Friday, September 19, 2008

Shopping for faith and marketing "plug and play" religion

You may know someone (or be someone) who has trouble picking from an abundance of choices for spiritual practices in a multicultural society. Believe me I can sympathize. Part of the problem is the apparent cost of investment. Hence in a marketplace of ideas, simply telling people that you have the only valid path isn't going work. People want to see evidence - they want some kind of results. The more adept advocates of various schools and denominations realize this and frame their argument in terms of what someone can do without making a large investment up front. To use a contemporary analogy, it is a plug and play appeal. It just fits and works with your life's current configuration with minimal disruption.

But is that really a fair way to represent or "market" such traditions to seekers? Is there any reason to give such options a chance?

If the practice in question is supposed to provide fairly immediate consolations or else some kind of recognizable benefit, then it can seem as simple as "the proof is in the pudding". The more evangelical sects and denominations are the ones who seem to go for this approach - if you say a particular set of prayers for many days (such as certain novenas found in Catholicism) or if you faithfully and regularly recite a mantra or dharini (such as the title of the Lotus Sutra which is revered in Nichiren Buddhism), you are supposed to see real results*. Once this happens, one can then get additional "plug-ins", some necessary for further development in that religion, others optional, as explicitly discussed in this article. You make these larger investments after you have already found a reason to think that what you are buying into is valid.

A danger is that without a grounding in the insight behind these practices, and the framework in which they are presumed to operate, the presentation of such practices with assured outcomes is reduced to a superstition (an incomplete or misguided attribution of causality) or a form of magic (a ritualistic behavior rooted in superstition). Some will be turned off by this kind of thing right away, and others will be disappointed if and when they do not receive the results they were expecting. This doesn't in an of itself mean that the tradition is invalid or that the practice has no merit, but after all, the "test trial" was presented either overtly or implicitly as proof of worth.

The more sensible approach when finding such a practice and rather than being looking for the presence of roses or the acquisition of a new job as the barometer of validity, see how your life has or hasn't changed. How do you see the world and relate to it? How do others relate to you? Do you have a better attitude? Are you better able to discern and appreciate what is important in your life? These and similar questions are a far more reliable benchmark of whether a particular tradition or practice is "right for you", and often the key here is seriousness of intent and a related commitment for significant portion of time. If you think everything in your life should become easier and safer because of your practice, or if you ultimately believe that your practice (and its constellation effects) lies outside of the details of your daily life, odds are that you are going to go away disappointed no matter what. Focus, resolve, and persevere!


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  2. Thanks for stopping by and for the link. That site is bursting with colorful ideas and images!


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