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December 27, 2009

There are two ways of being religious today—the exoteric way and the esoteric way, according to Walter Truett Anderson in Reality Isn’t What It Used to Be. Knights tend to pursue the exoteric way. Gardeners tend to pursue the esoteric way.

The exoteric way asserts that God can be found via the absolute truths of doctrine and dogma. The exoteric way asserts religion is a pursuit akin to science—a search for a hidden, provable, unassailable, objective truth. The extremes of the exoteric way can be found among the world’s religious fundamentalisms.

The esoteric way, by contrast, asserts that God can be found via mysticism—a communion with God. The esoteric way asserts religion is a pursuit akin to art—a search for something that serves as a mysterious window to or resonant expression of the divine. After all, the Spirit moves in mysterious ways. The extremes of the esoteric way can be found among the contemplative and celebratory religious traditions such as the Christian monastic orders, Zen Buddhism, Sufi traditions within Islam, and among spirituality-driven artists of all sorts.

In short, the exoteric way finds divine truth via dogma while the esoteric way finds it via mysticism. If the exoteric pursues the “law of God,” the esoteric way pursues the “awe of God.”

Of course, practitioners of each way can misunderstand and misrepresent the other. Exoteric practitioners often say esoteric practitioners have built the house of their belief on unstable foundations, and esoteric practitioners often say that exoterics are like diners who go to a restaurant and eat the menu, as Joseph Campbell often said.

Every religion contains both the exoteric and esoteric ways but emphasizes one or the other. Highly esoteric Christian and Buddhist contemplative orders adhere to exoteric disciplines, and exoteric fundamentalists still sing esoteric hymns.

In exoteric religious practice, dogma rules—spirituality serves the dogma. Since the exoteric way is a search for perfect dogma (absolute truth), esoteric mystical spirituality is only considered valid or trustworthy if it leads someone to believe in that perfect dogma. If it does not, that esoteric spirituality runs the risk of being condemned as dangerous or heretical. This was part of the Pharisees’ problem with Jesus—the spirituality he sparked in his followers did not reinforce the validity of the dogma of the day. In many exoteric Christian worship services today, “praise choruses” (new hymns that sound like rock music) are popular. Though the music is esoteric, the lyrics tend to be very exoteric, and designed to reinforce particular dogmatic faith beliefs.

In esoteric religious practice, spirituality rules—dogma serves the spirituality. Since the esoteric way is a search for revelatory art—ways to express or understand something about the divine, or human relationship with the divine—dogma is only useful and trustworthy if it provides conceptual devices that spark or guide a spiritual journey. If dogma fails to do this, it is abandoned as ineffective. For example, Christian, Buddhist, and Sufi Islamic contemplative orders often adhere to very strict religious practices, but the goal of those exoteric practices is to spark and guide esoteric spiritual journeys in their practitioners.

The exoteric/esoteric difference helps explain why Americans do not attend churches in the numbers they once did. Most Christian churches in the United States emphasize the exoteric way, but Americans increasingly seek an esoteric relationship with God, and cannot find a path to that relationship through churches. Instead, they often turn to music, art, nature, and books. Often they go to bookstores to seek spiritual help before they consider visiting a church. Sometimes they conclude churches don’t have much to do with God any more—if they ever did in the first place.

Theological and artistic movements that successfully renegotiate the balance between the exoteric and esoteric emphases in their religions likely will pioneer their religion’s growth in the 21st century. However, highly exoteric believers will assert that emphasizing the exoteric even further is the most appropriate way to respond to 21st century challenges, and highly esoteric believers will say the same about emphasizing the esoteric.

Both the exoteric and esoteric ways are necessary for a religion to remain healthy. A religion that becomes too exoteric becomes rigid, shallow, and cruel to believers and unbelievers. A religion that becomes too esoteric lacks the focus necessary to generate spiritual maturity or wisdom.

Both ways are necessary for another reason. The span of a human life will require both spiritual ways at different times. Imagine the individual life as like a long attempt to cross a river. Each person will need the (esoteric) skill to swim through sometimes chaotic water—and will need the occasional (exoteric) stone upon which to rest.


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