“When freed from that which binds,
when the lust for life has come to
an end, one is not born again. He
is released now and forever.”
– The Buddha, Dhammapada
Note: Some define “spiritual independents” as those who are unchurched or have left a mainline religious affiliation — like a third-way political party. For our purposes, “spiritual independence” means anyone who insists on critical thinking in religious matters.
On July 15, 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson addressed the graduating students of Harvard Divinity School. As the ministers-to-be listened eagerly with freshly-opened minds, he told them, “Let me admonish you first of all to go alone, to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil.”
He spoke of an “indwelling Supreme Spirit,” and of a vision, described by Philip Goldberg of the Huffington Post as “similar to that of the Eastern sages, where we are neither fallen nor depraved, and where divinity incarnates at every instant, not just once in the distant past.”
“God is, not was,” Emerson told the students, and each of us is “an infinite Soul” who is “drinking forever the soul of God.”
The graduates (and religion itself) were forever changed — their minds and hearts opened to a direct relationship with the Divine. The parents and faculty were angry and upset, and Emerson was banned from Harvard for over two decades.
If we are to claim spiritual independence for ourselves, then we need to cultivate a similar relationship with our Source. John Dominic Crossan writes about this kind of life in The Essential Jesus, saying it is the life that Jesus died for — a life “of human contact without discrimination and of divine contact without hierarchy.”
If we are to be truly free, we need to equip ourselves with the appropriate support on all levels and lines, and surround ourselves with the right types. We will need access to sound spiritual teachings, a free-standing system outside the mainline institutions, the right spiritual tools necessary to do the actual work, and the benefits of a rich community of practice.
We’ll need teachings that help us to seek inspiration and guidance, and live with heart, for the road will be rough. They will need to be teachings that consider the health of the whole person (body, mind and spirit); that encourage not just temporary epiphanies and insights, but continual freedom (or moksha), spiritual liberation and unfolding, allowing us to “transcend and include” what has come before. They will need to be teachings that remind us to look within for the answer. Teachings that promote right behavior, right action and right speech; that allow for and encourage highly-developed lines of ethics and morality. We also need new stories, updated myths and well-drawn maps of the spiritual territory.
A Free-Standing System
Next, we need to find a space (physical and cultural) where we can be self-governing, and not dependent on another’s authority or blessing. We need the ability to discern for ourselves who are the wisest teachers, greatest masters or compassionate leaders (based upon their teachings, ethics, intention, degree of compassion and inclusiveness, and cultural situatedness). We need to identify and overthrow spiritual tyrants — reclaiming our ability to remove any overtly controlling or oppressive elements within an institution or organization. If the system cannot be changed from within, then we will leave that system and create a new one. We need to gently and lovingly move away from institutions that tell us God (what is good in us) is somewhere outside of ourselves and move toward the idea and the experience that God is everywhere — present in both our inner and outer dimensions, in the individual as well as the collective. We need to forego (outgrow) the idea that we are puppets (or “children”) of God, literally made from clay and given breath like some sort of wind-up toy, and embrace the notion that our Universe is evolving and dynamic and that we are the apertures through which God becomes self-aware of His/Her own Creation. We also badly need for our system to be able to exist alongside the systems of other people and other faiths without being threatening or feeling like we are being threatened.
Of course we will need the right tools to build these new structures as well as to defend ourselves (“weapons” for those masculine/agentic types). These tools can be our very own reason and intellect. And, in the current climate of anti-intellectualism, fashioning and sharpening these tools of reason can become a fight in itself. We are surrounded by “either/or” thinking, the push and pull of philosophical polarities, the urge to go “anti-,” to exist in opposition to an idea, person or community.
Dr. Haridas Chaudhuri, the father of Integral Spirituality, warned against such dualities as capitalism/communism and eastern/western philosophies when he wrote, “Dualistic logic generates an exclusive, aggressive and militant attitude, whereas non-dualism produces an all-embracing, all-reconciling, peace-loving attitude of the mind. … A root cause of the war mentality is the fear complex which haunts the powerful nations of the world today. That is why well-meaning politicians may sincerely talk about peace, and yet feverishly prepare for war. They are just suspicious and afraid of one another. The greater the fear, the greater the sharpening of weapons, and the sharper the weapons, the greater the fear. What is the way out of this ever-widening vicious circle?”
Thomas Merton wrote, “At the root of all war is fear: not so much the fear men have of one another as the fear they have of everything.”
Not only do we need to let go of this deep-seated fear, allowing God to show up and flow through us in the richly-perfect moment of now, we need to actively shift our thinking to a post-modern, holistic, systems view when it comes to politics, education, ecology, environmentalism, religion, etc. The spiritual tools that we brandish do no good unless they are creating a shift in our own values; unless we are working toward establishing a new way of viewing hierarchy/holarchy, and a new way of ranking based on what is the most true (objective), beautiful (subjective) and good (intersubjective).
We need spiritual tools that allow us to cut through spiritual materialism (being spiritual for spirituality’s sake), and hold a mirror up to our own biases.
We will need tools like shadow work, and Integral Life Practice and Spiral Dynamics that illustrate how we (as individuals and societies) might continue to seek the truth (and the partiality) of all worldviews and perspectives.
Finally, we can be as strong and as fiercely independent as we want to be, but we also need the support of a loving community of similarly spiritually-independent people to keep us accountable and to call us out on our fear and our stagnancy (or stuck-ness). We will gain the support and trust of others by letting down our walls and inviting people into these new structures we’ve built. We will learn by watching and doing, so we must surround ourselves with great teachers. We will reap the rewards of intergenerational wisdom and newly-created rites of passage, establishing a new society that worships a new cosmology, writes a new mythology and embodies a new mysticism.
Create the system to which you would want to belong. Create the community of practice that you would want to join.
And, in the spirit of Emerson, and on the anniversary of his lecture, I offer this updated version of David Hayward’s manifesto.
We affirm and celebrate July 15 as Worldwide Spiritual Independence Day.
Declaration of Spiritual Independence
- I am free. I am spiritually independent.
- I have the right to free inquiry and to seek inner personal wisdom.
- It is my right to walk my own path and cultivate my own practice.
- It is my responsibility to exercise humility and compassion for all beings.
- I will be vigilant in my self-care and not dwell on outside perceptions.
- I will commit to deep, loving relationship with myself before I attempt a relationship with another or a group.
- I honor my roots but I will not allow them to prevent me from growing.
- I will live each moment mindfully, beneficially, optimally and sustainably and allow myself to be an example to others.
- I am grateful for my freedom to be uniquely and fully myself.
- I am Spirit-in-Action.