What is Esoteric Christianity?

For over a year now I’ve been describing myself as an Esoteric Christian. I adopted this terms before I fully understood what it meant, but I also knew that it was the best description of where I am in my faith journey. Whenever people ask me what an Esoteric Christian is, I jokingly respond, “it means I’m a Christian who’s into weird shit.”

But the question keeps coming, so I’ve spent the past year thinking deeply about what Esoteric Christianity is and is not, and what it is to me, and I have started to articulate the beginnings of an answer.

A necessary and obvious caveat: this is not an orthodox faith. It is far outside the strident realms of accepted doctrine. You may see it as vague, heretical, and New Agey -to which I plead guilty. In the words of Martin Luther, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” This is the faith I have come to live, and the very most I can do is be honest about what I have been given.

However, at the center of my faith are still the core truths of the Apostle’s Creed, and the fact that this Esoteric faith is by no means new. I see myself as tapping into a living, ongoing mystical stream that has been alive through the centuries.

Saint Peter the Rock, Saint John the Beloved

Christ told Saint Peter that he is the Rock upon which the Church is built. In this way, Peter could represent the dogmas, the doctrines, and perhaps the temperament that is more prone to fundamentalism.

On the other hand, we have Saint John, the Beloved Disciple, depicted in the Last Supper as reclining against the chest of Christ, listening to the heartbeat of God. In contrast with Peter, this image of John is not concerned with right belief, doctrine, or rule. He is, rather, concerned only with the listening for heart of God.

This is an esoteric faith – a faith that goes inward and examines all things to find the pulse of the eternal. The anonymous author of the Meditations on the Tarot writes,

The beloved disciple who listened to the beating of the Master’s heart was, is, and always will be the representative and guardian of this heart … The mission of John is the keep the life and soul of the Church alive until the second coming of the Lord. This is why John has never claimed and never will claim the office of directing the body of the Church. He vivifies this body, but he does not direct its actions.

In other words, an esoteric faith is a source of poetry, enlightenment, and mysticism, but not of dogmas.

Guardians of the Heart of Humanity 

The Author goes on to use Saint John as a metaphor for Hermeticists as a whole, and it is one of the best explanations I have ever found of Esotericism. (Hermeticism, by the way, is a mystical tradition rooted in Hermes Trismegistus, a mythical figure from ancient Egypt who wrote the Hermetic Corpus, the foundation for Hermetic thought.)

Now Hermeticism, the living Hermetic tradition, guards the communal soul of all true culture. I must add: Hermeticists listen to – and now and then hear – the beating of the heart of the spiritual life of humanity. They cannot do otherwise than live as guardians of the life and communal soul of religion, science and art. They do not have any privilege in any of these domains; saints, true scientists, and artists of genius are their superiors. But they live for the mystery of the communal heart which beats within all religions, all philosophies, all arts and sciences – past, present, and future.

An Esoteric Christianity, therefore, is Christ-centered but by necessity open minded. It does not guard itself from other religions, philosophies, and spiritualities, but engages with them with reverence from a Christ-centric position. Self-protective and siege-mentality fear, so prevalent in the church, has no place in Esoteric Christianity. We are the guardians of the soul of humanity, wherein lies the spark of God, and as such we cannot run away in terror from all spirituality that is different from our own.

As I’ve explored in other articles, I am a yogi, a Tarot reader, and deeply influenced by Buddhist thought. None of this alarms me or upsets me, and is not in conflict with my Christian faith. I occasionally get shrill warnings from other Christians for my blasphemy, but I simply don’t share their concerns.

In sum, an Esoteric Faith, as I experience it, is focused inward upon the subjective experience of mystical encounter. It listens for God in all things while maintaining Christ as it’s center, and as such must be open to exploring wisdom in all religious traditions.

Yin and Yang

I will be the first to admit that this sort of faith is a matter of temperament. I have a temperament that leads me more to compassion and care than judgement; I am titillated by the strange and different; I am more concerned with exploring the new than with conserving the fragile and old, making me, by definition, not conservative.

Spiritual life is, I am convinced, determined not by reason but by temperament and intuition, and is divided into the Peters and Johns. As the author of the Meditations makes clear, it is a mistake to believe that one is going to “beat” or “over come” the other. These two complex energies in religious life are a whirling Yin and Yang, existing in perpetual tension. As ancient Chinese philosophy makes clear, that tension is the Tao – life itself. It is out of that tension that forward motion in humanity is created. I have to see myself as part of a larger organism of spirituality on this planet – one of tension, movement, and dynamism; a spiritual organism which, while at war with itself, maintains life. I play just a part in this greater human organism, and so do you.

So finally, Esoteric Christianity is about humility. It is the defeating of the Ego, the dissolving of the boundaries that create the illusion of separateness. Christ permeates all things and commands us to lay down our lives. In doing so we find enlightenment, and discover that John Donne was right: “No man is an island, entire in himself.”

3 Comments

  1. Stephen,

    I appreciate your thoughts. I do identify myself as theologically conservative (but socially liberal and politically moderate) Christian. First, I want to say I see you. No buts, no judgments. I see you as you want me to see you and accept you.
    Second, Christianity does have strong esoteric-mystical schools or movements within it that I think you would enjoy to explore. Are you familiar with the Cloud of Unknowing? It is a book written by an anonymous author (in Mediaeval England) and the way you employ Peter and John as symbols reminds me the way that book uses Martha and Mary as allegories for active life and contemplative life. The Cloud of Unknowing explores contemplative faith via negative theology and I sense that you may benefit from that treasure. It is one of my favorite books. It does not argue or push down some doctrine through the readers throat but it does push limits of human thinking about and mystical approach to Christ.

    Second, I believe reading Abraham Joshua Heschel would introduce you to alternative thinking that respects tradition yet goes beyond traditionalist thinking. A.J.Heschel was a Jewish theologian (I would say a mystic too) who lived in the past century and deeply impacted Judaism and Christianity. Two of his works would greatly enrich your noble soul. 1) Man’s Quest for God 2) God in Search of Man: a Philosophy of Judaism.

    That said, if you are familiar with these writers/sources then forgive my presumptuous approach.

    I believe it is crucial to balance rationalistic elements of Christian faith (or any faith that claims to survive intellectual and existential challenges of ages) with mystical, intuitive or not-so-doctrinal elements.

  2. I never knew quite how to define my evolution. And I confess I didn’t have a word for my belief system. How do you describe this journey which seemingly ends in heresy as I jokingly noted to my former pastor. Because yes, I have fallen away from tradition. A long and tumbling flight ending here where I find freedom in finally accepting my unchurched status. I have used the tried and true I’m spiritual but not religious. And when asked to describe my religious affiliation I have noted Christian by choice. No longer logging my denominational status yet not quite ready to let go of the label of Christianity. I spent six years of my life immersed in theological studies. I loved it. The intellectual grappling with the childish knowledge I had received growing up with my young adult self coming to terms with the ramifications of belief and the previously unknown theories underlying the foundations of our belief system. But since then my journey armed with this knowledge and my own curiosity and need to explore the very skeleton of my thoughts has led me down a far different path, sometimes overwhelming frightening but ultimately completely necessary. Thank you for a new way to consider this particular path of spiritual wisdom. I love your work and look forward to reading your thoughts especially in these dark times it is good to know that there are others in the world who are seeking honestly the light.

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