Zeitschrift für Spiritualität und Transzendentale Psychologie 2011, 1 (2) /
Journal for Spirituality and Transcendental Psychology 2011, 1 (2)

Spirituality Check:

Esotericism and Pseudo-Esotericism

E. W. Harnack


In a society in which large ecclesiastical institutions, endowed with the power to dictate a layperson’s beliefs, do not control religious practice any more, diversity can become a problem. Who is not an expert, often needs qualified guides in order to distinguish sincere spirituality from misleading ways. An objective appraisal what can be a sincere form of spirituality and what not is difficult to find because most experts advance their own worldview. With this series of articles, called The Spirituality Check, we want to illustrate from the perspective of a transcendental science of religions what distinguishes sincere from dubious uses of spiritual terms. Therefore, a concept will be presented with its etymology, its theoretical provenience, its practical application, and its occurrence today, and will be discussed with regard to its serious applicability.

Esotericism in the past…

It is an odd thing that a term which refers to the most hidden secrets of the cosmos, to the deepest layers of the knowledge of the mysteries of our existence, can become synonymous with superficiality, deceit and mental confusion? And whose fault is it that this beautiful concept of the 19th century, the word "esotericism", today was so deranged that it actually circulates as a swear word? But what exactly is meant by the term, of which I have just said that it was made up in the 19th century? This claim is based on the fact that the first verifiable record of that term in this or a similar substantive form emerged in some writings of the 19th century. In a strange paper written in "epistles", a professor of mathematics and physics in the then already provincial university town of Frankfurt (Oder) in 1817 used the term as a substantive in the title: " Esoterika oder Ansichten der Verhältnisse des Menschen zu Gott" (Esoterika or views of the relations of man to God) by Christian Ernst Wünsch. Already Wünsch’s use of the term refers to three of its essential components: First, the stated intention of the author was that the content "not everyone ...  needs to know and should read". Esotericism thus is secret knowledge, accessible and intended not for everyone. Secondly, professor Wünsch is interested in spiritual knowledge, which in time and content is placed before any religion. Esotericism is thus knowledge of the divine mystery in the depths and the origin, beyond any single religion. Third, Wünsch refers back to classical antiquity, to the ancient knowledge containing the secrets of the divine, which is assumed the ancient world possessed. All three conceptual components are indicative of what we now call esotericism.


Dinzelbacher, Peter (1989): Wörterbuch der Mystik. Stuttgart: Kröner.

Faivre, Antoine (1992): Esoterik. Braunschweig: Aurum.

Hanegraaff, Wouter J. (1998): New Age religion and Western culture. Esotericism in the mirror of secular thought. New York: State of New York University Press.

Knoblauch, Hubert (2009): Populäre Religion. Auf dem Weg in eine spirituelle Gesellschaft. Frankfurt / New York: Campus.

Wünsch, Christian Ernst (1817): Esoterika oder Ansichten der Verhältnisse des Menschen zu Gott. Zerbst: Andreas Füchsel.




About the author:

E. W. Harnack holds a University degree in psychology and works as a licensed psychotherapist, certified clinical supervisor and independent scholar in Berlin, Germany

Weiterlesen / Proceed to the full text: