On the surface, it’s hard to explain the astonishing success of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. Many critics have pointed to its stale cliffhanger plot, its wan characterization, and even to the flaws in its research. And yet it has sold over 40 million copies in hardcover. Its appeal must run deeper than any of its surface details. It must speak to some acute need in the current imagination.
One aspect of the question could be explored further. Like many other popular works of recent years, The Da Vinci Code suggests that there is something lost in Christianity, some secret that Jesus may have passed on to his disciples, but which has not managed to come down to us.
Or did it? Another part of the novel’s appeal lies in the idea that this tradition was hidden but never lost. And this raises a key issue – whether the idea of a secret, initiatic teaching in Christianity has somehow been preserved.
Authorities differ on this point. The Theosophist Annie Besant, writing in her book Esoteric Christianity, lays out a long list of Christian mystics, but seems to assume that this initiatic tradition was lost:
Yet, as we reverently salute these Children of the Light, scattered over the centuries, we are forced to recognize in them the absence of that union of acute intellect and high devotion which were welded together by the training of the Mysteries, and while we marvel that they soared so high, we cannot but wish that their rare gifts had been developed under that magnificent disciplina arcani.
The Disciplina Arcani, or "hidden teaching," is, we are led to believe, a curriculum of systematic esoteric training that would culminate in a genuine knowledge of inner realities and the ability to navigate them.
René Guénon (1886-1951), the French esoteric philosopher, makes a similar assumption. His works speak of an "initiatic tradition," but he believes that it was all but lost in the West. The Masons, according to Guénon, retain some fragment of it, but otherwise it has vanished. Guénon does, however, sometimes intimate that some initiatic traditions may have survived on a small scale in various pockets of Christianity.
Both Besant and Guénon had access to a tremendous amount of esoteric knowledge, so we can’t dismiss their verdict offhand, but to me it is more likely that the initiatic tradition has survived in Christianity – only not in forms that either Besant or Guénon would have recognized. From a more popular point of view, this initiatic tradition bears no resemblance to the imaginary "Priory of Sion," as described in The Da Vinci Code, which, as numerous researchers have pointed out, is nothing more than the fiction of some extreme right-wing European monarchists.
To understand what’s going on, we’ll have to go back to the earliest days of Christianity and to some cryptic utterances in the New Testament. Paul writes: "But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the world unto our glory….And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. I have fed you with milk, not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able" (1 Cor. 2:7; 3,1-2).
What is this "hidden wisdom" that Paul could not share with the "babes," who were "carnal"? Conventional scholars assume that these were the familiar doctrines of Christianity – the salvific work of Christ and the meaning of his passion, death, and resurrection. There is only one problem with this view: these teachings were never hidden, in Paul’s time or later. Therefore they cannot be the "hidden wisdom" of which he speaks.
Mystery of the resurrection
Origen, a third-century Church Father, makes this point in his work Contra Celsum ("Against Celsus"), a refutation of a pagan critic of Christianity: "Then since he [Celsus] often calls our doctrine secret; in this point also we must refute him. For almost the entire world has come to know the preachings of Christians better than the opinions of philosophers. Who has not heard of Jesus’ birth from a virgin, and of his crucifixion, and of his resurrection, in which many have believed?…Moreover, the mystery of the resurrection, because it has not been understood, is a byword and a laughing-stock among the unbelievers."
But, Origen goes on to say, "the existence of certain doctrines, which are beyond those which are exoteric and do not reach the multitude, is not a peculiarity of Christian doctrine only, but is shared by the philosophers. For they had some doctrines that were exoteric and some esoteric… Therefore Celsus has no reason to attack the secrecy of Christianity and has no understanding of it."
The "hidden wisdom," then, the "doctrines not made known to the multitude," cannot be the familiar teachings of Christianity, since even in Origen’s time they were widely circulated. These familiar doctrines are the "milk" of which Paul speaks, fed to "babes," not the "meat" that is food for spiritual adults.
Who are the "babes" and who are the "adults"? Paul provides a clue when he distinguishes the "carnal" from the "spiritual," for here he is talking about different stages of development and different levels of awakening.
"Carnal," of course, means "fleshly." Carnal people are those who view life from the exterior. The outer world of things and events and persons is their primary reality. They don’t have a great deal of experience with the spiritual world. A large number don’t want it or don’t believe it’s possible.
It may sound elitist – and in a sense it is – to say that the vast majority of human beings fit into this category. But this sorting process has nothing to do with race, education, or social class: "carnal" people are found in every segment of society. For them, exoteric religion has been created. Exoteric religion views religion in an outer sense.
What does this mean? In exoteric Christianity, the truths are always somehow outside oneself. The story of Christ is about a man (or, if you prefer, a God-man) who lived 2,000 years ago, who suffered and died for our sins, and who rose again on the third day. As the passage from Origen above suggests, this has always been the part of the Christian faith that was made public.
A radical gulf
But how are these truths (if that is what they are) outside oneself? Isn’t conventional Christianity always insisting that we have a personal relationship with Jesus? Yes, but from the conventional point of view, the story embodied in the Gospels is ultimately about Jesus. It is not about us. Mainstream Christianity has always insisted on a radical and unbridgeable gulf between God and man.
Esoteric, or inner, Christianity says exactly the opposite. It does not focus on the historicity of Jesus’s life 2,000 years ago. Some esoteric Christians believe these events happened as the Gospels describe them; others do not. Rather, in esoteric Christianity, the story of Jesus recapitulates the fate of each of us in the past and in the future. This is the key to the meaning of the death and resurrection of Christ, and this is why the story continues to exercise such an extraordinary appeal. As one English esotericist put it, "all that is said and declared, and recorded in the gospel, is only a plain record of that which is said and done, and doing in yourself."
The Son of God comes to earth. Despite his high stature, he is born in humble, even wretched circumstances. He grows up and takes his place on the stage of history, winning friends and disciples and making enemies as well. Eventually he suffers a brutal and humiliating death. But it does not matter. He is resurrected on the third day, in a new and more resplendent form.
Sons of God
This is Christ’s story, but it is our story, as well. We, too, are sons of God, or, for that matter, gods. We have made our descent into the realm of matter, where we are crucified on a cross known as time and space. But for us, too, it does not matter: what is deepest and most true about us is immortal and indestructible.
The problem is that we have forgotten this fact. An allegorical Gnostic tale called "The Hymn of the Pearl" makes this point. It tells of a young man whose royal parents send him to Egypt (which symbolically represents material existence) to retrieve a pearl that has been lost at the bottom of the sea. The young man makes the journey, but while he is in Egypt, he recounts, the Egyptians "marked that I was not their countryman, and they ingratiated themselves with me, and mixed me [drink] with their cunning, and gave me to taste of their meat; and I forgot that I was a king’s son and served their king."
Like the young man in this tale, we have made the "descent into Egypt" – into physical manifestation – and we have forgotten where we came from. In the story, the young man’s parents send him a messenger, an eagle, to remind him. He wakes up and goes on to accomplish his mission. In inner Christianity, the eagle symbolizes the teachings that can liberate us from our bondage to the world of illusion and remind us of our true nature.
Although this tale comes from an apocryphal text, we can easily see how it resonates with much of the New Testament. In the parable of the prodigal son, for example, the younger son asks his father for his share of his father’s inheritance and squanders it in a foreign country. When the money has run out, he repents of his actions and returns to his father. As in "The Hymn of the Pearl," the foreign country represents the material plane and the father’s house the heavenly dimension.
How, then, is this liberation achieved? It is not merely a matter of repentance and salvation for sin. This is nothing but a preliminary. In the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, alcoholics admit "to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs; were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character; humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings; made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all" and "made direct amends to such people wherever possible." This is a capsule summary of sin and redemption. Like the alcoholic, every human being has moral flaws and failings; he must acknowledge them, repent of them, and make amends. But this is not the end of the spiritual path. It is only the beginning. Something far deeper must happen. Consciousness itself must be liberated.
This has always been known in inner Christianity, for example, in the hesychastic tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy. The word hesychasm comes from the Greek hesychia, or "inner peace." The texts of the hesychastic tradition – gathered in a collection known as the philokalia – speak of gaining this inner peace through the liberation of something called the nous.
Nous is a Greek word that has been translated many ways, often misleadingly. Essentially it means "consciousness." It is that in us which says "I." Remember that God, speaking to Moses from the burning bush, revealed his name as "I am that I am." This is our innermost nature, as it is God’s. It is also the point within us where we connect with God.
But what in us says "I" and HOW it says "I" are crucial. This "I" is not the little self of the ego, even though we usually think it is. Most of the time we are identified with our thoughts, emotions, reactions, bodily sensations – what the esoteric Christian tradition calls "passions." Living at this level is what Paul means when he speaks of being "carnal." We limit our knowledge of reality to physical reality – the nous or consciousness has become stuck to what it desires. The process of detaching the consciousness from these passions is one of the central tasks of inner Christianity.
This consciousness, the true "I," exists in all of us; it cannot be killed or destroyed; indeed it is the only part of us that is truly immortal. But most of the time it is submerged in the loud roarings of the body and the ego. And for this reason, this true "I" at first is very small and very weak. One of the most common metaphors for it in the Gospels is a "seed," because initially it exists as a potentiality. It is up to us to cultivate it, to become aware of it, and ultimately recognize its unity with the larger Self that is the common life of all humans and indeed of all creatures. And esoterically speaking, this is the Christ. If we reach this level, we attain the state of which Paul speaks when he says, "I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me" (Gal. 2:20).
Knowledge of these truths has always been preserved in inner Christianity. I have mentioned the hesychastic tradition (which still survives in Eastern Orthodoxy), but there have been many others: the Gnostics of antiquity; the Cathars of the twelfth and thirteenth century; and other medieval groups of seekers such as the Friends of God and the Brethren of the Common Life. In more recent times, it has been preserved in small groups that have studied the Kabbalah and the teachings of the Rosicrucians. And in the last century, many of these impulses bore fruit and reached a wide audience in various teachings of the New Age.
Far more profound
Although above I have only given the shortest and sketchiest description of this liberation and illumination of the true "I," it should be clear even from what I’ve said that this secret is far more profound and far more central to our lives than are such questions as whether Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene or whether there was a Priory of Sion that kept their bloodline alive. Esoterically speaking, these latter issues are "blinds" – distractions to waylay the credulous. If you become preoccupied with them, you can, like the characters in The Da Vinci Code, spend endless amounts of time stumbling into dead ends and never find anything of the slightest value. And as long as you continue to believe that the essential truths of esotericism are about someone else – about Jesus, about Mary Magdalene, about any number of other figures, however alluring and mysterious – you will miss the essential point.
Although it is by no means bad news to be reminded that we are divine beings, it can be a hard and sobering truth to face. It is so because in a curious way we both overvalue and undervalue ourselves. We overvalue ourselves with ordinary egotism, in which we are constantly preoccupied with "my" standing in the world, trying to set ourselves apart from and above everyone else. And yet at the same time and by this very action we deprecate ourselves, because we have forgotten that our true reality is not about such things; it is not dependent on them, and we do not need to be slaves to them.
We are like the young man in "The Hymn of the Pearl"; we have forgotten who were are and why we came. As a saying attributed to the second-century Gnostic teacher Valentinus puts it, "What makes us free is the knowledge of who we were, what we have become; where we were, where we have been thrown; whereto we speed, wherefrom we are redeemed; what is birth and what rebirth." This knowledge has always been kept alive in Christianity, as it has in all the other great traditions, and although it may take many forms and wrap itself in the guise of many systems and philosophies, if we look for it, it will always be there to comfort and to free us.