Last April, as I was contemplating my monthly New Year’s resolution (Hunger and Thirst After Righteousness), something struck me quite forcefully – something I had never considered previously in quite the same way. I was struck by the difference between “righteousness” and “spirituality“. Since that epiphany, I also have considered the difference between “religiosity” and “spirituality” and how these very different things affect one’s membership in and testimony of Mormonism – and, by extension, any other Christian denomination. I believe this basic discussion also plays out in why some Mormons leave the Church and where they end up as a result.
In looking at “righteousness”, “spirituality” and “religiosity” throughout the scriptures, my search of the scriptures was incredibly instructive. “Religious” appears only 4 times in our entire canon – two of which are in the D&C and two of which are in the NT. One of the NT references (Acts 13:43) means simply “attached to or in line with a particualr religion” (the core meaning of “religious”), while the other NT reference (James 1:26) actually is a negative usage (“If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain.”) “Religiosity” (the actual result of being religious) never appears in our scriptures. In summary, there is no encouragement or command in the scriptures to be religious, and no blessings are attached to that goal – probably since someone could belong to a religion that encourages human sacrifice and still be “religious” in the purest sense of the word.
On the other hand, the adjective, “righteous”, has 214 references in our canon, and the adjective, “spiritual”, is listed 45 times. That is interesting. However, the noun, “righteousness” (the actual result of being righteous), appears in our canon 274 times, while the noun, “spirituality” (the actual result of being spiritual), appears a grand total of . . . . . . . 0 times. Nada; not once; zero; nil; never – in our entire standard works. That alone told me something profound, since it is found exactly as often as “religiosity”.
When I looked up “spirituality” in the dictionary, the most interesting and comprehensive definition was, “of, relating to, consisting of, or having the nature of spirit; not tangible or material”. In other words, at the most fundamental level, to “be spiritual” means to be focused on the spirit – and, by extension, away from the body.
“Righteous”, on the other hand, is defined as “characterized by or proceeding from accepted standards of morality or justice”. In other words, to “be righteous” means to be “right with or living in accordance with proper standards of action, not thought” – which implies actions that, of necessity, are accomplished by the soul (the connected and united body and spirit).
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
The thought that hit me was that there is a real difference between being “spiritual” and being “righteous”. There is an even bigger difference between pursuing “spirituality” and striving for “righteousness” – and, by extension, pursuing “religiosity”. If I have to choose between one of these three, I need to choose righteousness as the object of my hunger and thirst. Spirituality can be a motivating factor in pursuing a connection to the Holy Spirit, but it alone cannot produce a perfect (complete and whole) life lived in harmony with God’s standards for all His children. Again, we are not blessed for seeking spirituality or religiosity as an end goal – to hunger and thirst after either of them. Rather, we are blessed for pursuing righteousness. Why is that?
In a very real way, “spirituality”, alone and isolated, is selfish, inwardly focused, susceptible to gluttony (constant spiritual feeding with no service to burn away spiritual calories), insular, and not inherently active or giving. It is understanding without application; it is the spirit divorced from the body; it is belief without action; in a way, it is like faith without works. Furthermore, if pursued exclusively, it can lead to a hermit-like existence away from the world – like a monk sequestered in a monastery living a life of isolated introspection – doing no bad, but also doing no good – never finding completeness and wholeness.
On the other hand, “righteousness” is selfless, focused on actions, high spiritual energy consuming, service-oriented, producing fruits that can feed one’s self and others and bring the Holy Ghost to replenish personal spirituality. “Righteousness” is the physical application of true “spirituality” – the “proof” of real faith – and the difference between the “fruits of the Spirit” and the “works of man”. (The last comparison is a separate topic for another post.)
No wonder the command is NOT to hunger and thirst after spirituality, but instead to hunger and thirst after righteousness. In fact, what hit me as I typed my post last April is that righteousness can be phrased as “being right with God” – and the pursuit of righteousness can be phrased as the pursuit of “becoming one with God”. That is a good way of describing the effect of God’s grace – since it is God’s grace that allows “being right” to mean being as complete and whole as one can be at any given point on the path that leads eventually to becoming truly complete and whole. One can be “righteous” all along that path, all the while hungering and thirsting after perfect righteousness.
Tying all of this back to people leaving the Church, I believe that the proper pursuit of righteousness is a combination of proper religiosity (being in line with a religious institution) and proper spirituality (being in tune with the working of the Spirit). I think that we cannot be “righteous” if we aren’t pursuing both – and I also believe that “sprituality” is something that the institutional church cannot provide. It must be pursued independent of “religiosity” – on one’s own time, if you will. I also believe that spirituality and religiosity cannot be separated and produce righteousness – since, at the most basic level, “faith without works is dead, being alone”. (James 2:14-26)
Many people leave the Church because, “It lacks true spirituality.” I agree; the Church, as a disembodied institution, does lack true spirituality – since true spirituality is found spirit to spirit. I believe the role of the Church is to provide a formal structure of “religiosity” that, when combined with individual “spirituality”, creates true “righteousness”. Therefore, in my mind, the key to the Church’s role in my eternal development is to present an overarching theological vision that inspires me to pursue the type of divine unity (including community) that Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount (summed up in Matthew 5:48) and for which he prayed in the Intercessory Prayer (all of John 17, summed up in John 17:21-23).
Having said that, many wards and branches of the Church contain powerful and vibrant spirituality, since many members of those congregations are deeply spiritual; many others do not contain that type of spirituality, since many members of those congregations are not deeply spiritual. “The Church” provides the theological vision that can enliven and inspire righteousness (a “true and living” combination of faith and works), but in order to tap into that “righteousness” each member (and local ward or branch) must, of necessity, be both spiritual in and of themselves AND tapped into the religiosity the organization provides.
Those who leave the Church simply have not married (and perhaps cannot marry) their own spirituality to the institution’s religiosity in a way that produces empowering righteousness, while those who stay often have done so – or are still in pursuit of that goal. I believe too many members rely on the Church to provide their spirituality, and when they realize that the Church is incapable of doing what they need to do themselves, they leave – to find outside of the Church what they failed to find inside it. (This is understandable in the lives of those who struggle mightily in one ward or branch, then flourish in another one – or vice versa. Some, lacking internal spirituality, end up reflecting the spirituality of the congregation they attend – for better or worse; others have internal spirituality but can’t deal with the lack they see feel around them.)
Many people take a much more active role in their own spirituality once they leave the Church (especially those who leave with the express purpose of seeking spirituality), and, not surprisingly, they then become more spiritual than they had been as members. Many are constricted by the particular religiosity of Mormonism and must leave in order to pursue a combination of spirituality and religiosity that can bring them a measure of righteousness (like homosexual members), but it is interesting to consider those who end up returning to Mormonism once they have found the personal spirituality they lacked previously. Once they become spiritually independent of their religiosity, they are able to return to their former religiosity as new beings and find righteousness in a new manifestation of their former faith. Others never do return, and too many end up blaming the Church for not being able to provide them what it DOES provide others.
The real tragedy is that too many deny what the Church really does provide for the majority of its members, simply because they didn’t gain it themselves.
NOTE: I need to mention two previous posts here on Mormon Matters that delve into this general topic. They are worth reviewing:
1) Stephen Marsh’s “Shadows and Spirituality”
2) Hawkgrrrl’s “Spiritual or Just Religious“