Junior Ganymede
We endeavor to give satisfaction

Religious, Not Spiritual

April 22nd, 2014 by G.

The human person has a very nearly infinite capacity for self-delusion. That’s why I consider myself religious… but not spiritual. Whatever in religious practice may seem dull, mundane, and ordinary is more to be trusted than those parts of it which seem highly emotional or consciousness-raising.

-thus Nick B. Steves, offered for consideration and not by way of endorsement.

Mormonism is a highly unusual mix of emotionalism and workmanlike pragmatism. The only other place I’ve seen that is the family: gooey sentiment, checkbooks, and diapers.

Comments (16)
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April 22nd, 2014 12:44:19

Bruce Charlton
April 22, 2014

It seems to work for Orthodox Jews; but short of that kind of total and immersive society – this R but not S kind of thing rings false when emanating from Western public intellectuals, even from CS Lewis.

I always think of it as ‘school dinner’ Christianity: dull, minimalist, soul-draining.

It is only justifiable among those who believe that Hell is the natural default state for Man, because God is like a strict schoolmaster (not a loving Father); someone whose main effort in life is spent trying to avoid Hell. Such a person can be forgiven for this way of talking.

But I find exposure to this induces a malaise state which is physical as well as psychological.

Adam G.
April 22, 2014

Bruce C.,
we’re not dealing with highly defined terms here, so we may be talking past each other. Even so, non-Mormons are often surprised at Mormon services and functions because they are so pedestrian. They are not liturgical, trying to create a dramatic and mystical effect. They are not affective either in the evangelical way with lights and music and emotional appeals. The kind of emotive sermon I gave on Easter Sunday in my ward is super rare. Our services are just workmanlike. Drama and emotion are how you try to create meaning, but what i fyou already have the meaning? Maybe you just quietly go about your Father’s business.

Yet at the same time, Mormonism is highly successful at leading people to the emotional and mystical experience of the Holy Ghost. Bread without jam is tasteless, but eating jam straight is diseased.

April 22, 2014

What both of you perhaps missed is the counterpoint that Steves was playing.

One of the common mantras that the worldly masses currently use to avoid association with organized religion, while still claiming some morally superior high ground (ref: BC’s denouncement of the smirking self-proclaimed superiority of leftists and progressives), is “I’m spiritual, but not religious.”

The phrase has become somewhat of a cultural reference or meme.

As I read it, Steves was taking a dig at those who say “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” I think he was pointing out the dangers of superficial religiosity, yet claiming it for himself as some sort of safe harbor.

Jacob G.
April 22, 2014

Reminds me of this article I read the other day:


April 22, 2014

BC/AG: or maybe you did see the counterpoint that Steves was playing off of “I’m spiritual, but not religious” and were taking it to the next level; in which case I didn’t see your progression of thought.

Bruce Charlton
April 22, 2014

On the one hand there is no ‘safe’ way to be a Christian. It is a middle way, so lop-sided spirituality is bad; but so is lop-sided social organization.

On the other hand, it is easy to be a Christian, in the sense that Christ made it easy for us – we just have to say yes, thank you – you are right – I will do my best.

Having said that, it certainly seems that many or most people in the West are not saying yes, but clinging to their sins on the basis that they are virtues.

On this topic, Mormonism’s ‘problem’ in terms of the public image, and even self-perception, is certainly on the side of ‘religious but not spiritual’ – however, I think this is false.

I think it is a false public image and also I think (but I can’t*know* this) that Mormons are (often) faulty in their own self-perception – which emphasizes hard work and social values to the point of unremitting busyness and complicated rule following.

But, in reality, I think active Mormons are often swimming in spirituality like fish in water, so they don’t perceive it – and they even deny it.

Think of General Conference. Mostly hard-working men in suits giving talks about good behaviour. Mostly.

But these men are regularly overcome with sincere spiritual emotion and tear-up – in public, in front of millions of people! – *that* doesn’t fit the religious not spiritual image; that is very dissonant with it.

Insofar as Mormon services and functions are pedestrian – that is a defect. Not something to be proud of.

Modernity already has plenty of pedestrian, factual, dull bureaucracy – plenty of committees. If that was all there was to Mormonism, then that would not be something to value.

But of course the spirituality is elsewhere, in other things- off-stage, mostly. At home, in the Temple, in private moments – in personal revelations and testimonies.

Such personal spirituality is not some kind of bolt-on optional extra for religion. If a religion really loses touch with spiritual aspects, it stops being a religion and becomes something much less – and much worse.

Bruce Charlton
April 23, 2014

Note added – The only really depressing book I have yet read on the topic of Mormonism was – “The Mormon Way Of Doing Business: Leadership and Success Through Faith and Family” by Jeff Benedict – which left the dismaying impression that being an active Mormon was essentially a matter of advanced logistics.

Adam G.
April 23, 2014

I haven’t read that one, but Benedict’s book on American college football has a section on BYU that makes it clear that he knows Mormonism is about more than CEO-ship. It’s a temptation, though.

The bottom line for me is that a real spiritual life in modern conditions is not something that arises despite or wholly apart from the humdrum, practical daily business of running a family and running a church. Religion isn’t separable from spirituality but its not just an organized form of spirituality either. That’s the ur-point of our series On the Sweetness of Mormon Life. The holy sweetness emerges from the bumps and friction of the incidents of every day life. That’s why I situated my Easter sermon, which was highly emotional and spiritual, even more so in the actual congregational delivery than when written down,in the context of me losing my written talk and me composing it while mowing the lawn and my son running around with his sister’s Easter hats while my wife baked bread.

T. Greer
April 24, 2014

Two thoughts.

An older fella, experienced and wise, recently told me the following:

“One of the greatest challenges facing [my] generation of the Church is how content you are with spiritual entertainment. I asked a young woman what she thought of a recent devotional. ‘It was wonderful! I felt the spirit so strongly there!” ‘Oh really,’ I replied, ‘what was it about?’ She had no answer! She had forgotten-or had not paid attention to-the reason the spirit came in the first place.”

This observation is on target (though as someone who lives and works with Asians from non-Christian backgrounds on a continual basis, I have a greater appreciation for “I feel the spirit but don’t understand/remember anything” moments than this fine gentleman did).

2. Cue Elder Oaks:

The Apostle Paul taught that the Lord’s teachings and teachers were given that we may all attain “the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). This process requires far more than acquiring knowledge. It is not even enough for us to be convinced of the gospel; we must act and think so that we are converted by it. In contrast to the institutions of the world, which teach us to know something, the gospel of Jesus Christ challenges us to become something.

Whole thing is worth reading. .

Communing with God is about more than revelation and testimony. It is also about conversion and commitment. Thus Adam’s need to write about mowing the lawn before sharing the contents of his talk. It is not in moments of revelation, but whilst wearing away in the daily grind we make the decisions that determine who we are.

For very similar reasons, the amount of time spent in every elder’s quorum meeting relating announcements and asking for volunteers for service projects is just as important as the lesson delivered.

April 25, 2014

This is good.

Michael Towns
April 26, 2014

It’s worth mentioning that in Buddhist circles, it’s often pointed out that _after_ meditation, laundry. As in, yes meditation is needful and important. But so is the laundry.

Adam G.
April 26, 2014

The reason I was composing a talk while mowing instead of listening to a book on MP3 was that General Conference got me to back down on my media consumption a little. It comes full circle: spirituality emerges out of daily life, but only when the daily life is already informed by spirituality.

Bruce Charlton
April 26, 2014

Adam: ” spirituality emerges out of daily life, but only when the daily life is already informed by spirituality.”

In a nutshell!


But, which comes first: chicken or egg? There is an answer, and the answer is ‘egg’.

Spirituality is the egg from which grows the chicken of organized religion (and without the organization/ chicken there will be no more eggs) –

But without the spirituality (even if if it only represents one percent of personal time and effort) any religion will soon collapse into self-proclaimed ‘good works’ (government, NGO, charity) bureaucracy, and then stop being a religion at all – as has happened in all the liberal mainstream churches.

Mormons *have to* work very hard and give a lot of time to running and growing the LDS church – but as well as plenty about serving a mission and accepting callings; the talks at General Conference include *plenty* about the necessity of prayer, reading scripture, seeking personal revelations, partaking of the sacrament – and so on.

A spiritual but not religious Mormon would be a bad Mormon; however a religious but not spiritual Mormon would not be a Mormon at all!

Adam G.
April 27, 2014

Very sound. The only thing to add is that for those of us who grew up in the church, on a personal level the chicken usually came first. That’s rare if you’re not raised in a religion, but it does happen sometimes. Your wife and children are members so you go to support them and for the social life, and then something catches you. Or you go to a mega-church for the community, the amenities, and the entertainment, and then something lights up.

April 27, 2014

As a teenager, I originally went to Rex Humbard’s Cathedral of Tomorrow with some classmates for the inexpensive buffet served after the services and classes.

“Those Jesus-freaks will never convert me” I thought. “I’m just going to get my fill on the buffet.”

About a decade later, I was preaching the restored gospel in Ecuador.

Jacob G.
December 24, 2014

Just read this: http://pjmedia.com/spengler/2014/12/24/christian-and-jewish-angels/
and was reminded of this post.

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