Religion and the Quest for Personal Truth
By Clare Goldsberry
Much has been written recently on the necessity of religion and of its place in the development of one’s spiritual life. Huston Smith, probably one of the best-known and most ardent supporters of religion and the religious community, brought this topic to the fore with his best-selling book Why Religion Matters. Yet, in spite of this excellent treatise about the beneﬁts of religion, humanity is often an example of all that is wrong with religion. In Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, Andrew Newberg and coauthors Eugene D’Aquili and Vince Rause examine the neurobiological essence of what makes humans believe in something greater than themselves and why religion has become the underpinning of that belief: What makes these beliefs more than hollow dreams is the fact that the God that stands behind them has been veriﬁed, through a direct mystical encounter, as literal absolute truth. Any challenge to the authenticity of that truth, therefore, is an attack not only upon ideas about God, but also upon the deeper, neurobiologically endorsed assurances that make God real. If God is not real, neither is our most powerful source of hope and redemption. There can only be one absolute truth; it is a matter of existential survival. All others are threats of the most fundamental kind, and they must be exposed as imposters. In other words, the presumption of “exclusive” truth, upon which religious intolerance is based, may rise out of incomplete states of neurobiological transcendence. If we are right, if religions and the literal Gods they deﬁne are in fact interpretations of transcendent experience, then all interpretations of God are rooted, ultimately, in the same experience of transcendent unity. . . . All religions, therefore, are kin. None of them can exclusively own the realist reality, but all of them, at their best, steer the heart and the mind in the right direction. (164–65)
This statement expresses that much of what is wrong with religion is the tendency among many religions to claim a monopoly on Truth. It is as if there is an exclusive ownership of the divine graces of God to which those outside the walls of the religion are denied access. To hold to “exclusive” truth is to render invalid individuals’ experiences that resulted in their own truth. I am therefore invalidated as a spiritual entity capable of both seeking and ﬁnding the divine within. My personal search led me through what I felt was a rigid, dogmatic, religious organization whose hold on truth created a judgmental atmosphere of exclusivity toward all who did not recognize its religious claims to this truth. The result for me was spiritual bankruptcy. Newberg continues, “when the [Catholic] Church tried to silence Galileo by proclaiming him a heretic, it showed itself, in the eyes of many rational people, to be more concerned with dogma than with truth.” Then, as now, many religious leaders try to maintain their power over people. And it is this and the money that keeps many organized religions thriving. Ultimately, the goal of some religions is less to help individuals discover their own true nature and personal truth and more to maintain its dogma—to keep one adhering to and believing in the doctrines it espouses. The question arises: Can individual spirituality be uncovered, developed, and nurtured by an organized religion? In his book Reclaiming Spirituality, Diarmuid O’ Murchu states that when it comes to the differences between religion and spirituality, there exists a deﬁning line between the rigid, dogmatic, “straight and narrow road” of religion and the ﬂexible path of spirituality. “Spirituality, in every age of human and planetary unfolding, is far more versatile, embracing, dynamic and creative than religion has ever been.” O’Murchu also points out that “Religion is not, and never has been, the primary mediating force for spirituality. Religion is not, and was never intended to be, the sole or primary medium for God’s revelation to humankind. Religion is much more a human rather than a divine invention.” He also reminds us that “the ancient spiritual wisdom embraced our world in a holistic, organic way that mainstream religion does not seem capable of doing.” Wade Clark Roof, the renowned religious sociologist, in Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion, notes that “Greater modesty intruth-claims might make possible serious engagement of the quest
culture” (312). Because ofthese “truth-claims” by rigid religious organizations, seekers such as myself have often beenaccused of believing in nothing. Those of us who have moved beyond the organizedreligion of our childhoods are seen as having rejected “truth” because it is believed that “truth” cannot exist outside the organized religious structure. To accept the exclusive truth of a particular religious organization as the ultimate truth is to cut ourselves off from seeking our personal truth; it is blind faith—faith that refuses to look beyond the boundaries set up by the religious organization; faith that rejects personal inquiry and follows blindly dictated truth, which isn’t truth after all. Sharon Salzberg, author of Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience, was asked in an interview about blind faith. “In blind faith . . . we don’t question anything for fear of losing the intensity of our infatuation,” she said. “Blind faith . . . continues to depend on an external source for validation, not on developing our own experience.” When we cease seeking, we also cease growing spirituality. Seeking personal truth often involves learning to question all we have been told, and not being afraid of the answers we might ﬁnd. The church organization can, however, provide a conduit for us to begin the search. We can learn from an intellectual vantage point the how and why of God and humankind’s relationship to the divine. But this is only a beginning, a means to an end—enlightened spirituality— not the end in itself. Religious leaders, if they are sensitive to the spiritual nature, can encourage one to listen for the still, small voice of the spirit and become a seeker of personal truth. Finding one’s personal truth always has to do with a calling that is uniquely our own,one that comes from the inside out, not from a bishop, a rabbi, a guru, or any other person. It comes from within ourselves when we are called to travel a path in which we can best learn who we are and the purpose of our lives on this earth. Unlike many structured belief systems that hold fast to tradition and avoid change, personal truth changes as one’s experience unfold. As we move from childhood into adolescence and then into adulthood, we see the world differently, and our belief system changes. The apostle Paul notes: “When I was a child I spoke as a child, but now I have become an adult and have put away childish things.” What is truth for us at one juncture fades into the background as we are called into new avenues of life.
Any path we take is not merely a means to an end but an opportunity to experience thejourney. Problems arise when people see their religion as the end, the ultimate truth, rather than as a means to evolve spiritually and seek greater personal truth. Jesus encouraged seeking: “Seek and ye shall ﬁnd; knock and it shall be opened to you.” Truth isn’t conﬁned to a speciﬁc religious organization or institution or individual. Truth,particularly personal truth (how you perceive the world through the lens of your experiences verses how I perceive the world through mine) takes on many individual angles. When I was twenty-one years old, I was introduced to Mormonism. At the time, my ability to incorporate that religious belief structure into my life was dependent upon my circumstances in life and what I had experienced. My experience matched my belief system and therefore became my personal truth. The same cannot be said now. My personal truth has changed. Personal truth also has to do with personal revelation: learning to listen to that “still, small voice” within and allowing it to guide and direct one on one’s personal journey even when it may not follow the path prescribed by one’s family or religion. Personal revelation and living one’s personal truth often gives us no other option but to push against religion’s dogmatic enclosures. It causes us to step beyond those boundaries which can result in rejection and even formal excommunication from the religious organization. Seeking personal truth is an ongoing adventure. It is less a straight and narrow roadthan a curved path ﬁlled with detours and switchbacks, hills and valleys. To think that one has found all truth in one doctrine or one set of rules or one’s religion inhibits one’s spiritual growth. Certainly we grow spiritually no matter where we are, but we should never be content that we have achieved all we need to know. As a Theosophist, I ﬁnd two quotes particularly relevant with regard to ﬁnding personal truth. The ﬁrst is from J. Krishnamurti: “Truth is a pathless land.” Contrary to what some might think, this statement doesn’t mean that one wanders aimlessly in a spiritual desert. What it means to me is that my search is never conﬁned to one path, to one preconceived notion of exactly which direction I should walk while ignoring some very enlightening side roads. My second favorite is by H. P. Blavatsky and is also the motto of the Theosophical Society: “There is no religion higher than truth.” This is a beautiful statement to keep in mind as one seeks one’s personal truth.
As we push toward the pinnacle of our lives, we need to remain open and practicediscernment but never push something away just because it falls outside the realm of one way of thinking. Being a seeker or partaking in the quest for one’s personal truth need not imply that religions or religious organizations have nothing to contribute. However, no religionshould be the arbiter of truth, but instead, a guiding light for adherents to ﬁnd their own personal truth. To push beyond the boundaries is sometimes frightening, but the alternative is conﬁnement behind walls of doctrine or dogma that contain only partial or limited truth—the truth of someone whose experiences have been very different from our own. Finding our personal truth, then following wherever that leads next in our spiritual development, is critical to discovering the kingdom of heaven that lies within each of us as divine beings.
References Interview with Sharon Salzberg. Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. (Fall 2002) Newberg, Andrew, Eugene D’Aquili, and Vince Rause. Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. New York: Ballantine Books, 2001. O’ Murchu, Diamuid. Reclaiming Spirituality: A New Spiritual Framework for Today’s World. New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1998 Roof, Wade Clark. Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.