“I’m not religious, I’m spiritual”

Hence the difficulty which besets “undenominational religions.” They profess to include what is beautiful in all creeds, but they appear to many to have collected all that is dull in them. All the colours mixed together in purity ought to make a perfect white. Mixed together on any human paint–box, they make a thing like mud, and a thing very like many new religions.

– Gilbert K Chesterton, “Christmas and the Aesthetes,” Heretics (New York: John Lane company, 1905 [twelfth edition, 1919]).

“I’m not religious,” people sometimes say, “but I’m spiritual.”

A strange statement, since to be spiritual is to adapt some type of attitude toward religion (often a negative one). Most who are “spiritual” in this sense seem to have a mash of fairly ill-formed ideas, vague impressions, and a pastiche of slogans. They can often tell me what they oppose, but rarely what they embrace.

(My least favorite of these slogans is that ‘Everything happens for a reason.’ And, this is not offered as a type of Greek-philosophy-based claim about prime movers and efficient causes. Instead, it usually seems to mean that God, karma, the Fates, or the universe makes everything happen for the best, some deeper purpose. But, this is clearly false—many things happen because of our own evil or stupidity. And, much else happens because of the evil and stupidity of others. This is hardly reassuring.)

They are, of course, entitled. I would not have it otherwise.

My point is simply that I can’t ever remember anyone who was “only spiritual” ever saying anything about that spirituality that was in the least arresting.

They don’t, for example, say anything that I could agree with that 99% of our society wouldn’t also have embraced.

(“You should be kind to people.” True. But hardly novel, or a proposition that you need a “spiritual” dimension to agree upon, usually. And, one must then ask, “How ought we to know what being kind is? Is giving an alcoholic alcohol kind, or is it doing him harm? Is it kind to leave people in their delusions, or to seek to win them out by reason? By manipulation? By force?”)

But, nor do they make claims I would have felt to dispute. Trying to get a handle on anything they truly, deeply thought is like grasping at fog.

Instead, one is treated to statements that sound nice, but mean very little–or very little that is concrete. One could talk with them in circles endlessly, while saying very little.

And, I often wonder why this is so–for, certainly those who say this are often intelligent people. In fact, people who are sophisticated and intelligent are, in my experience, far more likely to say it than people who are less sophisticated.

Or, at the least, those who say it seem to want to be thought sophisticated, deep-thinking, seriously reflective types. That is why the lack of substance is always so surprising.

But, perhaps Chesterton has it right. Perhaps the problem is that being strongly for something necessarily requires that one be strongly against the opposite of the view. Those who embrace the path of “spirituality” seem above all to wish to be seen as urbane, tolerant, sophisticated men-and-women-of-the-world, grasping perspectives and nuances which the common rabble can’t. They mustn’t upset anyone, or at least anyone in the club. (The common rabble, of course, can howl as they like.)

They thus seek to hold these types of commitments in abeyance—because, to admit to any firm views about such matters is to imply that others are wrong: deeply offensive to some of the club. If one claims to have found an answer, then the debate, the discussion, “the dialogue” (they love the latter term) becomes merely the means, and not the end they seem to enjoy it being.

For, the goal of the modern (or, even more so, the post-modern) thinker is to keep “the dialogue” going on forever, worlds without end. But, Chesterton was prescient about the problems:

The vice of the modern notion of mental progress is that it is always something concerned with the breaking of bonds, the effacing of boundaries, the casting away of dogmas. But if there be such a thing as mental growth, it must mean the growth into more and more definite convictions, into more and more dogmas. The human brain is a machine for coming to conclusions; if it cannot come to conclusions it is rusty. When we hear of a man too clever to believe, we are hearing of something having almost the character of a contradiction in terms. It is like hearing of a nail that was too good to hold down a carpet; or a bolt that was too strong to keep a door shut.”

–         Gilbert K Chesterton, “Concluding Remarks on the Importance of Orthodoxy” Heretics (New York: John Lane company, 1905 [twelfth edition, 1919]).

One may think, conclude, or believe wrongly of course. But, in the modern and post-modern eras, we seem too enamored of avoiding any conclusion at all (about some things—about others we are dogmatically certain and never reassess them). We worry, as we so often do, about the fault we are least prone to in our time: we worry we may believe or insist upon too much, when in fact we hold far too few convictions. We refuse to come to principled conclusions and act upon them.

The New Testament talks about the risks. We are

Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. Now as [Pharaoh’s Egyptian magicians] withstood Moses, so do these also resist the truth: men of corrupt minds, reprobate concerning the faith. (2 Timothy 3:7-8)

The Abuse of ‘Forgiveness’ – Part 1

… the mantle of charity must not be stretched so widely, in our desire to protect our erring friends, as to reflect dishonor on the work of God, or contempt for the principles of the everlasting Gospel. There is an unfortunate tendency in the natures of many to palliate sins by which they are not personally injured, but we must not forget that such palliation frequently increases the original wrong, and brings discredit on the Church and dishonor to the name and work of our blessed Redeemer; in other words, to save the feelings of our friends we are willing to crucify afresh the Lord of life and glory.

–          John Taylor[1]

In my medical practice and Church service, I often encounter people who have been sinned against—often grievously. Such cases usually involve both incredible cruelty, as well as deep betrayals of trust. This includes such evils as child abuse, spouse abuse, adultery, introduction of pornography into the marriage, business partners who defraud, and so forth.

To have peace, such victims need to (ultimately) forgive. We are, after all, commanded to forgive up to seventy times seven (Matthew 18:22; D&C 98:40), since “I the Lord will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men” (D&C 64:10).

But, that is a post for another time. Victims know all this, and most struggle nobly at it. I want here to discuss something far more common, and about which people worry far less than they ought. And, I’m convinced, this error actually impedes those who need to forgive from being able to do so. (As I noted in an earlier post, the ability to forgive such things is a gift of grace, every bit as miraculous as receiving forgiveness from God.)

As John Taylor notes , victims’ friends and acquaintances often mistake the process. They encourage or even push the person: “You need to forgive.” While true in a long-term sense, this is rarely helpful. This often results—either in fact or in perception—as a “palliation [that] frequently increases the original wrong, and brings discredit on the Church and dishonor to the name and work of our blessed Redeemer.” Such on-lookers are often uncomfortable with the obvious pain and distress of the victim. They want to “fix it,” and cannot. Thus, they urge the victim to forgive, because if they have forgiven the problem is solved and (often not coincidentally) the bystander will not have to hear about it any more.

Even more insidious is the invocation of these doctrines by the abuser or sinner. They urge the victim of their evil acts to “get over it,” “move on,” and so forth. Such efforts ring rather hollow—they represent nothing but the evil-doer’s desire to be absolved. The perpetrator does not want to be called to account (or, at the least, wants to do so once in a superficial way and be done with it). He or she certainly does not want to suffer the consequences of the sin—they do not want to be confronted with the on-going pain they have caused. They often hope to minimize what they have done, argue that it is “all in the past” and the relationship simply needs to “move on.” They avoid, in essence, the making of amends and providing restitution.

This is a cheat. Restitution is key to repentance, and the process is stalled until efforts are made. And, no restitution can really be contemplated or even begun until the sinner and victim have “counted the cost.” Victimizers are understandably keen to avoid this painful, often drawn-out process. It takes time, new “hidden” costs are forever appearing from serious sin, and the perpetrator finds to his dismay or distaste that his own discomfort goes on and on, just as the victim’s suffering does. And, it may be that true restitution would mean the loss of gains—in power, material resources, prestige, self-image—which prompted the original sin. True restitution means the loss of any ill-gotten gains and then some: small wonder that wrong-doers want to invoke forgiveness, because it means that all debts are settled. There is no need or expectation that we need even try to return to the status quo ante. To even bring the matter up is gauche, “unchristian.”

By contrast, any truly repentant person would not be worried at all about the victim’s readiness to forgive, so wrapped up would he be in trying to repair the wrong which had been done. But, too many perpetrators or onlookers are focused on making themselves feel better, and see forgiveness as the ticket. (God’s forgiveness, of course, will make us feel better—but it is not contingent upon the victim’s state of mind at all.)

“You need to forgive” thus becomes, in many hands, merely a gospel club with which to beat the victim anew from a stance of moral superiority and high-mindedness. We remember the parable of the unjust servant who, having been forgiven, took his fellow by the throat, demanding “pay me that thou owest” (Matthew 18:28).

Those who seek easy, quick, and convenient forgiveness for grave wrongs do him one better—they take their victim by the throat, and demand (in oh-so-loving tones), “Why haven’t you forgiven me yet?”

No true penitent would think to ask such a question. And, no one who was forgiven by God would feel the need to.

[To be continued]


[1] John Taylor and George Q. Cannon [First Presidency], “Epistle to Saints in Semi-Annual Conference, October 6, 1886,” from pamphlet in Church Historian’s Library, Salt Lake City; reproduced in James R. Clark, Messages of the First Presidency (Salt Lake City, Deseret Book, 1966), 3:88.