Spiritual Authoritarianism

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Spiritual Authoritarianism refers to conceptions of spirituality that claim Absolute Truth is known by a cognitive or spiritual elite, who are therefore entitled to direct the spiritual path of the followers.

It includes the phenomena of spiritual projection as described below in the quote by John Heron.

Opposed to spiritual authoritarianism is the conception of a Participatory Spirituality.


John Heron on Spiritual Authoritarianism

An extract from Chapter 2 ‘Spiritual inquiry and projected authority’ in John’s book Sacred Science: Person-centred Inquiry into the Spiritual and the Subtle, Ross-on-Wye, PCCS Books, 1998. [1]

The authoritarian blight

Mystic innovators usually become authoritarian when they start a teaching career to pass on their realizations; and their followers will in any case rapidly turn them into authority figures. This is because the only model of spiritual education and training the world has ever known is authoritarian. Thus a sectarian culture is formed, and what is taught within it is given a warrant of authority via an appeal to a combination of some of the following:

• The teacher’s intuitive and experiential certitude or faith.

• Divine revelation.

• Instruction from the gods/angels/ancestors/entities.

• Sacred scriptures.

• Established doctrine and practice.

• A lineage of gurus, teachers or priests within the sect.

• An ancient or modern innovative sage or religious founder.

Religious training everywhere, from the remote past to the immediate present, means believing-and-doing what an authority prescribes. A warrant of authority means that when an inquirer asks why they should believe-and-do what is taught, the teacher’s reply is, ‘Because the tradition of which I am a representative says so. And if you follow its teaching, as I have, you will find that it is correct’. This appeal to the weight of established thought and practice proves that it is durable. It does not show that it is valid. Equally, of course, it does not show that it is invalid. It just doesn’t answer the inquirer’s question. It is beside the point, for the question is an early sign of the inquirer’s spiritual autonomy stirring from its life-long slumber. The question cannot be answered from without, but only from the full awakening and alertness of divine autonomy within.

The universal authoritarian tendency within the diverse religious schools, ancient and modern, of our planet, is presumably to do with the remarkable call of the religious quest, which initially throws up a great deal of insecurity. No better way to put a stop to the upsurge of such shakiness - and the underlying challenge of finding an inner source of guidance - than by capping it with allegiance to an external source of certitude. This is the process of spiritual projection, which I discuss in the next section. The institutionalization of this process has had a range of unfortunate consequences within each school that maintains it. Let me overstate the case, but only somewhat, in outlining these consequences in the remainder of this section.

• Little attention is paid to the psychopathology of current authority figures within the sect, to the impact of unprocessed emotional distress on their motivation, their practices, their teachings and their relations with their followers. Thus sexual hypocrisy and perversion is routine for religious authority figures, from Roman Catholic cardinals, bishops and priests, through Muslim mullahs and imams, to oriental gurus such as Swami Muktananda.

• It is only very recently that a working distinction has been made between a truly transformative spirituality and a false, psychologically unhealthy, spirituality, of which two kinds can be distinguished. There is repressive spirituality, in which spiritual beliefs and practices are used to reinforce the denial of whole parts of oneself. There is oppressive spirituality, in which inflated spiritual claims are made in order to manipulate, constrain and dominate others to support and follow the claimant (Battista, 1996). And the oppressive kind is itself rooted in the underlying repressive kind. It is a major issue as to the extent to which all past spirituality is riddled with these pathologies.

• Relatedly, little attention is paid to the way current authority figures elicit and subtly or brazenly exploit what is unwittingly projected on to them by their followers. Authoritarian abuse of power by leaders and teachers is an invariable consequence of such projection, and there is widespread evidence of abuse in current spiritual movements, whether of ancient or recent origin, whether eastern and western. The spread of Zen and Tibetan institutions in the USA provides a telling example (Lachs, 1994).

• Little attention is paid to the limiting impact, on doctrine and practice, of the worldview of the culture and Zeitgeist prevailing at the time of the origination of a religious tradition by its founder. And, even more so than with current authority figures, the pathological elements in the spirituality of founding sages and ‘heroes’ go unnoticed.

• Little attention is paid to generating criteria to evaluate the overall soundness of a school: its beliefs, practices, teaching methods, initiation procedures, social and political structure, financial basis, claims of its founder, personal behaviour of current authority figures, and so on. It is only very recently that information on the relevant kind of criteria to apply to spiritual schools and cults has had any impact, especially via the internet.

• No attention is paid to the unseen ambience, the spiritualistic context, of what goes on in a spiritual school or church, that is, to the influence - benign, murky or malign - of discarnate persons on its activities. As long as this kind of influence is ridiculed, denied, occluded and hence unknown, no sect can have any proper claim to understand fully what is going on within its culture. Before going to a week-end retreat with Muktananda, I once saw clairvoyantly a host of associated minions in the next world seeking psychically to prompt humans into attending the event.

• Where a cult is based on channelling from some discarnate entity, the status of the entity will become the peg for unaware projections, rather than a focus of critical scrutiny.

• Most fundamentally, perhaps, no really serious attention is paid to the ground of discriminating spiritual authority within each student, disciple, or church follower. Any school or tradition that claims any kind of established authority for its teachings and practices will not encourage a full flowering of the autonomous spiritual judgement of each of its followers. Critical subjectivity, individual discriminating practice, independent judgement, inner-directed unfoldment, personal freedom of spirit in defining spiritual reality and in choosing and shaping the spiritual path - all this is discreetly side-stepped or blatantly suppressed or seductively hijacked or, at the very best, affirmed only to be contained within carefully prescribed limits.

The last point calls for some further discussion. It points to the inescapable logic of spiritual projection, the displacement of internal authority on to an external source.

Spiritual projection and authority

If you claim that spiritual authority resides in some other person, being, doctrine, book, school or church, you are the legitimating author of this claim. You choose to regard it as valid. No authority resides in anything external unless you first decide to confer that authority on it. Nothing out there is accredited and definitive until you first elect it to be so. All explicit judgements that illumination resides without, rest upon a prior and much more basic tacit light within. When it is made explicit, this is the internal authority of which your own discriminating judgement is the expression. Individual human judgement, with its inner spiritual ground, is the legitimating source of all external spiritual authority. The religious history of the human race appears to involve the slow and painful realization that this is indeed the case.

“We have to realize that every revelation must finally be appropriated by the individual soul. The very term ‘revelation’ implies the existence of the minds by which it is received. And it is on the attitude of such minds that everything in the end depends. The last word is with the interior monitor. The process is not completed until the divine which appears without is acknowledged by the divine which is enthroned deep within. And no amount of ingenious sophistry can do away with this ultimate fact. In other words the individual must take his stand upon the witness of the inner light, the authority within his own soul. This principle was clearly formulated by the Cambridge Platonist, Benjamin Whichcote, who ventured on the statement: ‘If you have a revelation from God, I must have a revelation from God too before I can believe you’.‿ (Hyde, 1949: 39)

When you are aware that the final court of spiritual authority resides within, and that any authority you have vested in anyone or anything external has derived from the imprimatur of that inner court, then you are spiritually centred and will not in the future become improperly subservient to any religious school or teacher. But when you are not aware of this, then you are busy with spiritual projection, and are spiritually off-centre. The spiritual authority that resides within is not known for what it is, is in some sense suppressed and denied, and is then unawarely projected on, invested in, and inevitably misrepresented and distorted by, what is without.

On the view that all realities are subjective-objective, as proposed in the Chapter 21, any view that reality is independently objective has a suppressed and unacknowledged subjective component which is prior, and which is inevitably misrepresented by the purely objective account. So in perceiving a world, if the subjective process of visual imaging is displaced and projected out as an objective image, then the subject is misrepresented as a dissociated Cartesian ego peering out at an independent world, instead of being known as a presence in mutual participative engagement with other presences in a shared world. In the same way, if my internal authorising of a spiritual teacher is displaced and projected out as an external authority residing in that teacher, then my inner authority is misrepresented as nescience seeking illumination from another, instead of being affirmed as my inner knowing seeking dialogue with the inner knowing of another.

Now both sorts of projection, the perceptual and the spiritual, yield benefits up to a point, but sooner or later break down because they try to make a half-truth represent a whole-truth. The critical turning point is when the process of projection becomes conscious and the subject reclaims the personal power within. This doesn’t put a stop to the projective process, but it thoroughly reduces it and brings it within the aegis of critical subjectivity. It can now be monitored and modified.

There is no doubt that the process of spiritual projection has been virtually the sole means of spiritual development both for the great mass of mankind and for many of the small minority with serious mystical intent. Indeed, eastern mysticism makes an explicit virtue of it. The guru without represents the guru within, and the guru within is only developed by full allegiance to, and identification with, the guru without. Today, however, in a world of mass communication and planetary information exchange, the competing claims of innumerable spiritual authorities of all kinds stand revealed as a composite Tower of Babel, a noisy confusion of tongues which are missing the inner point.

Spiritual authorities, who are themselves off-centre, have no authentic spiritual autonomy as a basis for real religious co-operation with each other. Their continued spiritual projection - their allegiance to the authority of traditional belief and practice - keeps them apart. There is no co-operation among those who believe, by virtue of traditional indoctrination, that they are one of the god-realized of their respective traditions. An ecumenical movement among eastern-style perfected masters is not only unheard of, it is in the nature of the case impossible. There are, of course, exceptions among more modest claimants, such as the Dalai Lama (1996). Christian creeds, all of which keep more of a distance from god, keep having a go at ecumenical togetherness, but their different traditional allegiances permit only the attempt at, not the substance of, religious co-operation.

Four stages of projection

Here is my working hypothesis about the process of spiritual projection, based on my own involvement with it in different contexts, discussions with friends and colleagues about their inner journey, and on reflections on spiritual psychology. There appear to be four stages in the process, from total projection to its substantial, but not total, withdrawal:

Intolerance. When the projection is blind and wholly unaware, the devotee is dogmatic and intolerant, outlawing and attacking all other creeds. The spiritual ground within is severely repressed and denied, and the resultant frustration is displaced into the spiritual oppression of alien beliefs.

Toleration. When there is limited awareness of the projection, we have the anomaly of (1) personal allegiance to the authority projected onto one’s own school or church, combined with (2) religious toleration and freedom as between different creeds. In other words, you respect and accept the fact that what is authoritative for you is not so for other people with their diverse beliefs, but fail fully to grasp that this is so because you and they are still busy projecting inner authority outward. The most extreme version of this anomaly is when you both respect fully the right of other people to vest authority in any creed they choose, and at the same time vest your own authority in a cult that continually denigrates the exercise of your autonomous spiritual judgement.

Collusion. When there is rather more awareness of spiritual projection, we have an unfortunate anomaly much practised by contemporary authoritarian spiritual teachers, and colluded with by their followers. The teachers repetitively define and prescribe things spiritual, while also repeatedly affirming that authority lies within each follower, who is exhorted to take nothing on teacher say-so but check it out through personal experience. The effect is hypnotic and seductive. The follower comes to believe that what he or she is being taught is also being confirmed from within. But what is within the follower is never encouraged, in it own terms and on its own terms, to define or direct anything spiritual. All definition and direction remain firmly in the hands of the teacher. At the same time as inner discrimination is being encouraged, the person is being told what to believe and to do, and is thus lulled seductively into acquiescent projection. This anomaly has its degenerate apotheosis in the case of the advanced conventional practitioner, the supposed enlightened one who uncritically directs all his practice and construes all his experience in the terms of tradition with which he has been indoctrinated and which he has internalized, and which has long since usurped the voice of authentic inner discrimination. What he has thus internalized may lead him to believe that he is now one of the god-realized, at an end-stage of enlightenment. Such a person will be benignly and inescapably autocratic in ruling the roost in his or her school of practice, while ostensibly encouraging disciples to make rigorous experiential tests of what is taught.

Freedom. When you are fully aware of spiritual projection so that it can be substantially withdrawn and undone, then the spiritual path itself is based on internal authority through the continuous exercise of your own discriminating judgement and its spiritual ground; and this in association with others similarly engaged. Divine becoming emerges as the living spiritual ground of human autonomy and co-operation. And the divinity thus manifest will be significantly different, I believe, in terms of beliefs and practices, from all divinities defined by external authorities. However, there are three very important caveats about all this, the second being the crucial one.

First, such withdrawal is not an all or nothing phenomenon. It may involve a variety of hybrids. These include:

Sequential projection. A person projects for a period on one spiritual school, then withdraws it and projects on to another, going through several over a number of years. This process may become quite intentional, in the sense that the person consciously goes along with the authoritarian tendency of a school in order to benefit from its teachings and practices, and pulls out when that tendency becomes too spiritually restricting.

Partial projection. A person stays constantly within one tradition in allegiance to certain strands of it, while radically reappraising other strands.

Intellectual freedom. The intellect appears to exercise a lot of freedom, for example, with respect to transpersonal theory, but practice remains firmly wedded to a traditional school. The theoretical outcome will then include veiled special pleading for the practical allegiance.

Discreet freedom. A person remains within one tradition for purposes of the support found within its spiritual community, otherwise picks and chooses among its beliefs and practices, refracting them through the prism of the internal monitor.

Second, and crucially, I do not think there is any such thing as a final end to, a total freedom from, spiritual projection. There is certainly a critical point when it is raised into consciousness and radically withdrawn as personal power is reclaimed. But this reclamation, this radical reappraisal of one’s spirituality, necessarily includes elements drawn from past and present spiritual practitioners and thinkers. So the reappraisal weeds out past projections while relying, in part, on new ones in order to do so. The difference, of course, is in the awareness that this going on. Hence the critical subjectivity of a reframing mind, which continually deconstructs presumed internal authority to uncover the projections at work within it. The authority within is never final, always provisional and fallible. I return to this theme in the next chapter.

Thirdly, the substantial withdrawal of spiritual projection from traditional schools certainly does not mean that one ceases to take account of them and learn anything from them. I have on occasion been criticized on the grounds that my approach to spiritual inquiry is to eliminate from consideration almost everything which has been written on the subject up to now. This is a gross misrepresentation, and quite the opposite of what I believe, which is that the beliefs and practices of the various mystical traditions constitute a huge data-bank, a massive resource which, when treated with due caveats, can be drawn upon, modified and revised in framing the maps which guide the examined life and co-operative spiritual inquiry.

I have learnt a great deal from this legacy. I totally ignore it at my peril, just as I unawarely project on to it at my peril. This is an interesting knife-edge. I need to remember that I do not really know for sure what the ancient mystics meant by what they wrote, and that when I read them (often already via a translation) it is how I make sense of them - my inner knowing in dialogue with the text - that is central. If I project this inner knowing out and claim that such and such is what the mystic meant, and claim further that this meaning is a traditional guide to spiritual wisdom, then I am sorely lost in the process of spiritual projection. I am hiding my own light behind the sage’s robe to the rear of which it is displaced. I have lost faith with myself. The whole of the current perennial philosophy business seems to me to be beset by this kind of mauvais foi.

The distortions of spiritual projection

When the spiritual authority that resides within is projected on and invested in some external authority, it inevitably becomes misrepresented and distorted. To disown, deny and be unaware of the inner presence is to damage its formative power and this disfiguration is reflected in the teaching of the outer authority that replaces it. From the other side of the equation, if you want to become a spiritual authority for others, then you need a perverse doctrine that invalidates and undermines their intrinsic inner spirit, and will thus lock in with their disfigured projection of it.

The Christian religion maintained its authority for centuries primarily by the corrupt doctrine of original sin, which proposed that human nature is congenitally tainted and depraved, with a proclivity to sinful conduct. The essence of original sin for Augustine (354-430), the most influential figure in Western Christianity, lay in concupiscence, meaning desire in general and sexual lust in particular. He regarded humanity as ‘a mass of sin, waited upon by death’. He identified the ‘great sin’ that lay behind such misery with sex and sexual intercourse. This catastrophic assault on human eroticism deeply undermined people’s faith in their own inner life.

It is not surprising that the last twenty years of Augustine’s life were dominated by his controversies against the Pelagians, and as a result of his determined opposition, Pelagianism was condemned by the church as a heresy. Pelagius had rejected the idea of original sin as an inherited defect which impaired the freedom of the will. He believed in a true freedom of the will as the highest human endowment, and held that persons are responsible for and capable of ensuring their own salvation. This optimistic account of human nature, had it spread widely, would have drastically undermined the authority of the early church.

The authority of spiritual schools and lineages in oriental religions rests on the denigrating view that human personhood, far from being a spiritual presence within divine being, reduces to a selfhood which is lost in illusory separateness. At the ordinary, everyday level, the self is nothing but a mass of congealed fear and clinging, all knotted up. At its very highest level, the soul is still nothing but a knot, a contraction, which must die to itself, to become absolute spirit (Wilber, 1997: 47). The spiritual teacher who has undone the knot and transcended separateness is the only one to judge whether the contracted disciple has attained any measure of enlightenment. The disciple surrenders to the guru and identifies with the guru to attain moksha, spiritual release and liberation from the illusion of selfhood and the bondage of mortal existence. Indeed, the Zen master subjects his students to physical and mental abuse in order to destroy the illusions in which they are imprisoned (Katz, 1978: 44).

So western spiritual authorities invalidate the erotic roots of personal life and eastern spiritual authorities undermine personal consciousness. Both of them are misrepresenting, denying and oppressing, the spiritual potential of personhood which, honoured in fullness, has its flower in personal autonomy and comprehensive connectedness. Between them, they inflict much damage. For spiritual practices based on negative views of human nature, by repressing positive potential, will cause a distorted return of the repressed. Thus the practice, by denying potential good and thus turning it into actual bad, appears to confirm the negative view on which it is based. This is the ancient corruption of patriarchal priestcraft. The priests put about beliefs and practices, and organize their hierarchy in ways, which generate the sins they claim the power to redeem.

The Christian religion tends toward a modified dualism. It regards the human world as a fallen creation outside god, although he is intimately connected with it. And it regards its priests as appointed by god with authority to mediate in Christ’s name on behalf of fallen humanity. Eastern religions tend toward acosmic monism: the world and the human are illusory save when known to be identical with absolute spirit. And the enlightened who know this have absolute authority with regard to the salvation of the unenlightened, who are too identified with the illusion to effect self-liberation. What we see at work, both west and east, is the classic autocracy of spiritual patriarchy. There is no hint of, no interest in, the sacral reality of womankind: embodiment as a primary source of sacrality (Raphael, 1994: 519-20).

The authoritarian spiritual teacher is also busy, of course, in suppressing some aspects of his or her own authentic inner light and inner life. The resultant subtle frustrations are displaced, acted out, not only in controlling the spiritual path for other people, but also in more or less frequent episodes of verbal, physical, sexual, power-play, and financial abuse of followers.

“The behaviour of teachers, both Oriental and Western, participating in the dramatic spread of Zen and Tibetan institutions in America has often fallen severely short of the ethical ideal.‿ (Crook, 1996: 15)

The stories are legion, and likely to be found in all authoritarian spiritual schools, ancient and modern, eastern and western. They are hushed up for as long as possible, and rationalized by devotees as consciousness-raising tests and challenges. But sooner or later they demand understanding in terms of what they are: evidence of distortions stemming from a neglected spiritual process within the directive teacher. Such distortions exhibit gross and crude forms of spiritual narcissism in the very process whereby the teacher claims he is interrupting it in others.


Battista, J.R. (1996) ‘Offensive spirituality and spiritual defenses’, in B.W. Sutton, A.B. Chinen and J.R. Battista (eds) Textbook of Transpersonal Psychiatry and Psychology. New York: Basic Books.

Crook, J. (1996) ‘Authenticity and the practice of Zen’, New Ch’an Forum, 13: 15-30.

Dalai Lama (1996) The Good Heart. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Hyde, L. (1949) The Nameless Faith. London: Rider.

Katz, S.T. (1978) ‘Language, epistemology, and mysticism’, in S. Katz (ed) Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lachs, S. (1994) ‘A slice of Zen in America’, New Ch’an Forum, 10.

Raphael, M. (1994) ‘Feminism, constructivism and numinous experience’, Religious Studies, 30: 511-526.

Wilber, K. (1997) The Eye of the Spirit. Boston: Shambhala.

J. Kripal on why mysticism is not emancipatory

J. Kripal on the necessity to reject the emancipatory illusions in religion and mysticism:

"Ferrer … ultimately adopts a very positive assessment of the traditions' ethical status, suggesting in effect that the religions have been more successful in finding common moral ground than doctrinal or metaphysical agreement, and that most traditions have called for (if never faithfully or fully enacted) a transcendence of dualistic self-centeredness or narcissism. It is here that I must become suspicious. Though Ferrer himself is refreshingly free of this particular logic (it is really more of a rhetoric), it is quite easy and quite common in the transpersonal literature to argue for the essential moral nature of mystical experience by being very careful about whom one bestows the (quite modern) title "mystic." It is an entirely circular argument, of course: One simply declares (because one believes) that mysticism is moral, then one lists from literally tens of thousands (millions?) of possible recorded cases a few, maybe a few dozen, exemplars who happen to fit one's moral standards (or better, whose historical description is sketchy enough to hide any and all evidence that would frustrate those standards), and, voilà, one has "proven" that mysticism is indeed moral. Any charismatic figure or saint that violates one's norms—and there will always be a very large, loudly screaming crowd here—one simply labels "not really a mystic" or conveniently ignores altogether. Put differently, it is the constructed category of "mysticism" itself that mutually constructs a "moral mysticism," not the historical evidence, which is always and everywhere immeasurably more ambivalent. Ferrer, as is evident in such moments as his thought experiment with the Theravada retreat, sees right through most of this. He knows perfectly well that perennialism simply does not correspond to the historical data. What he does not perhaps see so clearly is that a moral perennialism sneaks through the back door of his own conclusions. Thus, whereas he rightly rejects all talk of a "common core," he can nevertheless speak of a common "Ocean of Emancipation" that all the contemplative traditions approach from their different ontological shores."

Ferrer argues that we must realize that our goal can never be simply the recovery or reproduction of some past sense of the sacred, for "we cannot ignore that most religious traditions are still beset not only by intolerant exclusivist and absolutist tendencies, but also by patriarchy, authoritarianism, dogmatism, conservatism, transcendentalism, body-denial, sexual repression, and hierarchical institutions." Put simply, the contemplative traditions of the past have too often functioned as elaborate and sacralized techniques for dissociating consciousness. Once again, I think this is exactly where we need to be, with a privileging of the ethical over the mystical and an insistence on human wholeness as human holiness. I would only want to further radicalize Ferrer's vision by underscoring how hermeneutical it is, that is, how it functions as a creative re-visioning and reforming of the past instead of as a simple reproduction of or fundamentalist fantasy about some nonexistent golden age. Put differently, in my view, there is no shared Ocean of Emancipation in the history of religions. Indeed, from many of our own modern perspectives, the waters of the past are barely potable, as what most of the contemplative traditions have meant by "emancipation" or "salvation" is not at all what we would like to imply by those terms today. It is, after all, frightfully easy to be emancipated from "the world" or to become one with a deity or ontological absolute and leave all the world's grossly unjust social structures and practices (racism, gender injustice, homophobia, religious bigotry, colonialism, caste, class division, environmental degradation, etc.) comfortably in place."" (http://www.tikkun.org/magazine/index.cfm/action/tikkun/issue/tik0303/article/030352.html)

More Information

Guruphiliax, is one of the sites monitoring spiritual abuse, at http://guruphiliac.blogspot.com/

See the Delicious tag at http://del.icio.us/mbauwens/Spiritual-Authoritarianism