Interview with John L Crow

By Psyche | September 6, 2010

John L Crow hosted the popular podcast Thelema Coast to Coast, and is currently pursuing a PhD. in American Religious History at Florida State University.

We discuss a variety of topics ranging from Allan Bennett, the Theosophical Society and the Ordo Templi Orientis to why studying western esotericism in university is nothing like attending Hogwarts.

This interview was conducted on Saturday, September 4th, 2010.

Psyche: Thelema Coast to Coast was an excellent podcast running from 2005 to 2007, one of the first of its kind and I believe the first to be solely dedicated to Thelema. It’s been almost three years since your last episode. Do you miss it?

John L. Crow: Yes and no. The podcast was certainly a product of its time and filled a particular need within the Thelemic community. I miss the interaction with the larger community, the feedback and so forth. But I honestly don’t miss producing the podcast itself. It was a lot of work and now that I am in graduate school, I simply do not have the time.

I have been asked if I will ever resurrect the show. I am inclined to think no. TCTC had its moment and many other podcasts have come along. If I were to resurrect it, I would be regressing. I prefer to be forward looking and perhaps in the future have other projects. However, for now, my primary concern is my studies.

P: Indeed, you attended the University of Amsterdam to pursue a masters in Religious Studies and from what I understand, you began in a program dedicated to Mysticism and Western Esotericism, but changed to another program after a year. What prompted the switch?

JLC: The switch was less in focus, and more about how the program is structured.

The Western Esotericism part is primarily the first year. It has classes on renaissance esotericism, kabbalah, occultism, literature, art, etc. All the classes are fantastic and the instructors brilliant. Once a student has completed the first semester and done well, there is a process to apply for a second year. If accepted, this second year introduces larger aspects into the study of religion.

So, for the first two semesters I studied western esoteric currents exclusively. In the second year I studied broader topics such as methods and theory in the study of religion, larger cultural issues such as the combination of violence and religion. I also participated in directed studies. With the instructors I focused on 18th-20th century movements such as Mesmerism, Spiritualism, and the Golden Dawn. Independently I was also studying the history of the Theosophical Society.

The result was the two year master’s degree was not a singular focus on western esotericism, but contextualized the study of western esotericism within the larger academic field of religious studies.

In the end, it was a great start for the degree I am working on now, the study of American religious history, as the issues relevant to the study of western esotericism as also ones that emerge in the study of U.S. religious history.

P: Would you recommend the program?

JLC: Yes, but with a caveat. The Amsterdam program is a solidly academic program. It is not a kind of Hogwarts for practitioners. Instead it has a rigorous academic approach which strongly favours historical analysis. The end result is that all movements, figures, and traditions become contextualized, and lose their numinous qualities.

The program is also concerned as to not attract those who are interested in it for spiritual purposes. It is a history of religion program, it is not a divinity school. Those who are looking for a program to do esoteric theology would need to look elsewhere.

P: The library must have been fantastic, though. Were there any unique items that stood out?

JLC: The great thing about Amsterdam is there are three fantastic libraries. The first is the library for the university, because the program is well established and university supported, there is an abundance of primary and secondary esoteric material in the university library. They also have a rare documents section that has a variety of materials, although they are frequently in Dutch and German.

Then there is the Ritman Library, also known as the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica (BPH). This is an amazing library that caters to Rosecrucianism and other movements from the Italian Renaissance to German theosophy – I used the small “t” because I mean movements related to Boheme. The BPH does have some materials on the Theosophical Society and the Golden Dawn, but there is less on an emphasis on 19th and 20th century occultism there.

The third library, the Theosofische Bibliotheek, or the Theosophical Society Library in Amsterdam, has a fantastic collection of esoteric, eastern and occult titles. I honestly did more research at the Theosophical Society in Amsterdam than the other libraries simply because the society’s focus overlapped with my research interests. I guess that is also why, when I began looking at religion in the US, I focused on the history of the Theosophical Society and decided to make them the focus of my PhD work.

P: Was the Theosophical Society always an interest, or did it arise out of your work in Amsterdam?

JLC: It definitely came from my research in Amsterdam. I wrote my MA thesis on the Allan Bennett, an important member of the Golden Dawn, Crowley’s mentor for a year, and then later a convert to Theravada Buddhism and an advocate for his new tradition.

What few know is that before joining the Golden Dawn, Bennett joined the Theosophical Society and it is likely he met members of the Golden Dawn while in T.S. lodges. This led me to research Bennett’s involvement in the T.S,. and I found a massive amount of history about him no one has known about. For instance, Bennett debated with theosophists about Buddhism in his journal and theirs, a kind of duelling publications, and, in 1911, he met Annie Besant and she agreed to personally pay for and publish an essay of his. Thus, it was through this research I became really interested in the history of Theosophy in general.

P: What was it about Bennett that first piqued your interest?

JLC: Beyond the fact that Bennett personally is an interesting person, especially with his significant role in the Golden Dawn, his relationship with Crowley, and his pioneering position within Buddhism, he also represents the confluence of important cultural and religious trends at the time.

Bennett grew up a poor, working-class Roman Catholic. At a time when science was competing with religion as the primary legitimizing authority, Bennett abandoned his Catholicism, and adopted what one might call a notion of science, but that also had a different, perhaps spiritualized aspect.

Occultism was also a very important movement at this time. It sought, through a variety of means, to understand the hidden qualities of existence. Bennett accepted this view of existence so while he was trained in analytical scientific thinking, in particular chemistry, he also sought to explore the hidden and spiritual aspects of reality. So, he is a perfect location to see how religion, science and occultism were negotiated at the end of the 19th century.

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Secondly, he also was one of the early European converts to Buddhism and so becomes a perfect example of how notions of the east were constructed in the minds of those of the west. Following in the footsteps of those like Henry Steel Olcott, Bennett brought his European understanding of Buddhism, fostered by scholars like Rhys Davids, and established himself as a spokesperson for Southeastern Buddhists, using the language of European academics and the authority of the Burmese Sangha. Like Olcott did for the Sri Lankan Buddhists, Bennett did for the Burmese, although to a much lesser degree.

Nevertheless, the early discourses on Buddhism in the west were a complex mix of European orientalism, colonialism, and language negotiation. While Bennett certainly thought he was speaking for the Burmese Buddhists against the Christian colonial authorities, he also saw them through his oriental gaze and this coloured his understanding. It is also why he felt that Buddhism was compatible with science, a rhetoric established before his conversion, and why he felt Europe, which he saw as secularizing during the Victorian crisis of faith, should adopt Buddhism as it held similar moral values as Christianity, but contained none of the supernatural and revelatory aspects that Christianity had–that is, at least, his understanding of Buddhism.

So this made Bennett very attractive. He was personally interesting, but also represented a great opportunity to explore the negotiation of these many societal trends manifesting over time.

P: Evidently! I’ll include a link to your CV following this interview where more information on Bennett can be found among the papers you’ve presented.

While we’re on the topic, the paper you recently presented at the University of Toronto, “Placing Western Esotericism on the Map”, challenges what is commonly thought of as “western” esotericism, using the OTO as an example. Could you talk a bit about it?

JLC: The paper I presented in Toronto was an attempt to expand the discourse regarding the boundary creation of the academic field of Western Esotericism. Academics frequently struggle with the boundaries of the objects they study. What should or should not be included in the domain of research; what is a reasonable definition of terms, and what are the implications of the vocabulary used.

What I wanted to do was introduce another set of tools I had not seen used much. In my PhD studies, one of my instructors is a leading scholar in applying notions of spatial orientation to the study of religion. I used one aspect of that to suggest that applying cartography could be a useful tool in tracking western esotericism. There is the question, what makes the domain specifically “western.”

There are scholars who assert that there is just esotericism and the term western should be abandoned. Others assert the western label is absolutely necessary and denotes a very specific kind of esotericism. The discourse has been primarily abstract though. This is a problem in that the theoretical domain can shift based on the imaginary constructs in the mind of the scholar.

I reasoned that what was studied, people, movements, texts, etc. manifested in a geo-temporal reality; they were real people, living in real places on this planet, writing real texts and having real experiences. So I asked something new. Where was all this happening? If we can start referring these movements, texts, people, etc. to actual places on the globe we can start asking new questions and look at new trends.

What my paper looked at was where, based on the number the Ordo Templi Orientis released from 1989-2003, the organization actually spread. Where did it find a significant number of adherents to actually form a long standing community of practitioners? The results was that it generally spread to nations considered “western” and found little to no traction in countries that are typically labelled “eastern.” I also included a single map for the Theosophical Society which showed similar results with the exception that it also emerged in some eastern nations such as India, Sri Lanka and Burma.

My personal thoughts is that the label Western is useful, although is purely a construct. It does not have to do with lines on the map, but, instead, prevailing cosmological or metaphysical notions. I think it is closely related to certain Platonic and Juedo-Christian metaphysical axioms that underly western thought and therefore they do not seem attractive to cultures with divergent metaphysical understandings.

The interesting things is how these cosmologies ride on the back of European colonialism and American imperialism. Thus we see Theosophy riding British colonial efforts and manifesting in India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Australia, New Zealand, etc. The modern O.T.O. also rides on some of this, building on Crowley’s use of British Colonialism, as well as American imperialism.  My primary example is Japan. Prior to the war, movements like Thelema would not have been able to penetrate the culture, but after the war with such a strong American influence, spaces for Thelema and divergent new religious movements open up.

So, while the term “western” has a strong cartographic component, in the end I think it is ideological and denotes a certain set of metaphysical presuppositions that “westerners” bring with them and often impose under circumstances of military or cultural dominance.

P: At one time you had a publishing company, Luxor Press, which published more than a dozen books on esoteric themes. Do you see yourself re-entering publishing at any point in the future?

JLC: Actually, I am still in the publishing scene now, but with a slightly different focus. Luxor Press was sold to an investor. From it emerged Luxor Media group. The company now focuses on a variety of media. I am working with the print division with both academic journals and academic monographs/research. So, for the last couple of years I have been the technical editor for two academic journals focusing on Japan and pedagogical approaches to teaching the interaction of eastern and western religious and philosophical traditions.

There is also a project under way to translate Max Theon’s six volume Cosmic Tradition. Currently the first volume has had the initial translation from French to English completed and is in the revision stage. It is being assisted by Christian Chanel, who writes an introduction to the volume. Chanel is one of the world’s leading scholars on the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor. He was co-author with Joscelyn Godwin and John P. Deveney on a book about the HBofL (The Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor: Initiatic and Historical Documents of an Order of Practical Occultism). I am not sure of the time line on its release, because it is a massive project, but it is progressing. The first volume alone is 125,000 English words.

There are the possibilities of other works being translated and published, but this is down the line. Right now these projects are moving forward, but they frequently have to take a back seat with my large amount of course work.

P: It sounds like you’re keeping yourself quite busy! Are there any other major projects in the works that we should keep an eye out for?

JLC: My personal work, right now is primarily writing essays for journals, selected chapters for books, and researching for my dissertation which is fast approaching. So right now it is all academically oriented. As things get published, I note it on my CV for those interested. The most recent work is a few entries about Theosophy in a book about esotericism and images, and a chapter for an anthology that examines the way individuals understand the Internet environment, Second Life, as a form of the astral plane. This has to do with notions of self and the imagination. My other works have to do with tracing the history of things like Rhoda Byrne’s The Secret, or looking at how the Theosophical Society (American branch) understood its colony, Point Loma, in its cosmological and spiritual evolutionary history.

My biggest focus right now, though, is how Theosophists understood the human body, you might call it a kind of Theosophical biology. They rejected scientific materialism and, instead, sought to spiritualize or “re-enchant” the world. Thus the human body become a site for spiritualization. The human body emerged with seven layers, thoughts and emotions had astral matter aspects, certain organs had specific links to spiritual centres, and human evolution, sexuality, and gender all had implications for the spiritual evolution of humanity and the various root-races. This “Theosophical biology” is likely to be what my dissertation will focus on.

P: That sounds fascinating, I look forward to hearing more about that once it’s complete. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me.

JLC: Thank you for giving me this opportunity to talk about what research I have been doing.

The reality is that the areas I am researching have significant implications for all the movements and organizations that came out of the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. There was an openness of boundaries. The ideology of science and its method was still solidifying its boundaries. Thus, movements like occultism still garnered possibilities within the minds of the general public. Religion too was not abandoned but was reduced, in most ways, to being cultural and moral. The supernatural aspects were begin jettisoned for an stronger emphasis on morality. Eastern religions were colonizing the minds of Europeans and Americans and challenging an already fragile assertion of Christian truth. This tumultuous time is the cradle for so much of the modern new age, ceremonial magic, and spiritual but not religious movements and organizations.

Those who are curious about these organizations would be well served to research this time period and see how individual people and movements tried to negotiate this complex mix. It might open insights into how modern movements emerged as they did and what were the causes and conditions that motivated people to act the way they did.

Unfortunately history is being forgotten and people assume a timelessness to modern notions. This simply is not true. There is much that can explain and open up greater understandings of the present. I would encourage the readers of this interview to begin that process. They night be surprised as to how similar the struggles of today are to those of a century ago. I personally have been amazed and the things I have learned have opened my eyes to causes and conditions I would have never thought of previously.

For more about John L. Crow see his website Thelema.com, and for more on his papers and publications – including those dealing with Allan Bennett – check out his impressive Curriculum Vitae.

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