Nowadays it’s very common to hear someone say they want genuine spirituality not religion. In that mindset, genuine spirituality is said to consist of personal exploration and journey but definitely not doctrine. One is supposed to be open-minded and accepting not dogmatic (in this view). Being doctrinal or dogmatic is now in many places an outright shibboleth. It’s a word said with disgust and disdain.
Here I’d like to argue against this commonplace perspective and instead defend what I believe to be a right understanding of doctrine. I think doctrine is more important than ever before (if we understand rightly what true doctrine is and is not). In my view the anti-doctrinal attitude of our day is causing enormous suffering and I believe we need to retrieve a right understanding of doctrine to help remedy that ill.
I use the terms remedy and illness there purposefully because the word doctrine derives from the same root as the word doctor, e.g. as in a medical doctor or a doctorate in philosophy.
That is to say doctrine means “teaching”. Doctrine is a body of teachings.
Hence, saying that one is against doctrine literally means one is against teaching. The consequence of a cultural pattern of being against doctrine means there is no desire to be taught or to learn. This problem is rampant and serious in the contemporary spiritual scene.
Let me use another example to try to make my point–a very closely related one—the word judgment. What goes on in the spiritual-but-not-religious/New Age/individualistic spiritual path is a heavy valuation of tolerance, which is to say not “being judged.” Of course there’s a long history associated with judgment. There’s has been a great deal of negative judgmental behavior in traditional religious expression. The critique of judgment has it’s (partial) validity. However there’s not a clear enough distinction made between healthy and clarifying judgment versus unhealthy and degrading judgment, which results in judgment altogether being thrown out. Throwing out judgment (altogether) means people are throwing out their street smarts, their critical faculties of discernment, and their ability to make sound discriminating decisions around right and wrong. (The effects of disowned and poor judgment are everywhere in the contemporary spiritual scene).
The same underlying problem is a the root of the bias against doctrine (i.e. against teaching) nowadays. In the worst of cases this leads to a very strongly fenced-in, fortressed ego.
“Don’t judge me.” “This is my path, my truth, my personal reality, and it can’t be judged.”
As a consequence individuals end up more and more isolated, sealed-in in their hermitic enclosures, unwilling to let others or the world in.
It’s the same with doctrine (teaching). Just as there was negative judgmentalism, there’s (negative) doctrinal attitudes. There’s a long, negative history in Western culture of such reality. Negative doctrinalism would be things like:
–Tying doctrine to the civil state and punishing those who have a different body of teachings (doctrine), including torture or execution.
–Enforcing doctrine through arguments from authority, i.e. because Teacher So-and-So said X, X must be true.
–Teaching doctrine without having any grounding in the experience/spiritual insight which the doctrine teaches, aka spiritual ideology or dogmatism.
–Doctrines that divide the world into radically segregated good vs. evil, black vs. white
–Doctrines that scapegoat entires classes of people as inherently wicked and evil: e.g. gays, lesbians, trans, queer, atheists, etc.
–Declaring one’s own doctrine to be the one and only right one and all others to be false and dangerous.
–Doctrines that repress basic human realities: e.g. emotions, sexuality, bodily reality as such.
These types of dehumanizing processes are what most people think of now when the hear the “d” word: doctrine.
If that is all that doctrine means, then it’s certainly understandable as to why we would would want to reject that en toto. But as with judgment, to throw out doctrine is to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
As noted, being against doctrine is etymologically, literally, being against teaching, which is to say being against learning. Being anti-doctrinal means one does not want to be a student. There’s a strong fortification for the ego.
Now in saying this I’m not saying doctrine (i.e. teaching) has to necessarily be handed down from the mountain on high. We can and should in my view be updating our teachings in light of our contemporary world, while retaining the everlasting wisdom of the ancients (knowing which is which is not always easy admittedly).
If however we are going to have any form of community, any form of truly working together in becoming fully human, then yes we need a body of teachings. That is, we need doctrine.
In defending the need for doctrine, I’m swimming directly against the tide of our times that says that we can’t have doctrine because doctrine is about exclusion and our age must be one of inclusion. Doctrine inherently draws boundaries and we should live without boundaries.
Having worked both in a liberal Christian church setting and now in the wider spiritual but not religious/New Age/contemporary spiritual scene, I’ve seen and heard this perspective repeatedly.
In this liberal telling, conservatives are labeled exclusionary and dogmatic.* Liberals on the other hand label themselves inclusive.
The problem though is that exclusive and inclusive go together. They are right and left hands. In Buddhist-ese, they dependently originate. They require each other. Inclusive only makes sense as the opposite of exclusive and exclusive only makes sense in relation to inclusive. Like breathing in only makes sense in comparison to breathing out (and versa vice).
Conservatives include themselves and exclude others. Liberals include other self-described open minded people like themselves and exclude more reactionary types (often with reason). But it doesn’t make sense as an absolute statement to say one group is inclusive and the other is exclusive. All groups are by nature inclusive and exclusive simultaneously. The question is how inclusive or not, how exclusive or not, in what manner are they inclusive or not, and so on.
Exclusion, in other words, is not automatically wrong or evil (though it certainly can be). There are times when it’s totally legitimate to draw moral boundaries. For example I hold it’s completely valid to say that a group is not going to allow homophobic vitriol to be spouted. That’s excluding. Healthy excluding in my book but excluding nonetheless.
A cell wall that lets everything in and has no boundaries would be totally inclusive. And it would die. Conversely, a cell wall that lets in no nutrients or water would be totally exclusive and would also die. The optimal state for a cell is semi-permeability. There is enough of a filter for the cell to maintain it’s own autonomy while at the same time allowing in what is of life to it and releasing what is not.
When it comes to spirituality, doctrine is a cell wall. It is ideally meant to be semi-permeable. It needs to be open to outside influences and it needs to have enough solidity unto itself that it creates its own coherent reality.
My own view is that all of the traditional religious paths are far too closed off at this point to be of help to us. There’s an enormous amount of wisdom in them to be sure, wisdom that should be conserved. But I think as a whole they are far too rigid for our contemporary reality. They’re not anywhere near permeable enough.
On the other hand, the individual make-it-up-as-you-go path has failed as well. It is far too permeable. It’s not structurally sound. It’s too porous–the evidence for that claim is I believe everywhere: spiritual celebrity culture; guruism; cultishness; lack of commitment, lack of ethical, emotional, and energetic boundaries.
(Sidenote: I’m also, for what it’s worth, opposed to the attempt to create a secular doctrine based on combining Theravadin Buddhist meditation techniques with neuroscience and materialist philosophy–at least I’m against doing that and calling it “scientific” and “non-religious”.)
A profound lack of understanding of doctrine, of how to engage wisely in relationship to teaching is at the root of this malaise.
The first thing to say is that doctrine (i.e. teaching) is there to help create boundaries for a group. There’s a danger in that of course in that the walls can be drawn far too rigidly and/or those on the inside can be treated in a terrible ways. The alternative is not to have boundary-less existence however but rather to create healthy boundaries, not simply jettison boundaries altogether (which leads to terrible consequences.)
No boundaries means no integrity.
So that’s number one.
Number two is a point made by philosopher Ken Wilber. Namely that there’s certainly such a thing as a wrong interpretation but there is never a final right interpretation.
This point is a subtle one and it has enormous implication in terms of creating a healthy 21st life-affirming, human-affirming spiritual doctrine.
Wilber uses the example of Hamlet. There are wrong interpretations as to the meaning(s) of the play. For example, Hamlet is not about three daughters and their intrigue in relationship to their aging, monarchical father (that’s King Lear of course).
Though consider all the themes that do run through Hamlet: suicide, love lost, and the outside role of young women in society (Ophelia); betrayal, political plotting, and problematic sexual dynamics within families, particularly among the aristocracy (Hamlet’s Father, Uncle and Mother); mortality and the meaning of life (“Oh poor Yorick…”), as well as numerous others. Some more obvious, some more perhaps less so but nevertheless powerful and evocative. Some intended (it would seem) by Shakespeare, others possibly not but nevertheless potentially truthful.
The point being is that great art as well as great spiritual teaching never exhaust their meaning. That is why there is never a final right interpretation. There are a multitude of right interpretations and conversely there are a multitude of poor interpretations.
Doctrine shifts into doctrinalism (negative doctrinal approach) when it forgets that there is no final right interpretation. Doctrinalism takes one interpretation and makes it the final right one, when such a thing is not valid. In forms overt or covert, doctrinalism has to invoke some kind of power abuse and violence in order to maintain the illusion of it’s interpretation being the final right one.
When however we hold in mind that there is never a final right interpretation, but that there are more truthful, more beautiful, more moving interpretations (as well as those that less so and others that are simply out-of-bounds), then the process becomes creative. We participate in the process of the development of the doctrine as much as the doctrine participates in the development of us.
Doctrine is interpretation of spiritual experience and realization.
That’s actually all it is. Saying that we need to move beyond doctrine is saying we need to no longer interpret our experience. But it’s only in interpreting our experience that we come to embed it concretely in our lives, in our relationships, in our existence. Interpretation means reflection, which means learning, which means there’s teaching (i.e. doctrine).
Simply having a bunch of experiences without reflecting on the meaning of them, without trying to figure out a generative frame of reference within which to hold our experience does nothing for anyone. And this non-interpretation interpretation is everywhere nowadays, where people want spirituality to make them “feel good” or that we’re supposed to get “out of our heads and into our bodies”, “stop thinking and start feeling”. All of these problematic views spring from the bias against (healthy) doctrine.
In the Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm one begins with action, which leads to experience, and then one interprets/reflects upon one’s experience, draws conclusions from it, and then decides upon a new course of action based on that interpreted experience. In taking new action a new cycle of experience-reflection-interpretation and learning occurs.
The same process can (and should) apply to spiritual teaching. Philosopher Mark Edwards calls it the integral cycle of knowledge. We start with a context and description of our current situation, introduce some practices which help reveal new experiences, which are then reflected upon/interpreted, leading to new action.
That’s how it’s supposed to work but the postmodern bias against doctrine has throw a monkey wrench in the cycle. It stops reflection.
The contemporary post-religious (or whatever to call it) spiritual scene is rife with people addicted to having spiritual experiences, being hooked on techniques and practices (“the actions”) and essentially learning nothing from them. There’s no learning because there’s no doctrine. There’s no body of teaching, there’s no generative interpretative scheme within which to place one’s experiences and make sense of them.
So many popular contemporary spiritual teachers spend so much time pointing out they aren’t teaching dogma. I find them very dogmatic about their anti-dogmatism. To quote the aforementioned Shakespeare: “they doth protest too much methinks.”
It’s better, in my mind, to acknowledge what our various doctrines (teachings, interpretations are), where they come from, be open to their truths and potential blindspots. Make them as transparent as possible.
The choice is not between no doctrine and doctrines. It’s between good and bad doctrine, conscious and unconscious ones, healthy and unhealthy ones.
The more unconscious the doctrine (teaching) is, the more damage it can do.
Arguably in the Oprah-ified spiritualized discourse of the day the only sorta quasi-doctrine that is allowed, that is essentially sacrosanct, is that the highest value is personal happiness and fulfillment. “If it makes you happy…”
Here I think is the real rub. There’s no growth in that frame. If it’s about what makes you happy, then the ego is always in charge. Except the ego never actually makes people happy. What it does is make them further bound to the wheel of seeking happiness, which is itself a marker of fundamental unhappiness.
Doctrine–held and related to rightly–is actually deeply freeing, creative, and joy filled. Learning to relate well to doctrine, to a body of teachings, is absolutely necessary to maturing in any path.
And I mean any path of any significant depth.
If you work with plant medicine there’s an entire set of doctrines (teachings) about the nature of the plants, the meaning of communing with them, the ethics of doing so, the changes wrought in a person, the path of transformation, on and on. Those are doctrines. That is, they are teachings about how to rightly understand what is taking place when working with plants—this doctrine/teaching is hard-earned wisdom gained through centuries of practice, careful observation, and interpretation.
Now plant medicine is popular and a bunch of Westerners come to it wanting to skip all the “rules” and the “religious” part and just get to the experience. Too many bring an unconscious cultural lens to the plants, namely that the plants are drugs for taking an awesome trip. The doctrines (the teachings) of the plant medicine keepers is that they are not drug trips for their sake of getting high and to treat them as such is a potentially very bad idea. Having worked with people who went on bad trips and experienced horrible pain as a result it’s pretty clear to me that those warnings ought to be seriously heeded.
Or consider Eastern religions, often held up as some kind of non-doctrinal spirituality as opposed to Western religion. If you think the Eastern religious traditions are somehow less doctrinal than Western religions, go hangout at a Tibetan Buddhist teaching. There’s more doctrine (i.e. dharma) that you can trample down with a yak.
For what it’s worth, the entire New Thought “manifest your reality” tradition is a set of doctrines. It’s a set of teachings. Teachings that include practices, descriptions of experiences arising from those practices, and means of interpreting the experiences–i.e. how to tell if you’re doing it well or not.
Even spiritual but not religious is its own set of teachings. It’s a doctrine. It’s, in my mind, a particularly unhelpful, unconscious form of teaching. It’s a kind of anti-teaching teaching, anti-doctrine doctrine but it’s a doctrine nonetheless.
How often do I hear yoga teachers complain about students just wanting to learn physical postures so they look better and never actually be interested in the doctrine (the entire body of teachings) which the asanas are meant to support and within which they make deeper sense?
I can’t stress this enough, a body of teachings is a doctrine. It’s absolutely necessary to learning as well as to the creation of community and the development of an ethics congruent with spiritual practice.
Now in defending and promoting doctrine, I’m definitely not advocating a return of the Spanish Inquisition, social ostracism, witch hunts, jihads against the infidels, or aggressive, dehumanizing, and unethical proselytization.
I personally favor what I call a “lean” doctrine. I do believe we need some coherent set of principles to guide our interpretation, to at least have something to work with and from, but that this foundation must be very lean. No filler. No excess fat. A key point in the lean approach is Wilber’s:
There is never a final right interpretation but there are wrong interpretations.
(If you want to learn more about what this lean approach might constitute of, I recommend browsing through other pieces I’ve published here on the site. They’re all written with the lean doctrinal approach in mind.)
The traditional religions are (I believe) far too weighed down with all manner of accretions, like barnacles on a boat. Except, contrary to the fundamentalist view, there’s no way to get back to the pristine boat by simply removing all the historical accretions. The boat itself is no longer a seaworthy vessel.
What we can do is take some of the valuable treasure on board the boat and put it in a new vessel and bring it with us and see what value it may have for us going forward. And what value we may have for it.
I’ve been accused simultaneously of being too conservative, too beholden to the traditions, while at the same time also being accused of being far too arrogant and disrespectful to the traditions. The approach I offer strikes me as the best attempt to honour the past while not being bound to it either. Since I’m being attacked from both sides hopefully I’m onto something here.
But that approach is admittedly an interpretation. It’s a hunch. It’s not the final only right interpretation. I simply hope A) it’s not a wrong interpretation and B) it offers something new going forward.
Regardless of whether you subscribe to something like the lean view I advocate for or not, I hope the notion of re-embracing, re-owning the value, the truth, and the beauty of doctrine (teaching) speaks to you.
* For the record, the root meaning of dogma is “opinion” or “what one thinks to be true”. By definition then everyone is dogmatic insofar as they hold opinions and stick to what they think is right. That’s good in principle, sticking to your beliefs. The question is how to be dogmatic in a healthy sense as opposed to a negative sense? Not whether one is or isn’t dogmatic.