Recently my wife and I watched a documentary called I Am Not Your Guru. It detailed the work and events of Tony Robbins, renowned motivational teacher and a frankly intense human being.
While I won’t vouch for Tony’s language and methodology, what was fascinating is how people responded to his guidance. Even when he was asking them to make significant life decisions right then, they followed his lead.
People cried and strangers cried together. They had spent thousands of dollars to have someone else tell them what to do with the difficult situations in their lives. And they loved it.
Flash over to my life, where I often have conversations about spiritual formation and discipleship. Frequently I’ll say,
“This isn’t original to me. Much of what I’ve learned about formation I picked up from Dallas Willard.”
Interesting thought: I can look at the response to Tony Robbins and say, “Who would do that?” but I have made major life decisions based on the teaching of Dallas Willard.
More than that, I’ve made decisions on the nature of God and the reality of Jesus based on the teachings of Dallas Willard.
You see, everyone has a guru.
The definition of “guru” is a master or expert of a certain field. The ancient gurus were ones who were trusted to shape reality and the character of their students. To learn from a guru is to begin to see the world through the their eyes.
We’re all splicing together wisdom for our lives from a multitude of sources. We are all taking direction, whether we know it or not, from a person or persons with a perspective that is uniquely theirs. That perspective appeals to us, for whatever reason, and we begin to walk in the same line.
Everyone has a guru.
Many of us who grew up in an Evangelical tradition were raised to believe that our “beliefs” were rooted in a reading of the Bible and faithfulness to the Gospel. This statement is true in a sense, except that we are all borrowing from others in both our reading of the Bible and our understanding of “Gospel.”
For example, many of us have heard about “original sin.” In Christian theology, “original sin” is the doctrine explaining both the flawed nature of humanity and the need for Jesus to deal with human sin.
However, this doctrine didn’t simply “show up.” It was the result of people like St. Augustine reading the Bible and finding the idea of original sin within the texts.
Known or unknown, we have gurus who since then passed on the doctrine of original sin.
I’m not suggesting you should believe one way or or the other about original sin. I’m simply saying we need to be honest about where our beliefs come from. Or, in the case of spiritual formation:
We need to recognize what is forming us, definitely. We also need to recognize WHO is forming us.
In processing this for myself, I feel there are three responses to this “guru” idea that are helpful:
Name our guru.
Much like the post about confession from earlier this week, there are so many things in our formation that simply need to be named. Instead of a prideful assumption that “we have the only Biblical belief” on an issue, there is a more formative way.
We could say “Based on those who taught me and the tradition in which I read the texts, here’s the belief that drives my formation in Christ.”
The difference is an intellectual honesty that helps us to hold a belief while also understanding what that belief “is” and where it truly comes from.
Express gratitude for our gurus.
Many of us have inherited beautiful things from our teachers and guides. I have learned to pray from others. My postures of breathing and listening come from a ferociously gentle colleague in my doctoral program. We all have learned to love by watching loving people lead the way.
To express gratitude to our “gurus” is to know that we have been blessed by our influences. Gratitude also helps us focus on naming those gurus’ influence specifically.
The kind of gratitude that transforms us must be ruthlessly specific about why we’re thankful.
Evaluate our gurus.
Inevitably, our gurus will fail. Ancient voices in history who gave Christianity some of its core traditions also expressed horrific beliefs such as anti-Semitism. The modern-day gurus who helped cultivate our spiritual life or moral compass may smash their own compass and decimate their reputation.
We are all, truly, a mysterious mix of light and darkness.
An honest appraisal of our gurus helps us hold their teachings and influence with “open hands.” We are more likely to give our influences a wise amount of sway over our lives and actions. More than that, we need the distance.
We need to be able to disagree with our spiritual gurus and know that we are not dissenting from God or the path of formation in Jesus.
In the last few years, I have felt an acute call to understand where my theology and beliefs came from. Who are my teachers? What have they said? Where do we diverge?
Perhaps most importantly, have my gurus helped me cultivate the tools to grow beyond them into a wider world with God?
Today, who are your gurus? Can you name them and their influence specifically? Are there places where you have uncritically accepted their teaching as divine instruction? What has been formed in you as a result?
Gurus aren’t a bad thing. We all learn this way of faith from others. My prayer is that we are honest enough to say so and mean it.