Confessions of a Pharisee

I am not a particularly spiritual person, but I am quite religious. I like to think that I am a Pharisee in the good sense of the word. Generally speaking, spirituality is exalted over mere religion. To be spiritual is to be possessed of an inner sensitivity to the presence of the divine. It is to experience the spiritual in an immediate way. It is to partake of something of the mystic, the person who has direct contact with the Great Beyond. In contrast to the inner authenticity and superlative sensitivity of spirituality, religion is merely a matter of forms, institutions, rituals, commandments, and the like. Spirituality is dynamic, individualistic, and egalitarian. Religion is static, collective, and hierarchical. Spirituality is alive. Religion is dead. Spirituality is good. Religion is bad. Or so it seems to me when I hear a phrase like “He’s not religious, but he is very spiritual, if you know what I mean.� I think I do.

In this sense, I am not spiritual. I don’t have lots of ecstatic experiences. God does not constantly whisper in my ear, nor do I surf from one profound moment of inner sensitivity to the next. To be sure, there are moments in my life when I feel that I have directly heard the voice of God, but such experiences for me can be counted on one hand with many fingers remaining. I see these moments as gifts, rather than as models for the life of my faith. Indeed, on the whole I do not feel my faith as some sort of mystical or even “spiritual� set of experiences. Rather my faith consists largely of things like ritual, commandments, institutions, authority and hierarchy. I suppose that someone might say of me, “He is quite religious, but not particularly spiritual, if you know what I mean.�

In that sense, I suppose, I am Pharisaical. I am no doubt touched with more than my share of hypocrisy, but this is not really what I mean when I say that I am a Pharisee. Rather, what I mean is that I take the forms to be important. Indeed, it is in the forms that I generally search for God. Last week we had stake conference. I was excited by the prospect, and I enjoyed attending. On the other hand, the talks were not particularly memorable. Indeed, less than a week later, I can remember little of what was said. Nor did I have some spiritual moment at the conference. I did not open the inner core of my being and commune with the Great Beyond. Rather, for me the most meaningful part of stake conference was the sustaining of general and stake authorities. It is not that the sustaining gave me a little thrill because of my abiding conviction in the infallibility or superlative virtue of my leaders. No doubt there are many great and good men among those that I sustained, but I don’t believe in prophetic infallibility and I know that leaders have lapses.

Rather, I loved the solemnity of it. I loved the fact that my act of sustaining marked my connection not simply to a community defined by the inner bonds of the heart but an institution defined by claims of authority and historical continuity that exceeds any individual authorship. I loved stake conference in part because it marked a moment of heightened membership in the Church as a corporate entity, a moment when ritual, authority, and hierarchy were fused together. In short, it marked my participation in an order beyond myself, an order present not in the ethereal realm of inner experience but in the fleshy life of an institution. At the moment I raised my hand to the square, I was part of the fleshy rather than spiritual Kingdom of God.

Oddly enough given the way that the emotive force of corporate belonging and Mormon identity overwhelm inner or immediate spiritual experience in my faith, I have little patience with those who would reduce religion to an exercise in nostalgia. I am, I suppose, a DNA Mormon, but at the end of the day I would find DNA Mormonism alone to be thin gruel. I understanding the enormous attraction of historical and communal identity, but although such identity is a major – perhaps overwhelming – part of my religious life, I like to think that there is more to my Mormonism than nostalgia.

Rather, I think in terms of bodies. We say that God has a body. It is a profound affirmation of the importance of the concrete and the particular over the abstract and the universal. I like to think that this means that God is quirky. I also believe in the Body of Christ, in the Church. But I do no belong to the invisible or spiritual Church, the universal Body of Christ. For me the Body of Christ is not especially spiritual at all. Rather, it is a body, a real body of concrete institutional particularity. It is in the thickly embedded particulars of Mormonism that I find more than simply historical identity or corporate belonging. I also find God.

18 comments for “Confessions of a Pharisee

  1. September 14, 2006 at 1:07 am

    Great article, Nate.

    For what it’s worth, the thing I found most memorable about last week’s regional conference was that I got scolded by a woman for the noise emanating from our row…even though my husband had been out with our toddler for at least two talks.

  2. September 14, 2006 at 7:42 am

    You flesh out the distinction between “religion” and “spirituality” in some interesting ways, Nate; and for certain, there’s a lot of truth in how you describe it. Spirituality often devolves into a self-indulgent, individualistic pursuit of grace; religion often takes the form of a nostalgic, unthinking authoritarianism. The charismatics among us would, of course, say the first possibility is a perversion, just as you strongly insist that taking the forms of our religious life seriously goes beyond antiquarianism. And you’re both right.

    Are there ways of thinking you’ve left out that incorporate both aspects of believing? For instance, you don’t mention “piety.” A pious person is presumably someone with a bit of a mystic in her; the term conjures up images of someone responding to an inner voice, someone being moved by the gifts of the spirit, someone who radiates a connection to a power which is not really corporate or human. Yet piety also suggests submission. Submission to what? That innver voice? Yes, but also more. Piety seems to invoke a sense of positioning, of being placed: a pious person bows and genuflects, she stands (or kneels) in holy places. How could any of that be possible if she were not part of a body, a community, a structure that would give her a place to submit, an altar to turn towards? So in piety, we have a sense of a spirituality that is nonetheless dependent upon “religion”: without commandments or rituals or denominations or authorities, I suppose we could speak of a person who “has the spirit” or has great gifts, but it wouldn’t make sense to describe them as pious. Holy men , even if they were hermits, always belonged to something; otherwise, they could never issue a call through their example (or any such call would only gather people around them, as opposed to actually giving people something they could live by and submit to on their own).

    I don’t think there could ever be one single description of piety; it’ll always take different forms. That’s the individualistic aspect to it. But those holy individualis who achieve piety will always, I think, have to begin with belonging. I suppose that usually the nature of that belonging will be small-scale, local, direct, and intimate; instances of piety seem more congregational than hierarchical. Still, it can easy arise within large and hierarchical corporations; look at the numerous orders of devotion that have emerged within the Catholic church. In our own religion context, I suppose we see humble and submissive and spiritual saints most commonly within the bounds of our wards and branches–serving in the Relief Society, teaching early morning seminary, delivering goods from the bishop’s storehouse, making pilgrimages to the temple. Spiritually self-sustaining, perhaps, but always because they’re already part of and committed to a whole.

  3. September 14, 2006 at 10:39 am

    Several years ago, I and others were talking with Rabbi Noson Gurary, and he outlined a similar distinction. He said that to be spiritual is to live a certain kind of life, whidh does not necessarily require God. In contrast, he said, to be godly (Is that what Russell is referring to with “piety”?) is to live a certain life because one loves God.

    That isn’t quite the distinction you are making, but it seems relevant. I wonder how your distinction maps onto his?

  4. CEF
    September 14, 2006 at 11:50 am

    That was a neat post Nate. I find myself thinking about the same things in my life, and suppose I would describe myself the same way.

    I read a book by Dr. Wayne W. Dyer a few months ago called “Inspiration – Your Ultimate Calling.” It is all about living a life that allows one to be inspired. I found it very interesting. I believe I would like to have a life that had more inspiration in it and maybe a little less religion, if you know what I mean.

  5. September 14, 2006 at 11:50 am

    Great post Nate. I’ve never felt comfortable with those who play up the spirituality and play down the religion. It’s always seemed like having God without the sacrifice/service/community, which to me is what God is all about.

  6. Mark Butler
    September 14, 2006 at 12:19 pm

    I believe that the voice of the Spirit is the voice of God, so the idea that someone can be truly spiritual without being humble and obedient to God’s commands seems to me to be almost a contradiction in terms. The humble and the obedient are the very ones whom the Spirit glorifies. Any other spirit is a counterfeit of that true Spirit – a counterfeit which will ultimately reward them no good thing.

  7. Mike Parker
    September 14, 2006 at 12:21 pm

    Thanks, Nate, for giving me some comfort that there are others who feel as I do. I can count the number of truly “spiritual experiences” I’ve had on one hand (they are few, but they’ve been big ones) — now I realize that I’m not alone and my attraction to the Church isn’t as unique as I thought.

  8. September 14, 2006 at 1:04 pm

    Jim (#3), I’d say that what Rabbi Gurary postulated can be related to what I wrote about piety fairly easily. A spiritual person lives life in a certain way, perhaps a beautiful way, but it is primarily molded out of impressions and sensations that come intuitively and individually, as gifts. A godly person is presumably mostly the same, but they act out of received devotion to God–which means they have to believe in a God, one that is particular and from which something concrete can be received.

    I can imagine some who is spiritual without being religious (this Walt Whitman). But piety is a grounded spirituality, a spirituality that is primarily a response. (Though I suppose even Whitman was “responding” in one sense or another.)

  9. September 14, 2006 at 1:37 pm

    As I read this post, I was thinking that many LDS see the religious forms as you describe them as a path leading to spirituality. You, on the other hand, seem to view them quite separately. Some might consider your obedience to the religious form of attending Stake Conference as leading to a profound spiritual experience of understanding the connection of ritual, authority, and hierarchy. Instead, you described this as “the emotive force of corporate belonging,” and distinguished it from “inner or immediate spiritual experience.” In your post, you only gave legitimacy to one form of spirituality, namely some sort of ecstatic contact with Deity, preferably accompanied by an audible voice. I prefer to give spirituality a broader range, including intellectual discoveries as well as more emotional reactions and confirmations following obedience to religious principles.

    Your final statement reads: It is in the thickly embedded particulars of Mormonism that I find more than simply historical identity or corporate belonging. I also find God. You may be a Pharisee in your “strict observance of religious ceremonies and practices, and adherence to oral laws and traditions,” but you can’t hide your spirituality.

  10. TMD
    September 14, 2006 at 2:11 pm

    you’d be a great episcopalian…

  11. Rosalynde Welch
    September 14, 2006 at 4:58 pm

    I follow you completely, Nate, and I love the way you talk about this; we’re so very alike in this respect.

    Don’t you think, though, that an important part of the Christian message is an invitation to enter a more immediate—er, less mediated—relationship with God? That is, to seek for a personal spiritual life in all the ways you describe?

    The cartoon version of Judeo-Christian history could be read as a series of irruptions of the spiritual into the institutional: Christian discipleship into the Judaic covenant, Reformed godliness into Catholic ritual. If the Restoration is to be seen as an event in Christian history, though, I think it has to be read as a reversal of this series. (Of course, there was Kabbalah and the Cathars; the spiritualists always had to read history selectively to claim novelty.)

  12. Susan S.
    September 14, 2006 at 10:01 pm

    I do find this interesting, Nate. I remember reading William James’s book and thinking that I just don’t have a talent for religious experience. And I have tried mightily in a variety of contexts to succeed at religious experience, to give myself to something larger. Without notable success. But I do have an attraction to religion. I ready about it, study it, find the various ways it makes sense of the world fascinating. My house has almost as many books about religion as it does novels (quite an admission, actually). I’ve never known what to call myself. I’m not spiritual in the way you describe. I’m not sure I’m religious in your sense either (at least the forms of Mormonism haven’t stood up for me in the way they have for you). Or any religious forms really. So what am I? Is there a third term?

  13. Mark IV
    September 15, 2006 at 8:58 am


    Yes, this makes a lot of sense to me. I also think there is something else about Mormonism that doesn’t even rise to the level of ritual or outward observance, but is nonetheless important.

    Our practice of lay leadership and extending callings – “everybody needs a job” – contributes to a sense of belonging, I think. There is nothing inherently religious or spiritual about being an assistant ward clerk, or taking adolescent boys camping. And yet I feel the strong pull of Mormonism when I do.

  14. Paul B.
    September 15, 2006 at 11:57 pm

    This post takes a circuitous route, but it’s on topic (mostly), if you have the patience to read it:

    If we were to compare the spiritual “resumes” of the people in the church that I have known, some people would fill theirs with long lists of promptings, feelings, experiences, emotions, blessings, “testimonies”, and so on. My resume would be pretty slim in that area, but that doesn’t mean that I have been living my religion and/or my spirituality incorrectly. I’m strong in other areas. I think we all have different spiritual temperaments, and that’s fine with me.

    You talk about a feeling of belonging, among other things (hierarchy, rituals, commandments, etc.). The feeling of belonging is a particularly important one for me… mostly because, in my case, the feeling of belonging is becoming ever more elusive (or is it illusive?). Speaking abstractly, there are a lot of reasons why a person might feel this way, such as a lack of close friends in the ward, one’s sins (and attendant distancing from the Spirit), perceived offenses by others, discomfort with the cultural trappings of Mormon life, intellectual disagreements (with doctrines, policies, individuals, etc.), or life circumstances.

    For me, the last category is what makes things somewhat difficult for me. On Monday, I turn 35, which is a great age to be, except perhaps when one is “still single” in a ward where many young men a decade younger than I are able to swap stories about the birth of their second child (for instance), in a church where the Proclamation on the Family is not merely a part of our doctrine, but is, as far as I can tell, the reason for the doctrine. In every way. By extension, the sense of purpose, and my sense of place within the church is very much diminished.

    I have no complaints about the members, even when they seem genuinely puzzled on how to treat me, as if they should somehow treat me differently. I can forgive them of those unintentional slights, because the root of those behaviors lies at the heart of the doctrinal emphasis of the church.

    Several months ago, Nate, you said something to the effect that you recognized that some people say that most members don’t really care all that much about the singles in the ward, and you said “sadly, this is often the case” (or at least that’s an accurate paraphrase). I’m not as concerned about whether members care about me or not as I am concerned with the idea that *I* care about the members or not.

    Being able to care about others is a key part of feeling that one belongs. The doctrinally-induced distancing away from many core religious practices (e.g. marriage, taking kids to nursery/primary, family home evening, family prayer, and pretty much everything about family life, including the most mundane), has taken a toll, to the extent that it just isn’t as fun to be involved in the ward as it used to be, which has made it harder to care much about the members… which substantially reduces my feeling of belonging.

    …So, to bring it full circle to your original “ode to religiosity over spirituality”, if I’m not naturally inclined to spirituality (as per your description), and if I thrive on feelings of connectedness (which is the case), and if my feelings of connectedness are diminished (not on purpose, but they are), my motivations for experiencing religion (as you have described it) are weakened, and my sense of purpose for my religion is also weakened, making both religion and spirituality more of a chore, and less joyful.

    That’s my lament.

    I’m definitely not looking for pity (because I’m actually doing quite well, thanks!), but just reacting to your post. Will my outlook change when (hopefully not “if”) I marry? Yes, I think it will, but in many ways this period of “being single too long” has been incredibly insightful, if more than a bit irritating. As I said earlier, there are many reasons for not feeling that one belongs. I’ve experienced my particular kind of not belonging. It has deepend my sense of compassion for the many other kinds that others experience. For that I am truly grateful.

    … and yet … finding joy, or even contentment, through traditional church activities or rituals is mostly a memory for me (from the days when I was still “on track” and still fit the mold), and not something I’m fortunate enough to experience as much anymore. Sigh.

    Luckily, there’s more to life than just those things.

  15. John T.
    September 18, 2006 at 4:40 pm

    Happy 35th Birthday!

    Reminds me of some of my experiences. After the second date with a woman from Provo, she thrust a “Guide to Temple Marriage” booklet in my hand, written by Boyd Packer. The funniest part about it is that she worked in HR of the company that employed both of us. Another woman wanted to go out for Iced coffee and “Talk about the Church”. A third drove me to the Joseph Smith Building to see the feel-good movie, Testament of one fold and one Shephered. The last one, after I balked at baptism, would no longer make eye contact with me, even though we lived on the same street.

    I would suggest embracing the vanity of Zion, and get married to someone quickly, possibly from one of those LDS standards dances. You still won’t be treated as you were before; as someone remarked about meeting someone after the prime marrying age, “The odds are fairly good, but the goods are fairly odd” So consider yourself fairly odd.

    If you are odd by orientation, Salt Lake City has a sizeable underground Gay community. Shhhhh!

  16. Mark Butler
    September 18, 2006 at 5:34 pm

    A courting relationship between someone inside and outside the covenant is always going to be awkward, especially if it is the woman on the inside. Of course this not making eye contact thing is beyond the pale – but don’t feel strange – you’re not alone. Too many LDS women treat LDS men who are not interested or whom they are not interested in marrying (especially after the first date) the same way. I don’t know why, but it is one of the most socially corrosive and counterproductive behaviors I have ever seen.

    That is why my rule of thumb is:

    “Dating is the process of changing potential friends into permanent acquaintances” (if not acquaintances into forever strangers).

  17. YL
    September 18, 2006 at 7:31 pm

    I wonder if we’re relating the idea of spirituality too much to unusual spiritual experiences. One sister I knew, loved to talk about having one of her dead ancestors appear to her; she said that you really hadn’t lived if you hadn’t had that experience – which I disagree with. Too often Latter-day Saints feel that: unless they’ve had some unusual spiritual experience, they’re not that spiritual. Yes, unusual spiritual experiences are great, but so are experiences of effective visiting teaching and home teaching, of being friendly at church especially to newcomers, enjoying stake conference as Nate did, holding effective home evenings, having effective family scripture reading and prayers. Nephi was obviously spiritual, partly because he kept the law of Moses. True spirituality in the LDS sense is the reality of knowing the Lord is pleased with you, of knowing that you’re doing the Lord’s will in a way that pleases Him. When we truly adopt the Savior’s goal – “I came but to do the will of the Father – we become truly spirtual and religious.

  18. September 24, 2006 at 4:34 pm

    From this post and your previous ones, I have the feeling that you’re either depressed, lying, or just need to take a clearer look around. :)

    Paul B. (#14),
    Much doesn’t change after marriage, but I’ve found two important things:
    1. Others’ views towards you change. (?!)
    2. You really don’t care as much about what others think, and you don’t feel anywhere near as lonely–even if it’s just your wife.

Comments are closed.