Doesn’t the institutionalization of religion kill its spirit?
Not necessarily. In fact, without institutionalization, religion will not be able to share its spirit with society and so won’t be able to benefit people at large.
Let’s understand this with an analogy. The spirit of religion is love of God. If we compare the flow of our heart’s love towards God to the flow of a river towards the ocean, then the institution is like the river bed.
If there is no river bed, only those rivers that have an exceptionally strong flow will reach the ocean. Rivers with a weak flow will, when faced with obstacles, stagnate and dry up. Similarly, if there is no institutional support, only those people who have an extraordinary religious urge will attain love for God. Those with average religious urge will, when faced with obstacles, stagnate and give up.
Just as several gently-flowing tributaries unite to comprise a forcefully-flowing river, several people with average religious urge unite to generate an above-average religious current that carries all of them forward swiftly. Just as a forceful river shapes a bed for itself as it keeps flowing, these people organize the necessities and facilities for their steady and smooth religious progress. Over time, this organized infrastructure takes the form of a religious institution.
Just as a river may be dammed by self-interested individuals, a religious institution may be damned by materially-minded people who are interested more in appropriating its facilities than in actualizing its purpose. To prevent such misuse, religious institutions need to have:
1. Systematic philosophical education so that its members become instinctively self-aware that their destination is not the dam (material aggrandizement) but the ocean (non-material devotional enrichment)
2. Regular religious practices so as to generate a powerful spiritual current that either exposes the materialism of self-seeking people, thereby pushing them to the sidelines, or purifies them of their materialism, thereby pulling them into its onward flow.
Some people may presume that they don’t need any institution because their religious urge is strong enough for a solo journey. However, they usually underestimate the materialistic tug of their surroundings and overestimate their own resistance power. Consequently, their religious progress tends to be at best sporadic, being at the mercy of their unpredictable inner moods and uncontrollable outer circumstances. If they can just summon the humility to acknowledge that their solo trip is becoming more of a camp than a journey, then they will see the wisdom of joining those who are steadily on the move. And just in case these seekers are among the rare few who are genuinely self-motivated, then by joining an authentic religious institution, they will be able to guide and inspire other less self-motivated religious seekers.
So, vigilant institutionalization is essential to make the spirit of religion accessible and beneficial to society at large.