Today, I want to explore the concept of spirituality; I find it both deliciously simple and complex. To do so, I post a snippet from a paper I wrote roughly a decade ago.
According to the anthropologist Sherry Ortner, societies often have certain symbols that carry great weight in constructing a community. She calls these key symbols, in part, because they are either logically or empirically central in organizing the other images, signs, rituals, and behaviors, in short the meaning system that composes the society. I think spirituality is one such in Mormonism.
“Spiritual” serves as an adjective to describe the ideal of religious behavior, i.e. righteousness, according to what I have heard in my various wards. It is a characteristic of the leadership, almost by definition. And it forms an ideal for which we should strive; it is the measure of our lives and something that distinguishes one member from another. As part of Mormonism, as a symbol, it connects religious value, by contagion, with those to whom it is attributed. It is invoked in our meetings and given presence in our daily lives.
As such it operates with an apparent simplicity and clarity appropriate for the transcendent. Yet it also seems to have behind it a complex assemblage of different meanings and to easily slip from Mormon usage into popular American parlance. It is not hard to move from Mormon spirituality to new age practice.
Bruce R McConkie writes in Mormon Doctrine that “Spirituality is that state of holiness, purity, and relative perfection which enables men to enjoy the near-constant companionship of the Lord’s spirit; truly spiritual men walk in the light of personal revelation and enjoy the frequent promptings of the Holy Ghost.”
This passage suggests several things. First, “perfection”, righteousness, or perhaps even piety, are important for spirituality. Second, it involves a relationship with the Lord’s spirit–what McConkie describes as being “in tune with spiritual and eternal things”. Third, it suggest the doctrine that one frequently hears in church that in order to receive spiritual promptings, that is to be spiritual, one must be righteous. Fourth, McConkie connects this with the hierarchy of the church when he writes, in the next sentence, “they [truly spiritual men] are always sought for to serve as patriarchs and in other positions of church responsibility and leadership. It is not uncommon among the true saints to hear such expressions as, ‘President McKay is a very spiritual man.’ The thought behind this is that he has so lived as to overcome worldliness and put himself in tune with spiritual and eternal things. He has been born again”. McConkie further argues, “one of the greatest endowments a mortal man can receive is the gift of spirituality, the talent and ability to recognize and cleave unto the truth.” He sees this ability as a gift of the spirit and at the same time a result of talents and abilities which one developed in the pre-existence.
What a complex theological bundle! Among other things, McConkie includes that bit of difficult Mormon logic that resolves grace and works, by arguing that spirituality results from a person’s endeavors at perfection, which is circularly defined in terms of spirituality, and as a gift from God. This subtlety is an extremely difficult one to remove from its Mormon milieu, with its wisdom that one should pray as if everything depended on God and work as if every thing depended on oneself. McConkie further argues that spirituality indexes two related hierarchies. It accompanies those who attained greater position in the preexistence and it distinguishes those who occupy church position today.
Since symbols that are as abstract as spirituality, require tangible referents to make themselves observable, they often depend on semiotic downward mobility. They are attached to more concrete things. In this case, the answer to the question of how one can recognize something so rarified as spirituality in other people is not simply, because the Spirit of the Lord whispers it to your soul, but that it is obvious, because the really spiritual people are the members of the Church hierarchy. Thus we can measure people’s spirituality by comparing them to Church leaders we might know or to the tales, legends, and myths that compose the cult of personality we build around our leaders. This gives us a fairly tangible set of behaviors, attitudes, styles, and fashions to connect with the overly abstract concept of spirituality.
I have heard people in Utah argue, somewhat sardonically, that the measure of spirituality along the Wasatch front is how high up on the benches a person lives, that is how high a social position the person occupies. Actually, joke aside; this is what we would expect from this kind of connection between a social order, the church, and a marker of status such as spirituality. But the comment goes further and relates spirituality to the measures of secular success, housing location hence wealth and secular prestige. Weber writes about a similar conjoining developing in Calvinist Protestantism.
Furthermore, McConkie follows another common social dynamic in locating the source of temporal, that is this worldly, social hierarchy in what Bakhtin called the absolute past, which fortunately lies out of the reach of most critics. The heavens are invoked to justify present order. Durkheim somewhat wittily reversed this common pattern to notice that people around the world tend to project their social order onto the heaven so that God becomes a symbol of society.
Both of these are problematic in a complex society. Since they anchor the current social order in their cosmology, they must defend both against competition. If either one is challenged then the other shakes as well. Thus any questioning of the hierarchy can quickly escalate into an iconoclastic mess, and vice a versa.
This also makes the transplanting of Mormonism tricky, since one cannot simply place new wine in old wine skins–one cannot simply separate the gospel from culture and society and pour it into the vessel of another society and culture. Rather the two are intimately conjoined. Transplanting Mormonism, to return to the earlier metaphor, requires that a package of ideas, practices, and social organization, which mutually imply one another, be placed in some one else’s soil. Unfortunately their fields will only allow certain things to grow and will stifle the rest. They will split asunder what Mormonism puts together. Many of these challenges will be seen as tremendously threatening and will provoke a strong reaction from Salt Lake, since they challenge not merely a social order, but also the very cosmos and the church’s place in it.
McConkie throws a potential wild card into the mix however, when he defines spirituality as being able to hear the whisperings of the spirit. Although he pre-defines, pre-limits, for most purposes, what the Lord might utter to what the church says–in fact, the common measure of whether a piece of inspiration comes from the right source is whether it is in harmony with the “teachings of the brethren”, i.e. with church hierarchy–yet this invocation of mysticism at the center of a critical Mormon key symbol has the potential for destabilizing its structure.
The poet Marden Clark perceives this. He argues that this forms the axis along which Mormonism has shifted since his youth in a thought provoking essay entitled “The New Mormon Mysticism” (Liberating Form, Aspen Books, Salt Lake City, 1992, pp. 103-118).
According to Clark (p 103-104):
When I was growing up in Morgan during the 20’s and 30’s, we seldom if ever heard such expressions as ‘Yield yourself to the Spirit’ or ‘Let the Spirit guide you’ or ‘You’ve got to lose yourself wholly before the Spirit can speak to you.’ We were, of course, exhorted to pray for the guidance of the Spirit, to listen to the still small voice, to seek the companionship of the Holy Ghost. But the emphasis on the spirit simply was not central to our experience of Mormon religion. Our ward chapel was central. ‘Attend your meetings’ was, ‘magnify your callings’ was, ‘get your ward teaching done early’ was, and late in the thirties ‘Go to the welfare farm’ became central…Assuming my memories are accurate and my experiences typical, then the emphasis on the Spirit which a Mormon sees and feels all around today is comparatively new and must surely represent one of the most significant theological and spiritual developments in the Church in our time.
Clark distinguishes an earlier Mormon spirituality built primarily on ward and personal activity, rather than on a mystical connection requiring the subsumation of self to the spirit. In some senses this refers to another Mormon key symbol, testimony, which has probably been reworked to reflect more the idea that it is a personal “witness” from the spirit. Although controlled by the group, this individual mysticism, this worship of loss of self in the flames of God’s soul, as Clark argues is paradoxical.
The first of the paradoxes is perhaps the most troublesome: Because it is the Spirit it would presumably always be the same and totally consistent, and yet we are all aware that it can speak differently and manifest itself differently to different people at different times. Any one who has sat in bishop’s councils or other councils of the church has experienced the wide variances in how the spirit is evidently moving the members of the councils. It may be true that those councils usually arrive at something close to unanimity after discussion and prayer. But it is sometimes a very painful process, in which one man’s version of the Spirit may vary significantly from another’s. Human beings, sometimes even those notably closest to the source, are notoriously individual and sometimes weak and variable receivers of the Spirit.
To salvage the notion that the Spirit speaks with one, uniform voice, Clark chooses to focus on the variability of the receivers. But there lies a difficulty, since the variability can either call into question the “worthiness”, to return to an earlier point, or the spirituality of a given individual or can call into question, with equal or greater force, the nature of the spirit and its relationship to the church and its members. Thus the working out of unanimity after the fact of inspiration, which must be argued as prior, i.e. inherent in the Spirit, becomes a process fraught with danger.
Inevitably, turning inward, to find an inner voice subjects critical portions of Mormon life to the vagaries and intangibles of its members’ internal lives and psychologies. They must be taught to form a split inside themselves, between their own feelings and those they identify as coming from the spirit, and must check periodically to insure that the spirit tells them the same things the church teaches. If they perceive a difference, they should think that they are not righteous enough and perhaps receive their inspiration from a source other than God. This internal reorganization is quite difficult to accomplish in cultures where such a possibility is not foreseen.
But the same may be said of our entire complex of spirituality. It is complicated, subtle and very much the product of American society at this time and place. Yet Spirituality lies at the center of the Gospel. It is part of the ordinary, daily practice of Mormonism.