Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Secrecy, esp. Religious: a Scholarly Definition

In Kocku von Stuckrad (Ed.), The Brill Dictionary of Religion [Revised edition of Metzler Lexikon Religion edited by Christoph Auffarth, Jutta Bernard and Hubert Mohr, translated from the German by Robert R. Barr] (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2006)

1. Secrecy as an Evolutionary Strategy
Secrecy is a strategy developed by evolution, in the case of beast and human alike within the biological food chain, that attains an elevated degree of individual opportunities and possibilities for survival and reproduction by way of the accumulation of various informational prospects. The person or animal with a successful disguise does not become prey, the one that hides his/her/its food survives times of want, the creature of restrained impulses and hidden intents can secretly dodge competitors for nourishment, sexual partners, and territory, and the one that protects progeny to the third generation ensures the safe transport of her/his/its genes. The greater the concealment and silence vis-à-vis the competing side (‘information reduction’), or the more that that side is deceived and ‘tricked’ (‘disinformation’), the greater the chances of reproduction on one’s own side. A shortcoming with regard to secrecy can mean death. Fear and triumph, therefore, are the constant companions of secrecy. The invisibility of one is the insecurity of the other.

2. Human Secrecy: Intelligence
Explicit pleasure in the generation of secrecy that can become a craving or addiction appears only with the human being. Discovery in a game of hide-and-seek arouses squeals of delight in a child, even a very young one, the dissolution of the state of tension between hiding and showing oneself is enjoyed in all merriment, stubborn silence out of spite signs a new stage of development, and re-interpreting reality with words is the lovely ruse of others, not only for Huckleberry Finn.

a) Double-Coded Secret Signs
The basis of all of these phenomena is that, through cultural evolution, the human brain has become specialized in the practice of signs, and in intelligent, secretive ways of dealing with reality. Signs stand for something that, in itself, is invisible, insensible, and inaudible. Olfactory, optical, and acoustical behavior, in the sense of positing markers, here forms the evolutionary basis, but is the prisoner of the materiality of things. Only the achievement of a transformation from the openly communicative marking to the exclusive secret sign sparks the evolutionary breakthrough. In order to introduce the sign durably and reliably, a practice of secrecy, by means of a positing of signs, must represent the absent, secret thing in the present sign in such wise that it is double-coded — coded as an ‘open secret sign.’ All see or hear the sign; however, only some recognize, know, and take charge of that which the sign indicates (wild game depicted on rocks, the early Christian fish symbol, the Zen garden).

b) Co-Evolution of Secrecy and Revelation
Simultaneous esoteric and exoteric secrecy arouses not only the curiosity and craving of the excluded, but also the temptation of a profitable betrayal. The dynamic co-evolution of secrecy and revelation, thus launched, has today produced several tamper-resistant strategies of secrecy:
Semantic double-coding, in word and image, divides reality into a visible-and-real world and an invisible-and-virtual one. (→ masks, whizzing-sticks, bread and wine in cults of life-renewal; allegories and the narration of parables in speech and writing).
Performative initiation and introduction that make the individual a member of a closed chain (years-long rites of initiation in men’s associations and brotherhoods; exclusive teacher-pupil and master-disciple relations; trials of courage).
Unexaminable vehicles of information, such as ancestors, dreams, visions, divination, omens, oracles, miracles, and charms (→ Esotericism; Occultism).
Unverifiable histories (narratives of → origin, ascensions to heaven, after-death reports and near-death experiences, eschatological histories and → apocalypses).
Magical secret rituals that can be successful only when held without witnesses (→ Voodoo cults, spiritual alchemy, black → magic).
Secret cults that render secrecy an immediate, ecstatic, and extraordinary experience of wholeness (ancient → mystery cults, Australian → Aborigines’ corroborees).
Hierarchical structures, in which the organization’s secret can be known and used only by the invisible master-superior (certain Rosicrucian groups, the “Esoteric Section” of the → Theosophical Society, Opus Dei, → Scientology).
Transformation of the—as yet—unknown or unknowable to the status of the ‘secret’ (mysteries of faith; promises of revelation; speculations on cosmology or on the theory of evolution; TV cult-series “The X-Files”).
Self-reliance and independence, which keep nothing secret except this fact (traffic in secrets; esoteric mania for betraying secrets; many secret societies after the abandonment of their original purpose of their organization, e.g., German Masonic Lodges in the nineteenth century).

These forms of secrecy are characteristic of all religions. They function on the principle that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Only those in control of the whole are in charge of the secret. Individual participants in the secret, integrated but subordinate, cannot destroy the operational force of the secrecy. In the extreme case, the secret becomes a mystery of faith, and of self-bewitching imagination, impenetrable to all.

c) Secret Knowledge by Reflection
On the other hand, self-reflexive secrecy knows and understands what it does. It successfully shifts the dynamics of concealment and revelation to the level of reflexive knowledge in the area of individual cognition. A self-aware, self-controlled, attentive ability to remain silent is characteristic here. In creative play, and secret, confidential experiment with the possibilities of representing sign and signal, limits and boundaries fall from around the respective axiomatic conceptions of world and self (→ shamanism, scholarly → Daoism, → mysticism, alchemy).

3. Of such elements, religious acts build up a world invisible and out of reach, a world of the spiritual and believed, an ‘otherwise world,’ a ‘world behind,’ behind the world of outward facts and conditions. Secrecy protects and immunizes this second world, which determines life here and hereafter, together with the well-being of those who deal with the world of secrecy. The unequal chances for life and well-being, presented this way in gerontocracies, caste societies, patriarchates, or other forms of government has, as a rule, very stable credibility. It makes religions the connective tissue of human socialization. A self-reflexive piety of silence, and falling silent, can, on the contrary, become the catalyst and motor of cultural evolution, or make survival possible in an environment of deadly enemies (Jewish and Christian → gnosticism; Taquia and Sufi brotherhoods [→ Sufism]; ‘Marranos’).

4. The world’s retransformation into an enchanted garden of occultism and esotericism, parliamentarily uncontrollable bank secrets, and new enchantment at the hands of the media, is at full speed. In this situation, secrecy still deserves the self-reflexive elucidation of who it is who produces which secrets, in what situation and against whom, for what reason and to what end, and how and by means of what procedure or operation.

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