How religious esotericism is really just a form of lying

by Eric Heubeck


“Esoteric writing” can generally be defined as writing in which an author uses a word or words to mean one thing (namely, the “inner,” or “secretly 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 “ordinary,” or “conventional,” or “surface,” or “exotericmeaning).  In other words, “esoteric communication,” or “esotericism,” is really just a fancy and euphemistic name for the practice of lying and deception.  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” as a means by which to conceal knowledge from the “uninitiated” members of the religious community.

Let me give you an example of how the 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, secret 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 secret definitions a euphemistic name, such as “the spiritual meaning.”  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, I might—if I were an esotericist—be able to convince myself 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 among “the elect” or “the chosen” or “the worthy,” 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 persons 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 elect”—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 meaning” 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 meaning,” 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, that is, the meanings he considers to be truly valuable.  You might ask:  Why would an author not simply provide the reader with that sort of “spiritual meaning” in the first place?  Why would an author expect a reader to break his “secret code language” in order to arrive at his “real” meaning?  As far as I have been able to determine, no rational and moral 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.

But in addition to my invented example, I will also provide a “real-life” example from the Bible demonstrating the use of the esotericist technique that I just described, involving a “splitting” of an “inner meaning” from an “outer meaning.”  In 1 Corinthians 9:9-10, the apostle Paul—in justifying his right to “reap fleshly things” from the Corinthian church members after having “sown spiritual things” among them (see 1 Corinthians 9:11)—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.  Notice that there is nothing about the context in which Deuteronomy 25:4 is found to indicate that it was meant to be read in the way that Paul advocates—or even to indicate that it was meant to be given any kind of “esoteric” reading at all.  Of course, Paul’s understanding of the “inner meaning” of Deuteronomy 25:4 may have been entirely consistent with what the original author had in mind when he wrote it; it’s just that we have no evidence to prove it.]

So Paul here acknowledges that—in his view, at least—esotericist “splitting” of meaning can be found in the Old Testament scriptures (so that the words “ox” and “grain” do not signify or correspond to the concepts “ox” and “grain”).  Significantly, however, he does not consider the practice to be objectionable, and indeed seems to be endorsing it and trying to take personal 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 principled 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.