Why We Need Both Orthodoxy and Spiritual Cosmopolitanism

The photo above is of the main Bahai Temple in Haifa, Israel, one of the most beautiful religious structures in the world. It shines like a beacon on Mt. Carmel, a veritable symbol of spiritual cosmopolitanism and religious tolerance. I visited the Bahai Temple many times when I lived in Israel. It just looms above Haifa. I thought of all this when my son and I visited a Bahai community that just happens to be located less a mile from our house in our little seaside village. He had to visit a house of worship different from his own, for a high school religion class, and I thought of the Bahais. In Victoria, BC, there is a Bahai reading room and I spent a delightful afternoon there chatting with the owners and talking about the temple in Haifa.

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In recent years, spiritual cosmopolitanism has gotten a bad reputation as a kind of dilettantism, some of it much deserved. We moderns practice what some people call “cafeteria religion,” picking and choosing among doctrines and ideas we already accept and turning a deaf ear, and certainly a hard heart, toward anything we don’t like.

Much of that criticism, in my view, is valid.

The purpose of religion is not to confirm our own prejudices but to shake us out of our self-induced stupor. The guardians of orthodoxy – Christian, Jewish, Buddhist – strive to protect the purity of their respective traditions and resist mightily ideas and spiritual practices from other sources. Many people are offended by this and think of it as close-mindedness … but it’s not.

That’s the job of guardians, to protect and preserve hard-won truth. It’s a good thing. Most of us want to encounter spiritual and philosophical ideas in their authentic forms, without being watered down. We’re all purists at heart.

If I want to understand Marxism, for example, I don’t read some modern professor who tries to reconcile Marxism with free market capitalism in some sort of new synthesis: I read the Communist Manifesto! I want my Marx straight.

At the same time, however, orthodoxy isn’t much good if it’s ignored or is presented in such a way that no one can understand or accept it. And to be quite frank, we need all the help we can get!

We’re all so screwed up by the world we live in – the loud, dirty, multi-tasking, dysfunctional, violent, polluting world – that we have no choice but to take our truth wherever we find it.

I honestly think, at this point in human evolution, we need both approaches to spirituality – what we might call pure teaching and practical teaching.

Pure teaching is what we get from orthodox religious traditions – the Roman Catholic Church, an Orthodox Jewish synagogue, a traditional Zen monastery, a Moslem mosque, and so on. If you’re lucky and if you’re ready, this is where you go for authentic spiritual teaching, the real stuff, hopefully without being watered down too much.

Of course, the various guardians of orthodoxy disagree profoundly about many basic issues and thus, unless you’re already persuaded about the truth and wisdom of a particular religious tradition – as I am, for example, for Catholicism – it’s difficult to know which guardian of orthodoxy to trust. Most people simply go to or stay in the tradition in which they were raised as a kind of “base,” exploring other traditions and ideas as needed – and that’s often a wise idea.

However, we also need the second approach to spirituality – and that’s practical teaching. This is the watered down, eclectic version, in which people pick and choose among various traditions to find something that works for them. We moderns are already such a hodge-podge of confusion – and many of us are raised in homes with little or no spiritual teaching at all, or by a Jewish father and a lapsed Episcopalian mother who does yoga on the side – that we really have no choice anyway but to seek our truth wherever we can find it.

Guardians of orthodoxy rightfully disdain this and often dismiss it out of hand as lacking depth or authenticity, but we do what we must.

We need both… the pure and the practical. We should move back and forth between the two, assuming we have the time (not a small thing!) and interest.

The problem for many of us is that the orthodox religious traditions often ignore totally, or no longer provide access to, their own practical spiritual teaching.

For example, the Catholic Church has a vast body of spiritual teaching – of mystics, monasteries, spiritual directors, the Mass itself, retreats, devotions, spiritual exercises, daily prayer practices, the Stations of the Cross, confession, and so on. (The same is true, I know, of Judaism and Buddhism. )

The problem is, much of that is not easily accessible in a typical parish setting. You have to seek it out, travel to find it, study and investigate. It’s there but buried. Most Catholics go to weekly Mass… socialize with our friends afterwards… and that’s it.

Few even bother with “Catholic yoga,” sacramental confession, the most basic of practical spiritual teachings in the Church.

As a result, people inevitably seek out practical spiritual guidance wherever they can find it in the smorgasbord of ideas we call the modern world. They may take yoga classes. Or go on a Zen retreat. Or try Transcendental Meditation. They may read A Course in Miracles or some other New Agey book. Hopefully, they’re able to absorb something that rings true, that truly helps them, and then return to their own religious tradition to see how whatever they learned fits into a classic spiritual context.

What’s more, this modern spiritual cosmopolitanism is not anything new. In fact, it pretty much mirrors the conditions that existed when Christianity was founded 2,000 years ago. And it has existed at many times in the history of Christendom – when different religious groups (Protestant, Jewish, Moslem) were forced to bump up against and learn from one another.

When the Orthodox Jewish rabbi and “Messianic Jew” we now know as the Apostle Paul set out to bring the teaching of Jesus to the pagan masses, he encountered a veritable cornucopia of philosophical and spiritual ideas. In most of the cities to which he traveled – Damascus, Corinth, Athens, Rome certainly — religious eclecticism was the norm, not the exception.

Educated Romans and Greeks faced a smorgasbord of religions and, just as today, would sometimes mix and match spiritual practices as best they could. In fact, much of the growth of Christianity was due to the phenomenon known as “God-fearers,” which was pagan Romans or Greeks who attended Jewish synagogues and embraced the ideas and ideals of nascent Judaism but who, due to the orthodox requirement of circumcision – a fairly daunting prerequisite for an adult male — did not formally convert.

Paul’s message that Jesus had done away with the necessity for these ritual requirements of the Torah for non-Jews – that you could be every bit a child of God, part of the true Israel, without being circumcised at all — received a warm and enthusiastic hearing among these Gentile quasi-converts to Judaism.

Understandably, it also sparked a furious hostility, and even outright persecution, from the guardians of Jewish orthodoxy – some of whom physically attacked Paul and tried to have him killed. However, Paul, too, as a guardian of the new teaching of Jesus – what became Christian orthodoxy – was himself critical of the same spiritual cosmopolitanism that led to his own missionary success.

In his letters to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, Galatia and Rome, Paul is highly critical of those who want to combine the “new teaching” about and by Jesus with the old orthodoxy of Judaism.

It is clear that many of the early Jewish followers of Jesus did not want to give up their Jewish cultural heritage – the keeping of the mizvot (commandments) of the Torah, including the ritual commandments of various feast days, circumcision, and so forth.

These Jewish purists and syncretists insisted that Gentile converts to Jesus’s new Way should also maintain the Jewish customs and rituals – and to this Paul strenuously objected.

He objected to the syncretistic melding of Judaism and what would become Christianity – what today might be called “messianic Judaism – at least for non-Jews.

Thus, finding the balance between the purity of the old and the practical realities of the new is itself a very ancient struggle. If Paul and his followers wrestled with this problem at the very dawn of Christian history, we should hardly be surprised that we face the same thing today.

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Robert J. Hutchinson is an author and essayist. His most recent book is Searching for Jesus: New Discoveries in the Quest for Jesus of Nazareth (Thomas Nelson, 2015).