Religious Lives and Spiritual Quests

In expanding your search for spiritual awareness, how can you be sure you are heading in a direction that is best for you?


The Garden of Eden as a Metaphor for Today

The story of the Garden of Eden is considered by many as evidence of man’s fall from grace and need for forgiveness because he dared seek knowledge of good and evil, taking upon himself a privilege the powerful, all-knowing God didn’t want him to have. Taken a step farther, however, you can also view the story as a metaphor for a basic conflict of the human condition.

You can choose to remain in the garden in obedience to the rules of the house, so to speak, maintain your innocence, and the authorities will give you the gift of happiness and immortality. No work required. No need to struggle with questions of what to believe. No troublesome working through of complex issues.

But what happens if you want to question authority and decide issues of right and wrong for yourself? Ah, then you get what you want — the ability to judge good and evil for yourself. HOWEVER you lose a few important perks. You won’t be taken care of, beginning with banishment from a plentiful source of food and comfort. Now you’ll have to survive by the sweat of your brow. You will have to live with the awareness you’ll die.
Quite a dilemma. And it’s something that people have struggled with for countless ages. You can live within the boundary of a garden created by religious dogma and creed set down (often with the best of intentions) by those who want to take care of you. You can accept their demand that you follow their teaching and not decide what is right and wrong by yourself. OR you can decide to judge your life through our own experience, to find your own source of meaning in life, to solve the puzzle of being human, and to follow your spiritual instincts where they will take you.

Is It Better to Stay In or To Move Out?

Depending on how the argument is framed, it can seem far better to be courageous and leave than timid and stay. Better an eagle soaring beyond the bounds of the garden than a lamb willingly penned in. But is choosing to stay such a bad thing and leaving always a noble and desired act of independence? Are those who follow teachings passed down from generation to generation unwise and gullible?

Not necessarily. It all depends on two things. The first is knowing who or what created the Garden of Eden in which you are asked to live. As we all know from events of recent years, there is no shortage of spiritual leaders who claim to be the creators and guardians of unique gardens, systems of beliefs that contain the only tree to knowledge of good and evil. Fundamentalists of every persuasion, cults, self-styled gurus and New Age charlatans abound.

The second factor that determines whether staying in the garden or leaving and striking out on your own is wise arises from how and why the choice is made. If you stay with full awareness that you are choosing to remain within the hallowed confines of an organized religion, that you want to follow, to be a disciple and to obey, then staying can be a freeing experience. After all, self-empowerment comes from making choices with awareness. You can remain inside without becoming a non-thinking zombie. There are wise, compassionate, forgiving, loving, radiant, generous and joyful individuals in every temple, synagogue, mosque and church. Religious institutions can transform lives.
On the other hand, you may want to follow the advice of the person who said something to the effect that, “Seek not what wise men found. Seek instead what wise men sought.” You may choose to live outside an organized set of beliefs. But be aware that this is no easy task. As you begin your search for the meaning of life and spirit, you have to start somewhere. Even experience is not accomplished in a vacuum. You interpret your experience based on what you sense is true from friends, books, websites (including this one), lectures, therapists, counselors, and religious leaders of all stripes. Each offers some degree of truth. They all present what they believe — through their own experience or through acceptance of what they’ve been told by others — would be good for you to know. Though you many only take a piece of this advice and a bit of that and fashion a philosophy that is uniquely ours, sorting out whom to trust and whom not to trust can take a very long time.

My challenge to you in this article is that you decide whether you want to stay within a set of beliefs given you by others, in which case I challenge you to make that decision meaningful in all areas of your life — OR decide to set out on your own spiritual quest and actually DO the work it takes to make that decision a meaningful one.

Golden Men and Wooden Goblets

In speaking about religions, Ralph Waldo Emerson was reported to have said that, “In the first generation, the men were golden and the goblets were wooden. In the second generation, the men were wooden and the goblets were golden.” This has been the history of the formation of religions throughout millennia. Just look at the founders of the great religions. Jesus, Gandhi, Mohammed, Buddha. None of them were orthodox. All were charismatic spiritual seekers, mystics, prophets, troublemakers, critics of the establishments of their day.

Why have their teachings been turned into a blueprint for millions of followers? What set these people apart? They all lived a spirited life. They all had a passion to seek the truth.

If you believe there is truth in the religion to which you subscribe, then by all means find that truth. Live the religious life and life it fully. If you choose to be a spiritual seeker, then by all means seek with all your heart and all the passion you can muster.

In either case, don’t let your life become wooden while you drink from golden goblets.

Contrast Between Religious Life and Spiritual Quest

Here, from Hymns to an Unknown God: Awakening the Spirit in Everyday Life by Sam Keen, is a comparison of what it can mean to live a religious life or to join a spiritual quest:

The Religious Life The Spiritual Quest
In the beginning is the word, the revelation, the known God In the beginning is the question, doubt, the Unknown God
The path of life is well mapped The adventure is uncharted
Chief virtue is obedience to the will of God Chief virtue is openness, waiting, listening
Repeat the sacred ways Choose, create, invent
Religious life centers on sacred objects and places: churches, shrines, texts, sacraments Spiritual life centers on profane experience, existential questions, ordinary moments
Revelation Awareness
Based on miracle, mystery, authority, a revealed scripture Based on searching for evidence of sacred in events of my life
Institutional, corporate Individual, communal
The Gothic urge to rise above it all The incarnational thrust to get to the depth of things.

When you read this list, which perspective most appeals to you — and why? Remember, one is not the “right” approach and the other “wrong.” Both are challenging ways to live and be difficult. But both offer peace of mind if accepted openly and with awareness of the choice.

© Copyright 2003, Revised 2012, Arlene F Harder, MA, MFT

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