By Father J. Ronald Knott
Not everyone who says, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but those who do the will of my father in heaven. Matthew 7:21
There is a war being waged, we are told by our religious leaders, against our religion. What they often fail to notice, however, is an even more important war being waged within our religion. The battle within our religion is between its exoteric and esoteric aspects, between external expression and internal experience.
We see it, concretely, in the big loss of membership and the rise of those who say that they are “spiritual, but not religious.” Religion is not dying, as some have said, it’s just moving inside.
The exoteric side of religion focuses on the external expressions of religion. Its concern is on the observance of commandments and the performance of public rituals. Through its desire for common creed and practice, it seeks to form a visible and moral society by focusing on religious law and political action. The point of the exoteric side of religion is on its public dimension.
The esoteric side of religion, in contrast, finds the point of religion is less on its external performance and more on its private dimension; less on public liturgy and more on an individual’s search for God. The esoteric side of religion seeks an experience of the divine more intense, more personal and more immediate that those made available through legal observance and formal ritual.
Simply put, I believe the war within our religion is between religious leaders who tend to be champions of religion’s exoteric side and many of our members who are increasingly becoming champions of religion’s esoteric side, saying they are “spiritual but not religious” as they let the door slam behind them.
When religious leaders fail to understand the war going on within the church, they tend to double down on the exoteric aspects of our church: firming up its laws, fine tuning its rituals and being overly identified with political systems.
Unless this war is really understood, religious leaders will probably continue to focus on our religion’s exoteric side, while misunderstanding the exodus of our members who say we are unable to satisfy their growing spiritual hunger.
If we continue to focus on outer conformity to beliefs and practice, while failing to pay explicit attention to the intricate and difficult process of individual sanctification, we will continue to lose members.
This war within religion was, of course, the war between Jesus and the Scribes and the Pharisees. The Scribes and Pharisees were so overly focused on religion’s exoteric side that the people were languishing spiritually like “sheep without shepherds.” Jesus, of course, “did not come to destroy the Law, but bring it to fulfillment” by restoring its esoteric side.
Exoteric and esoteric religious impulses coexist in tension: the mystic’s tendency to downplay the visible can lead to neglect of external forms, while the legalist’s concern for communal religious standards can encourage the suppression of personal spiritual experience.