The differences in evaluating objective, scientific enterprises
and subjective, spiritual enterprises
Spiritual practice is a fundamentally different kind of affair
from nuclear physics.
objective commentary on the
enterprise of nuclear physics suffices,
because nuclear physics, as an enterprise, is purely objective
in its aims and claims: it has an objectively stated theory, and
is corroborated by empirical experiments that are objectively
observable, and objectively replicatable in other laboratories.
contrast, the primary reason why people become members of new
religious movements is inherently subjective:
in almost all cases, they perceive a (potential) subjective
benefit, now or in the future
whether they call it happiness, peace of mind, nirvana,
heaven, or Divine Communion that they find very attractive;
and they deem that subjective benefit to be worth the subjective
cost of membership (primarily in the form of a practice).
Thus becoming a member of such a new religious movements is closer
to, say, getting married: where again a perceived subjective benefit
(the day-to-day relationship with one's spouse, in all its forms)
is found to be very attractive; and the person deems that marrying
is worth the subjective cost that comes in the form of inevitable
disagreements, clashes of character, failures of expectation,
mis-matched phases of personal growth, etc.
The key subjective facts to be ascertained about new spiritual
specifically, the core of most esoteric religious and spiritual
traditions is about actual re-ligio, "re-connection"
with the Divine (or at least re-connection with the greater-than-material
dimensions of Reality). While this certainly doesn't characterize
all new religious movements, it does fit enough to be the focus
of our attention in this article. We will refer to these movements
not as "new religious movements" (the phrase most commonly
used by religion sociologists) but more specifically as new
the case of new spiritual movements, the key subjective
facts to be ascertained are thus:
The realization. Getting clear
what exactly that re-connection or spiritual realization is
not just in abstract objective terms (e.g., "Communion
with the Divine") but also in first person terms (e.g.,
"an orgasm is piddling in comparison with the whole bodily
bliss of Divine Communion") that simply are not accessible
worthiness of the realization as a life-organizing principle.
Getting clear that this realization is sufficiently great (in
contrast with more conventional human lives and their realizations)
that it is worth being made a life-organizing principle (rather
than just a casual "Sunday service" affiliation with
no major consequences for how one lives, how one spends one
time and energy, etc).
worthiness and workability of the means. Getting
clear about what is involved in bringing about or restoring
that realization, and getting firsthand assessments on whether
the participants feel that the end justifies the means (which,
in most cases, is usually difficult, like most great creative
enterprises), and that they can actually enact
the means. Not surprisingly, those who have "dropped out"
or only "sampled the goods" by investing a few days
or months are the ones who tend to be those who will answer
this question negatively, while those who "stay the course"
will tend to answer the question positively.
success rate of the means. Getting clear about whether
a specific religion provides the means to bring about that realization.
As with the last point, those who have "dropped out"
or only "sampled the goods" by investing a few days
or months are the ones who will tend to answer this question
negatively, while those who "stay the course" will
tend to answer the question positively.
Who is in a position to ascertain the key subjective facts
only people who are in a position to provide these subjective
facts are those who subjectively participate
in the process: the spiritual realizer, spiritual master, mystic,
shaman, or prophet who provides the means, thereby instigating
the spiritual movement; and the spiritual practitioners who apply
the means, thereby demonstrating that the spiritual movement is
more than mere philosophy. An outside commentator, however well-intentioned,
can say relatively little about it, as is also the case with someone
who only "window shopped", or "dropped out"
after only a few weeks or months. Those who can speak best on
the virtues of marriage are not the permanent bachelors, nor those
who jump from relationship to relationship, but never truly commit.
Rather it is those married couples who "stay the course"
for their entire life that can and do extol the virtue of marriage.
Just so with practitioners of an esoteric way.
Often least qualified by virtue of participation and experience,
but (ironically) holding the most power to influence public opinion,
are members of the media. The study, The Media Elite: America's
New Powerbrokers , conducted by Smith
College political scientist Rothman and Columbia University researchers
Robert and Linda Lichter in 1980, revealed that 86% of the "media
elite" polled by the authors "seldom" or "never"
attend religious services (let alone engage in spiritual practice).
This was in sharp contrast to the American public, who attend
at least religious services with greater regularity, on average.
Similarly, in his 1994 report, Religion in the News: Faith
and Journalism in American Public Discourse ,
Stewart Hoover commented, "This idea, that the natural inclination
of media decision-makers is to be either anti-religious, or at
least irreligious, is widely shared."
The success rate of the means
do we measure the success rate of a spiritual movement? Significant
discrimination is required. Let's get at the factors involved
through a little thought exercise.
evaluating the subjective success rate of Catholicism solely on
the basis of how many saints it had produced. Currently there
are about 1.1
billion Catholics. If we were to try to estimate the total
number of Catholics over the last 2,000 years, we'd have to place
the figure at many billions (let's say 5 billion, for the sake
of argument that's probably an underestimate.) So far as
I can determine, the total number of saints and beati so
designated by the Catholic Church is a little over
10,000 (with the saints comprising over 5,000
of those). So if you are a Catholic, what are your chances of
becoming a saint (or at least being beatified)? The math works
out to .0002%, or 1
in every 500,000 members.
Those are pretty poor odds! But do they represent an argument
against becoming a Catholic, because of such a "low success
rate"? It depends on how you understand the rest of the picture.
my own new spiritual tradition of Adidam, for example, we are
currently several thousand in number; however there are currently
only two "saints" (referred to as "the Ruchiradam").
Here's what my spiritual master (and the founder of Adidam), Adi
Da Samraj, has to say about that. A little context would be useful:
As in Christianity, the way of Adidam is based on recognition
of the spiritual master as the human incarnation of the Divine.
Also like Christianity, "salvation" (or Spiritual Realization)
is a matter of devotion to the Divine, transparently revealed
to devotees through the human spiritual master.
been suggested to Me that some people may be reluctant to
take up the Way of Adidam because they do not already see
the larger gathering of My devotees moving far ahead in
practice. Do people refuse to join the Catholic church because
its members are not showing the requisite signs for official
sainthood? Do people refuse to join other religious communities
because the members are not yet Realizers? Then why should
such a measure be placed on this community?
the necessary and complete Realizer here with My devotees.
If some who practice in My Company become involved in the
advanced and the ultimate stages of life, that is also great
and remarkable, but, as is also the case in all other religious
communities, most practitioners of the Way of Adidam are
(at least at the beginning) ordinary.
is most often the case) their practice is of the more ordinary
kind (and, thus, marked by a tendency for them to limit
themselves, to one or another degree, via lesser life-choices
and more ordinary aspirations), practitioners of the Way
of Adidam will not, unless and until that limiting tendency
is purified and gone beyond, become Realizers (in the [ultimate]
sense), or even truly advanced practitioners, in this lifetime.
However the case may be, what even all practitioners of
the Way of Adidam must first accomplish is the basic, but
also truly profound, conversion from egoic worldliness to
a truly authentic God-Communing life. Therefore, the authenticity
of the general gathering of My devotees does not depend
on the movement of the entire membership into the advanced
and the ultimate stages of life, but it depends only on
the general establishment of a truly God-Communing Way of
life in My Company.
in the Way of Adidam, more and more people should, over
time, become true renunciates in the advanced and the ultimate
stages of life. But I must protest the suggestion that it
is "nice" that the Ruchiradam [the currently two advanced
practitioners or "saints" of Adidam] are established
in the foundation phases of the ultimate stages of life,
but the community of My devotees cannot be authentic until
many others are likewise in the advanced and the ultimate
stages of life. The fact that even two people have combined
themselves with Me with sufficient seriousness of practice
that they are showing the auspicious signs that begin the
ultimate stages of life should be regarded as a great boon
for all. Indeed, the Ruchiradam, and even all who, at any
stage of life, truly practice a God-Communing life in My
Company, have already authenticated this community and this
Way of life.
A religious or spiritual movement can have different kinds or
degrees of realization
a saint may represent the epitome of what one can realize as a
Catholic, but it is not the only possible realization within Catholicism
(with everyone else going to "hell"). There is the huge
body of Catholics who don't quite make it to "saint"
(so as to go pretty much straight to heaven), but who then go
to "purgatory", spend an indeterminate amount of time
getting "cleaned up" there, and then
going to heaven. The popular belief among Catholics seems to be
that all Catholics who are "good people" fall into this
all esoteric traditions are focused on realization in the after-life,
or are based on a "big picture" in which one only has
only a single lifetime. In my own spiritual tradition of Adidam,
for example, the focus is on present-time realization, and the
"big picture" takes the possibility of reincarnation
into account. Traditions such as Adidam perceive a virtue in even
having begun (for real) a life oriented around genuine self-transcending
spiritual practice, rather then conventional, self-fulfilling
materialism, and allow for the possibility of many lifetimes being
required to attain the greatest possible realization of that tradition.
motivates practitioners who
hold such a long-term view, though, is not the promise of the
longterm view, but the present-time experience
of the ultimate realization. In other words, spiritual realization
is not a black and white matter, where, until the moment of realization,
you are absolutely miserable and then in the next moment you are
absolutely happy (or whatever the realization of your esoteric
tradition might be). Rather, all along, if the practice is genuine,
one is experiencing "tastes" of the ultimate realization,
and may even be realizing lesser versions of it, or may be realizing
"milestone" realizations that signal progress along
the way toward the ultimate realization. It may very well be that
the ultimate realization is a sudden affair; but the potentially
lifelong (or multi-life) preparation
for bringing all the various dimensions of the entire body-mind
into sufficient equilibrium that that "sudden" ultimate
realization then becomes possible may be anything but sudden.
(Those Western consumers enamored with "sudden enlightenment"
generally miss or ignore this point about the potentially longterm
preparation that is the prerequisite of "sudden enlightement".
The fact that the cork suddenly pops off the champagne bottle
is completely consistent with the potentially extensive work required
to move the cork into a position where it will "suddenly"
pop. Of course, anyone who makes the mistake of confusing "suddenness
of the final realization" with "suddeness of the overall
process", is going to wait a very
long time for the cork to suddenly pop all by itself.)
the kind of reportage one can obtain from practitioners can vary
along such a spectrum: from the accounts of beginning practitioners
about their "tastes" of realization; to accounts from
advanced practitioners of their realization "milestones"
already passed on the way to the ultimate realization; to accounts
from those who have completed the way (if the way is one which
has an ultimate realization to it).
Realization depends on the practitioner's participation
here's another factor. The notion of the "odds of success"
(like "1 in 500,000 for to become a Catholic saint")
only makes sense statistically when all other things are equal.
(Statisticians refer to this as a "random distribution"
based on the "equal probability assumption".) But in
virtually all spiritual movements (not to mention all creative
endeavors from art to athletics), there is nothing equal about
it: what you realize very
much depends on the quality and intensity of your
to use the example of Catholicism again, the saints represent
an example of what is potentially
realizable by those who are most highly impulsed (and perhaps
most capable, as well there are questions of nature vs.
nurture here, sometimes mingled in with how "nature"
and "nurture" express themselves in the context of reincarnation,
for which different religious and spiritual traditions offer different
to some extent, then, the question falls back on the questioner,
to examine his or her own impulse and consider his or her own
competence, in traditions whose merit has been proven, even by
only a very small percentage of practitioners.
other words: "Are you
up to it?" "Are you
sufficiently moved to really do it?" And: "Do you
have what it takes?"
Window shopping for easy enlightenment: a spiritual standard for
evaluating paths and realizations
some of us may answer. "What's more, I've found this group
on the other side of town that says they can get me the same realization
over a weekend. So why should I put up with all this preparation,
discipline, etc. that you guys require?!"
you discover a weekend later (to your dismay) that the car they
sold you at the other place doesn't actually take you where you
want to go.
does a spiritual newcomer make sense of the many alternatives,
to the point where one can spot an unrealistic claim? This question
is the focus of a
A full range of participants
group of any significant size will display a full range of participants,
from the most impulsed and most capable, to the least impulsed
and least capable. Also on display will be a full range of characters
use the example of Catholicism again, the saints represent the
most exemplary members. But there are also large numbers of more
or less nominal practitioners. And then there are "bad guys",
the kind of Catholic that Dante, in his Inferno, placed in hell:
from corrupt priests, bishops, and popes (we could now add pedophilic
priests), to all manner of other "sinners". The fact
that there are many "poor", "bad", "nominal",
or "lapsed" Catholics does not undercut the reality
and demonstration of the saints — even ones in contemporary times
such as Padre Pio  — or the validity of Catholicism
as a spiritual practice capable of attaining its stated realization
so, in the new religious movements of today, one can have just
such a full range, from the most advanced practitioners to the
(disgruntled ex-members) who dropped out or have even sued the
movement (a particularly common occurrence in the litigious United
States, not only for new religious movements, but for doctors,
therapists, and indeed any person or group in which there can
be a significant gap between what is expected and what is "delivered").
One can get some sense for the difficulties in using the report
of "apostates" to measure a religious movement by asking
oneself: what kind of report do we suppose Judas would have given
about Jesus and early Christianity? (While the official Christian
story has Judas recoiling in horror at his act of betrayal and
hanging himself, in light of the behavior of most apostates, this
most likely was a "Christian spin" on the actual life
story of Judas. More in keeping with what we actually observe
would be his remaining adamantly opposed to Jesus and Christianity
for the rest of his life.)
The inevitable birth pangs of a new spiritual movement
a related note, that a new spiritual movement does not instantly
"incarnate" into the kind of ideal it aspires toward,
is not a sign that it is unsuccessful, or not capable of "delivering
the goods". This kind of situation is not only common, but
even to be expected.
early Catholic Church, for example, did not look like Catholicism
as we know it now, a "finished product" with stable
organization and relatively static dogma. Rather, the early Catholic
Church was in chaos for a couple of centuries, before order was
established through Emperor Constantine and the Nicean Council
of 325 AD. Even the earliest saints, Peter and Paul, led rival
"factions" of Christianity. They fought with each other
over such issues as whether all Christians were required to adhere
to Jewish law — Peter said yes, while Paul said no (which made
sense to Paul, considering all the Greek, Syrian, Turkish, and
other non-Jewish people he encountered in his missionary outreach)
— see Goulder's St. Paul Versus St. Peter: A Tale of Two Missions
. And they fought over whether Christianity
was to be gnostic — based on spiritual experience (Paul) — or
orthodox — based on fixed dogma (Peter, the first "Pope").
(See Pagel's The Gnostic Paul .) But
if the legends are true, both Peter and Paul were, nonetheless,
genuine saints. And, perhaps ironically, or perhaps as a humorous
confirmation of the Christian creed of "love your enemies",
the two now are given the same "Feast Day" (June 29)
by the Church.
creation and development of an authentic community or culture
of evolutionary spiritual practice is an immensely difficult
affair — because people are, in general, so profoundly afraid,
self-possessed, adapted to archaic and self-defeating patterns
of thought and behavior, and constantly disturbed by childish
and adolescent motives toward chaotic self-fulfillment.
even the communities of experimental spiritual culture bear
all the evidence of the growing pains, the tackiness, the
immaturity, and all the other bewildering deficiencies that
otherwise mark the secular and subhuman order of the world.
imagine that this is scandalous, and so they criticize even
authentic cultural experiments with a kind of negative "gotcha"
mentality that implies nothing but a viciously destructive
intent. This is a tendency that can easily be observed in
the popular media of TV, newspapers, and magazines.
Adi Da Samraj, Be
Informed by Direct Experience
general, then, a new religious
movement will not look like a "finished product", precisely
because it is new. And not only is it new, but it is struggling
to survive. Hence the first generation — and most likely the first
several generations — of a new religious movement bear the additional
burden (not shared by later generations) of having to create the
initial infrastructure that will ensure the movement's survival
over time. Thus, experiencing life in such new movements, to some
degree, will have the feeling of living in a house in which the
walls are still going up, and the movers are still tramping through.
as best as you can, when stopping by for a visit, ignore the drafty,
half-finished walls, and the noisy movers. In evaluating a new
spiritual movement, don't get too distracted by the signs of the
movement's "birth pangs", as though such signs were
themselves the movement (the "baby"). Rather, as we
recommended above, stay with the heart
of the matter: find out what realizations are possible; find out
what the practice for realizing them is; and find out who has
realized what, and to what degree. Look for that Room in the center
of the house that is the source
of the movement's re-ligio, its means for "re-connecting"
with the Greater Reality, whether that Room takes the form of
a human Spiritual Transmission Master, or some other form of Spiritual
Agency. Avail yourself of whatever forms of Blessing and Spiritual
Transmission are available to newcomers. Then if, on the sound
basis of such subjective facts, you decide to join, lend the builders
and movers a hand yourself, even while you are engaged in your
new spiritual practice. Or, if you love the Room but can't stand
the noise, live somewhere nearby, but visit (or connect with)
that Room as often as you can.
(The Foundation against Intolerance of Religious Minorities)
advocates the human, social, and civil rights of all religious
and spiritual groups, particularly religious minorities actively
engaged in spiritual practice. For more information, click
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