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.

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5 thoughts on “Exoteric and Esoteric Religion, Part 2

  1. “Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit…Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

    That seems the proper place for fruitless philosophies about God.

  2. You seem to be reinterpreting the words exoteric and esoteric to suit your own purposes without much regard for traditional usage. Esoteric Christianity is most customarily associated with Rudolf Steiner, Course of Miracles, Meditations on the Tarot, etc, etc. This is not at all what McLaren is exploring. In fact most esotericists would call McLaren exoteric with a more friendly face. You can find an inner life and transformative experience within orthodox Christianity. They’re not mutually exclusive in my experience.

  3. “You can find an inner life and transformative experience within orthodox Christianity. They’re not mutually exclusive in my experience.”

    Right. I never actually said that exoteric Chrisianity (or what you call orthodoxy) is devoid of the inner life or transformative experiences. I’m just pointing out that in my experience, these elements are secondary behind the emphasis on right belief. In other words, right belief molds the inner life and is the lens through which experiences are interpreted. The mystic reorders this approach to an emphasis on experience and the inner life and uses these elements as a guide to form beliefs. While Mclaren might not be advocating a purely esoteric spirituality, I still think the distinction, as Wilber articulates it, is still really helpful in sorting out what divides traditional and emerging Christianity.

  4. Hey Zach,

    I saw on your Part 1 in the comments section a link to this, Part 2. I have enjoyed reading your blog posts regarding this topic thus far, and think we could all use a good chunk of time to reflect on what you have written and expressed. While I was reading through this Part, however, I was struck by a good portion of what you said near the middle:

    “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… 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… 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.”

    In particular, I was struck by your assertion that “the transformation Christianity offers has somehow failed to bear witness to the world.”

    I am wondering if you have ever heard of or read the book “The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity” by Philip Jenkins? He is a Religious Studies, History, and Humanities professor at Penn State University. I myself have not read the entire book, only portions, but was quite shocked by some of the statistics he cites in it, statistics which, frankly, directly contradict the assertions you make above. While what you write may very well be true for general, mainstream, white, middle to upper-class, 21st Century, American Christianity, it is not the case that “the transformation Christianity offers has somehow failed to bear witness to the world.” The world, in the past century, and especially in the last half-century, has taken rather kindly to Christianity, and taken kindly to traditional, orthodox, supernatural – exoteric, as you call it – Christianity. In his book Jenkins has provided the pudding, and it is laden with proof.

    I have copied some passages from the book relevant to this discussion, and can make them available here if you are interested in hearing what he has to say.

    I hope that I have represented my divergence from you position with respect Zach (which is typically tough to do through such a medium), as that is what I did intend.

    Best regards,
    Craig

    • Craig,

      Thanks for the comment. It’s much appreciated. I’m aware of Jenkins book and have read a little bit of it. What I was referring to as “the world” is more specifically the developed, Western world. I should have been more specific so sorry for the confusion.

      I think what Jenkins is talking about is true but what’s happening globally compared to what’s happening in Europe and North America are two very different trends. I think Christians like to point to the trends in developing, more economically oppressed, less educated parts of the world to make themselves feel like their numbers are strong. On the surface of the data, yeah, I guess that’s true. But I don’t believe it should be taken as any consolation.

      In a way, Jenkins findings support the perspective I’m trying to share. Folks in developing areas of the world are more likely to participate in mythic belief systems. The soil there is much more fertile for exoteric religion. When folks are less educated and economically disadvantaged, the reliance on myths to be literally true takes on more importance. As technology allows for more development economically, politically, and socially the soil will be less receptive to exoteric belief structures and the trends will likely follow the trends we are currently seeing in the West.

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