The Burden of Purity

Here is a thought experiment:

Stage 1: Imagine that you are the leader of a small religious denomination. Let’s call the religion ‘Prayerism’ and your denomination is called the ‘Traditional Prayer Church’. Imagine that Prayerism is a major world religion, which is thousands of years old with hundreds of millions of followers. The Traditional Prayer Church is only a small denomination, numbering perhaps ten thousand followers.

Stage 2: As the leader of the Traditional Prayer Church you sincerely believe that the whole religion of Prayerism is under threat. You believe that over the centuries the religion has degenerated, and that it is now in its final decline. You believe that the vast majority of people practicing Prayerism are either practicing an inferior version of the religion, which is missing some of the essential truths, or they are practicing a degenerate form of the religion in which important truths have been distorted or mixed with outside elements (which means it is no longer ‘pure’ Prayerism). You believe that now only the Traditional Prayer Church is teaching a pure and complete version of Prayerism.

Stage 3: As leader of the Traditional Prayer Church you are living in a country which has not traditionally been Prayerist, and where Prayerism is not part of the indigenous culture. Your students are mainly first generation Prayerists who are relatively inexperienced and who rely very heavily on your interpretation and authority.

Stage 4: As the leader of the denomination one of your main aims is to train people as full-time teachers and practitioners of Prayerism, who will embody the very highest ideals of the religion. You therefore face a dilemma — should you share your belief about the degeneration of the rest of the religion with your students? Clearly this is a dilemma, because believing that you are one of the few remaining upholders of a major religion is an incredible psychological burden. As leader you strongly feel the weight of this burden.

Stage 5: In contemplating this dilemma do you focus mainly on the truth of what you believe, or do you mainly consider the impact that burdening your students with this belief will have on them? Will it be productive for their spiritual development if your students believe that they are the only guardians of a major religion? Or will the enormous pressure cause them to self-destruct?

Stage 6: Alternatively, what will happen if you never share your pessimistic belief with your students. Instead of thinking that they are in the only pure denomination and that all the other denominations are either degenerate, inferior or impure, your students will grow up thinking that they are just one group of Prayerists among many. In this scenario they are likely to have more respect for members of other Prayerist denominations. Do you want this, or as leader would you prefer that they looked down on other Prayerists? Do you want them to feel superior, to feel ‘purer than thou’? Or do you worry that if you do not share your pessimistic beliefs that your students will not feel enough pressure to perform? Are the traditional religious motivations alone insufficient to bring your students to a state of purity?

Stage 7: Another option is for you to give different teachings to different students. In your public teachings you can sometimes teach respect for other denominations, but in your private briefings you can criticize them. If you adopt this approach you may be accused of being disingenuous, and your close disciples who have received the private briefings will still be burdened with an enormous sense of responsibility.

What should the leader of the Traditional Prayer Church do? Please suggest answers in the comments section below.

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Posted on August 4, 2008, in Religion and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Great thought experiment.
    I am interested in the likely effect, of whatever the leader of Traditional Prayer Church does, on the perception of the Traditional Prayer Church.
    That is the perception of the leader, and the close disciples, amongst other members of the Traditional Prayer Church.
    The perception of the leader, and the close disciples, amongst Prayerists generally.
    The perception of the leader, and the close disciples, amongst other people outside the Prayerist fold.
    The perception of Traditional Prayer Church as a whole amongst Prayerists and public.

    From all these points of view it seems likely to me, in the short term, that “never share your pessimistic belief” is the best approach.

    If you consider “give different teachings to different students”, that is likely to lead to bad press from within, as well as outside the Traditional Prayer Church. But it is certainly not the easiest way around the dilemma, it shows courage on the part of the leader.

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