Past responses to my earlier blog essays on faith (http://www.waagnfnp.com/category/religion/progressive-faith-movement/) have made a secular case against institutional religion. Salman Rushdie in a recent Bill Moyers interview made an artistic and literary case against religious fundamentalism. My Jewish yoga teacher, Sandra, brings up the religious pluralist argument (in response to institutional Christianity in particular, which has seen fit to aggressively assert itself as the religion). Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have made the atheist argument with their respective books, The God Delusion and God Is Not Great (which are apparently the number one and two Amazon UK’s bestselling titles under “Religion and Spirituality” according to Harper’s Magazine, October 2007). Perhaps it is time to make a spiritual case against institutional Christianity from a non-institutional Christian mystic perspective.
First I must do so observing that Christianity as a form of faith is thoroughly conflicted, within its own widespread spiritual and religious body. The development of a fractured Christianity has emerged from powerful and fateful choices among various traditions within Christianity. One of the most powerful divergences was (and is) the cleaving between a “mystic” Christianity and a (let’s call it) “doctrinal” institutional Christianity.
Mystic Christianity emphasizes emulation of an historical Jesus, following of a sublime, eternal Christ, metaphorical understanding of Gospels, and the cultivated experience of spiritual truth embracing the totality of existence. This stands in contrast to “doctrinal” Christianity, which emphasizes emphatic personal (and abstract) belief in an iconic Jesus, (understood through absolute interpretations of sacred text, church doctrine, and institutional mediators) as the route to salvation and confirmation of godliness. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_mysticism)
These metaphysical differences are not trivial. The mystic tradition chooses faith, not as a thing, but a verb, a movement of the spirit and its corresponding human activities. The doctrinal tradition treats faith as a noun, an ideology of the “chosen” and the “blessed” who adhere to it. Adherents of mystic Christianity “receive” God and seek to consciously experience, express, and channel the spirit of God. Adherents of doctrinal Christianity feel they “represent” and “identify” with God in their belief, and therefore feel justified in proclaiming their rightness as an imperative.
The former lends itself to pluralism, inspiration, surprise, grace, universality, and spiritual power and insight. The latter lends itself to sectarianism, self-certitude, declaration, proselytizing, religious imperialism, assimilation, and worldly power and enforcement. This fateful choice has dogged the fiber and possibility of Christianity. From a worldly perspective, it looks as if the latter tradition has won, routing the mystics, and even frequently persecuting them.
Meister Eckhart, one of the most noted of Christian mystics, was pursued as a heretic by doctrinal Christian church authorities. For mystics, worship practice means following and channeling spiritual inspiration and energy into the world, into interpretation, poetry, theology. Institutional, doctrinal religion seems to be more interested in powerful self-anointed worldly representatives leveraging, advocating, and in many cases speaking for, the spirit. Let it be noted, that the papacy in Eckhart’s time and in our own, (or any “Christian” or Christian-derived institutional hierarchy of note, Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, or unaffiliated sects [Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, etc.]) is mainly of the doctrinal world-trumps-spirit variety (and is heir to all the weaknesses of this fateful commitment).
To a denomination, each has by and large been patriarchal, ego-driven, war-favoring, sexist, racist, idolatrous of wealth, inimical to free and critical thought, antagonistic toward artistic and creative expression, abusive of children, strangers, the suffering, poor, and dispossessed.
After stealing fortunes from ignorant and striving masses, a pittance is returned in the form of charitable actions. This is not a history that would make one proud to be a Christian, nor is it a history of Christ-following worship. In every substantive way, it is anti-Christian heresy, calling itself Christian, and calling, in a great reversal, “heretics” whoever might follow the spirit and the worldly actions that emanate from spiritual love, empathy, and knowledge.
This is the great perennial battle that is never lost even when abusive worldly religion identifies itself with universal spirit, leading people to abandon both religion and spiritual contemplation. Even then, human beings find their way back to spirit, because, being spiritual beings as well as worldly beings, human beings cannot live affectively without spirit anymore than they can live physically without water.
Institutional religion on the other hand, humans can live without, and this is the great threat toward which religion devotes most of its energies, positing itself (almost as a form of collective ego) as the necessary holy mediator between God and Human, when in reality in too many cases it has been an almost Satanic intervener. (In this regard, one need look no farther than the rampant pedophilia in the Catholic Church, as one among many comprehensive and irrefutable examples.)
The coming historical “battle” aligns spiritual with secular change agents in an effort to take on the institutional and religious dogmatists. In this, Christianity itself, is not lost or cast on one side, but rather both sides. And it is the fateful form of Christianity which shall dictate where its loyalties lie– one that follows the revolutionary example of Jesus Christ in the service of all brothers and sisters of the world, or the one that claims its own right to dictate what Jesus will be and seek to control what others can become.
Responses to “A Critique: The Spiritual Case Against Institutional Christianity”