Written by: J. Gordon Melton
Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are religions of revelation. That is, they claim to present divine messages that entered the world historically and openly, making their teachings of truth and its blessings available to everyone. Esotericism, and thus Scientology, operates on a quite different model. Truth, the result of spiritual striving, is ultimately available only to the worthy, those who have made the effort to understand the nature of the world and the divine and who have confronted the cosmos directly. For some esoteric groups, such activity is relatively simple and quick, but for many it involves years of work and a gradual growth in the access of truth. These stages are often described as levels of initiation, and the inner and complete teachings of such an esoteric group are given only to the elite members who have mastered each level step by step. Esoteric groups thus form one type of secret community and have often been in tension with the larger society for their unwillingness to divulge their secrets to their uninitiated neighbors.
While Christianity suggests that salvation is the ultimate goal, esotericism generally focuses on enlightenment, which Scientologists speak of as ultimate freedom, as the true aim of the religious life. Christians see salvation as a free gift by God that confers upon them a new status. Esotericism suggests that enlightenment (the understanding of the nature of the world and of the human role in it) is gained by pursuing one or more different spiritual exercises through which one has a direct experience of the cosmos and Ultimate Truth. As Christians respond to God through prayer and devotion and attendance of worship services in a church setting, esotericists seek God as they engage, in instructive settings, in various spiritual practices designed to lead them into an ever-greater apprehension of the spiritual world. In the early stages of their work, esotericists will often engage in activities designed to remove personal obstacles to spiritual development.
Scientology's basic teachings, as presented in the many books, articles, and other writings of founder L. Ron Hubbard, correspond to the esoteric tradition, though with a unique slant. Hubbard's understanding of God and creation, for example, is most clearly spelled out in a short text called The Factors. Here Hubbard presents a myth of creation reminiscent of ancient gnosticism, but with a modern twist that emphasizes a temporal sequence of events over the more traditional images. "Before the beginning was a cause and the entire purpose of the Cause was the creation of effect." From this initial action, energy, matter, life, communication, time, and the whole of the visible world developed.
The emergence of human beings, their history through the eons, the mess into which they have gotten themselves in the modern world, and the way out are of the essence of the esoteric teachings of Scientology. These are revealed to members in stages as they pursue their spiritual work as Scientologists level by level. Scientologists are first invited to engage in a set of exercises that remove the barriers to the spiritual life and eventually bring members to a state called "Clear." They can then really begin the spiritual journey as freed spiritual beings.
While Scientology resonates at some levels with Indian religions, especially Hinduism and Sant Mat, its teachings closely conform to the western esoteric path and do not seem to have significant eastern roots. It most closely aligns with eastern religions on those points with which esotericism in general resonates.
1. What is Western esotericism? What is its relationship with the development of Scientology?
2. How does Scientology's God differ from the traditional Christian God?
3. How is truth viewed within Scientology? Who can access it?
4. Compare and contrast salvation and enlightenment.
5. Where did Scientology draw its inspiration? How does it differ from the New Age movement?