Shifting Patterns of Religious Authority And Praxis

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* Article: Spiritual Teachers as Moral Educators: Shifting Patterns of Religious Authority And Praxis. Zachary Stein.


Excerpt from: Stein, Z. (2011). On spiritual teachers and teachings. Journal of Integral Theory and Practice. 6(1), 57-77.


"This paper is about contemporary structures of religious authority, and how it is legitimated and justified. I am especially interested in the unique kind of teacherly authority that occurs in educational contexts where teachers and students are focused on religious topics. Moreover, it will be the non-(or-quasi)-institutionalized religious teacher—the spiritual teacher, to whom I give the most attention. The dynamics of religious authority in other parts of the world are complex and important—from terrorism to liberation theology—but I focus on the post-industrial West because it is where I live and because I think it is the site of complex new emerging forms of religious authority."


Zak Stein:

"The spiritual teacher, as I will explore below, is a fascinating emergent role in post-industrial multicultural societies. This is an individual without an official position in a religious organization, who nevertheless appeals to the public at large while assuming (and often being granted) a certain type of moral and religious authority. This is a unique form of authority, in so far as it is more or less non-institutionalized and typically built around market transactions and exchanges (books, lectures, retreats). The spiritual teacher—like the religious fundamentalist—is a uniquely modern figure and agent.

But spiritual teachers are also unique because they can appeal to a much wider variety of sources to ostensibly justify their claims and legitimize their teacherly authority. The traditional religious teacher—e.g., the Rabbi or Priest—typically deploys a lineage-specific justificatory strategy. The spiritual teacher, on the other hand, can deploy a trans-lineage justificatory strategy, and sometimes will deploy justificatory strategies that are totally unaffiliated with any religious tradition. And while it is true that the dynamics of teacherly authority vary even within a single tradition, it is still the case that spiritual teachers are authorities with more ambiguous and complex modes for securing the legitimacy of their authority.

However, the goal here is not to describe the wilderness of the current spiritual marketplace, but to build a language that might allow us to discuss the value of the various wares on offer. In other words, the aim here is to offer an evaluative framework—the first words in a “language of strong evaluation”—that can be used to sort the ‘good’ teachers from the ‘bad’ ones. I begin by positioning the spiritual teacher in the context of eclectic traditions in the history of American moral education. Then I look into the structure of teacherly authority and into the dynamics of this authority when it is exercised in religious or spiritual contexts. In the process I tease apart two types of teacherly authority for heuristic purposes, Classic and Modern. I discuss their respective affordances and their most typical spiritual teachings. Finally, I also suggest that some contemporary spiritual teachers and teachings may be indicative of new emerging configurations of religious authority—configurations dubbed Integral….." (