By Philip G. McLemore
Continued from Part I
The #1 LDS mantra is, “I know The Church is true.” It gets branded on the souls of our children and they grow up learning that if it is “the Church” that is true, then the thing they need to be concerned about is their status with and within the Church. Therefore, if they attend their meetings, serve missions, accept callings, and marry in the temple, they’ve fulfilled their spiritual quest. But the soul is not so easily satisfied.
Many Church members I know who are insightful and emotionally mature, or just hungering and thirsting for deeper spiritual development, are looking outside of usual LDS worship, service, and spiritual practices. They are taking yoga classes, going to meditation seminars, or attending personal growth or therapy programs. Many do so discretely so as not to appear suspect or unfaithful. Occasionally, we get a substantive message like Elder Dallin Oak’s October 2000 General Conference address, “The Challenge to Become,” that puts the external focus in its proper perspective and encourages us to seek inner development. However, we don’t have the culture, practices, and traditions that support inner development. In fact, we fear them.
As Alan Watts writes, “A Christianity which is not basically mystical must become either a political ideology or a mindless fundamentalism . . . . Lacking mystical experience, religion is only a futile straining to follow a way of life for which one has neither the power nor the grace.”[i]
Consider this statement from the Apostle Paul, “We do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”[ii] To “see” that which is “not seen” is clearly a reference to inner, spiritual perception. Now consider Jesus’s statement, “Enter by the narrow gate . . . Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.”[iii] Why is the gate narrow and the way difficult? Why do so few find it? Because it is discovered within each of us, in the “unseen” dimension. Mormon culture is so focused on the external that very few Saints are experiencing the spiritual transformation that comes from going within.
Consider Jesus’s response to the religious leaders of his day who were also externally focused, “Now when he was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them and said, ‘The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, See here! or See there! For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.”[iv]
The kingdom of God is within each of us, but one of the results of the Fall was a transfer of identity from our core spiritual nature to what the Book of Mormon calls the “natural man,” which is external in its understanding, orientation, and experience and thus prone to the foibles and flaws of the “seen” and “temporal” world. But the absorption of our identity into the “natural man” in no way negates the truth that we were given birth by divine parents and therefore posses all of the characteristics, qualities, and potentials of God—this is the kingdom within.
Mormonism has tremendous potential to engender an inspiring, fruitful mystical tradition. But despite the many scriptural encouragements and enticements to pursue the mysteries or the inner path, our culture still discourages it and emphasizes the “basics.”
According to Doctrine & Covenants 84:19–27: Ancient Israel gave up the quest for the “mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, even the key of the knowledge of God” and instead of receiving the sanctifying and perfecting influence of the Holy Spirit and God’s grace, they were given a “preparatory gospel” and “carnal commandments”—external performances. Later, scribes and Pharisees added their own systems for measuring status and worthiness and even more external performances. Have we, like Ancient Israel, also given up the quest for mystery and the knowledge of God? Have we, like the scribes and Pharisees, crafted our own system of worthiness and external performances? Have we, as Latter-day Saints, rejected the “fullness of the gospel” and the mystical purpose of the greater priesthood, substituting a “back to basics” preparatory gospel and a Latter-day Law of Moses? Do we refuse to enter the kingdom ourselves and hinder those who are close to entering?
The Old Testament, New Testament, and Book of Mormon repeatedly detail the tendency of human beings to reject the inner path of mystery and divine knowledge in favor of external religion at best or worldly pursuits at worst. We also learn from Doctrine & Covenants 84, and from the teachings of Jesus and Paul, that the preparatory gospel and laws of carnal commandments do not sanctify us, nor do they lead us into the kingdom of God. We’ve been teaching the gospel basics for decades and now have a generation of Latter-day Saints who are leaving the Church en masse. Our response to this development is to make the basics more basic and to continue to teach the false notion that keeping carnal commandments results in spiritual rebirth! If that were true, the Elder Son in the parable of the Prodigal Son would have been sanctified, forgiving, and joyful instead of judgmental and lacking in compassion and love. External commandment-keeping is necessary but ultimately sterile without entering into the mystery: the flow of God’s grace.
Those Latter-day Saints who are stuck on the notion that obeying external commandments is the most important spiritual practice are rejecting the teaching of the Apostle Paul that the purposes of the law and commandments are: 1) To reveal the nature of sin and ungodliness in each of us. 2) To demonstrate that we as “natural men” are incapable of keeping the commandments and that obedience to external commandments is not spiritually transformative. And, 3) To lead us to the saving and perfecting power of grace.
The realization that we cannot avoid all sins or become like Christ through obedience to external commandments is not meant to condemn or discourage us but to motivate us to seek the inner path of spiritual rebirth by which we transcend the “natural man” and become “new creatures in Christ.”
The Apostle Paul called the Law of Moses a “schoolmaster” which leads us to Christ who then saves us by grace. Being “saved by grace” is the process of the inner path and spiritual rebirth. The “we” who is incapable of fully keeping external requirements is what Paul refers to as “the flesh”—as opposed to what he calls “the inner man” or those who live “in the Spirit.”[v] The Book of Mormon uses the terms “natural man” or “carnal man” or also “flesh” in the same manner. The “inner man,” of course, is our essence of being—our eternal, spiritual nature.
Most human beings experience themselves as a unique collection of physical sensations, thoughts, feelings, beliefs, fears, needs, and desires all intertwined around a story of who they think they are in relation to what they perceive the world and others to be. This cocktail of perception and experience of self is part of the flesh—the external, temporary world. Since it lacks eternal reality, it is always going to leave one with a sense of inadequacy and deficiency.
This “flesh” or “natural man” is also not perfectible because it is a fiction, a story of limited perceptions and experiences. That is why Mormons, or any other religious people, can devote decades to trying to perfect themselves but still end up disappointed and frustrated. The “natural man” cannot be purified no matter how many commandments we try to pile on it. Its destiny is to be crucified with and in Christ as we join him in the spiritual rebirth of Oneness with God. We resist because “the flesh” is the main way we experience ourselves and we don’t want it to die. But, of course, the gospel is about the death of the “natural man” and a resurrection and newness of spiritual life.
The gospel is not about making the “natural man” a good person who is “worthy” of the kingdom. All our efforts to do so will fail and keep us identified with this inadequate, deficient, fictional self. In Romans 12:2, Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind [spirit], that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” In other words, without transformation, you cannot realize the perfect will of God because the “natural man,” which is conformed to this world, cannot do it. This transformation and rebirth can only be realized when we shift our identity and sense of self from the external “natural man” to our divine, inner nature. This can only take place on the inner path of grace.
The Book of Mormon, like the New Testament, declares clearly that it is only in and through the grace of God that we can be saved, or sanctified and perfected. Paul says we are saved by grace and not of ourselves, not of works, lest man should boast—it is a gift.[vi] His point is that the function of the “natural man” has nothing to do with salvation or rebirth. It is the obstacle.
Moroni’s formula for spiritual rebirth[vii] is to “deny ourselves of all ungodliness” and “love God with all your might, mind, and strength” so that “by his grace we may be perfect in Christ.” Since ungodly thought and behavior only drags us deeper into the “natural man,” keeping moral laws and commandments helps to stabilize our lives and environment so we can begin to love at the soul level. This type of love for God is impossible when our attention is focused on sin (the Prodigal Son) or on our status, worthiness, and success in external obedience (the Elder Son). It is only possible as one learns the practices of the inner path, such as meditation and contemplative prayer, where one communes spirit to spirit with God. It is this communion that gives us access to the purifying influence of the grace of God that perfects us or restores our soul nature.
There are two reasons Mormons generally reject Paul’s and the Book of Mormon’s teachings about being saved or perfected by grace: 1) We have overreacted to false doctrines of grace being taught in other Christian churches. 2) We have misunderstood the nature of the Atonement.
In response to the grace teachings of many Christian churches, which improperly minimize the need for individuals to live responsibly and morally, Latter-day Saints have created their own false teaching that we are saved by a combination of keeping commandments and God’s grace. We love to quote 2 Nephi 25:23, “For we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do,” with the emphasis on the doing, as if grace is a cherry put on the top of our sundae of good works. Thousands of times in Sunday School and Seminary and Institute classes, I’ve heard it explained that our good works get us right to the gate of the Kingdom, but since we are still not quite perfect, we need that last little push of grace to get us in. This teaching implies that grace is God’s acceptance of the faithful member’s final weaknesses and failures instead of a sanctifying love and power that perfects us in Christ.
But Doctrine & Covenants 93:12–13, 20 tells us that just as Jesus received God’s fullness by receiving “grace for grace” and by continuing “from grace to grace” so must we.[viii] In other words, grace is not the cherry on top of a sundae of good works, it is the ice cream, whipped cream, and the cherry placed by God’s hand into our bowl (being) which we have emptied of the “natural man.” The work of the inner path is letting go of our attachment to and identification with the “natural man” and learning how to receive this wonderful, mysterious grace and love of God. It is then that we experience “the light burden” and the “rest of the Lord” since we are not caught up in trying to perfect that which is not perfectible. Paul describes this “natural man” dilemma quite delightfully in Romans 7:18:
For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me but how to perform what is good I find not. For the good that I will to do, I do not; but the evil I will not do, that I practice . . . I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity . . . O wretched man that I am!
As we receive “grace for grace,” the old “natural man” patterns and habits are weakened. As the inner being is cleansed, the outer being becomes clean as well, and suddenly one can easily make choices in harmony with one’s divine nature. At that point, according to Paul and Nephi, the law becomes dead unto us.[ix] We have matured and no longer need a code to tell us how to live.
I’ve often heard the Atonement explained as an event that Jesus performed in a particular time and place. But the Book of Mormon is clear that the Atonement is infinite and eternal,[x] meaning that it resides in a timeless domain and therefore cannot be an event that took place in time and space. In my experience, the Atonement of Christ is the grand symbol for the mystery of Oneness with God and the redemption experienced as this mystery is realized through spiritual rebirth. Oneness with God is and has always been the ground of existence and being. We lost that awareness in order to gain the wisdom that comes from partaking of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Through mortal birth, our bodies and minds became that tree as we lost ourselves in the interplay of good and evil. Through spiritual rebirth we are restored to our essential and joyful Oneness with God—the Atonement.
What Jesus did in Gethsemane and on the cross was not to perform the Atonement, but to reveal the reality of it and the inner, spiritual processes we should practice in order to awaken into it. These processes include complete devotion to God’s will, renunciation and crucifixion of any and all “natural man” tendencies, and submission to the inner work of grace.
Salvation by grace is the easiest and hardest thing one can experience. It is easy since it is done in the embrace of God’s love. It is difficult because we have to consent to the death of the “natural man.” At the point of its death, the natural man will cry out, “Why are you forsaking me?”[xi] hoping to keep you attached to it. But if you have experienced the divine nature of your soul in communion with God, then you can let it go, let it die, and pray, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” as you enter the Kingdom.
Our misapprehension, if not rejection, of the inner path of salvation by grace has blinded us to the joyful mystery of the Atonement and has hindered Latter-day Saints from using the “key of knowledge” to enter the kingdom of heaven.
The crisis in Mormonism is no longer the result of attacks from the outside but a result of internal restlessness and boredom—the loss of bright, sensitive, creative souls who are being hindered from entering a kingdom of love and light that they sense is near. Spiritual life should be vibrant, fresh, and ever new. We need a living faith that can grow with its members and such can only come from a mystical religion. Again, from Alan Watts in Behold the Spirit, “the religion of Jesus has become a religion about Jesus, and lost its essence . . . the whole point of the Gospel is that everyone may experience union with God in the same way and to the same degree as Jesus himself.”[xii]
This is most elegantly expressed in 1 John 4:17–18, “Love has been perfected among us in this; that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear . . . he who fears has not been made perfect in love.”
Fear is the state of the “natural man;” perfected love is the state of unbroken intimacy with God. I recently spoke with the wife of a middle-aged LDS gentleman who was dying of cancer. She was fearfully going over the standard LDS checklist of commandments and ordinances, acknowledging that her husband wasn’t perfect but hoping that he was “good enough” and that he had “done enough.” With little or no knowledge of and experience with the inner kingdom, far too many Latter-day Saints are approaching death with doubt and anxiety instead of love and confidence.
Don’t let our culture of external performance distract you from knowledge of the inner path, from the sanctifying influence of God’s love and grace, from the direct knowledge of the goodness of your spiritual essence and from the joy of Oneness with God. You can and will have boldness in the Day of Judgment if you have already been inside the Kingdom. Let no one hinder you.
[i] Watts, Behold the Spirit, xiii.
[ii] 2 Corinthians 4:18 NKJV This is a beautiful description of the essence of Hinduism—which is based on discernment of the Real from Unreal—and Buddhism, which emphasizes awareness of the Permanent and Impermanent. Sadly many Hindu and Buddhist sects have also devolved into sterile externalism in spite of the foundation and tradition of being an inner, mystical path!
[iii] Matthew 7:13–14 NKJV. “Narrow” and “difficult” is more accurate than the King James’ choice of “strait” and “narrow.”
[iv] Luke 17:20–21. Many Christian and Mormon Biblical scholars prefer to translate or interpret “within” as “among” implying that Jesus was referring to himself. This is done by people who have little understanding of the inner path and in violation of the language, structure, and context of the passage. See Ilaria Ramelli, “Luke 17:21: The Kingdom of God is Inside You: The Ancient Syriac Versions in Support of the Correct Translation,” Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies 12, No. 2, 259–286; Raymond B. Marcin, “The Kingdom of God is Within (Among) (In the Midst of) You,” www.biblicaltheology.com/Research/MarcinR01.pdf.
[v] Galatians 5:19–21; Ephesians 3:10.
[vi] Ephesians 2:8–9.
[vii] Moroni 10:32–33.
[viii] These verses also emphasize “keeping commandments,” but not all commandments are external practices. Admonitions to “be perfect (whole, complete),” to “receive grace,” to “love one another as I have loved you,” etc., are commandments that require inner, spiritual disciplines.
[ix] Galatians 2:19; 2 Nephi 25:25.
[x] 2 Nephi 9:7.
[xi] Matthew 27:46. Jesus knew his Father would not forsake him. He also knew in Gethsemane when he uttered the words in Matthew 26:39, “let this cup (of suffering) pass from me” that it was not possible. In both cases he is giving expression to our “natural man” which feels forsaken and that it suffers too much in mortality. Jesus’s teaching and the symbolism of his suffering and death clearly communicate the need for us to surrender the “natural man” to crucifixion so we can be reborn in Christ and become One with the Father.
[xii] Watts, Behold the Spirit, xvii, xix.