The idea of esoteric truth, or higher truths only taught to the spiritually or ritually prepared, can be found in many traditions. It has a long history in Christianity and Jesus himself declared to his apostles, “Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God: but to others in parables; that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand” (Luke 8:10). Paul in particular referred to higher teachings: in 1 Corinthians 2 he declared, “For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified … Howbeit we speak wisdom among them that are perfect: yet not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world, that come to nought: But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory … But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” And in the next chapter Paul declared, “I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able.”
In the Stromata, Clement of Alexandria explained that the Lord “allowed us to communicate of those divine mysteries, and of that holy light, to those who are able to receive them. He did not certainly disclose to the many what did not belong to the many; but to the few to whom He knew that they belonged, who were capable of receiving and being moulded according to them. But secret things are entrusted to speech, not to writing, as is the case with God.” Clement called the one who could obtain this higher teaching the “Gnostic,” not to be confused with the sectarian Gnostics that Clement condemned. “The Gnostic alone is able to understand and explain the things spoken by the Spirit obscurely…. For the Lord says, ‘He that has ears to hear, let him hear,’ declaring that hearing and understanding belong not to all…. It is the prerogative of the Gnostic, then, to know how to make use of speech, and when, and how, and to whom.” (Clement, Stromata, 1.1; 6.15).
Such was central to the notions of the Secret Tradition that I blogged about this summer and though this kind of esotericism was suppressed, various notions of esotericism did remain, such as monks not being allowed to read Song of Solomon until they were deemed ready. And esotericism was always central to Christian Platonism.
Esotericism was central to Mormonism from the beginning: the Book of Mormon not only refers to teachings that cannot be written, but repeatedly states that “when [the Gentiles] shall have received this, which is expedient that they should have first, to try their faith, and if it shall so be that they shall believe these things then shall the greater things be made manifest unto them.” (3 Nephi 26:9, also Ether 4:5-7, 13). Such was the policy as the Mormons began proselytizing “And I command you that you preach naught but repentance, and show not these things unto the world until it is wisdom in me. For they cannot bear meat now, but milk they must receive; wherefore, they must not know these things, lest they perish” (DC 19:21-22), and as Mormon doctrine continued to expand, church leaders repeatedly emphasized that the missionaries were only to teach the basics: “Let the elders preach nothing but the first principles of the Gospel,” JS instructed the Twelve in 1839 (JS Letter Jan 16 ,1839 LDS archives).
Those who believe in the system don’t see esotericism as dishonesty, but as a divinely appointed process of only revealing certain truths to those who are prepared. As Alma says, “It is given unto many to know the mysteries of God, nevertheless they are laid under a strict command that they shall not impart only according to the portion of his word which he doth grant unto the children of men, according to the heed and diligence which they give unto him” (Alma 12:9). Yet to outsiders and critics, esotericism looks highly suspect and dishonest. JS’s polygamy certainly fell into this category.
So in the internet age, can any esoteric structures be preserved, when all teaching, practices, and rites can be viewed on line? What does this do to contemporary proselytizing? Like JS instructed, we want to start with the basics, but is this even possible anymore?
I’m reminded of two stories from my mission. The first was a woman whom the elders had been teaching before I got there. She had gone through most of the discussions, but had learned about garments and didn’t like it. During that meeting she declared how upset she was that she hadn’t been told about it during the discussions and demanded that we change our curriculum to tell people “everything” from the get go. To the believer in esotericism, this is impossible. “Everything” is infinite, teaching takes time. We never saw her again.
Another story struck me as particularly sad. My companion and I whitewashed an area where sisters had been and we met with a woman who had also gone through all the discussions, had seemed ideal, but had run into problems. She explained the situation when we met with her. She loved what she heard from the sisters and had quickly read the entire Book of Mormon and loved it. Wanting to keep learning, she read the entire D&C. She didn’t love that: it was dry and repetitive, but what she really didn’t like was DC 132. “Again, I loved the Book of Mormon, but I really didn’t like the tone of DC 132,” she explained, “plus I’m really wondering how Joseph Smith explained this to his wife.” Yikes, good question! As you can imagine, two 20 year-olds were utterly helpless in this situation. I didn’t like the tone of DC 132 either, what was I supposed to say? That was the last time we saw her. The critic would say that she was wise in learning as much as she could so as to avoid joining a church she wouldn’t like, but what would the believer say? She was too committed to reading the scriptures?
I see the church’s new “openness” as excepting a new reality: everyone has access to our esoteric teachings. Now we have to try to explain them.