Esoteric Christianity

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?

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2 Responses to Esoteric Christianity

  1. Pingback: Esoteric Christianity | As the sun in its orb

  2. Kevin says:

    “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.”

    Well, Christianity generally, in its Catholic and Orthdox forms, is already a kind of mysticism, surely. The galaxy of saints is there to prove the point. The entire Gospel is a call to sanctity: “be perfect…” Esoterism, when it is the genuine article, adds the element of doctrine precisely, and also the element of method. There is also a gradation of esoterism, from the more “bhaktic” forms, such as the great saints St. Bernard and St. Francis and the more Jnanic or “gnostic” (in the proper and not pejorative sense) such as a Meister Eckhart. There is also what has been termed “passional mysticism” (la mystique passionelle), such as that of St. Therese of Avila and St. John of the Cross. Doctrine, in the form of metaphysics enters in as a support to the extent the way is centered on intellect (nous).

    As for the spiritual virtues, they are not the same as “morals”, which vary from culture to culture, but refer to intrinsic qualities, those that are both the condition and the fruit of divine contemplation. They are in the nature of things, hence universal. The essential content of “the love of God” and “the love of the neighbor as oneself” are the chief virtues. One might expand this and say, veracity, piety, humility, charity.
    ——————
    “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.”

    One should make a distinction betwen revelation and inspiration. For Christianity, Christ is the Revelation, not the Bible. It is of course accepted that the Bible is revealed, although in general Christians seem unaware of the difference of levels in it. For the Jews only the five Books of Moses are strictly divine, and also the Psalms. This is like the distinction between Shruti and Smriti for the Hindus. In the New Testament, it is really only the words of Christ that are Revelation, since they pertain to the manifesttion of the God-man. Elsewhere, again, one should be aware of the fact of levels of inspiration. St. Paul himself makes this distinction.

    Must must also make sharp distinctions between mediums, shamans, and prophets. A medium has no necessary conntection with the sacred, and can often represent something quite to the contrary. His receptivity relates exclusively to the animic world, and usually to its most inferior manifestations. A shaman as such also relates to the animic world, but often in its superior manifestations, hence his curative powers, for example. The shaman can also have a direct link to the spiritual, in which case he is something of a prophet as well, and probably a saint. He is then the recipient of celestial inspirations and possibly even revelations, as in the case of the Sacred Pipe and the Sun Dance of the North American Indians.

    “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.”

    This, of course, is complete fantasy and is found in such milieus as theosophism and other occultist surroundings.

    The esoteric way sees the mystery of death in a much wider way than the classical Catholic and Protestant explanations of heaven and hell.
    Not necessarily, at least not explicitly. The Gospel speaks of Heaven and hell, but also of “the outer darkness,” which may well signify what the Asians would term a “rebirth” in a non-central state in a future cosmic cycle. The idea that one returns in this cycle as some being or other is a popular error and metaphysically impossible. The monotheisms restrict themselves to the essential choice confronting a human being, and so their eschatology is much more parsimonious.
    ———————————-

    “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.”

    Again, this is no part of the orthodox tradition, esoteric or otherwise, but pertains to occultist fantasies and syncretisms. Obviously the Asian traditions offer a much more ample perspective, but the monotheistic revelations are, again, far more parsimonious in this respect. There are, of course, hints of a wider understanding, such as in Origen, but these have never formed part of the Patristic doctrines.

    —————————————————————

    “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 can’t legitimately say that “most prayers are worthless.” There is no such thing as “empty words and formulae”. Everything depends on the intention of the one praying. Heaven knows its own. All prayer with a sincere heart has incalculable effects.

    “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.”

    Well, the literal sense of Scripture is sacred, because it comes as is from the Divine source. According to the most venerable authorities, Scripture can be read according to multiple levels, but even the loftiest should not contradict the literal sense, but rather deepen or universalize, which amounts to perceiving its symbolic nature. Aside from evident meanings, Scripture does demand inspired insight and commentary, and therefore gifts that are not ordinary.

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