What does it mean to live spiritually?
Mormonism can be defined as a performance-based religion with the following operational formula:
Obedience + Worthiness constitutes Spirituality … which leads to –> Blessings
Churches that encourage the belief that heaven is the destiny and reward toward which one directs a life of accumulated accomplishments are known as performance-based religions. The LDS Church with its systematic theologies, doctrines and programs may very well be the ultimate example and pattern of this way of imagining god and god’s reality.
Although entirely lacking proof in any physical or spiritual form of such a realm organized after the pattern of that 19th-century reality, Joseph Smith and a host of early American prophets, evangelists and circuit-riding preachers asserted in creatively imagined and described forms, the notion that the ultimate truthfulness of the spirit world is based on performance and worthiness.
This imagined reality, consistently asserted over more than the past two centuries, is why most believing Mormons today – easily and perhaps without much critical thought – buy into Church legalism. It becomes almost second nature to accept the idea of an over-controlling detail-obsessed God who seems much after the pattern of a controlling parent or lover. Uncritically, as an act of faith, devotion and obedience many sincere believers buy without question into the notions such as
○ humans are so imperfect that God created religion by which that Male Patriarch could – in a loving but domineering manner – thrust into our lives guidelines for living.
○ Such guidelines almost casually become laws or, better said, doctrines “irrevocably decreed” which the children of said God are expected to follow.
○ This God of guidelines demands strict adherence to such doctrines which in fact do nothing more than establish a notion that obedience is elevated at the expense of agency.
○ The highest spiritual approval in life is nothing more than an experiential pat on the head for being an obedient child.
This implications of such internalized assumptions include an idea that the God and Father of Obedience created a world abundant with the fruits of creative activity, but then, let’s make a brief and incomplete list of the performances – or in some cases, negative performances – that the children of God are expected to do … or not do …
A performance based religion puts bans on what are perceived to be inappropriate things. These bans become “laws of the Church” which by implication become “Laws of God” which are viewed than as Irrevocably Decreed and upon which a worthiness obsessed God grants rewards.
In a performance-based-religion, members are banned from inappropriate music, television, movies, books and other literature. Freedom of expression in art, music, and other forms of entertainment are seen as risks that may cause the Father to stop attending the disobedient.
In a performance-based-religion certain food and drink products are banned and seen as the causes of risks that the Father will stop attending the disobedient.
In a performance-based-religion the Father requires strict adherence to dress and personal appearance codes the rejection of which creates a risk that the Father will stop attending the disobedient.
In a performance-based-religion scriptures become the means and tool that can be utilized to effectively stand in for a lack of contemporary legitimate on-going revelation from the same God who started everything eons ago by speaking directly to his children. Scripture then becomes the weapon that confronts those who challenge would-be prophets who don’t seem to do much prophesying, seeing or revelating.
In a performance-based-religion, the very Father of Obedience – who has become in fact a Father of Conformity – does not speak to His church except through the voices of those who declare that the same silent Father has established in this performance-based-religion the only right means to salvation.
The Father of Conformity either refuses or is unwilling to justify or explain how such an only-right-means-to-salvation system and circumstance is equally fair and just to every other human being on the planet, not to mention why a privileged minority are grant a divine blessing of being born inside this only-right-means while the rest of the world must figure and work it out.
In a performance-based-religion the Father of Conformity has authorized the use of emotional guilt, intimidation, thought control and coercion to keep members in line. He is also seen as justifying guilt-ridden sermons and lessons designed to push believers into submitting to the authority of the leadership without question or criticism. Failure to respect the leadership creates a risk that the Father will stop attending the disobedient.
In a performance-based-religion the Father of Conformity has authorized the use of the theory that people should spend long hours at the Church and do work in the Church in order to gain rewards in heaven. A bureaucracy has been created at all levels in order to engender, monitor and “lovingly” coerce this sort of working participation which then becomes the standard by which member spirituality is measured and recognized.
The same bureaucracy becomes then a powerful instrument for limiting criticism and dissention through emotional and spiritual abuse by perceived authority and endorsement by the Father of Conformity.
What is happening today and something about which the grand bureaucracy at all levels refuses to admit to being in denial is that the process of establishing and enforcing man-made rules and doctrines creates mere man-made leadership. These leaders tend to nothing other than or better than the jot-and-tittle Pharisees of the New Testament. They are driving many away who would otherwise not be driven away.
Some who are driven away leave with emotional scars that cause depression, substance abuse and – unfortunately – suicide, along with the very activities against which the religion relentlessly preached. One can make a case the some of those driven off are at least temporarily not prepared to deal with life and society in a manner that is free from long-internalized judgmental and narrow notions.
The gentle but rigid Church programming involves and in fact revolves around forms of guilt and coercion. Within the Church as well as among those driven off there is a danger of low self-esteem that causes essentially unreasonable reactions to the Church itself.
Repentance becomes much more than returning to God, it involves returning to the Church from which one has fled in desperation. This is not unlike a battered-wives syndrome where one consciously returns to a life at home with a mean and unrepentant drunk who will continue business as usual.
There is a genuine tragedy when one feels driven off from the clan or out of the tribe because like an enormous and ominous dark tower, the Church rises in the background or even the actual center of the tribal village, thrusting itself with impunity into the middle of family relationships to which it has no moral or God given right to interfere.
Members – unconsciously in many cases – are forced to choose between Church and family.
The Father of Conformity has said nothing about why this circumstance is a positive fruit by which that Father is known among the children of men. The either-or attitude may only be a perception of those driven off when the rest of the family remains inside the righteous but unseen walls of Church conformity, but the Church does little or nothing to address that very family estrangement of which the Church and it’s self presentation is the principle cause.
Limited serenity that comes from separation from the direct and immediate sources of emotional pain still feels like something much better than the rigidly inflexible cauldron of conformity whose principal legacy is misery.
One day perhaps enough souls will be driven out of that imagined reality to change the face of the Church which might then turn away from the performance-based religious corporation it has become. If not, those who imagine themselves to be living lives of actual free agency in the Great and Spacious Building may come to have greater power and influence than those who imagine themselves as children of the Father of Conformity.
That which you imagine to be absolutely true … Believe … and then pretend to make it so
Let me continue by asking that you describe to yourself (and for your own understanding) the spiritual image that comes to mind when you think of God, of Jesus, of the Holy Ghost and last but not least, Mother in Heaven.
Is your image of God the Father defined by the doctrine and theology of your particular religion?
Is your image of Jesus that defined by fundamental Christian theology?
If you pray to Jesus Christ, do you pray to the standard Christian theological definition of the Savior of the World, the Redeemer, the He-Who-Accomplished-the-Atonement?
And how – if you carry such an image – do you perceive Heavenly Mother; the Goddess?
Many ancient pagan religions encouraged prayer to statues. Christianity has a tradition of bowing and praying to statuary images of Jesus, Mary and the Saints. It would be interesting to discover whether we offer prayers to internally imagined anthropomorphic divine images, merely offer mental oblations to the cosmos or carry out something entirely different?
If one had achieved a genuine and spiritually sensed relationship with the higher power – God, as one had come to understand God – how would you respond to the following portrayals if they did not fit what you already possessed in your experience?
Could you easily accept a new idea of God as a Boss of the Universe no matter how respectfully and reverentially that notion is expressed.
Could you easily accept a new idea that God is a kindly, and benevolently divine version of a Caesar?
Could you easily accept a new idea that God is the male head of a divinely created and eternal Patriarchal Order that relegates every female to a secondary role in a forever of existence?
Based on such a relationship with the Divine that you had already achieved, could you easily accept a new idea that the Divine with whom you commune is actually a judgmental and critical god who cannot look upon nor tolerate sin with any degree of allowance?
If you honestly recognize that your own assumptions are in fact only assumptions, might you then be able to be challenged to accept a new idea that the higher power with whom you have intimate and personal communion is also the Divine Author of Compassion as the ultimate way of human interaction?
Could you easily accept the idea that the God you have come to know is focused entirely on our loving one another and entirely not focused on our condemnation of anyone?
Could we not propose that just as our lives are the living myths of our own creation, our personal stories are made of all the stuff inside with which we show and tell others who we are?
The adolescent religion of my birth was presented to me as the defined nature of life based on a continuous pattern of spiritual prompting. Mormonism came into being in the world of 19th-century American religious literalism based on experiences that bore in their very existence widely-accepted assumptions as to the perceptive definitions and meanings of spiritual promptings, revelation, as it were.
The Father and Son described by Joseph Smith in his Vision were entirely consistent with the fundamentalist bible-based definitions of who God is. In addition, there is consistency with how that male and patriarchal god communicates to man, not to mention a notion that the Almighty rarely speaks to humans.
It is necessary to understand and acknowledge one’s own personal cosmic vision and acknowledge the assumptions upon which definitions and constructions of both reality and the spiritual world are created.
We create them all by ourselves. Others do not create them for us except to the degree that we let someone else’s constructs become our constructs.
In very powerful but subconscious ways, many believers practice their religion with an internal image that they “know” exists. This internal image they have never actually seen exists essentially because believers have accepted the testimonies of others who likewise have never seen it but also “know” it exists as defined in the traditional LDS way of testimony and authority.
In the same fashion, many believers “know” of the reality where the patriarchal god “is,” where Jesus Christ “is,” and where Satan “is” and “works” and “wants to rule.”
For many Mormons, that spirit world exists in some other dimension and interacts with our own world in supernatural ways. This imagined Mormon reality has its conflicts with the imagined reality of other Christians, not to mention other non-Christian religions who define the High Power in their own way.
But let me write specifically to the assumptions most believing Mormons live by.
There is the view of a purely supernatural, all-wise, all-knowing and almighty God who at times intervenes in the affairs of mortals in dramatic or not-so-dramatic ways.
Most believing Mormons easily accept and live according to the idea of an invisible Jesus/God personage who is vitally invested in human life and who directs forces of good against the other supernatural power and source of evil, Satan.
I am then prompted to ask about those practicing and believing Christians who do not have to see the supernatural Jesus/God as a personage who exists “somewhere else” outside the sphere of mortal perception and who communicates spiritually from a distance through the Holy Spirit.
Taking a cue from Jesus’ words, “The kingdom of God is within you,” they have a sense of God being omnipresent. They have a sense of on-going constancy in which the Holy Spirit is an uninterrupted and steady influence toward good works and compassion.
Mormons are encouraged with relentless consistency to accept the notion of spiritual warfare, with evoked images of the spirit world as some sort of zone of conflict in which Satan and God operate simultaneously for and against human life.
Those who do so seem almost oblivious to their willing mental action of making Satan a god who like the Father is everywhere, omnipresent and forever asserting his contrary will. Satan becomes the direct opposite and yet needful counter to the goodness and righteous-requiring Commander-God; a supernatural reality who tempts mortals to both “sins” of commission and of omission.
Does it not seem that most believing Mormons have difficulty with the psychology of evil and the idea that Satan does not have to be supernatural to function more as a conceptual part evil’s existence? Satan represents among other things the natural mortal tendency to self-focused, self-interested acts that disregard the good of anyone else. In this regard concepts of laziness, selfishness, arrogance and intolerance, for example, represent tendencies that can easily be related to evil and its impact on actions.
It seems hard for most believing Mormons to see evil as not something we are tempted to do by a supernatural Satan, but a more negatively aggressive temptation in life that serves as a kind of resistance or counter force against our intention or tendency to behave in an independent manner – acting in a ways that reflect the highest good of all concerned.
Mormonism is unapologetically a performance-based legalistic relation. As such it must come down on the side of biblical literalists who do regard God as the Boss of the Universe. Mormonism requires that its members live according to the will of a Divine who commands humans to behavior based purely on obedience and morality.
Yet other Christians live comfortably with an imagined reality of a non-judgmental God who fully encourages positive human behavior as a consequence of total agency; a God who will not condemn mortals for not believing the right things and not participating to worthiness-defined degrees.
Many of us, as Dr. Marcus Borg has written, have never gotten away from our pre-critical naiveté that still forms our internal Imaginative spiritual reality.
Many literalists won’t admit it but they tend subconsciously to imagine that Moses looked like Charlton Heston’s movie character;
that the good versus evil portrayals in Exodus portrayed by Edward G. Robinson, Debra Padgett and Yul Brynner were what it was really like
… that 600,000 Israelites walked away from Egypt on a grand camp-out trek.
Our internal imaginative interpretation of reality is always up, always running. The curtains of our internal stage are always pulled back as we “look and see.”
Most of our internal religious constructs are inherited. What well-meaning but spiritually immature Christians have tended to do is hide behind the more simple acceptance of their own myths
Which include a God who does not prompt as much as speaks almost entirely and exclusively through scriptures …
a god more interested in obedience than experience …
… a God limited to rewards or punishments as He presides over a conflict with Satan,
Human spirituality in this century is no longer even the simplistic 19th century evangelizing fundamentalism of the American frontier.
Modern spirituality is best blended with common sense and ethics rather than organized religion driven by hundreds of years of theological guesswork that becomes more and more obviously flawed and inadequate.
What is called for is spirituality that functions as part of and not a background to a reality that is defined daily by human interaction, curiosity, discovery and challenge.
Contemporary Mormonism is one example of the Old Time Religion that does not work – principally because all those old assumptions that were never valid are now seriously impeding social movement toward social justice and genuine compassionate concern for each other.
The old imperial and monarchical imaginary heaven peopled by an emperor pretending to be a king no longer describes the spiritual reality of which more and more human beings are becoming conscious.
It’s time to stop climbing and clamoring all over that medieval statue of Jesus and instead looking in the direction in which Jesus was always pointing … the compassionate god whose kingdom has always thrived and pulsed within ourselves … as he said.
More about our conscious suspending of disbelief
Enter with us into an imagined world … one myth among many
While serving in the US Air Force as an air crew member I was required to undergo survival, escape and evasion training along with a specialized training involving resistance techniques to interrogation should the aircraft on which I was a crew member be shot down, should I survive the crash and should I be captured.
This was a serious entry into a game of “let’s pretend” … willing entry into an imagined world.
The training mode required that we deliberately “project” ourselves in to a POW environment. In other words, we were to act as if we really had been captured, really were POW’s and really were undergoing interrogations which we were required to resist.
The “scenario” for our training was introduced and our roles in the drama explained, along with the roles of the military trainers who would act as our captors and the role of the POW camp that had been constructed specifically for the training.
Our training (in which we commenced the game of “let’s pretend”) began with a requirement to pass through an obstacle course at the end of which, having crawled under barbed wire while bullets and bombs (real or simulated) were heard right above our heads, we were captured, a bag was placed over our heads, we were lined up and marched to the interrogation building.
We were placed in tiny individual cells where I discovered it was impossible for me to stand up straight. The prisoner shed was large and lit by a role of sparsely spaced uncovered light bulbs. Loudly playing in the back ground was what I assumed to be Vietnamese music.
We were ordered to stand at all times and threatened with dire circumstances if, when the wooden cell door was suddenly jerked open, we were found not on our feet. Worse if we were found asleep.
Now … objectively … most or all of us understood this scenario to be our training. Our objective awareness was that this was training, that this was self-driven “pretending” that was driven by our own projection into the reality of this pretend-environment. Our objective awareness was in immediate and very serious competition with words and deeds of training actors, training techniques and the training environment – none of which encouraged or tolerated ANY stepping out of character, any explaining as to the physical and primarily mental coercion that was exerted on our minds.
There was no interruption-by-segment of this training in which we would review and discuss what had just happened in a just-completed segment.
Thus, from the moment of “capture,” the objective thinking which ought to have been dominated by critical thinking immediately suffered the mental attack of compulsion. Critical awareness that might allow an individual to learn without becoming lost in the pretend and then subsequently stampeded into group conformity was strongly shoved rearward. In its place we had to cope with a blatant and aggressive authoritarian control that demanded conformity.
We did not hear many prisoners chastised for not standing when the cell door was opened – myself included. That first evening in captivity was half over before it dawned on me that I was not there to learn conformity, but to understand how resistance in the face of coercion is one path back to control.
So I deliberately laid down and tried to fall asleep. Although I was verbally abused and underwent intimidation tactics every time the door flew open, nothing physically harmful was done to me.
There was one conditional release from the stress of the environment. If you were seriously confused to the point of emotional/mental compromise or physiologically distressed you could formally request and were required to expressly say,
“I request an academic situation.”
The assumption was that you were maintaining self-control but felt that self-control slipping away into a panic you did not believe you could manage.
I only heard the phrase “academic situation” twice during the training.
The first time a young pilot slipped into physical panic that sounded like (all of us had our eyes covered so we could only listen helplessly) he was seriously agoraphobic and, trapped inside a small rectangular wooden box we had each been forced to enter, truly panicked. All he could do was screech.
The trainers more than once asked him, “Are you requesting and academic situation?”
However by then he was oblivious and deliriously panicked.. Eventually they physically removed him from the box and took him away where he could be calmed and treated.
The second time I heard the phrases was again the result of the trainers declaring an academic situation to stop an interaction that had moved dangerously close to having several of us “executed” by our “guards” because an obdurately stubborn Major refused to apologize for insulting Ho Chi Min. The trainers declared time out to talk about how we had to be wise in our conduct in ways that yes, showed strong resistance, but also allowed us to avoid “no-choice” dilemmas where our own resistance tactics needlessly placed other prisoners in a jeopardy we could have avoided by not losing ourselves in a heroic posture of patriotic name, rank and serial number.
What I have described was in no way a real or legitimate POW circumstance.
It was however real enough that if one projected into the drama, learning and understanding of self and circumstance might be possible.
Unreal as it was, we the trainees and they the trainers were by military requirement all pretending to a non-self-conscious and unquestioning projection into our individual roles. If the trainers used manipulative tactics, the trainees could only deal with it in the context of in-scenario resistance tactics. Trainers ignored appeals to logic, to common sense, and to critically thought-out reasons for refusal to conform.
They ignored resistance behavior based on our disbelief. Their only responses, short of having to recognize a physical or mental emergency, were responses within the pretend scenario.
Protests and objections were treated as misbehavior, as inappropriate and as a useless resistance. What was dealt to us was a “your-cause-means-nothing-to-me-just-get-back-in-line” manner.
I do not have a sense that the experiences in those days at age 24 when I was recently married, a returned missionary and anticipating the birth of our first child were similar in any nature to the pretend world I had voluntarily entered as a conscious adult when at 19 I agreed to serve a mission.
At that time (1971) I was totally active and believing in the Church. I also considered my military vocation and exposure as a pragmatic choice when I elected to enlist in 1968 rather than await the draft. It was in a sense a necessary worldly “evil” and I don’t remember any sense of connection between the lessons of that training in 1971 and what would not occur in my own life after another 20 years.
Once Upon A Time …
Children born into the Church are in most ways unaware and unwitting conscripts into an environment that is totally and unequivocally one of “let’s pretend.”
Since comparative critical thinking is not one of those innate gifts with which most children are born, those born into active, believing and participating families experience from the get-go a circumstance that – if explained to adult recruits/investigators in an honest, fair and responsible manner – might go something like this.
“Now, Brother Brown, we are here today because we are totally happy, totally satisfied, totally believing in the truths we are preaching. We have mentally moved into the world portrayed by these pretend truths and invite you to do the same.
These truths along with the duties and obligations that we consider legitimate, real and effectual in this pretend world, are what you should come to believe in. To get there we challenge you to suspend your disbelief and assume that everything we teach you is the truth.
We invite you to pretend along with us, go along with us, go along with all our stories, rationales and theologies. As you suspend disbelief, you will become more and more planted in this pretend reality we who are members all share.
If you are faithful, at some point, the disparities, the faulty rationales and theologies and the absolute truths will all be just that … absolutes. You will be so convinced that they are all true, that our drama – yours and mine – is the only true reality, that it will be hard to return back to that original curious state that led to your encounter with us.”
That would be the honest way to proselytize.
But such is too honest for a religious organization believing unreasonable notions about itself.
At some point – usually after baptism – you risk the loss of the right to request an academic situation, principally because the “trainers” no longer believe in academic situations, because the trainers believe that you – like them – have lost yourself in the make-believe world.
Whether born into the Church or converted with a few years of total participation in your history, you must pursue and suffer withdrawal pains from your addiction to a pretended dramatic performance in which you have been recruited and commissioned as a participating actor.
This often becomes more challenging if you have been commissioned a more significant role as an actor of influence on a local, regional or home-office level.
Resisting the demands made by fellow actors also caught within this pretended performance may require nothing less than the resistance required in a POW situation into which one has become entrapped and must endure until release is obtained.
The circumstances of the pretended drama for most religions may be porous and permeable allowing entry and exit easily according to desire and inclination.
However, in some organizations, the let’s-pretend devolves in the the rigid, inflexible formalism of religious fundamentalism. Some of the circumstances became buttressed by equally pretended but nonetheless real “rules” and “conditions” that must be met in order for the drama to play itself out to a personally successful conclusion.
When such circumstances exist, fellow actors are empowered to work manipulatively (in many cases as unwitting participants) to keep you engaged in the pretended drama through what amounts mostly to mental and emotional coercion.
One becomes subject to threats, warnings and admonitions that are as pretentious as the entire scenario itself … unless one has been mentally stampeded to believe that not only is the scenario real, but the threats are real and really legitimate.
Inside the pretended drama, belonging and participation validated by fellow actors’ opinions rise almost to paramount importance.
It is only in that venue that theologically-based threats appear to be legitimate.
The legitimacy lies mostly with our pretending that there IS a God who would let some mortals eternally course or impede the “progress” of other mortals toward some imaginary bliss.
However, without willing suspension of disbelief, such mortals can not be empowered.
Authorities of the earthly church cannot “do” anything to you physically or eternally.
They can only request that the actual head of the church do that.
Specifically, no LDS authority can ruin your eternal happiness, your forever, or consign you to outer darkness unless Jesus endorses and carries out the decision.
If you believe in that kind of Jesus, then I might say that you have been stampeded too far and for too long and now believe in a Divine Punitive Despot Obsessed With Obedience more than Free Agency … and you yourself deserve what you have bought into hook line and sinker.
Given that the genuine and loving Heavenly Parent is not going to let one child abuse another for any personal or authoritative retribution, the Church can only physically restrict its validation of anything formal you accomplish, say or do inside the walls of the formal and conforming church.
The Church can only enforce its specific earthly organizational “club rules” that are expressed in social ostracism, shunning, disfellowshipment and actual dis-enrolling in the earthly club, i.e. excommunication.
But no Church and no leader can stand between you and God and block your access … unless yous top thinking about who and what God is as defined by your own experience and not someone else’s definitions.
Any God who would actually turn that sort of power and influence over to a few mortals at the expense of the rest is not a real God, has ceased to be God and in truth does not exist
… unless we are lost in an imagined reality and willing to pretend that such a god IS real
… and in quiet desperation we attempt to live in fear of the imaginary divine tyrant.