The fourth of July is when we in the United States celebrate our country’s declaration of independence from Great Britain. It’s also a good day for anyone in the world to celebrate his or her independence from Small-Minded Religion.
Religions don’t start out this way, though: small-minded. Without exception the source of each great religion can be traced to people who somehow were able to break the bounds of normal human consciousness and experience truths beyond the sphere of everyday existence.
Moses, Abraham, Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Nanak, early Hindu sages: all shared with humankind a remarkably original revelation or philosophy. While culturally they necessarily followed in the footsteps of historical predecessors, their spiritual attainments broke new ground.
As is the case with mystics in general. It’s difficult to make contact with the divine. Reading holy books, worshipping in holy places, obeying holy men and women, carrying out holy works—these things are easy to do. They’re within the capability of almost anyone.
Such is the province of small-minded religion, where the limitless experience of great mystics is reduced to narrow confines. Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tzu, and their spiritual brethren refused to be constrained by the accepted religious teachings of their day. This is why they are called “great”: they stood above shallow traditions, possessing a vision that pierced the clouds of conventional wisdom.
In short, they were spiritually independent. But independence only grows well in the wild. It doesn’t thrive when transplanted into the rows and furrows of garden-variety religion, for the priestly classes consider spiritual independence to be a vice, not a virtue.
The strange thing, of course, is that the revered founder(s) of every religion possessed the very quality that “protectors of the faith” now assiduously attempt to stamp out in followers. Namely, an aversion to following. More precisely, an aversion to following any practice that doesn’t lead to direct experience of the highest truths.
Jesus overthrew the small-minded dogmas of the Judaism of his time. But when Meister Eckhart attempted to overthrow the small-minded conceptions of the Catholicism of his time, he was condemned by the Pope as a heretic. Thus spiritual independence becomes a vice after an original independent spiritual vision has become codified into a rigid theology of do’s and don’ts, rights and wrongs, approved truths and condemned heresies.
In my opinion, anyone who reads widely in the diverse literature of the world’s religions, and approaches these writings without preconceived notions of truth and falsehood, must almost necessarily come to this conclusion: There are many ways to the One, or God. For given the marvelous variety of spiritual and mystical experience, it must be that either (1) all but a few of those who report direct contact with the divine are deluded, or (2) divinity appears in a myriad of guises.
I lean strongly toward the second option. I find it extremely difficult to believe that only one person, or one religion, or one spiritual practice leads to the One. If ultimate reality is viewed as a mountain, with the highest truth lying at the summit, then many paths can be taken up the slopes. Only at the very top do the paths converge at unity; diversity otherwise marks the way.
So independence is the hallmark of genuine spirituality. An independent seeker of God, the One, allows divinity to reveal itself without constraints, without preconceptions, without manmade boundaries. There are no hard and fast rules in spiritual mountaineering; you make your way from where you find yourself, blazing your own trail—because your experience belongs to no one but you.
Certainly others can help support and guide you, but obviously they aren’t you. Only you can honor, preserve, protect, and, most importantly, expand, your spiritual independence.
Along these lines, as an addendum to this post I’ll share an excerpt from a 1974 essay, “Live Not by Lies,” by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Writing in the Soviet Union shortly before he was arrested and exiled to West Germany, he speaks of spiritual independence in a much more political context.
But I liked how he spoke of the choice that must be made for truth or falsehood, spiritual independence or spiritual servitude, regardless of the consequences. The applicability to those who desire to be free not of political domination, but of religious domination, is clear (a seeming typo has been changed, “talk” to “walk”).
So in our timidity, let each of us make a choice: Whether consciously, to remain a servant of falsehood—of course, it is not out of inclination, but to feed one's family, that one raises his children in the spirit of lies—or to shrug off the lies and become an honest man worthy of respect both by one's children and contemporaries.
And from that day onward he:
--Will not henceforth write, sign, or print in any way a single phrase which in his opinion distorts the truth.
--Will utter such a phrase neither in private conversation not in the presence of many people, neither on his own behalf not at the prompting of someone else, either in the role of agitator, teacher, educator, not in a theatrical role.
--Will not depict, foster or broadcast a single idea which he can only see is false or a distortion of the truth whether it be in painting, sculpture, photography, technical science, or music.
--Will not cite out of context, either orally or written, a single quotation so as to please someone, to feather his own nest, to achieve success in his work, if he does not share completely the idea which is quoted, or if it does not accurately reflect the matter at issue.
--Will not allow himself to be compelled to attend demonstrations or meetings if they are contrary to his desire or will, will neither take into hand not raise into the air a poster or slogan which he does not completely accept.
--Will not raise his hand to vote for a proposal with which he does not sincerely sympathize, will vote neither openly nor secretly for a person whom he considers unworthy or of doubtful abilities.
--Will not allow himself to be dragged to a meeting where there can be expected a forced or distorted discussion of a question.
--Will immediately walk out of a meeting, session, lecture, performance or film showing if he hears a speaker tell lies, or purvey ideological nonsense or shameless propaganda.
--Will not subscribe to or buy a newspaper or magazine in which information is distorted and primary facts are concealed.
Of course we have not listed all of the possible and necessary deviations from falsehood. But a person who purifies himself will easily distinguish other instances with his purified outlook.
No, it will not be the same for everybody at first. Some, at first, will lose their jobs. For young people who want to live with truth, this will, in the beginning, complicate their young lives very much, because the required recitations are stuffed with lies, and it is necessary to make a choice.
But there are no loopholes for anybody who wants to be honest. On any given day any one of us will be confronted with at least one of the above-mentioned choices even in the most secure of the technical sciences. Either truth or falsehood: Toward spiritual independence or toward spiritual servitude.