The Role of the Church in the Pursuit of Righteousness: Why It Works for Some and Not for Others

RayAnti-Mormon, apostasy, church, Culture, doubt, faith, Happiness, homosexuality, Mormon, Mormons, Peace, religion, righteousness, spirituality 18 Comments

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

Comments 18

  1. so then, what about those who leave because the church is *too* spiritual and *too* focused on spiritual matters.

    For example, it seems like if you just take the religiosity and use that example to lead your life, but you don’t take the spiritual aspects (even if I guess as you say there are some people who don’t think the church has those spiritual aspects), then it seems like the church itself isn’t very essential. You can follow the Word of Wisdom (or something like it) outside of the church. But that’s not really the issue. It’s that there are very *spiritual* consequences related to that commandment that would give one reason to stay in the church. If someone doesn’t get those spiritual reasons, it really doesn’t matter.

    I’m going to not touch the idea that someone cannot be “righteous” without being “religious” and “spiritual.” We’re really just starting from vastly different frameworks now.

  2. Ray, this is a very disciplined analysis of three concepts that are often inappropriately conflated. A related and complicated issue is that improper emphasis on religiosity can interfere with both spirituality and righteousness. Too much concern for whether one is doing all the “religious things” that he believes a “spiritual” or “righteous” person does can create negative dynamics internally and externally. Internally, this overemphasis can become the motivation for things like scripture, temple worship, FHE and meeting attendance. Externally, one can become judgmental of other based upon their perceived religiosity, and overly concerned with the appearance of their own actions and the actions of others. Using religiosity as a marker of righteousness is, as you point out, inaccurate. It can also be detrimental. How do we avoid that as an institution and as individuals? We seem to be a people highly concerned with religiosity

  3. Post

    Andrew, thanks for that very insightful comment. I agree totally with the first two paragraphs.

    “I’m going to not touch the idea that someone cannot be “righteous” without being “religious” and “spiritual.” We’re really just starting from vastly different frameworks now.”

    We might be. If you define “righteous” as being “right with God” – and if you use the teachings of Jesus as the standard (with his emphasis on the Spirit AND actions/works/fruits) – I’m not sure someone can be “righteous” without being “religious” (following principles of religion within a community) and “spiritual” (in touch with “the Spirit”). I am defining these terms as loosely as I can, specifically in order to leave as many possibilities as there are expressions of each. I know there have to be limitations at some point, but I think the general framework still holds. I have a hard time reading the words of Jesus and coming up with a righteous hermit, divorced from association with others.

    What specifically do you oppose – the association of “religiosity” with organized, institutional religion?

    TT, yeah, my main concern is that we not become modern-day Pharisees, equating our rightness with God with our religiosity – as if paying 11% for tithing is better than 10% or attending 35 hours of church meetings per week makes one more righteous than attending 5 hours. Mostly, I am concerned about the idea that those who can’t make Mormonism work somehow are less righteous than those who can. Our theology has a ginormous loophole, and there has to be a reason for it if it is to mean anything at all.

    (Wow, I just strung together six straight words with three or fewer letters in each word – and a string of ten out of eleven. That has to be a record on this blog.)

  4. Re 3: Well, if you define “righteous” as being “right with God,” then you of course conflate the necessity of God, spirituality and religiosity. That’s probably a part of the very different frameworks to work in. It’s just that I don’t see religion, religiosity, spirit, spirituality, or any of that in a definition of righteous and righteousness that pertains to “characterized by or proceeding from accepted standards of morality or justice.” I don’t see anything in that definition that necessitates action in a community, and even so, nothing that necessitates action within a religious community.

    I do not oppose the association of religiosity with organized institutional, religion. In fact, I think that is spot on. But I think that it’s unrealistic to say that organized religion is also not spiritual, or that we find spirituality elsewhere. People who leave because the church isn’t “spiritual enough” — I don’t understand that. The church is fundamentally based on spiritual precepts. It’s when you realize that you don’t value that…that’s when you realize that the church is *too* spiritual and you go another way. If the church is not based on spiritual precepts, then it really is nonessential — but that people do find it essential is a testament to the strength of its spiritual ideas (about salvation, the idea that righteousness *is* conflated with religiosity and spirituality’s wedding, etc.,)

  5. For example, referring to your comment to the Teacher, I think that the stated definition of righteousness in the post (characterized by or proceeding from accepted standards of morality or justice) need not have anything to do with religiosity or spirituality, and so for me, I don’t have any problem with recognizing that someone who is not making Mormonism work can also be righteous, or that someone who *is* making Mormonism right and has all of the religious ticks checked may not be righteous. Morality and justice are not dependent or created by the church (although the church may be on the right path in many instances — and obviously, depending on how faithful a member someone is, they would just think that the church is on the right path in more instances vs. less).

    So, I’d disagree with any idea of righteousness that conflates religiosity and spirituality into the mix because it *does* lead to Pharisaical attitudes.

  6. Post

    Thanks for the clarification, Andrew. I understand and agree with your essential point about “The Church”. I just am working within a core framework that sees in the life and teachings of Jesus an absolute reliance on community. Your comments have clarified one thing for me:

    I can soften the “religious” requirement and grant that dedicated public service can be an acceptable substitute for religion in the attainment of righteousness. My central assertion is simply that I don’t think isolated or private, Christ-centered righteousness is possible.

    1. Great clarifications here, Ray. Thank you for those.
      Andrew, thank you for the excellent parsing of these terms. Very insightful and meaningful.

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  8. Thank you very much for your thoughtful discussion of righteousness, religiosity, and spirituality.

    At the same time, I must admit that I am somewhat troubled by the general tenor of your essay. Although you may well be correct that some people leave the church to address a deficiency for spirituality, the thing is that I do not know anyone like that.

    Therefore, I cannot know if your analysis is correct. I cannot avoid the impression, however, that your depiction of some people who left the church is somewhat one-dimensional.

    Let me make a suggestion. Talk to somebody who really left. Listen to him or her on their own terms and you will arrive at a much richer and more nuanced view of why people leave the church.

  9. Post

    Hellmut, I have talked with hundreds of people who have left the Church. What I tried to express in this post is that there are many reasons why people leave, and they are perfectly valid much of the time. The Church can’t give what some people need or want. It’s not a good fit for everyone. I recognize that.

    For example, I said that some people “cannot marry” their own pursuit of spirituality with Mormonism’s religiosity. I also said, “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).”

    If that didn’t come through the words, I failed miserably in writing the post.

  10. Re 8:

    Ray, I think the idea that Hellmut is getting at is that even something as innocuous as saying, “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” can still imply, for example, an attitude of, “Nwe heh heh, but these people are obviously wrong/deficient for their inability or their refusal to do so.”

    And if you say that righteousness cannot exist without proper religiosity, it suggests that you believe something like this (if not for the church, but for churches in general.) And it assumes that righteousness requires religiosity and spirituality in the first place (in some way, shape, or fashion).

    So, it seems like a compromise, but a narrow-reaching compromise. I mean, I personally am not going to lose a lot of sleep over this, but in certain posts here at MM or on other sites (not all yours, of course) I just get this overriding sense of, “OK, I understand that some people may be exmormon…but it’s ok as long as they still believe in God and go to some other denomination.” And so they try to scramble to explain why exMormons might not be going to other denominations or if atheists *really* are nonbelievers, because perhaps they feel that atheism is utterly incompatible with righteousness.

    The sense of narrow compromise is that you can understand nonbelievers who still are spiritual (oh, they just didn’t find spirituality in the church, but they found it elsewhere), but you don’t speak much about nonbelievers who aren’t spiritual.

  11. Post

    Thanks, Andrew. I see how it could be read that way. Atheism simply is hard to include properly in a post like this, but allow me to make the following clarifications in order to try to address it:

    Of the three things discussed in this post, I would put “spirituality” at the bottom of the importance scale (because I believe it is possible to be in tune with spiritual forces that literally frighten me [based on my own experience], AND because I abhor a monastic focus on individual spirituality), “religiosity” in second place (with the definition of “following organized moral principles” – even if those principles aren’t contained within a specific organized religion or even articulated in religious terms), and “righteousness” as the primary goal (meaning “being right with God” – with the caveat that I am fine with an atheistic assertion like being in harmony with the universe, following natural law or however else it might be phrased).

    Again, from within a Christian construct, I think that implies service within some kind of community (religious or social – so, frankly, I don’t see insulating one’s self from the needy around us as “righteous”). Therefore, I believe it is better to be a “servant atheist” than a “hermit Christian” – or a servant Catholic, Baptist, Buddhist, Muslim, etc. than a hermit Mormon (and I think there are WAY too many hermit Mormons in practical terms).

    In a nutshell, I repeat that I don’t see Mormonism as workable for some people – but I hope those people pursue righteousness (being right with God, nature, through more than just a narrow focus on spirituality – that they combine that pursuit with some sort of religiosity (even an atheistic one, if that’s their ultimate conclusion).

    In the end, I just don’t value spirituality in and of itself, alone, in isolation. I’d rather someone be non-spiritual but righteous in her actions than someone be intensely spiritual and unrighteous in his actions – and that’s really hard for some people to fathom coming from a “religious” person.

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  13. Re 6:

    If dedicated community service is sufficient, why not simply the selflessness of raising and interacting with a family? That seems to me to be a far more effective service than either church service or community service. Spirituality in the family seems to trump any other consideration, to me. It’s certainly the only thing that has ever compared to the best of my private spiritual experiences–church service has never come close.

  14. Neal, simply because that seems to go against everything Jesus himself did and taught. Family service is vital and of utmost importance, imo, but that to the exclusion of everyone else just doesn’t appear to be “right” – again, according to the example and teachings of Jesus. Remember, I agreed with the “community service” substitution in lieu of any commitment to a formal religious community. That alternative makes perfect sense, especially since much (if not all) of what Jesus did really was community involvement outside of formal religion. After all, the early church wasn’t established until after He died. Therefore, service within a religious community alone, isolated from involvement in the greater community at large, is what I meant when I said that too many Mormons are hermits.

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