Luke Timothy Johnson, Professor at Emory, has an article in the current issue of Commonweal on the current battle between those who have an external religion and those who have a religion of the inner experience. Johnson considers the external religion as politics, conformity, social control, and a negative force if it is not connected to the experiential religion. He concludes that if external religion is only concerned with the activities of this-world, then secularism does a better job of creating a this-worldly humane society.
Is his observation an eternal tension of the inner duties of the heart and the legalistic duties of the limbs or does his formulation offer something new? Is this just Bahye’s Duties of the Heart or is he responding to the pressing issue of our time? Can he cure the community’s over-riding concern with self- definition through conformity and social control? (Ignore his formulation using the word experience in our post- linguistic turn and construction of the self era; the article can easily to rewritten for our current terminology)
Dry Bones Why Religion Can’t Live without MysticismLuke Timothy Johnson
The great religious battle of our time is not the one being waged between believers and unbelievers. The battle within each of the three great monotheistic religions is between the exoteric and esoteric versions of each. In my view, the contest is already so far advanced as virtually to be decided.
The exoteric focuses on external expressions of religion. Its concern is for the observance of divine commandments, the performance of public ritual, and the celebration of great festivals. In its desire for a common creed and practice, its tropism is toward religious law, and it seeks to shape a visible and moral society molded by such law.
The esoteric, in contrast, finds the point of religion less in external performance than in the inner experience and devotion of the heart; less in the public liturgy than in the individual’s search for God. The esoteric dimension of religion privileges the transforming effect of asceticism and prayer. The esoteric element in religion finds expression above all in mysticism. Mystics pursue the inner reality of the relationship between humans and God: they long for true knowledge of what alone is ultimately real, and desire absolute love for what is alone infinitely desirable.
Less visible but no less significant is the negative effect on the exoteric when the esoteric life of individual transformation goes unacknowledged. A system of law unconnected to inner piety is simply an instrument of social control, a form of politics pure and simple. Whether it be an Islamic court issuing a Fatwah to punish someone who has insulted the Prophet, or the Vatican removing a theologian from a university faculty on suspicion of an inadequate Christology,
Islamic fundamentalism echoes Christian fundamentalism in this respect, demanding an absolute outer conformity to specific points of belief and practice, while paying little explicit attention to the intricate and difficult process of individual sanctification.
Seen in this light, the exoteric may appear to have won, yet its victory may only be prelude to the defeat of the tradition as a whole by secularism.
If religion is for this life only, then it must compete on an even plane with other worldly ideologies. And it is not unthinkable that such ideologies can offer a better and more humane society than that proposed by a religion that has been emptied of the transcendent, and lacks any room for the spirit that soars toward God.
Johnson loses me in his description of Judaism as not having this tension because we Jews follow the heikhalot texts, Ashkenaz pietism, kabbalah, and ecstatic Hasidim. Anyone know a Jewish community that fits his description? Anyone know where we can return to follow Eleazar of Worms quest for the Divine will? Anyone teaching Heikhalot when they teach Mishnayot?
Of the three great monotheisms, Judaism has proved most successful at harmonizing exoteric and esoteric expression. The masters of the heavenly throne-chariot were among the greatest scholars of the early rabbinic tradition, and demanded of the mystic the punctilious outward observance of Torah. The medieval German chasid Eleazar of Worms (d. 1230) declared, “The root of love is to love the Lord. The soul is full of love, bound with the bonds of love in great joy. The powerful love of joy seizes his heart so that at all times he thinks: How can I do the will of God?” Similarly, practitioners of Kabbalah from the twelfth to the twentieth century assumed as the ground for their speculation a total immersion in the practices common to the community of faith. The early Hasidic movement aroused concern for its apparently antinomian tendencies, yet quickly became integrated in the exoteric tradition, and is found today among the strictest of observant Jews.
I am also still looking for such a place, but while I feel too ignorant regarding other religions’ practices in this regard, we can point to this conflict having played out repeatedly in Judaism, culminating with the Sabbatean antinomianism and expressing itself partly in the later conflict between Chassidim and Mitnagdim.
While most observant Jews know relatively little of the esoteric, few are as exoteric-only as Yeshayahu Leibowitz. Most Orthodox Jews take it for granted that there is a need for an interplay between the exoteric and the esoteric. So Johnson overreached when he referred to Heikhalot and Chassidei Ashkenaz, but he could have referred to Chassidism, including but not limited to Chabad and Tanya, as well as Lurianic Sefardim, the Lithuanian use of Torah Lishmah as a religious experience, and kavvana orientation in general. Interlinear siddurim, both in English and Hebrew (commentary), only exist because people care not only about the motions, but also about the content.
I would say that Judaism recognizes and values the position of the esoteric, but disagrees with his evaluation of the exoteric: the exoteric is seen as the basis on which one may build the esoteric experience. We don’t take such a dim view of a measure of social control.
Were you looking for Purim Torah?
At Sinai we were coerced into accepting the external practices but on Purim when the Amalakite force separating us from the light is destroyed we joyfully accept the Torah of our own free will.
On Purim exoteric and esoteric expression are harmonized.