What is the Role of Religion in Spiritual Growth?
Does Religion Help Spiritual Growth?
A blind man left his village and followed the winding path through the forest. He was on his way to see his friend in the neighboring hamlet. After his arrival, the two friends spent many happy hours together. At last, it was time for the blind man to return to his village.
“Here,” his friend said, “it is already nightfall. Take this lantern with you.”
“Lantern? What good is a lantern to a blind man?” he asked.
“It is to avoid accidents. It will help other travelers on the narrow path see you coming.”
With this thought in mind, the blind man took the lantern; thanked his friend, and went on his way. While plodding along the meandering path, he enjoyed the cool, fragrant mist which enveloped both him and the sound of chirping crickets. However, imagine his surprise when nearly home, he suddenly collided with a huge man.
“Fool! Why don’t you watch where you’re going?” the big man shouted.
“Why didn’t you see my lantern?” asked the blind man.
“Lantern? Oh, yes, . . . Well, the candle is out!”
So, a lantern is not much help to a blind man after all. In fact, it may prove harmful. For if the blind man didn’t have the lantern, he would have walked more carefully because he would be less confident that others would see him coming.
What is the meaning of the story? Well, the lantern represents a religion and the candle is the founder of that particular religion. A beautiful glow radiates from the lantern and points the way to God. In fact, there are many lanterns. Each illuminating a different path, all leading to the same destination. The only problem is most of the people carrying lanterns are blind. And because of their blindness they cannot tell that the once sparkling glass of the lantern is now blackened with grime, preventing any light from escaping.
After the death of a great religious teacher, an institution is formed, bureaucracies emerge, power struggles begin, schisms and sects arise, and the original teachings of the master are reinterpreted and codified. Ministering to the sick, feeding the hungry, and caring for the imprisoned were the original concerns. Today, however, much weight is given to the type of meat you eat or avoid, the clothing you wear or remove, or the rituals you perform during the day or week. No wonder the lantern no longer sparkles. No wonder the lantern is covered with grime. No wonder the light of the candle no longer illuminates the way.
Yes, the lanterns no longer reveal the many paths to God. But this doesn’t disturb those traveling on a path because they are blind, and unaware of the absence of light. Are my comments unnecessarily harsh? I don’t think so. Judge for yourself. What do they call their brothers and sisters of other faiths? Not brothers or sisters, but heretics, gentiles, pagans, and heathens. By labeling others as sacrilegious sinners they feel no guilt as they kill their neighbors. What heinous acts of suppression, destruction, and butchery are committed in the name of religion! I’m not surprised, however, because fighting over religion is much easier than practicing it. Though the perpetrators of these acts proudly cling to their lanterns, isn’t it obvious that they are blind?
Each group of lantern carriers claims that they are followers of the one true religion. This statement is proof of their blindness. Did they choose the country of their birth? Did they choose the culture they were born into? Did they choose the lantern they now carry, or was it given to them by others. If they were born in an entirely different land, wouldn’t they be carrying an entirely different lantern? The blind cannot see their own blindness.
What’s the point I’m trying to make? I’m not suggesting that we give up our faith. I encourage everyone to follow a path. Any religion or spiritual tradition will do. But I suggest that we follow our path fully awakened. It is helpful to ask ourselves, who or what is it that I wish to follow. Do I wish to follow the founder of my religion or the institution (which is one of many) that claims to speak on the founder’s behalf? Also, what does a critical look at the institution’s history reveal? Does its history suggest that it is a better judge than you of the founder’s teachings? Follow your heart, for as another has written, “We may seek God by our intellect, but we only can find him with our heart.”
I value all scriptures, but my favorite is the scripture of the Indigenous Peoples. Their scripture is written by the hand of God and is called nature. It is a universal language and unencumbered by words. It speaks direct to the heart. It is the aurora borealis, the Grand Canyon, and the most spectacular ice sculpture of all, Niagara Falls in February. But it is also the centipede crawling out from under a moss-covered stone, pine needles dancing in the wind, and the fragrance of dew. It is the song of life. And what is life? Crowfoot, a Blackfoot Indian explains: “It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.”
The Indigenous Peoples are courageous warriors. Unlike religious people who cling onto a rock in the middle of a raging river, they let go and learn how to swim. That is the way of the spiritual person. The way of courage. The way of trust. The way of love. Rather than listening to others interpret God’s words, they choose to listen to His Voice silently speaking in their own breast and in the night sky. They understand that true religion is the life we live, not the beliefs we declare.
Albert Einstein also defined religion, “True religion is real living; living with all one’s soul, with all one’s goodness and righteousness.” Let us become living lanterns, lighting the way. And whenever we come across a fellow traveler carrying a different lantern, let’s open our hearts and minds so we can learn more and shine even brighter. For as Victor Hugo wrote, “Toleration is the best religion.” When asked, the great American, Thomas Paine, said, “The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.” When asked, what will you say?
2. Spiritual Growth through Grace
What is Grace? It is the exercise of love, kindness, and mercy to benefit or serve another. Other terms we could use include goodwill, compassion, benevolence, charity, and brotherly love. Here is how the British theologian Jonathan Edwards defines it: “Grace is but glory begun, and glory is but grace perfected.”
We are social beings, dependent on one another. Our birth, education, and personality would not have been possible without cooperating with others. Drawing on our spiritual heritage, whatever it may be, allows us to use grace as a social lubricant. It eliminates friction and allows us to work together harmoniously. So, its role is essential. We either live with grace or allow civilization to fall apart and live in disgrace.
Historian and social reformer Arnold Joseph Toynbee outlines in his 12-volume “A Study of History” the rise and fall of 26 civilizations. He points out how humanity’s spiritual quest and belief in a Supreme Being propelled it forward. Grace could be called the lifeblood of civilization. But when we drift away from its practice, societal cohesion weakens, and civilization comes tumbling down. Yet, Toynbee urges us not to get discouraged:
“Do not let yourselves be discouraged or embittered by the smallness of the success you are likely to achieve in trying to make life better. You certainly would not be able, in a single generation, to create an earthly paradise. Who could expect that? But, if you make life ever so little better, you will have done splendidly, and your lives will have been worthwhile.”
Some describe grace as the kindness we offer those who are undeserving of it. But there are none who are undeserving. Are there any among the birds of the air or fish of the sea that are undeserving of life? Neither are there any among the men, women, and children who populate the earth. Everyone needs kindness. Don’t the rich as well as the poor grow hungry? Don’t the strong and the weak grow thirsty? Who is there that does not struggle and has no need for kindness? As for those who are unkind, they need it the most. Hasn’t the grace that we are imbued with been given to us to nurse the wounds of others?
Grace is a virtue, and virtues are God-like actions. This is not to say that grace is the way to God. Rather, God is the way to grace. In the grand scheme of things, actions that do not bring us nearer to Him are inconsequential. Kindness shortens the distance between us and our fellow travelers and the distance between our Creator and us. Why wouldn’t we want to be kind? For we are responsible for some of the pain of others. And, as Aesop taught, “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”
In living a life of grace, our goal is first to do good. Second to do good often. And third to do nothing but good. It is in aiming for the third goal that we will strike the second. The advantage of doing good is it awakens us to the countless good deeds of others and the beauty of life. But if we stray from the path of goodness, our vision grows dim, until all we see is cruelty and we become cynical.
The Path of Grace is neither to the right nor to the left. It is neither liberal nor conservative. It favors neither the warmongers or the appeasers. Rather, it is a middle path. It is the Path of Healing, for grace is the balm that heals the wounded heart. The Path of Grace is the Path of Bringing-together. The Path of Win-Win. The Path of Mutual Respect. The Path of Understanding, Tolerance, and Love. It is the Way of Peace, and it is, therefore, a path we should embrace.
Don’t let illness and other forms of misfortune distract you from leading a life of grace, which includes bearing your suffering with a smile. After all, if you cannot accept your own pain, how will you be able to help others accept theirs? And don’t be discouraged by your imperfections because we learn how to be good by conquering our own faults. Besides, what merit is there in doing good, if it doesn’t require any effort on our part? So, stretch yourself. Most of us do not realize how enormous our potential is. If we are unaware of the wrongdoing we are capable of, how can we be aware of the good we can do? Be patient with your progress. For, as the British preacher Thomas Adams taught in the mid seventeenth century, “Grace comes into the soul as the morning sun into the world; first a dawning; then a light; and at last the sun in his full and excellent brightness.”
Any inspirational stories, motivating quotations, or heartwarming anecdotes that we may relate will soon be forgotten, but our acts of kindness will linger indefinitely in the minds and hearts of those we help. So, don’t bother saving money for flowers and a monument for your grave; instead, leave behind an endless trail of good deeds. We must never underestimate our importance, for people do not learn about grace from books and institutions, but from other people, from role models. Our actions will either draw others closer to or further from goodness. Let’s not take our responsibility lightly.
The wonderful thing about kindness is it is a universal language. The native tongue of those we help doesn’t matter. Kindness is a language understood by all, even if those we help cannot hear us or see us. Grace will not only open the eyes of the blind, but will open our eyes as well. For as the hymn says:
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found.
Was blind, but now I see.
How do we become full of grace? By dispensing it. We fill our cup by emptying it. All we have to do is become the kind of person we would like to be with. As we carry out our acts of grace, let’s remember that the kindness planned for tomorrow doesn’t count for today. Also, take no thought of the thought of others. For it is better to do good and be considered nasty than to be nasty and considered good. Whatever our spiritual tradition may be, let’s avoid spending more time on practicing nonessential religious rituals than on practicing the core teachings. For as Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote, “So many gods, so many creeds, So many paths that wind and wind, While just the art of being kind is all the sad world needs.”
Problem Solving with Psychology or Spirituality?
Lillian was hired as an office clerk. After several years of dedicated study and hard work she was promoted to middle management. A few years later, she joined another company to further advance her career. After further study and long hours in the office, she advanced as high as possible in the company. She then got a phone call from an executive recruiter.
He told Lillian, “There’s an exciting opportunity that I’d like you to consider. If accepted, you will work directly with the Vice President, and he will teach you everything he knows.” Lillian listened to the news with mixed emotions. After all, how could she be sure that she would get along with her new boss? And was she capable of carrying out her new responsibilities?
She decided to try, so she made an appointment and was hired after her second interview. On her first day at the job, her joy changed to a fearsome shock. Her boss was verbally abusive. At least once an hour he was shouting at her, calling her stupid, incompetent, useless, worthless, and retarded. The abuse went on daily.
After each day, Lillian was drained. And since she had nervous spasms during her sleep, she awakened exhausted. Although she dreaded going back to work, she mustered all her strength and forced herself to go to the office. If she were chewed out by her boss in a private office, at least she would have time, after he left, to lick her wounds and try to heal herself. But she didn’t have her own office. Instead, her desk was right next to the boss in his office. So, from morning to evening there was no relief from the poisonous atmosphere. He even insisted they eat lunch in the office. After three weeks, Lillian broke into tears as she confided to a friend. “I just don’t know what to do.” she said. “I don’t think I can take any more of this. What shall I do?”
What would you do?
I don’t know what you would do or what advice you would give Lillian, but I know what most psychologists would say. They would tell her, “Lillian, you’ve got to be assertive. You have to stand up for yourself. You don’t have to take abuse from anyone. If someone treats you badly, don’t smile and pretend it’s okay. Remember, unkindness deserves a firm response; don’t let anyone abuse you.”
But what if your boss refuses to change despite your protestations? Besides, isn’t fighting him contrary to Christ’s teaching of “Turn the other cheek”? Isn’t it also contrary to Buddha’s admonition to love those who rob and beat us? Again, isn’t it against the Qur’an (Koran) that repeatedly teaches it is better to forgive than attack another?
Now, let’s return to the question I asked earlier. If you were in Lillian’s position, what would you do? What would be the right thing to do? If your boss refused to stop harassing you, would you quit? Could you forgive him and stay?
The average person finds it extremely hard to live by the spiritual teachings I mentioned above. “Turning the other cheek” seems contrary to our natural instincts. Why is it so difficult to accept? Because we separate ourselves from others in our mind. We think we are different. We believe there are good and bad people, kind people and jerks. Of course, we always belong to the good and kind group while those who make us uncomfortable belong to the bad group and are jerks.
Spiritual people see the world differently. To them, all people are the same. Everyone cries when sad, laughs when amused, and attacks when he or she feels threatened. Some people will do nasty things, not because they’re nasty, but because they are wounded inside. They don’t act out of spite as much as they act out of pain. Understanding this, spiritual people can accept and forgive others.
Why should we be concerned about this subject? Because people are the source of our power and contribute to our happiness. The better we get along with others, the happier and more powerful we become. Do you remember the question I asked earlier? Would you quit or would you stay? Well, the choices we make determine the results we get, so let’s explore this further.
But before we do, let me say it wasn’t “Lillian” that was a victim of abuse, it was my wife. And when she asked me what to do, I replied with a spiritual approach, not a psychological one. I told her that despite his abusive behavior her boss was a decent person. I suggested she try to forgive him and put up with his nerve-racking behavior for three months. I told her that if she still wanted to quit after that time, she should feel free to do so.
Yoko, my wife, stayed on and discovered that after three months she could tolerate her boss’ rude behavior and stopped having spasms during her sleep. After six months her boss started to melt under the warmth of her patience, understanding, and acceptance. Shortly later they became the best of friends and he, the Chief Financial Officer, taught Yoko everything he knew.
Two years later, a Japanese printing press manufacturer opened an office and showroom fifteen minutes from our home. They picked a president to run the company and were looking for a CFO to be second in command. Yoko got the job. Within three weeks she discovered the president was a crook, stealing company funds. After reporting to the Head Office in Japan, she was instructed to fire the president, not to hire another one, and to take charge of the company, when she then successfully ran.
Can you see how a spiritual approach led to a successful conclusion? Imagine the exciting life and financial success that Yoko achieved by turning the other cheek. Few people would have put up with the abuse of Yoko’s former boss. That’s why few get to climb so high in life. By the way, what happened to Yoko is not an isolated case. I, too, had similar experiences of being verbally abused by people who became the best of friends that opened new doors of opportunity.
Am I saying we should never stand up for ourselves? No, but before you do, stand up for the abuser, a wounded soul. If you don’t, who will? My general policy is to give abusive people three months to begin changing. If they don’t start to change, I then step in with conventional assertive behavior. I don’t do it to protect myself, but to protect other victims. I also do it to help the abuser. For as long as no one objects, he or she will continue along the same path. The abuser alienates others, destroys morale, and dampens productivity. So, by guiding the abuser toward proper behavior, I help them become more powerful and successful. By doing so, I not only improve the abuser’s life but the lives of all those he or she deals with.
Over the years, psychology has made considerable progress. Its latest incarnation is called “Positive Psychology,” a term that was first used by Abraham Maslow. Positive Psychology represents a shift in thinking. Rather than looking at psychology as the study of mental illnesses it is now seen as the study of optimal human functioning or wellness of being. Today, it is Martin Seligman who is seen as the driving force behind Positive Psychology, for which we have to be grateful. But I would like to introduce the idea of Spiritual Psychology, an approach that includes the spiritual dimension as well as the mental one. My story of Lillian/Yoko illustrates the application of “Spiritual Psychology.”
Modern Spirituality: A Guide to the Heart of Mindfulness, Meditation, and the Art of Healing by Benjamin W. Decker
Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion by Sam Harris
Grounded Spirituality by Jeff Brown
The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning By Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham
Everyday Spirituality: Discover a Life of Hope, Peace and Meaning By James Hazelwood
Soulful Spirituality: Becoming Fully Alive And Deeply Human by David G. Benner PhD
A Crash Course on Spirituality by Alan Watts
Deepak Chopra & Russell Brand: Scientific Proof That Spirituality Is The Answer!