In his book, Buddhism Without Beliefs, author Stephen Batchelor laments the morphing of the generally universal elements of Buddhist practice into differentiated Buddhist religious ‘institutions’ and belief systems through the years. Batchelor states:
“The Buddha was not a mystic. His awakening was not a shattering insight into a transcendent Truth that revealed to him the mysteries of God. He did not claim to have had an experience that granted him privileged, esoteric knowledge of how the universe ticked. Only as Buddhism became more and more of a religion were such grandiose claims imputed to his awakening.”
Batchelor believes that Buddha’s own personal experience of awakening was one of internal dignity, integrity, and spiritual wholeness– not a call for holy authority, transcendent revelation, and tightly locked-down doctrine. In fact, according to Batchelor, Buddha never envisioned himself as a savior. Nor a priest. Nor a spiritual mediator of special knowledge. Rather, he viewed his role as a healer. As a facilitator for shared human experiences of more fully awakened existence in his own time. Buddha did not appoint a successor before he died. Nor did he establish strict rules, rituals, or institutions for the continuation of his work after his death. That’s because he believed that the path of awakening was sufficiently powerful in its own right. And yet, Buddhism (as an umbrella term) is practiced by many today as a set of differentiated religions—not simply as a way of living life more fully with internal integrity.
Buddhism isn’t, by any means, the only faith tradition that has gone astray of its humbler historical beginnings. I lament the fact that many others have done so, as well. For example, my own faith tradition-of-origin, Christianity, just observed its highest of annual holy weeks last month. During the Easter season, Christians remember Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, death, and resurrection. The institutional Christian ‘church’ enshrines rituals, sacraments, pageantry, and symbols around this religiously transformational event. And it goes like this: Christ has risen from the dead. He has been crowned our glorified and resurrected Divine King– who will someday return to complete God’s work on earth. What’s lost in this view of things, however, is the fullness and complexity of the historical Jesus. For Jesus actually lived not as enthroned king, but ‘outside the gates’.
As best as we can historically discern, Jesus Christ was a Galilean Jew in his origins. The geographic region of Galilee was viewed with disdain by those in power during Jesus’ lifetime. It was located far from the epicenter of political, economic, or religious power. Galileans were a diverse people who were cruelly marginalized by others as poor, ignorant, and backwards. In his own prophetic and healing ministry, the historical Jesus was not a larger-than-life, kingly figure. He was an itinerate, traveling outsider who courageously and prophetically spoke truth-to-religious-power in ways that challenged their pious hypocrisy. And, for the most part, Jesus ministered not within the walls of institutionalized temples. Instead, he served the multitudes on the streets of his time. In his crucifixion, Jesus died outside the walls, as well. Outside the gates of Jerusalem. He was executed as a provocative and dangerous outcast, heretic, and insurrectionist. He was publicly killed in an excruciating and brutal manner explicitly intended to deter others who may have followed him. And in his death, he was thought to have been forever disgraced and disenfranchised by those in powerful circles.
According to the Bible, that’s not what happened. In fact, Christ’s Easter resurrection has been annually celebrated in the Christian faith throughout the world for more than two thousand years since. Christ is worshipped in the vast and growing multitude of churches that ‘ground’ their religion in his name. That said, it’s unlikely that Jesus ever set out to create a new, institutionalized religion while he was alive. He certainly didn’t create one during his earthly ministry. Instead, he healed, taught, fed, and nurtured others without a physical, sanctioned church building. Without an administrative structure of any real kind. Without any official sacraments (although the Gospels do speak to Christ’s baptism and the Lord’s Supper). We don’t know for sure whether Jesus read any written prayers, although he did reference existing Scripture at the time. He didn’t lobby to join the powerful Roman led government in order to influence public opinion. Nor was he striving for religious temple leadership. What he did do was this… He practiced basic table fellowship. He told stories (parables) using practical allegories that his listeners would understand. He offered prophetic challenge to entrenched, powerful interests.
Most importantly, though, he was profoundly ‘present’ with others, providing for their basic and spiritual needs. Those ‘others’ to whom he ministered were often marginalized members of society: the poor, sick, dying, outcast, and widowed. And the women and children, who were often viewed by ancient societies as mere property more than actual right-bearing human beings. Jesus’ circle of followers and listeners would not have considered Christ’s ministry a ‘church’ in any formalized sense of the word. Notwithstanding Jesus’ statement in the Bible (regarding his Disciple Peter), “On this rock I will build my church”, there is little indication that Christianity became overly formalized, centralized, and ritualized in the early period of the nascent community of followers during the decades immediately following Christ’s death and resurrection. Not until centuries later– when the Roman Emperor Constantine decreed Christianity ‘legal’ as a religion– did Christianity’s real theology and institutionalization begin to more fully take root.
This aforementioned background, by no means, cheapens the profound importance and positive impact that the institutional church has historically had around the world. In the case of Christianity, its various church denominations play a key role in faith formation, good works, social change, support and solace in times of loss, and individual spiritual sustenance. The same is true for all other religions, as well. Diverse religious institutions and practices do matter. They can be a foundational, healthy component of spirituality for countless many in our world. But this acknowledgement comes with a crucial responsibility in my opinion: our obligation, as followers, to mindfully manage and temper organized religion’s potentially ‘lower instincts’ in the same manner that we would for any other embodied, imperfect human institution.
In this regard, we should remain vigilant in practicing our respective faith traditions. To ensure that the ‘particulars’ of these traditions don’t harmfully supersede more sweeping, underlying shared spiritual meanings. That processes and ritualized practices don’t harmfully supersede real human spiritual growth. That the status quo doesn’t harmfully supersede a healthy openness to appropriate change and evolution. That our desire for close, safe belonging doesn’t harmfully supersede our ability to form a broader, diverse community of global ecumenical fellowship. That our acts of ‘following’ don’t harmfully supersede our own authentic intentional empowerment and growth. That conformity, comfort, and repetition don’t harmfully supersede the important process of courageously and continuously ‘becoming’ in faith. That our respective religions’ desires to influence public policy and governments don’t harmfully supersede their call to more holistically and prophetically speak truth-to-power from outside the gates. And that a desire for religious institutional preservation doesn’t harmfully supersede the human rights and safety of its members or of any others under any circumstances.
So, if our religious institutions (and their respective practices) aren’t to supersede our deepening human spirituality, we must be watchful. For practical reasons to be sure. But far more importantly, because the Heart of any religious belief system doesn’t rest in its institutions, it’s leadership, or its specific denominational practices and rituals. The institution is not the object of our faith. God is. Further, true and authentic faith is grounded in a broader, far more transcendent ‘seeking’ in life. Grounded in discovering ways of living more wholly with integrity.
In the Christian faith tradition, I believe that this notion is most notably captured in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is said to have spoken to the crowds of people around him. In his message, he called those ‘blessed’ who were humble in spirit; who were coping faithfully with inevitable loss and sorrow; who were authentic and unpretentious in their faith; who were merciful toward others; who tried to do justice by others; and who sought peace with others. Jesus cautioned his listeners that doing these things would be difficult at times. He told them that they would be persecuted, ridiculed, and rejected for their behaviors. In other words, there would be a high cost to them for acting so contrary to the accepted societal, institutional, and religious norms of the times. Nevertheless, Jesus called on his followers to actually ‘be’ these things in the face of adversity and objection. He challenged them to be ‘seasoning and light’ in an often tasteless, dark world. This is the heart of Christ’s message here.
But the heart of his message went yet deeper still. For, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus was also asked what the greatest commandment was in the complicated array of religious laws of the time. Christ responded:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
So, when all is said and done, Christ’s core teaching wasn’t terribly complicated or even religious in any narrow sense of the word. It was remarkably universal in many ways. His expressed challenges to his followers in the Sermon on the Mount were basic and explicit around the kinds of ‘beings’ that we should all strive to become. And we have all been guided to behaviorally exemplify our grounded beings via God’s greatest Commandments of all: act with love toward God and toward all others. These are straightforward messages. And they profoundly transcend any specific religious practices, structures, rules, and doctrines.
I was powerfully reminded of the practical import of this some years ago. As I was driving in my car one day, I saw a large billboard standing aside a rural, countryside road. The sign wasn’t electronic, as so many are today. Nor was it festooned with any colorful background visual art or imagery. In fact, there were only three short lines of print on the otherwise plain billboard. They rather concisely suggested the following way of living our lives each day:
Serve the World
Now, if I were to have created the billboard, I would have added (on Jesus’ authority) that we’re also supposed to love ourselves, as well. But, with that addendum in mind, this simple roadside billboard captured the real, lasting heart of my own beliefs. Interestingly enough, my prior years of seminary education were instrumental in my more fully embracing the many complexities, nuances, and mysteries of theology, practice, church history, and faith. And I enjoyed immersing myself in the intricate process of peeling back the layers of these things. However, in that later moment of seeing the roadside billboard, I had an epiphany of sorts. I realized that, in the final analysis, the heart of my own faith is actually quite straightforward along the lines of the billboard’s overarching message. And that my faith journey is largely ‘outside the gates’ of highly organized religiosity—stripped of lots of extraneous, added-on doctrinal, sacramental, and institutional stuff. Admittedly, these extra things can complement my spiritual experience. But only so long as they don’t unnecessarily incumber or overcomplicate it. For they are not at the heart of things for me.
Instead, as I’ve come to understand, something far less overtly religious, yet far deeper and more inclusively satisfying, lies there at the heart level of my own integral, more universal spiritual ‘being’. It’s been unlocked in me for quite a while now. Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience in whichever religious belief system that you identify with. If so, each of us may have finally unlocked the real heart of things after all…