How Can People Confirm That a Type of Guidance Is True or Right to Follow?
Whether or not you agree that it is possible for guidance to come from a Divine source at all is a matter of faith. But if you believe that it can, you might consider that such guidance can come in either of two forms: "universal" or "foundational" and "customary" or "tailored". Universal guidance is intended for everyone to follow, regardless of when or where they live and what their other beliefs might be. Customary guidance is for specific groups or individuals, historical periods or single moments, and/or situations or circumstances. As faith and reason should go hand in hand, it is appropriate to consider how the intellect might verify the authenticity and validity of a guiding teaching or path.
When guidance is universal/foundational, we can identify it in all of three ways. First, knowledge of it actually exists in some form in every time and place, amongst all people. It may be presented by direct statement, extrapolated from that which is directly stated, or be the clear foundation from which directly stated things are drawn. What this means is not that everyone sat down to a discussion and then voted their agreement but that the knowledge was arrived at independently in diverse locations and eras and yet was still essentially the same. Those who are too young, have only ever been isolated, or for reasons of poor mental condition cannot be considered intellectually able or morally responsible may not be aware of it, but everyone else is.
Second, people who are aware of it do not debate whether or not the guidance is true in its essence. Everyone admits that it is. They only follow it, disobey it in secret, disobey it openly and admit they do so for their own purposes or because they do not care about the difference between right and wrong, or debate what circumstances constitute cases in which disobeying is legitimately justifiable or excusable. (Here we distinguish between a wrong being justifiable or excusable and a wrong being forgivable due to one's being truly sorry, being willing to make a genuine effort to make amends where appropriate, and really trying not to repeat the wrong again in the future.)
Third, one element of it will not, in and of itself, contradict another element of it. Complexity of life may present some difficult choices, but universal guidance will not be in conflict with itself. If an element is truly foundational, it should not only not be in conflict, it should be in supportive and harmonious spirit with other elements of universal guidance.
To clarify: That it is wrong to lie is an example of knowledge drawn from universal guidance. That we should be truthful and honest with each other is not something that has been hidden from parts of humanity. Amongst all peoples, in all times and places, people have been aware that lying is wrong. Certainly, if nothing else, they have known it by their recognition that they do not want to be lied to or have those they care about lied to. So, even the "golden rule" alone can tell us not to lie to each other without saying it in so many words.
There have been many who have striven always to be honest, without any exception ever in their lives. Generally, people try to be honest most of the time. Usually, people who have lied have tried to cover their lies so as to appear honest. When caught, there have been those who have tried to defend their lies with their belief that they and those they favor are more important and have more important aims than everyone else. Some have tried to defend lying with the argument that all morality is relative and everyone lies anyway, therefore those who do not will just end up defeated while others prosper. But there have also been times when, while still admitting that lying is wrong, people have discovered conditions under which they believe a greater wrong might be averted or a greater good served by a specific lie at a specific time, thus making the wrong committed by lying justifiable. An example of this is when undercover law officers lie about their identities and intentions in order to catch criminals. Those who believe it is all right to lie in order to avoid hurting the feelings of another also use this argument. Those who debate the justifiability of certain lies still do not argue that lying, in and of itself, is right.
When put under the same examination, we can see that something else springs from universal guidance: the knowledge that it is wrong to kill each other. And when we compare the idea that we should not lie with the idea that we should not kill, we find them not to be contradictory to each other by their nature. Only under very special circumstances would one find oneself pressed to choose between the two. In fact, both concelpts spring from the foundational idea that we should respect each other as human beings by treating each other kindly and decently. And so we can see that the two concepts are harmonious with each other and ultimately mutually supportive.
Each of these criteria can be considered as a sign. When all three are combined, they together indicate an irrefutability one would expect to find in guidance that is truly from a Divine source. What matters in a spiritual path is not how things are phrased or even if every point is explicitly spelled out. What matters is if you can arrive at all the universal guidance by starting with what is clearly stated, so that you are still bound and supported by the entire foundation because the spirit of the guidance is appropriate.
Some guidance is meant to be specific to a time, area, or group - possibly even a single individual in a single place at a single moment. In that case, it is customary/tailored. If this guidance is truly Divinely inspired, it also should not contradict universal guidance and should not be set aside except under special circumstances. The difference is that it may not be revealed to all people.
Customary or tailored guidance may have to do with safety, spiritual development and discipline, offering evidence of faith and devotion, expressing joy and gratitude, distinguishing one group or person who is faithful from another so that we can recognize and appreciate ourselves and each other in our diversity, or some other important spiritual purpose. Some examples of tailored guidance would be the wearing of special clothing, dietary laws, a vow of silence or other uncommon abstention for some period of time, a commitment to the repetitive performance of a humble task, or the sacrifice of a portion of one's worldly wealth and/or property.
It is vital not to become confused over which guidance is universal and which is tailored, no matter what our personal feelings may be about what someone else is doing or not doing. Attempting to make all people everywhere follow the same customary guidance would be inappropriate and smothering. What is suitable for one may be arbitrary and meaningless for another. In fact, in attempting to cause it to be followed by all, one risks acting in a way that is contrary to universal guidance. In other words, we have no reason to harm each other over the mistaken belief that only one group has knowledge of general or foundational guidance and no right to do harm over differences in the customary details of our guidance.
Aside from all of this, people have been known to press their own human standards and requirements onto each other. In this case also, it is important to make a distinction between rules and laws that are in accordance with universal guidance and those that oppose it. Conscientious people, both within and outside of religion, must decide whether or not they believe a law or rule is moral, even if they recognize it as the will of human beings. People of conscience will often disagree. This is why debate on these matters must be open and thorough. Differing opinions must be heard so they can be considered. Tax codes, traffic regulations, noise ordinances, and immigration laws are examples of secular governance springing from expressions of human will and intention.
An indication of something being not only a person or group's own opinion but also a device for achieving unwarranted control rather than true Divine guidance is that those supporting it may tend to be absolutist about it and willing to commit acts of genuine abuse, contrary to universal guidance, as a means of enforcement. An attempt may be made to disguise the wrong of it by claiming it to be Divine guidance. Even as much as murder has been committed in an attempt to wrongfully prevent all members of a group of people who are the object of prejudice from having the same rights as other citizens, for example.
Whether or not a particular religion provides precisely the right guidance for a particular individual is a personal matter. People are called to the spiritual paths that will provide best for the fulfilling of their spiritual needs as well as aid most effectively in their knowledge and understanding of how best to live in spiritual service and devotion. Each religion presents us with choices by what it contains; what it lacks; how it is styled, phrased, and revealed; its points that may be open to interpretation and debate, its areas of both clarity and confusion, and the errors it may contain. (One should bear in mind that it is often easier to spot and judge the problems of others and their ways than to treat ourselves similarly.)
All of this has a purpose. We show our true selves not only by how we express the existence of our faith and are strengthened and comforted by it but also by whether we allow ourselves to be properly guided by the tenets of it or try to twist and use them to satisfy our own selfish aims. Will we ignore guidance we might otherwise follow whenever we feel like it, simply because it might sometimes happen to inconvenience us? Will we use our differences as a defense for totalitarianism, as when blaming and persecuting "unbelievers"? Will we follow what we learn in letter only and use that as a defense for flagrant abuse, as when delivering an unnecessary insult and then arguing that it was truthful? Will we become mired in endless, petty argument and, in the process, be distracted from greater directives and understanding? Will we allow ourselves to wander aimlessly away, using spiritual experience only as a drug from which to get high, or completely deny the validity of direct spiritual experience in ourselves and others so that our faith loses signs of life and independent verification? Will we be mindless about doing as we are told? Or will we follow the teachings in spirit also, allowing our motivations and actions to spring from our faith? What we decide makes the difference in what we become.
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