Exoteric and Esoteric religion

Within the corpus of Western Contemporary Witchcrafts there is room for enormous variety. That this diversity gives way to petty squabbles about who is doing what right is always a source of consternation for me. Upon reflection, it always seems to come down to a perceived conflict between exoteric religion and esoteric spirituality, or what I believe we refer to in our common occult parlance as the right-hand path and the left-hand path. Both approaches are not only valuable for the community and the individual; I would argue that a balanced practice recognizes and indulges both philosophies simultaneously.

Exoteric religion is intended for and understood by the community. Through shared religious experiences a group of people celebrates their shared values, beliefs, and behaviors, and reinforces that manner in which they interact with individuals perceived inclusive to that community, with strangers to the community, and with the world, including the invisible, imaginal world. When I think of the usual public side of Contemporary Paganisms in the United States—public rituals, basic introductory courses in Witchcraft, and the particulars of coven, grove, and circle membership—I think of the right-hand religious path that outlines the exteriority of our practices, describes what we do, and puts us into context with our world. The scope of exoteric religious practice is a creation and structuring of the world, and the mythologies involved contain themselves within local and social horizons (Campbell, 1986, pp. 5-6).

In juxtaposition to outward exoteric practice, esoteric spirituality in interiorized: knowledge is not available to all community members, but only to a small group of individuals, usually working independently, and is often specialized in nature. In Abrahamic religions, this knowledge is sometimes literary, and passed down to individuals who have successfully mastered necessary inner preparations. However, the esoteric knowledge contained within the practice of Western Traditional Witchcrafts—or any traditional or contemporary tradition of shamanic practice—appears not so much contained within the context of the written word, but is available to the practitioner through intrapersonal lived experiences, often in meditation, reverie, dream, or on journeys out of body. These experiences may be overseen by a teacher, mentor, or facilitator familiar with the esoteric territory, or, alternatively, through an independent personal practice. Sometimes the practice of left-hand path esotericism involves breaking with the shared values, beliefs, and behaviors reinforced by the right-hand exoteric religion in order to step past social boundaries and into personal empowerment (Harris 2004, p. 20). The mythology of esoteric spirituality is more psychological in nature, relating to the souls of the individual, and personal becoming, discovery, healing, and evolution.

Similar mythological images and narratives—whether monotheistic, polytheistic, animist, immanent, or transcendent —shape both exoteric religious practices and esoteric spiritual exploration (Campbell, 1986, p. 5). An example of this is the Star-Goddess myth that occurs in the Anderson Feri Tradition, in which God Herself divides herself for love’s sake, and in making love to herself gives birth to all creation, visible and invisible. Like all creation myths, the narrative sets in motion a reality structured in a particular manner and emphasizing specific values. In an entire universe created out of divine lust is a very different cosmos compared to the dispassionate god that speaks creation ex nihilo. Exoterically, this is a story about valuing all things as manifest parts of God Herself, and coming back into relationship with all those parts. Esoterically, there is a focus on the individual practitioner as a manifestation of the divine, and a journey to then know one’s self in all their parts.

It seems to me that to have a balanced practice there must be a relationship between the exoteric and esoteric practices, or of the left- and right-handed paths. The figure of the witch dances widdershins on the edge of the cultural and social horizon. An edge-walker, between the cultivated fields and the wilderness, on the boundary between the domesticated and the wild, the witch weaves in and out across the line, injecting the otherwise static and stagnant culture with fresh ideas, new ways of being in relation to the world, innovative stories and images. This cross fertilization between the outer imaginal wilderness and the inner domesticated concrete reality allows continual growth and change. The witch must learn to turn both deosil and widdershins at the same time.

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