Esoteric and Exoteric  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Luke Timothy Johnson, professor of New Testament at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, combines first-tier academic research with a passionate commitment to creedal orthodoxy. In his Commonweal essay "Dry Bones: why religion can't live without mysticism" (February 26, 2010) he addresses the perennial religious conflict between mystics and institutionalists in the three Abrahamic faiths, a conflict exemplified as early as the gospel spat between Mary and Martha. Johnson clearly comes down in favor of mysticism but stresses that it cannot fruitfully exist outside of a structure provided by the faith community.


The great religious battle of our the clash occurring within religious traditions. The battle within each of the great monotheistic religions is between the exoteric and esoteric versions of each...

...The exoteric focuses on external expressions of religion...the esoteric, in contrast, finds the point of religion less in external performance than in the inner experience and devotion of the heart, less in the public liturgy than in the individual's search for God. The esoteric dimension of religion religion privileges the transforming effect of asceticism and prayer. It seeks an experience of the divine more intense, more personal, and more immediate than any made available by law or formal ritual. The esoteric element in religion finds expression above all in mysticism. Mystics pursue the inner reality of the relationship between humans and God: they long for more knowledge of what alone is ultimately real, and desire absolute love for what is alone infinitely desirable.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all best known as exoteric traditions, each with the full array of formal worship, religious law, sacred books, and codes of morality. Yet each has also contained, from the beginning, a strong element of mysticism. The Judaism that formed in the second century on the basis of a strict interpretation of Torah, also expressed itself mystically through the heavenly ascents accomplished by the adepts of Merkabah mysticism, riders of the heavenly throne-chariot. The earliest Christian books contain a powerful visionary composition (Revelation), while Christian mystical impulses found early expression both in Gnostic literature and among the desert fathers and mothers; and in Islam, the Sufi movement, dedicated to the quest for God through renunciation and prayer, grew together with the exoteric framework of the shari'ah, the system of Muslim law and observance...

...asceticism was not an exception to, but rather an intensification of, the strict rules of behavior followed by the exoteric community. Mystics were able to swim freely, and dive deeply, in an ocean bounded by public profession and practice.

In return, mysticism enriched the outer tradition, providing a medium for impulses of passionate devotion, producing generations saints who represent the best within each religion...Asserting the ultimate reality and power of this invisible presence, and willingly sacrificing pleasure in this life for the sake of a future life with God, mysticism reminds the exoteric that it too is called to a service larger than itself.

This entry was posted on Thursday, October 14, 2010 at Thursday, October 14, 2010 . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


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