Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Language of Orthodoxy

Many feel that organized religion is a barrier to spiritual attainment, not a way to heaven. The old slurs against "Popish tyranny" are now thrown at all creeds: grasping superstitious bureaucracies that impede freedom, innovation and one's personal relationship with the Higher Power.  Hating on orthodoxies has become a favorite new orthodoxy: heresy for heresy's sake is preferred to rigid and exclusive proclamations.

There are good reasons for these concerns. Any organization is liable to fall prey to groupthink and CYA behaviors. Rote memorization can replace passionate devotion: political jockeying and corporate in-fighting may serve its leaders better than piety. But  I wonder if we aren't missing the role organized religion can play in grounding and effectuating the spiritual experience. Its rigidity and conservatism can provide a powerful structure within which Ecstasy can be transmuted into the Word and from there into the Deed.

Every language must have an underlying grammar, a structure upon which sounds, characters and gestures are combined in certain constrained and predictable ways. Mystics may experience the Divine in a lightning flash which transcends all language - but in its aftermath of their vision they must try to incorporate the vision into their daily life. To describe it to themselves - and later to others - they will use the words and symbols of their culture.  Of course, this incorporates a chance for error. It also offers a way of communicating, however imperfectly, the vision of the ineffable.

Since Freud and Jung we have concentrated on personal interpretations of dreams: we focus on what the symbols mean to the dreamer. A similar focus prevails in many spiritual and theological circles. Faced with the immanence of the Gods, we ask what impact Their presence has on the seer.   Pantheons are recast as images and reflections of some nebulous undifferentiated Divine Force, or as psychodramas playing out inside the shaman's skull. Their role as protectors and progenitors of the clan, the city or the people is subjugated to their new role as therapist:  They become a resource to be tapped for self-improvement, something to be exploited rather than worshipped.

A living tradition provides us a different lens for viewing our experience and a different language for communicating it. It gives us access to the teachings of others who have been touched by the Gods, to their techniques and their coping mechanisms: it provides information which is vetted by centuries of profitable use. It also gives us goals and guideposts against which we may measure our visions.  This can help us to separate the spiritual experience from wish-fulfillment. The line between enlightenment and self-delusion can be a fine one: having history to draw upon can provide useful checks and balances. 

Orthodoxy forces us to deal with uncomfortable issues in its taboos, restrictions and moral requirements. We may approach its strictures as reformers or as reactionaries: we may follow its rules with varying degrees of adherence.  But we must engage with and be shaped by them nonetheless: we must allow its worldview to color our own.  We must address problems we would rather avoid and account for transgressions we might prefer to bury.  In a self-led spiritual quest, we may never find our way outside our comfort zones and may never account for difficult questions.

Eliade referred to shamans as "technicians of the sacred." A similar label might be applied to those who serve in a priestly rather than a mystical capacity. They apply the principles of their religion to their faith-community and serve as earthly representatives of their God/s.  Their technology is their vocabulary, their mythology, their philosophy, their skills in dealing with their congregation - the tools with which they bring together the divine and the sacred. If their approach is less direct and spectacular than the shamanic one, it is no less effectual. By preserving the language of their faith, they help to ensure its continuation.