The Nature and Risks of Spiritual Institutions
28 June 2007

Some thought on the nature of spiritual institutions sparked by recent posts in Matt Stone’s blog Journeys In Between and Steve Hayes blog Notes from the Underground about the differences between Eastern Orthodox and Western ideas about the nature of the church. Those discussions made me think of the book I read some years ago by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks called The Politics of Hope. There and in other writings, Sacks makes an important distinction between two types of relationship – contractual and covenantal – and the types of institution they give rise to.

I won't try to go into the subtleties of Sack's arguments here. In brief, contractual relationships are where our behaviour towards another person is conditional on their behaviour to us. Buying and selling are obvious examples, as is employment, using services and voting for politicians. Our actions may be motivated by reward or fear of punishment – positives or negatives. But in the end it comes down to bargaining power: when someone makes you an ‘offer you can’t refuse’ – either by threatening to break your knee-caps or holding out a suitcase full of cash – they have a lot of power over you.

Covenantal relationships, on the other hand, need not be reciprocal. The motivation here is purely an inner one compelling us to behave in certain ways regardless how the other may respond.

Where the driving force of contractual relationships is power and the nature of its institutions are political, the driving force of covenantal relationships is moral duty (however that may be conceived) and the institutions it gives rise to are communities. Marriage is a good example of a covenantal relationship – despite the increasing prevalence of pre-nuptual contracts. In the Christian wedding vows promises are made to love and cherish the other for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health... ‘till death do us part’. The feelings of love and/or lust may come and go, but a relationship is built on something more permanent.

Sacks is careful not to say that one type of relationship is good and the other bad. Both are necessary – and in life we often find a mixture of the two. As a parent I can hope that my kids are motivated by a sense of moral duty, but I recognize that a lot of the time we fall back on offering rewards and threatening punishment.

What about religious institutions?

Religion deals primarily with influence, moral duty and community. Jesus and the Buddha had no political power in their lifetime. The institutions of Christianity and Buddhism, for example, aim pass on the influence of their founders to succeeding generations.

The problem is that an institution designed to pass on influence requires different structures to a political institution. We all know that power corrupts, so a political institution should ideally be open, transparent, decentralized and democratic with all the checks and balances that we expect in a modern democracy.

But an institution to pass on influence needs a different kind of shape. Here, the main thing is not to dilute the message of the founder – so ultimately there is just one authority at the top of the pyramid. And because influence is caught from lives lived more than taught through books there is often an esoteric nature to the teachings – not all is revealed at once but only as one progresses along the spiritual path.

it is fairly obvious that there are dangers in mixing the two. A centralized hierarchical religion that gets political power has none of the checks and balances to safe-guard against corruption and abuses. But a religion that is too democratic risks diluting the message and influence of its founder.

My apologies if these ideas seem half-baked. They are! Hopefully others can add to the discussion.

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