Religions elevate different emotional states or personality traits to the highest standard of moral behavior. Christians praise self-sacrificing love. Readers of the Bhagavad Gita learn that they should not be concerned by the results of their actions, but that they should make sure that every step taken is one of devotion to God. Quakers believe that an Inner Light is available for guidance, and if it is consistently followed the believer will live a life in harmony with the whole of humankind and nature. All of these core beliefs are powerful tools for setting social mores, to leading people toward happier and more productive lives as well as to spiritual peace.
The interesting but sad history of nearly every faith is the perversion of their core beliefs into repressive, rigid codes that are used by a hierarchical structure to garner and maintain power and wealth. Secondary tenets are usually added onto the original inspirational teachings of the founders of a religion, ones that aid and abet the franchise building of current spiritual leaders.
I grew up in the Roman Catholic faith. The power structure of the church, at times, was emphasized from the pulpit more strongly than the Sermon on the Mount. We weren’t encouraged to read the Bible in our spare time as we might get ideas that ran contrary to the teaching of our parish priests. Certain passages of the New Testament were ignored (Jesus had brothers and sisters and a mother who was worried that He would embarrass the family in front of the neighbors.), while others were heavily underlined (Mary’s miraculous state of virginity when she became pregnant and gave birth to Jesus). Loving sacrifice, when it was taught, was usually tied to giving generously to charities sponsored by the church and to the church itself.
Secondary tenets were added on to ensure our docile acceptance of church doctrine and its hierarchy. Obedience was emphasized, as was humility in the face of God’s amazing power. God’s representatives on earth were the priests, bishops, cardinals and the Pope, so kneeling before them and accepting their direction without question was an act of piety.
Guilt was a big thing too. We were taught to feel guilty for merely existing. Baptism released us from an original sin passed down to us from Adam and Eve that we had acquired simply by being born. Jesus died for our sins, even the ones we had only imagined. We were told that we constantly sinned in thought, word and deed, and by acts of commission and omission. From one sunrise to the next we were actively engaged in fouling our souls, and only by rushing to confession to seek out church sponsored forgiveness could we expunge a few stains. The agonies of our Savior on the cross were described in detail to reinforce the idea that we, the faithful, were a bunch of miserable shits requiring an extreme sacrifice to square our debts with God. And, of course, if we were ingrates and failed to toe the (church) line, then Jesus would act as our judge and condemn us to eternal hell….So much fun.
Guilt became an act of piety. If folks had moments when they felt a little too good about themselves they would be reminded of their faults. A “big head” meant that one had forgotten about his or her innate fallibility. It was better to counter any moment of satisfaction with a self reminder that one had screwed up in the past and would do so again. If persons felt that they had made some strides in conquering a bad habit they kept it to themselves, or even suppressed any thoughts of accomplishment. She had been taught not to trust in herself–only God (and a priest) could really recognize the true state of her soul–and God might be tempted to throw harder challenges at him if he got cocky.
In recent years the child abuse scandal has finally exposed the depths of corruption in the church. The revelation that the organization was designed mostly to promote and protect its own, namely the clerics and not the lay people, was a heartbreaking surprise to those who had spent their lives revering the official caretakers of the church. The faithful parishioners had hoped that there really leaders more chaste and holy than themselves, that all those years of guilt-tripping had been a meaningful exercise in becoming more like the clergy if not like Jesus Himself (the unattainable goal).
The truth has come out, but the question is, “Will it set us free?” Can we go back to the original teachings of an avatar, saint, or savior and discern their core message? Can we put divine inspiration into effect in our own lives without guidance from a teacher who may or may not be corrupt? Is there a church that hasn’t debased the revelations of its founding prophet? And if we rely solely on ourselves will be fall prey to self-delusion?
I’ve been left to wander after leaving behind the Catholic church. The faith into which I was indoctrinated still has a lingering influence, and my fall back stance whenever I am praised or criticized is an uneasy mix of humility and guilt. I meditate and have dabbled in studying Buddhism and Hindu belief systems, but have never found a true spiritual home. As far as I know there have been no organizations created by human beings that can ever establish a heavenly space here on earth.
Perhaps the most that we can hope for is to see occasional glimpses of a better way of existence.