

In the foreword to his book, Numbers is called a "skeptical believer," which fairly well characterizes my own stance vis--vis Mme. Blavatsky during the time I was writing about her. Having been a Theosophist for ten years when I first envisioned writing a book about HPB, in the late 80s I intended that my work be published within the Theosophical movement. My only experience with publication had been 30 or so unpaid articles for Theosophical journals. Although each major Theosophical publisher considered the evolving manuscript for approximately a year, they all ultimately rejected it which led to the unexpected result of being published by a university press. After a series of largely favorable reviews outside and within the Theosophical world, The Masters Revealed was vigorously criticized by one Theosophical reviewer in two journals. To the best of my knowledge, my name was never mentioned in print again within the mainstream Theosophical movement's publications. Most tellingly, The Theosophist featured an article entitled "The Masters Revealed" which pointedly avoided acknowledging that there was any book by this title about which the non-review was obliquely commenting. The next step in my progressive alienation came when a couple of Theosophists published extremely harsh attacks on my books on the Internet, attacks promoted in various ways by Theosophical organizations. This would seem to suggest that Theosophists can be as intolerant as Baha'is or Christians of efforts to place their founders in historical context. This was not the case with the Association for Research and Enlightenment following my last book, an examination of Edgar Cayce's readings, but my experience with that book seems exceptional, and my experience with Theosophists more typical, of authors who examine founders of spiritual movements in historical perspective..

In New Age Religion and Western Culture, Wouter Hanegraaff provides some clues to the conflict experienced by such authors:

The empirical study of religions can be distinguished from theological, positivist-reductionist or religionist approaches by its practice of permanent epoche (suspension of normative judgment), also known as methodological agnosticism…unfortunately, it is sometimes suggested by adherents of the "religionistic" approach that the empirical mode of research is itself reductionist or positivist, because it adopts an agnostic position with regard to ultimate questions and restricts itself to what can be objectively asserted by scientific and scholarly means.(pp. 4-5)

Here Hanegraaff refers to the principle within religious studies circles that scholars cannot pronounce on the truth-claims of a religion. This becomes problematic when religious truth claims overlap with claims about history that are subject to investigation. I observed the conflict between approaches on a scholarly listserv devoted to the study of American religion. This was during the time I was writing my book on Edgar Cayce, and was therefore keenly interested in historical falsehoods that form part of spiritual revelations. The list had some Mormon members and Mormon topics were occasionally discussed. Having recently read that the Reorganized Mormons were publishing studies that accepted the Book of Mormon as a 19th century production rather than the ancient text it claims to be, I asked a Mormon scholar if such an approach was becoming acceptable in the Utah church. Three religious studies academicians immediately denounced me vehemently for what was seen as a terrible breach of etiquette—daring to bring up historical issues that related to the truth claims of a religious tradition. Three historians sent me private emails of encouragement and support. The members of the scholarly list were about equally divided between historians and religious studies scholars. The latter were natural allies of defensive believers who wanted to avoid discussion of sensitive historical issues, and who tended to see historians as their natural enemies. Even though I began writing about HPB not as a historian but a Theosophical apologist trying to prove the reality of the Masters, the results were more palatable to historians than to other Theosophical apologists. This can be attributed to years of immersion in historical writings and sources, which evoked a gradual shift of focus. Hanegraaff explains the difference in focus between believers and scholars:

The principal theoretical tool to safeguard scientific legitimacy in this situation is the distinction between emic and etic. Emic denotes the `intersubjective patterns of thought and symbolic associations of the believers' or, expressed more simply, "the believer's point of view."… Scholarly discourse about religion, on the other hand, is not emic but etic. This means that it may involve types of language, distinctions, theories, and interpretive models which are considered appropriate by scholars on their own terms.(p. 6)

Being published by a university press entailed a shift from emic to etic discourse, and my work on Theosophy was better received in the scholarly world than among Theosophists. But there remained occasional lapses into emic discourse, reflecting my own Theosophical roots. This brought some negative attention from one scholar who saw the books as occultist apologia, but far less than came from Theosophists who saw them as "materialist" attacks on Theosophy. Not just these books, but the very notion of identifying the Masters historically, was denounced by some Theosophists as fundamentally wrongheaded on the same grounds as described by Hanegraaff. An empirical approach to these issues was seen as necessarily reductionist and positivist (despite frequent disclaimers of any such intention in the text) and therefore anti-Theosophical.

A new book by John Gaddis, The Landscape of History, explores some issues relevant to the prospects for Theosophical history. What concerns me more than my personal experience of ostracism is the way that historical research about the Masters has been anathematized. Questions about HPB's sources and influences could provide endless opportunities for further research, but while some work has been done on these lines the subject of the Masters has heretofore been avoided. Final answers may be unattainable on this as on many other historical questions. As Gaddis writes, "Because not all sources survive, because not everything gets recorded in sources in the first place, because the memories of participants can be unreliable, and because even if they were reliable no participant would have witnessed all of an event from all possible angles, we can never expect to get the full story of what actually happened…None of this means, though, that we lack a basis for determining causes in history: it only means that our basis is a provisional one."(102-3)

The provisional explanation offered in my books about Blavatsky is clearly labeled as such, whereas more apologistic or antagonistic books about her tend to present themselves as the final truth. I had hoped to see further explorations along related lines, but have thus far been disappointed. According to R. G. Collingwood, "every new generation must rewrite history in its own way; every new historian, not content with giving new answers to old questions, must revise the questions themselves"...(quoted in Gaddis, p. 104) It would of course be unrealistic to expect anyone else to define historical questions about HPB's Masters in the same way I did ten years ago; but I hope it is not unreasonable to expect that someone will eventually redefine them productively.

Gaddis observes that "biographers—and historians generally—can't escape doing what natural scientists never have to do: it's to make moral judgments…no work of history of which I'm aware has ever been written without making some kind of statement—explicitly or implicitly, consciously or subconsciously—about where its subjects lie along the ubiquitous spectrum that separates the admirable from the abhorrent."(p. 122) My own moral judgment of HPB was that her combination of fact and fiction regarding her Masters was an inescapable result of the politically sensitive nature of her relationships with them. To some, this was the thesis of an apologist for occultism; to others it was that of a skeptic out to destroy belief in the Masters. Neither was the case. But I suspect the better reception of my book on Cayce among his followers has something to do with the conclusion that fictional material in his readings was unintentional rather than deliberate. No matter how much I sugar coated it with historical context, the conclusion that HPB lied about the Masters as a matter of policy was simply indigestible to many of her disciples. When historical research leads to moral judgments, historians find themselves encroaching on matters of faith, with predictable results when the subject involves religion.

The Elusive Messiah by Raymond Martin has been more enlightening about issues of faith vs. reason in historical studies than any book I have read. The author is an academic philosopher, and the focus of his book is philosophical analysis of historical Jesus research and Christian responses to it. I have read about a dozen new books about the historical Jesus in recent years. Each one would seem plausible at the time, but lacking background in ancient history I had little sense of how to distinguish between competing reconstructions, or how to think about the issues they raise. This book provides a useful survey of those issues, which helped me better to understand my own historical research and reactions to it. The key concept that I find most helpful is "methodological naturalism." This characterizes scholarly reconstructions of Jesus, and involves the assumption that explanations must be based on natural processes and phenomena, without recourse to supernatural, paranormal, or transcendental influences. But what has been misunderstood by the most skeptical authors as well as by defensive believers is that methodological naturalism is not a simple either/or choice but something more complex. The strong form of methodological naturalism assumes that nothing paranormal or supernatural can possibly happen and therefore historical explanations must exclude reference to such elements. Christian believers object to this assumption when they read certain Jesus researchers who seem from the outset to discard all the articles of faith before beginning their historical quests. Particularly in the Jesus Seminar, one can find a wide range of plausibilities assigned to, for example, the healing stories, based on a priori assumptions about paranormal occurrences and spiritual healing. Another example of this kind of tunnel vision is the assumption in some Jesus Seminar books that the resurrection must have been a story made up well after the fact, because such a thing could not possibly have occurred. Anyone familiar with parapsychological literature would know that apparitions of the recently dead to their loved ones are common, the single most frequently reported psychic experience according to Louisa Rhine. Believing that his followers probably did see Jesus after his death does not, of course, involve accepting their interpretations of those experiences. Similarly, Col. Olcott can be accepted as a sincere witness about the Masters without eliminating the possibility of delusion.

There is another version of methodological naturalism, which Martin calls the weak form. This simply assumes that naturalistic explanations should be exhausted before we have recourse to supernatural or paranormal influences, and that the work of the historian ends at the boundary between natural and supernatural explanation. The weak naturalist historian does not deny the fundamental truth claims of religion, and may be a believer, but works according to rules that cannot allow him or her to affirm such claims. If one totally rejects naturalism and allows free reign to supernatural intervention and such, it opens a Pandora's box, as there are no rules to determine relative plausibility of various paranormal claims. Historical reconstruction cannot proceed without methodological naturalism of some sort, but too often the weak form is mistaken for the strong and believers react accordingly. For example, I was not saying that all Madame Blavatsky's paranormal claims about Masters were false, but rather avoiding the issue and trying to build the fullest natural explanation of her Masters possible while leaving the paranormal question open. This was taken by certain Theosophists as denying that there was anything genuinely spiritual or paranormal about her. Not only was this intention mistakenly attributed; it was presented as the overriding motivation for writing my books about Blavatsky. In the instance of Edgar Cayce, like that of Blavatsky, there are a fair number of people for whom paranormal or supernatural claims are the single most important thing about him. Thus any kind of study that leaves aside such issues and tries to contextualize Cayce in a naturalistic way might be seen as a threat and implicit attack. Fortunately, as I mentioned before, this kind of defensiveness seems to be much less of a problem with Cayce than with many other such figures.

Readers of historical works about religion can choose between three kinds of books. There are nonacademic histories from faith perspectives, and in these the assumptions vary as widely as faith perspectives vary. Although the evidence and documentation may meet scholarly standards, the historical explanation in such works uses assumptions unique to the belief system and therefore unconvincing to outsiders. There are academic and popular histories with strong naturalistic assumptions, in which everything spiritual or paranormal must be explained away because these factors must not be admitted to have any reality. But the majority of recent scholarly writings on religion use the weak form of methodological naturalism, in which divine, spiritual or paranormal influences are left an open question. Instead of saying "Exclude supernatural elements because they are imaginary," the weak naturalist says "Exclude supernatural elements because the historian's role is not to judge based on faith but only on reason."

One area in which Martin's book was especially interesting is his discussion of the value of expert opinion in historical matters:

Every competent New Testament scholar has received a great deal of specialized training in these areas. Relative to almost all of the rest of us, they know a tremendous amount about the ancient world, and they are much better qualified to assess competing hypotheses about what really happened. That is why they are the experts and we are not.

Our amateur status does not mean, however, that we cannot ever pass judgment on the views of New Testament scholars. In certain cases, we may be able to see better than a historian that he or she is in the grip of a distorting theory, Even so, we must give expertise its due. In my view, when it comes to trying to decide what to believe on the basis of historical evidence alone, the distinction between experts and amateurs is crucially important. Roughly speaking, the rule for experts is this: Base your views directly on the primary evidence; although the opinions of other experts cannot be ignored, you can override their opinions by your own reading of the evidence. The rule for amateurs, on the other hand, is this: Base your beliefs mainly on the views of the experts, if a sizeable majority of the experts agree among themselves, then accept what they say; if they disagree, then suspend judgment.(p. 24-25)

The more cultlike and fundamentalist a religious group is, the less likely this advice is to be followed. Many kinds of expert knowledge are dismissed when they conflict with elements in a belief system. Christian Scientists dismiss the universal agreement of experts on a great variety of medical issues, saying that Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures trumps all the medical research in history. Mormons dismiss the universal agreement among archaeologists and geneticists that American Indians are not descended from Jews; the Book of Mormon trumps all these scientists. Fundamentalist Christians dismiss scientific cosmology and astronomy in favor of a 6000-year-old world, because a literal reading of the Bible trumps physics and astronomy. Blavatsky said that Jesus lived 150 B.C.; for certain Theosophists her occult knowledge trumps that of all the scholars on the historical Jesus—who may not agree on much but would certainly agree in rejecting this claim. And so on, within a certain mindset, revealed truth is the standard by which scientific and historical truth should be measured, NEVER the other way around. And so we have a tower of Babel of competing claims to truth that trumps the experts. Naturalism, whatever its limitations, provides a lingua franca shared by all scholars regardless of their individual belief systems.

In closing, I'd like to turn back to Raymond Martin for a concept that closes his book and which I recommend for your consideration. After describing a wide array of historical Jesus theories and Christian reactions, he concludes by recommending what he calls multiperspectivalism. He writes: "My suggestion is that nonexperts can approach historical Jesus studies so as to leave it genuinely open whether Jesus had `supernatural' powers. They can do this not by committing themselves to a single interpretation…but instead by adopting a multiperspectival approach that embraces a variety of interpretations on both sides of the naturalism divide."(p. 197) The results of this may be unsatisfying for those who want certitude, as Martin continues:

…in trying to learn who Jesus actually was and what he was about, we would have learned something important about what are the most plausible options. Naturally, we long for more than that. We want answers. But if the best we can do on the basis of historical evidence is to learn what are the most plausible options, then we do not learn anything more by committing ourselves to one interpretation or to one kind of interpretation. Rather, we merely take an arbitrary stand. Such commitments are commonly thought to be more psychologically satisfying. In my own case, I do not find this to be true. I find it more psychologically satisfying not to pretend. But even if it were true that committing oneself to one interpretation or to one kind of interpretation of Jesus were more satisfying, doing so still would not enhance one's understanding of Jesus one whit. One does not enhance one's understanding by pretending to know what one does not know.(pp. 199-200)

The work of the Theosophical History Centre, and its successors, has encouraged a multiperspectival approach to Theosophical origins for a decade and a half. Theosophical history conferences have been the most successful examples to date of friendly dialogue among researchers with differing perspectives. They played a crucial role in encouraging my own scholarship, and I hope that among those in attendance this year are future authors whose writings will shed new light on this mysterious subject.