Quest for Hidden Wisdom: An Interview with Richard Smoley

Richard Smoley and Jay Kinney need no introduction to New Dawn readers. After successful careers as editors of Gnosis (1985-1999), the highly respected US journal of esoteric knowledge, in 1999 Richard and Jay published Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions to much acclaim (in May 2006, a revised edition of Hidden Wisdom incorporating new material and insights, was released).

Richard Smoley has contributed numerous articles to New Dawn magazine, many of which can be found on the New Dawn website.

In the following interview, Richard Smoley talks about Hidden Wisdom, spirituality, and the esoteric traditions….

There seems to be a huge resurgence in interest in the hidden side of the Western tradition lately. There’s so much talk about Gnosticism, the Masons, the Templars, the hidden teachings of Jesus. What’s behind it all?

Well, until fairly recently the story of Western religion was pretty much taken for granted. The Bible was seen as an accurate historical record, and the story the churches told about themselves was taken as the truth. But more and more people have come to see that isn’t the whole story.

Over the last 200 years paleontologists came to realise that the earth really hadn’t been created 6,000 years ago. New Testament scholars took a closer look at the Gospels and decided that the life of Jesus they portrayed contains a lot of myth. Today archaeologists are saying that Moses couldn’t have led the children of Israel to freedom from Egypt in the land of Canaan, because Canaan was an Egyptian province at that time. The supposedly magnificent Jerusalem of King Solomon was probably a hill village with maybe 200 or 300 people. And so on.

Much of this is not exactly news. “The quest for the historical Jesus,” as Albert Schweitzer famously called it, goes back to the 19th century. But it’s only in the last generation or so that this knowledge has begun to reach a widespread public. It’s led people to ask what was really going on back then. And it’s fueled a lot of speculation about the religious history of the West. Much of this speculation is pretty wild, but it shows that people are eager – maybe desperate – for some answers about their past that isn’t mostly propaganda.

So what is this hidden truth? Was it true, for example, that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and that they had children?

I’ve never seen any proof of this that seemed even remotely conclusive. There is a strange, fragmentary passage in a text called the Gospel of Philip saying that Jesus was very fond of Mary Magdalene and used to kiss her often on the mouth. The other disciples got jealous and said, “Why don’t you love us the way you love her?” And Jesus replies, “Why don’t I love you the way I love her?” The answer presumably being obvious.

But the Gospel of Philip is very late. Most scholars date it to the third century CE. As such, it can’t be trusted as a terribly accurate historical source. All I can say is that there are legends, and it’s known that legends naturally accumulate around powerful figures. You only need look at the strange hagiography that’s congealed around Elvis Presley to see how this happened in very recent years. So the story of Jesus being married to Mary Magdalene is not something I personally would put any faith in.

We may never know what happened in the time of Christ, how much of our information is factual, how much of it is suspect. For example, the Gospel in the Bible that is considered to be the most historically accurate is the Gospel of Mark. Strangely enough, the last page of this Gospel is missing. It was lost in antiquity, probably soon after it was written. What you find in the Bible – and most versions have these – are several different endings, all of them supplied later. This missing part of Mark would have told what happened after the Resurrection. Was this lost accidentally, or did somebody tear out the page and replace it with something more politically convenient? We may never know. And yet ultimately the hidden truth about our past is not some collection of buried facts.

Then what’s the point of your work? 

I do think there are buried truths, what in the title of our book Jay Kinney and I have called “hidden wisdom.” But it’s not factual knowledge as such. One of the key concepts in our book is gnosis, which is a term that’s bandied about a lot these days. Gnosis is knowledge, but knowledge of a very special kind. It’s not factual knowledge, not knowledge of something, but rather an inner awakening, an inner illumination. It’s quite similar, I would say, to what Eastern traditions often call enlightenment.

Viewed in this way, the Bible becomes a story, not about people who lived in an increasingly remote past, but about our own inner awakening. In this way it becomes much more interesting and much more immediate. The story of Exodus is not about the liberation of several tribes of people from literal slavery, but about liberation from inner slavery. The story of Christ is not so much about a man, however remarkable, who lived 2,000 years ago, but about a process that begins in us as we awaken.

But this just sounds like allegorising to me. People have been doing this for centuries. And it’s all very nice and good, but it doesn’t seem to have much to do with hard, cold facts.

And what would facts prove? For example, the conventional Christian view is that Jesus literally rose from the dead. Not so long ago, I read a book about witchcraft in southern Africa, written by a very prosaic and down-to-earth British doctor who practiced there in the days of colonialism. He told this story of a chieftain who was dead and buried – and whose death he himself as a physician had verified. And he witnessed a ceremony in which this same chieftain was resurrected, sat on his throne, and ate a meal.

Of course you can play the skeptic and doubt that this really happened. But beyond a certain point, what difference does it make? Would you believe something like that even if you saw it? Or would you laugh it off and tell yourself you just imagined it? People do this all the time with experiences that go past their concepts of reality. It’s that much harder to either accept or reject miracles that may or may not have happened thousands of years ago.

Speaking of witchcraft, do you cover that topic in Hidden Wisdom?

Yes, as a matter of fact we do.

What is witchcraft about?

Most people who call themselves witches are not Satanists. They are not cranky old ladies in black who live at the edge of town; nor are they playing at being Sabrina or Samantha Stevens. They are laying claim to what they call the “Old Religion” – the pagan tradition that thrived in Europe before Christianity.

Witchcraft, Wicca, Neopaganism – these are all terms that loosely encompass a number of highly individualistic groups and people, not all of whom see things in the same way. In fact, they take many different forms. But one key thing they have in common is a reverence for the forces of nature, conceived as spiritual powers in their own right, and the belief that we can work with these powers consciously and creatively. Similarly with the powers of the mind.

What you’re talking about is magic – not the sleight-of-hand type but the occult type. In your experience, does this kind of magic work?

Not always, and not usually very well. But not for the reasons you might expect. From my experience, I’m convinced that these forces are real. But they’re difficult to master. It’s very hard to do anything like that that somehow doesn’t backfire or simply fail.

Why?

It’s not like a scientific experiment. In a scientific experiment, if you’re going into a lab to bombard subatomic particles or inject substances into some rat, your state of mind has very little to do with the results. In fact, it shouldn’t. A scientific experiment has to be replicable. Your report has to be like a cookbook recipe that a scientist on the other side of the earth can follow.

Magical work is exactly the opposite. The state of mind you’re in, your concentration and your will – not only at the conscious but at the subconscious levels ­are the all-important factors, far more than whatever procedures you might use. And very few have the will and concentration to accomplish results anything like what they want.

So is magic dangerous?

Well, take the typical teenager who starts to dabble in such things. Either nothing happens, or the kid starts to get some results. He or she then usually gets scared and drops it right away. Very few are going to take magic to the point where they are going to get any effective results at all. If you do – and for some it is a true spiritual path – then your motivation becomes the question. Are you doing this for disinterested reasons – to form a link between heaven and earth, so to speak? Or are you just trying to find a shortcut to wealth and power? If it’s the latter, you may as well drop magic and take up stock brokering or politics or something that’s much more likely to achieve your aims. And if you’re doing anything for purely selfish motives, whether it’s magic or trading stocks, you will probably regret it eventually.

What about the Kabbalah? That’s something we’re hearing a lot about lately.

We have a chapter on it in Hidden Wisdom. Essentially the Kabbalah is the mystical tradition behind Judaism. It goes back to antiquity, but it took its present form in medieval times, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. By the time of the Renaissance, Christian intellectuals became interested in it, and after about 1500 it became incorporated into the general esoteric heritage of the West.

Just now I mentioned serving as a link between heaven and earth. For many Kabbalists, this is the essential point of the enterprise. We are the only beings – at least the only ones we know of – who are capable of being aware of both the visible and invisible realms, and some Kabbalists say that this is our function here on Earth, to serve as a link between the two.

By the way, “Kabbalah” comes from a Hebrew verb meaning “to receive.” And it means receiving in two ways. One is receiving the teachings as handed down over time, which is why Kabbalah is sometimes translated as “tradition.” But it’s also a matter of receiving spiritual impulses and translating them into action in this world. Apparently kabbalah is the word used in modern Hebrew for TV reception.

What do you think of the pop versions of Kabbalah that are out there now?

I don’t have a lot of direct experience of them. But generally speaking, you can say that the pop versions of any spiritual tradition are likely to be pretty watered-down. Zen and yoga, for example, were originally very intense and austere disciplines, but in the form in which they’ve made it to the public, they’re very bland and trite.

It’d be easy to jump to conclusions about this fact, to deride all these things as mere vulgarisations. So they may be. But they do serve an important function. In the first place, they communicate some key ideas to the general public that aren’t likely to make it any other way. To take one fairly obvious example, it’s become almost a cliche to talk about living in the present, “the power of now,” and so on. But to be aware in the present is actually a very profound (and quite difficult) practice. It’s interesting, and I think, beneficial, to have these ideas out there, even if they’re often in rather a cliched form.

You keep using the word “esoteric,” and that seems to be a central concept in your book. What does “esoteric” really mean?

It comes from a Greek root that means “further in.” To really understand what these teachings are about, you have to go further into yourself. You have to look past the surface of your social identify, your bodily desires, and see what’s beneath. This may take you very deeply into yourself, and at some point you realise that what you really are is something very small and silent. It is nothing you can see, because it’s always what sees. St. Francis said, “What you are looking for is what is looking.” If you understand this point, a lot of highly cryptic mystical texts become remarkably clear.

There is no end point to this process of going “further in” – none that I’ve ever seen in my own experience or from what I can tell of others’ experience. There’s always further to go.

Where do you see these traditions going in the 21st century?

That’s a very difficult question. There is a long, intricate, and poorly understood process by which esoteric ideas eventually make themselves public property. Things that were communicated only under the strictest secrecy 50 or 100 years ago can now be found in self-help bestsellers – for example, the simple truth that you are not your conditioning. It sounds obvious to say this now, but in the past it would have been a piece of knowledge that would have been communicated privately, often obliquely, possibly through some sacred rite of initiation.

Some may decry this popularisation as a profanation of sacred knowledge. I don’t see it that way. Rather I see that over a very long period of time, humanity begins to accept certain truths and makes them its own. These are first known only to an extremely small vanguard – an elite, if you like, although I know that’s a dirty word these days. Gradually these ideas are disseminated and become common knowledge.

Now if this so-called elite is doing its job, it won’t try to squirrel away its discoveries and keep them for itself. Rather, it will keep disseminating its discoveries in whatever form that makes most sense in the context of the times. It will also keep moving forward and trying to make new discoveries.

If much of what was previously hidden is now in the public domain, where do these traditions have to go?

I don’t have a clear answer to that at present. Much of it will depend on how much the mainstream religions will digest these insights. At this point esoteric teachings are often used as little more than marketing techniques. The rabbi talks about Kabbalah to get people back to the synagogue, or the Christian churches try to unearth some half ­forgotten contemplative tradition as a way of presenting an alternative to, say, Buddhist meditation.

Will it go past this point? Possibly; possibly people will go on soon to the next new thing. Even so, out of all those numbers, a few actually do see beyond the surface and decide to go “further in” themselves. They become the esotericists of the next generation, and the chain continues.

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Interview courtesy of Quest Books and copyright 2005 by Richard Smoley. Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions is available from all good bookstores & online retailers. Richard’s website is http://www.innerchristianity.com.

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The above interview appeared in New Dawn 98

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