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.
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