In this article I will explain the difference between exoteric and esoteric religions in its full cultural context. We’ll start by comparing the relationship between these two terms in Eastern and Western religious thought.
In the same breath we’ll provide a distinction between initiation and mysticism as the two main branches of esotericism. This short overview of differences between the two will provide the reader with a better insight into the exact nature of esotericism.
Then we’ll examine the reasons why esotericism was suppressed by the Catholic Church while exoteric religion flourished in the West.
The Nature of Esotericism
Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism have always emphasized liberation from worldly constraints as the pinnacle of human achievement.
The way to liberation can come in many forms. It can be a gift from God or it can come through the effort of the individual. In fact, these religions have various esoteric, initiatic orders which follow certain recipes to achieve liberation.
Initiation and Mysticism
So esotericism can be defined as a secret way of higher spirituality. It can be divided further into initiation and mysticism. Many people confuse these two terms but there is a difference. Initiatory Orders follow certain rules of conduct and tests which must be fulfilled to progress further in the Order’s ranks.
As the initiate progresses through the ranks, he discovers more spiritual truths and simultaneously progresses within a spiritual hierarchy. If followed properly, these rules will lead to the final liberation, or whichever goal the esoteric, initiatory Order has as its main objective.
Mysticism on the other hand is more subjective. It often lacks any proper rules so the result is highly dependent on the mystic and his subjective connection with the Divinity in question.
Therefore it’s important to distinguish between initiates of for example an initiatory Order like the Golden Dawn and Desert Fathers of Early and Medieval Christianity. Golden Dawn was an occult initiatory order with a proper ladder of ranks pertaining to the skill and knowledge of each initiate.
Desert Fathers were ascetics who lived in deserts and had no hierarchy in place. They merely relied on God to appear and bless them with wisdom and unio mystica, a type of enlightenment.
Intuition and Higher Intellect
Those are the two main differences within esoteric spirituality. But they belong within the same category of esoteric when compared to exoteric. Because they rely on intuition and Intellect, as conceived in Traditional societies which didn’t equate Intellect with reason. In fact, Intellect was viewed as higher than reason, providing direct knowledge, whereas reason is merely a reflective faculty.
This is why many religions consider intelligence and knowledge to reside in the heart, not the brain. Brain is reflective, the heart is knowing. An often used analogy is that of the relationship between the Moon and the Sun. Moon can only reflect the light of the Sun, just as the brain can only reflect the knowledge of the heart. In comparison, exoteric spiritual and religious thought relies more heavily on reason and faith.
While the proponents of esotericism want to establish a direct knowledge of God, proponents of exotericism often view these attempts with suspicion as attempts by man to become God. There is certainly reason for concern, as becoming enlightened is often explained as becoming one with God. Which means that one has indeed become God.
But it’s important to add that this doesn’t mean that one has become God and is therefore better than other people. It’s a simple realization that we are all part of God, the Divine energy permeates through everything. While many people hold this belief on a purely rational or intuitive sense, esoteric doctrines practiced through initiation and mysticism can lead one to discover this fact in his heart. It becomes a living reality, not just a theory.
Opposition to Esotericism
Proponents of exotericism sometimes, and especially in the West wish to keep all spiritual knowledge on the theoretical level. There are many reasons why they oppose esoteric knowledge; new heretical movements led by fake gurus or simply the fact that they would no longer have complete control over people’s hearts. If people are allowed or even encouraged to experiment with their spirituality, it significantly decreases the power of priesthood within society.
Prosecution of Gnostics
Early Christianity was marked by a struggle between Gnostics (proponents of esotericism) and the Church orthodoxy who were proponents of exoteric religiosity.
Gnostics held that Jesus was a man who realized his divinity and that everyone could do the same through their own effort. Orthodox Christianity rejected this idea entirely, claiming that Jesus is an exception. No one else can be divine or become divine, and any attempts to do so are treated as blasphemy.
The orthodoxy won due to the support of the State, and the Gnostics were prosecuted and went underground. From their ashes rose many occult movements throughout the Middle Ages, the Rennaisance and up to out modern times.
Esotericism in other cultures
In comparison, Hinduism and Buddhism didn’t have a struggle between exoteric and esoteric doctrine. They were considered two parts of a holistic whole. Exoteric, reflective religiosity based on faith and ritual was reserved for the masses. Those who were more spiritually inclined were directed towards more esoteric systems within the same religion.
The situation in primitive societies and religions is even more complex because there is no clear line between exoteric and esoteric knowledge at all. In fact, many of these primitive societies throughout Asia, Africa and the Americas have initiation and magical rites of passage performed by all members of society. So all can participate in a Truth which is not purely rational, but also mystical and intuitive.
In order to make a proper distinction between exoteric and esoteric in a religious context is highly dependent on the society and the religion in question. Judaism provides another great example of exoteric and esoteric parts of religion being accepted as valid by all parties involved, as Judaism has both a rabbinic orthodoxy and the mystical system of Kabbalah. In Islam, there is an esoteric movement called Sufism which is tolerated by the imams.
Why mainstream Christianity opposes Esotericism
So we could rightly say that these two different approaches to religion and spirituality have coexisted for thousands of years in many religions without any worthwhile conflict. The only major exception is Christianity, and especially the Catholic Church which has prosecuted and burnt at the stakes thousands of heretics for dabbling with the occult, esoteric knowledge. It has only left alone some mystics within its own ranks such as Meister Eckhart. But even this saintly monk had to travel to Rome and explain himself to the Pope due to allegations of heretical activity.
So why does the Christian orthodoxy despise esotericism? On a philosophical level, it has to do with the belief that God has made all man equal. Therefore anyone trying to climb some hierarchical spiritual ladder to reach God is fighting against God’s Will. The Christian God is also separate from the material world. He is the Creator of the world, the world does not emanate from Him.
Due to this belief, the Christian orthodoxy also believes that there is no chance to ascend to reach God through our own efforts, as there is a sharp disconnect which can’t be surpassed through own efforts. Only through God’s mercy can such a result be gained. To gain God’s favor, one must follow the rules set out by the Church and hope that God will notice the earthly, moral efforts of the individual. That’s about all one can do. All efforts to change one’s “state of consciousness” that are found in practices such as yoga and meditation are considered as gateways to demonic influences, not as ways to reach God.
It is for this reason that Christian orthodoxy fought hard against Gnostic influences. It is also the main distinction between pagan cults and Christian orthodoxy. Pagans had many esoteric cults, also known as Mysteries which the Christian Church did a good job of destroying at the detriment of posterity.
Exoteric vs Esoteric religion today
This antagonism on a doctrinal and practical level has been maintained by the Church up to this day. Recently a priest in Poland publicly burnt Harry Potter books among others because of magic and witchcraft.
The Church is simply afraid of dealing with any hidden knowledge, because it didn’t assimilate it from the start. Now, any alternative spirituality is treated as a competitor on a spirituality market which exoteric Christianity had a monopoly on for over a thousand years.
So I hope this has cleared some misconceptions and has shown the complexity of these two terms as they can’t be treated the same in every religious and cultural setting. Sometimes they are antagonistic to one another and in other cases they are parts of the same harmonized whole and treated as such.