A Different Christianity:
St. Seraphim of Sarov
Hierotheos of Nafpaktos
History of the Church
A Different Christianity, Early Christian Esotericism and Modern Thought
© Robin Amis
The Forgotten Christian Inner Tradition
"The tradition is one,” says Boris Mouravieff in his book Gnosis: Study and Commentaries on the Esoteric Tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy. And today, despite claims to the contrary, my observations have convinced me that this links with the fact that Christianity possesses and always has possessed an inner tradition: not a system, but what might be called a discipline. To those with sufficient experience in investigating this field, I believe that this book will convey the same conviction. In addition, I would add to the idea that the inner tradition is one-although with local variations-certain other observations about it:
1. All the major religions of the world possess a complete tradition of inner knowledge (or a version ol the one tradition), although it has only reached a small percentage of the most able individuals within that faith.
2. Many or all of the great civilizations of the world are formed by the great faiths of the world.
3. In each case of a civilization formed by one of the great faiths, the inner tradition is a fundamental element in the structure of the associated civilization.
Yet today there are fundamental differences between the attitude of Christianity to its inner tradition and that of the other great faiths to theirs. For example, faiths such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam are today attempting to make their inner tradition better known, yet the Western churches either claim that there is no tradition of inner or esoteric knowledge, or reserve it to a clergy who themselves are not expected to give too much credence to it. This has forced countless thousands to turn to Eastern faiths for no other reason than because their inner teachings are more accessible than our own: because although Christianity has always possessed its own tradition of inner knowledge, looked at through intellectuaL eyes, that tradition has been relegated to the status of an intellectual curiosity. As a result some of it has been irrevocably lost, much mislaid, and the remainder has reached only a very small proportion of the population. Consequently-because knowledge acts only through being known-it has had little effect on our civilization.
This is one reason why many people no longer regard ours as a Christian civilization. But the truth is not Nietzsche’s ‘death of God,’ nor has Christianity failed. What actually happened was that, due to the difficulties of conveying the inner tradition through the barbarous centuries following the decline of the Roman Empire, and due to the limited classical education of most Westerners, this key element of Christian teaching has never been common knowledge in the Western world.
An Accident of History
The focus of the problem exists at the point where the Roman Empire split. Physically, this is represented by a line that passes through the Balkans and to this day marks an area of recurrent conflicts,’ which have now emerged again after a few decades of uneasy peace. Let me risk here a complex image for what has occurred by describing it as a “balkanization ol the mind.” This inner balkanization has entailed several successive stages of psychological and spiritual fragmentation, beginning in the Roman era but bearing problem fruit today. It is th is fragmentation, this “balkanization of the mind,” that concerns this book, and it is this that has led to our times being described as “the age of specialization.” And each of these stages was as catastrophic as that described in the following paragraph:
When bishops, a generation after Hobbes’s death, almost naturally spoke the language of the state of nature, contract and rights, it was clear that he had defeated the ecclesiastical authorities, who were no longer able to understand themselves as they once had. It was henceforward inevitable that the modem archbishops of Canterbury would have no more in common with the ancient ones than does the second Elizabeth with the first.2
At that time, the emergence of science against the opposition of the church led to an intellectual woridview that shaped the thought of an age, resulting in a massive change of thought in the Christian religion. Instead of the sciences, law, and morality fitting into the Christian worldview as once they did, Christian thought was relegated to a form of specialization that was expected to fit into the scientific worldview. Observation suggests that two ideas that developed in the biological sciences can be applied to this: one, that specialization limits adaptability, and two, that ability to adapt defines intelligence. If this is so, then this specialization can be seen as limiting the adaptability of the faith, and even as limiting human intelligence. This situation, I believe, is directly responsible for many of the problems of the churches today, and if we accept that religion does have a function in human society we may see that its narrowing is also responsible for our inability to adapt to the problems of our present time. Even more it explains our inability to understand ideas that were greatly valued by past ages.
One of the implications of this is that if Christianity is a single coherent truth, as the early Fathers would have said it is, one of the signs that a book like this is genuinely Christian would be its ability to convey its central message to different types of people with very different questions, with very different specializations, and coming from very different places in themselves. This book intends to do just that, but faces the
problem, already met in discussing the draft with different people, that to satisfy so many different types of individual, the book has to offer something meaningful to each-and offer it right at the beginning of the book. Otherwise readers will assume that this text has nothing for them, and, sensibly enough, will set the book aside.
To develop this, let me try to describe how I imagine certain of the most important specializations of our contemporary Western world mighi come to discover what this different Christianity means to them:
- Devout Christians of all denominations who have shown an inclination to seek a deeper understanding of inner Christianity, many of whom today can understand that an inner tradition might have therapeutic aims
-Seekers after truth, whatever form their search has taken, if they are sufficiently rigorous and careful in their search, as long as they take the special kinds of care necessary to keep their search free of the prejudices formed in early life
- Those who have joined in earlier attempts to recapture the inner spirit of their faith, or simply to find expression for their own inner impulse in organizations swdying material that-as we have discovered-was once the subject matter of Christian thought and discipline, but now is more often studied in forms that are externally very different from its early Christian forms.
The Modern Situation
Since the meaning of esotericism is “inner,” this book necessarily touches on personal and psychological questions which individuals must face
in their lives, but which-for a century or more-they have had to face in private, since the study of such questions has for a while not been the open and accepted discipline it once was. It touches on the historical, in order to show that in early stages of our history there existed a detailed knowledge of these inner questions which we in our time have been taught to ignore, and because, as I suggested, by uncovering this history we rediscover the lost or balkanized territory in our own inner lives as we expose to view the inner truths and inner struggles of those earlier times. Past struggles toward unity, especially when successful, can help us toward inner unity today. This clearly relates to a particular idea in spiritual his tory, the idea of the periodic reemergence of an inner tradition that is repeatedly lost. It touches on the philosophical, in the sense that it touches on the roots of the new or reconstituted doctrines that, in the past century or so, have emerged on the borderline of philosophy, theology, and psy chology, in that balkanization3 of the mind to which I referred earlier, in which the original terms coined in that ancient world have become a direct cause of certain present-day confusions.
My investigations have uncovered previous searches of the same kind, some of which have led me to individual successors of ancient streams whose knowledge and capabilities still survive. I have identified certain groups and schools-some of them in the West-that have come from such studies, but which seem in every situation to have reached the same point of obstruction: a stage, always the same or very similar in character, where their progress, the progress of all their participants, appears to go no further; a threshold, a point of decision they are not motivated enough, nor well enough equipped, to pass; a barrier between change of mind and change of heart. As my later researches have made clear, there was good reason why seekers like ourselves-as a whole, and not only advanced students-needed to make further contact with the Tradition. . . the Tradition of the light referred to in Matthew 6: “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matthew 6:23).
At this point it appears necessary to me to deal specifically with the relation of esoteric forms of Christianity to certain events earlier in this century, especially the ideas of Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, and those who have followed their lead, teachings whose sources are difficult to trace but in which the fIrst hinted and the latter openly stated, more than once, that they in fact formed a reemergence of a lost ancient tradition or traditions of inner truth several times described as esoteric Christianity.4 The Postscript at the back of the book gives additional information about the recent history of those ideas for those who lack basic information.
Either to study this tradition in order to regain our own inner tradition as Christians, or to discover that esoteric Christianity referred to by Gurdjieff and Ouspensky and not easily visible in the Western churches and so to make use of its great armory of practical methods, we find that we have to adopt what will be, to most modern individuals, an unfamiliar way of thinking about the world. This unfamiliar way of thinking about the world is itself part of Christian tradition. Because of this way of seeing the world, Christianity had, in its first century or so, the power to enlighten and transform; it then answered just those questions that today take people to other lands, other times, other faiths fo~ their answers. It is now unfamiliar because today most people judge by intellectual criteria and expect to verify everything against what can be weighed, measured, or in some way perceived by the senses.
In such a world, it would be foolish to expect everyone to see, behind the troubles of our times, the need for a new spiritual vision, and even more unrealistic to expect them to adopt that new-old vision. But because it is such a world, a whole class of knowledge has been almost entirely lost to modern man. Yet inner and spiritual problems can only be resolved by inner and spiritual interpretations, and because of this the tradition of which I speak is a tradition of interpretation, a way of distilling the meaning from the gospel teaching, using the tools of understanding provided by that tradition itself. Many people who are aware of the need for them will find both personal solutions and general answers not in the religions of other civilizations, where so many have already searched without success, but in the roots of our own world. They will make this discovery if they take a new look at an ancient and transforming interpretation of the Christian faith, an interpretation that is little known and even less valued today As this book will show, there is also little doubt that most of those answers still exist-within Christendom, but tucked away in its inaccessible corners-and I have slowly become certain that with sufficient effort these answers can be rediscovered and restored to use for modern man, as part of a spiritual reawakening that has already begun but has not yet taken definite form.
This book is written for the many who have become aware that the most viable solution may not be to invent or reinvent a new religion, nor to explore the religions of other civilizations and import them to our shores as seeds of future division, but to take a look at some other aspects of Christianity that are little known today.
To understand this and the possibilities it offers, we need, as suggested earlier, “new eyes,” a new yet very old way of thinking about the world. To approach this, I must first write of experience, as I shall do from time to time throughout the book, for in our times, experience, and a strange and little-known relation between experience and faith, form the latchkeys to new insights and even to the rediscovery of the inner meaning of the old. From direct experience, we can pass to ways of drawing on traditional sources for our own spiritual needs, and through this we may not only discover ourselves, but rediscover the seedbed of certain aspects of Western civilization which have long been in decline, and perhaps learn how these key streams in the river of our life can be restored for use by modern man,
To understand, we also need to recognize the existence of a contemporary obstacle to research of this kind. Like so many of our problems, this is a result of modern thought, perhaps exacerbated by modern methods of funding research. The sheer difficulty of gaining acceptance now means that to establish the value of a single document may take a person half a lifetime or even almost a whole lifetime’s work. This has created a situation where almost everybody is afraid to draw general conclusions, or to publish a general study of the whole subject area, unless they can join it seamlessly to what has been said before,
Yet under such conditions, when people are forced to conform to outside opinion rather than their own insight, a slight deviation from accuracy can become compounded over the years and, because no alternative view will be acceptable as a basis for comparison, this deviation may remain unrecognized until the situation has gone so far that everyone outside the field can see the inaccuracy, although it remains invisible to those within the “charmed circle” of the discipline in question. This is a double bind: in any discipline there have got to be criteria and detailed investigations, which must contribute to the shaping of a consensus, and there must be work on the broader outline. All these together create the climate for further studies. When both become too insistent, and Western thought itself tends to be insistent by its very nature, how does one free oneself from such a trap?
This is the situation in which this book was written: the twelve years of exact research on which it has been based are a distillation of those longer and slower researches of others on the many separate subjects, and yet the book is based on a clearly seen need at this time to look in from outside, by taking certain tools of modern reason and the lessons learned from other, non-Western spiritual traditions, by looking to previous researches of the same kind, some of them previously re
jected, and finally, by standing not on the platform of scientific objectivity, but instead on that different platform of the attitude of faith and of knowledge derived from faith, in which these ideas were originally written down or passed on.
Specifically, it is an attempt to use an awareness of the intentions of the texts as a tool for the interpretation of those texts.
In other words, this work is an effort not of analysis, nor of proof, but of understanding: an attempt to understand, in modern terms, the ancient ideas that have been rediscovered over the past century or so.
After all, an inner tradition that cannot speak for itself when necessary cannot expect to be recognized. To put this differently, there is little doubt that the same inner tradition has been expressed in certain texts such as the recently discovered text known as the Gospel According to Thomas, from which the following passage could well set the correct tone for this study:
These are the secret words which the Living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas wrote: And He said: Whoever finds the explanation of these words will not taste death. Jesus said:
Let him who seeks, not cease seeking until he finds, and when he finds, he will be troubled, and when he has been troubled, he will marvel, and he will reign over the All. Jesus said: If those who lead you say to you: “See, the Kingdom is in heaven,” then the birds of the heaven will precede you. If they say to you: “It is in the sea,” then the fish will precede you. But the Kingdom is within you and it is without you. if you will know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will know that you are the sons of the Living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you are in poverty and you are poverty.
is republished on www.greekorthodoxchurch.org with permission.
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