The Value of Esotericism

May 17, 2004 | 15 comments
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When I began participating in online discussion forums, I selected the nickname “Grasshopper,” rather than using my real name. One of the perceived benefits of the Internet is our anonymity (except on this onymous blog, of course). Benefit, yes, but also a drawback, to some extent, since someone posting pseudonymously is clearly hiding something and cannot be fully trusted, right?

As I became more comfortable with the online communities, I felt less of a need for the protection of anonymity. However, in order to maintain continuity with what I have written in the past, I continue to use the pseudonym.

What does this have to do with Mormonism? The connection is in our use of esotericism: teachings that are available only to the initiated, either because they are completely hidden or because they are couched in language understandable only by the intitiated. The clearest example of our use of esotericism is the temple: the ordinances of the temple are hidden from the world, intended only for the intitiated.

There are many other examples, from the use of code names in early editions of the Doctrine & Covenants to scriptural commandments to “show not these things unto the world” (see Ether 3:21, D&C 10:34-37, D&C 19:21-22) to Jesus’ private teachings to his disciples to Abinadi’s use of a disguise to re-enter the city of Nephi, to the fact that the priesthood session of General Conference is closed to all but male Church members.

It appears that there are two motivations for using esotericism: one is to protect the speaker, as in the case of code names in the D&C; the other is to protect the hearer, as in the case of Jesus’ use of parables or scriptural injunctions of secrecy. The whole “milk before meat” principle is based on this function of esotericism.

What of the drawbacks of esotericism? It can be interpreted as dishonesty — a sort of “bait-and-switch”: We only tell converts a little bit and then eventually spring the temple ceremony on them. It can be interpreted as arrogance: Do we really suppose that we know whether a person is only ready for milk and not meat? It can be interpreted as fear: We are afraid that people won’t accept us or our ideas if we tell them all at once. It can create barriers between people.

It seems to me that we are now confronted with a new challenge to esotericism: the Internet. Temple ceremonies are available online; “deeper” doctrines are available to anyone, regardless of spiritual preparation. And the availability of previously obscure information is reportedly having a significant impact on members of the Church and investigators.

A few questions that arise out of all this:

  • Is esotericism necessary? If so, why? If not, why is it so frequently used in the scriptures?
  • Are there other benefits and drawbacks to esotericism I have not identified here? (For example, it seems to me that esotericism also serves the purpose of establishing community boundaries.)
  • Do the benefits of esotericism outweigh the drawbacks?
  • Is it possible to have the benefits of esotericism in the Internet Age?
  • Do we need to change our approach to spiritual preparation, given that we may not have the option of introducing ideas gradually?
  • Does esotericism post ethical challenges? If so, how do we negotiate them?
  • Do we need to maintain ties to esoteric practices for historical continuity, as I continue to do with my pseudonym?

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15 Responses to The Value of Esotericism

  1. Julie in Austin on May 17, 2004 at 5:12 pm

    One other benefit, as I mentioned in the BCC discussion about the Temple, is: no one interprets the Temple for you. This is a huge plus in my opinion.

  2. Julie in Austin on May 17, 2004 at 5:33 pm

    Another thought, brought about by the fact that I am working on a batch of FHE lessons today: pedagogical. When I teach adults NT, concepts like intratextuality, chiasmus, and alternative Greek meanings come up. Not so with the 6 and 2.5 year olds.

    Imagine, if you will, that the First Vision contained everything Joseph, nay, every prophet, needed to know about everything from Area Authority Seventies to Guidelines for Roadshows. I think God’s practice of esotericism (and our modeling of it) is justified on pedagogical reasons alone.

  3. Ben Huff on May 17, 2004 at 5:37 pm

    I am so with you, Julie!

    Sure it complicates matters if the temple ceremony is available on the internet (tho I hope to never see it there myself — it’s upsetting enough just to hear about it), but I don’t see it fundamentally changing the dynamic of temple seclusion. The temple structures our community and our lives. Anything that goes on on the internet is clearly extraneous to the structure the temple establishes. It’s really not a simple matter of information; if it were, there would be no need for temple seclusion in the first place.

  4. diogenes on May 17, 2004 at 6:14 pm

    I confess I have rather mixed feelings about the appearance of the temple ceremony(ies) on the Internet.

    On the one hand, I consider myself under covenenant not to post such information myself. On the other hand, having received my endowment under a different, earlier version of the ceremony, I’ve found it extremely valuable to be able to compare promises I made and instruction I received initially with what is found in the current version of the endowment. I don’t think that’s what the purveyors of the temple ceremony websites had in mind, but it’s a highly useful side benefit.

    So — two cheers for transparency, I suppose.

  5. lyle on May 17, 2004 at 6:32 pm

    Hm. So…simple yes/no. Were the changes “significant” or material? Do the new “revisions”/”refinements” (i.e. the changes) supercede the originals (i.e. only bound by the ‘new’ covenants)?

    re: Abinadi. I don’t know if his example has much value. While it says he “entered” the city in disguise…his very first words identified him explicitly. just a thought. :)

  6. diogenes on May 17, 2004 at 7:28 pm

    In response to Lyle:

    Yes, the changes were significant and material. I consider the redacted portions to be extremely important to my understanding of the endowment, and often wonder what more recent initiates understand of the ceremony without those portions.

    Since I have participated in the more recent endowment version only for vicarious ordinances on behalf of the dead, I consider myself responsible for the initial version that was conducted for me, although your question of superceding ordinances has occurred to me.

    Regarding Abinadi’s “disguise,” see Alan Goff’s discussion of the disguise motif in OT Hebrew narrative, “Uncritical Theory and Thin Description: The Resistance to History” (Review of Metcalf), FARMS Rev. of Books on The BOM, vol. 7 no.1 170 -207 (1995).

  7. obi-wan on May 17, 2004 at 7:45 pm

    There appears over time to be a strong tendency toward esotericism in most human associations — witness the development of everything from gnosticism, Kabbalism, and ancient mystery religions, to college fraternities, kids’ backyard tree-house clubs, GW Bush’s fundraising “Pioneers,” and so on.

    So perhaps the value in “official” Church esotericism is to co-opt the trend for the Lord’s purposes before it gets going on its own.

  8. Ben Huff on May 17, 2004 at 8:46 pm

    Esotericism in Mormon film is coming up in my thread on The RM : )
    here and here

  9. greenfrog on May 17, 2004 at 11:36 pm

    Esotericism also suited the Gadianton robbers.

  10. Dan M. on May 18, 2004 at 1:48 am

    I find this aspect of the Gospel to be quite interesting. Remember that Christ spoke in parables so that those around HIm without the spiritual capacity to live up to the principles He taught would not bring condemnation upon themselves. The Parable of the Talents also hints at the fact that we will be judged according to the capacities that we are given in this life. This means someone with an utterly rudimentary understanding of the Gospel will have a throne right alongside the prophet’s if he lives up to the light that he is given.

    Lots of things are turning up on the Internet that expose some of our more esoteric teachings. I’ve found most of it to be gross misreresentations of doctrine. Many people (members and non) take a few isolated comments from church authorities and synthesize them in an effort to create their own pseudo-doctrines. I don’t really take that stuff seriously, but a lot of stuff is posted that is real. The danger is that people will become cognizant of doctrine that they’re not prepared to live, and thus bring upon themselves damnation. Is this possible from mere exposure to the doctrine, or do they have to understand it comprehensively? I’d like to think that God is much more merciful than that.

    I once asked the president of a temple about the meaning of the endowment, and he shared some statements that Joseph Smith made. He said the meaning is too complex for even him to try to explain. He also said it is different for everyone. We are all individuals, and God helps us along according to our capacities and our desires. In the end, desires will play as big a part (if not bigger) in our salvation than our actual worthiness.

    I noticed an interesting trend while I was on my mission. I was looking through old copies of the church publications and I noticed that they used to address deep doctrinal issues. It came to my attention that the church is slowly withdrawing itself from providing black and white answers to these principles. Why? I believe it’s to separate the wheat from the rocks. Those that have the ability to recognize and follow the promptings of the Spirit will learn to find answers. Others will slowly drift away. I think this will purge the church of those that aren’t really in it for the long haul. Once the Law of Consecration is reinstated the church should have the riff-raff filtered out.

    I think we need to worry about living up to the principles we understand best before we start worrying about more esoteric stuff. How many of us can say we live the law Christ sets forth in Luke 6:27-36? That’s not esoteric at all, but I’d wager (if I were a wagering man) that it’s one of the more difficult principles that exists in the church. I worry about living that law more than understanding the Adam-God theory.

  11. Charles Sakai on May 18, 2004 at 7:04 pm

    Reading about the endowment ceremony on the Internet just to satisfy one’s idle curiosity and experiencing this saving ordinance in the temple is the difference between text and context. In other words, you cannot gain more than a superficial understanding of any doctrine, whether it is to be found in the scriptures or in an endowment session, if you take it out of context and interpret it according to the limited intelligence of human beings. The Spirit has to be there to testify and instruct, and if things are not done in proper order, then there is no reason for the Holy Ghost to tarry with someone who fails to comply with the Lord’s way of doing things.

  12. Kingsley on May 19, 2004 at 2:53 am

    Grasshopper: Does your chosen nickname have anything to do with Kung Fu?

  13. Grasshopper on May 19, 2004 at 12:48 pm

    It does, but in a sort of roundabout way. I have never seen Kung Fu (though I keep telling myself that one of these days I’m going to have to watch some). But the boy who gave me the nickname at Scout camp when I was twelve was making reference to Kung Fu, as well as to my ability to keep up with the other Scouts despite a cast on my right leg. It is also a fairly good match for my tendency to hop from subject to subject, as well as my … um, let’s just say, excess energy (though my kids are diminishing it). And I understand that, in the context of Kung Fu, it refers to an enthusiastic student, which I aspire to be, eternally.

  14. Kingsley on May 19, 2004 at 2:01 pm

    Grasshopper is certainly an enthusiastic student, but his nickname (I think–it’s been a while) ultimately derives from a little exchange he has with his blind mentor monk, when the blind man hears a grasshopper’s approach long before Grasshopper does. The idea being that when Grasshopper can get so in tune with nature that her smallest members’ smallest movements are noticeable to him, he’ll be ready to “graduate” from the Monastery. Talk about off topic! Sorry!

  15. Zach on May 19, 2004 at 4:56 pm

    There’s more to esotericism than just the temple ordinances. There’s also sealed portions of works that have not yet been translated, further light and knowledge that we should be preparing for.

    Unlike non-members, I am under specific covenants to obey all of God’s laws. Now, if I don’t know a law, then God has promised to judge me by the light and knowledge that I’ve received.

    And I think that’s the key. Light and knowledge come from God, as a result of keeping commandments – receiving the light. Reading doctrines on the net is not (last time I checked) a form of revelation. Someone can gain a testimony of something they read there, just as a testimony can be gained in any true principle.

    But at the end of it all, God recognizes the spiritual potential and preparation of each of his individual children, and will, I think, judge them according to that. Change the way we think about spiritual preparation? I don’t think it’s necessary, other than a general realization that such preparation is necessary, and it is our obligation to be performing such.