In my childhood, I expected that church was the place where I would learn about the deep mysteries of existence and have some truly eye-opening, otherworldly experiences. After all, church certainly looked more mystical than my home, my school, or the shopping mall. But the older I got, the more boring and stultified church came to seem. By the time I quit going, in my early teens, I was convinced that religion was little more than hypocrisy and lingering superstition. Still, I always held on to a kind of wistful feeling that there must have been something wonderful hidden away in the recesses of my childhood church — some inner secrets that I had never discovered and that no one in charge had bothered to show me.
Richard Smoley has made a study of the inner secrets of Western religions for most of his adult life. He’s written two books, Hidden Wisdom (Penguin Putnam) — which surveys Western esoteric traditions in general — and his latest, Inner Christianity (Shambhala), which focuses on the lesser-known myths, symbols, and metaphors of the West’s predominant religious tradition. He also edited the late, lamented Gnosis magazine, a journal of religious inquiry.
A graduate of Harvard and Oxford in classics and philosophy, Smoley says that his conscious spiritual work began in graduate school in England, when he first delved into the Jewish mystical system known as the Kabbalah. “Its intricate delineation of levels of the visible and invisible universe spoke to my intellect,” he recalls. “Its profound understanding of the Bible touched the part of me that was brought up a Christian.” But once he returned to the United States from England, Smoley had a difficult time finding Kabbalah teachers willing to work with a non-Jew. He took this as a sign that he needed to move on to a different phase of his spiritual education, and in 1981 he encountered the contemporary and controversial discipline of “mind training” known as A Course in Miracles. At the time, he says, “I was heavily imbalanced toward severity: toward form, intellect, judgment. The Course, which teaches that all judgment is to be relinquished to the Holy Spirit, provided the perfect counterpoint.”
As he studied the Course over the next several years, Smoley became aware of another imbalance in his life, namely his “enormous resistance to working with my body.” Some forays into bodywork led to a Tibetan movement practice known as kum nye, which helped him overcome his habit of “holding back from physical experience, shirking it as an abused animal avoids its tormentor.” Kum nye, in turn, led Smoley into Tibetan Buddhist study and practice. Just as he was ready to commit to a lifelong study of those teachings, he turned toward the Western esoteric tradition.
Smoley writes, “When I was negotiating these various twists and turns on my path, it seemed simply that the right teaching and the right teachers appeared as needed. My role was merely to remain open to what presented itself and to work as hard and as sincerely as I could — and to leave when I felt finished.”
I met Smoley not long after he became editor of Gnosis — I once proposed a humor column for the magazine entitled “Gnostrums,” but, alas, he didn’t go for it — and over the years we’ve enjoyed periodic kaffeeklatsches in which the conversations have ranged from the struggle to keep our heads above water as freelance writers to the finer points of metaphysics. He once told me about reading portions of the Bible in ancient Greek and Hebrew and stopping to exclaim to himself, “My God! Does it really say that?” Though Smoley is much more of a scholar than I am, I’ve always appreciated his down-to-earth sensibilities as much as his intellectual acumen. When I need some practical pointers on how to hang on in the everyday world without becoming too much of it, I go to him. In the following conversation, we discuss the central points of his book Inner Christianity. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Miller: What’s the difference between inner Christianity and conventional, “outer” Christianity?
Smoley: All religions have both an inner and an outer aspect, and this reflects the dual function that religion performs in our lives. First, there’s religion in its familiar form: the institutions and codes that are meant to guide our actions and to regulate social conduct. There is nothing wrong with this aspect; it’s necessary and vital. But there is another aspect as well, which has to do with inner transformation. We are not all we could be, the inner tradition teaches. Our consciousness and being can be considerably more integrated and perfected than they are. This striving toward perfection is the role of the inner traditions.
I often speak of “esoteric Christianity.” The word esoteric is usually used to describe something that is “far out,” but the word comes from the Greek esotero, which literally means “further in.” You have to go further into yourself to understand what these teachings are all about. I use the terms “inner Christianity” and “esoteric Christianity” interchangeably.
Miller: You’ve suggested that the outer Christian seeks salvation after life, while the inner Christian seeks “gnosis” in this life. What is gnosis exactly, and does it forestall the need for salvation?
Smoley: Salvation, as it’s conventionally understood, is a promise of God’s help now and at the hour of our death, which is a crucial point in the journey of the spirit. Salvation is free for the asking. You don’t have to do anything but accept it. If it takes and bears fruit, you will become a kinder, more decent individual. That is a natural consequence, not a result of obeying a list of dos and don’ts.
Gnosis is direct knowledge or insight into the nature of things. Like enlightenment in Buddhism or Hinduism, it is not freely given. It is very difficult to achieve — or, rather, we all have glimpses of it, but they are generally so brief and evanescent that we don’t notice them. If we are blessed by grace or carry out certain meditative practices, gnosis becomes more pervasive in our being. If it reaches a certain critical mass, our whole being is transformed. This is what the esoteric Christian tradition speaks of as the “resurrection body” or “spiritual body.” Saint Paul says, “It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.”
Reaching this level is called theosis or “deification.” As one Church father put it, “God became man so that man could become God.” At this level, you are beyond all relativities; you become pure light. And then salvation is a concern that is left far behind. But I must stress that I’m speaking theoretically, because I have never met anyone who seemed to have reached that level — in any tradition.
Miller: Years ago I heard Robert Bly criticize the popularity of Zen in the West, arguing that it tends to take Westerners up, up, and away from what’s going on in their own consciousness, when what they need to do is turn inward and learn to transform their “dark matter” through self-confrontation. Do you agree?
Smoley: I’ve always found it funny that Zen, this rigorous, austere sect, has become associated with a laid-back, slacker attitude, as in “He’s really Zen about it.” You see books like The Zen of Cat Grooming or The Zen of Portfolio Management. I’m not a Zen practitioner and have no direct experience with it, but my impression is that it is quite different from the way its critics — and some of its popularizers — portray it. From what I know, Zen sitting actually involves a stark confrontation with this “dark matter.” So Bly’s criticism of Zen doesn’t seem accurate to me.
There is a subtle issue here that’s often overlooked. Bly’s right that there is a spiritual trap in becoming disassociated from your “dark matter”; you cut yourself off from your own experience, and you become floaty and fatuous. This is one of the great pitfalls of the New Age. The dark matter doesn’t go away, of course: people often just grow dishonest about their hostilities and become passive-aggressive. This is a total dead end, in my opinion.
But there is another trap too, and it goes in the opposite direction: you go so much into the dark matter that you get lost in it, and there seems to be no way out. I think dwelling on your own problems and neuroses is highly overrated. You are not going to free yourself that way, either.
The inner Christian path, as I understand it, involves walking a fine line between the two extremes. You face all your inner issues rigorously and impartially; you want to see everything there is inside the teeming ocean of the psyche. But — and this is an important but — you are not identified with it. At the back of your mind there must always be an awareness that you are not your “passions” (to use the traditional Christian term), that there is something in you that is awake and alive and, incidentally, immortal. This is the true “I,” the pure consciousness, the “light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” It sees everything in you impartially and objectively — but also with profound compassion.
Miller: Perhaps the dead end of dwelling on one’s problems explains the relatively low success rate of traditional psychoanalysis. Jung broke with Freud in part because Jung sensed the need for a spiritual dimension to psychological healing, even if he seemed to stop short of a full-fledged spiritual path. How important is Jung to inner Christianity?
Smoley: Jung was terribly important to the modern revival of the esoteric tradition. Before he came along, the religious impulse in humanity had been all but explained away. Sir James George Frazer had written The Golden Bough, in which he claimed that the death and resurrection of Christ, like other death-and-resurrection legends, was nothing more than a myth of seasonal vegetative renewal. (This view, by the way, was known even in antiquity. Plutarch, writing in the first century, scoffed at the “dull crowd” who believed this sort of thing.) And Freud said that religious experience was a dim longing to go back to infancy and its “oceanic consciousness,” where a person is not aware of where he or she ends and the outside world begins.
Jung, from his own experiences and from those of his patients, recognized that something else was going on. Religious symbols occur spontaneously in the human psyche, he believed, whether the person has been taught about them or not. From this Jung concluded that there were “archetypes,” basic structures in the psyche, that give rise to these experiences. Some of the archetypes are the Self, the higher totality that lies at the center of each of us; the Spirit, usually appearing as a wise old man or woman; and the Shadow, the dark, hated, feared side, which often appears as the devil. In short, religious experience is hard-wired into us.
It’s also important to say what Jung did not do. He offered no opinion about whether these archetypes existed independently in a theological or philosophical sense. He did this for two reasons. In the first place, he wanted to stick to his role as a psychotherapist and not stray into the realm of theology (although he did at times). In the second place — and this is often overlooked — Jung was a Kantian. Kant taught that we can never perceive the world in its pure state, as it is; rather, we experience it only through the “categories,” like time and space and causality. Jung accepted this perspective. For him, the archetypes are instinctual ways in which we structure experience — including religious experience. He didn’t want to commit himself to whether they had any objective existence.
The esoteric traditions, on the other hand, do commit themselves. They say that there are a number of levels in the human structure. The physical is one, the psychological another. Above that is the level of the spirit, and beyond that still, a divine level in which we are integrated into the whole of the cosmos. Esoteric Christians would say that these higher realms have an objective existence and can be known and experienced, even though it’s the rare individual who does so. Some say these levels are more real than the one we experience in ordinary life.
Miller: A clear difference between East and West is that Christianity emphasizes the heart, the emotional life of the soul, and the “personal relationship” between humanity and divinity, whereas Buddhism sees the goal of spiritual work as emptiness or “no self” and doesn’t speak of a personal God to whom one can relate. Are these paths more similar than they appear, or are they ultimately irreconcilable?
Smoley: Curiously, when I had finished the first draft of Inner Christianity, I went off to a retreat for Dzogchen, the “Great Perfection” that is said to be the summit of Tibetan Buddhist teaching. Dzogchen, which is quite popular these days, is essentially about developing rigpa, or pure consciousness. I remember telling my editor at the time, “I’m going to see if rigpa is the same as what esoteric Christianity calls ‘the Son.’ ” And at the end of it all, I was inclined to believe it is.
The true “I” — the consciousness that looks out at the world through you, as through a window — has many names: in Christianity it is the Son, the Logos, the kingdom of heaven; Jung called it the Self; the Dzogchen teachings speak of rigpa; other Buddhists sometimes call it “mind”; for the Hindus it is Atman. This Self — which is emphatically not the lower self or the ego — is at the core of your being. You can never see it, because it is that which sees. Saint Francis of Assisi alluded to this when he said, “What you are looking for is what is looking.” And Christ in the Gospel of Thomas says, “You can never take hold of it, but you can never lose it.”
Paradoxically, this “I,” this most intimate and private part of ourselves, is held in common by all; it is the same in everyone. A Course in Miracles says, “God has only one Son,” and we collectively are the Son. Language itself begins to bend and break under this realization. How does our tidy system of grammar do justice to the fact that what is most deeply, intimately “me” is precisely what I most share with everyone else?
The Buddhists say it is just as accurate to speak of “no self” as of the Self. Buddhism also doesn’t subscribe to the notion of a theistic God. Esoteric Christianity would agree that God is not a person in the way you and I are persons. God is Absolute, beyond personhood or nonpersonhood. And yet, Christianity teaches, God is capable of relating to us as persons. That is part of the infinite mercy of the divine.
There is a spiritual trap in becoming disassociated from your “dark matter”; you cut yourself off from your own experience, and you become floaty and fatuous. This is one of the great pitfalls of the New Age. The dark matter doesn’t go away.
Miller: Why haven’t the inner Western paths caught on in the way that Zen has?
Smoley: Inner illumination has never been terribly popular. “Many are called, but few are chosen,” it says in the Gospels. What this means is that few choose to go beyond the most basic levels of the spiritual path. People fall in love, get married, have children, get jobs, and pay bills. There’s not much time for spiritual work in life. Most people are happy with this situation, or at least resigned to it. It’s the rare person who tries to look deeper. Although Zen has become popularized, I don’t think there are many people who pursue Zen to its deepest levels, either.
That said, there are historical reasons that the inner Western paths are not well-known or understood. They had to survive in an extremely hostile environment for hundreds of years. In medieval times, a mystic or a theologian who stepped outside the limits of conventional Catholic dogma would be condemned. And condemnation in those days was not just a matter of failing to get tenure: it meant poverty or even death. We can only admire the courage of the people who kept these traditions alive against all odds.
Today, at least in the Western nations, nobody is going to be persecuted for having esoteric beliefs. Even so, the climate is not terribly favorable. Religion is either highly rationalistic (as in the mainstream Protestant denominations) or fundamentalist. In either case, everything is understood only at the lowest level. The media either portray the higher spiritual search in a clichéd form — everyone has a shaven head and a saffron robe — or they focus on the most obvious nut cases, the latest batch of Kool-Aid drinkers or what-have-you. This is part of what the spiritual master G.I. Gurdjieff called “the mechanism of self-calming”: you laugh at the nut cases to reassure yourself that there’s nothing to this spirituality business.
Miller: A typical understanding of faith is that it’s the choice to believe in something unseen, unknown, or inherently unprovable — or even that it amounts to nothing more than a blind trust in religious dogma. Yet you describe esoteric faith as a “conviction” or a “certainty.”
Smoley: The most famous definition of faith is in the Epistle to the Hebrews: “Faith is the evidence of things unseen, the substance of things hoped for.” Speaking of Zen, I might point out that this definition is almost like a koan. It is “evidence” of things you can’t see, and the palpable materiality of something that exists only in expectation.
In the esoteric tradition, faith does not mean believing things that don’t make sense to you. It does not mean believing literally in things like the Virgin Birth or the miracles of Jesus. The inner tradition has always held that the Bible contains many things that are not literally true, but allude figuratively to the mysteries of human consciousness and the cosmos.
What, then, is the “evidence of things unseen”? It is something you know is true without making a conscious choice to believe in it, and without anybody having to tell you. There is something that calls all of us to a higher experience, and all of us, I think, feel it to some degree. It may be buried or hidden, or years or decades may have to pass before it emerges. But it is there, and it doesn’t go away. Some people don’t sense it until death approaches, as Tolstoy described in his story “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.”
Miller: You write of “magic” and say that “true magic requires exquisite concentration.” What do you mean by “true magic”?
Smoley: Magic is perhaps the most misunderstood concept in all the Western spiritual traditions. It is based on the idea that what is primary in human experience is not the physical world as we know it, but consciousness. And consciousness brings the world into existence around it: “Without him was nothing made that was made,” as the Gospel of John puts it. The “him” is the Logos, or consciousness.
Theoretically, those who grasp this secret can bring about changes in the world. It involves forming a powerful mental image in what is known as the “astral light,” the subtle matter (and it is matter, though not the sort of matter known to science) of which thoughts and images are made. The practitioner then imbues this image with emotional energy, so that it takes on a life of its own and becomes manifest on the physical plane. This requires tremendous concentration.
That, at any rate, is the theory — and I’m convinced it’s substantially correct. But carrying it out in practice is anything but simple. For one thing, it’s extremely difficult to keep the mind and the intentions stable enough to make the enterprise come out right.
Miller: How does this relate to the Catholic belief that the wine and wafer at Communion literally become the body and blood of Christ?
Smoley: I wouldn’t say the same thing is going on with the Eucharist. Whereas magic requires concentration, the elaborate Catholic dogma of transubstantiation holds that the Host is transformed into the body and blood of Christ whether or not the priest is paying attention. The transformation is done ex opere operato, from the performance of the act itself.
You can see why the Catholic Church had to do this. Otherwise how on earth would people know when the ritual worked or didn’t? Was the priest paying close enough attention to make the sacrament valid? There would be no way of knowing.
Personally, I don’t believe in transubstantiation as a dogma. Rather, I think it points to certain mysteries. Essentially it’s about the transformation of the spirit, symbolized by wine, into the divine, which is symbolized by blood. The rite represents the point at which the individual “I” is changed into the “I that is we,” to use a phrase coined by the author Richard Moss. It’s a symbolic act, not a literal one.
Miller: Conventional morality, as derived from common Christian practice, teaches people to repress many of their emotional urges and bodily instincts. By contrast, you suggest that someone with an esoteric morality seeks to feel urges and instincts fully, and then chooses how to react to them.
Smoley: Esoteric practice focuses on expanding and enhancing consciousness, even at levels we aren’t normally aware of. So if something unpleasant arises in us, it’s usually not a good idea to repress it. As the psychologists tell us, it will just go into the subconscious and wreak havoc.
On the other hand, negative feelings and impulses come up all the time: anger, pride, lust. It’s not wise or safe or even feasible to indulge them all. The goal is to experience these things fully without letting them pull you off center.
Miller: You describe the esoteric practice of “burning up” negative emotions instead of carrying them around. How does that work?
Smoley: It’s an extension of experiencing the emotions fully. One way of doing it is to focus on the bodily sensations that accompany your emotions. For example, I’ve noticed that when something shocks or upsets me, I often feel a kind of burning in my forearms — not in the skin, but deeper, in the muscles and bone. I try to feel it consciously, without either hanging on to it or pushing it away. By no means does this make everything wonderful and sunshiny, but I have noticed that it keeps me from being thrown off center quite as much as I otherwise might have been.
Becoming fully aware of these sensations is a way of “burning them up,” freeing the energy that would otherwise be tied up there. Some esoteric Christians have even said that this kind of burning provides energy that feeds inner development. According to them, the reason we should “love our enemies” is that they provide us with the occasion for this subtle combustion.
Miller: A chief difference between conventional and esoteric Christianity is that the former suggests that God is “out there” and accepts us into heaven by his grace, whereas the latter suggests that it is our destiny to become one with God. Isn’t it dangerously arrogant to believe that one will someday join with or become God?
Smoley: Isn’t it also dangerously arrogant to limit the power of God by saying such a thing is impossible?
My question is only half serious. In one sense, you’re right. That’s why many inner teachings, including those of Christianity, speak of two selves. One is the ordinary self or the ego, the part of us that has to regulate day-to-day life and function in a world of other humans. It is a rather unstable entity: suspicious, fearful, obsessed with dangers (usually imagined), status, power, and so on. If this part of the self imagines it is God, you are in big trouble.
But then there is what I have called the “true I,” the Self that is beyond this level of preoccupation. It is the center of our being. It is not, strictly speaking, God, but it is the place in us where we connect with God. It is both dangerous and arrogant to keep people from reaching this place in themselves, yet that’s precisely what many religious authorities do, consciously or not. Christ alludes to this problem when he says, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye sit at the gate and neither enter nor let them that are entering enter.” The scribes and Pharisees were not just the religious authorities of Jesus’ day. They are the spiritual pettifoggers of all ages.
Miller: Skeptics have noted that the fundamental Christian notion of “vicarious atonement” — God sacrificing his only begotten Son to pay for the sins of humanity — simply doesn’t make much sense. God himself would have to have set up this rather bizarre scheme for some inexplicable reason. Does esoteric Christianity offer a different interpretation of the blood sacrifice at the heart of Christian tradition?
Smoley: I certainly agree that the doctrine of vicarious atonement is ridiculous as it is often presented. It asks us to believe that God got very mad at the human race because Adam and Eve ate a piece of fruit in Armenia six thousand years ago. He got so mad, in fact, that the only way he could make it up to himself was to send down a part of himself and have it tortured to death. This is just crazy.
And yet there is a profound truth in the story of the Passion, death, and Resurrection of Christ. It would not have spoken so powerfully to so many people if there weren’t. The Son of God comes down to earth. He is born, grows, and makes his way in the world, “but the world knew him not.” He suffers ignominy and pain and death. And yet, in the end, he is not destroyed, but transmuted into a higher form.
This is the story of Christ. It’s our story, as well. We, too, come down to earth, suffer all the indignities of life, and die in the end. And yet it doesn’t matter; we will rise again in a higher form. A Course in Miracles says: “Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists. Herein lies the peace of God.”
Deep down, we all feel that the world is not what it is meant to be. Man, you could say, is the animal that believes something is wrong. And this “something wrong” is a sense of alienation from God and from the universe. This is what the Christian tradition calls the Fall, symbolized by the expulsion from the garden.
Most — though not all — esoteric Christians would say that the redemptive act of Christ somehow turned around the process of the Fall and began to restore it. This is the Atonement. I don’t necessarily subscribe to this theory myself, but I think something great and powerful happened at that event two thousand years ago. The best way to deal with it, in my view, is not to engage in complicated theologies to explain it, but to contemplate it and allow it to do its work on you in a wordless way.
Miller: Second to the Virgin Mary, Sophia is the most prominent feminine symbol of Christianity, but she was almost forgotten until a recent resurgence of interest in her. Is Sophia an esoteric symbol? How is she different from Mary?
Smoley: Sophia literally means “wisdom.” And wisdom, often personified in female form, was a central preoccupation of the later writers of the Hebrew Bible. The Gnostics, an important early group in the inner Christian tradition, sometimes portrayed Sophia as a figure who is waylaid by her own offspring and dragged into bondage.
Today we have only a vague sense of what “wisdom” meant to these ancient authors. I would suggest that it meant something close to “consciousness.” Sophia is the same as the Logos, the word of God; Saint Paul goes so far as to call Christ the “wisdom of God.” Originally these two — Sophia and Christ — were not really distinguished. Some scholars have pointed out that Christ speaks of himself in the Gospels the way Sophia speaks of herself in the book of Proverbs. Later on, though, people decided that since Jesus was a man and Sophia was a woman, they couldn’t be the same. And then Sophia became an increasingly obscure figure.
The Virgin Mary is not Sophia; Mary symbolizes, among other things, the astral light, the “waters” of the psyche out of which all things are born. But most people who revere the Virgin Mary are unaware of this symbolism. The reason she’s so popular is that there is a tremendous hunger for a sense of infinite love and care, which many people associate with a mother’s love. And so Mary is the form in which divine love appears to them.
Miller: You say that the “virginity” of Mary can refer, in the esoteric perspective, to a pure or undisturbed consciousness. Is this the same as the “beginner’s mind” of Zen? Can one regain a “virgin consciousness” through esoteric practice?
Smoley: Well, again, I don’t always know what Zen terms mean, so I would hesitate to equate the two. The image and iconography of Mary are very closely connected with water. One of her innumerable titles is “Star of the Sea,” and “Maria” literally means “seas” in Latin. As Jung and others have pointed out, water is almost universally associated with the psyche. Why? Because psychological images and feelings flow into one another like water; thus the expression “stream of consciousness.”
Most of the time, these waters inside us are like the waves of the sea: one thought or emotion crashes onto the shore of awareness, followed by another, and another. As meditators know, it is extraordinarily difficult to stop this tide. But if you can relax and calm the waters a bit, an impulse of higher consciousness can alight on them. I believe this is what the mystery of the Virgin Birth alludes to. I also believe it is what Genesis means when it speaks of “the spirit of God moving on the face of the waters.” This “moving” sounds the beginning note of all creation.
Miller: You point out that Mary was imbued with powers and meanings previously attributed to the Egyptian goddess Isis. Could one argue that Mary’s elevation to near-divine status was essentially a way to dispense with the multiplicity of the old goddesses?
Smoley: It was an acknowledgment that people had a strong need to express the divine in feminine form after the goddesses could no longer be worshiped. The Roman emperor issued a decree closing all the pagan temples in 426 A.D. Four years later, the doctrine of Mary as Theotokos, the “Mother of God,” was proclaimed. I doubt this was a mere coincidence.
Miller: The uniform of the Catholic priest — white surplice and black cassock — was also borrowed from pagan tradition. Is it fair to say that modern Christianity is a merger of many belief systems, a sort of “Religion, Inc.”?
Smoley: You raise a very interesting issue. In Western civilization, religious establishments tend to imitate the political power structure. The Catholic Church survived by taking on the forms of the Roman Empire, to which it regarded itself as the heir. The papal title of “Pontiff” comes from the title pontifex maximus, the head of the Roman state religion. Pontifex literally means “bridge builder,” the pontiff being responsible for building a bridge between the higher and lower worlds.
Today the dominant form of power in the U.S. is corporate, and it relies heavily on merchandising, so it stands to reason that religion is going to take on the semblance of a corporate power structure. What is Christian broadcasting if not the attempt to sell Jesus the way one might sell detergent or the latest pop star? Some attempts to sell Christianity are sincere: the “sales reps” really think everybody who does not accept Jesus Christ as his or her personal savior is destined to roast for eternity. Others, of course, are just out to make a buck. It isn’t always easy to tell the difference.
In the 1920s an ad man named Bruce Barton wrote a best-seller called The Man Nobody Knows. In it, he described Jesus as “the greatest salesman of all time.” Christianity, he seemed to think, was the handiwork of an inspirational genius who was able to turn a sorry lot of Apostles into the greatest sales team in history. You can laugh at this sort of thing or get mad at it, but it reflects a deep-seated tendency in the human mind to portray the unfamiliar — in this case, a two-thousand-year-old religion — in familiar terms: the boosterism of the 1920s. Your “Religion, Inc.” is, I think, a continuation of this trend.
Few choose to go beyond the most basic levels of the spiritual path. People fall in love, get married, have children, get jobs, and pay bills. There’s not much time for spiritual work in life. Most people are happy with this situation, or at least resigned to it. It’s the rare person who tries to look deeper.
Miller: Is it accurate to say that fundamentalists and esotericists are at the opposite extremes of any religious tradition, with conventional believers somewhere in between?
Smoley: I would hesitate to describe it this way, because it’s not like the political continuum of Left versus Right. Fundamentalists — and this, of course, would have to include scientific fundamentalists, the “skeptical inquirers” and so on — insist on taking everything at the most literal and obvious level. Esotericists want to peer behind the veil of material reality, which, they suggest, is not quite as dense as we may think.
I don’t think most conventional believers are interested in or aware of these issues. This is not a put-down. We live in an age of specialization, and everyone has to focus on one or two circumscribed realms of life. We count on experts for our understanding of the rest. For example, I use a computer, but I have very little idea of how it works. When it breaks down, I have to take it to an expert. I think the majority of conventional believers look to religious authorities in the same way.
But conventional believers are not necessarily stupid. To continue my metaphor, I may not know how to fix a computer, but I can tell when mine hasn’t been fixed right. And if I find I’ve had my computer serviced by an incompetent, I won’t go back. I think many ordinary believers are in this situation. They have a strong sense that the story they’re being fed by conventional religion — whether liberal or fundamentalist — is inadequate, and they’ve lost respect for it.
Miller: In modern times, only Christianity and Islam seem to spawn extremists who want to convert the entire world to their respective religions. Does esoteric Christianity offer an antidote to religious violence and war?
Smoley: You do see religious warfare in other faiths — between Hindus and Buddhists in Sri Lanka, for example. But religious strife most often arises from a subtle theological trap that afflicts the monotheistic religions: If there can be only one God, it has to be my God. All others are false. There is a truth in this, in that there is only one underlying unity out of which we all proceed, but to equate this unity with any one image of God is treacherous indeed.
Do you remember the last sacrifice Christ makes on the cross? “My God, my God,” he says, “why hast thou forsaken me?” The last sacrifice we have to make is that of my God — the ego’s image of itself projected onto God.
Today the dominant form of power in the U.S. is corporate, and it relies heavily on merchandising, so it stands to reason that religion is going to take on the semblance of a corporate power structure. What is Christian broadcasting if not the attempt to sell Jesus the way one might sell detergent or the latest pop star?
Miller: I’ve heard of Gnostic interpretations that suggest Christ actually said, “My God, why hast thou so blessed me?” — or even that the spirit of Christ was sitting in a nearby tree, laughing at the crucifixion scene.
Smoley: I couldn’t begin to say what Jesus did or didn’t experience on the cross. How would we know? The Docetists, an early Gnostic sect, contended that Jesus was solely a spirit and didn’t suffer or die. By this view, he could very well have stood aside laughing at the whole enterprise. There is a Muslim legend that says that somehow Judas got switched for Jesus, and it was really the betrayer who died on the cross. There are countless other variations.
The story of the Passion of Christ speaks to us on a very deep level. Its meaning can’t be exhausted by any one particular interpretation, though many theologians and churches insist that their view alone is right. And of course their very vehemence should tip us off to the weakness of their arguments. Someone who is confident of his or her views doesn’t need to foist them onto others.
You could say, to use Joseph Campbell’s language, that the Crucifixion is a hero’s journey, of which there are many versions in the legends and literature of the world. And the hero’s journey can have two outcomes: either the hero is victorious, or he is defeated and killed. But if he’s killed, it doesn’t matter: he is transformed and reborn to fight again. I think these myths, like the story of Christ’s Passion, speak to a profound truth: that which is most real and central to us is indestructible. Nothing can hurt or destroy it. If one form that contains it — the human body, say — perishes, this Self, this true “I,” will take a new form, perhaps on this level of existence, perhaps on another.
From what I understand, this is precisely what the ancient mystery religions taught in their initiation rites — but secretly. With the coming of Christianity, this truth was publicized and made available to all. This is another point about esotericism: what was hidden in one age may be revealed in another. Today you can go into any bookstore and find books — often quite popular ones — that discuss truths that would have been conveyed only in secret a hundred years ago.
Miller: Speaking of books, although we’ve talked a lot about A Course in Miracles over the years, I was surprised by the prominence you give to it, citing it first among the three “most helpful” sources you’ve studied in esoteric Christianity. I know from my own study and investigation of the Course that it’s been widely misinterpreted, by both slavish devotees and overemotional critics. What is your view of the Course’s role in contemporary spirituality?
Smoley: Obviously, I admire the Course enormously. It was Tara Singh, I believe, who called it the only sacred text whose native language is English, and I’m inclined to agree. I first started studying it in 1981. Although I haven’t worked with the Course consistently since then — years have passed when I’ve barely looked at it — I do find myself coming back to it and discovering new depths of truth and power there.
The Course is criticized from many sides. Evangelical Christianity regards it as heretical — which it is, if you consider the churches to be the final arbiters of what’s right and what isn’t. Some contend it is a New Agey, feel-good teaching, but I would take issue with that. As it claims, the Course really does impart a rigorous system of mind training. To be constantly vigilant in your mind, to be aware of every grievance, every shred of fear, and to face these things resolutely and offer them up to the Holy Spirit — that is not a spiritual narcotic. Anyone who carried out the Course’s teachings in full would be a saint.
Miller: How does it compare with the other two chief sources you cite in the book?
Smoley: The other two were both written in French by Russian émigrés. One is a three-volume work called Gnosis, by Boris Mouravieff. Originally published in the 1960s, it came out in English about ten years ago. The other is called Meditations on the Tarot. It is anonymous, though it’s an open secret that the author is a man named Valentin Tomberg, who lived in England in his later years and died in 1973.
These three books do not agree on all points; Mouravieff presents a picture of the inner tradition as it was preserved in Eastern Orthodoxy, while Tomberg, who converted to Catholicism late in life, presents a picture of esotericism that is heavily shaded toward the Catholic perspective. The Course has affinities with the ancient Gnostic teachings, which held that the world is unreal. But unlike the Gnostics, it says we should not hate the world, but forgive it.
Despite their merits, none of these books is easy reading, and, as I say, they don’t always agree. One reason I wrote Inner Christianity was to take the insights of these and other works and present them in a way that’s consistent both within itself and with the esoteric tradition as I understand it.
Miller: Getting back to the Course, what do you think its legacy will be?
Smoley: The Course has had tremendous success, with over a million copies sold. Many thousands of people try to live by its teachings. Little by little, though, institutionalization is creeping in, with various factions arguing over the right way to interpret the Course, churches being formed around it, and so on. I suspect this is what happened to Christianity in its first years of existence. The teaching, fresh and new and eye-opening, gradually settled down into a comfortable slumber in the minds of its followers. That’s why spiritual teachings have to be constantly rediscovered and reformulated anew.
Miller: You’ve said that Judaism is essentially the religion of a people or culture, while Christianity is focused on the salvation of the individual. Since esoteric practice tends to discourage identification with the ego at any level — individual, racial, or cultural — does it go in a different direction than either Christianity or Judaism?
Smoley: I regard esotericism as fundamentally pragmatic. If it is true or valid, it must have some correlation with the way things are. And the way things are with us is that we all have an ego. There is no denying it. Similarly, as Jung noted, there is a racial or national stratum in the psyche. You don’t have to subscribe to insane racist theories to believe this; it’s just a part of our inner reality.
I think esotericism teaches that, while these levels of our being are present, they are not supreme or absolute; there is something beyond them, the true “I,” the “master” who is sometimes absent, to use the language of Christ’s parable, but whom the servants immediately recognize when he shows up. So esotericism is not going in a different direction than either Christianity or Judaism in their outer forms; it’s simply going deeper.
Miller: You suggest that esotericists of every sort may feel closer to each other than to mainstream practitioners of their own religions. That is, a Sufi may feel closer to a kabbalist than to a mainstream Muslim.
Smoley: Although there are some differences among esoteric teachings, I’m mostly struck by how similar they are. For example, esoteric Christianity teaches that we are all part of one great cosmic human, known as Adam in its fallen state, and in its restored state as Christ. The Jewish Kabbalah has a practically identical teaching, except that it calls this primordial being Adam Kadmon, and, of course, it does not speak of Christ. One of Jung’s books contains a passage from an ancient Hermetic teacher called Zosimos, who describes exactly the same idea. Earlier still, the Zoroastrians named this cosmic human Gayomart.
Aldous Huxley called this collection of recurring themes the “perennial philosophy.” The primary exponent of the idea of a perennial teaching common to all religions was a Frenchman named René Guénon, who died in 1951. He was extremely influential in Europe, although he’s almost unknown in this country. In his books, he set out the idea of a primordial tradition of which all religions are ancestors. In Britain, his followers are known as Perennialists; in this country they’re called Traditionalists. The most famous are Huston Smith, author of The World’s Religions, and the Iranian scholar S.H. Nasr. I am not a Traditionalist myself, but I have a tremendous respect for this viewpoint, and I’ve learned a great deal from it.
Miller: Pop spirituality often seems to focus on helping us feel better, or succeed in our various ambitions, or find more soulfulness in everyday experience. By contrast, you write that “inner Christianity will not help you advance in the world; it will not improve your sex life or show you how to win friends and influence people.” You do suggest, however, that one eventual result of this path is “a subtle but imperturbable joy.”
Smoley: Personally, I have no desire to sneer at “feel-good” approaches. What’s wrong with helping people feel better? People are terribly depressed and anxious these days. The most widely abused drugs — alcohol, cocaine, and opiates — are all painkillers. So I would say if something really does help people feel better without causing them damage, I’m in favor of it, no matter how fatuous it may look.
As for ambitions, we all have them. We all want love and money and some measure of fulfillment. For some peculiar reason, the world seems to be contrived so that we rarely, if ever, have all these things. Even if we do, we find that we will get just as upset over some slight discomfort as we would have before at a major tragedy. People say, “Why not be grateful for all the good things you have?” But our minds tend to be drawn toward our discomforts. If you’re being tormented by a speck in your eye, you’re hardly in a position to be thankful for how commendably your kidneys and bowels are working. This is part of the human predicament, the “something wrong” that I mentioned earlier.
Another aspect of this situation is that the mind falls in love with the world it produces, and so allows itself to be seduced into bondage. This is what the myth of Narcissus means, in which he falls in love with his own image in the water and drowns. It’s also the subject of highly arcane Gnostic texts like the Pistis Sophia. And it’s something we experience every minute of our lives. To take an extremely mundane example, I remember watching an episode of the cartoon sitcom The Simpsons in which the fictitious town of Springfield was threatened by a nuclear meltdown. When the commercial break came on, I realized how concerned I had been with the fate of these cartoon characters! Of course my concern passed quickly, but it left a strong impression on me. I realized if I could feel this way about cartoon characters, how attached must I be to this character named Richard Smoley, to whom I am (at least for the present) so inextricably bound?
Inner Christianity — like all genuine spiritual traditions, I believe — involves a process of freeing consciousness from subjugation to its own experience. And it does involve a measure of detachment. It doesn’t mean that you don’t go to parties or fall in love or eat good food, but it does help keep you from taking everything quite so seriously. It enables you to play the game of life without becoming victimized by it. And yes, out of this, a subtle joy does arise.