The writings of Richard Rohr, in particular, have helped me to appreciate what is perhaps the biggest mistake we have made when it comes to religion: we have disconnected the outer system/symbols of belief from the inner experience of God, or the divine.
In an earlier age, belief systems and inner experience were intimately connected. Indeed, Rohr and others would argue that they were connected from the beginning of each tradition, but over time, under the influence of what we might call Western rationalism, outer belief systems and inner experience lost their intimacy. In large part, this was the result of people losing touch with the profound notion that the realm of our inner experience was precisely the place where we were meant to meet God. The rituals and spiritual practices of the world’s religions were meant to help us delve more deeply into our interior selves, to discover (in Judeo-Christian language) the image of God within us — which is the same as discovering God’s presence within us. Outer belief systems were also meant to point us toward interior truths.
In the Christian tradition, for example, the story of Jesus is not simply the story of Jesus of Nazareth, but is offered as the story that defines the spiritual journey of the Christian. The outward, historical journey of Jesus is a map for navigating our own interior journey away from what Rohr would call the False Self toward the True Self — another way of describing the image of God within us. When we speak of Christian beliefs in the Trinity, incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, the “day of the Lord”, among others, we are not simply describing things about God and about Jesus. We are, at the same time, talking about our own spiritual journeys. Each of these beliefs is meant to connect to and be verified by our own inner experience. Interestingly, Rohr points out that for people who have never touched this inner experience of God, even if just fleetingly, this kind of talk doesn’t make a lot of sense, and is, indeed, often heard as being a bit heretical.
Yet, the damage caused by this disconnection between outer belief system and inner experience is substantial. One of the fruits of that disconnection is that the belief system loses credibility. When we speak, for example, of Jesus as the incarnation of God and of his having been raised from the dead, we are speaking of things that, in their outward forms, lie completely outside human experience. We propose them, then, as articles of faith that must be believed for their own sake — “because they are true” — and expect that people will simply accept those beliefs, and find some way to make them meaningful. In the end, the only way these beliefs do become meaningful in any lasting, transformative way is when we can connect them to the inner experience of God that is possible in any human life.
Another side effect of this disconnection is the tendency to replace the inner experience of God with moralism. Rather than finding that inner “place” where we participate in God and God participates in us, we too often seek to impose a rigid morality from the outside, believing that adhering to a strict moral code will somehow bring us closer to God. We have forgotten that a truly moral life unfolds from that inner place of divine and human cooperation, rather than from enforcement of an external code (despite the fact that St. Paul was rather clear about this). This is not to say that law should be abandoned — it is simply to say, with Paul, that law cannot take us where we want to go, and it cannot substitute for the actual experience of God.
Richard Rohr sums up the problem this way:
Our True Self remains untouched for most of us, because any direct experience of God or explicit union with God was blocked, denied, and largely declared impossible. It always had to be mediated by a Bible, priest, minister, church, or sacrament, and very often the mediators, and the defending of their mediations, became the primary message itself.
-Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond, p. 125
It’s not possible to discuss all the nuances of this in a short blog post. But I hope this might be enough to help us come to terms with the way in which we so often have lost the point of religion. It is not, and never has been, about assenting to a particular set of beliefs, no matter how strange and alien they may seem. It is about learning to discover ourselves in God and God in ourselves, and to be transformed by the encounter. The Bible, priests, ministers, churches, and sacraments were never meant to mediate between us and God; rather, they were meant to point us toward the depth of reality, including the depths of our own selves. In the end, the rituals and beliefs of our traditions only become meaningful when they acquire a “hook” into our own deep, inner selves, so that the truth spoken “out there” finds the truth spoken inside each of us.
As it is noted in the Second Letter of Peter, all of these things God has given us so that through them, we “may become participants in the divine nature.” We have too often settled for something much less.