Esoteric Christianity versus Mystical Christianity

Ah, here’s a guy who understands the difference between esoteric Christianity and mystic Christianity and can actually articulate it fairly well:

Esoteric Christianity is often, as in the case of this table, seen to be synonymous with Mystical Christianity. However, the fit is not quite exact. Esotericism is characterised by two main features: (1) an inner body of knowledge or interpretation of exoteric religious forms that were (2) taught to an inner group of students or practitioners. Mysticism, the practice of conscious personal communion with the Divine, can and is practiced by Christians who are not esoteric in the traditional understanding of that word and whom are not part of any inner tradition. Moreover, the majority of Christian mystics have never heard of Leadbeater and would be disturbed by much of his Christology which is reproduced in this table.

I commented on the same table elsewhere, as similarly, I feel it is unclear whether mystic Christianity should be labelled esoteric or exoteric under this schema, given that it is both orthodox and inner directed. You see, I’d quite happily accept the mystic label myself, but I’d feel very uncomfortable with an esoteric label (given the contemporary associations with reincarnation) but also with an exoteric label (given the contemporary associations with dry institutionalism).

11 thoughts on “Esoteric Christianity versus Mystical Christianity

  1. I’m with you being fine with “mystic” but not “esoteric”. Mystic seems about the connection with God. Esoteric seems more elitist. Mystic seems able to connect with people of all classes and education. Esoteric seems inherently limited in who it can and is willing to address.
    Which makes me feel like esoteric is a quasi-gnosticism. Mysticism is a non-intellectualized spirituality that gets past the boundaries of in or out.


  2. Mysticism that allows the awesome mystery of God to embrace us is one thing. Kidding ourselves we can embrace His hiddeness is quite another.


  3. Hello Matt,
    thank you for linking and commenting on my blog and thus opening me to this excellent blog! I am very impressed with what you present here and how you present it. I have read several pieces and will now read more. Thank you 🙂


  4. Patrick, I agree the esoteric sounds more elitist than the mystic, and that’s one of the reasons I see it as less compatible with orthodoxy. If we are to receive the kingdom as a child, as Jesus says, how can we say esoteric understandings of Christian rituals and symbols and sayings is in any way essential to life transformation?


  5. Dear friends,
    This book is excellent and well-balanced on esotericism and mysticism.
    Esotericism is characterized by an interest in the different levels of consciousness and being. Mysticism is not quite so concerned with these intermediate states. It focuses on reaching God in the most direct and immediate way.
    Tmo gnosticism is in contrast all about ascending through different levels (celestial hierarchies of Dionysius Areopagiticus)to God. This is not what esoterisism is teaching;


  6. Fred, having read and enjoyed the book and conversed with the author I’d say “Inner Christianity” is much more on Esoteric Christianity than Christian mysticism. The author admits as much in the sub-title and the text itself.
    Where this gets complicated is that Richard is a self-confessed Gnostic, and indeed is the former editor of Gnosis Magazine. I would agree however that “Mysticism is not quite so concerned with these intermediate states. It focuses on reaching God in the most direct and immediate way.”
    But what I would go on to say is that Christian mysticism has stronger ties to orthodoxy than esoteric Christianity or Gnosticism.


  7. Dear matt,
    Thanks for the post.
    I agree that R. Smoley is more a gnostic. I myself wish to stick by the early fathers and desert spirituality, especially Isaak of Niniveh. It is still not clear to my mind where esoteric Christianity has it’s origins: Palestinian or Hellenistic Judaism or…? And what the influence has been of Clemens of Alexandria and Origen, who spoke of a truly Christian Gnosis.
    I think esotericism might be interesting, but is far too elitarian (as in our time Traditionalist School or Perennialism?)
    The Beatitudes speak of being “pure in heart” not “pure in mind.” Pure in mind, the standard ambition of the Gnostic heretics & later of some Desert Fathers, is quite content to be disordered & neurotic in the affections, and just be so mentally strong as to fight the heart. But when one goes that route, the heart uses the body to rebel against the vanity of the mind. To oversimplify: the revolution in Christian spirituality in the 12th century, when St Bernard preached love as well as knowledge of God (see Bernard McGinn’s many historical studies), was all about recovering the authentic message of the Gospels and Paul on this topic. Francis took this teaching to its logical conclusion, moving out of the monastery into the world. But Eckhart & his crowd never accepted the teaching of love, and the message that has come down since the Counter-Reformation is mostly pretty confused. This is a perennial problem because certain personality types like to misread the gospel of love as a gospel of the idea of love, thus paying lipservice to the heart while remaining cerebral.
    So far some thoughts.


  8. “…certain personality types like to misread the gospel of love as a gospel of the idea of love…” Amen, yes, this is exactly my concern. I find esotericism and gnosticism stimulating to explore, but there is a tendency in these movements towards depersonalization and abstraction, a tendency I find very problematic, if love is indeed what its all about. What I seek is a deeper Spirituality that respects wisdom and knowledge and groks love as the deepest wisdom and knowledge.


  9. Matt…
    Good distinction and makes me more conscious of the fact that I should be careful to distinguish between mystics and esoterics on my own spiritual blog.


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