Dry Bones; Why Religion Can't Live without Mysticism

By Johnson, Luke Timothy | Commonweal, February 26, 2010 | Go to article overview

Dry Bones; Why Religion Can't Live without Mysticism


Johnson, Luke Timothy, Commonweal


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.

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