Friday, 5 January 2018

Religion and the Spiritual Path

I was recently challenged on The Orthosphere (in a friendly way I think) about the fact that I don't subscribe to any official form of Christianity.  This is something that I have thought long and hard about, and my conclusions are not lightly taken. They are personal and I would not recommend them to everyone since there is a risk that if you go it alone you will fall into spiritual disobedience and vainglory. Not to mention illusion and deviation from the true path. Nevertheless one must follow where one's inner calling leads.

One of the commentators seemed to compare the effect of my writing on this blog to that of the demonically inspired Weston on the Lady in C.S. Lewis's Voyage to Venus. It's rather disconcerting to find one is being compared to the serpent in the Garden of Eden. But perhaps he meant it sounded too persuasive rather than was spiritually deceptive. I'm not sure, but I do understand the reaction of someone who is trying to hold onto truth in a world in which it comes under fire from every side, and does so by keeping faithful to orthodox religion which is like a rock in a stormy sea by which I mean a sanctuary amidst chaos. And there is nothing worse than someone who seems to agree with you in most things but then suddenly contradicts what you regard as a fundamental truth. A false friend is worse than a declared enemy, and I don't doubt that this is one of the ways in which the devil operates, pretending to be on your side just as a means of leading you astray in the end. 

And yet I have to say I don't see myself in that light. Let me be clear. I do not reject Christianity or think I'm too good for it or even, despite what I've said elsewhere, think I've outgrown it in its essence as taught by Christ. But I find I cannot give my full spiritual allegiance to any church that exists in the world today, and I write for people like me who may have turned away from the Christianity they grew up with because of its perceived shortcomings but still regard Christ as the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Anyway this is what I wrote (slightly revised) in response to my questioners, though it hasn't been put up yet. Here's a link to the post on the Orthosphere (a very good one by the way) with the discussion I am referring to in the comments below.

"I find myself in the awkward position of agreeing and disagreeing with both of you. I don't reject anything of Christianity. I think it is the most important thing to have happened in this world by an immeasurable distance. I regard myself as a Christian, and increasingly so as time goes by.

But, at the same time, none of the forms Christianity takes in the modern world answers all my spiritual questions. Christ does, but the churches founded in his name all seem to lack something. I wish that was not the case. Does this make me arrogant or just someone who thinks that eventually we are summoned to find the truth within ourselves and make it our own?  I don't know but I do know that in my heart I cannot give myself unreservedly to any religion in its modern form, and they are all modern in the sense that they are maintained now by modern people and adjusted, even if in subtle ways, to the modern world.

You say that any religion that can be outgrown is not a true religion in the first place. I see what you mean and I don't disagree but I think religions are a bit like the Sabbath, made for man rather than man being made for them. So they, especially Christianity, of course, contain everything necessary for salvation but there can also come a point at which they are like a suit which begins to pinch a little under the arms and around the waist etc. Does Christianity really contain everything of Christ? Did he not say in John 16 that "I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come”? 

But still I am well aware of how an attitude such as mine can lead one into illusion and spiritual narcissism. I see that as a risk I have to take and pray constantly that I may be safeguarded from falsehood and pride.

It might be said that since the Reformation every non-Catholic is a heretic anyway. Once you allow any form of Christianity other than Catholicism or Orthodoxy the cat is out of the bag, surely? But I was not born a Catholic and it would always be something foreign for me as would Orthodoxy. If I converted, it would not be natural and I could not accept all the religion's claims. I was raised in the Church of England but, frankly, that abandoned any realistic claim to teaching spiritual truth long ago. Where do we turn in an age in which all outer forms seem to be crumbling? My only answer is to the living image of Christ in our own hearts together with scripture and religious teaching. But we are not obliged to be restricted to that and God has given us a mind in the heart in order to know him directly ourselves.

I agree that we can't be fully spiritual through our own efforts, only through Christ or the grace of God. But are Christ and the Christian churches necessarily always the same thing? And are we not ultimately required to discover the truth within ourselves? To know truth you must be it, and to be it, it must come from within. All religions at the end of the day are external things or so I believe. There is nothing in this world that is perfect and wholly true other than Christ himself.

I take your comments seriously and I know the risks of a personal approach to spirituality However, when all is said and done, we have to be true to what we feel within ourselves. We just have to make sure it's a true feeling and not a whim or temptation to spiritual pride. Christ is more than any church and cannot be restricted to that. That's my view. I realise it would not be shared by everyone but I think we live in an interesting time when the unfolding of our spiritual nature is the subject of an experiment which can either take us much further forward to a greater future or else leave us lost in egotistic darkness. It's a risk but the gains are worth it if we are true to the reality of God within ourselves. If we are not, well, that's our own fault. It's all to do with personal responsibility."

In conclusion, I would never try to draw anyone away from the Christian religion even though I feel some modern forms of it are not true to the spirit of Christ. I think religion is absolutely essential for the world. Look where we are without it. Deeper in spiritual crisis with every year that passes. I still go to church sometimes but, for me, spiritual truth is primarily an inner thing and I must find it in and for myself, though always seeing it in the light of Christ who is the pole star. Perhaps what this comes down to is the difference between salvation and theosis, the inner transformation of the soul. Religion is very necessary for salvation, there can be no doubt about that, but I believe that if we are truly to become what God intends us to be we have to balance it with an inner awareness that will sometimes have to come first. That, I think, is what both Christ and the Buddha did with the religion of their day, and, though we are clearly not Christ, nor even the Buddha, there is still a sense in which they serve as examples for us to emulate. For Christ doesn't just say follow me. He also says, be like me. This can lead to spiritual pride but it can also be acceptance of spiritual responsibility.

I have learnt, and continue to learn, an enormous amount from religion, and it gives expression to a good deal of what I know, but I am not able to fully subscribe to any church in this day and age. Perhaps that reflects my upbringing and certain experiences I have had, but perhaps too it is the consequence of living in a world that is near the end of an age or spiritual cycle. 

One thing I must point out, though, is that those who do without the external discipline and structural support of a religion must be extra self-disciplined in their spiritual approach or they will drift into shallow waters.


Anonymous said...

"One thing I must point out, though, is that those who do without the external discipline and structural support of a religion must be extra self-disciplined in their spiritual approach or they will drift into shallow waters."

Yes, and most people cannot manage the self-discipline required, and need the structure of organised religion. Yours is a path to be followed rarely.

I always think Evelyn Underhill has something helpful to say, and the following quote is no exception.

"The people of our time are helpless, distracted and rebellious, unable to interpret that which is happening, and full of apprehension about that which is to come, largely because they have lost this sure hold on the eternal; which gives to each life meaning and direction, and with meaning and direction gives steadiness. I do not mean by this a mere escape from our problems and dangers, a slinking away from the actual to enjoy the eternal. I mean an acceptance and living out of the actual, in its homeliest details and its utmost demands, in the light of the eternal; and with that peculiar sense of security which only a hold on the eternal brings. When the vivid reality which is meant by these rather abstract words is truly possessed by us, when that which is unchanging in ourselves is given its chance, and emerges from the stream of succession to recognise its true home and goal, which is God - then, though much suffering may, indeed will remain, despair, will cease.

This, of course, is what religion is about ...".

Bruce Charlton said...

The big test case for our time is the sexual revolution - if a person leaves or stays outside a church and embraces one or all aspects of the sexual revolution (or indeed some other mainstream secular practice that is forbidden within the proper Christian churches) then this probably points to a false, and not Christian motivation.

Other than that, I don't see that obedience to a group norm is intrinsically less corrupt than personal discernment - especially since in our world, here and now, almost all institutions - including churches - are very obviously very corrupt.

William Wildblood said...

That is certainly a big indicator of whether an individual is true or not. Perhaps one can extend it to the wider matter of purity, mental and spiritual. Of course, no one is completely pure but a recognition of the importance of purity and the attempt to live as holy a life as possible is essential to proper spirituality. That and the love of God.

But I understand the concerns of those who think that trying to be spiritual without doing so in the context of a proper religion has the potential to lead to deception.

Moose Thompson said...

"I could not accept all the religion's claims."

But isn't this the crux of the issue? As wonderful as Orthodox Catholic and Protestant institutions are, isn't it the exclusivist claims to the truth that intelligent modern people find hard to believe? Traditional Protestant Christianity teaches the doctrine of sola scripture, biblical inerrancy and salvation through a faith that normally assumes these doctrines, without which one is damned to hell. The Catholic Church teaches that human kind only (at least until Vatican 2) has access to saving grace through the sacraments of the church, without which one is again damned. Such claims make enormous demands on believers that are difficult for individuals to adhere to without cultural supports that past era's have had.

Frithjof Schuon distinguished between esoteric truth of a religion and the exoteric form religions take. If I read him correctly he regarded the exoteric forms as necessary, but untrue in their (obviously) contradictary claims. William - is this your viewpoint as well? Sometimes I feel like I'm missing something on this topic...

William Wildblood said...

I don't go along with the Traditionalist idea that a person must belong to an exoteric religion in order to lead a proper spiritual life. I see the reasoning behind it because a personal path can be fraught with difficulties but it seems to me that if you do as Schuon suggests you are setting up a kind of dualistic split within yourself and following something outwardly that you don't really believe inwardly. That seems to be what Schuon himself did. His version of Islam was very heterodox.

Besides I think that Schuon's interpretation of the esoteric core of religion was wrong. It's basically advaita whereas I would say that the heart of spiritual truth is the Trinity which allows for the full reality of the one and the many and means that existence is fundamentally personal.

Religions are necessary for those who do not have an inner connection to God which is most of us or even all of us to a degree, but if we are to develop spiritually as we should than our primary task is to follow and develop that connection, and for that adherence to a religion and all its dogmas and doctrines and rituals, and what is a religion without those, may be a hindrance.

What is more, humanity grows and changes, and the religions of the past, great as they were, may no longer be sufficient to meet our spiritual needs. The problem is there's nothing to replace them and that drives us within, but that may be the intention

Anonymous said...

"The problem is there's nothing to replace them and that drives us within, but that may be the intention."

Sudden image of a child with his bicycle, one foot on the floor, pressing his other foot onto a pedal ready for the off. The fear, the thrill, as he wobbles, then the pleasure and the "Wheeeeeeee" as he leaves his former self on the pavement, and he zooms off into his future without stabilisers for the first time.

Intense, wonderful, and full of meaning, I remember it well.

William Wildblood said...

Me too. Good analogy. There is the risk of falling over at first though. We just have to get back in to the saddle.

David Balfour said...

Just read this post and comments now. It pretty much covers what was on my mind before and the source of my rather convoluted comments. I can see that we we both have a very similar perspective on this post topic.