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Esoteric Christianity is an ensemble of spiritual currents which regard Christianity as a mystery religion, and profess the existence and possession of certain esoteric doctrines or practices of which the public is unaware (or even to which they may be denied access) but which are understood by a small group of people.
These spiritual currents share some common denominators, such as:
Early Christians used the Greek word μυστήριον (mysterion) to describe the Christian Mystery. The Old Testament versions use the word mysterion as an equivalent to the Hebrew sôd, "secret" (Proverbs 20:19). In the New Testament the word mystery is applied ordinarily to the sublime revelation of the Gospel (Matthew 13:11; Colossians 2:2; 1 Timothy 3:9; 1 Corinthians 15:51), and to the Incarnation and life of the Saviour and his manifestation by the preaching of the Apostles (Romans 16:25; Ephesians 3:4; 6:19; Colossians 1:26; 4:3).
The word "mysticism" has the same root, being derived from the Greek μυω, meaning "to conceal", and its derivative μυστικός, mystikos, meaning 'an initiate'. In the Hellenistic world, 'mystical' referred to "secret" religious rituals The use of the word lacked any direct references to the transcendental. A "mystikos" was an initiate of a mystery religion.
Theologians give the name mystery to revealed truths that surpass the powers of natural reason, so, in a narrow sense, the Mystery is a truth that transcends the created intellect. The impossibility of obtaining a rational comprehension of the Mystery leads to an inner or hidden way of comprehension of the Christian Mystery that is indicated by the term esoteric in Esoteric Christianity.
Even though revealed and believed, the Mystery remains nevertheless obscure and veiled during the mortal life, if the deciphering of the mysteries, made possible by esotericism, does not intervene.
This esoteric knowledge would allow a deep comprehension of the Christian mysteries that otherwise would remain obscure.
Some modern scholars believe that in the early stages of Christianity a nucleus of oral teachings were inherited from Palestinian and Hellenistic Judaism which formed the basis of a secret oral tradition, which in the 4th century came to be called the disciplina arcani, which mainstream theologians believe contained only liturgical details and certain other traditions which remain a part of some branches of mainstream Christianity (for example, the doctrine of Transubstantiation is thought to have been a part of this by Catholic theologians). Important influences on Esoteric Christianity are the Christian theologians Clement of Alexandria and Origen, the main figures of the Catechetical School of Alexandria.
Origen was a most prolific writer – according to Epiphanius, he wrote about 6,000 books – making it a difficult task to define the central core of his teachings. The original Greek text of his main theological work De Principiis only survives in fragments, while a 5th-century Latin translation was cleared of controversial teachings by the translator Rufinus, making it hard for modern scholars to rebuild Origen's original thoughts. Thus, it is unclear whether reincarnation and the pre-existence of souls formed part of Origen's beliefs.
Despite this apparent contradiction, most modern Esoteric Christian movements refer to Origen's writings (along, with other Church Fathers and biblical passages) to validate these ideas as part of the Esoteric Christian tradition.
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola's Apologia ("Apologia J. Pici Mirandolani, Concordiae comitis" published in 1489) states that there are two types of "magic", which are theurgy (divine magic), and goetia (demonic magic). These disciplines were explained as the "Operation of the Stars", just as alchemy was the "Operation of the Sun", and astrology the "Operation of the Moon." Kabbalah was also an active discipline. These spiritual traditions allegedly aided the esoteric to arise to higher forms of consciousness, and arise to a better understanding of God, The Self, and the Universe. Esoteric Christians practice these forms or traditions, which they believe are all a part of the same spiritual truth, which help to convey "mystery knowledge", which can only be learned directly from spiritual experience via Theurgy, Kabbalah, or Mysticism.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, this was followed up by the development of Theosophy and Rosicrucianism. The Behmenist movements also developed around this time, as did Freemasonry.
Many modern Esoteric Christian movements acknowledge reincarnation among their beliefs, as well as a complex energetic structure for the human being (such as etheric body, astral body, mental body and causal body). These movements point out the need of an inner spiritual work which will lead to the renewal of the human person according to the Pauline sense. Rudolf Steiner and Max Heindel gave several spiritual exercises in their writings to help the evolution of the follower. In the same direction are Tommaso Palamidessi's writings, which aim at developing ascetic techniques and meditations. In Bulgaria Peter Deunov opened an Esoteric Christian School, which he called School of the Universal White Brotherhood. It consisted of two classes of students and had 22 school years. George Gurdjieff called his teaching The Fourth Way—the way of conscience, whereby the student learns to work with and transform the negativity and suffering of one’s ordinary life to come to real life (“Life is real only then, when I Am.”). According to all of these esoteric scholars, the ensemble of these techniques (often related with Eastern meditation practices such as chakra meditation or visualization) will lead to salvation and to the total renewal of the human being. This process usually implies the constitution of a spiritual body apt to the experience of resurrection (and therefore called, in Christian terms, spiritual body). Some Esoteric Christians today also incorporate New Age and traditional "magical" practices in their beliefs, such as Qabalah, theurgy, goetia, alchemy, astrology, and hermetism.