- Rev. Dr. John Romanides in “Religion as a Neurobiological Illness”
Startling, isn’t it? - A world-renowned Orthodox Christian priest and theologian calling religion a “neurobiological illness” and a "fantasy"! You may remember that quotation from chapter one of The 5 Pillars of Life. I'm bringing it up here because one question I get asked frequently is:
"How do you tell which spiritual paths will transform you life and which ones will wreck your life?"
A month from now I'll have a whole new class of university students to explore that question with, as we take a really hard, analytical look at not only the world's major "religions", but contemporary spiritual trends as well.
So why is spirituality important at all? Who needs it? Simple... if you want to become a truly resilient human being, you cannot do so without a spiritual life because spiritual life, if it's real, is the only way to actualize the full potential of your being. On the most obvious level, committing yourself to high values and principles will take you beyond the narrow confines of your ego and even beyond the constraints of this short life. On a deeper level, there is no other way to open the depths of your being to a direct experience of the Absolute Reality.
Of course, a quick look at the news is all you need to convince you that what we conventionally call "religion" can be a pretty scary thing - right wing fundamentalists condemning minority groups or telling their people how "God wants them to vote", Muslim demonstrators carrying placards saying, "Behead those who insult Islam!" are just the tip of the iceberg.
You may remember that in The 5 Pillars of Life I make a clear distinction between "religions" and "Authentic Ancient Traditions" and outline the differences. People in our culture these days tend to think religion - the institutional version - is bad, whereas "spirituality" - the individual version - is good. Reality is not quite so simple. So how do you tell the kind of spiritual approach that will transform you into a saint / Bodhisattva / immortal from the kind that will transform you into a neurotic, a terrorist or a self-righteous jerk?
Powerful Questions to Ask About ANY Spiritual Path:
1. Does it insist that the only way to be saved or avoid eternal torture is to become a member and / or believe in its creed?
2. Does it tell you that God is angry, judgmental and is basically just waiting for you to slip up so He can punish you?
3. Does it give rise to a culture of guilt and shame?
4. Does it teach you that God hates "unbelievers" or that you need to convert them by force or otherwise oppress them?
5. If you try to leave this spiritual path, will your life be in danger?
6. Do its teachings give rise to large scale emotional dysfunction?
If you're involved in or thinking of becoming involved in any spiritual path where the answer to any of these questions would be "yes", then I'd suggest you run screaming in the other direction... fast.
In general, any "spiritual" path advocating violence is simply a fascist religious ideology masquerading as the will of God. Those that have moral teachings that produce emotional dysfunction are usually distorted versions (religions) of earlier Authentic Ancient Traditions.
Unless a tradition meets the following criteria, it's highly likely to be either a dumbed down version of an authentic tradition (i.e., a religion) or simply a fake from day one. Here's what every legitimate spiritual path must have or do:
1. It must teach that a total mind-body transformation of the human being is possible, that it can begin in this life and that every human being, here and now, can come to a direct experience of the Absolute Reality (God or whatever the name might be).
2. It must possess a deep spiritual teaching that includes meditation and / or unceasing noetic prayer.
3. It must be able to prove that there is an unbroken lineage of transformed people who have put this teaching into practice, been transformed by it, and can pass it on.
4. It must be able to prove that it gets the results it claims, preferably by demonstrating this across multiple cultures for several centuries.
5. It must value love, compassion and humility above all else and teach forgiveness.
These simple criteria will enable anyone to get to the truth about any tradition in short order.
If you're a Christian or if you know the New Testament well, you may remember a section from the book of Acts (5:34-40) where a Pharisee named Gamaliel says that any spiritual movement that comes from God will survive and thrive, whereas any movement not from God will just fade away. Since many Christians are used to the idea the Bible contains no errors, they may not have noticed that there's only one problem with Gamaliel's theory...
...It's plain wrong. Total crap, actually. History proves that many religious movements have existed for over a millennium, with hundreds of millions of followers, and that these same movements have given rise to near constant strife, killing, emotional dysfunction / neurosis and endless misery.
So be really careful before you commit your spiritual future to anything. If you apply the simple criteria above, though, you'll be just fine.
Next time, we'll talk about how to build a firm foundation for your spiritual life.
~ Dr. Symeon Rodger