I’m currently traveling in Australia have spent a lot of time with Brian McLaren’s newest book, A New Kind of Christianity. I’m really enjoying the book and I think many will look back on it as an important read for those interesting in the landscape of Christianity in the West. Whether or not you agree with McLaren’s direction, it is a very well written and accurate decleration of where many are headed and that might be useful information for anyone concerned with fading vital signs of Christianity in Europe and North America.
I’ll most likely blog more about the book but before I do, I’ve been interested in the response this book has received so far. After some online browsing, what I’ve found isn’t all that surprising. Obviously, those who are more devoted to the more conventional Christian perspective are not enthused by the book. This was not a surprise at all but it reminded me of a few religious distinctions that Ken Wilber makes in his book Grace and Grit. An interviewer asks Wilber about the different ways the world “religion” is used. Wilber responds that before a conversation about religion begins, we must identify what is meant by the word “religion.” He basically puts the various definitions of religion into two separate categories–exoteric and esoteric:
Ken Wilber: “We really can’t talk about science and religion or psychotherapy and religion or philosophy and religion until we decide just what it is we mean by the word religion. And for our purposes right now I think we must at least distinguish between what is known as exoteric religion and exoteric religion. Exoteric or “outer” religion is mythic religion, religion that is terribly concrete and literal, that really believes, for example, that Moses parted the Red Sea, that Christ was born from a virgin, that the world was created in six days, that manna once literally rained down from heaven, and so on. Exoteric religions the world over consist of those types of beliefs. The Hindus believe that the earth, since it needs to be supported, is sitting on an elephant which, since it needs to be supported, is sitting on a tortoise which in turn is sitting on a serpent. Lao Tzu was nine hundred years old when he was born, Krishna made love to four thousand cow maidens, Brahma was born from a crack in a cosmic egg, and so on. That’s exoteric religion, a series of belief structures that attempt to explain the mysteries of the world in mythic terms rather than direct experiential or evidential terms.
Interviewer: So exoteric or outer religion is basically a matter of belief, not evidence.
KW: Yes. If you believe all the myths, you are saved; if not, you go to Hell–no discussion. Now you find that type of religion the world over–fundamentalism. I have no quarrel with that; it’s just that that type of religion , exoteric religion, has little to do with mystical religion or spirituality that I’m most interested in.
Interviewer: Esoteric means what?
KW: Inner or hidden. The reason that exoteric or mystical relgion is hidden is not that is is secret or anything, but that it is a matter of direct experience and personal awareness. Esoteric religion asks you to believe nothing on faith or obediently swallow any dogma. Rather, esoteric religion is a set of personal experiments that you conduct scientifically in the laboratory of your own awareness. Like all good science, it is based on direct experience, no mere belief or wish, and it is publicly checked or validated by a peer group of those who have also performed the experiment. The experiment is meditation.”
I’ll be blogging more about this distinction between exoteric and esoteric religion as I believe it accurately depicts the main rift between traditional and emerging Christianity and sheds light on the tensions this book will bring to the surface between the two perspectives. These are two totally different modes of operating religiously and it’s important to recognize this if we are to build any understanding between the two perspectives.