Exoteric and Esoteric Religion, Part 3-Final Entry

Ken Wilber continues in his book, Grace and Grit:

“Exoteric religions vary tremendously from each other; but esoteric religions the world over share many similarities. Mysticism or esotericism is, in a broad sense of the word, scientific, as we have seen, and just as you don’t have German chemistry versus American chemistry, you don’t have Hindu mystical science versus Muslim mystical science. Rather, they are in fundamental agreement as to the nature of the soul, the nature of Spirit, and the nature of their supreme identity, among many other things. Of course their surface structures vary tremendously, but their deep structures are often identical, reflecting the unanimity of the human spirit and its phenomenologically disclosed laws.

The mystics are the ones who give an esoteric or “hidden” meaning to the myths, and those meanings are discovered in the direct interior and contemplative experience of the soul, not in some outward belief system or symbol or myth. In other words, they aren’t mythic believers at all, but contemplative phenomenologists, contemplative mystics, contemplative scientists. This is why historically, as Alfred North Whitehead pointed out, mysticism has always allied itself with science as against the Church, because both mysticism and science depend on direct consensual evidence. Newton was a great scientist; he was also a profound mystic, and there was, is, no conflict there whatsoever.”

This relates very much to my previous post on the nature of the cognitive aspect of religion and how it is absolutely essential. If anything, mystics rely more heavily on reason but it is reason that is shaped primarily by experience, not myth. The vast majority of world religions today are based on the rationalizations of the different myths or the surface structures that each religion offers. We are all running around claiming that “our myths can beat up your myths,” while the mystic asks what he or she can learn from the myths of others and how different myths might help guide and support their own experience. For the mystic, the importance of the myth is not whether it’s true or not. The myth’s importance lies in its ability to spark something in us that moves us closer to God and to each other.

For some, they experience freedom when they’ve managed their myths in a way that subsides their doubts. This is a freedom provided by the desire to be right. They profess devotion to a set of beliefs which, to them, are right and reject all the other religions which are, for them, not only wrong but threats which endanger their own system of belief. Even in this kind of freedom transformation takes place and people’s lives are changed and that should be celebrated. But mere myth management for the benefit of everlasting life comes with a ceiling through which, as long as we are anchored by right belief, can’t be broken through. It is a freedom that, while still valuable, is limited. But when we can relax our need to be right and are no longer threatened by competing religions or myths, we can then remove the ceiling to discover an unending freedom. Instead of being our anchors to a fixed point, our myths, which have been deeply embedded into our traditions, transform from fixed anchors that hold us down to a collection of sign posts, pointing to a way forward.

We’re seeing this dynamic work itself out in the world. For more human beings, especially in the developed Western world, the myth versus myth feud has become tiresome and has not really yielded the kind of transformation that each religion professes. Why is it that the societies in which atheism is on the rise are the most peaceful societies on the globe? If we look throughout the course of human history, how are human beings becoming less devoted to religious myths and at the same time less violent? Simply put, where is the transformation that the wisdom traditions of the world claim to offer? This is why eventually we must turn the page on exoteric, myth defending, sectarian religious life. If not, then the book will simply be shut, put on the shelf and ignored.

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Tormented and Arrested

“Many of these tormented men have arrested sexual and emotional development. They have never had a sexual or intimate relationship with any other human being. Sex for them is an abstraction, a sin, not an interaction with an equal. And their sexuality has been frozen at the first real moment of internal terror: their early teens. So they tend to be attracted still to those who are in their own stage of development: teenage boys. And in their new positions, they are given total access to these kids who revere them for their power.

So they use these children to express themselves sexually. They barely see these children as young and vulnerable human beings, incapable of true consent. Because they have never had a real sexual relationship, have never had to deal with the core issue of human equality and dignity in sex, they don’t see the children as victims. Like the tortured gay man, Michael Jackson, they see them as friends. They are even gifted at interacting with them in non-sexual ways. One theme you find in many of these stories is that until these screwed up priests’ abuse and molestation is revealed, they often have a great reputation as pastors. As emotionally developed as your average fourteen year old wanting to be loved, they sublimate a lot of their lives into clerical service. But they also act out sexually all the time.

And they know that many around them have the same patterns, and so a truly sick subculture perpetuates this. In the end, it is all about themselves and their pathologies, how to express them and how to hide them. As social sexual tolerance advances, and as fewer straight men are prepared to give up sex for life to become priests, the proportion of screwed up pastors increases. In this self-protective environment, these priests do not even see the children as fellow humans. They remain like those solitary abstract images in their heads. So they cannot fully grasp the enormity of the crime they are committing and see it merely as another part of the vortex of their sexual sin.”

Andrew Sullivan on the ongoing sexual abuse scandal plaguing the Roman Catholic Church. Read his entire entry here.

Sifter of Dust

Suppose you know the definitions
of all substances and their products,
what good is this to you?
Know the true definition of yourself.
That is essential.
Then, when you know your own definition, flee
from it,
That you may attain to the One who cannot be
defined,
O sifter of the dust.

— Rumi

What I Believe About Belief

Jeff Cook, a fairly regular commenter on this blog and more importantly the author of Seven: The Deadly Sins and the Beatitudes, asks me to clarify my view on the role of “right belief” and the cognitive element of the religious life. He writes:

It feels like your critiques of a right-belief-is-all-that-counts Christianity (which are normally spot on) diminish the cognitive side of life. Some may think you would hold a position that “right thinking” does not matter at all. I assume you think this is false (otherwise why try and persuade anyone of your position). I would love to hear you comment on this in the future:

What is the proper and good role of the mind in our understanding, enjoyment, and engagement with God? What is a healthy way to conceive of our beliefs that does not make them irrelevant, but so too does not make them an idol?

I appreciate this because Jeff’s right. I do tend to critique the over emphasis of belief without articulating a space for a healthy role of belief. To put it plainly, we cannot escape the cognitive aspect of our faith. After all, if I were to profess that belief is devoid of any value, that would be me articulating a belief. We can’t turn belief or cognitive awareness into a perceived virus that is to be avoided at all cost.
Instead we must strive to give belief it’s proper place, a healthy space that doesn’t short circuit how we experience God. The writers that I often cite like Merton and Rohr aren’t calling into question belief. They are questioning Christianity’s overwhelming tendency to overestimate the idea of right belief and illuminate for those with an ear to hear how this overemphasis is ultimately a obstacle to God’s gift.

The mystics employ common sense and cognitive recognitions as much as anyone. Cognitive awareness is essential and often times helps us nudge open a door open that was previously jammed shut. Even before we walk through the door, just being aware of what’s on the other side reduces our anxiety and gives us a direction, thanks all to the miracle of the mind.

Where belief becomes a virus is when the point of our religious life is to be right. When one religion is pitted against all others and we divide the world up between right and wrong. The center of gravity of Christianity today is ultimately sectarian and divisive. Unless people of other faiths agree with the Christian perspective, they will experience eternal torment. This is a religion that resides in the mind and has little to do with the heart. On the contrary, mystics don’t buy into this religious construction. They employ beliefs but their beliefs don’t rely on dogma and myth, although those can be helpful, and their beliefs are fluid, shaped by their experience and reside in their hearts. Both the heart and mind are absolutely necessary, but greatest of these is the heart, in my opinion.

The Old Wine Is Good Enough

If certitude, predictability, and perfect order were so important, Jesus would have come in a time of digital recorders and cameras, and he would have at least written his ideas down somewhere–and more clearly! He would have described his task as the establishing of archives instead of a sprawling banquet of rich food and wine, as he consistently did. He said, “I have come that you might have life, and a very abundant life at that” (John 10:10). How did we ever get correct rational ideas confused with an abundant life? This happens perhaps to folks who are unwilling to let got of their attachment to their images of themselves, the world, and God. They will not let go of their attachments for a living relationship. “The old wine is good enough,” they say (Luke 5:39), and so they miss out on the great banquet that all the mystics, the prophets, and Jesus describe.

Surely God does not exist so that we can think correctly about Him — or Her. Amazingly and wonderfully, like all good parents, God desires instead the flourishing of what God created and what God loves — us ourselves. Ironically, we flourish more by learning from our mistakes and changing than by a straight course that teaches us nothing.

–Richard Rohr, The Naked Now

Exoteric and Esoteric Religion, Part 2

Here is a continuation of the excerpt from Ken Wilber’s Grace and Grit that I cited in Part 1 of this series on the differences between exoteric and esoteric religion:

Interviewer: But meditation is private.

Ken Wilber: Not really. Not any more so than, say, mathematics. There is no external proof, for example, that negative one squared equals one; there is no sensory or empirical proof for that. That happens to be true, but it is proven to be true only by an internal logic. You can’t find negative one in the external world; you find it only in your mind. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true, that doesn’t mean it is only private knowledge that can’t be publicly validated. That only means that its truth is validated by a community of trained mathematicians, by those who know how to internally run the logical experiment that will decide whether it is true or not. Just so, meditative knowledge is internal knowledge, but knowledge that can be publicly validated by a community of trained meditators, those who know the internal logic of the contemplative experience. We don’t let anybody vote on the truth of the Pythagorean theorem; we let trained mathematicians vote on that truth. Likewise, meditative spirituality makes certain claims–for example, that inward sense of self is, if you look at it closely, one with the feeling of the external world–but that is a truth to be checked experimentally and experientially by you and anybody else who cares to try the experiment. And after something like six thousand years of this experiment, we are perfectly justified in making certain conclusions, making certain spiritual theorems, as it were. And those spiritual theorems are the core of the perennial wisdom traditions.

The struggle for many Christians today is to find a religious framework that, to put it simply, makes sense. We’ve attempted our experiments with exoteric Christianity and the experiment has yielded mostly negative results. Not that everything about Christian fundamentalism is bad but taken as a whole, it does not sit well with our souls. But rather than leaving our tradition all together, we seek a new direction that relies on the saints that have gone before us and the Spirit’s calling us forward. This is why I really appreciate writers like McLaren because he is doing his part in developing an alternate vision that doesn’t do away with the past, but embraces it in a new way. After all, it is more than obvious that for a growing number of folks, the conventional Christian perspective does not invite their souls, but repels them. We must find a spirituality that makes sense because, in the end, isn’t that what we all do? For the fundamentalist, fundamentalism makes sense. For the Calvinist, Calvinism makes sense. No one can invest in a religious experiment with a full and open heart unless it makes sense. The growing problem with the exoteric Christian perspective is that more and more who’ve attempted it’s experiment are checking out. The world looks at Christianity and the transformation Christianity offers has somehow failed to bear witness to the world. If exoteric Christianity brings transformation, then why is this transformation not overwhelmingly evident? Or to put it more simply, the proof’s not in the pudding. Esoteric spirituality isn’t interested in dogmas because dogmas, when emphasized, have had a very difficult time yielding transformation. Esoteric spirituality is primarily interested in transformation and leaves room for belief in so far as it guides our experience and fosters transformation. The dogmas and doctrines are not the point. Being in a relationship with God and allowing that relationship to transform is all that matters.

For anyone who is interested in digging in to this kind of material with a Christian emphasis, check out Father Thomas Keating’s writing on centering prayer, Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation and the writings of Father Richard Rohr.