Sacred Scriptures and Gurus Are Not the Final Authority

Steve Goodheart Essay

Anyone who grew up in a fundamentalist or doctrinaire religious environment can tell you how hard it is to to think for oneself and choose one’s own spiritual path. In a child’s mind, the authority of one’s parents becomes totally merged with the authority of her religious teachings and teachers.

Because a child is totally dependent on parents for her physical and emotional well-being, parents are are virtually godlike in their emotional power  over a child.  To challenge or displease a parent is to risk anger and rejection, and thus, to a child’s mind, fear of annihilation and abandonment.  Rather than see the parents as wrong, the child must see herself as wrong, in order to preserve the parent’s authority and the child’s safety.

It’s no wonder, then, that familial religious teachings can have such a lasting and powerful hold over a person.  To even begin to challenge the religious authority of one’s church or spiritual leaders take tremendous courage, because, in a very deep and profound sense, one is challenging one’s parents—not only those who raised us, but the psychological “parents” we have within us.

Nonetheless, even as children must mature and establish their own individualities, in order to become full human beings, there comes a time when spiritual seekers  have to question all spiritual authority and find our own sense of spirituality and the sacred.  This usually means challenging and testing and, sometimes, breaking free of the familial and familiar religious beliefs one grew up with.

This time of spiritual growth can appear early or late in a person’s life.  But I think anyone who has been through this acute “growing up” period, will tell you that one often feels like a deep, existential crisis—a lack of meaning to life, even despair and depression.

Our hearts are telling us that it is time to evolve spiritually, time to break free of the painful and outworn beliefs that bind us.  If we ignore this inner call, we will feel a growing discomfort and sense of dis-ease with our old belief systems.  Indeed, we may even find ourselves getting physically sick.  Our bodies may be trying to tell us something about the painful beliefs we are literally embodying.

There are questions you can ask yourself to see if the time for change has come—questions you may have been afraid to raise earlier in your life, because you were not ready yet to challenge your internalized parents.  Questions like these:

Have you spent much of your life trying to make sense of the logical, moral, and spiritual contradictions of some “sacred” scriptures? Do you find that you spend as much time and energy trying to make scriptures “work” as you do actually growing spiritually? Do you spend much of your spiritual life trying to sort out the personality and inconsistencies of some guru or teacher, living or dead?

When you go to spiritual teachers, or priests, or clergy, with your doubts and fears, do they tell you that just need to have more faith? That you just need to trust? Do they insist that such doubts come from “the devil” or from your “unenlightened” mind?  Do they suggest or even insist that all you need to do is just yield to the guru, or to the “authority” of the sacred teaching?

Do you have fearful images of God that torment you and that are inconsistent with your deepest sense of good and of right and wrong?  Do you fear that if you don’t believe what some sacred scripture tells you, that you will go to hell and suffer without end at the hands of some wrathful god?  Do you fear that  if you don’t follow some dharma, you will end up in some Hindu or Buddhist hell-realm for eons, maybe finally to be reborn as an insect?

I think you will find, as countless spiritual seekers have found before you, that if you look deeply into these fears, you will discover that every one of them has no basis in reality, but are rooted in our childhood fear of challenging the “parent” within us. We have simply transferred original, childhood parental authority to the religious authority we grew up with.  The fearful religious images of punishment and abandonment are nothing but the projections of our inner fear of being a “bad child” and being abandoned or punished by an “omnipotent” parent.

It can take a lot of spiritual wrestling and self-examination to figure this out for oneself, but once one begins to see through these childhood shadows that have taken dark religious forms, then the light begins to dawn on us.  We aren’t helpless children any more!  There is no wrathful God to fear, other than the man-created image of one we’ve been taught and conditioned to fear.

We are free moral agents who have the innate capacity and ability within us to separate the chaff from the wheat, the bogus from the real.  We are perhaps most divine, most spiritual, in our innate capacity to recognize for ourselves what is the beautiful, the good, and the true, and what isn’t.  We don’t have to depend on anyone or any sacred scriptures or any personal savior.  Rather, we can look within ourselves and begin listening to our own hearts and to the spiritual sense that we all have within us.

Once we really get this fact of our spiritual autonomy, we are free to put aside what we have been conditioned to believe and discover the truth for ourselves.  Then, in one sense, it doesn’t matter what mankind’s sacred scriptures say—whether the Bible, or the Torah, or the Koran, or the Upanishads or the Bhagavad Gita, or the suttas and discourses of the Buddha.  It doesn’t even matter what mankind’s respected spiritual authorities say—whether Jesus, the Buddha, Mohammed, Shankara, Moses, or whoever.  Final spiritual authority does not reside with them, but within us. If they do not speak to us, if they are not helping set us free, if what they say or teach does not ring true in your life and heart, then it’s our sovereign right to “just say no!”—to drop them, to let them go!

You don’t have to believe a single word of any of them—no matter how venerated and revered they may be by others. Trust that your life experiences, and your heart, will show you what you need to know, what is true, and what isn’t. What people call “sacred scriptures” and “spiritual authorities”—saviors, gurus, lamas, shamans, priests, popes—have no special power or authority unless you choose to recognize that power and authority because of the demonstrable good effects of them in your life.

Don’t get me wrong! Spiritual helpers and enlightened teachings can have their place, and it can be a very important place.  I have been hugely blessed throughout my life by the spiritual wisdom of others.  Growing up, we all need spiritual friends and the insights and help of those who have come before us.  Because it’s easy to be fooled by our own unexamined wants and needs, it’s good to check our personal conclusions, preferences, and actions against the lives of those we spiritually respect and admire.

But finally, to grow up spiritually, we must come to rely on our own developing spiritual light.  We must increasingly depend on what our examined thoughts and actions tell us, not what we want to believe or what others tell us to believe.  We, finally, must become our own guru, our own Buddha, our own Krishna, our own Christ, our own Moses.  As even the Buddha said:

“Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness’ — then you should enter and remain in them.”

Kalama Sutta

If we look to another for what we have to know and be for ourselves, we will tend to blind ourselves to the light within.  The “loud voice” of another spiritual authority will often tend to override that “still small voice” that speaks in our hearts when we are quiet and really listen.

Taking responsibility for ourselves to understand what is skillful and conducive to happiness, we will naturally choose for ourselves what we give assent to and what we reject as spiritual truth. Then, all spiritual teachings are open to us, and nothing is closed off for our examination and testing. We may find light in the writings of a Christian mystic, or a Sufi, or a Zen monk, or a Indian sage, or a naturalist or biologist or psychologist or poet.  We may even find that the religion of our childhood has started to speak to us again, once we’ve set it free from fearful distortions and ignorant, false beliefs.

The bottom line is that we don’t have to agree with something just because a certain spiritual teacher or scripture asserts something as truth.  Nor do we have to believe some spiritual teaching because we grew up with it.  If something is true, we have to see it for ourselves and test it for ourselves and not just go on blind faith.  As so many wise men and women have said and proved, we must be a light and lamp unto ourselves. Nobody else can give us this light. Others may point to the light, but we have to discover it for ourselves.

And when we do sense spiritual light in some teacher, or in some teaching, we should never forget that it is the light in us that enables us recognize that light in another. (And vice versa!) That inner, original light is sovereign, but we do have to learn how to read it and be guided by it.  This takes a real humility and a child-like openness.  It also takes a courageous willingness to examine the results of our thoughts and actions and see if they are producing happiness for ourselves and others.  This self-responsible way is the bright path to spiritual maturity.


About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

4 Responses to “Sacred Scriptures and Gurus Are Not the Final Authority”

  1. Yes, we’re happy and very WARM here in Florida (like, SO warm, as the A/C isn’t working)! Thanks for asking. (Also, if you remember my posts about the loss of my “Buddha Bird” diamond dove—we found a “wife” for his bereaved long-time companion Ruby once we moved down here, and, in his ripe old age, Ruby had his first encounter with a female bird and just had two beautiful babies. Life goes on…)

    And I’m in full agreement about never putting away one’s “childlikeness” (I believe that Jesus was pretty clear on that one, too)!


  2. Of all your wonderful posts, Steve, I think that this may be my favorite so far. When it came into my inbox I was on the phone with a friend, and had just told her that, more and more, I believe that in order to come to an authentic and meaning personal relationship with the divine (however one defines that), it’s necessary to clear out EVERY notion that one has ever had about “spirituality” or “God”, or what it means to be on a “spiritual path” and what one’s goals should be and truly start at a kind of spiritual Ground Zero. But, as you well know, it’s not easy, particularly if you were raised to accept the dogma of one religion–even when I think that I’m absolutely free of all of that, I will suddenly find myself thinking about something from within that old framework–it’s as if it’s sunk deep into my bones, and requires even more serious excavation.

    Anyway, working on that! Thanks for the post, and I hope you’re well.


    • Thank you, Nancy. Since you’ve been with me from the start of my blogs, what you say means so much to me. Much appreciated!

      I couldn’t agree more about getting to a kind of “Ground Zero” in terms of letting go all concepts and beliefs that simply are the result of conditioning, tradition and habit. At some point, I think we have to do this whatever our spiritual path. We may well need our original beliefs as a kind of “transitional object,” to use D. W. Winnicott’s famous phrase—our comforting and, actually, essential “teddy bears” and “comfy blankets” that help us individuate and feel safe as we develop.

      But as we grow spiritually, a time will come to put away “childish things,” as one scriptures have it (but NOT our childlikeness) and look and see for ourselves what is, and what isn’t true, what stands up to scrutiny and practice, and what doesn’t. This can be very hard to do, because we are challenging the “inner parent,” but it’s the only road to a full humanhood.

      As for “working on it,” well, me too! It’s amazing how tenacious and stubborn old familial and “tribal” beliefs can be in one’s sense of self. But, the love and light within doesn’t allow us to be comfortable with what denies our full spiritual potential, and eventually, it all comes out in the “wash.”

      I’m doing very fine; thanks for asking, and I hope and trust you are too in your new abode.

      With warm metta,


  1. Kalama Sutta | Standing in an Open Field - 2013/05/06

    […] For a commentary on spiritual freedom: […]

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