By Philip G. McLemore
“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering.” Matthew 23:13
“Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge: ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered.” Luke 11:52
Previously, I have written two articles for Sunstone about meditation and the need for the development of a mystical tradition within Mormonism. Since I’ll be building on the concepts presented in those articles, I have provided a brief summary of them in the first endnote.[i] The previous articles can be read in their entirety on Sunstone’s website.
Religious organizations instinctively develop teachings, practices, and cultures that tend to keep its members at early stages of spiritual development dependent on the organization. These stages are characterized by obedience, conformity, loyalty, a narrow view of morality, and external religious conduct. Though helpful at first, a focus on these qualities can become limiting and restrictive once an individual’s full spiritual potential begins to unfold. In theory, the purpose of a church organization is to guide one into an actual knowledge of God, which leads to spiritual rebirth and entrance into the Kingdom; however, in practice, churches ultimately hinder this transformative awakening and knowledge so that the organization can maintain its primacy. The human consequence of this organizational tendency is boredom and frustration since children of God with infinite, divine potential—who are ready to mature into the wonderfully mysterious and exciting stages of divine relationship and knowledge—are continually retained at the first grade of gospel teaching, while their souls ache for graduate instruction in the mind and heart of Christ.
This is the classic struggle between exoteric—or external religion—and esoteric religion, the internal or inner path to Oneness with God. All ancient spiritual masters, including Jesus, have clearly taught that the process of spiritual maturation moves from the exoteric, concrete, and external religious/spiritual practices to the esoteric, subtle, unseen, inner practices. The exoteric is necessary and foundational but was never intended to be the end-game.
While serving as an Episcopalian priest in the 1940’s, Alan Watts wrote Behold the Spirit, a book attempting to restore a vibrant mysticism to the Christian Church, which Watts felt had fallen into a deadening orthodoxy. Early in the book he makes an insightful observation that I think is amazingly relevant to contemporary Mormonism:
Today, in Church and out of Church, there are thousands of souls who realize in varying degrees of clarity that what they want from religion is not a collection of doctrinal and ritual symbols, nor a series of moral precepts. They want God himself . . . they want to be filled with his creative life and power; they want some conscious experience of being at one with Reality itself . . . they do not know that creed and sacrament are only fully intelligible in terms of the mystical life.
And they do not know these things because the stewards and teachers of the Church do not, for the most part, know them either. For while holding officially that eternal life consists in the knowledge of God—and nothing else—churches of every kind are concerned with almost everything but the knowledge of God . . . What is the use of moral principles without moral power and moral vision? Knowledge of God, the realization of one’s union with God, in a word, mysticism, is necessary.
It is not simply the flower of religion; it is the very seed, living in the flower as its fulfillment and preceding the root as its origin. There is not “higher religion” without mysticism because there is no apprehension of the meaning of reality without mysticism . . . And here is the problem. Mystical religion is not a technique, a remedy that may be humanly applied. It is the operation of the Holy Spirit.[ii]
As a past master of the exoteric/external path, I can testify that mental, emotional, and cultural attachment to exoteric religion is a hindrance to entering the Kingdom or presence of God.
Two events in 2010 motivated me to address this issue. The first was the decision by the Church to use Gospel Principles as the study manual for priesthood quorums and the Relief Society for a two-year period. As I remember, this book was originally intended for young men entering the military, who in most cases had not or would not serve missions. It provided them a source of basic information about the doctrine and history of the Church for personal and group study. It was later expanded for use in new member classes and to assist parents in teaching their children. To require the use of this elementary text in classes and quorums of adults who had studied and lived the gospel and served in responsible positions for decades was insulting at best and spiritually hindering at worst. It also ran contrary to the Apostle Paul’s admonition to church members he felt should be weaning themselves from spiritual milk to spiritual meat, “Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.”[iii] Perfection means maturity and wholeness, a preparation for unity with God, not a return to spiritual childhood, which Paul describes in I Corinthians 13 as knowing “in part.” If the Church only allows its members to know “in part,” then it is taking away the key of knowledge that opens the Kingdom.
The second thing that fueled my resolve on this topic was a startling omission from lesson 15 of the Old Testament teacher’s manual for Gospel Doctrine class. As one of two Gospel Doctrine teachers in my ward, I was excited when I realized I would be teaching this lesson, which included one of my favorite verses in the Old Testament: Numbers 11:29. Before looking at the manual, I was already pondering the significance of this verse and its potential for encouraging members to expand their vision of spiritual development. Earlier in chapter 11, an overwhelmed Moses chooses 70 elders under the Lord’s direction to help him govern Israel; the Lord then blesses these elders with his spirit and they begin to prophesy. Joshua is upset by this and tells Moses to “forbid them.” But Moses responds in verse 29, “Enviest thou for my sake? Would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!”
Moses was not jealous or afraid of others receiving spiritual gifts and abilities; in fact, he desired them for all! Surely, I thought, this would provide the substance for a great discussion in Gospel Doctrine class. But, when I finally looked at the teacher’s manual, I was stunned. This spiritually expansive message in verse 29 was glossed over in favor of an emphasis on the rebellion of Aaron and Miriam against Moses in chapter twelve and the teaching that Church authorities have greater access to revelation than ordinary Church members. One of the suggested questions was, “What are the limits to our right to receive revelation?” There was no spirit of limitation in Moses’ statement. To use this lesson to focus on the supposed limitations of Church members instead of using it to build faith in an unlimited domain of spirit within all of us, which can be successfully pursued with the grace and love of God, is hindering to internal spiritual development.
George Pace was a popular religion professor at Brigham Young University who encouraged students to develop a richer prayer experience and a deeper relationship with God and Christ. Many students and other faculty members responded to this invitation with excitement. Unfortunately, a number of immature and self-deceived individuals acted unwisely, which understandably prompted a General Authority response. In this case, it was Elder Bruce R. McConkie who addressed the issue at BYU in 1982.[iv] However, instead of attempting to bring maturity and balance to the desire and efforts of the students and faculty who were seeking deeper spiritual growth, Elder McConkie publicly spanked George Pace and stigmatized “excessive zeal” and lengthy prayers. He advocated staying in the “mainstream” of the Church and its “normal and usual pattern of worship.” He also encouraged listeners to “maintain a reverential barrier” between themselves and the members of the Godhead.
Sadly, the “mainstream” of the Church and its “normal and usual pattern of worship” tend to focus on the external, resulting in few members experiencing spiritual transformation or rebirth even after decades of gospel living and service. It seems to me that Nephi, Jacob, Enos, and Alma all exhibited both tremendous zeal and a commitment to lengthy prayers in order to know the things of God.[v] Luke tells us that Jesus spent “all night in prayer.”[vi] Can I become Christlike if I only spend five minutes in prayer? The “reverential barrier” part of Elder McConkie’s admonition seems odd to me in light of the New Testament encouraging us to become brides of Christ, and Jesus’ prayer for us to be one in him as he is one with the Father.[vii]
The approach Elder McConkie took makes the Church more easily managed, but at what price? I occasionally challenge Church members to pray for an hour at least once a week because I know it will stretch them to move beyond their “vain and repetitious” five-minute prayers and result in the expansion of their souls. To this day, older members resist my invitation by quoting from Elder McConkie’s 1982 speech.
The Scribes, often referred to as lawyers, were the learned class who copied, edited, and taught the scriptures. They were known for their knowledge of the Law of Moses, which was Israel’s sole civil and religious authority. Their official interpretations of the meaning of the Law eventually became more important than the Law itself. Following the Law and the traditions that had grown up around it became the measure of one’s devotion and spirituality.
The Pharisees were a religious and political party known for insisting that the Law be observed as interpreted by the scribes.
Jesus’s condemnation of the religious leaders of his day asserted three things:
1. That they were hypocrites.
2. That they did not understand the inner meaning of the Law and the scriptures.
3. That they had set up a system to measure spiritual status and worthiness that emphasized external religious practices, thus neglecting the inner path of spiritual rebirth, which is “the key of knowledge.”
I do not believe that LDS Church authorities are hypocrites. However, Church teachings often do not reflect the inner meaning of the scriptures. Our spiritual emphasis seems focused on external status, image, worthiness, and religious practices. As in Israel in the time of Jesus, the inner path of communion with God and spiritual transformation is woefully neglected, which hinders the Saints.
If Jesus were to come in disguise to a contemporary Latter-day Saint to talk about the process of being born again, I wouldn’t be surprised if the conversation were similar to the one he had with Nicodemus.[viii]
Like many “good” Mormons, Nicodemus was an expert in checklist spirituality and external compliance. After he greets Jesus and expresses his recognition that God is with him, Jesus jumps right to the bottom line and says, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus then asks, “Can a man enter the second time into his mother’s womb?” Jesus’s lack of a direct response to this question is the sign of a spiritual master who knows that either a yes or a no response to this question will be misunderstood. (The answer is yes since the womb of creation is the presence of God and we are “born again” by reentering this presence.) Instead, Jesus simply goes on, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” So first we “see” the kingdom through increased spiritual perception as we begin the sanctification process, then we “enter” it as we are reborn into Oneness with God.
In the Church, we typically interpret “being born of water and of the Spirit” as referring to the external ordinances of baptism and the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost, as if Jesus were inviting Nicodemus to a baptismal service at the local ward the next Saturday. In fact, external ordinances are symbols of subtle, inner, spiritual processes that are a part of the mystical (mystery) dimension of spiritual rebirth.
The puzzled expression on Nicodemus’s face then leads Jesus to say, “Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth; so is every one that is born of the Spirit.” Jesus is clearly referring to the subtle, inner process of spiritual rebirth and not to external ordinances.[ix] Even though the phrase “born again” is also present in the Book of Mormon, most Latter-day Saints are uncomfortable with the expression since they are unfamiliar with inner, spiritual processes, and so like Nicodemus, “marvel.”
Nicodemus responds to Jesus’s mystical description of spiritual rebirth by saying, “How can these things be?” Jesus replies, “Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?” Do we as Latter-day Saints “know these things?” Do we understand the inner meaning of the scriptures? Are we close to entering the Kingdom? Most of us seem stuck with the checklist of external practices. Even those who know that a sanctification process is preliminary to spiritual rebirth either believe it is reserved for a select few or that it is a process that comes to fruition only in the next life. The few who do understand the inner meaning and mystical dimension of the scriptures are still hindered since the practices of inner sanctification are not taught or encouraged in the Church. The “key of knowledge” has been taken away.
When Jesus told the parable of the Prodigal Son,[x] he was addressing both sides of the problem of using an external focus for solving life’s problems and developing spiritually. The younger, Prodigal Son becomes lost in sin and worldliness. The more mature Elder Son, who describes himself as having never transgressed the Father’s commandments, is clearly being used to depict those who are lost in status, performance, and appearance—a spiritually deadening, external religious path. Of course, at the end of the story, as happens in many of Jesus’s stories, it is the sinner—or the one without status—who “comes to himself,” approaches the Father and enters his Kingdom. The implication seems to be that it can be harder to escape from the false security of exoteric spirituality than from the pigpen of sin and worldliness.
So what happens in Mormonism when the predominant focus is on a system of status, image, worthiness, and external religious/spiritual practices? Unfortunately, a variety of absurdities that range from the tragic to the humorous emerge. I’ll provide just a few examples:
1. My first mission president in Brazil was determined to have the top baptizing mission in the world, and his system was successful. My first year, we had 5,000 baptisms with 189 missionaries! But behind the scenes, missionaries were being dragged out of their beds at midnight and threatened with physical violence if they didn’t meet super-inflated goals. Other missionaries were bribed with leather coats and material rewards for increased baptisms. The president was so busy cracking the whip that he did not have time to interview the missionaries or read their monthly letters to him. I found hundreds of such letters that had spent many months in the trunk of a leader’s car. I read some of them. They contained the stories of missionaries suffering with personal problems and feelings of failure for having not baptized 50 people a month.
Our most successful missionary, the one designated for many months as the “Kingdom Builder,” enticed hundreds of young boys into LDS chapels to see a “free movie,” which was the filmstrip Christ in America, and then offered them a new soccer ball if they would be baptized. Other missionaries pressured timid, poor people, or simply accepted people who wanted to be their friends but who had not attended church and had no intention of living gospel standards. Once their goals were met, many missionaries hung out with girls, went to movies or bath-houses, or slept in and listened to music. Since I refused to participate in these activities, I was demoted from district leader to junior companion and sent way out into a small, two-missionary city so that I would not be a “bad influence.” It was estimated that 50–75% of returned missionaries from that period of my mission went inactive.
I believe that at some point, the “truth claims” of the Church have become linked with raw, numerical growth. Even today, in spite of Elder Boyd K. Packer’s vision of missionaries being inspired gospel teachers instead of slick salesmen, Church culture causes way too many of our missions to be managed like Toyota factories, which results in the spiritual abuse of investigators and damage to, if not destruction of, the faith of many of our young missionaries. If we want to eliminate “excessive zeal” in the Church, I recommend starting with the missionary program and not prayer.[xi]
2. A bishop told a woman I know that he could tell if her husband had had problems with pornography the previous week by the color of the shirt he wore on Sunday! If the husband chose to not wear a white shirt, the bishop assumed that he had indulged. In light of that thinking, this sister doubted that they would ever receive intelligent or inspired help from that bishop.
3. One of my daughters was visiting with a group of sisters in her ward when one of them abruptly excused herself, explaining that her family was going to work in the yard all day so they could have a yard “worthy of a Stake calling.” Who knew that worthiness was predicated on a pretty yard?
These are the nonsensical types of things that happen when an external focus becomes predominant. It’s no wonder that intelligent, spiritually mature non-members have a hard time taking us seriously when they observe us tussling over shirt color, cola, chocolate, and earrings like they are major spiritual issues. This sort of surface religious wrangling is a distraction from the inner path of spiritual rebirth.
Jesus was incensed when he saw people linking spirituality to status, money, power, or performance. Too often in Mormonism, status and power are used to influence members; and the famous, rich, and powerful are often considered to be more blessed and spiritually superior. Some professional counselors and psychologists I know have told me that a large percentage of the Mormons who come to them feel inadequate and deficient, and that they tend to be externally oriented when attempting to meet their needs. Why is it that the members of a church that teaches more clearly than any other about divine potential and the eternal worth of each soul[xii] feel so guilty, inadequate, and deficient? If the theology is not the problem then the problem must be in the way we teach, in our cultural emphasis on following and obeying external measures of status and worthiness, which rarely by themselves lead to inner transformation.
[i] “Mormon Mantras: A Journey of Spiritual Transformation,” SUNSTONE, April 2006, 20–31; “The Yoga of Christ,” SUNSTONE, June 2007, 30–45.
Summary: A. The language, culture, and practice of modern day Mormonism has evolved in such a way as to strengthen the Church organization at the expense of individual, spiritual growth.
B. Mysticism is the quest for direct experience with God. Without a mystical dimension, no religion or church will empower or lead its members to spiritual transformation. Pursuit of the mysteries, which is encouraged in the scriptures and usually discouraged by the Church, is the awakening to the mystical dimension by which one can directly experience his/her own infinite and divine nature and the nature and presence of God.
C. An inner spiritual discipline such as meditation or contemplative prayer is absolutely necessary for one to consistently experience actual communion with God. Abiding in this communion is sanctifying and can lead one to spiritual rebirth and the unfolding of a Christlike nature. Deep meditation and prayer, which guides us from ordinary, human perception and thought to pure, spiritual perception, is not taught nor encouraged in the Church.
D. We need an expanded understanding of the person, mission, and teachings of Jesus and his Atonement for vibrant spiritual living. His teachings and the symbols of his life, death, and resurrection are best understood from a mystical perspective, which point to inner, spiritual processes that result in the death of the “natural man,” the resurrection of a Godly nature, and an abiding in oneness with God. This transformation is the purpose of our lives and can be experienced, enjoyed, and shared now in this life, rather than something hoped for in the next life. Abiding in this Oneness with God is how we enter the “Kingdom of God.”
[ii] Alan Watts, Behold the Spirit (New York: Random House, 1971), 14–15.
[iii] Hebrews 6:1, 2 New King James Version (NKJV). In Joseph Smith’s Inspired Version, a “not” is added so the line reads “not leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, lets us go on unto perfection.” The “not” does not reverse the meaning since the point of the verse is for us to “go on” to perfection. The “not” simply clarifies that the elementary or basic teachings are not abandoned but subsumed into higher stages of spiritual understanding. It is ironic that Paul’s list of basic principles to “leave” look very much like the chapter titles in Gospel Principles!
[v] I Nephi 18:3, 2:16; Enos 1:2–4; Jacob 7:5, 12; Alma 8:10. These prophets used expressions like “cry,” “wrestling with God in mighty prayer,” “labored much in spirit,” and talked about prayers and spiritual processes that lasted for an entire day or several days to be forgiven and redeemed and to “see angels” and to “hear the voice of God.” These accounts stand in stark contrast to our “normal and usual pattern of worship.”
[vi] Luke 6:12; Mark 1:35.
[vii] 2 Corinthians 11:2 and John 17:21–23.
[viii] John 3:1-10.
[ix] In the Bible, the word “wind” was also used for breath and spirit. In Genesis 2:7, man experiences his mortal birth when God “breathed into his nostrils” and he became “a living soul”. In John 20:22, Jesus “breathed” on his disciples and said to them, “Receive ye the Holy Ghost.” Mirroring man’s mortal birth in Genesis, Christ is breathing in the Holy Spirit, which makes spiritual birth possible. Like the wind, the movement and effect of the Holy Spirit cannot be controlled by man but only received. In meditation and contemplative prayer, one’s practice of a technique does not produce the spiritual perception and purification that ultimately result in spiritual rebirth, but rather stills body and mind so one can receive the winds of grace and sanctification as and when they flow.
[x] Luke 15:11–32.
[xi] I joined the church at age 19 and was called on a mission the next year. Oddly I was almost a victim of the infamous “Baseball Baptism” program at age 12, until my mother intervened. My first Mission President made the scandal of “baseball baptisms” seem like child’s play with the outrageous things that took place under his regime. For the record, my second Mission President was a Christlike gentleman who restored sanity and spiritual teaching to our mission and who cared for the missionaries as if they were his own children. I’ve spoken with dozens of returned missionaries and their heart-broken parents over the past few years who have either left the church as a result of their mission experience or remain active to please their families but do so with bitterness or indifference.
[xii] The exceptions are the mystics or mystical elements within these denominations.