Why esoteric Christianity will never reform the church

An unusual juxtaposition of reading material has got me thinking about esoteric Christianity and anabaptist Christianity and their relative strengths and weaknesses.

On the one hand I’ve been rereading “Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition” by Gnostic author Richard Smoley. In this book Smoley discusses the Secret Church, the Johnanine church within the Pererine church.

On the other hand the recent conversation on not going to church prompted me to reread “The Politics of the Cross: The Theology and Social Ethics of John Howard Yoder” by Craig A Carter. In the book Carter observes “Yoder contends there are three basic types of ecclesiology: [1] the theocratic vision, [2] the spiritualist reaction and [3] the believer’s church.”

It was Carter’s description of the spiritualist church that grabbed me: “From the perspective of Pilgrim Marpeck [believer’s church], the Spiritualizers and Zwingli [theocratic vision] were quite similar insofar as they both denied the ultimate importance of proper church order. Schwenckfeld [spiritualist reaction], because he thought only spiritual reality matters, did not challenged established worship and church structure of Christendom and thus suffered no persecution … spiritualism is able to function quite well within the framework of the theocratic society that it rejects, as a ‘church within a church.'”

Now, once we recognize esoteric Christianity as a variant of this spiritualist reaction that Yoder speaks of, it becomes immediately evident that many of the same criticisms apply. Thus we can say that, as esoteric Christianity functions as a “formless form” of church rather than an “alternate form” of church, it is unable to concretely challenge the “Christendom form” of church, even when that form becomes horrendously corrupt.

In other words, esoteric Christianity doesn’t challenge exoteric Christianity in any tangible way precisely because it devalues the tangible. It does not offer revolution, it merely offers reinterpretation.

Not so with anabaptist Christianity. Anabaptist Christians suggest alternative forms of church are essential if we wish to reform the church, and I’m convinced they are right. But where I find the anabaptist tradition sometimes lacking is precisely in the area that the esoteric tradition is strongest, in its development of a Christian psycho-theology. Therefore, if anabaptist Christians seek to be genuinely holistic I think they need to work more on developing a holistic understanding of humanity, an understanding that includes the psyche and psychological experience. So, while I reject esoteric Christianity as a dead end on the post-Christendom path, I think esoterics still ask some very good questions.

10 thoughts on “Why esoteric Christianity will never reform the church

  1. “because he thought only spiritual reality matters,”
    “precisely because it devalues the tangible.”
    Is this true of esoteric Christianity then? I haven’t really looked into it, so I don’t know. It’s just a foreign concept to me.
    Of course, to be honest, I think that exoteric Christianity can tend to devalue the tangible as well at times. Especially when the sole focus of some forms of exoteric Christianity seems to be “saving souls” and making sure people end up in the “correct” afterlife.

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  2. I haven’t studied Schwenckfeld, so I am relying on secondary sources there, but I have read a number of esoteric Christian authors and the parallels just lept out at me. Many esoterics do speak of a church within a church or hidden brotherhood and dwell much on metaphysical speculation and hidden mysteries. This would seem to match Carter’s description of the Spiritualists at the time of the Reformation.
    I wouldn’t say esoteric Christians are so interested in “saving souls” though. Many of the ones Ive heard of seem more interested in reincarnation, in which souls get recycled as a matter of course.
    But for me the interesting side is the politics. In polarizing this distinction between the esoteric and exoteric, there is a sense in which the esoterics normalize the exoteric and the theocracy often associated with it. For me that’s not good enough, theocracy needs to be challenge more robustly.

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  3. Very interesting, thanks Matt.
    I suppose that I find this strange because the mysteries that I celebrate aren’t some “great secrets” about some “other spiritual reality,” but are simple yet profound (and often hard to describe) truths about this world (there is no “spiritual world” vs. “physical world” to me, but one world which is both spiritual and physical). To me, exploring the mysteries and celebrating them is about exploring and celebrating life, and coming to see the ordinary as something extraordinarily beautiful.
    For example, one of the big mysteries that I’ve been grappling with for some time right now is the interconnectedness of people and the complex reality we share. The more I explore that, the more I want to live it through more vibrant relationships, more cherished memories with friends, an more authentic communication.
    The esotericism you describe seems entirely uninteresting to me. Anyway, I hope you don’t mind the ramble.
    As for theocracy, I tend to agree with you, for what I hope are obvious reasons. 😉

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  4. I’ve been trying, for the second time, to read A.W. Waite’s “The hidden church of the Holy Graal”, and I find it heavy going. Esotericism of all kinds likes to hint at profound mysteries, but at the core of it there is something very banal, and they say they have to wrap it up in obscure language to keep it away from the profane vulgar. So they m,ake the path as difficult as possible, and at the end of it there is somethingt quite trivial.

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  5. “Thus we can say that, as esoteric Christianity functions as a “formless form” of church rather than an “alternate form” of church, it is unable to concretely challenge the “Christendom form” of church, even when that form becomes horrendously corrupt.”
    Esoteric Christianity is being presented here in a fashion that presupposes practitioners may be interested in “challenging” the exoteric church. This is a non-starter, in the sense that esotericism refers to understanding and inner-development – in particular as it relates to the correct reception and application of the gospel teachings.
    Jesus spoke in parables. He referred to the need “to hear” his meaning. Time and again the warning is given that his words will be misappropriated, taken literally, used for causes, for church crusades and other exoteric purposes based on literal readings that distort the truths enshrined in the gospels.
    Throughout his ministry Jesus was unsparing in his attacks on the custodians of institutional religion, calling them “whitened sepulchers” and “vipers”. However he never raised even the vaguest possibility of challenging such institutions in the physical world. This is because the transmission of esoteric truth takes place between those with “the eyes to see… ears to hear”. As the philosopher and Fourth Way teacher P.D. Ouspensky pointed out in New Model of the Universe – if Jesus had returned at points in history when the church was at the height of his power, he would almost certainly have been tried as a heretic. The exoteric church and its too frequent misrepresentations of the Christian mysteries, makes it the enemy of those who understand the the true nature of Jesus’ mission and the esoteric significance of his teachings. This does not however, and never will – amount to an attempt to “challenge” the external church. After all those who identify exoteric Christianity with their needs in terms of custom, tradition, ideology and culture will always be with us – and moreover represent the vast majority of ‘believers’.
    When Jesus said “few will be chosen” and “narrow is the way” he was referring to the truth that few will be able to receive his message let alone apply it in the manner for which it was intended. Christianity is a difficult and hard teaching. When personal transformation along esoteric lines occurs within churches it is usually as a result of an exceptional cleric who has an experience of these mysteries and works one-on-one or in small groups… but the idea of esotercism as “movement” challenging the institutions and their authority is inconceivable because of the great difficulty of grasping, let alone applying, esoteric teaching in a community context.

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  6. One problem you have here, is bundling all “esoteric christians” together. They can have wildly divergent views, right down to those who practice inverse Sacraments and turn the whole “thing” upside down.
    When a group of Lutheran priests asked Rudolf Steiner how to renew the Church, he assisted with much advice. This became The Movement for Religious Renewal. Read some Emil Bock to get an idea of their theology. Ultimately though, they had to form their own organization- The Christian Community. So here is a church that has thoroughly esoteric underpinnings.
    The Swedenborgians also have their own Church.
    The Church will change, in time it will change- not disappear – thank God!

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  7. Jarrod, don’t mind the ramble at all, I enjoy your perspective. In fact, in a funny sort of way I find it more orthodox than that offered by esoteric Christianity. You see the orthodox creeds affirm the Deity as creator of EVERYTHING, seen and unseen. True, our deity is transcendent in a way that’s quite foreign to Paganism. But in making that distinction between Creator and creation, both the seen world and unseen world creation are viewed as one creation. As such, everyday life can be a revelation.

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  8. I fear you are right. More people are looking for alternatives now than ever, but esoteric concepts aren’t so easy to understand and many pass it over. It’s a shame. There has to be a good working model of esoteric Christianity operating in some type of formal atmosphere somewhere? At least some place that is open discussing the human psyche alongside scripture in a public manner. It seems the only place to find that now is on the internet.

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  9. I have stumbled across a number of groups in the flesh and blood world but none with what I would consider to be a good working model. Online does appear to be the best place.

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