Looking at religion as a system of morals and teachings directed toward a goal, I find it has two general forms depending on the desired object. Firstly, and by far the most common, is “religion for the self”; the rarer form is “religion for God”. Every religion I’ve looked at, including my own, has adherents in both camps – even if they agree on doctrine. It has to do with the psychological orientation of the believer, and what he seeks from that doctrine.
Religion for the self
Religion for the self is easy to conceive and teach. It doesn’t require the introduction of new concepts, because the self is well-known to everyone.
Basically, this religion offers transformation of some kind as a reward for following it: salvation, redemption, self-perfection, freedom from self, etc. It seeks to empower or free the individual, with the idea that the result will be better than what they have.
In this scheme there are two basic stages of the individual: flawed and perfect. This division of states creates an essential conflict between who the believer is, and who he seeks to be. It implies a constant measuring, to check whether he has done “enough” to merit the reward. If salvation is instant, still he must guard against losing it. It is a system based on acquisition – an acquired change of some sort – with all the resulting complexes of attachment and fear of failure.
This measuring and fear easily lead to self-deprecation and exhaustion, since the goal is either practically unattainable, or the offered salvation is too easily lost. The self is constantly beaten into shape, prodded, and kept on the chosen path.
The degree of dissatisfaction produced by such a system is intense. This stems from its negative conception of life, looking at the self always in terms of what it isn’t. Life is viewed as a lack of attainment, or a constant temptation to fall; it is not beautiful. The highest station life can attain is death after having lived it “correctly”.
The focus here is on duty and morals, with punishment always much closer than reward. There is little joy, for even when advances are made, they also remind the believer how far he has left to go.
God in this system is the ultimate Arbiter, the final Judge. He accepts the worthy into His inner circle, while the rest are excluded. He approves of moral conduct, and condemns heedlessness. He is a God to be frightened of, since one’s eternity rests in His hands based on what he has done with his life. At least when one is alive, there is always a chance of doing better. Death closes the door on future efforts, making it a truly scary thing. If you have not made the grade by the time you die, God will mete out His justice to you.
Many people reject this kind of religion because it causes so much anxiety, with only a conditional promise of reward after death. Unless you have tremendous faith, or really believe in your ability to make the grade, why bother? It has a huge upside potential, but is a waste of life if unreal. Full of limits and conditions, its only real incentive lies beyond death.
With that said, this approach can still be valuable for some, since it is so easily grasped; and the moral alignment that results can be of great help in the long-term. Our culture has a penchant for this type of method, as can be witnessed in the proliferation of self-help books on the market, most of which offer a secular form of the same kind of self-oriented program of change.
Religion for the Beloved
This rarer form of religion is mostly unknown to the mass of people, though it does occur in various forms throughout the world. It’s rarity comes from how difficult it is to describe its aim: reunion with the Beloved. How do you talk about something a person has yet to discover? It can only be discussed using similar experiences for example. (Although one can, by their happiness, indicate that it has a source, and then maybe others will wonder about that Source).
This scheme has no “perfect” state. If you stand outside, you will be warmed by the sun. The longer you stay out, the warmer you will get. Receiving the light has nothing to do with “you”, only that you stand in the open. And the more you’re outside, the more light you will receive, which will begin to have other benefits for you.
There is no conflict here. You are never at odds with yourself. To visit a museum, you don’t have to be a perfect individual. If you study the principles and history of art, you might appreciate the paintings more than someone who hasn’t, however. Perceiving the beauty of art is entirely up to you: Do you want to look into it? Give it some time? Study it intently? Education will assist you, but the focus is always on the art, not the viewer.
Motivation to improve is thus relative to how much a person longs for the Goal. Anyone who has loved something enough will do anything to be near it. Every step that brings them closer bears its own gifts. This kind of religion is a thing of constant, ever-increasing joy. There is no need to fear the Beloved will reject you: He simply waits for those who wish to approach Him, even helping anyone who makes an effort. “Whoso maketh efforts for Us, in Our ways will We guide him.”
This process can be started from complete ignorance. You needn’t know about your eye in order to use it. What you do need is to free it from all dust and distraction, open the lid, and look in the right direction. Further understanding will let you see things from other perspectives, though some kinds of knowledge can be found intuitively.
God in this system is the Beloved, for Whom the soul has always longed, potentially or actually. The soul is a tender plant, and God, the Sun. The real issue in our case is that heliotropism must be learned and intentionally chosen.
Those who reject this kind of religion, reject the Beloved before realizing who He is. Mostly I think people reject the former kind of religion, not knowing that a baby is going out with the bath-water. For the Beloved is the Answer to all questions, the Goal of all hopes. One only needs faith that He exists to be found, and he will assuredly find Him. “He who seeketh out a thing with zeal shall find it.”