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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One thought on “Exoteric and Esoteric Religion, Part 3-Final Entry

  1. You ask, “Why is it that the societies in which atheism is on the rise are the most peaceful societies on the globe?” You presume that this is true. But it seems far more reasonable to me to presume that it is not true. The communist regimes of the 20th century were absolutely committed to atheism and the rejection of Christianity and other religions. They were also characterized by extreme violence and persecution. They systematically killed thousands of priests and nuns and outlawed in their effort to ensure atheism in society.

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