Occult, metaphysical, Hermetic– family connections and resemblances

I have added Catherine L. Albanese’s A Republic of Mind and Spirit to the recommended reading list, joining Gary Lachman’s The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus and Mitch Horowitz’s Occult America as valuable recent secondary sources about esoteric traditions in which the Church of Light is grounded.  Each of these books provides intriguing accounts of many characters and groups in the tapestry of 19th-20th century “alternative religious movements”.  Due to their breadth of coverage and depth of research, any of these books will expand the knowledge and increase the understanding of readers. Albanese’s style and target readership are more scholarly, but all three authors are historically reliable and insightful.  Albanese emphasizes metaphysical religion, while Horowitz traces the more diffuse field of “the occult” and Lachman pursues the thread of Hermetic wisdom.  All these are relevant to the Church of Light’s identity, seemingly equally so.

Nevertheless, “occult” and “metaphysical” strike me as basically different categories than “Hermetic,” reflecting a looser family resemblance and kinship.  Occultism and metaphysics seem antiquated as frameworks for spirituality in the 21st century, whereas Hermeticism is ready for major rediscovery.  “Occultism” as hidden traditional knowledge is rooted in two millennia of persecution of pre-Christian practices and beliefs. When Hermetic teachings emerged into semi –public view in the late 19th century, it was in the form of secret societies due to the legacy of oppression.  But having begun as an adaptation to real danger of persecution, by the 20th century occultist secrecy was exalted into an inherent value– and justified by imaginary enemies.   When 19th century occultism and metaphysics defined themselves in terms of opposition to  “materialist science and dogmatic religion” they became inevitably dated.  In the 21st century science and religion are far more expansive and diverse, and Hermeticism need not (and will not) define itself as oppositional to them.    

In a sense the Church of Light is both occult and metaphysical. One “parent” group—the male dominated and hierarchical HBofL, manifested occult secrecy to far greater extent than its parent group the Theosophical Society.  But another group in the CofL’s ancestry, the female dominated Light, Truth, Love was purely in the metaphysical lineage of Christian Science and New Thought, and had a more informal style.  Indeed, anti-authoritarianism was the basis of its founders’ secession from Mrs. Eddy’s ranks in 1881.  Albanese’s thesis is that 19th century American occultism and metaphysics, as exemplified by Blavatsky and Eddy among others, are a revival of Hermeticism.  The Church of Light, although not mentioned by Albanese, is even more illustrative of her thesis than Theosophy or Christian Science, because in this case the Hermetic element is clearly acknowledged and celebrated as the defining basis for belief and practice.