Spirituality vs Religion: The Tenacity of Dogma’s

Guten Tag,

Last week I watched a discussion program on German television, called Anne Will. The central theme was something like this: All are looking for meaning (of life) – does the church still has answers? (link) The discussion, or better: coarse debate as such was a disaster; the usual disaster perhaps when spiritual matters are subject of a conversation. It came close to a war in the trenches with most of the participants sticking to their fixed positions. It got hijacked by a man, unconditionally believing and vehemently defending anything the pope and the church come up with. Quite an unpleasant contribution to the discussion, I must confess. The other participants were a psycho-therapist who positioned herself as self-declared atheist, a man who grew up in a strict catholic pilgrimage town in Bavaria and who had suffered the unloving, dogmatic and hypocrite side of that. There was this elderly protestant man who has been seeking regular refuge in catholic cloister for the last 30 years. And there was this éminence grise, also an elderly man who could see and think beyond the artificial boundaries dogma imposes. Last but not least was the 38-year old banker turned nun (at the age of 32) with the order of the Benedictines, who also showed the capacity to talk from an essence connection and transcend the limitations of ancient dogmas.

Dogma is sticking to beliefs.

No one, except the latter two, could leave room for a different viewpoint, the sharing of a different spiritual experience. The four loudest speakers were sticking to beliefs they once had accepted and with which they identify themselves and which, in their view, is the only and absolute truth. And all thinking differently are wrong and need to be convinced of that. To me it seemed those four all live in fear, unable to open up to life and immersed in a relentless need to judge everybody and everything all of the time. And I felt quite sad about that.

In my novel ‘The Glass Dome’ (http://www.geerthofman.com/glass-dome), the main character Peter Woudenberg finds himself seated next to a catholic priest at a dinner party. The conversation they enter addresses some of the issues, related to sticking to old dogma’s by the catholic church. Here’s an excerpt.

“Would you say it’s easy to be a priest in the catholic church today?” Jean didn’t answer right away but was apparently consciously enjoying the lobster salad Peter had prepared.

“Delicious,” was the first thing he said and more guests made similar compliments. He took a sip of his white wine, consciously tasted it and then looked at Peter. “I’m sorry, I did not mean to ignore your question. No, I don’t think it’s difficult at all to be a priest in the catholic church today.” “I’m sorry if I sounded offensive,” Peter reacted to Jean’s answer. “I had no intention of doing so.”

“I’m pretty sure part of the reason for you to ask this question lies in the numerous scandals that have surfaced over the last years.”

“That did pass my mind indeed.”, Peter spoke softly.

“Fair enough but for my work, the work that I’m doing in my parish, the work I know I have been called to, those scandals don’t mean a thing.” Jean took another few bites of the salad which gave Peter time to digest what he just said. With his glass of wine in his hand he tilted his head a bit in order to study the structure and colour of it. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m appalled as anyone by these continuing horror stories of sexual abuse. And it is clear that has nothing to do with what the essence of the catholic faith stands for.”

“What does it stand for?” Peter asked.

“Love,” was the factual answer right away but it didn’t particularly come across as factual. Rather it seemed to come from a place where it had a deep meaning. “Love is for me the essence. Pure love for me is glue for the entire human family across the globe,” Jean stated.

Peter was struck by the natural way his discussion partner talked about love and he wondered briefly if he would ever be in such a position.

“And it’s clear that since the faith started to become a male dominated institution, with countless rules, regulations and conventions that sprung from mental processes aimed at controlling the internal and external organisation, the fluid character of the essence became more fixed and hence the application of the essence dogmatic. In other words: the focus shifted from being love to preaching love and talking about it. Needless to say that this gives different results. Contact with the essence was lost. However, I choose to remain with this essential energy as, at its most basic level, everything in the universe is energy, which changes all of the time but which never disappears. Material manifestations may, but energy not. Energy transforms all of the time but lives forever.”

“You sound, how shall I put it, quite convinced about your viewpoints. How do you reconcile that with being part of the catholic church?”

“I get a tremendous satisfaction by doing the work I’m doing, which is helping people to make sense of the things that take place in their lives. And in return, that helps me to grow spiritually and to try to make sense of things for myself as well. In no way am I trying to convince them that the catholic faith or church or bible is the sole means of support for them. What I do see in these turbulent times is a growing need for experiencing spirituality which is true and pure. And liberated from interpretations of certain events that may or may not have taken place. The experience is the important thing here. Experiencing spirituality is different from talking about it and I have the impression there is a growing number of people seeking this experience.”

Here, Père Jean stopped for a moment. He emptied his glass of wine and seemed to contemplate what he had just said. Peter too drank from his wine and swiftly looked around the room where he saw all in conversation with each other. Most of the guests laughing, he was sure not many were engaged in the type of conversation he was engaged in. Somehow he wanted to go to Isabelle and enjoy the seemingly careless state she was in. But he felt compelled to listen to what Père Jean had to say. The latter put down his glass on the table, laid his hand to rest next to it and looked at Peter.

“The name of the club is irrelevant once you make a connection on essence level. Muslims, Hindus, Jews, whatever are able to experience a sense of connectedness and meaningfulness that goes beyond the dogmatic and artificially created boundaries of what we call religions. When you connect to this essence, there’s neither much room nor need for interpreting. As it is the heart that speaks in its powerful language without words. The heart, or the soul if you like, speaks from deep wisdom and knowing. It speaks from love as it does not know otherwise and when doing so greatly enhances the person’s awareness and peaceful, loving presence. You’ll experience something similar as everyone else who experiences it and that only becomes different when you start using words to label it.”

As Père Jean I choose to believe that giving room for each other’s spiritual experience yields better results than trying to rally all behind some concept where a few men tell all the others what it is all about. I see it as a step towards of being able to really see each other therewith allowing all of us to live in freedom and to have our spiritual experiences in freedom as well. There’s great learning possible if and when we can leave our spiritual experiences and our accounts of those as belonging to whoever expresses them, therewith knowing they have no intention to convince us of their views and opinions. Sadly the current practice is different as we can read in the newspapers every day. Being open and willing to listen to other viewpoints may contribute to the regular maintenance our belief system needs.

The conversation between the two men continues and Père Jean makes clear what he thinks of the church being a male dominated institution, having lost its connection with its true essence and why it cannot sustain that. In the process one could notice he lives his life very much in the moment.

“I guess that makes clear why you did not make a splendid career within in the church,” Peter was too quick to comment.

“When you mean with career ‘moving up the ladder’, my life has been a total failure,” he looked at Peter and burst out laughing. Their glasses refilled, they toasted again while Jean was still laughing. “When you mean with career ‘living what you’re called to be’, it’s a tremendous success and I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world. Besides I have the privilege of working with young talented managers from all over the world as I’m a visiting professor at a business school nearby as well.”


“I understand my viewpoints may sound conflicting with the laws and rules of the church as you may have come to know them. In that respect it’s no different from working for a company. If you don’t share the same attitude and beliefs, you’re no longer part of the inner circle and your career won’t advance. I’m sure you know about this yourself.”

Peter acknowledged what Père Jean just said and wondered if he thought the institution of the church would be around much longer.

“You know, some say a process of de-institutionalisation can be expected based on the belief we’re moving into a new cosmic era, with different characteristics and values which will change the way people treat each other.”

“I don’t know much about cosmic era’s but I could see the church, as the fixed materialised institution it has become, will be falling apart. Not the essential energy, as energy is always conserved, but rather the fixed forms that have been constructed over the past 20 centuries or so with all its well established interests. As science progresses and the results of that become available faster and faster to more and more people, it’s difficult for me to see how we can seriously continue to see the pope as God’s sole representative on earth. I mean, we elect this male member of the organisation through a dim process of voting. And why should senior church management be privileged to men? Are women worse managers? Do they lack the ability to lead? Do they have limitations, we don’t know of, that prevent them from having spiritual experiences?” he sounded undignified.

Peter liked his clear viewpoints and somewhat militant attitude and intuitively felt there was much truth in what Jean was saying.

“Let me ask you,” Jean addressed Peter and looked inquisitively at him from his brown eyes. “Do you believe in God?”

Peter felt uncomfortable having to answer the question and many thoughts raged through his mind trying to come up with an answer as neutral as possible. “Uhhh, yes, well, I guess I do.”

“Whoa, that’s a struggle to answer that simple question,” Jean laughed. “You strike me as an intelligent man, so tell me: Where does God live?” “It sure is fun to ask questions that no one knows the answer to,” Peter tried.

“Oh come on, Peter, you can do better than that: now, where does she live?” Jean probed.

“I don’t know,” Peter shyly said.

“Suppose he would live within you,” Jean said.

“Within me? Yeah, right.”

“No, seriously, suppose she would live within you, how would that affect the way you view yourself? Your friends? All of us here celebrating? The world? The universe?” Jean drew widening circles with his right arm as he spoke.

“I would…,” Peter tried to find an answer.

“Now wait a minute, let me add something. Suppose he lives with you as much as she lives within me,” Jean interrupted him.

Peter looked at him in utter concentration, asking himself what trap Père Jean was leading him to. One point he had noted is the changing use of the male and female form. A thought sprang to mind and in spite of his attempt to stay somewhat at a distance he released it without further processing it.

“We would all live in God’s energy field as he would live in ours. Then all would be one. All would be one,” Peter answered without hesitation which actually surprised himself.

Jean looked flabbergasted, his eyes staring at Peter, his mouth half-open for a second. Then his face relaxed, he smiled and put his hand on Peter’s shoulder.

“Yes, we are all one,” he finally quietly said. “All is one. A truth many ancient spiritual traditions all over the world hold high. A truth modern science is starting to prove. A truth meeting much resistance from scared and confused people. And sadly those will cause much grief.”

“Why do you think so?”

“Partially because they have vested well established interests in things staying the way they are. There’s quite a bit of power involved. And partially because they’ll just panic.”

“Don’t you find it unsettling, the insights science is leading to?”

“On the contrary, what will happen is a meeting of science and spirituality as in essence they talk about the same things. And in a way it’s funny to see so many respected women and men struggling to prove something I have been knowing all my life. And many great thinkers did so before me.”

Peter carefully acknowledged what Jean said.

“When you can accept that God resides within you as much as she resides within Didier, Fabienne, Isabelle, me, everyone…..there’s no difference in religion anymore except for your personal experience. But if you could leave that to be your personal experience, and allow others to have theirs, and do not try to convince each other which one is the right one, one major obstacle to world peace would have been removed.”

Père Jean’s face shone with happiness and he took a firm drink from his wine. “And you know what? All of the so-called world religions are struggling with this. I have friends from various major denominations and when we get together we manage to create a special sacred space. Just by gently and quietly focussing on our hearts and atuning to our being together. Not by adhering to a strict and fixed order of actions. But just by being open-hearted and present to the moment. What results is an atmosphere of refined energy that all experience as very uplifting. You cannot summon God to be present and participate in your conversations the way you would like her to. She will still be there but perhaps more at a distance. When invited, rather than ordered, she may show up and her presence will give different results. A famous fellow countryman of yours, Erasmus, wrote this once ‘Vocatus atque non vocatus, deus aderit’, which means ‘Evoked or not, God is always present’.”

If you like what you just read, you can find the entire novel here (http://www.geerthofman.com/glass-dome). I would also love to hear what you think about what you just read.