Columns Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

For some Mormons, “cafeteria spirituality” is a lifeline

A Lower Lights gathering in Salt Lake City, Utah. Photo by Gloria Pak.

Over the years people have sometimes asked me how I manage to stay Mormon. Often the people asking this question are themselves frustrated with something about the LDS Church, whether it be conservative politics, a culture of judgment, or a leadership structure that excludes women.

I have tended to shift the direction of these conversations away from the institutional church and toward personal spirituality: what do they find in the Mormon tradition that feeds their souls? What pieces do they feel are missing? And are those missing pieces essential for them to grow spiritually?

If the missing pieces are essential and they’re not readily available in the religious culture of modern Mormonism, I suggest that people who are frustrated consider supplementing. That they stay planted in Mormonism if possible but take responsibility for finding whatever else they need outside of it—whether that’s lively gospel music, contemplative meditation practices, or wisdom from Christianity’s 2,000-year-old tradition of elevating singleness to a calling instead of a moral defect, to take just a few examples.

For years LDS leaders have decried this kind of “cafeteria” spirituality. You can’t pick and choose which parts of the religion to follow, they argue. I would counter that almost everyone already does this; some people are simply more aware of their own tendency to gravitate toward the fried chicken while studiously avoiding the mushrooms. Cafeteria spirituality is a fact of religious life, and has been even before Jesus made his astute crack about the speck in our neighbor’s eye being obscured by the big freakin’ log in our own.

Those who put Mormonism forward as an all-or-nothing choice that is entirely sufficient in itself send the message that anyone who does need something different from the cafeteria line is a bad Mormon. And then they seem surprised and a bit outraged when those people, having been told it is impossible to reconcile being Mormon with their other spiritual needs, exit stage right.

This weekend at Sunstone I sensed an energy coalescing around the option of staying in the Church, but doing it on one’s own terms. Maybe this is just the function of the particular sessions I attended, but throughout the weekend it seemed that many people were reaching for ways to stay Mormon—including by learning about spiritual practices that aren’t readily available in Mormonism.

One of those is group meditation. In a packed session, Thomas McConkie, the founder of Lower Lights in Salt Lake City, got about a hundred Mormons, former Mormons, and other folks to meditate together (key text: D&C 93:29 and 93:33–34) and to talk, really talk, about what was on our hearts.

I’m not necessarily one to open up to strangers—and I lived in fear that he would make us stare into the eyes of people we’d just met, which thankfully was not asked of us—but I found my barriers coming down in my group of five people.

I sensed we were all in different places with Mormonism, which McConkie says is pretty standard among the 140 to 150 people who might show up to a Lower Lights meeting. Only about a quarter have no direct connection to Mormonism, while another quarter are, like him, active in the LDS Church. (He is a Gospel Doctrine teacher.) The remaining half “are somewhere on the spectrum of still being Mormon but being inactive to having left the church.” Many are Millennials and GenXers looking to stay Mormon but wishing to deepen their own connection with the divine through meditation and group work.

“Something Millennials in particular appreciate is being invited into an immersive experience that’s non-didactic. There’s no authority telling them what it should mean,” McConkie explains. “I think what people often get at church can be concept-heavy, and more and more people are recognizing that concepts can’t save us. So the interest is in how we access the realities that these concepts point to, the experiential realities.”

In other words, folks don’t want to just learn about God, but to experience God. And there are a lot of them. Lower Lights is growing rapidly enough that it is spinning off small groups that will meet each week in addition to the large group meditation gatherings each month. They’ve gotten the use of a retreat center for longer-term retreats, and will start a one-year program for transformation and spiritual formation in May of 2019.

Jana Spangler teaches about spirituality at the 2018 Sunstone Symposium in Salt Lake City, Utah, July 27, 2018.

The growth of McConkie’s group is not the only sign that Mormons are looking outside the LDS Church for spiritual development. Another Sunstone session that explored this was led by Jana Spangler, a former employee benefits specialist who is now a life coach helping Mormons navigate faith transitions and mixed-faith marriages (which can happen with one spouse leaves the Church or no longer believes and the other is still active).

Spangler is also studying at the Living School with Father Richard Rohr, author of bestselling books on spirituality like Falling Upward and Immortal Diamond.

“When I was attending a retreat with Father Rohr in January in connection with The Living School, I introduced myself to him as a Mormon,” Spangler says. “He said that in his opinion Mormons do the first half of life better than anyone, and we have almost no second half of life. I totally agree with that assessment, especially as it relates to our correlated teaching material.”

That rings true with my experience too—the LDS Church has marvelous programs for teaching youth and young adults, including seminary, the mission experience, and Institute. And then it’s like our development is supposed to be arrested, as we recycle the same four years of lessons for the rest of our adult lives. We celebrate intellectual growth and spiritual change until about age 22 and then do our best to avoid it ever after.

In her work, Spangler draws on the stages of adult development (as does McConkie; see here) to show that Mormonism meets the needs of people in stages 2 and 3, but does little to help those whose development takes them to stages 4 or 5.

“I think that if Mormonism had some leadership or structures that could understand and support spiritual developmental growth into stages 4 and 5, there would be fewer people looking outside and far fewer defections,” she says.

And in the absence of Mormonism creating those structures externally, people will continue to seek it elsewhere.

 

You can listen to the Lower Lights Mindfulness Plus podcast at https://www.mindfulnessplus.org/.

 


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About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

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