In his Christ the Original Mystery, Esoterism and the Mystical Way (Angelico Press), Jean Borella sets out to settle three issues: firstly, to show that, despite its fundamental contribution to the codification of esotericism, Guénon’s definition of esotericism suffers from certain limitations; secondly, to indicate how these limitations disqualify the application of the Guénonian definition, especially to the case of Christianity; and thirdly, to present Christianity in its own light, i.e. independently of Guénonian schemas, so as to reveal its particular essence.

This article, exclusively, is intended to provide an overview of Jean Borella’s work on this issue, starting with his essential reminder of a few definitions.

Esotericism, Metaphysics, Gnosis

While the adjective “esoteric” has existed since Greek antiquity, the noun “esotericism” has its recent and dubious origins in the ideological nebula of socializing Romanticism, which inspired the revolution of 1848. If the success of the noun betrays above all the loss of intuitive knowledge (“it’s beautiful!”), to the benefit of the search for the security of rational knowledge (“what is beauty?”), it must nevertheless be defined.

The etymology of the Greek adjective “esôterikos” provides a rough definition. “Esoteric” means “leading inwards” (esô) “more than” (ter); it’s therefore a comparative of superiority, indicating movement (it can be neither fixed nor absolute), inwards (beyond appearances) and relative to its opposite “exoteric” (“more outwards than”). Thus, there can be no esotericism without exotericism, without the support of a tradition, without appearances beyond which it leads. Consequently, there can be no absolute esotericism, any more than there can be an absolute exotericism, pure, stripped of all form and free of all revelation (as Hegel would have wished, for example).

If esotericism, like exotericism, belongs to the sacred, both remain below the level of “knowledge”. Indeed, while gnosis identifies the knowing with the known, exotericism and esotericism correspond only to the path that eventually leads to it. Both therefore fall into the general category of hermeneutics: the art of interpretation and explanation.

If exotericism and esotericism are hermeneutical intentions, more or less penetrating the deepest meaning of tradition, then they both claim revelation to be interpreted, understood and commented upon. The purest metaphysics itself will never be more than the ultimate degree of speculative hermeneutics. Thus, compared with the semanticity of all hermeneutic experience, gnosis alone, in breaking with any hermeneutic perspective whatsoever, could realize a non-ontological mode of relation with its object.

In concrete terms, this confirms that there can be neither absolute esotericism – unless it is confused with gnosis – nor institutionalized esotericism – which would then no longer be in motion, even though particular institutions may have more particularly esoteric (Taoism, Sufism) or exoteric (Confucianism) characteristics.

As everything that is manifested is never entirely there, since its invisible root, cause and source always remain unmanifested, we can say that esotericism reveals that there is an unmanifested, and therefore that there is veiling. Quite different is pure metaphysical doctrine, whose language, made up of the most abstract concepts and principles and the most logical sequences, is transparent. Indeed, insofar as metaphysics uses the very language of intelligence, the act of intellection becomes one with intelligence itself. In this sense, metaphysical discourse realizes the limit case of ultimate hermeneutics; it is the last interpreter, and cannot be interpreted in its turn by a more transparent language. Moreover, in its ultimate position, metaphysical language can only indicate its esoteric overcoming by suggesting its own effacement, with an apophatism that is not formal but total, dialectically implementing its “self-abolition”1. “Blessed are the intelligences that know how to close their eyes”, as Saint Dionysius the Areopagite already indicated.

As intelligence speaks its own language, the language of its nature, it will naturally deal with even supernatural things. But if it is “at home” in all these areas, it is because it is naturally nowhere to be found (“the intellect comes through the door” or “from outside” says Aristotle2). Hence, once again, the death of discourse to which true metaphysics necessarily leads. But to this sacrificium intellectus, to this voluntary annihilation of intelligence itself, to this ultimate renunciation, answers resurrection; to the renunciation of the vanity of one’s own light answers entry into the “Darkness more than luminous” (Saint Dionysius the Areopagite).

The Limits of Guénon’s Definition of Esotericism

The definition of esotericism established by French metaphysician René Guénon (1886-1951), as part of his codification of esotericism, does have the advantage of freeing traditional metaphysics from its counterfeits – notably Gnosticism, spiritualism, occultism, theosophism, etc. – but it does seem to suffer from a number of shortcomings. – but it does seem to suffer from a number of shortcomings. In particular, it tends to standardize, in all traditions, the obligatory pattern of institutionalized esotericism: formal organization and initiatory rite of one’s own, in particular, and elitist (closed to large numbers and children), failing which the tradition in question is deemed to have no esoteric dimension, or even to be degenerate.

The question arises as to whether the esoteric organizations defined as such by Guénon conform to his own definition. Apart from the Aristotelian school of antiquity and a few modern societies (late 19th and 20th centuries) of dubious validity, no organization has ever called itself esoteric. As for those that have disappeared, such as the Fidèles d’amour, the Knights Templar or the Rosicrucians (“gone to the East” in 1648), for example, they cannot of course bear witness.

Secondly, in the Christian world, despite a few eminent Masons, most Freemasonry obediences have broken with the spirit of medieval Masonry, and the Compagnonnage undoubtedly ignores Guénonian doctrine. We should also mention the orders of chivalry, of which only the Fraternité des Chevaliers du divin Paraclet (Brotherhood of the Knights of the Divine Paraclete), in the person of Louis Charbonneau-Lassay, has partially accepted the Guénonian definition, and the Hermetist organizations, of which we know nothing.

Moreover, in the non-Christian world, and among a few limited examples, only Sufism seems to have the required “administrative” character, even though its initiation concerns the great majority3, which is not in conformity. This is also true of the Greek mystery cults, better known today, which involved large crowds and children.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that the model that claims the necessity of an esoteric institution has led Guénon to ignore Christianity, even to the point of presenting the Christianization of Celtic chivalry and the Roman de la rose as its esoteric aspect, to the detriment of the revelation of Christ or major ancient works such as the Mystical Theology of St. Dionysius the Areopagite. While there are indeed aspects of real exotericism and real esotericism in Christianity, as in any tradition worthy of the name -which Guénon does not deny- there is no formal exotericism or instituted esotericism, in the Catholic Church at any rate. And this absence is even in keeping with what Christianity essentially is, as the following will show.

Direct Refutation of Guénon’s Theses on Christianity

Guénon succinctly states that most traditional forms, including religions, have two sides: the external one, where exoteric teaching addressed to the individual, supplemented by religious rites (communicating a spiritual influence of non-human origin), enables him, through the realization of the truths transmitted, to obtain salvation, i.e. to experience the perfection of the human state after death ; and the inner one, where esoteric teaching, complemented by initiatory rites that address the higher states of being (also communicating a spiritual influence of non-human origin), enables the adept, from this world onwards, to access the higher (angelic) states or even, the unconditioned divine state: deliverance. Based on this model, Guénon sees Christianity originally as a Jewish esotericism (similar to that of the Essenes) whose initiatory rites (baptism, Eucharist, etc.), administered by an elite and transmitted in secret, are added to Jewish religious rites (circumcision, etc.). At some point (known only to predate the 4th century), in order to save the Greco-Roman world from its pagan spiritual decadence, the Christian esoteric organization decided to bring all its rites down to the exoteric level, retaining their names and forms, even if it meant creating other initiatory rites that were now “practically inaccessible”4.

Christianity is not Jewish Esotericism

In fact, from the outset, Christianity has been universal in its scope; it cannot therefore be a Jewish esotericism, which cannot be deployed outside the exoteric framework of the Jewish religion. This deployment predates even S. Paul: the Magi, the “Pentecost of the Gentiles” (Acts 10:44-46), where the gift of the Holy Spirit is also poured out on the Gentiles. From the outset, “there is no longer any distinction between Jews and Greeks” (Rom. 10:12). Moreover, the fact that this is a new religion and not Jewish esotericism is attested to at a solemn moment in Christ’s life, on Holy Thursday, when the very founding rite of Christianity is instituted: “this cup is the new covenant in my blood shed for you” (Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25). We should not forget that the very term “Christian” (christianos) is present as early as the Acts of the Apostles (11:26) and “Christianity” (christianismos) in use before the end of the 1st century. The term is even specifically opposed to “Judaism” (cf. letter from St. Ignatius of Antioch to the Christians of the Church of Magnesia; Magn., 10:1 & 3).

Christian Dogmatics is not an Exoteric Presentation of Doctrine

Guénon indicates that the sign of the (supposed) exoteric descent of the sacraments of Christian initiation is in the (supposed) novelty of the Council of Nicaea (in 325), which inaugurates “the era of ‘dogmatic’ formulations intended to constitute a purely exoteric presentation of doctrine”5. Yet there is nothing new about Nicene doctrine: a fundamentally Trinitarian “rule of faith” has been irrefutably attested since the end of the first century6 and is common to the Churches established in Germania, Iberia, among the Celts, in the East, Egypt and Libya7… Not to mention that it comes directly from Scripture: “Teach the Gentiles and baptize them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 28:19). What’s more, with its decision to endorse the notion of the consubstantiality of the Trinitarian persons, the Council of Nicaea, contrary to any kind of exoterization, “invited theological intelligence to an unaccustomed speculative exaltation […], to a ‘metaphysical transposition’ of the concept of substance (ousia) in line with its most ontological, and even supra-ontological, meaning”. Finally, when Guénon adds that no attempt has ever been made to “give the slightest explanation”8 to dogmatic formulations, he is simply denying the two thousand years of work of successive theologians, Church Fathers, doctors and spiritual geniuses.

Christian Rites are Neither a Late Exoterization nor a False Initiation

“A rite,” says Guénon, “which is conferred on nascent children, and without any concern to determine their qualifications by any means whatsoever, cannot have the character and value of an initiation”9. On the one hand, to follow him would be to deny the Scriptures: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them any longer” (Luke 18:16); “See that you despise none of these little ones…” (Mt. 18:10)… and, in particular, the baptism administered on the day of Pentecost to a crowd of three thousand people, including children (cf. Acts 2:37-41). Knowing that, from the very beginning of the Church, sacraments (baptism, Eucharist…) have been distinguished from sacramentals (prayer, invocation of the Name of Jesus, sign of the cross, blessings, candles, liturgical reading, monastic consecration…), she would have had every opportunity to implement a distinction between exoteric and esoteric rites, if it had been in the order of Christianity to create or maintain such a separation.

For the Sacramental Order is Incorruptible and no one, not even the Church, can alter it.

If the Church wished to modify the essence of the Christic priesthood and determine the sacrament to produce only exoteric effects, even if it were to spiritually save ancient paganism (according to Guénon), it could not do so. Indeed, this curious Guénonian theory is excluded from the outset, since grace is that which Jesus Christ himself wishes to communicate by instituting the sacrament destined to produce it – it is his eternal Priesthood “according to the order of Melchisedec”10. Sacramental grace is therefore immutable by nature, and is always communicated to the being who receives it, provided he himself does not hinder it. “Sanctifying grace cannot be greater or lesser, since, according to its very essence, it unites man to the Sovereign Good, which is God”; it is therefore susceptible to variation only in relation to the subject in whom it resides11.

And Christian Sacraments -Called “religious” (Guénon)- do require Validity and Qualifications on the Part of the Recipient

Given that Christ Himself instituted the sacraments (if only baptism and the Eucharist, as Protestants recognize), and that no Christian Church recognizes the power to institute new ones, neither the Church nor its minister has any power over the grace they confer. Following Guénon’s lead, this leaves us with doubts about their validity. Now, “in the administration of the sacraments, the Church has always had the power to decide or to modify, the substance of these sacraments being safe, what she would judge more suitable to the usefulness of those who receive them or to the respect of the sacraments themselves, according to the diversity of things, times and places”12.

What’s more, all that’s required of the minister is the intention or objective will to carry out what the sacrament objectively signifies; he or she may therefore have lost the faith, provided he or she relies objectively on the faith of the Church: fides Ecclesiae supplet (the Church’s faith supplies). As for the appropriate intentional disposition of the recipient, we can’t maintain, with Guénon, that religious rites require no qualifications; if these qualifications concern physical or psychic abilities, it’s true, no one is excluded from Christ’s grace; on the contrary, he came for the one-eyed, lame, hunchbacked, blind, paralytic… : “It is good for you to enter Life lame rather than with both feet to be cast into Gehenna” (Mk 9:45); but if by qualifications we mean the dispositions of heart and body required for the reception of a sacrament (they vary according to the sacrament), then, without exception, all require qualifications without which they will be unfruitful, even if sacramental grace has indeed been conferred.

Finally, the Mode of Operation of the Sacraments Themselves Excludes any Essential Change in the Nature of Sacramental Grace

Having denied the initiatory value of the sacraments, it remained for Guénon to deny their operativity, i.e. ex opere operato (“in virtue of the work operated”) – as opposed to ex opere operantis (“in virtue of the work of the operator” or “in virtue of the one who operates”). Now, ex opere operato precisely means that the operant is not the cause of sacramental grace, but that the sacrament acts solely in virtue of the sacramental act performed, even if, of course, it is the efforts of the one cooperating in the grace that will enable it to bear fruit. Consequently, neither the sanctity of the minister, nor sanctification (even in the case of spectacular gifts or charisms), can ensure the presence of grace, an invisible reality. The meaning or truth of sacramental acts is determined by the very will of the God who instituted them – so long as the conditions for their validity are fulfilled, the truth of the sacrament is realized by virtue of its accomplishment alone. In this logic, if grace is supernatural -which nobody denies-, then the sacrament ex opere operato, validly accomplished, can in no way be magical -as Luther and certain Protestant theologians have claimed. What’s more, this leads us to see Christianity as an essentially sacramental religion.

Although Guénon placed sacraments in the general category of rites, he could have avoided the massive amalgam, since he recognized that the word “sacrament” designates something for which no exact equivalent can be found elsewhere13. From this, however, he thoughtlessly reduces Christian sacraments to rites of aggregation (or integration) into a traditional community14, whereas the sacramental doctrine of the Christian tradition focuses on the Body of Christ and grace, and can develop a theology of divine operation in sacramental action, without equivalent!

This is why the Tearing of the Temple Veil Signifies, in Christianity, the Abolition of a Formal Separation between Exotericism and Esotericism

Indeed, the tearing of the Temple veil at Christ’s death reveals the previously hidden mystery, marks the transition from outer to inner worship and leads to the new sacrifice in which priest and victim become one. In this respect, even if 2,000 years of history have tended to blur the words, the Eucharist, where God dies, rises and gives himself in the Eucharist, is the perfect type of sacred mystery brought to light. It thus directly signifies the abolition of a formal separation, in Christianity, between esotericism and exotericism.

The fact that there are two veils in the Temple, an outer one separating the court from the Holy One (the masak) and an inner one separating the Holy One from the Holy of Holies (the paroketh), changes nothing. It is the former, torn apart, that reveals and shows to the multitude esotericism as such. The second, that of the ultimate mysteries, only disappears with the supreme realization -that of deification. “Hence it is that the outermost veil was torn and the other not, to signify that, in the death of Christ, the mysteries relating to the Church became manifest; but the other veil was not torn, because the heavenly arcane still remains veiled”. This second veil (2 Co 3:16) will be lifted at the end of time, at the Parousia, according to the prophetic anticipation that is the New Covenant (tearing of the first veil)15.

For it is Christ’s death that is at issue, rather than the tearing of the veil that accompanies it. This death is the body given for you (to sôma mou to hyper hymôn didomenon), the very body of revelation, revelation made body. What’s more, this body is bled to death, and the blood, spilled “for you and for many”, symbolizes the initiatory mysteries, given to all. The only thing left to accomplish is the Parousia announced: the total and universal Presence of the divine Word in every creature, and of every creature in the divine Word.

The nature of the Christian religion is thus to anticipate and manifest the obliteration of the formal separation between the two realms of exotericism and esotericism.


It remains to urge the reader to go and read, directly in Jean Borella’s book, the last part where an indirect refutation of Guénon’s theses on Christianity takes place. There, Christianity is situated in its own hermeneutical site, without having to deal with Guénonian schemas: the mode of expression with which the revelatum has clothed itself in order to manifest itself, thus determining its mode of comprehension. For it is the revealed Object itself that fecundates the intellective mirror by delivering the keys to its own intelligibility.

This presentation of Christianity will begin by situating the Christian mystery in relation to the Jewish and Hellenistic cultural contexts, and to the possible existence of “secret traditions”; then the Church’s traditional teaching on the three rites of Christian initiation will be recalled, in connection with the “discipline of the arcane”; finally, the nature of the mystical path will be characterized, showing that it is an integral path.

We’ll see how Christianity is, in essence, a “sacramentalism” and, from theological mystery to the mystery of the sacramental economy, how we move from the Greek mystèrion to the Latin sacramentum, then how the latter is surrounded by the disciplina arcana, of apostolic origin. We’ll understand why we can speak of the pseudo-secrecy, pseudo-doctrine and pseudo-elitism of the “mysteries” of paganism, and how Christian baptism and eucharist are not a rehash or imitation of mystery liturgies, nor how (Christian) gnosis cannot be reduced to “(Jewish) apocalypticism”. We’ll discover the doctrine of the three degrees of knowledge and the secret of the Origenian secret; we’ll recall how, in Christianity, doctrinal esotericism, like deification, is offered to all, and how doctrinal and ecclesial magisteria form a hierarchical complementarity – Christian sacramental esotericism being that of the whole Church.

Finally, we’ll see how “mystical” and “esoteric” are synonymous in Christ, how “mystical” and “contemplation” come together as early as the Fathers of the Church -calling intelligence to an exaltation of itself- and how theology becomes mysticism, which is in no way mysticism, nor is it reduced to morality or the psychological. In a word, we’ll see how Christian mysticism is stripped bare in the face of “Guénonian initiatory demiurgy”, especially when it is expressed in a fundamentally Promethean way in terms of “positive scientific laws” or “the handling of spiritual influences”, this technical-scientific demiurgy being radically opposed to the Spirit who blows where He wills and allows Himself to be “handled” by no one.


  1. Guy Bugault, Les Etudes philosophiques, Oct-Dec. 1983, p.400.[]
  2. On the Generation of Animals, II 3, 736 a, 27-b 12.[]
  3. M. Lings, Un Saint musulman au XX° siècle, Ed. Traditionnelles, 1967, p. 121.[]
  4. René Guénon, Aperçus sur l’ésotérisme chrétien, p. 24, note 1.[]
  5. René Guénon, Aperçus sur l’ésotérisme chrétien, pp. 14-15.[]
  6. Cf. Henri Lassiat, La jeunesse de l’Église : la foi au II° siècle, Mame, 1979.[]
  7. Cf. Saint Irénée, Contre les hérésies (Against Heresies), trans. A. Rousseau, Cerf, 1984, p. 66.[]
  8. René Guénon, Aperçus sur l’ésotérisme chrétien, p. 18.[]
  9. Ibidem, pp. 20-21.[]
  10. Christ’s Melchisedecian Priesthood comprises three functions: that of King (configured by the baptismal character, “royal priesthood” – 1 Peter 2:5-9), that of Prophet (configured by the Chrismatic character – the anointing of the chrism of confirmation) and that of High Priest (configured by the character of the order).[]
  11. Saint Thomas Aquinas, S. Th., I-II, q.112, a.4.[]
  12. Council of Trent, session XXI, chap. II; Les Concils œcuméniques : Les décrets, Cerf, 1994, t. II, p. 1477.[]
  13. René Guénon, Aperçus sur l’initiation, p. 41.[]
  14. Ibidem, p. 159.[]
  15. S. Thomae Aquinitatis in Evangelia S. Matthaei et S. Joannis Commentaria, t. I, ed. II, Taurinensis, Eq. Petri Marietti, Roma, 1912, c. XXVII, p. 391.[]