Regular Church of the Churchless readers will have noted my antipathy toward organized religions and my corresponding fondness for spiritual independence.
It’s worth asking, “How did you become such an anti-church curmudgeon, Brian?” And since I don’t hear anyone else making this query, I’ll pose and answer it myself as briefly as possible (which won’t be all that brief, given my blogging style).
I won’t spend time delving into the psychological nuances of the first five decades of my life, other than to say that I was blessed to be raised by a divorced mother with decidedly intellectual and independent tendencies. And also, cursed. For a person’s greatest strengths also are the source of his or her greatest weaknesses.
Over the years I have probably thought more than was desirable, as I have excessively railed against organizational restrictions. Still, who I am is who I am, an unavoidable tautology that applies equally to each of us.
Up until about seven years ago I was fairly comfortable with the religious organization to which I have belonged for thirty-four years: Radha Soami Satsang Beas, or RSSB. I realize that this name won’t be familiar to many of you. However, it isn’t important to understand what sort of spiritual group RSSB is, for the themes I’ll be writing about seem to apply to virtually every religious organization—from the vast Catholic Church to the smallest sect.
I say this because over the years I’ve talked with quite a few people whose experiences have been remarkably similar to mine. A Bahai follower comes to mind. He was active in the Bahai faith and became familiar with its inner workings. The more he learned about the organization that lay behind the Bahai teachings, the more he perceived the gap between leaders’ words and actions.
That is, they were talking the talk, but not walking the walk. We all do this. I certainly am guilty of espousing ideals that I don’t live up to. But our goal should be to bring the talk and the walk into consonance: not pretending to be anything other than we are, while still striving to improve ourselves. Otherwise, we are hypocrites.
Now, a recent commenter on one of my posts implied that a spiritual group such as RSSB shouldn’t be judged on the basis of its members. At first I agreed with him, but I’ve been thinking about this off and on for a few days and have decided that I tend more toward disagreement (hey, I’m a Libra—I rarely come down solidly on one side or another).
For how else could you judge the worth of a religious organization whose stated aim is the spiritual transformation of those who pledge allegiance to it and to its leader (in this case, a guru)? If the members of the group aren’t becoming better human beings, wouldn’t you be justified in saying that the organization is failing to achieve its purpose?
Consider the Tai Chi classes that I started taking less than a year ago. Obviously I’m still a beginner, while some people in the class have been learning Tai Chi from my instructor, Warren, for over five years. Naturally Warren is highly proficient in Tai Chi. Since he’s the instructor, he should be. But what if I saw that most of the people who had been studying with him for a long time were as bad at Tai Chi as I am?
In other words, outwardly they hadn’t learned much about how to move in the harmonious, controlled, soft, continuous, flexible Tai Chi fashion. Maybe inwardly they were flowing with chi (ki). That just wasn’t apparent from their actions. In this case I’d say to myself, “Gosh, this can’t be a good Tai Chi school, given how little students learn in five years.”
This conclusion wouldn’t negate the teacher’s clear competency in Tai Chi. It just would mean that either he’s inherently a lousy teacher, or the methods he’s using to teach aren’t effective. It might also be that the students are bumbling fools, but if they appeared to be competent in other areas of their lives and were physically normal, I’d discount that explanation.
In truth, I’ve observed that the people who have studied longest with Warren are, by and large, the best at Tai Chi. A few even seem to be as proficient as he is, which shows that he’s an excellent instructor.
Yet in the case of RSSB, my experience was different. I came to see that those people who had pursued the practices enjoined by this group for the longest time, and apparently with the most diligence, hadn’t made much outwardly evident spiritual progress. And one of those people was me.
This realization struck while I was in the midst of writing my third book, “Return to the One,” which is about the spiritual teachings of a 3rd century Greek philosopher, Plotinus. Radha Soami Satsang Beas wanted to add a Mystics of the West series to their existing Mystics of the East series. I agreed to write this book in cooperation with RSSB, hopefully fulfilling both my own literary goals and those of the spiritual organization to which I had belonged for so long.
Given the length this post already has achieved, it would unduly stretch the reader’s patience if I were to go into many details of the eight-year process of researching and writing “Return to the One.” I’ll just say that it was enormously fulfilling. And also enormously frustrating.
Fulfilling, because I came to love Plotinus’ marvelous blend of grounded rationality and soaring mysticism. Frustrating, because I came to realize that high-ranking people in the RSSB organization were surprisingly beset with such human frailties as egotism, a controlling nature, closed-mindedness, and an unwillingness to compromise.
I say “surprisingly” for this reason: Naturally I was uncomfortably aware of my own weaknesses that remained after decades of daily meditation, adherence to moral/ethical vows, voluntary service, and so on. Yet I had always assumed that others who occupied an elevated position in the RSSB organization were more spiritual than I was, just as the experienced Tai Chi students in my class exhibit greater skills than I do.
This didn’t seem to be the case, however. And I’ll pretty much leave it at that, not naming names and not detailing the reasons for my disillusionment. In a few words, in the course of writing “Return to the One” I was deceived, let down, lied to, ignored, and manipulated. Such is par for the course in a business or governmental organization, but I had expected better from a spiritual group.
Hopefully I don’t sound bitter. Really, I’m not. Certainly I was disappointed at having years of my work be cast aside by people who I had trusted would treat me better. However, having lived for fifty-six years on this earth I understand, as the saying goes, that “nobody promised me a rose garden.” No, this was more a philosophical turning point for me than an emotional personal crisis.
For it finally had dawned on me that just as the RSSB people in leadership positions had failed to be spiritually transformed after many years of diligent devotional practice, so had I. Yet the difference between us was that they were much closer to the leader of this religious group, the guru, than I was. They also were much more intimately tied into the inner organizational workings of RSSB than I was. In Catholic parlance they’d be considered Vatican insiders with ready access to the Pope.
What I observed happening—and my psychotherapist wife agrees with me on this—is that holding a position of power in a religious organization exacerbates the common human tendency to assert one’s ego and exert control over other people.
Simple egotism and a desire to dominate are transformed into a more complex self-righteousness which justifies frailties as positive qualities. For example, closed-mindedness can be misconstrued as unquestioning faith and inability to compromise as acceptance of revealed truths.
In Bertrand Russell’s provocative essay, “Why I am not a Christian,” he says:
One is often told that it is a very wrong thing to attack religion, because religion makes men virtuous. So I am told; I have not noticed it…You find this curious fact, that the more intense has been the religion of any period and the more profound has been the dogmatic belief, the greater has been the cruelty and the worse has been the state of affairs…I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world.
Note that Russell speaks disparagingly of Christian religion “as organized in its churches.” He considers that belief in God is a fantasy, but reserves his harshest condemnation of religion for its institutionalized, not individual, manifestations.
So do I, though I am uncertain about the existence of God, while Russell says that “it is a conception quite unworthy of free men.” I’ve seen that whenever believers come to identify more with a particular religious organization, such as RSSB or the Catholic Church, than with an ultimate reality that transcends such petty distinctions, their spirituality becomes seriously circumscribed.
I don’t know if God is real, but I am confident that reality is real. For me, the essence of reality is what I call “God.” What it is, I don’t know. That it is, I’m persuaded by logic and science. How to realize it clearly is the mystery of all mysteries, the task of all tasks. If God can be known, and the testimony of mystics points to this conclusion, then opening oneself to a realization of the divine nature is the job of a lifetime.
I’m confident that God speaks to us in many ways. Directly, though—not through third parties. And certainly not through organizations. Religious organizations are dead. They’re legal and cultural figments of the imagination. They have no reality, no vitality, no consciousness, no love, no compassion.
When people fall into the trap of saying “I’m a Christian,” “I’m a Muslim,” or “I’m a satsangi” (in the case of RSSB), they enclose themselves in one more layer of illusion. This further distances them both from God and from their fellow human beings.
Like this fair façade, their spirituality may be superficially attractive. Yet a closer examination reveals that it lacks depth and is flimsily propped up by artificial supports: dogma, blind faith, self-righteousness, unquestioned adherence to arbitrary moral codes.
Based upon my personal experience, here’s some advice:
It’s un-organized religion that will make you a better person and point you toward the reality of God. Don’t let anyone or anything stand between you and what you seek. Worship without any intermediaries.
Become your own church. Just don’t organize your faith. Organization is a structure. What we want to do is break down the barriers between us and God, not construct new ones. Let reality speak to you in its own formless fashion.
Above all, love one another. I may not be a Christian, but I certainly subscribe to this part of the gospel. If people in your religious organization aren’t demonstrating that they understand the importance of love, flee. It’s much better to love on your own than not love as a group.