27 Vaskaras 3336
Filianism is not a missionary religion; we seek only to make information on our faith available and to welcome those who feel called. As Erin Sian recently noted, however, even this modest aim involves a certain amount of apologetics in a society that broadly rejects the validity, necessity, and desirability of religion in general, and in which resistance to that rejection comes primarily from established religions that regard themselves as exclusive purveyors of truth. Between these two opposing forces, real work is involved simply to maintain discursive space where individuals can express interest and curiosity in a new religion without being drowned in the static of societal prejudices. My heart has broken many times to see a seeker, drawn by a deep recognition of soul after encountering some bit of our scripture or custom, be turned aside by a Yahoo answer or a forum response in which the partisan of another faith declares that Filianism is “clearly” not a “real religion,” or in which a jeering atheist mocks it is a “feminized version” of Christianity. These same people, no doubt, believe that Creole is not a “real” language and that Swedish is just poorly spelled Norwegian.
As aggravating as the ignorance of such critics can be, I find that the most pernicious challenges to creating the open, welcoming space of inquiry we must offer come not from zealots or nihilists, but ironically from those who see themselves as spiritual seekers championing free inquiry. At a popular New Age forum, I recently encountered a woman who had been deeply moved by some lines of Filianic scripture. After doing a great deal of reading, she felt drawn to make a commitment to the teaching and to identify as a Filianist but, before taking such a substantial step, wanted some opinions from a community she trusted. As is often the case in cases like this, no one on the forum had heard of Filianism prior to reading her question, and they offered no actual evaluation of Filianic thought. What they gave her instead was a bit of standard New Age dogma—the problem was not the religion to which she was thinking of committing, but the idea of committing to anything at all.
“…[R]eligion can be dangerous. This is why most people recommend to ‘subscribe to nothing’…”
“Cool, why not just accept it if you like it, without labeling yourself?”
“I don’t see why you should or feel the need to convert to anything… It’s ok to get inspiration from religions or people or other concepts. But don’t limit yourself.”
“You don’t have to join any club. Liberate yourself. And still you can have certain beliefs or take from whatever belief seems right to you.”
“I tend to study all religion but subscribe specifically to none. … I take what works for me and disregard what does not. SO i would advise doing just that and dotn worry about what doesnt fit…” [sic]
It was the phrasing of this last reply that brought home to me the moral bankruptcy of what I had previously considered merely intellectually undisciplined. What would we say about these posts if they were offered as relationship advice? “I really like this person I met,” writes the uncertain original poster, “and I’d like to be their friend. What do you all think?” The answers quickly return, “Don’t commit to anyone… There’s no reason you have to put a label on your relationship… Just spend time with them for the aspects of them you like, and then reject whatever about them doesn’t work for you.” Would we not come to the conclusion that these were wretched, withered souls with no concept at all of the meaning of friendship? And when we are speaking of a religion—of the path by which a maid will seek to bind herself back to God—friendship is not enough; one must be desperately in love with one’s religion.
Of course, most of us do not start out that way. Like a new friendship, conversion to a new religion is carried through by the riptide of infatuation, and takes some time to mature into something meriting the name of love. One of my favorite spiritual teachers, Rebbe Nachman of Breslav, wrote that “If you are strong in your faith, you will eventually come to understand what it is you believe in.” Love and understanding in matters of the spirit follow from the discipline and commitment of belief; they do not precede commitment as a litmus test. This is the better part of the wisdom that has been lost to the modern West, where spiritual shopping and astronomical divorce rates go hand-in-hand.
The common objection is that, if one is to believe before understanding, one will too readily believe all manner of unnecessary things, and that the soul’s path to salvation will thus be strewn with the stumbling blocks of the Law. Reason, then, should free us from the incidentals and accidents of our religions, in order that we may better focus upon the most “important” teachings. Like most of the half-truths of modernity, this is the garbled memory of a valid point, as the Christians, the Sufis, the Buddhists, and many others have reminded the world many times that no holiness code can win salvation.
The modern error is not in determining what is needful to salvation, but in focusing too narrowly upon salvation issues; a teaching need not threaten hellfire to be important. When the Council of Jerusalem met to consider Paul’s teaching that gentile converts did not need to keep the Mosaic Law, they judged him correct but clarified that converted Jews should continue to keep it. Separating meat from milk and halting commerce on the sabbath were not needed to reach heaven, but they still had value on earth as ways of fostering belonging in the Jewish community, finding identity in tradition, practicing spiritual discipline, and refining the soul (the gentiles, they reasoned, had their own customs from their own communities in this regard). In a similar fashion, many Hasidic rabbis have held that one need not keep every point of the Law perfectly to be judged righteous, but have urged their students nonetheless to choose one mitzvah—one commandment out of the six hundred thirteen—to make especially their own and to follow to the letter on every occasion. Even this light discipline has proved to be enough (at least in the kali yuga) to refine the character and regenerate the soul.
There is a world of difference, though, between choosing just one discipline to keep relentlessly and choosing from among many as one finds convenient. Human beings are, by nature, always bound to something, and one avoids being bound to the bad not by chasing the illusion of freedom, but by becoming bound to the good. The Roman philosopher Epictetus, who was the slave of a landowner, declared that “If you would enjoy real freedom, you must be the slave of philosophy.” So, likewise, Jesus did not promise his followers release from a yoke, but asked them to take on his yoke because it was light. The one who would be free of the oarsman’s shackles must be tied to the mast to pass the sirens, and a fetter is worn by those who enter heaven as much as by those who enter hell. Indeed, the traditional iconography of the Harrowing of Hell shows the fingers of Christ locked around the wrists of Adam and Eve even as the chains fall from their ankles, in order to show that it is not by their own power that they escape bondage to the Devil, but by the power derived from bondage to God.
Etymologically, this is precisely the difference between “religion” and “spirituality.” “Religion”, from Latin re/ligio, means “to be bound again” or “to be yoked intensely.” Its imagery is, in many ways, a contrast rather than a complement to the more airy “spirituality.” Perhaps spirituality suffices for the denizens of paradises; as the Chapel has said, there would be no need of religion in a perfect world. In our world, however, we have need of a sure guide and a firm hand. A free sheep, after all, has no good shepherd to look after it.
“Oh, do not say that you are perfect,” warned Our Lady, “for then you can not understand either the world or your own selves.” (The Secret of the World, v. 14) What other claim do we make when we suppose that we can sit in judgement over the religions of the earth, picking and choosing from their practices and doctrines as we please? It is true, as New Age adherents often affirm, that all the great, Traditional religions are valid within their own economies, just as it is true that all the shoes within my closet are valid pairs when worn together. That does not, however, make it good taste to wear two that do not match.
John Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, wrote that:
There are some to be found, in the present day, who imagine their liberty would be abridged, if they were not to enter on the enjoyment of it by eating animal food on Friday. Their eating is not the subject of my reprehension; but their minds require to be divested of this false notion; for they ought to consider, that they obtain no advantage from their liberty before men, but with God; and that it consists in abstinence as well as use. If they apprehend it to be immaterial in God’s view whether they eat animal food or eggs, whether their garments be scarlet or black, it is quite sufficient. The conscience, to which the benefit of this liberty was due, is now emancipated. Therefore, though they abstain from flesh, and wear but one color, during all the rest of their lives, this is no diminution of their freedom. (Calvin, pp. 69–70)
Let the maid who wishes to return to God pick shoes of any color she will, then—the red shoes of Christ, the green shoes of Islam, the saffron shoes of the Sangha, or whatever other well-made pair may fit; all can take her up the narrow path she must walk. If she chooses to walk that path in the luminous golden shoes of Our Mother’s gospel, let us rejoice so much the more to travel alongside her. But for the love of Our Mother, let us not sit by while any maid is sent out in a platform and a flip-flop to break her ankle on the mountain. We have no wish to be missionaries, but no wish to have to be medics either.
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translated by John Allen, Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1843.