How religious esotericism is really just a form of lying

(The following constitutes the entirety of Chapter 2 of Part I of my “Against the Lie” essay.  The postscript is not contained in that chapter.)

 

“Esotericist writing” can generally be defined as writing in which an author uses a word to mean one thing (namely, the “inner,” or “intended,” or “esotericmeaning) in his own mind and perhaps also in the minds of close associates, while the general reading public, being unaware of the author’s secretly intended meaning, is left to assign a different meaning to that same word (namely, the “outer,” or “standard,” or “ordinary,” or “conventional,” or “exotericmeaning).  In other words, “esotericist communication,” or “esotericism,” is really just a fancy name for lying.  Unfortunately, it is a practice that characterizes and provides the basis for all of the so-called “major world religions,” including Christianity.  And not only the “major” religions:  I am not aware of a single traditional religion anywhere in the world, including among all the so-called “shamanistic” or “primitive” religions, that does not or did not employ “secret languages” and conceal knowledge from the “uninitiated” members of the religious community.

At the same time, I have also come to the conclusion that the authors of both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible were actually, at least to some extent, opposed to the practice of esotericism, and were subtly and surreptitiously working against it.  That is to say—whether or not they were fully aware of it—they were providing later generations with the means by which they would be able to slough off these oppressive systems of organized deception.  I think that the “subversiveness” to be found in the Bible must have been partly the result of some sort of unconscious or non-conscious (or, if one prefers, “providential”) process at work; but the evidence has led me to conclude that it must have also been partly the result of conscious and deliberate choices and planning by certain individuals.  However, it is often very difficult to determine just how much of the “subversiveness” that one might discern in a particular passage from the Bible was consciously or unconsciously intended by the author (and I do consider “unconscious intentionality” to be a genuine kind of intentionality), since the two types of thinking easily blend together.  But I will be discussing these matters more in subsequent chapters.

First, let me give you an example of how esotericist deception works by telling you a little story about myself:

I worked for forty years in West Virginia as a coal miner.  I now receive health benefits from the federal government because of the fact that I got black lung disease as a result of my job.

Now, by ordinary standards, what I just told you is a flat-out lie.  I have never worked as a coal miner.  I have never lived in West Virginia.  But an esotericist has a neat trick he can use to make a passage like that suddenly become all “true” in his own mind.  He simply puts invisible quotation marks around various words and then supplies each of those words or phrases with his own private definitions.  Doing this serves basically the same function in his own mind as that served by a child crossing his fingers behind his back when he tells a lie.  Practitioners of this trickery will often give their hidden definitions a euphemistic name, such as “the spiritual interpretation.”  Now watch and begin to perceive the deep “spirituality” contained within my own little fib story:

I “worked” “for forty years” “in West Virginia” as a “coal miner.”  I now “receive health benefits” from the “federal government” because of the fact that I got “black lung disease” as a result of “my job.”

Because of the presence of these previously invisible quotation marks, an esotericist might be of the view that I had actually, in some sense, been “telling the truth” all along when I said that I worked as a coal miner in West Virginia (on the grounds that I was really only claiming to have “worked” as a “coal miner” in “West Virginia”).  But ordinarily, an author who was writing esoterically would not feel morally obligated to publicly reveal what these words actually meant in his own mind, or even that his words had concealed alternative meanings (in other words, he would not even indicate to the reader where the “invisible quotation marks” were located).  That is because an esotericist author usually fancies himself to be one of the relatively “holy people,” while most of the persons into whose hands his esotericist writings could be expected to fall would be counted among “the profane.”  (From what I have been able to gather, those who write in an esoteric manner generally think of themselves as being of better spiritual quality than all those persons who make a point of not lying to others.)  The reasoning seems to be that those persons who are “in the spirit”—that is, those who are counted among the “holy people”—will already know what the “real” meanings of these words are.  And those persons who are not “in the spirit”—that is, those who are counted among “the profane”—do not deserve to know.  However, since my goal here is not to practice esotericist trickery, but to expose it, I am perfectly willing to publicly reveal the (itself fictional) “spiritual interpretation” of my story:

I “engaged in meditative thought” “until I reached spiritual enlightenment” while “in an altered state of consciousness” by “plumbing the depths of my unconscious mind.”  I now “enjoy the ineffable bliss of a continuing stream of spiritual wisdom” imparted to me by “more advanced spiritual beings” as my reward for “the sacrifices incurred” in choosing to follow “the arduous spiritual path.”

In other words, to obtain the “spiritual interpretation,” the words in the original text are redefined in such a way that the “exoteric” meanings are being made to serve as metaphorical symbols for the “esoteric” meanings that the author really has in mind.  You might ask:  Why would an author not simply provide the reader with that sort of “spiritual interpretation” in the first place?  Why would an author expect a reader to break his “secret code” in order to arrive at his “real” meaning?  As far as I have been able to determine, no rational justification exists for the practice (although there are of course explanations, just as there are explanations for everything).  None of the justifications that I have encountered—to the extent that esotericists have even felt any need to justify what on its face appears to be an immoral practice—have struck me as being the least bit satisfactory or persuasive.

Unfortunately, the practice of writing or speaking esoterically—a practice found universally in traditional religion—has, understandably, helped to discredit the general idea of “organized religion.”  But usually this discrediting has occurred indirectly and indiscriminately, so that it has not been the esotericist method itself that has been specifically targeted for blame and identified as the true source of what they dislike about religion.  What has ended up getting blamed is, say, the “childishness” of the literal interpretation—which allows the “spiritual interpretation” or “allegorical interpretation” to be seen as more “spiritually mature,” or “spiritually advanced,” or “profound.”  Or, at other times what has been criticized is the notion of a group of people congregating around commonly-held religious beliefs—for fear that those beliefs and interpretations will necessarily have been irrationally and coercively imposed upon the individual members of the group.

As I consider such criticisms to represent misdirections of appropriate blame, I offer the suggestion that people who think of themselves as “anti-religion,” or “anti-organized religion,” or “anti-Abrahamic religion,” or “anti-Western religion,” make a grave error by indiscriminately denigrating as “organized religion,” or “Abrahamic religion,” or “Western religion,” what should instead be specifically characterized as esotericist religion.  It is the deliberate encryption or obscuration of an author’s meanings—and, closely related to this, the author’s fundamental desire to avoid being held responsible for his intended meanings—that is the source of all of the problems flowing from the currently existing (i.e., “traditional”) world religions, and not the fact that religiously inclined people happen to organize in groups for mutual support, encouragement, and validation of their shared beliefs.  Because of the fact that the esotericism existing within traditional religion has helped to discredit the idea of religion in general, and also because of the enormous harm that it otherwise makes possible in the world, it is imperative that people learn to regard the cryptic symbolism of esotericist religions not as merely “silly” or “stupid” (much less “charming,” or “intriguing,” or “fascinating,” or “profound”), but as evil and immoral.  The esotericist use of symbolism, inasmuch as it first creates and then exploits ambiguity of meaning, is an inherently dangerous phenomenon, and it potentially gives certain people enormous amounts of power:  power that they do not deserve and that history has shown they do not know how to use responsibly.

 

Postscript

An example of the very kind of esotericism that I describe in this chapter, involving a split between an “inner meaning” and an “outer meaning,” can be found in 1 Corinthians 9:9-10, which I also discuss in Chapter 4 of the Against the Lie essay.

In that passage—in justifying his right to “reap fleshly things” from the Corinthian church members after having “sown spiritual things” among them—Paul writes,

For it is written in the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is threshing out the grain.”  Is it with oxen that God is concerned?  Does he not speak entirely for our sake?  [Paul is quoting Deuteronomy 25:4.]

So Paul here acknowledges that—in his view, at least—esotericist “splitting” of meaning can be found in the Hebrew scriptures (so that the words “ox” and “grain” do not actually correspond to the concepts “ox” and “grain”); and, significantly, he does not find the practice to be objectionable, and indeed seems to be endorsing it and trying to take advantage of it.

If Christians feel inclined to “overlook” the implications of Bible passages such as this one, then they will need to explain what rational basis they have for objecting when I falsely tell people that I worked as a coal miner in West Virginia—or whatever other falsehoods I or other persons decide that our “metaphorical imaginations” make it permissible for us to tell them.

As an additional point, consider the way in which the communication patterns of schizophrenic persons are characterized by Gregory Bateson, Don D. Jackson, Jay Haley, and John Weakland, in their paper, “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia”:  “The peculiarity of the schizophrenic is not that he uses metaphors, but that he uses unlabeled metaphors” (my emphasis).

Notice that both my “coal miner” metaphor—that is, before I revealed the “invisible quotation marks”—and the “oxen” metaphor found in Deuteronomy 25:4 (at least according to Paul’s reading of the Hebrew scriptures) seem to qualify as “unlabeled metaphors.”

By endorsing the use of such “unlabeled metaphors” in the Hebrew scriptures by claiming that God “speaks” through them, Paul is effectively promoting communication that appears to be schizophrenic in nature.  And that in turn means that Paul—and, presumably, the other authors of the New Testament as well—would have seen no reason to avoid the use of “unlabeled metaphors” in their own writings—which means that they would have been making no effort to avoid communicating in ways that are schizophrenic in nature.

It also means that there is no reason whatsoever to think that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s life should not themselves be viewed as extended “unlabeled metaphors” produced by schizophrenic minds.  In fact, in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25 Paul writes,

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered [or transmitted: para-didōmi] to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night on which he was betrayed [or delivered, or handed over: para-didōmi] took bread, and, having given thanks, he broke (it) and said, “This is my body which (is given) for you; do this in [or unto: eis] remembrance of me.”  And in the same way (he took) the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do [or make: poieō] this as often as you might drink in [or unto: eis] remembrance of me.”

This language is extremely similar to language found in Luke 22:19-20—a fact which suggests that Paul may have been one of the authors of the Gospels.  That in turn also suggests that the Gospels should perhaps be viewed as elaborate “unlabeled metaphors” of the type used by schizophrenics, rather than as historical accounts.  If we were to view them in that way, it would be consistent with Paul’s belief that “God” or “the Lord” is able to “speak” to human beings by means of these sorts of divinely revealed “unlabeled metaphors”—whether they be found in the writings of the Old Testament, or continuing on into the writings of the New Testament as well.

It goes without saying, however, that only a relatively small “chosen” group of persons would be expected to have the ability to “correctly” discern what is purported to be the “speech” of “God” buried within these “unlabeled metaphors.”  And even among those self-styled “chosen” persons, there is no reason to think that they would be able to reach agreement with each other regarding which of their interpretations was correct—that is, in the absence of an authoritative institution capable of arbitrarily decreeing which of the interpretations shall henceforth be accepted by all persons within its domain as the “correct” one.  Given the state of affairs created by the promoting and celebrating of these “unlabeled metaphors” in religion, arbitrary authoritarian decrees are realistically the only possible alternative to unrestrained, hyper-idiosyncratic, schizophrenic madness in interpretation.  And that fact demonstrates why the promoting of “unlabeled metaphors,” by means of esoteric religion, is so harmful and dangerous to society—since neither of those alternatives ought to be considered acceptable.