Adherents are instructed in exactly what their traditional scriptures mean and arewarned of the serious consequences if they deviate from the norm. With thisdogmatic approach, the unforgivable offense is to leave the denomination orreject any of its teachings. The apostate’s punishments in the afterlife are beyonddescription. Thus, the strict ecclesial establishment incorporates powerful culturalinducements, to join the community and never leave it. In addition, membershave an obligation to spread the word and convert others, to rescue those whohave fallen away from the true faith and practice. This constitutes an idealformula for the survival and propagation of the tradition.Theologically, those with an ecclesial mentality—whether they are ultraorthodoxJews, Christians of the extreme right, or Muslim fundamentalists—incline towardselective scriptural literalism and religious exclusivism. In an open society, theytolerate nonconformists because they lack the power to suppress them, but insituations where they have complete control, they are not so lenient. Obviously,not all members of ecclesial establishments are so narrow-minded. For a trulyenlightened person can learn from and be comfortable with a form of practicebased on a particular tradition other than one’s own—whether Christian, Jewish,or Hindu—without compromising one’s primary commitment. For example, manyJews incorporate Buddhist practice in their lives.
The Retrospective Level
Most religious traditions look back to a charismatic leader or founder, one whoseperson and teaching the members of the ecclesia depend on for guidance andinspiration. Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, the Buddha, or one of the incarnations ofVishnu, such as Sri Ramakrishna, are the inspirational ﬁgures to whomsectarians have recourse when in doubt about what to believe or how to act. Notall sectarians interpret the doctrine of the original teacher in the same way. Jewssubscribe to the Law of Moses, or the Torah, but not all agree on how much ofthe Pentateuch can actually be traced back to Moses. First-century Phariseesincorporated elements of an oral tradition into their teaching and practice,contrary to the belief of the Sadducees. Some Jews are exclusivists; others in theRenewal movement are ecumenically oriented and seek to work with and learnfrom other faiths. Islam is divided into two great sects, the Sunnis and the Shiites.Mahayana Buddhism as it developed in China and Japan differs considerablyfrom the Hinayana Buddhism of south and Southeast Asia, especially regardingthe extent to which the later scriptures are understood to reﬂect the actual wordsof Siddhartha Gautama. And, of course, Christianity is divided into three major