Friday, February 20, 2009

Religion and spirituality: Part II

I. Reflections on religion

It will be clear from what I have said that my conception of spiritual development is evolutionary. It is a process that passes from generation to generation, gaining momentum, if you will, towards its ultimate goal. It seems to me that the Buddha achieved the very highest degree of advancement during his lifetime, though this represented the accretion of development over many lifetimes. That he was on the verge of achieving what I have called supra-consciousness, and was aware of the fact, is evident from his own teachings. I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was also on this path of enlightenment, though he was killed too early for him to continue the process. His teaching remains reflective of a conceptual approach to God, to whom he refers in such anthropomorphic terms as father and king, and as dwelling in heaven.

I have noted that to insist that Jesus was the incarnation of God is, in my view, a kind of blasphemy. It is also pointless, since it means that he was the flesh-and-blood presence of the conceptual God, which, I have said, cannot exist except in the minds and hearts of believers. This is so because the concept of God is nothing more than a projection of human nature and human experience. Jesus becomes, in effect, the incarnation of incarnation – the flesh and blood presence of that which has been projected by human beings. Jesus as God is, then, man as God, which is a circular argument, since man created this God to begin with. The man, Jesus, is therefore a reflection of man’s reflection of himself as God. And as I have said, this is a pointless statement.

That a cult of personality has formed around the historical Jesus is no more his fault than it is, strictly speaking, the fault of those who adhere to it, but if some degree of spiritual development may be achieved through such adherence, then so much the better. However, it has been my experience that the institutionalization of the teaching of Jesus forms a definite obstacle to spiritual progress. This is so because it not only focuses one’s efforts on a concept of God, but it further deflects spiritual progress by attaching supreme importance to the person of Jesus of Nazareth. This cultic devotion to an individual is, as I have suggested, more a response to natural human needs than it is a gesture of the detachment from being that is a prerequisite for any spiritual advancement.

Indeed, so fanatical does this worship of the person of Jesus become that it replaces even the search for Truth itself. Thus, we find Dostoevsky writing in his journal: 'Even if it could be proved to me that the Truth lies outside of Christ, I would abandon the Truth and follow Christ.' This slavish devotion to the person of Jesus is nothing like what Jesus clearly intended in his teachings, if we can have confidence that the Gospels do, indeed, accurately reflect those teachings. The highest form of his teaching, as Tolstoy and so many others have averred, is the principle of universal love and absolute non-resistance to evil. Yet, in characteristic fashion, these are the very principles which the churches founded in his name (almost all of them) have been so quick to mitigate, or to abandon altogether.

Yet it should be clear to anyone who considers the matter, that adherence to these principles would be a significant step in the direction of spiritual development. And so, for this very reason, virtually none of the Christian churches forwards them as their first principles; instead, reinterpreting them to the point where they are scarcely recognizable. If one were to ask most Christians what the founding principles of their religion are, they would most likely point to this or that organizing principle of their denominations, or to some dogma or precept which characterizes them. But few, if any, would cite the salient teaching of Jesus; namely, that one should offer no resistance to evil under any circumstances, but, instead, should return love for evil.

The reason for this obfuscation is clear: non-violence and non-resistance to evil would strip any institution, including a church, of its power to regulate and control the lives of its members, by denying to it the force of coercion. Without that power, no church could collect money, organize a hierarchy, interact with temporal power, defend itself, or enforce its regulations. In short, the fundamental teaching of Jesus has been negated, since it would render the institutionalization of his doctrine impossible. And so, while there can be perhaps be an authentic Christian community, there can be no authentic Christian church, since such an institution defies the very essence of Jesus’ teaching.

I would say that such so-called primitive Christian communities as the Amish, the Hutterites and, perhaps, the Quakers, represent viable incorporations of Jesus’ teaching, but even these remain reflective of the conceptual approach to God, and, as such, may be impediments to spiritual progress. Until one frees oneself from the concept of God, no real spiritual advancement is possible, in my view.

Religion, then, is the quite normal and natural response of man to the need for some acknowledgment of his spiritual essence. In its purest form, it substitutes community for the individual search for Truth; in its most destructive form, it substitutes institutions, dogma, and authority for that search. Having been raised in the Roman Catholic Church, I am fully aware of this destructive effect. The Roman Church imposes on its adherents a gigantic and rigid institution, in which obedience to authority and adherence to dogma are paramount. Very little is said of the essential teaching of Jesus, and, indeed (despite their denials), Church authorities actively discourage the private reading of scripture.

I think, therefore, that the first step on the path to spiritual development is the freeing of oneself from institutional religion; indeed, I believe that this step is indispensable. If it is not taken, one will remain a slave to the institution, which substitutes for the search for Truth its own power, authority, and dogma. Beyond that, liberation from the community of believers becomes necessary at the point where one feels sufficiently confident and strong to undertake a personal search for Truth.

Both of these steps are forms of the detachment from being which is in the nature of the spiritual quest. But to think that adherence to the authority and dogmas of an institution, or even identification with a community of like-minded believers, will lead to the discovery of Truth is muddle-headed and dangerous. This is so because that which is being sought cannot be contained in an institution, nor can it be embodied in a community. It can be found only in the discovery of the essence of the self, and in order to do that, one must divest oneself of all forms of being to the greatest extent possible.


It has been quite some time, over a year, in fact, since I have added to, or even read, these thoughts on religion and spirituality. I have been remiss, and I apologize. I will endeavor to make up for this deficiency in the coming weeks.

Further thoughts on religion:

The desire of humans to identify with something greater than themselves seems clearly to be an inherent part of our nature. Indeed, it is so rare (in my experience, at least) that one encounters a person who does not evince this need, that I do not hesitate to say that what we may call the religious impulse is an integral part of being human.
Where does this impulse come from? It is common to argue that it arises in man’s sense of limitedness, in his loneliness, and in his hope, aspiration and awe. The theologian Paul Tillich has written that anyone’s concept of God will be in direct proportion to the grandeur of his surroundings. This may be true, but to the extent that it is true, it reveals a failing in the religious impulse. This failing lies in the tendency to equate the source of religion with that which lies outside the self. God becomes ‘the Other’ to which we must aspire, and with which we seek to bond our lives. The religious impulse, then, becomes outwardly directed, rather than inwardly concentrated, and this, I think, is the most common mistake of organized religions.
Whether it is the sun, or the stars, or a distant mountain top, or the conceptual God of Western religion, the Other remains always disjoint from man, a target, if you will, for the bullets of his belief. Once this idea takes hold, all sorts of mischief enter in, for if the divine is another, a distant being qualitatively different from ourselves in time and space, then some intermediary is needed to approach it and to interpret its will. It is into the gap between humanity and deity that all manner of religions, dogmas and, frankly, scoundrels and fanatics rush, in a desperate striving to position themselves as priests and propitiators of the deity. In so doing, they gain a unique form of power over their fellows, which includes not only money, status and ego gratification, but actual and alleged power over the lives and souls of other people. It is, therefore, in the interest of such priestly classes to keep the divine distant and mysterious, and to keep the faithful relatively ignorant and dependent. The fact is that, so long as religion is other-directed rather than inwardly directed, people will be subject to the manipulations and hypocrisy of a professional clerical class.
Yet simple questions remain: If God dwells in each of us, what do we need the clerics for? If we are creations of God, if we are extensions of God, if our souls are at one with God, what do we need the clerics for? If the kingdom of God is within you, what do you need them for? If, to discover and experience God you have only to look into your own heart and soul, what do you need them for? What need have you of churches, communities, rituals, dogmas, catechisms, indeed, what need of scriptures and exegesis and sacraments? The assumption behind all of these necessities is, I am sorry to have to say, the same one that lies behind progressive politics in this country; namely, the idea that people are incapable of learning and achieving and developing and securing their own lives without the aid of authority. In the case of religion, this authority is a church; in the case of politics, it is the government.
Man’s dependency, whether on church or state, makes him a slave, and denies to him the possibility of achieving enlightenment, and an understanding of the meaning of his life. If we are ever to free ourselves of this religious dependency, which condemns us to a lifetime of ignorance and spiritual obscurantism, we must first free ourselves of the malign and hobbling influence of religion. It is for this reason that I have argued that religion, and the conceptual God upon which it is based, form the single greatest obstacle to spiritual advancement faced by man. And it is not until man breaks through or leaps over this obstacle than his true spiritual life can begin.
And yet, this is, as I have said, a frightening prospect. A Catholic friend to whom I voiced it reflexively asked: But where is the intimacy? The question stunned me. Is that why you adhere to your religion, I wondered: because it offers you some false sense of intimacy? Where is the intimacy with a conceptual God who inhabits regions beyond human experience, who has no form, no aspect, no immediacy? Is it the rituals of the church that you cling to, with their reassuring sense that you are in contact with something greater than yourself? What kind of charade is this? You may as well intoxicate yourself with drugs and hallucinate some imminence of the divine as bask in religious rituals for your sense of closeness. It is a lie, an illusion, a phony sense of community and connection carefully orchestrated by the church in an effort to foist on you the impression that you are near to God. What is it that you are looking for in your ‘intimate’ religion? A mother? A lover? A friend? You will not find it there except in the churlish metaphors that have been spun around the essential emptiness of your doctrines. And, indeed, religion always couches its canons in homespun imagery, precisely in an effort to make you feel comfortable, to make you believe that what you seek in the Other is what you are used to in your immediate surroundings. And so, to Tillich’s observation I would add this: Anyone’s concept of God is in direct proportion to the intimacy he experiences in his life.