I agree that esoteric ecumenism is “necessarily elitist”, though I would be quick to add that “learned” is the wrong word to describe the elite in question. After all, an esoterist need not be a Ph.D.’d scholar who has read many books. But I disagree with your claim that this form of ecumenism could not have existed before the “modern age”: esoterism is a matter of spiritual temperament or type, and as such it does not depend upon period or place. I expect you’re correct in assuming that Saint Seraphim of Sarov would not have accepted Ibn Arabi’s teachings on the incarnation, though do see my post “Unlimited Limitation“. On the other hand, I believe Meister Eckhart—who like the Shaykh al-Akbar was a medieval and not a modern man—would have accepted them, or rather that he would have been able to see that the Akbarian formulations were pointing in their own way to the same Reality as were his own. In support of this claim, I recommend you read my friend Reza Shah-Kazemi’s excellent book Paths to Transcendence: According to Shankara, Ibn Arabi, and Meister Eckhart (World Wisdom, 2006).
As to the “main aim of esoteric ecumenism”, your question reminds me of a published interview in which Schuon was asked why, if religion saves us, there is also a need for metaphysics, and his rapier-like response was to say, “Because there are metaphysicians! It is because metaphysics satisfies the needs of intellectually gifted persons.” The same thing can, and should, be said about esoteric ecumenism. This mode of ecumenism is not, or at least is not necessarily, designed for ecumenical conferences and interfaith gatherings; on the contrary, it serves a priori private and not public ends—namely the ends, aims, or needs of esoterists, precisely. And yet in fulfilling these aims it will necessarily have a deeper and broader radiation. As you’ll doubtless remember, it was Saint Seraphim himself who famously taught: “Acquire inner peace, and thousands around you will find their salvation”. The same thing could be said about acquiring, or better actualizing, intellection or intellectual intuition. Esoteric ecumenism helps to promote intellection in those who are temperamentally qualified and experientially prepared, but the “witness” and existential impact of their resulting certitude cannot but have indirect consequences for other people as well. This of course is but one application of the principle nemo dat quod non habet.
Now of course to say that esoteric ecumenism is not a “modern” perspective doesn’t mean its value for our time is not distinctive. No doubt there is a kind of cosmic, or rather chronological, compensation at work in the promulgation of traditionalist or perennialist teaching in the modern and postmodern world. To quote Schuon again:
“We live in an age of confusion and thirst in which the advantages of communication are greater than those of secrecy; moreover, only esoteric theses can satisfy the imperious logical needs created by the philosophic and scientific positions of the modern world…. Religious theses are certainly not errors, but they are cut to the measure of some mental and moral opportuness; men come in time to see through the adapation as such, but meantime the truth, for them, is lost. Only esoterism can explain the particular ‘cut’ or adaptation and restore the lost truth by referring to the total truth; this alone can provide answers that are neither fragmentary nor compromised in advance by a denominational bias. Just as rationalism can remove faith, so esoterism can restore it” (Esoterism as Principle and as Way [Perennial Books, 1981], 7-8).
I’m to give a talk at an upcoming Common Word conference at the University of South Carolina (26-27 March 2009)—my title is “Who Do I Say That I AM?”—and I hope to press precisely these advantages to the full in that context.