Objective and Subjective Views of Religious Institutions

When we look at religious institutions and their historical roots, in most cases, there was a charismatic founder who had spiritual experience and insight and tried to communicate that to those who interacted with him.  At this stage, the subjective, inner experience was alive and individuals were moved by that experience which the founder could and did communicate to them.  It was alive, it was powerful and it reoriented the way the founder and the early disciples looked at their lives and the world around them.  However, after the passing of the founder and this initial cadre of followers, there came a period when religious institutions, customs, habits and traditions formed, and the protection and development of the institution became an important factor.  Conventional forms developed and over time the living experience receded under the weight of customs.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “A Church is an organised religious community and religion, if anything in the world, ought to be subjective; for its very reason for existence — where it is not merely an ethical creed with a supernatural authority — is to find and realise the soul.  Yet religious history has been almost entirely, except in the time of the founders and their immediate successors, an insistence on things objective, rites, ceremonies, authority, church governments, dogmas, forms of belief.  Witness the whole external religious history of Europe, that strange sacrilegious tragi-comedy of discords, sanguinary disputations, ‘religious’ wars, persecutions, State Churches and all else that is the very negation of spiritual life.  It is only recently that men have begun seriously to consider what Christianity, Catholicism, Islam really mean and are in their soul, that is to say, in their very reality and essence.”

As a community, the religious institutions also have a similar type of group-soul as the example of the nation.  When the external phase of development comes to its close, a new subjective phase tries to either re-establish the inner sense and purpose of the Church, or else, the Church itself begins to lose its coherence as an institution as people deny the conventional ways and seek for direct spiritual experience in their lives.

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 4, The Discovery of the Nation-Soul, pp. 37-38

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