Billy Joel was right, not only about love but also about spiritual and religious circles – though he may not have had that in mind when he wrote his song.
There is a practice that I have seen both in Newage* circles and in Evangelical circles of blatant dishonesty about the ideas and even the integrity of other teachers and preachers. If you run in the motivational speaker/Chicken Soup book circles, the odds are you do nothing but heap praise on others in those circles. According to these folks, everyone is wonderful at everything they do. Indeed, some of them are. Others mostly push content that is rather vacuous, largely rehashed and diluted ideas from long ago. The problem is that when everyone says everything is wonderful, people tend to believe them and go out an spend their hard earned money on books and conferences that are largely newage.
In Evangelical circles, particularly the Jim Bakker/Jimmy Swaggert circles, the same sort of things happen on a regular basis. I have seen it for myself. Almost every one of these high profile organizations gets hit with a scandal sooner or later, and they run to each other’s defense – especially if the person currently in the fire stood behind others when they were in the fire. I have witnessed these discussions. The problem here is even worse than it is in newage circles, because quite often what is being covered up and dismissed is serious misconduct that is abusive toward those the offender is supposed to be serving. If you think that only the large denominations traffic in cover ups, you are fooling yourself.
What we need in all corners of our world is a lot more honesty, no matter what the consequences may be. This may cause some sort term discomfort, but it will protect people from getting hurt by the unqualified and disqualified charlatans posing as authentic teachers and leaders. Imagine what might happen if we went so far as to require honesty from politicians!
*I borrow the term “Newage,” which rhymes with “sewage,” from Lama Surya Das to distinguish between solid and dubious New Age teaching.
One name for God might be Truth, with a capital “T.” Some people are mightily turned off by the term God, through no fault of their own and no fault of God’s. Rather, they are turned off by the term God because of the behavior of those who claim to have discovered Truth through their religion. There is no small irony in that!
Religion can’t be Truth because it developed after Truth – long after it, in Truth. At its best, religion tries to point us toward God, point us toward Truth, which is very useful but not the same as being Truth. You wouldn’t know that by watching many, but not all, religious adherents. They claim to believe in God, but what they really believe in is their religion’s view of God rather than God Itself. A Presbyterian God, or a Roman Catholic God, or a Lutheran God can never actually be God. The best it can hope to be is an image of God, or a picture of truth, or a slice of Truth, and there isn’t anything wrong with that unless you start believing it actually is Truth. That view is like carrying around a picture of your loved one and starting to believe your picture is the person themselves. It seems silly because it is silly, but when it comes to Truth our judgment gets obscured.
Why is this important? This is important because we too easily get caught up in debates about who has the best religion, as if religion has any impact on Truth! Every religion is the equivalent of a third grader doing an artist’s rendering of a Picasso painting. There are some things in every tradition that might give us a slight idea of what it’s trying to depict, but most of it is a confusing (if charming) mess. The Truth is that is you really want to get to Truth, you are going to have to eventually go where religion cannot. You are going to have to move to the direct experience of Truth.
Most of us, I would even venture to say all of us, have been told things about ourselves that are not true. Sometimes we were told these things due to an honest mistake. Other times people wanted to manipulate us or to get their way. Some of us have encountered evil personified, a person wanting to do damage to us for reasons that are not clear. Even if those reasons were clear, they would not be sufficient to justify what happened to us.
The way out of this lies in the old adage that the truth will set you free. By asking ourselves some questions about what was said, we can begin to move through our pain toward healing. We might ask ourselves, “Is what was said true?” Even if we believed it was true at the time, from today’s perspective we may well see that what was said was not true. If it was true, we then should ask ourselves, “So what?” In other words, is this truth really something bad? In my case, I was repeatedly and drunkenly told that my problem was that I was a “goddamn adolescent.” In point of fact, I was an adolescent. The statement was true, but the rage and accusatory tone with which it was delivered was not justified by the truth that I was an adolescent. Neither were the seemingly endless hours it was repeated at full volume, with great regularity, for hours in a drunken rage at our family dinner table.
Often times we need the help of a trained counselor to help us with this work. We need to see that there was no substance to our “crimes,” and to stop believing the people accusing us were in any way right. I would even say we need to come to the place where we see no merit whatsoever in that person’s opinion so we can begin the hard work of deciding who we really are. It’s a long road, but it begins with the truth – which will set us free!