It’s occurred to me that a serious threat to spiritual living is getting things backwards. I’m astounded at just how easily we do this. In Mormon culture, it seems to happen all the time. Devout Mormons—and followers of many other religious traditions, I’m sure—can be especially fond of clinging to anything other than the Christian fundamentals of loving your neighbor as yourself and judging not. The same people who bristle at the thought of women wearing more than one pair of earrings because once upon a time, one leader of the LDS Church said that such a thing was unbecoming, may nevertheless ignore the Savior’s own injunction to love one another, by refusing to let their children play with their non-Mormon peers. It’s baffling. Fitting into a given mold has become more important than seeking to love and uplift. It’s as though some would say, “Yes, loving and serving others is okay, so long as you don’t break the rules. Rules come from God, and hence are unbreakable.” Never mind the question of determining what “rules” truly come from God. Jesus made it clear that there is really only one rule: love. He taught by example that there is a legitimate and important difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. There would be no need for such a lesson if the two paths never diverge. It follows that anyone who sticks to the letter of the law cannot possibly be doing things right, because such a person cannot possibly be living by the spirit of the law. Even so, many in the LDS community would say that the spirit of the law is justified only insofar as it conforms to the letter of the law. This is, quite simply, blasphemous.
Prioritizing rules over attitude and character is merely a symptom of something else we all too frequently get backwards, which is where we place our allegiances and our trust. Jeremiah 7:15 reads: “Thus saith the Lord; Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from the Lord.” Of course, pretty much all of us begin our spiritual journeys by trusting in the arm of flesh. We learn about God from human beings who are flawed but whom we nevertheless trust. If you grow up in a religious family, you quickly learn who and what are the “legitimate” avenues for learning about Divinity. We measure our understanding of God by how well it accords with the behavior and teachings of those who supposedly know better than we do. Perhaps it’s not so surprising, then, that relatively few people ever manage to supplant those authorities with God Himself. If you grow up being told that you can know about God by listening to what Mr. Soandso says, then Mr. Soandso can quite easily become the filter through which your every experience of God must pass. Mr. Soandso then becomes your ultimate spiritual authority, since even God must live up to Mr. Soandso’s pronouncements before you will accept that it is really God who is speaking to you.
All of this hearkens to something I’ve written about before, which I called transcending religion. If the notion of transcendence sounds too new-agey for you, perhaps you will find what I say here to be a preferable way of looking at it. I believe that as we spiritually mature, we must turn things inside out. We must reverse the line of trust. Consider the way in which many of us come to our religious convictions. We begin as children who trust our parents. Because we trust our parents, we trust the religion to which they subscribe. Because we trust the religion, we trust those whom we see as its appointed spokespersons, whether it be modern-day church leaders, the words of prophets recorded in scripture, or a combination thereof, etc. Because we trust those spokespersons, we trust the values that they preach. Because we trust those values, we trust that those values reflect the nature of God. Our understanding of God is built upon a rich layer of trust in humankind.
I think it is absolutely vital that we reverse this flow of trust. At some point, we need to become personally acquainted with God. We need to put Him first and recognize His character. We need to embrace values not because they are espoused by various church leaders or touted in scripture, but because we recognize their goodness and their compatibility with the God we know. That is, we know God, and we accept our values based on that understanding. We can then assess those religious spokespersons who speak to us from the pulpit or out of the scriptures. We know that what they say is right, when it is right, because it accords with the character of God that we know and because it evinces the principles we know are true. In brief, we no longer trust those principles because we trust our prophets and leaders, but we trust our prophets and leaders because (and when) we recognize that they are promoting true and correct principles. Our adherence to a religious tradition can then be founded on truth and not mere trust. We know that the spokespersons of the religion speak truth, and so we accept the religion. We don’t accept what the spokespersons say because we already accept the religion as true. Indeed, at this more mature stage, we recognize that it is absurd and nonsensical to embrace the teachings of a person because that person speaks for a given religious organization. A religion is made “true” by its true teachings; the teachings aren’t made true because the religion, apart from its teachings, is somehow “true.” And finally, because we now trust the religion to which we belong, we can trust that our parents are right. The direction of trust has been completely reversed.
Funny enough, by the time we spiritually mature, we are quite likely to find ourselves in the parental role. We then become a source of trust to our own children. Hopefully, their trust is not misplaced. It is our responsibility to ensure it is not, which means we have to be doing things right. Not because we want our children to grow up forever believing what we believe, simply because they trust us. But because we want them to become acquainted with what we know, so that eventually they can come back to us and say, “I believed you were right. Now I know that you were right.”