Today many people think of themselves as irreverent and iconoclastic. While most civilizations have shown an instinctive reverence for the heritage of the past, ours often shows an equally automatic contempt for it. Orthodoxies and received wisdom receive harsh treatment.
Nowhere is this mistrust of the past so evident as it is in attitudes toward Christianity. The Christian faith, the central one of Western civilization, obviously retains its fascination for us, as evidenced by the tides of new Bible translations and the endless debates about the historical Jesus in recent decades.
But there is also widespread criticism and distrust. In fact, much of today’s restless spiritual searching seems to be inspired by the conviction that Christianity has nothing to offer the inner life, that it has become simply a collection of dogmas and hierarchies and politicking. The intense religious resurgence in the first years of the twenty-first century has changed this picture somewhat, but not fundamentally. The chief effect seems to be polarization: For each person drawn back to conventional Christianity, there is another who is all the more disgusted by it.
In any case, it would be a mistake to think that Christianity has no inner dimension. Examples to the contrary include the Quakers, with their relentless search for the Inner Light, and great visionaries such as Teresa of Avila, Emanuel Swedenborg, and Jacob Boehme, a seventeenth-century German cobbler who received illumination while entranced by a glimmer of light on a pewter dish. There are great medieval contemplatives such as Meister Eckhart, Thomas à Kempis, and the anonymous fourteenth-century English mystic who urges the seeker to “strike that thick cloud of unknowing” that separates Creator and created.
The twentieth century offers its own examples: Boris Mouravieff, an enigmatic Russian émigré who claimed to be expounding the esoteric “Doctrine” of Orthodox Christianity; Valentin Tomberg, another Russian émigré, who wrote one of the most compelling expositions of modern Catholic mysticism in the form of commentaries on the Tarot; and Stylianos Atteshlis, or "Daskalos," the Cypriot magus portrayed in the works of Kyriakos Markides.
Esotericism can be considered as a more or less systematic way of exploring the unseen. It often combines meditation and contemplation with a structured and sometimes rigorous theoretical framework (usually rooted in a particular spiritual tradition). By contrast, mysticism may be seen as more preoccupied with the naked experience of the divine; theories and ideas may be merely rudimentary or may even be ignored altogether. By this view the Quakers, who have always stressed the pure experience of the Inner Light, would be mystics but not esotericists. Jacob Boehme, who outlined a great baroque system that purported to show the very structure and dynamics of the Godhead, would be more of an esotericist.
The categories overlap, but it would be true to say that both mystical and esoteric Christianity are preoccupied with that famous verse from the Gospels: “The kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). Rather than accepting this text merely as a bland reassurance, these inner forms of Christianity ask very specifically what the kingdom of God is and where within us it can be found.