Why religion?

“Philosophy is a ladder made entirely of top rungs.”

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I’ve been asked, and I’ve wondered myself: Why do I insist on bringing religion into my work? Why don’t I make a clean break and just philosophize about the same realities, but in more credible terms?

I will attempt a brief answer: It is because I believe Guenon was on to something.

I don’t believe Guenon was entirely right, and I do not share his metaphysics, but I do think he was right about the structure of esoterism and exoterism.

Esoteric truth is not accessible to comprehension. It is a less a form of knowledge than symbolically-mediated orientation to transcendent being (for lack of a better word).

Traditional religion can be seen as containing multiple degrees of exoteric objective understandings, successively approaching an esoteric core. To put it in postphenomenological terms, traditional religions are densely multistable symbol systems, where conceiving one stable state (an understanding) sets the stage for conceiving the next.

Every rejection of religion that I’ve seen so far has been a rejection of some exoteric approximation — usually one of the outermost approximations — rejected without reference to the esoteric structure that gives it its meaning. In other words, secular rejection of religion is based on a category mistake.

What makes this rejection both damaging and incorrigible that it based on an unwarranted presumption of superior understanding. It summarily invalidates (or at least reductionistically deflates) a vast amount of valid human experience — precisely what are felt to be the most crucial experiences! — belonging not only to our dead ancestors, but also to many of our living neighbors.

Learning to respect religion and respond religiously has connected me with history and allows me to form goodwill connections with many more people.

So why am I messing with a good thing? Why not just become a traditionalist?

At the risk of joining in the presumption, I believe that the exoteric forms  of traditional religions (or at least the outermost ones) have become inaccessible to many intelligent people who would not be averse to religion if they understood it in more esoteric terms. I want to write to people who feel compelled to approach the esoteric core but find all available exoteric rungs unclimbable.

1 thought on “Why religion?

  1. I like your esoteric/exoteric dialectic. But it’s not unique to religion. Your description fits the dialectic of (secular) science perfectly:

    “[Science can be seen as] containing multiple degrees of exoteric objective understandings, successively approaching an esoteric core. To put it in postphenomenological terms, [scientic theories] are densely multistable symbol systems, where conceiving one stable state (an understanding) sets the stage for conceiving the next.”

    This description is EXACTLY how Ladyman’s Ontic Structural Realism deals with the Pessimistic Meta-Induction: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pessimistic_induction . The relata (objects) of a scientific theory may be discarded, by the relations nonetheless manifest an esoteric core. Note that the PMI can be applied equally well to theologies and secular philosophies. Your post feels like a recapitulation of the PMI, just applied to the history of theologies.

    So I, like you, “feel compelled to approach the esoteric core”. I think many secular philosophers and scientists feel the same way. I also highly respect much of the exoteric understandings that religion has produced. I respect them in the same way that I respect the wisdom manifested by older scientific theories like Ptolemic astronomy and the caloric theory of heat.

    I don’t find “all available exoteric rungs unclimbable” towards the esoteric core. I just prefer exoteric rungs couched in secular ontologies, ie ones that don’t reify metaphors such as “god”, “soul”, “spirit”, “miracle”, “afterlife”, “salvation”, “evil”, etc. How is that different from you preferring the exoteric rungs of Judaism over those of Islam or Buddhism?

    We’re all climbing towards the same esoteric core! Why not simply compare and contrast rungs instead of trying to get others to switch to “religious” rungs?

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