A reader writes:
How would you define the balance between Christian Mysticism & Christian Esotericism?
Richard Smoley in Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition, differentiates them by saying, “Esotericism is characterized by… an interest in 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. The mystic wants to reach his destination as quickly as possible; the esotericist wants to learn something about the landscape on the way. Moreover mysticism tends to be more toward passivity: a quiet waiting upon God rather than active investigation.”
How would you define the balance between these two traditions of Christian spirituality? Benefits and Dangers of both? and does Christian Esotericism get dealt with in any of your books?
Some great questions. First, a confession: I haven’t read Smoley. That said, I find his definition a bit contrived. I don’t think he understands mysticism. Passivity, or quietism, is actually considered a heresy within mysticism. Christian mysticism does regard God as the leader of the dance, but the individual or community seeking intimacy with God still has to be Ginger Rogers to God’s Fred Astaire, and as the old saying goes, “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in heels.” In other words, the contemplative life requires commitment, discipline, perseverance, surrender of self, humility, obedience, and willingness to respond to call, even call into “active” dimensions of ministry and life — hardly a “passive” exploration at all!
Furthermore, even a cursory reading of Teresa of Avila, Pseudo-Dionysius, or Evelyn Underhill will reveal that mysticism does have an essentially developmental character. It is not just an “immediate” process of attaining enlightenment or union. Anyone who thinks that “The mystic wants to reach his destination as quickly as possible; the esotericist wants to learn something about the landscape on the way,” certainly has never read The Interior Castle.
So this concept of “Christian esotericism” as a category distinct from mysticism or other aspects of Christian spirituality does not seem very persuasive to me, at least not on the basis of the one quote you provided. Once again, I haven’t read Smoley, so perhaps if I read the book I’d be in a better position to evaluate what he’s trying to get at.
I don’t use language of esotericism in my book. I believe that mysticism is not for the elite, but is rather simply the full flowering of contemplative spirituality, available to all Christians, although obviously not received to the same extent by all. I would be a bit leery of language that tries to differentiate between “normal” Christianity and “special” Christianity, reserved for the deserving few. Mysticism certainly has the unfortunate tendency to be seen that way, probably because of its longstanding relationship to the monasteries, which historically were the “Christian elite.” But I believe that represents a distortion of mysticism, and not its truest or best role within Christianity.