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?