Lots of people talk about their religious conversion. Few speak about their religious unconversion. Google gave me 7,150,000 results for “religious conversion” and just 187 for “religious unconversion.”
I hope to make it 188. I’m proud of my unconversion. Much prouder than of my previous conversion. For it is more challenging to embrace a universal spiritual openness and uncertainty than a defined spiritual system and its corresponding dogma.
Each unfaithful person has their own unconversion story. Google gave me “Escape From Religion, My Untestimony,” the tale of an increasingly questioning Christian, and a (long) riff on “The Meaning of Life” by a thoughtful ex-Catholic who now subscribes to a religion of personal growth.
In my own case, it took me a long time to realize that I was in a religion that I needed unconversion from. Christianity is an obvious religion. Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB), a.k.a. Sant Mat, Science of the Soul, Surat Shabd Yoga, is an unobvious religion. For it emphasizes a mystical practice of meditation and claims to be a scientific means of self- and god-realization.
I took this claim at face value for nearly thirty years. I believed that I’d escaped from the false promises of traditional religions and their insistence that salvation depends on belief, rather than the other way around. That is, I thought that in RSSB one comes to believe in a mystic truth after directly experiencing it—which would make this a spiritual science.
But gradually I started to see that my chosen faith had almost as many hallmarks of religion as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. Since the RSSB philosophy is virtually indistinguishable from Sikhism, which definitely is an organized religion, this shouldn’t have been such a shock to me.
Somehow, though, I’d come to feel that since a central tenet of RSSB is that a living guru or master is essential for making true spiritual progress (while for traditional Sikhs a holy book, the Adi Granth, fills this role), I was a member of a non-religious group.
And yet, I’d sit through RSSB sermons (satsangs) where, if I simply transposed the word “Jesus” for “guru,” the talk could have been given in a Christian church:
“God has sent the guru to take us back to Him…The guru takes our sins on his own shoulders…Faith in the guru is all-important…Unless a person submits himself to the guru, he can’t be saved…The guru will meet us at the time of death and keep us out of the devil’s hands.”
I was torn. I enjoyed hearing that because I’d been initiated by a supposedly Perfect Living Master (PLM) who is considered to be God in Human Form (GIHF), my worries were over. My soul now was saved from the wheel of reincarnation. Within a maximum of four lifetimes the PLM would see to it that I was back in the lap of God, because he had the power to do this, being GIHF.
Now, the four lifetimes bit wasn’t pleasant news. Naturally I’d prefer that my salvation occur immediately, if not sooner, since the Brian Hines that I’m interested in getting saved obviously wouldn’t be around in even one succeeding lifetime. I mean, if I’m going to be saved, what’s the point if I’m not going to know about it?
Nonetheless, salvation in any form of consciousness—even one where all sense of my personal identity had been lost—sounded a lot better than eternal damnation. So I continued to listen to the RSSB sermons, playing my little game of theological transposition by saying “Jesus” inside my head every time I heard “guru” or “master.”
Until the split between my heart and my head began to tear me apart. My intuitive heart was telling me, “You’re becoming a religious fundamentalist, thinly disguised in a mystic’s garb.” My reasonable head was saying, “You’ve invested so much into becoming a devout believer, you can’t throw all that away now.”
It was a long-dead Greek mystic philosopher, Plotinus, who was instrumental in healing me. In the course of writing a book (Return to the One) about Plotinus’ spiritual teachings, I came to realize that my intuition and my reason, my heart and my head, didn’t have to be at odds.
In other words, I could seek spiritual truth in an open-minded, scientific, non-dogmatic, inclusive fashion, just as Plotinus and his fellow Greek philosophers did several thousand years ago. All I had to do was hold onto the open-minded, scientific, non-dogmatic, and inclusive aspects of my current spiritual practice, and jettison the rest.
Dogma overboard! I enjoyed hearing the sound of my excessively rigid beliefs splashing into the deep waters of Mystery, hopefully never to resurface. A year and a half ago I wrote about what was happening to me: “I’ve become the person I warned myself about.” I said:
I’ve become the heretic that I used to warn myself about, one of those who thinks for himself and doesn’t follow the party (or Master’s) line simply because the word has come down from on high, “This is how it should be done.” Yes, I start with this. However, if that turns out to be more efficacious than this, I make the change. Such is the way of science. And also of nature. Flexibility. Adaptability. Openness. Evolution.Religious conversion means confining yourself in a box. It may be a better box than what you were in before—happier, more loving, healthier—but it’s still a box. Yet while you’re in the box of a particular religion or spiritual path, the message you’re going to hear is that God, Allah, Buddha-nature, the Tao, or whatever, is beyond all confines, all descriptions, all bounds, all attempts to limit the limitless.
So it’s entirely natural to experience a religious unconversion after being converted. More than natural, it’s essential if you want to follow a spiritual path all the way to the ultimate. As the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart put it so simply, you have to take leave of “God” in order to find God.
“God” is shorthand for all of the concepts, theologies, beliefs, dogmas, and rituals that stand between us and the embrace of naked reality (I recall that Rumi said, “lovers want each other completely naked”). The religious impulse begins by looking through a doctrinal fence at the glories that lie beyond. Then, it smashes that fence.
There’s no other way to get to the other side: Mystery. Which to me means Oneness. What is more mysterious than unity? Yet the One is what we’re all seeking, according to Plotinus:
For each thing wishes not just for being, but for being together with the good...For all individual things do not strive to get away from each other, but towards each other and towards themselves; and all souls would like to come to unity, following their own nature.
To unity, following their own nature. Not someone else’s nature. Their own.
For the One is everywhere and in everything. Including me. That’s the gift I got from Plotinus, the dawning of a realization that God, the One, can’t be bounded. There’s no way you can draw a box around God and say “this is outside, and this is inside”—because the One is, clearly, One.
Unconversion. That’s the path to God. Turning away from anything and everything that limits the soul. Embracing the limitless.