Greetings of Peace. Scott's definition is precise and complete so it will suffice simply to unpack it, employing concrete examples to render its meaning more transparent. It is necessary to consider, for example, precisely what are the spiritual influences being referred to and also what is the manner in which they are transmitted.
In the traditional worldview, the spiritual influences consist of a supernatural power or grace issuing from God, transmitted to humanity by divine agents, and passed down through the generations from person to person to the present day. To give a concrete example from my own tradition, Islamic Sufism, this spiritual influence or initiatic power is referred to alternately as wilayah or walayah. In the words of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, writing in The Garden of Truth,
"Fallen human beings are cut off from the higher or more inward dimensions of their own being and confined to the prison of the ego. Furthermore, the gates to the higher states are locked for the ordinary person. The Sufis believe that in addition to the function of prophecy (al-nubuwwah), bestowed upon the Prophet by God, he was also given the initiatic power or walayah/wilayah ... when a person wishes to embark upon a path to the garden, he or she must find an authentic spiritual master in whom this power is present and receive, through a rite that goes back to the Prophet, the initiation transmitting the power of walaya/wilayah to him or her. Through this rite the locks on the door that leads to the path of ascent or inwardness are removed."
The rite of initiation itself, by which spiritual influences are transmitted can take many forms, in each instance a physical act such as touching, vestiture, breathing, or even looking, by itself or accompanied by traditional formulae, serves as the physical and outward medium of the interior spiritual transmission. To use just a few examples in Sufism, the rite may take the form of bayah, a grip, or khirqah, vestiture of a cloak, or even by means of tasbih, the prayer cord, accompanied by the recitation of traditional formulae.
In certain dimensions of Hinduism, initiation can take the form of Upanayana which consists of the investiture with a sacred cord and transmission of a traditional formula or mantra. In the same manner that Sufis trace the lineage of the transmission of the initiatic power back to God through the Prophet Muhammad -May Peace and Blessings be upon Him - so does the Shaivite Tradition trace the lineage of transmission back to Dakshinamurti, or Shiva in the form of the first Guru ...
According to the traditional perspective, although the formal aspects of a rite possess a certain power of their own, the effectiveness of initiation lies in the transmission of the spiritual influence, rather than ritual integrity alone.
Because so much discussion has been devoted to Freemasonry recently, it may be advantageous to use it as an illustration. The central initiatory rite contained within the multi-layered ceremonies of the Freemasons consists in that moment when the Master Mason, identified with the slain Hiram Abiff, is raised from the dead with the grip of the lion's paw and transmitted the Lost Word upon the five points of fellowship. Although the rite itself has been preserved more or less intact, the spiritual influences rendering it effective have been lost as evidenced by the lack of an operative support for interior work.
Greetings of Peace. This blog contains selections from my correspondence and other sources on a variety of subjects related to religion, philosophy, and spirituality. I hope that they may be of benefit to the interested reader. Concerning the title of the blog, read this entry.