For many years, I have accepted that there is an esoteric or “gnostic” * element of Christianity. Like anything, esoterism can be taken to excesses and balance is lost. There have to be two opposing forces like a sailing boat close to the wind, heeling and close-hauled, and the sailor has to put his weight on the boat’s gunwale to limit the heeling. Otherwise the boat capsizes. The skill of the sailor is balancing his weight, position in the boat, his course and the angle or setting of the sails. The nautical analogy is perfect for the spiritual life. Refusal of any institutional religion as a matter of principle leads to individualism and pride – and a big fall. There has to be balance. I also think of politics – for me, the ideal is anarchy, but the best compromise is having authorities, laws and police, but for them to be used at a minimum level. Pure anarchy is the law of the spirit, but it cannot work in society – simply because people do evil and would dominate us all.
* I refer to the Alexandrian tradition of Origen and Clement of Alexandria, developed into the theological discipline of Sophiology notably among some Russian Orthodox divines like Fr Serge Bulgakov.
Most religions in the world have esoteric dimensions. Judaism has the Kabbal, Islam has Sufism as an inner and spiritual teaching. Mysticism and the esoteric tradition seek Christ through inner experience rather than through accepting verbal doctrinal teaching and moral precepts to observe. Virtue is not either / or, but both with perhaps a little emphasis on one or the other.
Much of the modernist and anti-modernist debate in the beginning of the twentieth century discussed the relationship between God and man – transcendence against immanence. There is the question of whether God continues to reveal, or whether revelation ceased with the death of the last Apostle (Saint John) and is only transmitted via Tradition and the authority of a magisterium. The truth seems to be both. I am always suspicious of those who claim to communicate with God! On the other hand, there are rare people who are mediums, shamans and prophets.
Jesus is seen as a hypostatic union of divinity and humanity, a single being with two natures, though orthodox Christianity tends to absorb humanity into divinity, a kind of monophysism. His role is perceived as a priest and victim to feed the wrath of an angry God seeking justice. Jesus would take upon himself the karma of humanity. But, Jesus is also he who became man so that man might become God – in the words of Pope Leo the Great. He was and is the “prototype” of a new humanity, and not merely a sacrificial victim like the countless animals that were slaughtered on the altar of the Temple.
Esoteric schools tend to believe that Jesus did not spend his entire youth as an apprentice joiner. He would have travelled to many countries and would have been initiated into the various mystery religions.
The esoteric way sees the mystery of death in a much wider way than the classical Catholic and Protestant explanations of heaven and hell. There are esoteric Christian visions of the afterlife that closely resemble the traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism alongside other less known spiritual traditions in the east. Esoteric Christianity tends more towards universalism and the denial of hell as an eternal and absolute state. No one, even on the “other side” is beyond hope.
Meditation and contemplative prayer are not restricted to monks, but need to be accessible to all. In all probability, most “prayers” are worthless because they are no more than empty words and formulae. But vocal and sung prayers, and liturgical prayer, can be authentic by the Christians heart being directed in the right way.
One thing that interests me about the various esoteric traditions is the way of reading the Bible in a spiritual way, so that literalism is no longer relevant. The human spirit and the conscience have primacy over authority, whether that of a magisterium or the Bible.
The esoteric Christian looks for what we have in common with other Christians and other religions and spiritual traditions. As the Hindu holy book, the Baghavad Gita, says: No matter where they walk, it leads to Me. There is a fundamental unity of all spiritual paths. Exoteric and literalist Christians tend rather to seek to prove that they are right and everyone else is wrong or evil. In its ultimate expression, the “one true church” has the right to violate every principle of God and man in its conquest and domination of the world.
Many of these themes have been explored by individuals and groups over the centuries. Were they wrong? In all of us there is right and wrong. Who are we to judge?