The great religious battle of our time is not the one being waged between believers and unbelievers. To be sure, that is an important and certainly a noisy conflict—never before have the voices of religion’s despisers been more numerous, loud, or confident than those of our proselytizing atheists today.

More significant even than that struggle, though, is the clash occurring within religious traditions. The battle within each of the three great monotheistic religions is between the exoteric and esoteric versions of each. In my view, the contest is already so far advanced as virtually to be decided. But that is getting ahead of ourselves.

As the name suggests, the exoteric focuses on external expressions of religion. Its concern is for the observance of divine commandments, the performance of public ritual, and the celebration of great festivals. In its desire for a common creed and practice, its tropism is toward religious law, and it seeks to shape a visible and moral society molded by such law. To form a visible community publicly obedient to divine command requires an explicit social vision, and exoteric religion is overtly political. The goal, after all, is the realization of the kingdom of God as an empirical reality; the point is religion in its public dimension.

The esoteric, in contrast, finds the point of religion less in external performance than in the inner experience and devotion of the heart; less in the public liturgy than in the individual’s search for God. The esoteric dimension of religion privileges the transforming effect of asceticism and prayer. It seeks an experience of the divine more intense, more personal, and more immediate than any made available by law or formal ritual. The esoteric element in religion finds expression above all in mysticism. Mystics pursue the inner reality of the relationship between humans and God: they long for true knowledge of what alone is ultimately real, and desire absolute love for what is alone infinitely desirable.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all best known as exoteric traditions, each with the full array of formal worship, religious law, sacred books, and codes of morality. Yet each has also contained, from the beginning, a strong element of mysticism. The Judaism that formed in the second century on the basis of a strict interpretation of Torah, demanding observance of all the commandments, including dietary and purity regulations, also expressed itself mystically through the heavenly ascents accomplished by the adepts of Merkabah Mysticism, riders of the heavenly throne-chariot. The earliest Christian books contain a powerful visionary composition (Revelation), while Christian mystical impulses found early expression both in Gnostic literature and among the desert fathers and mothers; and in Islam, the Sufi movement, dedicated to the quest of God through renunciation and prayer, grew together with the exoteric framework of the Shari’ah, the system of Muslim law and observance. It is among the Sufis where we find the passionate pulse of early Islam, as in the words of the female saint Rabi’a al-’Adawiyya (d. ca. 801):

"I love thee with two loves, love of my happiness, and perfect love, to love thee as is thy due. My selfish love is that I do naught but think on thee, excluding all beside; but that purest love, which is thy due, is that the veils which hide thee fall, and I gaze on thee. No praise to me in either this or that. Nay, thine the praise for both that love and this."

Exoteric and esoteric religious impulses coexist in tension with one another: the mystic’s tendency to derogate the visible can lead to neglect of external forms in the name of purity of heart, while the lawyer’s concern for common standards can encourage the suspicion and even suppression of private devotion. The great monotheistic religions have not found it easy to reconcile their exoteric and esoteric sides. The Gnostics’ esoteric religion posed a direct challenge to the early institutional church, and Irenaeus, the second-century bishop and theologian, responded with Adversus haereses, attacking the “heresies” of such groups with an argument for a public Christianity based on creed, canon, and the apostolic succession of bishops. Eventually the extreme forms of Christian mysticism fled to a more congenial home in the new religion of Manichaeism. The mysticism of the desert fathers and mothers, in contrast, was thoroughly orthodox, and the mysticism that so invigorated medieval Catholicism gladly embraced the exoteric forms of the Christian faith.

Like Christianity, Islam early on faced the challenge of a radical esoteric movement that threatened the authority of the Shari’ah. The earliest Sufis were adventurers of the spirit who sought immediate union with Allah, and some issued statements that pushed the implications of ecstasy to the limits. The Sufi Mansur al-Hallaj was executed for his claims of union with the divine, which outraged the fundamental conviction that Allah has no partners. “I am al-Haqq,” he is reputed to have said, “I am the Truth.” Reconciling the esoteric and exoteric within Islam was the monumental intellectual labor of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058–1111), a man whose absolute devotion to the Sufi way—he said it saved his soul—was matched by his commitment to the Shari’ah as the framework of true devotion: “I saw that Sufism consists in experiences rather than in definitions, and that what I was lacking belonged to the domain, not of instruction, but of ecstasy and initiation.” Al-Ghazali held that the mystic’s knowledge did not consist in new revelations, but in an ever deeper penetration of the truths disclosed by the Qur’an. This principle, once established, helped Sufism flourish at the heart of Islam, becoming at times the dominant expression of the religion.

Of the three great monotheisms, Judaism has proved most successful at harmonizing exoteric and esoteric expression. The masters of the heavenly throne-chariot were among the greatest scholars of the early rabbinic tradition, and demanded of the mystic the punctilious outward observance of Torah. The medieval German chasid Eleazar of Worms (d. 1230) declared, “The root of love is to love the Lord. The soul is full of love, bound with the bonds of love in great joy. The powerful love of joy seizes his heart so that at all times he thinks: How can I do the will of God?” Similarly, practitioners of Kabbalah from the twelfth to the twentieth century assumed as the ground for their speculation a total immersion in the practices common to the community of faith. The early Hasidic movement aroused concern for its apparently antinomian tendencies, yet quickly became integrated in the exoteric tradition, and is found today among the strictest of observant Jews.

The benefits of the exoteric to the esoteric forms of religion over the ages have been clear to see. The framework of law and worship, creed and Scripture, provided both a social meaning and shared social practices that enabled individual mystics to thrive. They shared with their nonmystical fellow believers the public practice of prayer, the study of sacred texts, and the deeds of charity. Their passionate quest for the experience of God through prayer was the more secure because it pursued the God proclaimed publicly in synagogue, church, and mosque. Their asceticism was not an exception to, but rather an intensification of, the strict rules of behavior followed by the exoteric community. Mystics were able to swim freely, and dive deeply, in an ocean bounded by public profession and practice.

In return, mysticism enriched the outer tradition, providing a medium for impulses of passionate devotion, producing generations of saints who represent the best within each religion. By recognizing all visible forms as less than ultimate, mysticism challenges the claims of religious law to total control over humans, and stands as an anti-idolatrous witness within exoteric religion. It makes clear that religion is not simply another version of politics, but a form of faith that in its essence seeks to serve the living God; and that religion’s efforts to stabilize the world are not solely about the assertion of human power, but about the service of humanity. Because everything in religion must be measured by God, mysticism insists, and because God is not a controllable or even a fully knowable entity, religion must always be measured by a reality beyond definition. Asserting the ultimate reality and power of this invisible presence, and willingly sacrificing pleasure in this life for the sake of a future life with God, mysticism reminds the exoteric that it too is called to a service larger than itself.

This positive affirmation of the heart’s devotion, and the accompanying critique of external forms, has made mysticism a powerful force for regeneration and reform. In Christianity, despite the excesses of exoteric control—inquisitions, crusades, battles over the papacy—the great mystics served as the measure for what the religion was really about. Their personal lives bore witness to the reality of transforming grace, and their protests pushed prelates to reform. Above all, their writings gave vibrant testimony to a God whose transcendence was beyond comprehension and a Christ whose closeness never exhausted reflection.

Consider how barren Christian literature would be without the writings of mystics, from The Cloud of Unknowing through The Interior Castle to The Sign of Jonas. Consider also how Christian imagination was expanded through Francis of Assisi’s mystical experience of Christ crucified, and Julian of Norwich’s astonishing illuminations:

"And in this he showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed to me, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought: What can this be? I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that because of its littleness it would suddenly have fallen into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God."

In Islam, the Sufi fellowships, dedicated to poverty, contemplation, and the renunciation of desires, gave credibility to the Muslim claim of being more than just a way to order society. Despite the violent split between Sunni and Shi’a, wars between contending caliphs, and corruption within caliphates, the Sufi movement asserted that the heart of Islam was the human relationship with Allah. Sufis understood “Jihad in the way of Allah” not as the conquest of infidel nations, but rather as submission of the entire self to the will of Allah, expressed by the constant effort to act in the name of “the compassionate, the merciful.” Sufi mystics generated an astonishing amount of devotional literature depicting such a life of sanctity and summoning others to it.

From Ibn al-’Arabi’s esoteric readings of the Qur’an and Hadith, to Julaladdin Rumi’s powerful poetry, the mystics of Islam pushed the limits of language and the symbols of the sacred text in their efforts to stretch the self toward the truly real, producing literature of surpassing depth and beauty. Rumi declares:

"I died as mineral and became a plant, I died as a plant and rose to animal, I died as animal and I was man. Why should I fear? When was I less by dying? Yet once more I shall die as man, to soar with angels blest; but even from angelhood I must pass on: all except God doth perish. When I have sacrificed my angel soul, I shall become what no mind e’er conceived. Oh, let me not exist! For Non-existence proclaims in organ tones: 'To Him we shall return.'"

By so creatively fusing exoteric practice and esoteric passion, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam asserted that the deepest meaning of public practice was the transformation of the individual soul and the quest for the living God. Yet recent centuries have witnessed the steady diminution of the esoteric in these traditions. Bit by bit Christianity has succumbed to the worldview of modernity, which rejects and even ridicules the notion that a life of renunciation can be a pilgrimage toward God. With the collapse of a miracle-saturated world comes the loss of a robust sense of future life counterbalancing our present “Vale of Tears.” In the eyes of modernity, the very concept of self-renunciation appears as a form of psychopathology. The late “turn to the world” of a Thomas Merton, for instance, is celebrated precisely because it privileges the active over the contemplative, the political engagement over the monastic retreat. Contemplative houses barely maintain their existence; religious orders must have an “apostolate” conceived in expressly social terms. The marginalization of the mystical within Christianity reaches its epitome in movements like the social gospel or liberation theology, for which the esoteric life of the mystic is at best a form of self-indulgence and at worst counterrevolutionary.

In Islam, the expulsion of Sufism has been still more severe. The “reform” movements initiated in eighteenth-century Saudi Arabia by Muhammad ibn Abdul al-Wahhab, and in nineteenth-century Algeria by Muhammad ibn ’Ali as-Sanusi, began by questioning the centrality of Sufism. Al-Wahhab in particular, a former Sufi, viewed mysticism as a distortion of authentic Islam, condemning it as otherworldly, individualistic, and dangerously casual about external forms. His reforms shifted emphasis from spiritual leaders toward the establishment of an Islamic state, jettisoning the Sufi’s spiritual understanding of jihad in favor of a political one. No longer would the esoteric, mystical reading of the Qur’an taught by the Shaykhs dominate Islam, but instead the “original” exoteric, political program of the prophet. Thus, the frequently stated axiom that one can be truly Muslim only in an Islamic state—a conviction utterly at odds with the spirit of the Sufi.

Judaism, as I have suggested, has more effectively held the esoteric and exoteric together. And mysticism, because it remains a fundamental and ineradicable way of being religious, continues to attract people associated with all three religions. Yet removed from the great exoteric traditions, mysticism suffers a perhaps inevitable trivialization. Kabbalism of the sort favored by Madonna and other celebrities is unrecognizable as an expression of the wisdom of Torah, and indeed is almost completely removed from the convictions and practices specific to Judaism. The Sufism popularized by Idries Shah (1924–96) and Inayat Khan (1882–1927) is a form of mind-mastery divorced from the Qur’an and Hadith, and propagates itself as a form of universal wisdom. In Christianity, the “new Gnosticism” espoused by devotees of labyrinths and self-realization workshops eschews the dogmas of Christianity as “underevolved.”

Such deracinated forms of mysticism remain oddly superficial precisely because they draw no nourishment from the great exoteric traditions. Kabbalism apart from Torah-observance is playacting; Sufism disconnected from Shari’ah is vague theosophy; and Christian mysticism that finds no center in the Eucharist or the Passion of Christ drifts into a form of self-grooming. In a paradoxical fashion, it was the exoteric frame that enabled the esoteric to dig into deep soil rather than float off into vaporous fantasy.

Less visible but no less significant is the negative effect on the exoteric when the esoteric life of individual transformation goes unacknowledged. A system of law unconnected to inner piety is simply an instrument of social control, a form of politics pure and simple. Whether it be an Islamic court issuing a Fatwah to punish someone who has insulted the Prophet, or the Vatican removing a theologian from a university faculty on suspicion of an inadequate Christology, the point is the same: control exercised through coercive force rather than through instruction, exhortation, and example. Islamic fundamentalism echoes Christian fundamentalism in this respect, demanding an absolute outer conformity to specific points of belief and practice, while paying little explicit attention to the intricate and difficult process of individual sanctification. The more Catholicism resembles the Islamic state, and the more Islam resembles every other form of politics in the world, the less reason there is for anyone to grant these religions an exemption based on the supposition that they represent a transcendental value or supernatural vision.

Seen in this light, the exoteric may appear to have won, yet its victory may only be prelude to the defeat of the tradition as a whole by secularism. Insofar as Christianity and Islam are defined by this-worldly goals and seek to accomplish them through the political instruments of coercion and repression, both traditions are vulnerable to the challenges of secular critics, who ask whether the vision of human society envisaged by these religions has anything special to recommend it. If religion is for this life only, then it must compete on an even plane with other worldly ideologies. And it is not unthinkable that such ideologies can offer a better and more humane society than that proposed by a religion that has been emptied of the transcendent, and lacks any room for the spirit that soars toward God.


Funding for this essay has been provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

Read More: Letters, March 26, 2010, and April 23, 2010

Related: Barbara Mujica on the popular appeal of St. Teresa of Ávila
Lawrence Cunningham on great spiritual books in print

Luke Timothy Johnson is emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and a frequent Commonweal contributor.


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