Exoteric vs. Esoteric Versions of Religion

The current issue of Commonweal contains an article by Luke Timothy Johnson titled Dry Bones: Why Religion Can’t Live Without Mysticism. Johnson opens the piece by suggesting that the “great religious battle of our time” is not that between believers and nonbelievers, but the battle within religious traditions between exoteric and esoteric versions of those traditions.

In simple terms, for those for whom the terms are unfamiliar, the exoteric focuses on religious law and seeks to form a “community publicly obedient to divine command,” whereas the esoteric is more concerned with “the inner experience and devotion of the heart.”

There is a tension betwen the two, and Johnson points out that the monotheistic religions “have not found it easy to reconcile their exoteric and exoteric sides.” Nonetheless, this is clearly a case of both/and, rather than either/or. While there will always be tension between the impules toward the exoteric and the esoteric must coexist.

This is assuredly true of Christianity. Our faith as Christ’s disciples is meant to affect who we are in the world and thus, the world in which we live. So our faith can never be simply about luxuriating in our prayer experiences with God. A purely esoteric religion can not be called Christian. On the other hand, if all we are about is the external trappings – the rules and the public rituals, we eventually get “dry bones,” to use John’s title, and no real transformation.

The challenge the, is to keep these two impulses in creative tension, to see them not as opponents seeking to vanquish each other, but as complementary forces that need each other and must work together.

2 thoughts on “Exoteric vs. Esoteric Versions of Religion

  1. I have thought a lot about the esoteric and exoteric traditions existing beside one another also. While it does seem we need both, we must admit that the esoteric version seems to be confined to a relative few, while exoteric Christianity seems to thrive with the masses. Every now and then I will find a lone ranger within the masses that privately practices or will at least talk about an inner, esoteric faith. I also believe those immersed in the esoteric faith know their history and facts a lot better – exoteric Christianity has a dark and judgmental past! Nonetheless both the exoteric and esoteric sides of the faith are important parts of the whole. At least an exoteric version of the faith seems to be the foundation, and the esoteric version seems to be what one who wishes to experience God further graduates to.

    • I’m so glad to see the subject of exoteric vs. esoteric religion brought to light. So few people realize this vital distinction that exists in all the major world religions. I would disagree with the comment “the great religious battle of our time” is not that between believers and nonbelievers, but the battle within religious traditions between exoteric and esoteric versions of those traditions.” A great battle implies many participants, and there are few of us. Rather than a great battle of our time, I see it as a tremendous opportunity of our time to inform people that the exoteric vs. esoteric paradox exists and why understanding it is important. I see dry bones everywhere. Fortunately, there are many strong Christian voices (Richard Rohr, Thomas Merton, Thomas Keeting) who bring this subject to light…

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