In my writings on this site I repeatedly make the argument that all of the traditional religions practice “esotericism,” meaning that they knowingly make splits between an “outer meaning” and one or more “inner meanings” in their “sacred” communications. The “outer meaning” is made freely available to “the multitude” or “the profane,” while the (different) “inner meaning” is reserved for the “elect” or “chosen” or “initiates.” In other words, religions of this type are okay with misleading people.
Here’s an example of what I mean taken from the Bible. (As you read what I write below, please keep in mind that I don’t believe “Jesus” was an actual, historical, individual, flesh-and-blood human being; I think he was functioning as a fictional, idealized collective representation of the authors of the Gospels, and persons like them. So by my criticism of “Jesus,” what I am really trying to do is indicate the fact that the authors of the Gospels were oblivious to their own moral flaws—flaws stemming from their approval of religious esotericism—in so far as they were not able to recognize the defects displayed in their own imagined vision of how “the perfect man” would act.)
And having called the multitude to him again, (Jesus) said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and comprehend: There is nothing outside the man that by going into him can make him unclean, but the things going out of the man are the things making the man unclean. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” [Mark 7:14-16.]
Yes, I have ears to hear! The meaning of the passage is perfectly obvious: Jesus is telling us that there’s no such thing as a “ritually impure food,” since it’s what comes out of us, after we eat, that makes us unclean. And after all, isn’t that why we wash our hands after using the toilet? Just some sound advice from Jesus on the matter of personal hygiene, that’s all.
But wait. The passage then continues:
And when he had entered the house away from the multitude [or commoners, or crowd: ochlos], his disciples asked him (the meaning of) the parable. And he said to them, “So are you also without comprehension? Do you not understand that everything going into the man from outside cannot make him unclean, since it enters not his HEART but his BELLY, and GOES OUT into the latrine, (thus) purifying all foods?” And he said, “What GOES OUT of the man, that is what makes him unclean. For from within, out of the HEART of man, go forth evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.” [Mark 7:17-22.]
Ohhhhh, now I get it. The first passage was only giving us the “exoteric meaning”—and, being “common,” I unfortunately got taken in by it. Stupid me. But now that we have additionally learned the “esoteric meaning,” we understand that mere food cannot make a person “unclean” after all—not even, it would seem—that is, assuming we are strictly following Jesus’s exact words and giving those words their ordinary “surface level” definitions—not even at the stage when the food “goes out” of the “belly” of the person “into the latrine” in the form of excrement. We now know that it is what comes “out of the heart” that makes a person “unclean” or “defiled”; at least, that’s the only kind of “uncleanliness” or “defilement” that seems to be of concern to Jesus. So does that mean Jesus is telling us that if we’re true “disciples,” we needn’t be all that concerned with washing our hands after using the latrine, since using the latrine doesn’t actually make us “unclean” or “defiled” in any way that we ought to consider especially significant? It would seem so—at least, so long as we choose to take at face value what Jesus says to his “disciples.” (But it must be stressed that to do that might be just as big a mistake as we now know it was for us to take at face value what Jesus had just said to “the multitude.” For the most part, however, I will ignore that line of thinking in the present context, since to explore it in any depth would only exponentially increase the confusion involved in trying to make sense of the passages quoted above; I will only mention in passing the possibility that words such as “food” and “belly” and “hands” and “washing” may have been intended by the author to be understood as having esoteric meanings of their own. In other words, it’s important that the reader at least be aware of the possibility of various levels of meaning existing simultaneously—perhaps meant to “touch” each other at certain points, but perhaps not at others.)
It may sound like I’m merely being facetious (and maybe somewhat boorish at the same time) when I offer the suggestion that Jesus seems to be implicitly telling his disciples that it’s not especially important for them to “wash their hands” after using the “latrine.” But my suggestion actually begins to appear less outlandish when the quoted verses are read in the context of the almost immediately preceding verses of Mark 7:1-8, in which we are told that at least some of Jesus’s disciples were refusing to wash their admittedly “unclean hands” before they ate. (Regardless of how “hypocritical” the “scribes and Pharisees” may have been, I still would have been appreciative that they were washing their hands and utensils before eating. I don’t wish to get too graphic, so I’ll say nothing more than remind the reader that toilet paper did not exist in ancient times. And, incidentally, if anyone thinks that I’m being excessively vulgar simply by talking about these matters at all, just remember that the vulgarity comes from the Bible, not from me; it was Jesus who first brought up the subject matter of “latrines” and digested food. Moreover, I’m quite certain that this particular double meaning regarding “the things going out of the man” was meant to be noticed and appreciated by the more “discerning” reader—although, needless to say, prim and proper Christian clergymen have never allowed themselves to devote too much careful thought to what is going on here, even though it’s all to be found in their very own Holy Bible.)
Now, did you notice the little bait-and-switch pulled by Jesus in the two passages quoted above? Pay close attention to the technique, because esotericists do stuff like this on a regular basis. Jesus himself later admits to his disciples that the parable he told to “the multitude” involves “food”—that’s what “goes into the man from outside.” (And once again, if you require even more proof that “food” was the intended reference, remember that Jesus also explicitly mentions “bellies” and “latrines” when speaking to his disciples.) So, since Jesus is admittedly thinking about “food” as being that which “goes into the man from outside,” and since Jesus also speaks to the multitude of “the things going out of the man,” the reasonable member of “the multitude” would—if that member made what, it just so happens, is the correct assumption that Jesus did in fact have “food” in mind—also assume, for the sake of consistency, when Jesus speaks of “the things going out of the man,” he must be referring to “excrement” (or, less likely, “vomit”).
But no—without bothering to make anyone in the multitude “privy” to the secret “esoteric meaning” of his parable, he surreptitiously allowed his “food” reference—along with what would appear to be the reasonable understanding of “the multitude”—to just pass away “into the latrine,” so that, when alone with his disciples, he could instead talk about something entirely different: namely, “what goes forth out of the heart,” which according to him consists of evil mental tendencies and vices. In short, what Jesus did was to suddenly “switch body organs,” so to speak, behind the backs of “the multitude.” And they had been given absolutely no reason to expect that he would do so. But even in spite of that fact, Jesus still feels justified in expressing impatience with and contempt for “the multitude” by saying to his disciples, “So are you also without comprehension?”—as if the multitude’s “lack of comprehension” was their problem, rather than a result of Jesus’s own difficulty at communicating—in public, anyway—in a clear, honest, and straightforward way.
Notice that when Jesus states that “everything going into the man from outside” “enters not his heart but his belly, and goes out into the latrine,” this is something he says in private to his disciples. It other words, it turns out that what appears to be the most obvious interpretation of the saying that Jesus told in public to “the multitude” also happens to be the interpretation that Jesus privately expected that “the multitude” would give it. He was expecting “the multitude” to believe that everything “going in from outside” goes into the “belly,” from which it then “goes out” again. What he failed to mention to the multitude was that there are also some things that “go out” of a person—namely, the things that “go out of the heart of man”—which apparently never “went in” from outside in the first place. This is something that no one among “the multitude” could have been reasonably expected to discern within the parable that Jesus told them. The failure to disclose this other, unmentioned, secret source of “things that go out of a man” reveals the attitude of a prankster or trickster, and not that of a morally serious person.
The fact that Jesus said these things in private to his disciples is also worth mentioning because one might have conceivably argued that when Jesus said to the multitude, “There is nothing outside the man that by going into him can make him unclean,” what he actually meant by “the things outside the man” was something like “the things that a man sees and hears,” i.e., “sense-impressions”; and the multitude merely misunderstood Jesus’s intended meaning. But the fact that when Jesus is alone with his disciples he speaks of “bellies” and “latrines” clearly shows that there was no mere “misunderstanding.” To Jesus’s way of thinking, it wasn’t enough for an interpretation to be the most obvious one to make it the “correct” interpretation. He thought it should be the responsibility of others to figure out what he really (though secretly) had in mind—and it seems that the only possible way to do so would be by starting off with the assumption that the “correct” interpretation of one of Jesus’s sayings would not necessarily be the one that appeared to be the most obvious to the ordinary person.
We’re forced to conclude that the mysterious class “he who has ears to hear” or “anyone who has ears to hear” must consist of all those persons who could have known—that is, without being told by anyone—that in fact only the first half of Jesus’s parable dealt with “matters of the belly,” while the second half of it dealt with “matters of the heart.” And that is a class of persons which consists of exactly no one. The fact of the matter is that Jesus knowingly misled “the multitude.” If you have one meaning in mind when you speak, and it can be safely predicted that every other “uninitiated” person in the world is going to think you have something else in mind—well then, I hate to break it to you (even if you claim to be everyone’s Lord and Savior)—but you’re a liar.
That wasn’t very nice of Jesus, lying to the lowly “multitude” like that, and leading their minds “into the latrine,” while Jesus and his “disciples”—once safely behind closed doors—felt free to suddenly “change course” in their thinking in order to arrive at some different, more “spiritual” meaning. But that’s the sort of thing that religious esotericists like to do.
If I end up thinking about the subject of excrement and excretion after having heard a parable like the one told by Jesus, it’s not just because my mind already happens to be “in the gutter,” as esotericists would like to believe; it’s because you, the esotericist, were knowingly leading my mind to think about excrement by telling your parable. (Incidentally, this points to why I actually slightly prefer the word “mislead” to the words “lie” or “deceive,” since I think “mislead” does a better job of conveying what exactly is objectionable about “lying” when it occurs.)
And the reason why I’m forced to think about excrement is that I’m making a sincere and genuine effort to figure out what you actually meant by your vague and cryptic saying, with its unclear semantic references. To do that, I’m forced to consider all of the possible meanings; and of those possible meanings, determining the most plausible one requires learning or knowing or assuming something about how you think before I will be able to determine the meaning that you intended to convey. If, according to the Gospel account, “the multitude” came to the conclusion that Jesus was probably talking about “food”—in which case, he must therefore have also been referring to excrement when speaking of “the things going out of the man”—that could only have been because they first figured that Jesus was the sort of person who would be capable of thinking up and telling cryptic parables involving (at one level of meaning, anyway) the subject of excrement and excretion.
And do you know what? Their assessment of him WAS CORRECT. And we know that it was correct because it was Jesus himself who privately spoke of “latrines”; so we know that the subject of excrement and excretion must have been on his mind before it ever had a chance to get on anyone else’s. In other words, the minds of “the multitude” were made dirty in the course of having to figure out the intended meaning of a person who already had a “dirty mind.” Over the centuries, esotericists (and other self-styled “elites”) have been accustomed to referring to “the multitude” as “the vulgar.” But the example I’ve just offered shows that it is the esotericists who are actually “the vulgar“; and they impose their own vulgarity on the multitude—and then blame the multitude for ingenuously taking the obvious “vulgar” meaning at face value, and accepting it, being unaware of the existence of some secret “spiritual” meaning that the “spiritual elite” has hidden from them: a meaning which the “spiritual elite” thinks is somehow able to “redeem” the original vulgarity that they had been deliberately purveying to “the multitude.”
And so we find Jesus in effect trying to disclaim responsibility for having introduced the subject of excrement into the minds of the multitude, by pretending that excrement was never what was “really” on his mind (unlike the minds of those other people—ugh!); and he did so by essentially just changing the subject and suddenly getting all “spiritual” by speaking of “matters of the heart.” But what was the point of bringing up the subject of “food” and “bellies” and “latrines” in such a way that it got all “mixed up” or “confused” with these “matters of the heart,” when that confusion could have been so easily avoided? Jesus could have said very simply—to the entire multitude, not just his disciples—
A person is made impure by certain tendencies that proceed from a depraved heart, including evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.
See how easy that was? Jesus could have simply made the point he wished to make, with no one needing any “ears to hear,” and without the thought of “excrement” ever having been given a chance to enter anyone’s head. And then later, on some separate occasion, Jesus could have declared all foods ritually clean and available to eat—once more, with no images of “excrement” needing to come into the mental picture. But that’s not what Jesus chose to do. Why not?
Because he needed to be clever. The author of this passage—under the guise of the character of “Jesus”—must have thought it delightfully ironic and even humorous that, because of the double meaning involved in the phrase “what goes out of a man,” images of bowel movements were being juxtaposed with a relatively abstract teaching on ethical values; and he must have thought himself to be terribly ingenious to have had the skill to create such a cleverly absurd juxtaposition. Esotericists (as well as many schizophrenics, incidentally) take a great interest in playing around with the possibilities of multiple meanings in language, whether in their own communications, or even just in their own minds as they read or listen to the communications of others. The author must have gotten so excited about the cleverness of his double meaning that he failed to notice that he was, at the very least, endorsing the misleading of people for no good reason. (Or, if we assume for the sake of argument that Jesus was a real person, then Jesus would have been the one to get so excited about the cleverness of his double meaning that he failed to notice that he himself was misleading people for no good reason.) If we assume that the Gospel of Mark is a fictional writing, then the author of the passages I quoted may have believed that he was doing nothing wrong, since there was no actual “multitude” that was being actually misled by his writings; there were only the readers—and they would be finding out the true meaning of the parable in the verses immediately following. But again, I believe the author is morally culpable for, at the very least, having endorsed the practice of lying and misleading communication, by having chosen to depict “the perfect man” as being willing to engage in it.
Typical Christians, of course, will not acknowledge that Jesus was lying or being misleading in this episode. They will claim that different groups of people simply extract different meanings from a single “divine” communication based on their differing “capacities to understand”; and this is somehow related to how “spiritually advanced” they are, and how much they love God, and how much God wishes to bless them.
Well, whoever you are, even if you’re the Son of God himself, and regardless of what my “capacity to understand” happens to be, I’m going to have a harder time than others at understanding your intended meaning if you deliberately conceal relevant information from me, while freely sharing that same information with those others. I mean—isn’t that pretty basic?
Is it okay for an ordinary person like myself to mislead someone and then just complacently trust that if that person really loves God enough, the Holy Spirit will always be around to magically fill him in on the real truth?
And if not, then why was it okay for Jesus to do precisely that?