Esoterism and Christian Mysticism

This essay was originally published by EA, or Julius Evola, under the title “Esoterismo e Mistica Cristiana” Obviously, Evola was quite interested in the topic since the essay runs to 20 pages and he was quite familiar with the secondary literature. The full translation will appear in several installments.
Note that Evola’s critique is serious and has no similarity with the puerile critiques by some neopagans who pretend to be following his lead. Ultimately, it is unclear what he accomplished, or what he hoped to accomplish. If this critique stands as is, it is a Pyrrhic victory, more like a man sawing off the tree limb he is sitting on than anything constructive. Certainly, there is no “ancient” tradition that can meet the standards he defines here, and of the non-European traditions, there is currently only one that offers a real possibility.

On more than one occasion it was said, in these pages, that Christianity represents a religious system which, if it contains various traditional elements, is nevertheless lacking an esoteric and initiatic counterpart. In comparison with what was typical of ancient, or non-European, traditional principles, this constitutes in a certain way an anomaly and is quite far from corroborating the claim of superiority asserted by the religion that has come to predominate in the West.

As to the traditional elements mentioned, they do not refer so much to Christianity as such, i.e., as the pure evangelical doctrine, but to the corpus of Catholicism, with relation to the symbols, myths, rites, and dogmas by which its orthodoxy is defined. Here more than a few elements also apt to draw from a higher plane and to be catholic in the etymological meaning of the word, that is, universal, assume a merely religious form and validity.

Catholicism lacks an esoterism, because there is no regular elite in its hierarchy, endowed with adequate authority that, in order to be in possession of the corresponding knowledge, is aware of the deepest metaphysical and meta-religious dimension of those elements.[1]

Regarding the experiential side, the rather complex problem of the importance of everything that in Catholicism is rite and sacrament should be confronted, establishing both the similarity and the difference of the religious plane compared to the initiatic plane. Also at the base of a religious tradition, such as the Catholic tradition, there is a spiritual influence and its transmission in an uninterrupted chain through regular and well defined rites. Such continuity in Catholicism is centered in the so-called apostolic succession. In its principle aspect, the transmission is tied to the ordination of priests and bishops. The other sacraments, the first being baptism, are intended to recover, aggregate, and establish the individual in the traditional current, in the middle of the transformation that by virtue of the principle rites would be held to produce in his nature.

Naturally, this structure is characteristic of not only Catholicism, but is found also in every traditional form, even those not specifically initiatic. Only that in Catholicism the claim is more explicit that the rite has the effect of a supernaturalisation and a divinization of human nature[2], which otherwise, through the effect of original sin, would be corrupted and vain: whence the idea that the Christian represents spiritual man par excellence in respect to whoever is not such, and whose salvation is only in the mystical Body of Christ, which is the same as saying in the Church as community and chain formed by the rite and carried by the corresponding spiritual influence. Objectively, this claim can only serve for “internal use” and is lacking every justification, every regular tradition can propose it with the equal right as Catholicism, because very tradition if likewise formed on the basis of an influence from above, that transforms the naturalistic element of the individual and gives rise to a new current among the forces of the world. In fact, one cannot then see where the Christian shows himself superior to the members of other traditions and has a spiritual dimension that is nonexistent anywhere else.

We need to emphasize, which often is not done, the fact that in Catholic orthodoxy the rite is conceived with the same characteristics of objectivity, independence from sentiment, from “psychology”, and even from the morality that are typical in the magical and initiatic order. That is evident in the rite of baptism, since its effect would be independent of any intention and merit of the baptized (as is quite clear with newborns); so pure in fact that the sacred quality induced in the regularly ordained priest both acquired once and for all and is not even lost in the case or moral unworthiness and also of unbelief. And the same is valid, in terms of principle, for the other rites and sacraments of Catholicism.[3]

Nevertheless, even when the conditions are present for the real efficacy of the rite, and this does not live through itself on a plane of mere devout fervor and mysticism, even when, therefore, one admits a certain non-human and sacralizing power of the Catholic rite and sacrament, one cannot confuse the order to that which is typical with the initiatic order, and even less can one think that the former can take the place of the latter. Guenon indicated the difference, in this regard, in the following terms: the religious rite propitiates a participation in the supersensible order maintaining however the individual limit, while the initiatic rite would realize that of a super-individual character; the former would aim for the “salvation” of the soul of the individual, in terms of a prolongation of his individual existence beyond death; the latter would lead instead to true immortality. The most essential difference regards however the presence or the absence of the theistic premise in the concept of the sacred. Everything that is religion, and especially Christian religion, has as limit the idea of a personal God, distinct, as such, from the creature; for it idea of a plane in which this distance is abolished by the supreme metaphysical identity is unknown, with which both “liberation” and initiatic “awakening” are defined.

In a complete traditional form, religion and initiation are two domains that do not exclude each other but, though remaining firm in their heterogeneity, admit a passage from where the possibility that has religious value to a higher degree, can also assume an initiatic one. But where, as in Catholicism, that does not occur, religious rites appear in a certain way as a useless and misleading parody of initiatic rites, that sometimes almost seems as profanation, while on the experiential side, the highest peak is represented only by mysticism.

Mysticism is one thing, initiation another, this is a point as essential as it is generally unknown. The tendency to reduce the most diverse states to mysticism is widespread. There are certainly cases in which the mystic passes beyond the sphere typical of his path leading to transcendent realizations; but that implies a true metanoia and always represents an exception – even prescinding from the fact that similar realizations indicate, in such conditions, almost always a fragmentary and confused character. Besides, in Christianity mysticism is presented in a characteristic form, constituting itself almost as a closed system, where the noted exceptions are extremely rare.[4] Precisely in Catholicism mysticism is presented as the simple continuation of religious and sacramental experience, and the cognitio Dei experimentalis, the experiential knowledge of God, that would constitute its essence, in spite of the misunderstanding to which one can be led by some expressions, remains in the domain of subjectivity and affectivity, and has little to do with pure intellectuality, with the effective destruction of human nature and real deification.

[1] Related to one of the “intellectual gifts of the Holy Spirit”, to the comprehension of the deep meaning of the symbols and sacred scriptures that Thomas Aquinas mentioned. That remains however a simple announcement, no concrete example of an interpretation of the type being found in Thomas nor in the other authors of the Church. In patristics, e.g., in Origen, one finds the distinction of three meanings of scriptures, corporeal (historical), psychic (moral) and pneumatic (spiritual), that last of which is to be discovered through “analogy”, with the use of a “spiritual intelligence”. Here he proposed to transform the sensible Gospel to the spiritual Gospel”, on the basis of the principle that “the Saviour has willed to make symbols of his own spiritual actions”. But in the concrete, for the Old Testament this is reduced to an allegorical interpretation that tends of make it a prefiguration of the New; and in this the last word is always the Christian mystery, where the esoteric interpretation should bring back this mystery—as the particular expression—to a metaphysical, universal, and super-Christian plane. The fact that even these authors touch so many points of Judeo-Christian scriptures containing effectively initiatic elements without even realizing it, proves that it would be difficult for them to recognize the gift of “gnosis”.

[2] In this regard, the expressions of the liturgy of Holy Saturday with reference to the baptismal waters are characteristic: “Deem it worthy, Holy Spirit, to make fruitful with the secret mixture of your divine virtue, this water prepared for the regeneration of men, conceived by sanctification, may emerge from the immaculate womb of this divine font, a celestial race, a renewed creature.” [This is my adaptation of the translation from the the 1962 Missal, modified to match Evola’s translation, which he apparently took from Kremmerz]

[3] Strictly speaking, in Catholic theory, one even goes beyond the sign, as far as the belief in the magical power of the rite. Regarding that, it is the case, for example, for the power of “dissolving” in the rite of absolution, that would certainly suspend the karmic law of cause and effect.

[4] After the period of Greek patristics, they are limited almost exclusively to German mystics, starting with Meister Eckhart.

10 thoughts on “Esoterism and Christian Mysticism

  1. Perhaps we should consider the effect having a personal theistic God would have on the formulation of a doctrine of apotheosis. In my mind, it would probably be heretical to say that the human ego is identified with the persons of the trinity or their essence. It would not be to say that the divine element of Being that is the foundation of all states of existence, including human existence, is identifiable with the Godhead. That is, not the person of God but rather the transcendent reality which the personal God puts a face on. A christian would need to differentiate between these meanings, leading to different definitions of words like “identification.”

  2. Modern science sees energy forming the material universe; the same energy in the material universe changes into various forms in the physical universe and then resolves back into energy in one big circle. Through scientific induction modern thought agrees with the spiritual deductions of many realized individuals that “All is one”. Investigators see variations of consciousness clearly defined from simple organisms to complex personal beings and have recorded and observed a scale of unity from the atomic level to simple intelligences and from the complex personalities to universal transcendence. They show us a continuous path where everything is united in the universe. Therefore, I would say there are various degrees of transcendence and Christian Mysticism.

  3. You seem to misunderstand slightly, yet your critical attitude is welcome, so I will try to explain better.

    There is no question of conquering Gods, let alone doing so through individual will. Rather, it is about achieving an equivalent existential status, and thereby establishing oneself (one’s Personality) as the center of a whole state of being. What else is meant by complete freedom in the context of initiation? For this to be possible, the principle of Being cannot be equal to Brahma, or the particular God of any tradition, so long as that tradition ascribes any characteristics to God other than pure Being, which is the potentiality of the indefinite possibilities of formal states. Hence, beyond Brahma there is the Supreme Unity, Brahman, because Being is not the Infinite.

    As for me, I do not necessarily consider an impersonal conception of the Deity as superior to the personal; the reason I consider them both is because both must have their place. If the impersonal conception were senseless, or impossible, there would be no need to consider it as it would not be true. If it is true, it must be taken into account, and an objection based on preference does not free us from this fact.

  4. “is not something entirely fixed and active, and is only a certain ‘domain’, within which manifold beings aspire to take possession of a great power. This is problematic for those who conceive of Being as culminating in a personal, theistic way. ”

    This is plainly luciferian non-sense, regardless if we conceive the Absolute as personal or impersonal. Read the Hindu Upanisads- in no way do they suggest that Brahma can be conquered through individualistic will-power and a Promethean attitude.
    Come to think about it, not even the gnostic heresies or any kind of heresies for that matter claim this. The only possible exception to this may be some of the most degenerate tantric sects.

    On the other hand, I really have come to ask this, since all too many traditionalists take this for granted : why is an impersonal conception of Deity “clearly” superior to the personal one ?

    “This is characteristic of Evola’s style, and it’s what the younger just-post-Nietzschean me found attractive about him”

    Yes, same here. And it is precisely this reason why Evola is such an excellent bridge between the abyss of nihilism and the plains of Tradition.

  5. One might object that there can be no heresies in a metaphysical sense, within which domain one is free to exert his will to the extent of his capability, up to ‘identification’ if one’s power allows it. This seems to be the spiritual attitude of the warrior that is often ascribed to Evola.

    Specifically, this attitude might smack of heresy because it suggests that God, or Pure Being if you like, is not something entirely fixed and active, and is only a certain ‘domain’, within which manifold beings aspire to take possession of a great power. This is problematic for those who conceive of Being as culminating in a personal, theistic way.

  6. To clarify, I was speaking of heresy in a ‘pan-traditional’ sense, and attempting to apply the specific heresies mentioned in a metaphysical sense with respect to deification, rather than with respect to the historical person of Christ. So if there’s a heresy that holds that Christ had no human nature, but only a divine nature coupled with a human body, this Christology has obvious implications for deification; on the other hand, the Catholic doctrine holding that Christ had both a divine and a perfect human nature suggests a deification which Evola deems somehow insufficient.

  7. “the effective destruction of human nature and real deification”

    This stood out to me. “Real deification.” The Christian theologians I’ve read, the few who mentioned the possibility of deification or divinization, always take care to clarify and limit, to stipulate in what sense deification is achievable, in a way that the traditionalists don’t. I might summarize the difference as ‘participation’ versus ‘identification’. It could be a difference in perspective, theological speculation and metaphysical realization, or (for argument’s sake) a limitation in Christian theism itself, as Evola maintains. I don’t know. I do see it as a stumbling block in the Gornahoor project, when the Christian deification is equated with Sankara’s “atman is brahman”; it seems facile, but I could be wrong. The recent entry on the Thomistic doctrine of Personality was stimulating.

    Now to the other part of that sentence that struck me, “effective destruction of human nature.” This is characteristic of Evola’s style, and it’s what the younger just-post-Nietzschean me found attractive about him, this pungent contempt bordering on hatred for the human. Today it strikes me, distinctly, as heretical, perhaps Nestorian or Apollinarian, and definitely smacking of false Gnosticism. Christ himself has human nature. That Evola would choose to speak of the “destruction” of human nature, instead of its purification through grace, to my mind suggests a malady. Correct me if I’m wrong.

  8. There is much to combat in this article (which I am sure I have one or two years ago integrally). Right now, I do not have the time, but I will limit myself to saying this:

    1. The so-called barrier between esoterism and exoterism is never as absolute and strict as it is usually claimed today. The opposite is usually true, since the degree of esoterism and exoterism are usually determined by the capacity of understanding of the one receiving these doctrines. Nor should such a schema by regarded as universally true, since it is not true in Christianity, where esoterism is the upward extension of dogma. (Of course, I speak from the point of view of human realization- the dogmas are actually the downward extensions of esoteric principles in reality).

    2. There is also this procroustean bed of delimiting esoterism and mysticism. This, of course, has its origin in Guenon. However, let it be said that in the Christian East, mysticism has nothing to do with anything of a sentimental and individualistic nature as it is regarded in the West, and, from this point of view, mysticism here is the same as what Evola and Guenon mean by ‘esoterism’. There is however, a problem in these authors’ conception of what constitutes actual esoterism and what “mere mysticism” or “mere theology”. For example, I don’t see why a St Dionysius the Areopagite, Maxim the Confessor or Simeon the New Theologian should be all regarded as mere “exoteric theology”, while the writings of an al-Ghazzali or ibn-Arabi as pure esoteric teaching. What exactly is the difference between these authors, even when regarding expression ?

    It is clear that the fault here is to be found in the too narrow conception of esoterism as having to do with secret rites, completely separated from the exoteric dogma. When discarding this all too procroustean ideas, the truth about Christianity will appear in its true light.

    There is one phrase here that is completely unwarranted :
    “religious rites appear in a certain way as a useless and misleading parody of initiatic rites, that sometimes almost seems as profanation, ”

    Even if I were to accept as true Evola’s views on Christian esoterism (or the lack of it), I don’t see how an incomplete understanding can be a “parody or a profanation” . To understand incompletely means to not derive the full efficacy or benefices from a doctrine. A parody is the subversion of a doctrine for nefarious uses.
    Evola is so focused on what he calls esoterism and initiation that he goes so far as to think that everything religious is simply useless or of limited appeal and only good enough for the masses.

    My question is: when one strives for the highest peaks, doesn’t that same one have to, first, climb through the simple roads at the base, before reaching the barren cliffs at the top ?
    To strive for a higher realization does not mean to reject what the masses are doing, but to surpass it. If one cannot even do as much as the “mere exoteric” does, how can one legitimately have pretenses to esoterism ?

  9. As I understand it, Evola is saying that the Traditional teachings can use the Christian and Catholic faith as a language to explain themselves, but that this language has shortcomings (elements of the sacraments, the personal God, etc). Would that be correct? It also makes sense of what he says about those revolting against the modern world: “When we appear to be destroying, we are in fact rearranging and replacing what is on the wane with higher forms, forms more vibrant and glorious.” Might one say, he is seeking a new and better language?

    If so, that would be a rather heartening clarification of my understanding of the interrelation between Tradition proper and the faiths in which it manifests itself. The language of the Triune God has of course been used to great benefit in leading people to truth, but to his literal existence I have usually taken the point of view of Buddhism or the Vedanta. I rather hope we’ll see Evola touch upon the person of Christ. While the Logos is central to the students of Tradition, the teacher himself as a historical figure has been less discussed in relation to the more esoteric currents within his Church.

  10. One of the most valuable articles on this site.

    Such Evola is sane, not that one who talks about Nordics and Jews all the time.

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