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Not even seeing eye to eye here, as usual

January 2, 2012

Over on Twitter, Joanna Brooks @askmormongirl asked:

if you had to convince a 23 year old that a religious / faith / spiritual life was worth the investment, what would you say?

I recently had my 22nd birthday, so given there aren’t too many life differences between a 22-year-old and a 23-year-old, I suppose that this question could be greatly relevant to my interests. And personally, I am very interested in reasons people might make to convince me that a religious/spiritual/faithful life is worth the investment, although even still, I don’t really know what these terms mean and people are pretty unclear about defining them in an accessible, consistent way. Ah, such is life.

Anyway, several people on twitter took a stab at Joanna’s question, and as usually happens with these kinds of questions,  I either wasn’t completely on board with the answer or had no freaking idea where the person was coming from.

Ah, such is life. Anyway, let’s dive in…

Brian Hayes @peacecompassion says:

To bring out your highest potential to always be true to yourselve [sic] help others

Umm…ok. I would just ask for clarification on what this means…what is one’s highest potential to always be true to him (or her)self and how does a religious/spiritual/faithful life bring that out? What does one say to a jaded 23-year-old (or 22-year-old) whose experience with religion/spirituality/faith is seeing how it encourages people to be “true” to some standard other than who they are (and in fact, may actively oppose the individual as it currently exists [e.g., natural man is an enemy to God, etc.])?

This is especially evident in another of Brian’s responses:

in order to live true to your sincere convictions create a world where many share your earnest view of life …

I don’t want to be totally cynical and jaded, but I think the issue for many 22 and 23-year-olds is that they feel that religion doesn’t share their sincere convictions or help create a world where many share their earnest view of life. Whatever those are or that is.

Alan Hooker (@awhooker) has an interesting response (and a few followups to other people):

I don’t really like the use of ‘investment’. Spirituality might make you happier/healthy, but without God, what’s the point?

He clarifies his dislike of the term “investment” in other tweets:

As in, you shouldn’t have a spiritual life if you want something out of it. It shouldn’t just be an ‘investment.’

Actually, with this clarification or without it, I don’t really get what Alan is trying to say. So, is a spiritual life not supposed to have anything to it? I mean, a lot of people talk about having a “relationship” with God, but don’t relationships also require “investment”? And, is it unreasonable to want some return to come from that investment…at the very least, a response from the being with whom you’re pursuing a relationship?

Then came answers from those like TentTrash @MulletPatrol:

look at the blessings / benefits of the lifestyle vs, a more hedonistic lifestyle. I’ll take the spiritual life any day.

or Chris Knudsen (@Chrisknudsen):

life without religion/faith, etc is like a soccer field without rules and goals. Stay inbounds and kick for the goals.

At this point, I began to gain the distinct impression that I sometimes get that people aren’t even seeing eye to eye on this issue, so whatever benefits of a spiritual/faithful/religious life there may be are going to be lost on people like me coming of age in society…because I can’t even get on board with the premises implied in these statements.

So the dichotomy is spirituality/faith/religion or hedonism/goal-lessness/aimlessness. That’s all they see.

This is actually a complicated one to address, because it’s not as if there isn’t something there. If you’re coming from a strict background, then yeah, some of the restrictions that most people don’t follow that you do are going to seem like hedonism. I mean, if you believing drinking alcohol, tea, coffee, whatever are sins, then how can you explain someone who drinks these other than by calling them hedonistic sinners?

But here’s the deal: this “hedonism” isn’t “black” to the “religious” lifestyle’s “white”. Rather, you can see even within so-called “hedonism” variations…so you can even see people who may drink (gasp) disapprove of Jim who doesn’t do so responsibly and consequently acts like a jerk. Because there is more than the extremes of “tee-totaller” (or whatever the abstinent extreme would be) and “raging irresponsible drunk” (or whatever the excessive extreme would be).

This get to my issue with Chris’s tweet: it’s not like you have rules, boundaries, and goals with religion/faith/spirituality, but without these, you are on a soccer field without rules or goals. Maybe nonreligious people tend to play a different game, but that doesn’t make their game illegitimate.

…but I understand that this one is also complicated to address, because once again, it’s not as if there isn’t anything to what Chris and others like him say. But again, I don’t think he addresses this deeper criticism. Maybe 22 and 23-year-olds are not satisfied with religious offerings because they think the rules enacted by those religions are uncompelling? It doesn’t work just to have any old goal or set of rules…these things have to be coherent. So, to the extent that people do dabble with nihilism and postmodernism, it’s to the extent that the current discourses are so very flawed.

Some of the responses I read after those were downright depressing, however. From Chappy @chappy:

maybe the bleak circumstances, debt, and environmental destruction leads the younger generation to seek religion…Eventually


sometimes people have to be compelled to be humble (though it is better if they don’t have to be) right?


I’m not going to begin to state that “bleak circumstances,” “debt,” and “environmental destruction” are all the fault of religion, but I would venture to state that religion doesn’t necessarily have a good track record with these. (Obviously, all religions aren’t the same, but I don’t think most Evangelicals are espousing evangelical environmentalism.)

But I guess the scary thing about these two tweets is that it isn’t really about whether religions help or hinder against these problems. Rather, these problems are going to exist and you’re just going to have to be humbled into being religious.

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  1. Seth R. permalink

    I guess I didn’t see much difference between so-called “godless hedonism” and the spiritual tweets that were supposedly opposed to it.

    “To bring out your highest potential to always be true to yourselve [sic] help others”

    I’m sorry, was that supposed to be inspiring?

    Basically it boils down to “do your own thing” and devote yourself to being “nice” (whatever that is). Sorry, but any shiftless college freshman in the US already knows this message – with or without God’s help. It almost seems like modern “spirituality” is devoted to simply slapping a god-themed paint job over the same inadequate undirected values people already have.

    “Do your own thing”
    “Be true to yourself”
    “Be authentic”

    Those who’ve read the Book of Mormon know the first thing an anti-Christ does is tell everyone exactly what they wanted to hear in the first place. Any snake oil salesman, used car lot, and self-help fad-pusher knows how to blow sunshine up people’s butt. And I think the “jaded” college kids are starting to catch on (deep down). They’ve had people telling them their whole lives that THEY are the sole moral center of the universe and the real secret to morality is “authenticity.”

    And deep-down, they know it just isn’t true. In fact, they are painfully aware that they are NOT great, are not impressive, are not doing a lot of worthwhile things, and are not fulfilling their destiny as human beings. And they want someone to freaking grow a pair and provide some needed moral guidance. Because the kids know they sure as hell don’t have it hidden somewhere “inside.”

    The whole reason behind sending college freshmen TO college is because they don’t have the answer inside. And that’s the same reason we send people to church.

    Or at least, that’s why we used to send people to those places. Now, apparently, we just send them there to keep them occupied and entertained. Church and the academy.

    I’ll take a stab at the definition of spirituality.

    It’s the painful wrenching of yourself out of yourself and chucking yourself into a wider OUTSIDE reality beyond your previous comprehension. It sucks, it hurts, it denies who you used to be or are, it requires giving up important things (like friends even), and you can’t even comprehend what’s in store.

    And when you manage it, let me know – because I sure as hell haven’t found the answer “inside my heart.”

  2. Ah Seth, I was expecting you to comment on this post…

    unfortunately, I don’t see the fire in your comment as you do.

  3. Seth R. permalink

    Well, that’s OK. Can’t win em all.

  4. I guess the question itself assumes that you could “convince” someone of the validity of a religious path, when in reality I don’t think that ever really happens.

    Perhaps there are plenty of folks who are “convinced” by others — by parents, teachers, role-models, etc. But I’m skeptical about whether that’s actually a true religious path… It might look like it superficially, but it’s probably just conventional, compliant behavior.

    I think a true religious path comes from within, and literally cannot be given to somebody else by anybody. I’m fascinated by various sayings of Jesus that hint at this… The parable of the virgins is a good example. When the bridegroom comes, the virgins “without oil” beg for oil from the virgins who have it. And the virgins who have it reply simply, “We can’t give it to you, you have to go get it yourselves.” I think the underlying moral here is, if you don’t have it within you, you can’t get it from somebody else.

    Another saying, very common in the gospels… Jesus says, “Let him hear who has ears to hear.” Again, it implies: either you understand it, you get it, or you don’t. And if you don’t, no amount of explaining will make it work for you.

    If you have some profound experience with God, a relationship, then everything seems crystal clear. It seems like you ought to be able to convey it to others, explain it to them. But you can’t… Words are always inadequate.

    On the other hand, once the spark is lit in your heart, dialogue about it does become fruitful. Then someone who’s been in the path can explain things to you… You have a context, a basis for comparison, for understanding.

    Sorry to be the bearer of bad news… Or good, I guess depending how you look at it. If you haven’t been lit by the spark of the divine, or whatever you want to call it, I’m not sure what you can do about it. For what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s your fault… I believe you when you say it’s not for lack of desire. If that’s true, then I would say you’re off the hook until God taps you on the shoulder, and gives you whatever you need… Without inspiration, you have no choice but to go forward on your own lights, the best you know how.

    And also, for what it’s worth, I agree with your analysis of a religious vs. non-religious path. Not entirely rules-less, but probably not completely rules-y either. It’s not as black and white as most religious folks make out.

  5. John GW,

    I was also expecting you to comment, of course.

    I’m so glad to have my two favorite Mormon commenters, Seth and John, commenting on the same post. Such a treasure! Very different perspectives too, as usual.

  6. I’ve noticed Seth’s comments many a time on the posts I’ve commented on… I always appreciate his point of view! 🙂

    Not sure we’ve ever been properly introduced though.

  7. Introductions?! I don’t get that fancy here.

  8. Seth R. permalink

    Pleased to meet you. I’ve seen you around as well.

    John and I do have a rather different outlook on the same religion. Not that I mind that in the slightest. In fact, I appreciate it. I always have decidedly mixed feelings about being the only committed Mormon viewpoint in a venue. I don’t like the idea that people might judge the religion solely by my own views. So counterpoint is always welcome as far as I’m concerned.

  9. I suppose I could describe my marriage in terms of pros, cons, “investment,” etc. but that seems to do violence to what my marriage actually is. “Investment” assumes some sort of expectation of reciprocity or gain for both parties, and I just don’t see my marriage in such terms. It seems to turn my wife into an object meant to satisfy my needs. If you’re with the right person, then the work to maintain the relationship is just a byproduct of the nature of the relationship to begin with.

    Likewise, religion, for me, isn’t some sort of stock market into which I invest funds hoping for a return at some point, nor do I give to the religion out of an obligation due to what God has given me. I don’t see God as an object that I bounce assets off of. Perhaps I saw it more in that way during my more agnostic years, but I think this was the result of me just trying to make religion work for pragmatic reasons. For me now, religion is just what happens when I love God. To think that I could somehow transfer that to someone else to “convince” them that spirituality is worth the “investment” would leave me a bit confused. Should a person get married hoping to one day get a return from their investment? The thought makes me shudder.

  10. Seth R. permalink

    That’s a good point. I suppose the only people who view religion or relationships as a “return-on-investment” sort of thing are those trying to keep their distance from it.

  11. Syphax,

    While I can see where you’re coming from, I guess I would have to push back. You say that “investment assumes some sort of expectation of reciprocity or gain for both parties, and I just don’t see my marriage in such terms.” I understand that at some point, making it into an economic transaction is too clinical and can “objectify” the people involved in the relationship, but it seems to me that when you say “if you’re with the right person,” then there IS something being shared between the people involved in the relationship in order for them to determine that the other is the “right person.”

    In other words, there is gain for both parties…otherwise, you have an abuse relationship or a one-sided relationship, or something like that…

    (personally, I tend to see a lot of religion as being like that, but that’s the agno-atheist in me speaking. 😉 )

  12. And, to bounce off of Seth R’s comment…I think people who try to keep their distance from certain relationships do so because they recognize the kinds of vulnerabilities people can get in with them. I.e., there ARE abusive relationships that DO wreck people, if they aren’t too careful.

  13. Seth R. permalink

    But is living in fear of that the best way to approach relationships?

  14. …If you’ve already been burned, why not? Trick me once, shame on you; trick me twice…

    (to relate to the analogy with religion and spirituality, I’m assuming that the scenario Joanna’s twitter followers are responding to is of a person who may have grown up in a religious environment and is being disillusioned from it…I think cynicism in either arena isn’t about fear of something as of yet unexperienced, but about a precaution against something one is very familiar with.)

  15. Seth R. permalink

    I don’t think the modern American divorce epidemic is something I’m ever going to be OK with.

  16. To the extent that higher divorce rates (as well as lower marriage rates to begin with) are correlated with better educational and work opportunities for women (and thus, greater economic freedom/independence), I’m cool with those things. I see the alternative, even though it preserves “traditional marriage” as a raw deal for half or more of the population.

    I mean, yeah, *now* we have frivolous divorces. We have frivolous marriages that never should’ve happened in the first place, too. To some extent, that’s a side effect of people marrying for “love” (and then finding out that maybe they were just doing things in the heat of the moment, and when the spark is gone, they don’t want to stick with their spouse through thick and thin) rather than obligation or necessity, but I don’t think we should revert back to past arrangements where many people stay in abusive relationships just because they didn’t have the education or the opportunities to move elsewhere and because — hey, love really wasn’t the most important factor anyway.

    …and I’m not saying all relationships end up abusive or that they should be all sunshine and roses all the time. But nostalgia goggles for the past really forget that in the past, it sucked to be a lot of people.

  17. Seth R. permalink

    Less than 20% of divorces in modern America involve even “high-intensity conflict” let alone real abuse.

    So I think this is a bit of a red herring.

  18. Just because it’s not “high intensity” doesn’t make it not abuse.

  19. Seth R. permalink

    It’s a psycho-babble term to denote a level of conflict. “Abuse” would be over that limit. It was basically a way of saying that although abuse rates are common, divorce is a hell of a lot more common than abuse is.

    And no – you or me being “unhappy” in a marriage does not satisfy the definition of “abuse.”

  20. I had a professor at BYU who once described relationships in terms of equity of exchange… He claimed that at some level — either conscious or unconscious — you expect things out of a relationship in return for what you give to the relationship. You expect… devotion, intimacy, etc., etc., in return for… buying groceries, taking out the trash, investing time, etc., etc. And relationships supposedly start to fall apart when one or both partners feel like their return on investment is less than it should be. Most people don’t consciously calculate those things, but they expect them at some level nonetheless… At least, according to this professor.

    I’ve always been intrigued by that account of relationships. It has, at least, prompted me to periodically ask myself the question, “What am I giving to my relationship with my husband? I’m I giving at least as much as I’m getting?” Because I’ve always felt like I got a lot out of my relationship with my husband… He’s always been there for me in a way that’s really given me a solid foundation for my life. I feel very lucky.

    I suppose it’s similar in my relationship with God… I have always felt like I got WAY MORE than I was giving or could ever give… According to King Benjamin, anyway, that’s the nature of our relationship with God. We could give everything it was in our power to give for the rest of our lives, and we would never be anything but “unprofitable servants…”

  21. To the extent that higher divorce rates (as well as lower marriage rates to begin with) are correlated with better educational and work opportunities for women (and thus, greater economic freedom/independence), I’m cool with those things.

    Me too, however, I’m not sure that’s the actual correlation. I can try to look up the stats, but my understanding is that in the long run better educational and work opportunities for women lead to lower divorce rates (largely because — as you point out — they lead to later/less marriage to begin with). Atheists and “blue states” are famous for having very low divorce rates, probably because there’s less pressure to get married before you’re ready to make that commitment. Similarly for women’s opportunities — when people don’t need to get married for economic support, then the people who don’t want to be married excuse themselves from the marriage pool.

  22. Seth R. permalink

    I wouldn’t crow too loud.

    They have low divorce rates because they don’t even bother to GET married in the first place.

    They just live in the same house without the risk of commitment.

  23. To all: i apologize for spelling and formatting mistakes: my phone browser has a bug where keyboard autocorrect doesnt work in text boxes like this.

    John GW:

    I think the important thing is how the individuals perceive their standings in the relationship. In a couple, if both parties think they are getting more than they give, then ultimately thats good.

    Cant speak for God but i guess the theoretical point of salvation is that even if we are unprofitable servants, it’s still ok.

    Anyway, since I cant speak for god, i can at least try to speak for the human: if a person feels like s/he is getting so much more than s/he’s giving to God, then wouldnt that make the spiritual relationship “investment” worth it?

    I guess my issue is feeling like a slave in the religious equation rather than an unprofitable servant.


    I agree with you about the long run effects. However, for transitioning societies or in the short term, i think the correlation becomes more chicken and egg.


    Yeah, i think these various social changes do lead to more nonmarried cohabitation and deferral (if not complete eschewal) of marriage.

    But i’m becoming less and less convinced of marriage’s intrinsic value. I mean, maybe there are things about marriage and certain marriage-like arrangements that are really ideal, but im more and more alienated from the ideas and trappings behind “traditional marriage“ and if some people are so insistant in a limited view of what marriage is, then ultimately im not interested in that.

    This gets into another tweet response to Joanna that came after i published this post…it pointed out that the problem with the many tweet responses was that they assumed that the young person in question would have traditional values. Pro tip: we dont. Maybe everyone hasnt thought about it as i have (and maybe im deluding myself to presume that ive thought about it), but traditional values are on the same chopping block as traditional religiosity, imo.

  24. Seth R. permalink

    I think you’re right Andrew. And I find that profoundly disturbing. It indicates an overwhelming self-centeredness guiding our current society.

    Such a society ultimately cannot be of use to the world. It will collapse on itself.

  25. OK, I seriously shouldn’t come back a month later to finish reading an old discussion, but:

    I wouldn’t crow too loud.

    They have low divorce rates because they don’t even bother to GET married in the first place.

    Is this in response to what I said…? “Crow too loud?” Your point was the same as my point: people who don’t want to get married (or aren’t ready to get married) don’t get married. Hence, lower divorce.

    This is my biggest blogging pet-peeve. When people repeat my same point (or say something that doesn’t contradict or conflict with my point) and combine it with “and that’s why I disagree with you, Chanson.”

  26. Seth R. permalink

    Hmm… Guess you were making that point.

    I still don’t view it as a positive though. I think a society who’s aim is to ensure no one in it “needs” anyone else will ultimately fundamentally contradict itself and destroy itself.

    Because it undermines the core premise of “society” to begin with.

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