Tomorrow, the fourth of July, is Independence Day in the United States. It commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence from Britain's King George on July 4, 1776.
Here's another blast from my blog post past that I wrote on July 4, 2005. Some of my views have changed over the past fifteen years, but I still like the basic theme of this post.
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”).