What is Esoteric Knowledge?
Esoteric knowledge is one of those things that sounds very cool—that word, “esoteric”—but for most of us lacks a clear definition. It conjures up the mists of the East, ancient riddles, dark secrets, and the promise of ultimate power—all things that entice many contemporary human beings, because, whatever esoteric knowledge is, it seems that an exciting offer is on the table. As with most offers, however, what is really on the table is a transaction. So, to assess esoteric knowledge, we need to know not only what we are allegedly getting, but what we are trading away!
Embedded within many forms of ancient paganism (for example, the Book of Thoth in pagan Egypt) as well as ancient cults (for example, the Cult of Mithridates), the offer of access to forbidden or secret knowledge predates Christianity. In fact, one might even interpret the story of the Garden of Eden as the first offer of forbidden knowledge, with the Jewish lesson being that one ought to reject such nonsense in favor of the Word of God. However, there is nothing particularly exotic about understanding social ethics—Adam and Eve’s shame at being naked is what they first realized upon eating the fruit—so, perhaps the knowledge contained within the fruit wasn’t intrinsically forbidden after all. Whatever is the case with the fruit of that tree, our first parents certainly did not acquire great power and mastery. On the contrary, their dominion over the creatures of the world was lost and they were cast out of paradise. So, if we were tempted to interpret that tree as the first offer of secret knowledge, the transactional results were disastrous.
Esoteric knowledge always requires "faith," because the content of the information cannot be directly verified by human beings. Thus, we’re stuck trusting the veracity of the messenger.
So, let’s move from the ancient myths to some sober logical analysis. Exactly what is esoteric knowledge supposed to be? How does it differ from normal, i.e., non-esoteric knowledge? Well, esoteric knowledge is information that is intrinsically inaccessible to human reason, because what it is about (its subject matter) is not something to which we possess any evidentiary access. Suppose, for example, that you were to come across a book that described events that occurred between two classes of angels prior to the creation of the material universe. How could you possibly confirm or disconfirm such information? You couldn’t, of course, because we have no access to such information . . . unless, that is, an angel involved in the actual event were to tell us. And if an angel appeared and told you the story, you could then write it in a book. You’d be a sort of prophet or oracle. The rest of us would have to trust that you were telling the truth rather than fabricating the entire story about the angelic visitation as well as the content of the angelic message. You yourself would have to trust that what the angel told you was an accurate report of what occurred between the angels, too. That is why esoteric knowledge always requires faith, because the content of the story cannot be directly verified by human beings. Thus, we’re stuck trusting the veracity of the messenger.
Now, let’s consider the motivation for this angel to be telling us this story. An angel is a finite spirit who either serves God or opposes him. The good angels we tend to just call “angels,” while the oppositional angels are the fallen angels that we now tend to call “demons.” If our angel in question serves God, then he is a traditional angel—like Gabriel, e.g., in his visitation to the Virgin Mary—and our believing him is an act of traditional faith. Intriguingly, we don’t call what Gabriel told the Blessed Virgin about God’s secret providential plan “esoteric knowledge;” on the contrary, in theology we give the name “revelation” to such information. Though no one prior to Mary knew what Gabriel was revealing to her, that revelation was not meant to be kept secret, but instead to be revealed. Again, and again in his letters, St. Paul emphasizes the fact that what God revealed through Jesus is meant for all, not for a select group of cult initiates. Thus, while the content of divine revelation is often information that is inaccessible to human inquiry, the fact that it is meant to be revealed distinguishes it from esoteric knowledge. The goal of revelatory knowledge is not the dominion of a cult group over everyone else, but the power of love to transform human beings into the unified communities of family, state, and church that God all along intended.
What, then, is different about the source and purpose of esoteric knowledge? Well, the source for esoteric knowledge cannot be an angel serving God, because, as we have just seen, God reveals to all for the purpose of love. So, that leaves us with what? The only other source is a fallen angel opposed to God, what we call a devil or a demon. Let’s consider that carefully. Demons know a good deal more than human beings, and they may choose to share some of that information (or misinformation, depending on their strategy), if doing so furthers their objectives of hostility toward God. But trusting a demon or his human messenger is not traditional faith at all, because a demon is not trustworthy. The demons hate us, despise the fact that God created spirit-matter hybrid creatures. They are consumed by envy and seek to upset the divine hope for human beings in order to show God the folly of his creation. So, why would we ever trust something that someone so hostile to our natures tells us?
Let’s consider that carefully: for what possible reason would a human being place blind trust in a demonic source of knowledge? Well, it cannot be for the sake of love of the truth, because there is no basis for trusting that what the demon says is actually true. So, it must be for the sake of power, to employ that information (whether true or false) for the purpose of empowerment of oneself over others. This is the usual motive for people to endorse esoteric religions, to use special, secret knowledge available only to themselves and a small cadre of initiates for the purposes of acquiring power of some kind. That power may take any particular shape (political, personal, financial, religious, etc.), but its function is ultimately to dominate others rather than to serve them. Thus, it is not the power of love, and accordingly, not the power of the God of love.
In fact, we might call trusting demonic esoteric sources “anti-faith,” because it’s a diabolical perversion of what real faith is. Then, too, we might call the hope that the Gnostics place in their demonic sources anti-hope, because the promises made by the demons will never fulfill the longing of the esoteric cult initiates. And, finally, the ends that are actually served by the demonic information are not the goods of the hearers, but, instead, their ultimate destruction in separation from the love of God. And so, the end for which such information is given is not love, but anti-love, i.e., malice or hatred. Therefore, the demons offer their duped followers a trio of supernatural vices to parallel the traditional supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and love!
Esoteric devotees are required, in effect, to abandon their natural quest for human flourishing and to replace it with something fundamentally anti-human.
Notice, too, that the demons nearly always require tremendous sacrifice on the part of the initiates. The devotees are required, in effect, to abandon their natural quest for human flourishing and to replace it with something fundamentally anti-human. This is why the esoteric cults always tend toward degradation and mockery of traditional human modes of life. The demons seek to trample the sanctity that God created in the human family, so they demand that their adherents “transcend” the limits of natural human embodiment under the delusion that they are actually themselves spirits imprisoned by their humanity. Nearly all esoteric cults offer their initiates the promise of immortality on a plane of pure consciousness, of ultimate disembodiment, casting off their humanity for god-like immortality.
Saints Peter and Paul encountered such cults in the first century, of course. St. Peter famously ran into the Gnostic leader himself, Simon Magus, who was intrigued by the divine power he saw displayed by the Holy Spirit through the apostles. He temporarily joined the Christians in order to buy the secret of this power from St. Peter, thinking that it was transactional esoteric knowledge. St. Peter set him straight, of course, leading to the centuries long struggle between the Church and Gnosticism. St. Paul, too, encountered esoteric knowledge-chasing Gnostics throughout his travels, but apparently found so many in Colossae that he had to directly engage their errors in his letter to that church. His words are instructive, so I’m going to present them here in full:
See to it that no one captivate you with an empty, seductive philosophy according to human tradition, according to the elemental powers of the world and not according to Christ. For in him dwells the whole fullness of the deity bodily, and you share in this fullness in him, who is the head of every principality and power. In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not administered by hand, by stripping off the carnal body, with the circumcision of Christ. You were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And even when you were dead [in] transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, he brought you to life along with him, having forgiven us all our transgressions; obliterating the bond against us, with its legal claims, which was opposed to us, he also removed it from our midst, nailing it to the cross; despoiling the principalities and the powers, he made a public spectacle of them, leading them away in triumph by it. Let no one, then, pass judgment on you in matters of food and drink or with regard to a festival or new moon or sabbath. These are shadows of things to come; the reality belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, delighting in self-abasement and worship of angels, taking his stand on visions, inflated without reason by his fleshly mind, and not holding closely to the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and bonds, achieves the growth that comes from God. If you died with Christ to the elemental powers of the world, why do you submit to regulations as if you were still living in the world? “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” These are all things destined to perish with use; they accord with human precepts and teachings. While they have a semblance of wisdom in rigor of devotion and self-abasement [and] severity to the body, they are of no value against gratification of the flesh. (Colossians 2:8-23, NABRE)
What can we draw from St. Paul’s extensive treatment of the Gnostics in his letter? First, notice that St. Paul describes esoteric knowledge as both alluring (seductive) and empty. Human beings are suckers for secrets and St. Paul acknowledges that fact at the outset. But the secret knowledge of the Gnostic cult doesn’t work! It’s ultimately vacuous, leading not to immortality and unimagined power, but to self-abasement, in other words, the rejection of one’s own human nature!
Second, notice that Christ is the one in whom deity dwells in its fullness, and all the demonic forces—those principalities and powers that St. Paul references—now lie under his authority. This is hugely significant: it means that the demons will lose and Christ will win. Human beings who join forces with the demonic aren’t thinking very clearly. Whatever “gains” they make are extraordinarily short-term and, accordingly, short-sighted.
Third, the power of the demonic over man—sin—has been crushed by Christ’s redemption, for our transgressions have been forgiven, and all their legal claims against man have been nailed to his cross forever. As such, he “despoiled” the aforementioned principalities and powers, meaning that our king entered their realm in his death not as victim but as conqueror. And as other scriptural texts and our creeds indicate, he led captivity itself captive as he released the prisoners of the demonic and looted their arsenal of powers. Jesus in turn poured out onto the Church at Pentecost the gifts of the Holy Spirit, turning the tables on the demonic and throwing them onto the defensive!
Fourth, we should accordingly not be deceived by those who (a) worship angels, (b) delight in self-abasement, (c) delight in visions, and (d) eschew God-given reason for a mindset consumed with our appetitive disorders (the “fleshly mind” of the Colossians text.) Why does St. Paul describe them as worshipping angels? We might have expected him to say that they worship the demons, since that is what they are in fact doing. But St. Paul is making a far deeper point here, not to be missed. The person who abandons his own dual-aspect human nature—matter and spirit—for the promise of a disembodied immortal existence as a spirit is not worshipping the God of goodness and love, but instead is worshipping the nature of spirit itself. For were one to worship God, one would love and therefore abide in the creation that God has made. That creation includes our own human natures, hybrid as they are of matter and spirit. But the Gnostic instead worships—in other words, seeks to emulate and aim his life at—the spirit alone. And whose nature is simply spirit? The angelic, for whom physical bodies play no role. And the demons are fallen angels. So, St. Paul has exposed the deep reality of the Gnostic initiate’s quest for the esoteric knowledge of pure spiritual ascension: the Gnostic worships the nature of the fallen angels, longing to become not a full and complete human being, but an angel himself, for that’s what the angels are, simply spirits. And since the Gnostic isn’t interested in loving God or his creation, the lover of esoteric knowledge is in fact seeking to become a fallen angel.
All of which means, that their demonic overlords are redirecting their gnostic followers to worship them. And how do they accomplish that? They motivate their human followers toward “self-abasement,” towards all sorts of rituals and practices and traditions that undermine human flourishing. Where does the Gnostic acquire this secret esoteric knowledge? Not through the hard work of applying his God-given rational faculties to the created world, no! He instead seeks out “visions” which inflate his pride and corrupt his nature, demonically-sourced alternatives to divine revelation, pseudo-religious experiences. And what does he do with what he gleans esoterically from these demonically-enhanced experiences?
Let’s see by going back to St. Paul’s letter: fifth, the Gnostic initiates establish a whole playbook of requirements and levels that those who follow them must engage in, all designed to move them away from the beautiful and good world that God has created for human beings. Hence, they establish rules that forbid the enjoyment and use of what God has made for us, rules that ultimately abase human nature, bringing it low rather than recognizing its high standing as made in the very image of the Incarnate One who has conquered the demonic realm! St. Paul acknowledges that such rules appear to be a form of wisdom for no other reason than they require rigorous devotion, ascetic self-abasement, and severe treatment of the body, but in point of fact, they do nothing to restrain the disorder of the appetites, because they don’t develop the true defense against sin, human virtue. Ascetism for its own sake doesn’t make you good. Never did. Never will.
Does it really make sense for us to fall for this “we’re better than you” game of the demonic, and buy into the notion that becoming a pure spirit, an ascended consciousness, or even an “operating Thetan” (as the Gnostic Scientologists call it) is better than being what we are?
St. Paul knew exactly what the Gnostics were, understood precisely the source of their so-called secret knowledge, and warned the Christians of Colossae not to be deceived, since esoteric knowledge cannot enable any person to change his nature! I mean, consider this: the eternal Son of God entered the world as a man. If human nature was good enough for God, don’t you think it should be good enough for us? Does it really make sense for us to fall for this “we’re better than you” game of the demonic, and buy into the notion that becoming a pure spirit, an ascended consciousness, or even an “operating Thetan” (as the Gnostic Scientologists call it) is better than being what we are? No. Being human rocks. We get coffee and music and flowers and wine and fashion and sculpture and film and scuba and books and furniture and sex and Christmas and crackling fires and children. Do you seriously wish to give all that up?
Not that you could, of course. For no creature can nature-swap. There is no means, esoteric or otherwise, for any being to discard his nature and adopt another one. Even when the eternal Son became man, he didn’t stop being the eternal Son. He added human nature. And he was God almighty. Human beings cannot become angels, just as angels cannot become human beings. It is impossible. So, the core motivation for the Gnostic initiate is just an enormous lie. After death, no one becomes a pure spirit living forever in many lifetimes of dominion and power. No. After death we are judged. And ultimate human destiny is the resurrection of the dead, meaning the full restoration of our hybrid physical-spiritual unity. The divine promise isn’t any form of esoteric, nature-hopping insanity. The divine promise is fulfillment at being what you already are, human.
I liken the Gnostic seduction to the error of the Little Mermaid, who abandoned her nature as a mermaid in order to become a human woman. In the process, she threatened the whole of the undersea kingdom and toppled her father’s throne. All that for legs? Seriously? Of course, Disney failed to grasp the real metaphysics of the situation, that no mermaids can become women or vice versa, nor should they wish to. We should be glad—filled with thanksgiving—for who God made us to be. Angels should rejoice in being angels, beavers in being beavers, men in being men, and women in being women. God knew what he was doing. You will never be happy being anything other than what you are, for the happiness of any thing is its good, and the good of everything is dependent on its nature. The good of a rabbit differs from the good of a human being which differs from the good of the angel. We can no more find happiness pretending to seek angelic destiny than we could by stripping our clothes, burrowing into the earth, putting on fake Easter ears, and munching carrots all day. Why? Because we are not rabbits. Well, neither are we angels. Nor shall we ever be.
Let’s summarize the three major planks of the Gnostic seduction of esoteric knowledge. First, the offer of secret information not available to the rest of human beings. Second, the hope that this secret information will enable the initiate to acquire supernatural power in this life. And, third, that this supernatural power will ultimately end in his transcending the limits of the body to live on a plane of pure will, pure spirit—an alternative and demonic version of eternal life.
Let’s review the three problems with this scheme. First, while there is information known to God that we don’t know, that knowledge that God wishes man to know is given to all, not to a select few, by means of traditional revelation. This is the supernatural virtue of faith, and it has been deposited into the Church for all who wish to know God. Second, the hope of true faith is the acquisition of the supernatural power of love for my neighbor, not the power of domination over others. And third, the hope of Christ leads to the fulfillment of human nature in a resurrected body and a new planetary physical existence of full human experience. The Christian end is a thoroughly human end, for the Son of God was incarnate as a human baby, resurrected in a human body, ascended into heaven as a human being, and promised to return again as a human person. Man was created in the image of God. If our nature is good enough for God, you’d think it’d be good enough for man.