TEXAS FAITH 67: Are Oprah, Deepak and the "God Within" school good or bad for religion?

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Dallas Morning News,

Each week we will post a question to a panel of about two dozen clergy, laity and theologians, all of whom are based in Texas or are from Texas. They will chime in with their responses to the question of the week. And you, readers, will be able to respond to their answers through the comment box.

In his new book, Bad Religion, author and columnist Ross Douthat argues that since the 1960s, institutional Christianity has sunk to a low place - chock-a-block with heresies. Among them, the "God-within" theology that he ascribes to modern-day practitioners like Oprah Winfrey , Deepak Chopra and Elizabeth Gilbert.

Douthat suggests that bad religion is any religious expression that doesn't go through formalized, orthodox channels. Or as writer Charlie Pierce boils down Douthat's thesis: "Christianity would have been infinitely better off is somebody had stopped the banjo Mass in its tracks." But doesn't Douthat fundamentally have a point? Aren't the formal channels of church, synagogue or mosque, of Buddhist temples or the Hindu Vedas -- aren't they all supposed to rein in makeshift, even self-indulgent, flights into "bad religion"? Put another way, can you find spiritual enlightenment outside a formalized religious structure and, having found it, still be a good Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or Jew?

The question this week is this:

Have Oprah and Deepak and the proponents of the "God Within" school caused more harm than good? Have they contributed to the deinstitutionalization of religion? And if so, is that okay?

Agree? Disagree? Read on after the jump.

NITYANANDA CHANDRA DAS, minister of ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness), Dallas 

In the Vedas it is described that there are three levels of spiritual realization. Brahman, Paramātmā, & Bhagavān. This can be compared to:

1. Seeing a train from a distance and concluding that it is a bright light

2. Seeing the train up close in the station and therefore understanding its intricacies

3. Riding the train with the train conductor and understanding the person and the further intricacies behind the train.

Brahman realization, realization of the existence of the soul being separate from the body, can be made possible without the help of external information, for it becomes self evident for the introspective philosopher.

However, deeper levels of realization requires the help of a teacher. Krishna explains in the Bhagavad Gita 4.2 that if spiritual knowledge is not passed down, teacher to teacher, then whatever information is being taught is simply theoretical rather than practical. Just as no one becomes a medical doctor simply from medical books alone, medical school is also required. Society holds this standard for any field of sophistication whether it is medicine, law, or psychology. But for some reason we exclude holding the sophisticated subject of spiritual life to this high standard. Thus we faultily conclude that a book alone, or our self alone can reveal the highest spiritual truth.

Therefore we find errors on both sides, the side of tradition and that of individual revelation. Tradition will say "Stick to tradition" but such tradition may not be traditional. One may ask "Where is the lineage of teachers who have, in an unbroken manner, passed down this knowledge from its original source?" Or are we in a situation where we have a possibly unadulterated medical book but no real doctors or medical school to practically show the way of the complexities of medicinal practice.

Therefore there are those who will seek God outside of tradition, and may be blessed with genuine spiritual experiences of a certain level. Nevertheless if they desire to know that which is beyond this world, the information must come from beyond this world, & beyond our own minds. Thus, guru is necessary. Guru is he/she who teaches by example what he or she has been taught. The guru must be a student of another guru and similarly that guru as well. Such a linage must go back to the original teacher whether it is Jesus, Krishna or Mohammad. Otherwise the information may look nice on paper but not be able to produce any valid results.

To see all responses of the TEXAS Faith panel click here.