I was born and raised in a fully LDS community some 160 miles north of Salt Lake City. I am culturally a heritage-based Mormon to this day. It is from that perspective then – the religious perspective with which I’ve spent most of my life – that I am able then to write this portrait.
What does it mean to live spiritually?
Mormonism can be defined as a performance-based religion with the following operational formula:
Obedience + Worthiness constitutes Spirituality ... which leads to --> Blessings
Churches that encourage the belief that heaven is the destiny and reward toward which one directs a life of accumulated accomplishments are known as performance-based religions. The LDS Church with its systematic theologies, doctrines and programs may very well be the ultimate example and pattern of this way of imagining god and god's reality.
Although entirely lacking proof in any physical or spiritual form of such a realm organized after the pattern of that 19th-century reality, Joseph Smith and a host of early American prophets, evangelists and circuit-riding preachers asserted in creatively imagined and described forms, the notion that the ultimate truthfulness of the spirit world is based on performance and worthiness.
The Divine Abusive Elephant in the Living Room
This imagined reality, consistently asserted over more than the past two centuries, is why most believing Mormons today - easily and perhaps without much critical thought - buy into Church legalism. It becomes almost second nature to accept the idea of an over-controlling detail-obsessed God whose portrayed behavior looks so much like a domineering patriarchal alcoholic who is in reality a controlling parent, spouse or lover.
Uncritically, as an act of faith, devotion and obedience many sincere believers buy without question into the notions such as
o humans are so imperfect that God created religion by which that Divine Male Patriarch could - in a loving but domineering manner - thrust guidelines for living into our lives.
o Such guidelines almost casually become laws or, better said, doctrines "irrevocably decreed" which the children of said God are expected to follow.
o This God of guidelines demands strict adherence to such doctrines which in fact do nothing more than establish a notion that obedience is elevated at the expense of agency.
o The highest spiritual approval in life is nothing more than an experiential pat on the head for being an obedient child.
The implications of such internalized assumptions include an idea that the God and Father of Obedience created a world abundant with the fruits of creative activity, but then commanded adherence to a list of the performances - or in some cases, negative performances - that the children of God are expected to do … or not do ...
A performance-based religion puts bans on what are perceived to be inappropriate things. These bans become "laws of the Church" which by implication become "Laws of God" which are viewed than as “Irrevocably Decreed” and upon which a worthiness obsessed God grants rewards.
In a performance-based-religion, members are banned from inappropriate music, television, movies, books and other literature. Freedom of expression in art, music, and other forms of entertainment are seen as risks that may cause the Father to stop attending the disobedient.
In a performance-based-religion certain food and drink products are banned and seen as the causes of risks that the Father will stop attending the disobedient.
In a performance-based-religion the Father requires strict adherence to dress and personal appearance codes the rejection of which creates a risk that the Father will stop attending the disobedient.
In a performance-based-religion scriptures become the means and tool that can be utilized to effectively stand in for a lack of contemporary legitimate on-going revelation from the same God who started everything eons ago by speaking directly to his children. Scripture then becomes the weapon that confronts those who challenge would-be church-proclaimed prophets who don't seem to do much contemporary prophesying, seeing or revelating themselves..
In a performance-based-religion, the very Father of Obedience - who has become in fact a Father of Conformity - does not speak to His church except through the voices of those who declare that the same silent Father has established in this performance-based-religion the only acceptable and effective means to salvation.
The Father of Conformity either refuses or is unwilling to justify or explain how such an only-right-means-to-salvation system and circumstance is equally fair and just to every other human being on the planet, not to mention why a privileged minority are granted the divine privilege of being born inside this only-right-means while the rest of the world must figure and work it out for themselves.
In a performance-based religion, like an overly strict and self-absorbed alcoholic parent, the Father of Conformity has authorized the use of emotional guilt, intimidation, thought control and coercion to keep family members in line. He is also seen as justifying and endorsing guilt-ridden sermons and lessons designed to push believers into submitting to the authority of the leadership without question or criticism. Failure to respect the leadership creates a risk that the Father will stop attending the disobedient.
In a performance-based religion the Father of Conformity has authorized the use of the theory that people should spend long hours at the Church and do work in the Church in order to gain rewards in heaven. A bureaucracy has been created at all levels in order to engender, monitor and "lovingly" coerce this sort of working participation which then becomes the standard by which member spirituality is measured and recognized. This is not unlike the demand of an alcoholic tyrant that his family enable his behavior.
The same bureaucracy becomes then a powerful instrument for limiting criticism and dissention through emotional and spiritual abuse by perceived authority and endorsement by the Father of Conformity.
What is happening today and something about which the grand bureaucracy at all levels refuses to admit to being in denial about is that the process of establishing and enforcing man-made rules and doctrines creates mere man-made leadership. These leaders tend to nothing other than, or nothing better than the jot-and-tittle Pharisees of the New Testament. They are driving many away who would otherwise not be driven away.
Some who are driven away leave with emotional scars that cause depression, substance abuse and - unfortunately - suicide, along with the very activities against which the religion relentlessly preached. One can make a case the some of those driven off are at least temporarily not prepared to deal with life and society in a manner that is free from long-internalized judgmental and narrow notions.
The gentle but rigid Church programming involves and in fact revolves around forms of guilt and coercion. Within the Church as well as among those driven off there is a danger of low self-esteem that causes essentially unreasonable reactions to the Church itself.
Repentance becomes much more than returning to God. It involves returning to the Church from which one has fled in desperation. This is not unlike a battered-wives syndrome where one consciously returns to a life at home with a mean and unrepentant battering inebriated spouse who wants her back but will –once she returns - continue business as usual.
There is a genuine tragedy when one feels driven off from the clan or out of the tribe because, like an enormous and ominous dark tower, the Church rises in the background or even the actual center of the tribal village. The Church thrusts itself with impunity into the middle of family relationships to which it has no moral or God-given right to interfere.
Members - unconsciously in many cases - are forced to choose between Church and family.
The Father of Conformity has said nothing about why this circumstance is a positive fruit by which that Father is known among the children of men. The either-or attitude may only be a perception of those driven off when the rest of the family remains inside the righteous but unseen walls of Church conformity. However, the Church does little or nothing to address that very family estrangement of which the Church and its historical narrative, that which informs it’s the Church’s justification for existing, is the principle cause.
Limited serenity that comes from separation from the direct and immediate sources of emotional pain still feels like something much better than the rigidly inflexible cauldron of conformity whose principal legacy is misery.
One day perhaps enough souls will be driven out of that imagined reality to change the face of the Church which might then turn away from the performance-based religious corporation it has become.
If not, those who imagine themselves to be living lives of actual free agency in the Great and Spacious Building may come to have greater power and influence than those who imagine themselves as children of the Father of Conformity.