The following first appeared in Public Square Magazine.
In the cultural competence class for my (Brianna’s) graduate program, we were having a discussion one day about religion and spirituality. Being one of the only active religious people in my cohort, I had been looking forward to this class discussion for a while. To start the discussion, our professor had us submit single words anonymously that we felt were representative of each religion and “spirituality” as a whole. The words would then appear in a word cloud on the board. The bigger, bolder words on the board were ones that had been submitted several times, while the smaller words on the edges were ones that were submitted the fewest amount by people in the class.
My excitement for this class discussion quickly turned to disappointment and unease when the most common word that people associated with religion was “hate,” followed by other words like “intolerant” and “bigoted.” Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. Common words for spirituality, on the other hand, were words like “loving,” “tolerant,” and “accepting.” Classmates of mine proceeded to describe spirituality as something adaptable for individuals and, therefore, better than religion. To them, it was clearly the healthier option because it did not have the capacity to “inflict harm” as religion did. All I could think throughout the end of the class was, “what am I missing here?” It seemed like the very notion that religion has defined requirements or expectations of persons, lives, and relationships—was taken to be an inherently intolerant and hateful thing. Since this experience, we have dedicated some of our time to understanding how a far more convenient spirituality has replaced religion perceived as inconvenient. We’ve come to believe that this is the most likely source for the many other judgments arising about organized faith.
Reverencing the Self
We live in a society where the idea of the ‘self’ reigns supreme. Indeed, contemporary discussions on happiness tend to include terms like self-confidence, self-esteem, self-compassion, self-respect, self-worth, self-care, and so forth. In studying psychology and counseling, very rarely are clients’ problems conceptualized without using these terms—with the lack of any such things presumed as the source of the client’s unhappiness or pathology (e.g., the client’s depression is due, in part, to low self-esteem, etc.). While discussing this modern self in this article, we are not merely commenting on the distinct consciousness of individuals. In fact, recognizing the distinctness and worth of individuals is incredibly important to Latter-day Saints. In the scriptures, it is plainly stated that “the worth of souls is great in the sight of God.” When discussing the first vision, it is often recognized that God called Joseph by name and knew who he was as an individual child of God. For those parents who have more than one child, it is easy to recognize how unique and special each child is, even in the earliest stages of life.
Author Carl Trueman has stated that “simply acknowledging this inner dimension of selfhood is not the same as authorizing it to have a decisive role in identity.” In popular discussions of the ‘self,’ therefore, we are not merely noting that we are distinct individuals; rather, we are referring to a particular way in which we understand our identity, society, the pursuit of happiness, and the good life in modern contemporary times. More commonly, this ideology is referred to as “expressive individualism,” where concepts like ‘self’ and ‘identity’ become something to be focused on, discovered, explored, and lived out. This ideology assumes that to do otherwise is to forfeit the possibility of living a good and fulfilled life. Children learn early about improving self-esteem and self-confidence as a higher good, while adults are taught to care deeply about self-care and prioritizing their own needs even as they have dependent children of their own. Meanwhile, reality TV shows, celebrity magazines, and social media careers or influencer platforms are examples of how to make a living for oneself by focusing on oneself. These few examples of focusing on the ‘self’ only skim the surface of how immersed our culture is in the ideologies of expressive individualism.
Initially, this focus on the self has been touted as a way to combat things like suicidality, bullying, generally thinking badly of oneself, and other mental health concerns. Certainly, we do not want someone to feel or think badly of themselves. However, in neglecting to think critically about promoting ideologies of the self, like expressive individualism, and how it is ingrained in our contemporary society, we seem to have subtly contributed to a convenient spirituality coming to replace a religion of sacrifice and yielding to something outside of ourselves. How so? Because we have allowed these ideas to distort our sense of who we are, why we are here, and how we should live. As we better appreciate some of the philosophical foundations of expressive individualism, we can see how such an appealing idea could usurp conventional religious practices and doctrines—even at times in the name of the very God who instituted true doctrines in the first place. Yet, to be clear: the god of an expressive individualist—and by extension, our contemporary society—will be far different from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
While an exhaustive review of how the conceptualization of the modern self came to be is clearly beneficial (see here), for my purposes here, it is sufficient to say that this formulation of the modern, contemporary self began well before the 20th century While the actual term ‘expressive individualism’ in regards to the self and self-expression came about more recently, then, it was hardly a brand new idea. Expressive individualism is the idea that each person has a core feeling, intuition, or true ‘self’(identity) that should be expressed outwardly and realized fully in such outward manifestations. This concept may feel familiar because modern entertainment, including books, TV, and movies, frequently portrays their hero or heroine on a journey to discover this true self. Indeed, it is commonplace for anyone in conversation nowadays to encourage people to discover who they are. Consistently, when we take steps to find and live out this discovered true self that is inside each of us, it’s taken for granted that this progress and commitment should be celebrated as something good, daring, and brave. As one critic of this movement commented, society tells people that “whatever else you may do, you must always love and esteem yourself.”
To be oneself in the truest sense can be captured in the term authenticity—that is, to live in a manner that is consistent with our innermost feelings. It seems to be the case, however, that “‘living authentically” ends up, strangely enough, being accompanied by condemning those who do not approve, accept or celebrate such outward expressions. In fact, the story of self-discovery and authentic living is often paved with central references to various “oppressive” organizations and relationships that a person must overcome in order to start truly living. Thus the ‘good life’ entails (1) discovering your true self, (2) living according to that authentic true self, and (3) overcoming all those who would deny that personal reality.
Recognizing that the expression of individuals is important, however, does not mean that we ought to promote such expression in every way and at any cost. While it can be recognized that there are positive ideas that have come about with the more refined and sophisticated exploration of self (which is another conversation altogether), there are meaningful downsides that are frequently overlooked.
One of the pitfalls of expressive individualism is arguably the mass turning away from religion in favor of spirituality. When referencing spirituality, we are not talking about feeling ‘spiritual’ or having an experience with the Holy Spirit. Conventionally, spirituality is defined as “an individual practice and has to do with having a sense of peace and purpose.” For some people, this spirituality includes an idea of God. And it is incredibly common to hear in our times, “well, I believe in God, but I’m not religious.” Others reference the universe, or mother nature, or simply assert no belief in a higher power or construct. In fact, some have equated spirituality simply with one’s inner life. What makes this kind of spirituality so alluring and potentially convenient is that a person could find meaning and purpose without acknowledging any specific demands or commands or soul-stretching teachings of a higher power. One attains the relief of meaning without the commitment and requirements of such transcendence or perceived “stern” higher authority. Thus, it is convenient.
Even within contemporary Latter-day Saint culture, we can see this idea increasingly taking hold. We would posit, however, that in order to value this kind of “spirituality” outside of the structure of organized faith, we must fundamentally change how we see the nature of God. Thus, instead of rejecting this higher power altogether, others have commented that “the expressivist forges her own religion, her own personal Jesus.” This is a god that condones actions in the name of being true to oneself and touts a gospel of total love and acceptance. In some ways, this can be representative of what prophets have warned us against, an experience of “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die; and it shall be well with us….[and] we shall be saved in the kingdom of God.”
With this attitude, the individual expressivist forges a uniquely convenient Messiah. This is another reflection of the enduring desire for “spirituality,” even within the congregations of orthodox religion. We see high value being placed on the ideas of expressive individualism and spirituality when we hear fellow members express this like “God loves me as I am; therefore, I do not need to change.” Instead of seeing God and Christ as people who call us to something beyond or outside of ourselves, many have adopted this spirituality which values validating the individual experience at the expense of transcendent moral values. Within this framework, seemingly the greatest sin is to assert the need for human beings to submit our very will to a power outside of ourselves.
The reality is the doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do not conform to the desires of the individual in the same way that a convenient, expressive spirituality can. In fact, the scriptures say, “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” Indeed, we are told “to reconcile ourselves to the will of God,” to “not think of [ourselves] more highly than [we] ought to think,” and to “always retain in remembrance, the greatness of God, and your own nothingness.” These scriptures are just a subset of many that are advocating for the submission of one’s ‘self’ to God rather than an elevation and discovery of it. This is part of what it means to be a disciple of Christ, as the Latin root for disciple, discipulus, translates as learner or pupil—even one who submits to the authority of a greater.
While there is much joy and peace that can come from living the gospel, submitting to the will of God is clearly not always easy and convenient. Abundant scriptural examples come to mind when thinking of the cost of discipleship. The Nephites were set to be killed if the sign of the Savior’s coming did not come the following morning. Job suffered all manner of affliction and retained his faith in God and His plan. Any number of the first apostles, including Peter, who was crucified, and Paul, who was eventually decapitated, suffered greatly in the name of Christ. Many Christians throughout time have sacrificed their lives for their firmness in the faith and their stalwart commitment to Jesus and His gospel message. We honor our pioneer ancestors and heritage, in part, for the persecution that they endured at the hands of those who would stop the work from progressing. Indeed, so severe was the persecution that it caused Joseph Smith to call out saying, “O God, where art thou?”
Some of God’s people were delivered from their persecution and difficulties, but many were not. Among other things, this raises the question of why we should feel that any trial we may have in contemporary times should be considered reasons for God to exempt us from living His commandments, keeping our covenants, or following His laws. Is there some sort of “chronological snobbery” that asserts our day and age are different from any other time? That because we live now and not in other times, God does not require that level of sacrifice and commitment? Indeed, in the covenants that Latter-day Saints make in the temple today, we promise to give all that we are to the cause of Christ. There is no list of exceptions written into that covenant.
President Russel M. Nelson, in one of his recent addresses, asked members of the Church these questions: “Are you willing to let whatever He [God] needs you to do take precedence over every other ambition? Are you willing to have your will swallowed up in His?” As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has put so eloquently, “there is no guarantee of convenience written into our Christian covenant.” To assume that God would not require true sacrifice of us also speaks to our attitude towards the very real sacrifice of the atonement of Jesus Christ. He did not die so we could simply do what we wanted. He died to show us a higher path. As Elder Holland asserts, “Why do we think it [should be easy for us] when it was never so for Him?”
Loving Us to Become As He Is
Although we sometimes speak about the path to discipleship being simple and straightforward, it is not always convenient. And it is definitely not always understood by others.
Practicing religion becomes difficult and, in some ways, quite complex when we view love solely in terms of universal acceptance. To an expressive individualist, those who question authentic self-expression, even within a moral framework, cannot truly love. From this vantage point, there is no option of loving a person and simultaneously recognizing the immoral nature of what he or she is doing or how he or she is living their life. Those who believe love is a matter of universal acceptance are left with the question, “how can God truly love me if He wants me to change?” What if, however, universal acceptance is not the same as the infinite love of God?
This may not be the best way to view love and acceptance. Take, for example, the love a parent has for their child. Imagine a parent looking at their 8-year-old child saying, “I love you totally and completely, so please do not feel any need to grow and change.” While it is true that we love our children as they are, does that love for them mean that we never want them to change or grow or progress? From a Christian view, those desires would not really be loving because they inherently limit the experiences and ultimate happiness that we want for children. They wouldn’t grow up to go to school, meet a special someone, have a family, or do any number of things that we know can bring true joy and happiness. Their perspective would be forever limited. In fact, there is an aspect in which we intuitively recognize that there is something wrong with a parent who wants their child to stay as they are forever.
Yes, truly loving someone entails loving them as they are, but it does not stop there. It facilitates and encourages growth, progression, and improvement. Indeed, one of the reasons I (Brianna) appreciate my loving relationship with my husband is because he challenges me to be a better person by the way that he lives his own life. In like manner, we think about our relationship with God the Father and Jesus Christ—appreciating how they invite us to be better through their example and greater understanding.
Elder D. Todd Christofferson told members recently that it is because God loves us He does not want to leave us “just as we are.” It is because God loves us that He requires things of us. Heavenly Father knows from experience what the path to eternal life and happiness is. He is calling upon us to remember our fallen state, how we are only redeemed through Jesus Christ, and how we need to live as He would have us live in order to join Him again hereafter. In many ways, we currently have the understanding of an 8-year-old relative to eternity. Heavenly Father does love us as we are, in our specific and unique context, even and especially knowing what we are facing. And in order to be like Him and experience happiness untold, He knows best what is required of us because He himself has walked that path.
This is what we believe—and what has brought us great peace and happiness in our own lives … far more than any pursuit of our own “self” ever could or would.