Throughout our discussion of doctrine we have already had frequent recourse to the concept of esoterism and the esoteric-exoteric distinction. This notion (and the distinction it implies) is necessary for our purpose, which is to equip the reader with a conceptual understanding of the world as he will encounter it. The term is therefore legitimate and apt within certain limits; but because these limits are often forgotten or denied, it is necessary to clarify our usage and offer a few cautions.
First and foremost, we do not intend to portray esoterism as a kind of meta-religion or meta-doctrine that is above and beyond the religions and which can be used as a measure to determine their value. This point of view has disastrous consequences, which we will point out as our discussion progresses. For now, we can summarize our position as follows:
Esoterism—both the notion signified and the word itself—are products of the modern situation, made possibly by that situation and impossible in any previous epoch. There is no equivalent notion in the ancient world. Insofar as the term itself appears there, it is as an adjective and not a noun, which is to say it always qualifies something else and is not a self-sufficient thing. So for example we might find an esoteric Christianity, or an esoteric approach to the Christian way, but we do not find a separate esoterism that stands as a meta-religion and by which all religions can and should be judged.
Since the notion is modern, is it even legitimate to use it with regard to doctrinal study? We can again answer in the affirmative, provided we acknowledge the origin of the term, which coincide with the advent of the modern world.
The modern world brought with it an unprecedented awareness of the multiplicity of religions and their teachings, both in quantity and quality. Unlike St. Thomas Aquinas, who was, in comparison, very limited in the availability of texts explaining Islam, for example, anyone born in the last century has easy access to the primary texts and commentaries of every major tradition. The result of this situation is that individuals of powerful intellect are able to imbibe, at least to some degree, the doctrine or message of each Revelation, and this situation is that it becomes almost immediately apparent to them that there is, especially at the level of metaphysics, an undeniable unanimity between them.
The result of this situation is not difficult to anticipate: the sensitive soul will see immediately the truth that ‘all paths lead to the summit,’ and, being in a position actually delineate each path and compare the metaphysics of each, will get the impression that this summit consists precisely in that collection of principles on which all religions agree and maintain without fail. It is only one step more to the conclusion that since this knowledge is capable of being synthesized into a distinct body of doctrine, that it is in fact the core of all religions and the unique characteristics of each are merely so many veils to be drawn aside.
Now all this seems obvious strictly due to the vantage point enjoyed by the modern man. Without that perspective, it is difficult to imagine how the notion of an ‘esoterism’ as something universal and above and beyond all religious forms (and by which they can be judged) would ever have been able to exist—and that is why it did not.
In fact, this perspective is a kind of optical illusion, for the simple reason that the metaphysical doctrines from which the ‘universal metaphysic’ is derived are in every single instance the product of the religions themselves. Every spiritual master was a master with an affiliation, and while it is possible that the modern student, who has access to so many masters of so many affiliations, could himself surpass them, it is not possible that he could surpass them by a means completely different from that which they themselves used. And the means? Revelation.
Revelation is the point of departure for every religion and every spiritual master, and this is also why the great teachers taught via scriptural commentaries.