In esoteric work,the first virtues we seek to acquire are discernment and humility: the ability to discern truth from falsehood, and the humility to recognize when our imagination gets the better of us.
This brings us to an issue I’ve often encountered amongst esotericists, the tendency to see relationships that aren’t there, and to invent relationships when the imagination chooses.
Case in point, the following once came across my Facebook newsfeed:
“Why are there 21 chapters in John’s Gospel? Could it have something to do with 7 times 3?”
This individual proceeded to go on with some lengthy “mystical” interpretation of why there are 21 chapters, and later concludes the gospel’s author “must’ve been an initiate.”
I call BS. I call this totally made up. Why? Because reality: our current chapter and verse numbers were inserted in the 16th century simply to make citations easier. There’s no mystical reason or rhyme for it, there was no occult significance, just scholars seeking more precision when quoting from a seminal text of Western Civilization.
If the person writing this post had first studied the history of chapter and verse numbering, then he’d have realized this isn’t mystical and may have looked deeper into the text itself to find what mystical content actually does reside there (and the Fourth Gospel is esoteric indeed!).
In this instance, the lack of studying the exoteric resulted in a superficial understanding of the esoteric. We can see this example multiplied throughout the vast corpus of modern “New Age” literature, where a writer makes superficial “spiritual interpretations” of a deeper text because he or she didn’t first study the text itself in light of its own traditions and history. The imagination filled in the blanks, and in so doing such writers can shortchange themselves as well as their audiences.
So here’s my point. In esoteric work,the first virtues we seek to acquire are discrimination and humility: the ability to discern truth from falsehood, and the humility to recognize when our imagination gets the better of us.
There is a place for subjectivity, which is at the root of both private interpretations and our time spent in Lectio Divina. In fact this realization is leading me to lighten up (somewhat) on my hard-line stance regarding some forms of interpretation. But we have to know the line between our subjective interpretations and/or opinions, and what can reasonably be asserted as any sort of factual or theological truth.
This is why I’ve always advocated a thorough study of the exoteric before proceeding to the esoteric. If you don’t know your history, your theology, your philosophy, and — yes, your religion — then how will you be able to discern whether the next “esoteric truth” you find is genuine or a figment of someone’s imagination? How will your hubris not get in the way of letting go of that “truth” once objective facts demonstrate it as false?
The Bible tells us to “test all things,” and to “hold fast that which is good; reject what is evil” (1 Thess. 5:21-22a). The spiritual worker’s path is that of an observer and a scientist, not as a blind believer and uncritical collector of data. The purpose is to lead the seeker onward to Truth as Truth actually is, not as the seeker’s imagination would twist it into appearing.
This was posted on my Facebook two years ago, in response to a particularly wacky post that showed on my newsfeed. I don’t remember the original post itself, but the principled discussed here seem worth sharing.