The past two years, or so, have seen a lot of articles online and even in mainstream publications about the so-called dichotomy of “spirituality” and “religion”. The question has existed for a lot longer than that, of course, and has been part of public discourse in the United States and other Western nations for several decades, at least as far as being a socially significant idea. Everybody from beatniks to hippies, from New Age/New Thought to occultism, the claim is made that there is no need to belong to an organized religion, no need to set oneself at the feet of a Master, and certainly no need to hold to any definite ideas or disciplines in pursuit of spiritual goals.
Part of the problem is in a misunderstanding of what constitutes a “spiritual goal”. The common perception among these approaches is that anything which makes one feel “empowered” or “positive” is inherently spiritual; their watchwords include “Follow your bliss!” and “Find yourself!” We mustn’t journey far from home to see how much damage “following your bliss” can do. The pleasant is not identical to the good. Ask any child with a bellyache on Easter afternoon! If each person were to simply do what felt good at the time, certainly moral responsibility would break down entirely within a very short period. This saccharine vision of the “state of nature” is simply one more delusion which needs to be rooted out during the spiritual quest. To paraphrase Jesus, if you break the Law and know not what you are doing, you commit a grave error; only one who knows perfectly what he is doing may transgress the Law for only he knows fully what the Law actually is. His transgression is only apparent. It is pride alone which claims to know this deeply through sentimentalism and personal pleasure alone.
Therein do we find what a goal must look like in order to be genuinely spiritual. If that goal leads us from pride to humility, from combative to surrendered, from passionate to peaceful, from sentimental to empathetic, we may safely proceed. Of course, much of this is not immediately clear, and we often require a great deal of wandering around, backsliding, bumping our heads, before we find our way forward. This underlines the necessity of an established lineage and a living Master thereof in the spiritual process.
The argument is often made that belonging to a religion or sect with even one level of hierarchy beyond that of “lay practitioner” is inherently wrong because limiting. This also misses the point. We first of all must learn humility and, to do so, we must surrender ourselves to somebody whom we can see and touch. Most of us are simply not capable of sincerely surrendering completely to the Self God directly because we are not yet capable of directly perceiving the Self God. (Here, then, is the esoteric purpose of the sacrament of confession and absolution in Catholicism.) Any such effort to surrender before the right time is liable to be more imaginary than real and, quite likely, to lead us off into the dark with no guide. Even aside from this, the Preceptor or Guru has been through the process before us, knows the lay of the land and each dark cavern and corridor we may have to pass through along the way. His job is not to tell us point-for-point where to go, but to provide us with the tools and techniques we will need, as we need them and not a moment sooner. He cannot do so until and unless we have placed our faith in him. This means a dramatic shift in awareness from the purely personal-egoic center of the mind to increasingly subtle centers.
It is true that studying within a sect, and under the guidance of a Preceptor, is limiting. Limits, however, create pressure, pressure gives rise to force, and force can be put to work. Imagine a system of plumbing. In order to get water into our sinks and toilets and water heaters, there needs to be not just water (inert all on its own), but also gravity to produce water pressure, and increasingly thinning pipes and tubes to draw that water upward with enough pressure to where we can put it to use. The water is our mind-psyche, a substance which is basically inert and takes the shape of any container it encounters, just as our mind takes the shape of the objects of our attention, generally following the path of least resistance. The gravity which pulls the water down, causing it to press upon itself, is surrender to the spiritual imperative. The pipes themselves are the sect and lineage to which we have committed ourselves; while numerous lines of plumbing will lead into the house, any given quantity of water must follow a specific line in order to reach any given spigot. Likewise, if we do not follow a given set of teachings within a more or less complete context to its conclusion, we never attain our goal.
The founders of great initiatory religious traditions did not generally abandon the traditions of their birth, but only reinterpreted and reapplied them according to certain contingencies, partly metaphysical and partly historical. They certainly never invented “new religions” out of whole cloth, but only followed the guidance of Self to re-present existing methods with differing emphases.
Jesus was a Jew; He never claimed otherwise, and certainly never encouraged His immediate disciples to turn away from Judaism. This is not to say that all Christians must also be Jews (as a small, but vocal, movement does claim, as was also the case in the very earliest days of Christianity), but to say that Jesus was not the model of the New Age. He may have interpreted the Law a bit differently than most (not all!) Jews of His time and place, but He certainly followed it.
The Buddha never made a dramatic break with orthodox Vedic Hinduism. Contrary to much later claims, He never rejected the Vedas; like Jesus did a few centuries later, the Buddha only rejected a particularly rigid interpretation and certain specific extremes of practice. Again, a Buddhist need not be a Hindu, and I know of no Hindus who would make that claim. Instead, we must understand that, just as Jesus fit within Judaism, albeit differently from most, so did the Buddha fit within Vedic tradition and, specifically, within the long-held “orthodox-but-outsider” tradition of the mendicant sadhu.
There is no such thing as spirituality without context, and context necessarily takes the form of doctrine. Holding to dogma (literally “teaching”) does not make one “dogmatic”; one becomes dogmatic by holding specific interpretations of teachings more closely than one holds the values and disciplines which those teachings transmit. Spirituality cannot be cobbled together out of spare parts any more than a street-safe car can be built from the contents of the boxes in my storage closet. The myth that my (or anybody’s) personal feelings have ultimate value is a corrosive one, as it undermines the discipline required for genuine spiritual experience and reinforces the egocentrism which is the very obstacle spiritual doctrine exists to undermine. Personal experience is a necessity in spiritual pursuit, but those experiences must be contextualized to have any lasting value. It sounds paradoxical, at first — but is no less true for it — that Reality cannot be grasped so long as it is conceptually reified within purely human categories, and yet we require intellectual processes in order to be able to begin at all. Some scholars of esoteric religion, such as Arthur Versluis (cf his book The Philosophy of Magic), go so far as to refer to this deconstructed morass of New Age relativism-bordering-nihilism as in some way being an “anti-tradition” which leads people deeper and deeper into a crystallization of their own personalities, a worse hell than which I cannot imagine.