Spiritual Practices

What is the goal of our spiritual practices? Is it different from other contemporary or past Christianity communities? What type of human subjects do they produce? How do we navigate the competing ideals that our spiritual practices imitate?

We have a number of spiritual practices in LDS tradition. There are many that argue that these spiritual practices are in fact the most important aspects of Mormonism and that “doctrine” is merely secondary. I take the view that, like ancient philosophy, Mormonism is a “way of life,” wherein the beliefs and practices work together to allow the individual to engage in a series of techniques to embody a certain kind of ethical subject. However, I am not quite sure how to articulate what that subject looks like. Is there a guiding logic to our spiritual practices? Or, are they simply eclectic inheritances? Or, are these practices fundamentally paradoxical, as Givens has noted about Mormon thought. Consider the following set of spiritual practices. Each of these activities are imbued with a sense of spirituality. In each case they are the voluntary taking on of a certain personal discipline:

1. Fasting

2. Personal, Family, and Community Prayer

3. Regular Scripture Study

4. Singing a hymn when one has “tempting” thoughts

5. Journal writing

6. Interviews with leaders

7. Social activities with church members

8. Learning about family history

9. Donating money

10. Giving and receiving blessings

11. Working in Councils and Presidencies

12. Abstaining from certain activities on Sunday

13. Being Obedient to our leaders

14. Listening, Studying, and Memorizing the speeches of a set of authorized speakers.

15. Publicly performing our “testimonies,” or spiritual autobiographies

(It may be useful to consider what is missing from this list: comprehensive confession, meditation to empty one’s mind, meditation on particular topics such as imagining loss or pain in order to be able to confront it more easily, self mortification, vows of silence, prostration, intoxication, glossolalia, etc)

The question that I have about the function of these practices has to do with a certain tension that I see between them. Some of these activities are intensely focused on the self, the inner spiritual life of the individual which is subject to examination, testing, and modification. Others are designed to take the focus off of the self by imposing denial, restraint, and commitment to others. The tension between focusing on the self and denying the self seems to manifest itself in different types of Mormon spirituality. Or, is there a unifying philosophy that I am missing here?

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “Spiritual Practices

  1. Which of those do you think are “focused on the self”? I don’t really understand what you mean by that.

  2. If I understood TT correctly, #5 journal writing, is focusing on oneself.

    But I don’t see how all of them fit into one of the two categories. How is, for example, scripture study necessarily a self-focused or self-denying act? Or giving a priesthood blessing?

  3. I think most LDSs would see these activities as a giving up of the self (a self-sacrifice of sorts), in exchange for a Christ-like self. The “focus” is not on the self (that would be self-centered), but on God who is going to cleanse, purify, and renew one’s self.

    I think an interesting question this raises is whether or not we can talk about any of these activities being “for the self”. IMO, the “self” in Mormonism needs to be recapitulated. If the self is a reflection of God (and therefore a divinely inscribed being); and can be seen interconnected with the other divinely inscribed beings (and thereby is not simply an atomistic individual), the spiritual practices we do are deeply for our own self benefit, and such a self is necessarily inclusive of the community likewise benefiting.

  4. Smallaxe, isn’t the hope that God “is going to cleanse, purify, and rewnew one’s self” through the actions described above a general movement toward acting for the sake of one’s own rational self-interest? I question any form of altruism because ultimately it does center upon the self and what one gains for oneself. I think pure self-sacrifice without any regard for immediate or future gain only exists in theory, but never in practice. So I think they’re all (ultimately) centered on the self. But then again, I’m a total wack-job.

    Now, where’s my copy of Fountainhead??? :)

  5. David,

    I don’t buy into the paradigm I began my statement with, which is why I prefaced it with “I think most LDSs would see…”. This of course is predicated on a model where “self” and “other” are two separate and invidual entities. This is the atmosphere where the debate about self-sacrifice or altruism takes place.

    My position is in the second paragraph, where altruism would have to be redefined in light of a different conception of the self. Selflessness would be self-denial, not really a positive attribute, and selfishness (still a negative quality) would be an insensitivity to the interconnectedness of my relationships.

  6. I think this “relationship building vs. relationship damaging” dichotomy idea that smallaxe and David J are hinting at is a much more useful way to look at these spirituality matters than the selfish vs. selfless paradigm TT alludes to. Blake Ostler argues that relationship building, or “law of love“, is at the core of morality (or good/evil) to begin with and I think he is probably right.

    Anyway, I would say that all 15 of the things on TT’s spiritual acts list tend to build relationships between us and other people or between us and God. And since the first and second great commandments are to build relationships with God and with other people I’d say that they are all spirituality builders and they all focus on others while benefiting us at the same time.

    (Even journal writing can be seen as relationship building both because journals are sometimes read by offspring and because the self-evaluation involved in writing journals often helps people improve relationships with God and others.)

  7. You pose the question of whether the goal of spiritual practice is “different from other contemporary or past Christianity communities?” I think the word ‘community’ is worth exploring. Generally speaking, it seems there has always been a tension between the individual and the community. On one level, regardless of the spiritual dimension, any community must reconcile the relationship with the individual vis-à-vis the community. So, perhaps this discussion might fall within the broader question of the individual and community. Secondly, when Christ was asked which law was greatest, he responded “to love God,” quickly followed by “to love thy neighbor as thyself.” In his response is the expectation of the religious practitioner’s commitment to both self and the community.

  8. TT

    Thanks everyone for the comments. I have been away for a few days and wasn’t able to follow up on this thought. I think that in general what I had in mind were practices of the self in which the object of concern was the self, such as in fasting, prayer, and others. I was contrasting this with other practices where focusing directly on the needs of others was the goal. I agree with the tension between self/other, individual/community, and other dichotomies, but I still think that these are operative in the spiritual practices I mention.

  9. I think the overall confusion arises from the fact that in most, if not all 15 points, one might be able to argue that a point is focused on the needs of others as well as on the needs of the self. They don’t seem to be necessarily mutually exclusive categories. One can certainly fast for others, and pray for others, and even a journal is ultimately left for the benefit of others to read. Since the ‘actor’ of all these actions is the self, clearly the self will be involved in all these acts. To the extent that these acts are performed in the context of a community, then clearly a community will be involved. There doesn’t seem to be a clear dividing line between acts focused on self and acts focused on others and thus, it would seem not many people can see this tension you are referring to. Perhaps you might flesh out a criteria for what constitutes an act which focuses on self but not others, and an act which focuses on others but not self.