April 26, 2023

Thoughts on Christian esoterism

by Interfaith

In religions, the visible forms – rites and rituals, customs and practices, its architecture and its art, comprise the exoteric dimension, the formal, the visible form that identifies it as such. The esoteric is the inward, invisible essence transmitted to the body of believers through these forms. What is absolutely axiomatic in Traditionalists, the most recent incarnation of the schools of the Sophia Perennis, is that one cannot access the esoteric other than in and through its concordant forms, for the simple reason that the esoteric is formless, invisible, numinous, ineffable – as Scripture says: “The wind (pneuma) blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit (pneuma).” (John 3:8). You cannot hold the wind. You cannot capture it, and if you do, it ceases to be wind.


Christianity has been spoken of as a bhaktic religion, a religion of devotion, of love, an esoterism called upon to fulfil the role of an exoteric way for a considerable sector of mankind. It is perhaps providential that the Greek word for love favoured by the NT writer is ‘agape’, a Greek term that rarely appears at all in literature prior to or contemporary with the New Testament. It cannot be, however, that by fullfiling this exoteric necessity it excludes esoterism and thereby gnosis, for again the Perennialist insists that the sapiential path is implicit in every orthodox tradition, however hard to see, however few may be called to follow.


The orthodox religious traditions contain within themselves the full spectrum of spiritual possibilities open to mankind – “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main” the poet says. And Tradition speaks to the main, to all humanity. Anyone who thinks that Tradition is too restrictive or too limited is suffering either ignorance or delusion. When spiritual seekers find the Dalai Lama he invariably directs them back from whence they came. “if you cannot find it in your own tradition,” he says, “It’s unlikely you’ll find it here.”


The eso-exo dichotomy is best conceived as a sliding scale. The separation between the esoteric and exoteric is a matter of acuity than of actuality. Both the esoterist and the exoterist share the same doctrinal foundation, but understand in differing degrees.

The differences result from innate capacity (although any lack can often be compensated by perseverance), a desire to know, by perception and understanding; but the differences are real. There will always be those whose insight and understanding remains undeveloped because they are absorbed in more ephemeral interests, because they neglect the sacrifices which gnosis demands. Not everyone is called to be a jnani, a gnostic. But to assume this lack of a particular development hinders or debilitates the person is an error (often the case with the elitism of the esoteric schools) because no one way is necessarily superior to any other.


Another aspect of the western error is to assume that to be ‘esoteric’ is to be better than ‘exoteric’. It’s in the nature of the West to quantify and qualify ad infinitum (itself a sign of quantity rather than quality). Everything breaks down into ‘this and that’, whereas in the East it’s more fluid and organic, it’s not ‘this or that; but neti-neti (‘not this, not that’). (Scripturally, it’s more holistic, ‘this and that’.)

And, of course, the esoteric is thereby superior in every degree to the exoteric.

The Biblical story of Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42) seems to offer a model of the esoteric and the exoteric – Martha bustles about her business, Mary sits at the feet of Jesus in rapt contemplation of Him. Martha troubles herself on her sister’s behalf, and Jesus gently rebukes her – “Martha, Martha, thou art careful, and art troubled about many things: But one thing is necessary. Mary hath chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her.”

Throughout Christendom, exegetes have praised Mary (and that name is not by happenstance) as the model of the spiritual way, of Christian devotion – it took an Eckhart, in his sermons on this text, to bring out something ‘esoteric’.

In another sermon (5b) Eckhart says: “I say truly, as long as you do your works for the sake of heaven or God or eternal bliss, from without, you are at fault. It may pass muster, but it is not the best. Indeed, if a man thinks he will get more of God by meditation, by devotion, by ecstasies, or by special infusion of grace than by the fireside or in the stable – that is nothing but taking God, wrapping a cloak round His head and shoving him under a bench. For whoever seeks God in a special way gets the way and misses God, who lies hidden in it.”

In speaking of the sisters of Bethany (having in an earlier sermon praised Mary over Martha), he now (Sermon 68) turns the tables. He has already told of Mary’s inexpressible longing and the ‘sweet solace and joy’ she found at Jesus’ feet …

… But is Mary tending towards self-indulgence? Martha seems bothered by the same question. When she says, ‘Lord, tell her to help me,’ it is not out of spite but out of concern that Mary might have continued to sit there ‘a little more for her own happiness than for spiritual profit.’ (S. 68) Martha was worried that ‘by dallying in this joy’ her sister ‘might progress no further.’ (ibid) Jesus reassures Martha that, despite appearances, Mary’s heart is in the right place: she has ‘chosen the best part’ and will eventually grow into the fully grounded (spiritual) maturity that Martha desires for her, that Martha already possesses.

She has only just ‘entered school’ as it were, and begun ‘to learn how to live’. Martha is a lot further along the Way. (ibid)


I once heard an apocryphal tale of Jesus from the Islamic Tradition. One day Jesus was walking along and saw a holy man, sitting in meditation by the roadside. “What are you doing?” Jesus asks. “I am contemplating the Divine Radiance,” the man says. “Who looks after you?” Jesus then asks. “My brother takes care of all my worldly needs,” the man replied.
“Then your brother loves God more than you,” Jesus told him, and continued on His way.

Thomas Apr 19, 2023

Visit thread: https://www.interfaith.org/community/threads/20594/

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