Many people are confused when they hear that someone’s spiritual journey is informed by more than one path. That’s understandable, mostly because we have all been trained that we should be “loyal” to our religion. The question that I would like to ask about that loyalty is precisely to whom our loyalty is owed.
At a point along my journey about seventeen years ago or so, I became very interested in the idea of becoming part of a religious Order that allowed me to continue to live in the world and yet be connected to a community. It was almost as if there was a part of me that wanted to belong to something that was larger than my local church, because I had seen how volatile local parishes can be. Over the years I have been involved with several organizations that were religious Orders or communities, and one of the vows that are frequently taken is a vow of obedience. In formal religious Orders, the vow of obedience is often to the Superior of the Order – but is it appropriate to vow complete obedience to a human being? I don’t believe so. One of the statements I read somewhere along the way said that, “complete obedience is due only to God.” That resonated with me in a deep way, and I believe that statement is true not just to people in religious communities but to people in all walks of life. Regardless of how you define or envision God – from the old man in the sky with the white hair and beard, to the source and sustainer of all that is, to love and interconnectedness – you will probably agree that obedience to your understanding of God’s desire for your life is a good idea. In fact, we have all experienced that many human beings will betray our loyalties – from employers to lovers and everyone in between.
Why, then, would we believe we owe obedience to a human institution? Can we see that it is to our church’s great advantage that we don’t look around on the spiritual journey? Whether we like it or not, religious institutions have expenses that need to be met and meeting those expenses require members who contribute on a regular basis. Fidelity to one’s church makes financial sense to the church, and so it is in the church’s best interest to keep everyone on the farm. I’m not suggesting that anyone inside the church is being intentionally deceptive or dishonest. They are just relaying the truth as it has always (to their way of thinking) been understood.
What do we do when we discover that the practices and/or teachings of our church don’t address all of our needs and questions? More importantly, what do we do when we see that the practices and/or teachings of our church are in direct conflict with our own sense of right and wrong? I was a member of an Episcopal Church in the 1990s when Bishop Walter Righter was tried for heresy for ordaining an openly gay man to the diaconate. Our rector, for whom I had and still have a great deal of respect, stood up in church during the announcements and said that the shame of it all is that this trial would cost three million dollars and we were wasting that kind of money on those people. Those people, of course, were the LGBT community. I wrote him a long letter and told him that I profoundly disagreed with his statement. We met, had a nice discussion, and he suggested I come to the early Friday morning service that was followed by breakfast. I went, and the trial came up for discussion and most of the men at breakfast agreed with the rector. I didn’t know any of them well, and it was my first time at breakfast, so I just listened. Afterwards my rector said that those people didn’t see the issue as I did, and I responded that was certainly their right – but I also knew my truth. We were able to continue building our relationship because we were able to agree to disagree. There was room for divergent opinion, as there should be.
However, a few years later when my bishop told me that “people like” me – abuse survivors – could never be normal, I new it was time to go. I didn’t leave Christianity, however. It was about a year after my discussion with the bishop that I was introduced to Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Living Buddha, Living Christ that I was not only exposed to the many similarities between Christ and the Buddha, but also to a way of working with my mind that made sense. I hasten to point out that my Christian spiritual director had tried to teach me contemplative prayer, which is essentially the same thing as meditation, but his instructions didn’t resonate with me whereas the Buddhist instructions did. I also felt very connected to several Buddhist concepts and teachings – most of which were saying the same things that many Christian teachings were saying, but in a different way. What I discovered was that I could, so to speak, have my cake and eat it to. I found that Buddhism helped my understand who God was in a clearer way than I ever had before, that meditative practice helped my experience God more clearly that before, and the evolving image of God which we all have throughout our lives achieved much more clarity. That being said, I am still a Westerner who was raised a Christian. I still find the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth extremely compelling – I just needed a broader vehicle.
I really believe the New Age movement was, especially in its early days, chock full of people who needed a broader approach. When the church told them not to step outside the clearly defined (by human beings) limits of what was acceptable, they left and – for the most part – left Jesus behind. I make no judgment about that, because I left institutional religion but took Jesus with me. I’m not alone in having done so. In fact, only about twenty percent of Americans are in Church on a regular basis, yet ninety-six percent of Americans believe in God. We are in the midst of the next great Reformation, only this time it’s not just a reformation of Christianity. It’s a spiritual awakening, and we are on the cutting edge! It’s a fantastic time to be alive!