Some years ago, I had occasion to examine the value that religion can bring to our lives. The result was a quintet of core benefits I called The Five Functions of Religion. I assigned each function a name beginning with the prefix trans, meaning “across, through, or beyond,” in keeping with religion’s capacity to lift us above ordinary reality.
Briefly, those five functions are:
- Transmission: to impart sacred customs, rituals, and stories across generations
- Translation: to interpret life events and instill meaning and purpose
- Transaction: to provide moral and ethical standards and form healthy communities
- Transformation: to foster the development of more complete people
- Transcendence: to unite individuals with the ultimate ground of being
Of course, these fundamental ingredients are not found to a sufficient degree in every spiritual institution, which is why so many of us stretch beyond the boundaries of our heritage and our affiliations. Clearly, for example, mainstream religions in the West have historically emphasized the first three functions, which is a major reason seekers have increasingly turned to Hindu and Buddhist methods to satisfy the yearning for transformation and transcendence.
A parallel development occurs in the opposite direction among independent seekers. In their eclectic quest for personal growth and spiritual experience, many find themselves missing the structure, fellowship, and guidance that religious communities traditionally supply through the first three functions.
Whether we loyally adhere to a particular pathway or engage in independent exploration, we can use the five functions as guideposts—a kind of checklist if you will—to evaluate the sources from which we draw wisdom, nurture, and inspiration. Taken together, they can serve as an orienting framework for developing a holistic spiritual path.
As we dive a bit deeper into the five functions, you might ask yourself questions such as: Which of the five is most important to you? Are any of them missing from your life at the moment? Are any of them present but in an insufficient way? Where might you turn to fill the gaps?
We transmit the various elements of tradition from one generation to another in many ways. In the context of spirituality, we’re concerned with more than the preservation of ancestral links and treasured cultural items such as language, music, and food. It’s when there’s a strong sacred dimension linking present and past that the human unites with the Divine.
Tragically, as we’ve seen repeatedly over the centuries, religious transmission can descend into tribalism, conflict, authoritarian enforcement, and other ugly expressions of a flawed humanity. It can also drive adherents away by forbidding doubt and punishing disagreement over received dogma, or by allowing passed-down customs to become empty habits with no real connection to spiritual experience.
That said, even the most antiestablishment seeker can find spiritual sustenance in rituals, practices, and stories with links to a sacred past. We don’t have to be limited to the religion of our birth or to a single tradition. Nor do we have to accept every component of our heritage. Plenty of Jews, for example, derive spiritual nourishment at Passover even if they don’t believe miracles were performed in the Judean desert thousands of years ago. Plenty of Christians are dubious about the resurrection but cherish the lessons of Jesus’ ministry. In fact, we can all selectively find value in the heritage of every tradition, whether the life of Buddha or the stories of Sufi saints or the Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. And in our pluralistic culture we can participate with our fellow citizens on their holy days, whether Easter or Rosh Hashanah or Eid al-Fitr or Diwali or Bodhi Day when, tradition has it, Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha.
And if the major religions don’t do it for you, a heritage—or heritages—worthy of connecting to can be found in smaller, lesser-known traditions. Unity adherents have the entire history of New Thought to draw from, for instance, and many Americans feel a strong spiritual kinship to the Transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in particular. A lineage of gurus might do it for you. Or even the evolution of physics and astronomy from their humble origins to the mind-expanding, awe-inducing wonders of modern discoveries.
In whatever way works for you, a sense of continuity across time, along with participation with others in the present, can be a meaningful component of a holistic spiritual path.
We all struggle to understand what life presents to us—the surprises, the shocks, the dilemmas, the ups and downs, the victories and defeats. We need ways to interpret these events, and we labor to find higher meaning in them. Sadly, all too often religion offers only bromides and formulaic doctrines that fail to satisfy the inquisitive mind, leaving many sincere seekers in the lurch because they can’t quite accept the explanations provided. But at their best, spiritual traditions offer illuminating, comforting, and inspiring ways to interpret the ever-changing carnival of earthly affairs in the larger context of an ultimate reality.
Where do you turn for help comprehending the events of your life? For many, a variation on “God’s will” brings solace to the heart and steadiness to the restless mind. For others, the intervention of deities, angels, spirits, and other nonmaterial entities does the trick. Still others turn to nonpersonal cosmic principles like karma. And nowadays, many find their way to some combination of religious precepts, hard science, and psychotherapeutic insights.
Whether we’re spiritual or secular, believer or atheist, we all grow, mature, learn, and improve over the course of our lives.
At their best, religions provide stalwart moral precepts and guidelines for ideal human interaction. Famously, some version of the Golden Rule has cropped up in every tradition. At their worst, though, religions proffer directives that can be so ambiguous as to muddy the waters, as well as ancient dos and don’ts whose application to modern life is difficult to discern.
From where do you derive your moral and ethical principles? Do you struggle with how to apply those standards to real-life situations? Do you encounter ambivalence or confusion when you look for guidance? Once again, there is no reason to restrict yourself to a single tradition. While the various religious and spiritual institutions offer similar moral precepts, they are by no means identical in either substance or tone. Sources outside your usual domain might bring clarity to foggy situations.
Whether we’re spiritual or secular, believer or atheist, we all grow, mature, learn, and improve over the course of our lives. But spiritual engagement should help us evolve at a faster pace and lift us to higher levels of growth than we can reach through ordinary life experience. Religion has turned ordinary people and even depraved reprobates into saintly figures. It’s also true that religions sometimes do very little to change adherents in a meaningful way and in some instances can restrain growth and make their followers more harsh in their treatment of outsiders.
Do the spiritual teachings, institutions, and practices in your life elevate you? Do they make you kinder, more compassionate, more empathetic? Have they brought you significantly more inner peace? Do they lessen your fear? Are you more content because of their influence? More humble? More joyful? Have they lifted you to a happier and more fulfilled state? Perhaps most important, has your capacity to love—whether those close to you, your fellow humans, or all sentient beings—grown, and does it continue to grow?
It would be foolish to expect any spiritual engagement to transform us overnight. Progress on the path is typically gradual, and it can involve roadblocks and setbacks, but the arc of a healthy spirituality ought to be one of steady progress toward the highest ideals of human development.
Here’s where the material rubber meets the spiritual road. The word religion stems from the Latin religare, meaning “to bind.” Bind to what? To the Source. To the infinite energy and intelligence that created the universe and keeps it going. To the eternal mystery beyond time, space, and matter. To the unchanging, unbound essence of existence to which humans have assigned myriad names, forms, and attributes, including no name, no form, and no attributes. That is the deepest purpose of every religious tradition, even those that seem to have lost sight of that target entirely.
To transcend means to go beyond, and every spiritual path has the intention, whether stated or implied, to transport the consciousness of its adherents beyond the fetters of ordinary sensibility, beyond mundane perception, beyond commonplace awareness, beyond separation, beyond fear, beyond pain, beyond change, beyond matter, and into the realm of timeless, limitless, boundless Spirit.
Does your path give you at least an occasional glimpse of pure, unsullied Being? Does it expand your sense of self beyond the limits of your body, your personality, and the roles you play in the human drama so you feel at times as Walt Whitman did when he said he was not contained between his hat and his boots? Does it bring you closer to the Divine as you conceive it? Does it give you not just an understanding of the Infinite but an awareness of its presence? Does it expose to you the oneness, the perfect unity, at the heart of Creation? Does it reveal, even for a moment now and again, your own divine nature?
We all long to enlarge the perceived boundaries of the self, to be born anew, to touch the Infinite and unite with the wholeness that some call God and emerge transformed. That’s the mystical heart of the spiritual enterprise, which doesn’t make the more ordinary functions of transmission, translation, and transaction unimportant. If we’re to be complete humans, our paths should reflect the full spectrum of spiritual possibilities.
This article appeared in Unity Magazine®.