I read recently that the world of evangelical Christianity has been riven by dissent, disenchantment, and controversy. According to The New York Times columnist David Brooks, the three most divisive issues are: “the white evangelical embrace of Donald Trump, sex abuse scandals in evangelical churches and parachurch organizations, and attitudes about race relations, especially after the killing of George Floyd.”
I am in no position to advise evangelical Christians about anything, but I can say this: Welcome to the club. You’re not alone. Similar upheavals have occurred in spiritual communities large and small, traditional and unconventional, well-known and obscure.
I’ve studied many spiritual organizations, and while the bulk of my research has been on quasi-Hindu institutions founded by gurus, I’ve interviewed hundreds of people who were on all manner of paths and had been members of all manner of spiritual groupings. I’ve heard more stories of disappointment and disillusionment than I can count. I’ve listened to tales of misbehavior—both egregious and petty—by authority figures; of organizational dysfunction, from serious abuses of power to ordinary incompetence; of overbearing demands for conformity and the fear of ostracism; of competition, jealousy, and backstabbing among the constituents; and of tension caused by mistrust of leadership and doubt about core precepts.
All of that transcends theology, beliefs, truth claims, culture, language, and all the other factors we use to separate one spiritual system from another.
[Read: “Would The World Be Better Off Without Religion?”]
When people confide their concerns, I often paraphrase Tolstoy’s famous observation that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
I say, “Every dysfunctional spiritual organization is dysfunctional in its own way,” only I add, “and every spiritual organization is at least a little dysfunctional.”
It may sound glib, but it is quite reassuring to those who think the flaws and foibles they’ve encountered are unique to their group. It also has the advantage of being true. How could it not be? Spiritual organizations are made up of human beings, and human beings are, by definition, works in progress.
Here are some things I’ve learned to tell people when they’re dismayed by the disparity between the wisdom teachings they cherish and the individuals and institutions charged with representing those teachings.
Take your concerns seriously. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re not spiritually deficient. The devil hasn’t taken over your mind. More likely than not, you’re noticing something real. Maybe it’s not as awful as you think it is. Maybe it’s worse. Either way, you owe it to yourself to look into it. Inquire. Use your discernment.
[Read: “Methods for Strengthening Our Faith.”]
Talk to someone. People are often reluctant to express their concerns to other members of the group because they fear being ostracized. But if that fear is justified—that is, if members don’t feel safe voicing sincere issues—what does that say about the group? Is that the company you want to keep? Is stifling doubt consistent with your own spiritual values? In any case, if you can’t comfortably talk to another member, look elsewhere; perhaps a friend, an outside spiritual advisor, or a therapist can help you sort things out. Just don’t suppress your feelings, or else they’ll find a less healthy form of release.
Re-evaluate your affiliation. Perhaps your concerns will be assuaged. If that’s the case, you might feel comfortable deepening your commitment and your level of involvement. On the other end of the spectrum, you might conclude that it’s time to end your association altogether. That might be uncomfortable, even disorienting and anxiety-producing, but it might be a necessary step in your spiritual journey. Then again, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Most spiritual organizations allow for various levels of involvement and commitment. You might be able to find a comfortable space within your imperfect community where you can grow spiritually while remaining true to yourself.
Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Sometimes people get so disillusioned by what they see as hypocrisy or unethical behavior that they not only abandon their spiritual community, they abandon spirituality itself. It’s important to distinguish between institution and teaching and between personalities and practices. Remember the spiritual impulse that attracted you in the first place, and, whether you stay or leave, hold onto what feeds your soul, nourishes you, and brings you closer to the divine.
Membership in any spiritual organizations has its rewards and its pitfalls. Like packaged tours, they can make your spiritual adventure safe, comfortable, orderly, and predictable—and they can be stifling, irritating, and restrictive. We each have to find a suitable balance between our need for companionship and our need for independence. Whatever your level of involvement, know your own red lines and be on the lookout for policies, dogmas, and behaviors that are inconsistent with your deepest values.
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To paraphrase what is often said about marriage, being in a spiritual community that nurtures the soul is a holy and precious thing; being stuck in a community that stifles the spirit is debilitating. We all need to find the match that’s right for us.
Want more? Read: “Faith After Doubt: A Conversation With Brian McLaren.”