What is "formal religion," and what is the alternative to it?

Question: The Psychotherapy supplement (P-2.II.2) speaks out strongly against formal religion. What specifically is it referring to when it mentions formal religion, how is formal religion an "ego attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable" (P-2.II.2:3), and what is the alternative to formal religion?

Short answer: Formal religion is any kind of religion that aims to reach God through adhering to "proper" forms, such as prescribed beliefs, rituals, or behavioral ethics. This is an "ego attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable" because true religion is concerned with content (experience), not form, and thus formal religion is diametrically opposed to the true goal of religion. True religion, the alternative to formal religion, consists of 1) teaching and learning forgiveness, and 2) joining with another person in a truly common goal, even if that goal is not overtly religious. Forgiveness and joining bring about the experience of God at which all true religion aims.


Note: The brief discussion of formal religion in the Psychotherapy supplement occurs in the context of a section (P-2.II) dealing with the issue of what role, if any, religion should play in the practice of psychotherapy. It is an absolutely fascinating section that says some striking things about religion, psychotherapy, and the true nature of healing. I highly recommend reading it in its entirety.

Formal religion is any kind of religion that aims to reach God through adhering to "proper" forms, such as prescribed beliefs, rituals, or behavioral ethics.

While the section of Psychotherapy we are examining never gives an unequivocal definition of formal religion, I think what Jesus has in mind becomes fairly obvious if we think about the meaning of the word "formal." Webster's Dictionary defines "formal" as, among other things, "marked by form or ceremony" and "observant of conventional requirements of behavior, procedure, etc." Formal religion, then, is religion that is "marked by form" — more specifically, religion that focuses on being observant of the proper forms as the means to reach God. Formal religion says that if only we affirm the right creeds, perform the proper rituals, and/or conform our behavior to the correct moral standards, we will sanctify ourselves in the eyes of God (or will be in proper alignment with the Absolute, by whatever name). Indeed, these kinds of things usually come immediately to mind when we hear the word "religion." They are part of the very definition of religion, as conventionally understood.

We can see examples of the importance of adhering to proper forms in many of the world's religions. Many religions have some sort of formal creed, statement of principles, or sacred scripture that followers are urged (or required) to believe in. Most every religion has some sort of ritual observance associated with it, such as the sacraments of Christianity, the five daily prayers facing Mecca of Islam, the elaborate rituals of Tibetan Buddhism, and the Sun Dance of Native Americans. And of course, virtually every religion has a moral code, from the Ten Commandments of Judaism and Christianity to the Sharia (religious law) of Islam; from the precepts of Buddhism to the Yamas and Niyamas (restraints and observances) of Raja Yoga.

The term "formal religion" thus encompasses a great deal of the teachings and practices of most of the world's religions. But before I go on, I want to make very clear that the Psychotherapy supplement's indictment of formal religion does not mean that the forms practiced by the world's religions are inherently ego blocks to salvation. It is not my intention here to trash the world's religions, and that is certainly not the intention of the author of the Course, who says that teachers of God "come from all religions and from no religion" (M-1.2:2). I believe that most of the forms discussed above (and many more) can be used in the service of what the Psychotherapy supplement calls "true religion" (P-2.II.7:1), if they are used in the right spirit. I will expand on that point below.

This is an "ego attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable" because true religion is concerned with content (experience), not form, and thus formal religion is diametrically opposed to the true goal of religion.

The ego's "attempt to formalize religion" (P-2.II.2:3) is simply a particular expression of one of its basic laws: Form is everything. In the ego's eyes, content — the real meaning or intention of a thought, word, or deed, regardless of the form in which it is expressed — is irrelevant. If we just get the form right, says the ego, then all is well: "If the form is acceptable the content must be" (T-14.X.8:2).

But the Holy Spirit, as usual, completely reverses the ego's law. To the Holy Spirit, content is everything. Thus in His eyes, true religion aims at content — specifically, the experience of God or truth (P-2.II.2:4) — not adherence to proper forms. Just getting the forms right while disregarding the actual mental content behind them will not lead to the experience of God; rather, it leads to a hollow religion devoid of any meaningful content, which is just the kind of religion the ego wants. Religion becomes, to borrow a few more definitions of the word "formal" from Webster's Dictionary, "a matter of form only; perfunctory," a religion marked by "excessive emphasis on empty form." Therefore, since the word "formal" refers to form that is devoid of meaningful content, and authentic religion aims at the experience of meaningful content, the words "formal" and "religion" are fundamentally irreconcilable. The very term "formal religion" is a meaningless oxymoron. Formal religion, then, is not really religion at all.

Yet all religions and paths of awakening, including the Course, use forms. This is unavoidable, since we live in a world of form. How, then, can we use the forms of our chosen path in a truly helpful way, a way that avoids the error of formal religion? In my mind, the crucial issue here is how we perceive those forms. If we see those forms as having meaningful content in and of themselves, we will tend to think that just doing the forms will somehow magically deliver the experience of God, regardless of the content of our minds. If we think this way, then we are falling into the trap of formal religion. (This can take some very subtle forms, and I think it is very easy for even those with the best of intentions to fall into this trap. I know I have at times.) But if we see those forms as neutral, inherently meaningless things that can at best be used as temporary means for communicating the content of the experience of God to our minds, then they can be used in the service of true religion. As long as we focus on experiencing true content, then whatever forms we use to do that can serve us well. We avoid the trap of formal religion by remembering that it is the content of our minds that matters most, not the forms used to express that content.

True religion, the alternative to formal religion, consists of 1) teaching and learning forgiveness, and 2) joining with another person in a truly common goal, even if that goal is not overtly religious.

I said above that true religion aims at the experience of God or truth. Now we see the particular vehicle that carries us to that experience, a vehicle that has two closely related aspects, as noted above: 1) forgiveness, and 2) joining in a common goal (what the Course elsewhere calls a holy relationship). Let's look at each of these aspects in turn.

The importance of forgiveness (primarily, forgiving others) as the means to reach God can hardly be overstated: "The way to God is through forgiveness here. There is no other way" (W-pII.256.1:1-2). In the section of Psychotherapy we are examining, the paragraph immediately following the discussion of formal religion (P-2.II.3) tells us that teaching and learning forgiveness is the only thing we need to do to experience God. In fact, we are told in no uncertain terms that lack of forgiveness is the only thing that keeps us from experiencing God:

All blocks to the remembrance of God are forms of unforgiveness, and nothing else….The world has marshalled all its forces against this one awareness, for in it lies the ending of the world and all it stands for. (P-2.II.3:1-3,5)

The last line of this passage is particularly striking to me. It presents the shocking idea that the world we live in is specifically designed to prevent us from seeing that unforgiveness is the only problem, and forgiveness the only solution. It suggests that all the things of the ego's world — including formal religion — serve the aim of keeping us from finding the key that will unlock the prison cell of the world and set us free. I think we have to admit that the world has been very successful at doing this. Outside of the Course or things influenced by the Course, have you ever heard the idea that forgiveness alone can awaken us to God? I know I haven't. It seems that the world's forces are doing an excellent job of keeping this idea under wraps.

Forgiveness, of course, can occur in any relationship. But one kind of relationship in particular is especially fertile ground for forgiveness, and this relationship is the second aspect of true religion: the holy relationship, a relationship in which two people join in a truly common goal. Again and again, the Psychotherapy supplement — and indeed, all of the Course material — emphasizes the crucial role this kind of relationship plays in the process of salvation. Our section of Psychotherapy, in fact, calls this relationship the one requirement for salvation: "Each one must share one goal with someone else, and in so doing, lose all sense of separate interests" (P-2.II.8:4).

This may seem to contradict the idea presented above that forgiveness is the only requirement for awakening to God. But in truth, forgiveness and joining in a common goal are simply two aspects of a single process. This process is the process of accepting the Atonement: the process of learning that we are not separate from one another, but in fact share a common Identity. Both forgiveness and joining in a common goal affirm a shared Identity, and it doesn't really matter which seems to come first. Any time forgiveness is given and received, a joining will take place; any time a joining takes place, forgiveness will be given and received. The two aspects — forgiveness and joining — occur together.

What forms can a relationship between two people joined in a common goal take? Certainly there are innumerable forms. The goal itself can be anything, as long as it can be truly shared, both by the two people involved in the relationship, and with the entire Sonship. (Thus, goals such as robbing a bank or killing someone cannot be truly shared goals.) But though the forms such a relationship can take are many, both the Psychotherapy supplement and the Course material in general place a special emphasis on one particular form: the relationship between teacher and pupil (or, in the context of psychotherapy, therapist and patient). At one point in our section of Psychotherapy, Jesus says bluntly that some forms that religion can take are essentially worthless if our goal is truly to reach God. But immediately after he says that, he tells us of the one thing that, regardless of the particular form it takes, will guarantee that we reach God: "If pupil and teacher join in sharing one goal, God will enter into their relationship because He has been invited to come in" (P-2.II.5:3).

This is a truly amazing statement. What it suggests to me is that the wellspring of true religion is not beliefs, rituals, ethics, physical edifices, holy places, institutions, clerical hierarchies, or any of the other external trappings we normally associate with religion. Rather, the wellspring of true religion is the relationship between the teacher of a path of awakening and his or her pupil. This relationship is the place in which both forgiveness and joining, the twin aspects of true religion, are born. This relationship is and has always been the true temple of God at the heart of every religion, whatever that religion's outward forms. This relationship is the true bringer of enlightenment, the beacon of salvation that has shone in and through all the great religions of the world.

But not just in and through great religions. For our section of Psychotherapy tells us that any relationship marked by forgiveness and joining in a common goal will awaken us to God, even if the goal is not overtly religious at all. Surprisingly, we are told that a teacher of God doesn't even have to consciously believe in God! (see P-2.2.1:1). All that he needs to do is "teach forgiveness rather than condemnation" (P-2.II.1:2), and join with another person in a common goal (as we saw in the references to P-2.II.8:4 and P-2.II.5:3). In other words, he must teach and learn forgiveness and joining, the twin aspects of true religion that we've discussed. If he does this, both he and his pupil are assured of finding the way to God.

And as we've seen, a relationship in which forgiveness and joining occur can take many forms. It can be a relationship between a spiritual teacher and his pupil. But it can just as easily be, as our section of Psychotherapy emphasizes, a relationship between a psychotherapist and her patient. It can be any relationship in which one person's call for help is answered by another person's offer of help, as when Helen Schucman agreed to help Bill Thetford find "another way." Or it can simply be any relationship in which two people have come together in a shared purpose, even if that shared purpose is not explicitly acknowledged. Whatever form the relationship takes, what makes it a holy expression of true religion is that it has the content of forgiveness and joining. Expressed another way, this relationship exemplifies the reversal of the ego dictum quoted above (T-14.X.8:2), a reversal that can be expressed as follows: If the content is acceptable, the form must be.

Forgiveness and joining bring about the experience of God at which all true religion aims.

The bottom line is that if we take what Jesus is saying here seriously, we are faced with a radical redefinition of what constitutes religion. In his eyes, anything that facilitates the experience of God through forgiveness and joining is true religion, even if it is not overtly religious; conversely, anything that doesn't facilitate this is not true religion, even if it is overtly religious. Those who forgive and join, even in non-religious contexts, "can succeed where many who believe they have found God will fail" (P-2.II.7:6).

But of course, even those who fail will only do so temporarily. Eventually, all of us will leave the emptiness of formal religion behind and set out on the path of true religion, whatever form that takes for us. And "once this journey is begun the end is certain" (C-Ep.1:1). In the end, all of us will forgive, all of us will join in holy relationship with one another, and all of us will experience the memory of God that is the goal of all true religion.

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