Mudrashram Institute of Spiritual Studies
The Four Stages of Religious Teaching
© 1989 by George A. Boyd
In the historical development of a religion, we can characterize four distinct phases. Phase one is the original creation and dissemination of the teaching. Phase two is the period of secondary creation, or elaboration upon the original teaching. Phase three is the period of maintenance of institution and doctrine. Phase four is the disintegration phase, where values and principles decay, and the original impulses of the religion are lost.
During phase one, the revelation of the founder gives rise to an oral teaching to an immediate group of followers or disciples. Books are written by the founder, or are compiled by the founder's followers or disciples from this oral tradition. Secret, initiatory meditation or prayer practices are taught to a select group of followers, who go on to have revelatory and mystic experiences. There is immediate feedback from the teacher to followers, and questions can be answered face to face.
After the death of the founder, certain of the chief disciples may be appointed to or assume the role of teaching others. During this waning period of the first phase, sectarian divisions begin to arise, and some of the original teaching is subtly altered through interpretation and forgetting. Contact with the original teacher is now only in mystic trance, and imagination and distortion begin to introduce new variety into the original teaching. There may be in this phase the primary establishment of a church or institution, with the chief disciples acting as leaders within the institution.
Phase two begins when the original disciples have died, and their followers begin to make commentaries on the books written from the founder's revelation or those teachings compiled by his original disciples. This elaboration forms the basis for a new shift in doctrine away from the original teaching, but since there is no direct feedback from the founder, these shifts highlight certain aspects of an original teacher's message and obscure others. As this new group of believers begin to have inner revelations, the oral tradition begins to change, and legends and fables grow up around the life of the teacher. New sects develop, with varying doctrines and practices. The later period of this phase can be marked by great creativity and diversity of opinions, leading to schisms, contention between rival sects, and power struggles within and between these groups.
The third phase begins with a dominant group setting up authority structures. These authority structures confer authority of person such as a Guru, Pope, or Master; authority of doctrine through formulation of creeds or dogmas together with the sanction of certain translations of scripture and commentaries; and authorized rituals or ceremonies such as Mass, Holy Communion, ritual prayers or chants. There may be active persecution of rival groups, and an assertion of possession of an exclusive and unitary truth. These authority structures sustain the institution, and create a "cultural habit", habituating and conditioning new followers in certain values and beliefs. These teachings, values and beliefs are propagated across generations using a principle of succession, and maintaining authorized roles, doctrines and rituals. A priestly hierarchy with distinct roles is set up. The entrenchment of this institution in its ambient culture and its spread through propagation to other lands leads to widespread influence of belief and behavior, and the development of a world religion.
In the fourth phase, disintegration of the faith occurs. This is marked by the infiltration and corruption of the priestly hierarchy, with a concomitant degeneration of morals, and laxity in discipline, appearance of scandals in "high places" within the institution. Gimmicks, revivals, and other frantic attempts to breathe new life into the old doctrines are attempted. The imminent advent or reincarnation of the original teacher is expounded to create hope, or charismatic individuals are portrayed as embodying a 'second coming' or new advent. Whatever original initiatory tradition once existed has been long forgotten. Illusory magical and superstitious thinking increase; the original spiritual impulses of the faith are lost. This period culminates in a gradual decay and disappearance of the religion and its absorption into other doctrines.
Religion gives people a sense of community, trains them in doctrine and morality, and teaches them a world view that defines Divinity, man's universe, and man's place in that universe. It sets up a goal for spiritual development, and models its attainment in certain saintly and sagacious individuals. Religion is a political force, affecting the surrounding society by humanitarian or charitable enterprises, by human rights activism, and by introduction of its beliefs and values to other members of that society through laws, ethical codes, education, advocacy and proselytism. Religion can bring out in mankind its most sublime impulses and its most fanatical ones.
Religion must change over time because mankind's knowledge of the world and the individual is always growing, and scientific, geopolitical and economic changes require new ways of coping with an ever-new world. To the degree that religion can remain flexible, and meet these changes with insight and vigor, renewing the spirit of the people in each new generation, to this degree it will remain viable. As religion moves from its inception to its gradual decay, it must remain faithful to its original mission of purely transmitting the impulses of Spirit to the minds and hearts of mankind, and preserving wisdom, compassion and justice unto all generations.