Today, I want to share the first of a few articles looking at the tensions that arise between spiritual organizations and our internal pull to forge our own personal spiritual path.

What do I mean by that?

First, any human level organization that is built around any package of spiritual beliefs, from the most controlling and dogmatic to the most open and inclusive, will eventually bump into some organizational process or decision that will be viewed by current or potential members as in conflict with their freedom to believe what they believe. There is no way that leaders of an organization can “please all the people all the time”.  This can be doubly true when their decisions are in conflict with our deeply held spiritual beliefs.

On the other hand, most of us who have taken the time and effort to consider and at some level have defined what we believe about life and its ultimate meaning have also recognized the importance that spiritual organizations can serve.  These groups that have banded together offer us a community to explore our beliefs with others who think similarly to ourselves.  Such interactions have helped us to clarify our understanding. Most of us have been introduced to useful new ideas and spiritual concepts via some kind of “organized” group.

So hopefully you can see that although we are all on our own individual spiritual journey, spiritual organizations have a meaningful role to play in the process. This is not an “either-or” situation, it’s a “both-and”.

All too often we tend to label “tension” as something to avoid.  Instead, what I would like you to consider is that the dynamic tension that arises between “spiritual individuals” and “spiritual organizations” is a good thing. We live in a universe of “dynamic tensions” between two opposing forces that almost always leads to some emergence of something “new” and “higher” and “more complex”.

Our entire material evolutionary journey shows us a pattern that consists of the emergence of something that has to cling to its sense of individual “self” while being in a state of tension with a pull to “join with other selves” in some way.  We want to maintain an independent “agency” in control of “me” while having to give up a bit of “me” to be in “communion” with others.

Think of how an individual atom has to remain an independent atom while simultaneously being in communion with other atoms to form a molecule. Then that molecule has to do the same to allow the emergence of organelles.  And on and on up the complexity chain to cells, tissues, organs, organ systems, organisms, populations, communities, ecosystems, and finally biospheres.  For more on this process, here’s an informative article.


This chain of greater complexity of dynamic tensions between a single “thing” and its joining forces with others connects with the concept of “holons” introduced by Arthur Koestler in his 1967 book The Ghosts in the MachinePer Wikipedia, “a holon is something that is simultaneously a whole in and of itself, as well as a part of a larger whole. In other words, holons can be understood as the constituent part-wholes of a hierarchy.”

One key factor that is important to remember about holons is that if any constituent parts that are used to make up a particular holon are destroyed, all the levels above that destroyed part are subject to collapsing as well. If a molecule that is used to create an organelle “dies”, the organelle most likely dies as well.  All more complex “higher” holons are dependent on less complex “lower” holons to continue to exist.

So, our entire evolutionary journey has been served by “individuals” who have insisted on maintaining that status but have allowed a part of themselves to be given over to a greater and higher (more complex) level of expression.  This dynamic tension is an important part of our evolution.

Another point we may consider is that this evolutionary process to greater complexity sometimes has “dead ends” and recedes backwards before again proceeding forward.  Just think of certain organisms like the dinosaurs that died out but not without giving birth to certain species that have carried on.

And one more thing to consider is that if we move from the world of matter to the world of consciousness, then we can see that this evolution is continuing forward in the non-material realm.  Scientists firmly lodged into a mindset that only “matter” is real may disagree, but many people have come to realize that the principles of evolution definitely apply to the non-material areas of consciousness (such as the evolution of worldviews, see Spiral Dynamics) and culture.

What can we take from this?

So what does all of this have to do with the dynamic tension between spiritual organizations and our spiritual path?  Here briefly are two relevant ways:

One — We can look back over our human history and see that as human spiritual organizations came into greater conflict with individual spiritual beliefs, the balance that is often maintained when things are in a shifting tension gets out of whack and something new is forced to emerge to meet human needs.  Sometimes the emergence takes the form of a religion’s dogma being redefined to meet the evolving beliefs of its members (consider how the Second Vatican Council made major changes last century to Catholic masses). Sometimes the emergence takes the form of new spiritual beliefs and organizations (consider the impact of Martin Luther in the 1500s) or the rejection of them altogether (such as the rise of atheism).

Two — We can look at the current state of churches and spiritual organizations and see that the prior dynamic tension with individuals and their beliefs has become unbalanced and that we are in the midst of a massive change.  A growing number of people when asked to name their religion say “none”.  However, a growing number of people claim to be “spiritual but not religious”.  Church attendance has been going down for years.  Covid accelerated that process.  Yet many people still want some kind of spiritual support.  A large number of people are “shopping” for such support online.  So many external data points show many already feel,  that a major change is happening to our spiritual organizations.  But the question is “what’s next?”  Many spiritual organizations are in a state of transition but are only guessing as to what might emerge.

Now to be clear, there are many factors at play in the changes that spiritual organizations are seeing.  For example, if we put on a “Spiral Dynamic lens”, we might consider that many of the shifts are a result of more people moving out of the blue worldview (traditional) into the orange (modern) worldview and that even when those that move beyond orange into green (post-modern or cultural creative), they feel less of a need for any spiritual organization (and may resist it out of a dislike for any kind of hierarchy).  Or there can be an anti-religion bias at play based on the recent rise in political polarization frequently connected to certain religious minorities pushing a restrictive agenda around certain cultural issues.  Certainly we might consider that covid has contributed to the shift in ways yet unknown.

That said, let me be clear that I am just as unsure as many others are on where things are headed, I am optimistic that what is emerging is for what is best and appropriate for the next step on our human-spiritual journey.  This step into the unknown can be scary, but it’s “scary good”.

More on that next time as we consider some guidance given many years ago from a couple of wise (but somewhat different) spiritual teachers—J. Krishnamurti and Ernest Holmes that may be helpful in our examination of this tension.

Mark Gilbert