Recently someone contacted me asking if I was the David Benner who was a spiritual teacher. I told her that people sometimes describe me that way but I wondered why she asked. She responded by asking what beliefs I taught. I told her that I have never taught beliefs because my calling is to help people walk the transformational path of Christian spirituality. She didn’t seem satisfied with this answer and asked what beliefs we taught at Cascadia Living Wisdom School. Once again I told her that we didn’t teach people what to believe but instead taught something much more important – namely, how to know. This was also not what she wanted to hear but it did get me thinking about why beliefs are so important to so many Christians.
Near the end of his life, C. G. Jung was asked if he believed in God. He answered, “I don’t believe in God, I know God.” My answer is the same. What surprises me is how strange that sounds to most Christians. What profoundly saddens me is that most Christians have settled for beliefs instead of knowing.
What I mean by calling myself a Christian is that I am a follower of the one who called himself “the Way.” His path is my path. Without reservation or hesitation I place my full confidence in his way. It isn’t something I believe. It is something I live – or at least, try to live as well as I can. It’s my moment-by-moment most essential life practice.
Interestingly, Jesus never called himself “The Destination.” Nor did his followers call themselves “followers of The Destination.” They called themselves “followers of The Way.” They understood that following Jesus was walking a path, not merely adopting a religion or a set of beliefs. In fact, the first generation of Christians would have never confused these things. They were Jews and, until they were forced out of synagogues, they had no intention of being anything other than Jews. But they also knew the profound changes in their depths that had resulted from following Jesus. They knew they hadn’t just learned some secret handshake that would guarantee their admission to heaven. They knew that they had signed on for a journey that involved walking a path of spiritual transformation. I can’t imagine that ever, even for a moment, they confused whatever evolving beliefs they may have held with their faith in God and their trust in following Christ. They exercised their faith by following, not by believing.
Religions lose their way when they focus primarily on the transmission and defense of beliefs and the cultivation of belonging that occurs around these circles of belief. Christians also do this when they settle for beliefs rather than personal knowing. They do this when they worship Jesus rather than rather than following the path he lived and taught. Faith, which should enable them to walk the path, becomes reduced to agreement with propositions.
Christianity lost its way it settled for being a religion rather than the transformational path that I am convinced was what Jesus came to teach, live and offer the world. And as a result Christianity is on the verge of irrelevance to spiritual seekers, both within and outside the church.
Churches that pedal beliefs and belonging as a substitute for following the Way are offering spiritual junk food. Beliefs and belonging are certainly tasty and they may temporarily satisfy some apparent needs but they do not meet our deepest spiritual longings. That should not be a surprise since they are nutritionally empty.
Religious beliefs, and the accompanying sense of belonging within a community that shares the monopoly on the truth those beliefs sometimes appear to contain, feed a basic need of the ego. The ego needs to feel special. It does this by making distinctions that set it apart from others. Possessing the truth and belonging to the small circle of those that share this distinction is like a hit of crack cocaine to the fragile ego. It feels incredibly good. It wraps the vulnerable ego in a luxurious soft fabric that makes it feel warm, comfortable and substantial. But, like a bandage wrapped too tightly around a wound, it cuts us off from our essential vitality. After all, what need is there for further becoming if you already exclusively possess the full truth!
Nothing is more important for the future of Christianity than the recovery of the transformational path that lies at its heart. But, if we are honest, we have to recognize that this path is profoundly threatening to the institutional church. Churches that build themselves around beliefs and belonging depend on a membership base of seekers who are willing to become settlers. People who continue to seek and who long to know, not just believe, are threats to institutions of any sort. Sadly, no matter how much rhetoric there may be about the transformation, most churches remain, in the words of Richard Rohr, more tribal than truly transformational.
The Christian path leads to the healing of our separate or individual self through a realization of our union with God. This is the way our small ego-self is transformed into our infinitely expansive and inclusive Christ-self. This is the way in which we return to our home in God, and then live out of this home with the abundance of life and wisdom that issues from our depths when we are aligned with our Source.
But it doesn’t end there. The Christian way involves the transformation not just of individuals but of communities, cultures and the world. Christians understand that God is at work in the world making all things new in Christ. And part of the Christian path is taking our place alongside God and others as we serve others and the world by participating in this work of cosmic restoration.
Transformation is possible. It is possible to acquire the consciousness of Christ. It is possible to know God, not just believe in God. It is possible then to engage life with the wisdom that flows from this deep inner knowing.
If your heart longs for more, don’t settle for junk food. Don’t settle for anything less than the wholeness that comes from living in alignment with the Spirit of Wisdom who inhabits all of creation and is our truest and deepest self. Don’t settle for anything less than knowing these truths, not merely believing in them.