Kinds and Reasons

November 2, 2005 | 24 comments
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I recently read an article by Robert Winston, a British writer and television presenter, exploring the implications of evolution for religion and asking whether our earliest ancestors gained some competitive advantage from their shared religious feelings. Winston’s stuff was just okay, I thought; it was something else that caught my attention.

The article cites the work of Gordon Allport, a Harvard psychologist working in the 1950s, who proposed that one of two kinds of commitment motivate religious believers, either extrinsic or intrinsic religiosity. Winston anatomizes this bipedal scheme as follows: a person who is extrinsically committed, it is argued,

goes to church or synagogue as a means to an end—for what they can get out of it. They might go to church to be seen, because it is the social norm in their society, conferring respectability or social advancement. Going to church (or synagogue) becomes a social convention.

Allport thought that intrinsic religiosity was different. He identified a group of people who were intrinsically religious, seeing their religion as an end in itself. They tended to be more deeply committed; religion became the organising principle of their lives, a central and personal experience.

I’d encountered this distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic religious experience before, and it made quite a bit of sense to me then. This time I wasn’t so satisfied. It seems to me that Allport’s dichotomy only becomes visible in a Protestant context, a spiritual regime in which participation in a socially embedded religious community unceremoniously (ha!) cleaves from—and takes backseat to—personal spiritual experience; the Protestant prefers the prayer closet to the parish, and it turns out that the prayer closet is the only place you can see the difference. Because the distinction between inner and outer forms of spirituality is a Protestant construct, it rather naturally privileges the former in all sorts of predictable ways: Allport, unsurprisingly, finds that extrinsic religiosity corresponds with higher levels of prejudice, while Winston suggests that extrinsic behavior is associated with increased tendencies to guilt, worry and anxiety.

I’ve found that I can’t map my own religious experience onto the intrinsic/extrinsic topography, either. Mormonism, I’ve argued elsewhere, elevates the collective above the individual—or, better, integrates the individual into the collective. Thus our most sacred forms of worship are “outer observances,” groups of Saints worshiping together in forms governed by convention, and our most sacred doctrines install the individual into a sociality. What I gain from my association with groups of Saints large and small is, precisely, a central plank of my personal spirituality; the extrinsic nourishes the intrinsic. (I’ll confess a tempermental bias here, too: I try, with varying degrees of success, to maintain a vibrant inner spiritual life through personal prayer and devotion, but it’s family and ward observances that really orient and infuse my life with spiritual meaning.)

So does Mormonism suggest its own taxonomy of religious experience? Can we harvest from Mosiah 18, for example, a distinction between “coming into the fold of God” and “being called his people”—that is, between religious experience that binds us to God and experience that binds us to the Saints? Or perhaps into Section 46 we can read a distinction between the gifts of God administered by the priesthood, and those administered by the Spirit? Maybe a three- or four- or five-part anatomy works better? Or does Mormon monism assert itself again, unifying all varieties of religious experience into one glorious whole?

What kinds of religious experience organize your life, and why?

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24 Responses to Kinds and Reasons

  1. Adam Greenwood on November 2, 2005 at 9:32 am

    “I try, with varying degrees of success, to maintain a vibrant inner spiritual life through personal prayer and devotion, but it’s family and ward observances that really orient and infuse my life with spiritual meaning.”

    Me too.

  2. Russell Arben Fox on November 2, 2005 at 10:04 am

    A superb post as always, Rosalynde. Though as an aside, I think that the sort of presumptions held by folks like Allport and Winston do a disservice to Protestantism: “integrat[ing} the individual into the collective,” by way of an interior grace made manifest in the congregation, is what I think proper Protestant pietism has always been about. (Whether there is something inherent in Protestant forms of worship which makes that insight hard to hold on to is, of course, another debate entirely.)

    What kind of religious experiences organize my life? The sacrament, most importantly: I can never take Sunday particularly seriously–and I want to take it seriously–if I’m not able to partake of the bread and water. (This is why I have a hard time viewing stake, regional, and even general conference as a matter of great importance; I appreciate the need for them, and enjoy some of the rituals associated with them, but fundamentally they just strike me as meetings, rather than worship services.) Is partaking the sacrament intrinsic or extrinsic? As you suggest, the distinction really doesn’t work very well. Of course, as long as there is someone around who is at least a priest in the Aaronic priesthood, you can take the sacrament anywhere, even on your own. But I believe that in an important way it’s best if you can be extrinsically involved–that is, with others, if only a group of two or three, and in a particular place–if the sacrament is to really move one intrinsically. With the result that, when Melissa and I are away from home on Sunday, we drive all over looking for a ward or branch where we can slip in and take the sacrament with our kids. Sometimes, when things have really been rushed, we haven’t been able to stay for church; once in Toronto, we arrived at a local ward late, grabbed the bishop after sacrament meeting, and asked if he could arrange for us to take the sacrament anyway. He very kindly did, rounding up some Aaronic priesthoold holders and administering it to us in his office. So I guess you could say the sacrament definitely “organizes” the way we live out our lives as Mormons.

  3. Christian Y. Cardall on November 2, 2005 at 10:40 am

    Or does Mormon monism assert itself again, unifying all varieties of religious experience into one glorious whole?

    Yes, of course—all circumscribed into one great whole. Though this is a gradual and unfinished process, Jacob’s careful clearing away and grafting in; starting of course with Joseph’s union of past glories, but also including those things which have been kept hid from the prophetic wise and prudent, revealed in the dispensation of the fulness of times unto prophetic babes and sucklings—such as Darwin.

    Even if it didn’t end up as the subject of your post, kudos for at least reading and thinking about the implications of evolution, and what it might take to extend the circumscribing reach of the compass to include it. Gould’s concept of “non-overlapping magisteria” will not cut it at all, not for Mormon confidence in and taste for ontological realities.

    (Apologies for the predictable threadjack. I am, after all, as reliably single-minded and unimaginative as Aaron B. Cox.)

    As for the kinds of religious experiences that organize my life, I’m a little hung up on those damn ontological realities at the moment—though I will say that recently hearing the missionaries practice a discussion on our family momentarily brought back the sense I had in the mission field about a question that bothered me as a teenager: Yes, even if I hadn’t grown up a member, if I had experienced as an investigator the kinds of discussions I participated in as a missionary, I might well have joined too.

  4. Christian Y. Cardall on November 2, 2005 at 11:34 am

    To say a bit more about the religious experiences that currently organize my life… I attend all three hours of church every week and give my full attention (no outside books for me, Dave!) Family prayer occurs twice daily, and family Book of Mormon reading about as many days as not (it took my wife and I about three years to read the Book of Mormon together in Spanish, and since then it’s taken our family about seven years to reach our current location in the middle of Alma 58)—both of which bind our family in such a way that I would not dream of missing them, even if God didn’t exist.

  5. Tatiana on November 2, 2005 at 12:52 pm

    My religious life is heavily weighted toward the intrinsic, still. I first gained a favorable view of Mormons from the books of Orson Scott Card, then became active on his Hatrack River forum online. Participants on the forum are of all faiths, including, not surprisingly, some LDS. I came to know a number of awesome people who were LDS that way, and got interested in the church, because it seemed to me that a church with so many wonderful people must be doing something right. I felt I was following a stream of spiritual juice back to its source, perhaps, or like a young salmon swimming home. (smiles)

    I had discussed and settled all my doctrinal questions and difficulties, with my friends online, and read half the Book of Mormon and most of the Doctrine and Covenants before I felt in my heart that the time was right, and called the missionaries. I left a message on their answering machine saying “I’m ready to take the lessons and be baptized.” They were ecstatic. They told me they played the tape from that answering machine at their stake meeting. Before that point I had never met anyone LDS in real life, or not anyone I knew well enough to know what religion they were. I live in the southeastern US, and the LDS presence here is quite small compared to out west.

    I have been in 3 different wards now and still have a hard time feeling like I’m part of the community in any of my wards. I’m sure that’s my fault, because I’m very much not a joiner. My spiritual life is sustained through prayer, daily scripture reading, fasting, tithing, contributing to PEF and the LDS humanitarian fund, reading the Ensign, keeping the commandments, and through my contact with other saints online. I have a strong testimony of the truth of the restored gospel. My faith is quite literal and complete, something like the faith I have, as an engineer, in the properties of steel. One of my LDS friends told me he believes in the afterlife the way he believes in Puerto Rico, and I feel exactly the same way. For this rock solid faith I am profoundly grateful. It always brings tears to my eyes when I read of anyone’s uncertainties about things that matter. I always wish there were some way I could give them this joy and safety and knowledge that I have found.

    I attend sacrament meeting once or twice a month and currently don’t have a calling or any visiting teaching assignment, though I’ve had them before. The intrinsic builds up and the extrinsic tears down, for me, at this point. The intrinsic adds to some account that the extrinsic is subtracting from, as things stand now. I am pressing on in faith, knowing that things will not always be thus. So I maintain a balance, going as far as I can into the extrinsic until I feel myself getting low on spiritual fuel, then withdrawing into the intrinsic to recharge. Among saints online I feel at home, as though I’m one of them. Among saints in my wards, I feel like an interloper. Culturally we are so very different. They are always kind and yet there is no real connection there between us, that I can feel. But I do get flashes from time to time, so I know that it will happen someday. In the meantime I do feel very much at home among my online LDS friends. I find myself wishing there were a way to have an online ward. (laughs)

    As for that very interesting threadjack (#3), I find no difficulty reconciling evolution or any other part of science with LDS doctrine. There’s a sense in which stories like the Garden of Eden story can be so very metaphorically true that they are literally true. I call that spiritual truth. It rises above the level of literal truth, in the same way that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony rises above the level of the notes that make it up. Understanding it on the note by note level is not possible or very meaningful, yet on the true level at which it should be understood, it’s deep and powerful and full of meaning. Perhaps the literal events of the fall happened once or many times to pairs or groups of people. They are quite literally true, maybe even in some way that we don’t understand yet. In addition to that they are true on a higher level, in that they show, in some deep sense, what it means to be human.

  6. C Jones on November 2, 2005 at 2:01 pm

    Tatiana, your comment #5 is exactly the kind of thing I hoped to find in the LDS online community. Sweet, sincere, faithful. Thank you.

  7. Rosalynde on November 2, 2005 at 2:29 pm

    Precisely, C. Jones, and yes, thank you Tatiana and other commenters. With such a stinker of a lead, I can be sure that only the best and most dedicated readers ventured beyond the (more)! (Which wasn’t my intention, I was just too tired last night to come up with anything better.)

    I’ve got to put my kids down and clean up from lunch, so I’ll respond to your excellent discussion later. Just wanted you to know I’ve read your contributions!

  8. Adam Greenwood on November 2, 2005 at 2:53 pm

    That Beethoven analogy is perfection. And so is this “My spiritual life is sustained through . . . tithing [and] contributing to PEF and the LDS humanitarian fund.” There’s something extremely Mormon about that. Ours is not an entirely contemplative spirituality.

  9. Ana on November 2, 2005 at 4:13 pm

    That’s a fascinating question, Rosalynde. I thought of a couple of things that sustain my spiritual life right now:

    First, watching/facilitating the spiritual growth of others. Reading scriptures with my children and answering their questions. Watching the young women I work with blossom in their commitment to the gospel. This is, in some ways, an extrinsic pursuit because it’s focused outside myself. I enjoy and rely on the affection I find in these relationships. But at the same time, I feel the rewards of it inside myself. The affection and the fun by themselves might not motivate me, without a sense of the spiritual importance of this kind of work.

    Second, the amazing experience whenever I find I really need an answer about what to do in my life and I find direction from the Spirit. It’s humbling that however much I yo-yo back and forth, closer to and then further from what should really be central in my life, the help I need is always there when I ask. That doesn’t really fit into the classification you mention, either. It’s all internal, but it’s also very much about what my faith can offer me.

  10. Rosalynde on November 2, 2005 at 4:26 pm

    Russell (#2): Thank you, and thanks for your perfect pitch on Protestantism. My own reading bears out your suggestion that the internal/external dichotomy between Protestant/Catholicism is a bit of a cartoon—although a cartoon that Protestants, far more than Catholics, have drawn.

    About the sacrament, yes, that’s precisely what I was getting at. I wonder if there’s something particular in the nature of Mormon ritual that makes it more than merely extrinsic gesture, something different from Catholic ritual and (what there is of) Protestant ritual. I’ll show my ignorance here: is our explicit linking of covenant with ordinance unique to Mormonism? Because it’s the attached covenant, it seems, that transforms the sacrament from an outward action into an inward state, and it’s the particular content of the covenant—the Mosiah 18 baptismal covenants—that turns the inward state back out into the community.

  11. Rosalynde on November 2, 2005 at 4:51 pm

    Christian, yes, that lead was a bit of a bait-and-switch for you; my apologies! I think you’re right about Joseph’s movement toward a unified theory—but that feels to me more like an epistemological move than a sociological one, more about kinds of knowledge than about kinds of experience. Allport, on the other hand, was a psychologist, not a philosopher or theologian or prophet, and his categories were derived (I assume) from some sort of empirical basis and not from religious claims themselves. So I’m probably going about this all backward by suggesting that we look to restoration scripture for a Mormon improvement on Allport.

    But backward as I am, I can’t resist a shapely schematic, so let me lay out the possibilites so far for the varieties of Mormon religious experience:

    Relation with God / Relation with community
    Ministrations of the Spirit / Administrations of the priesthood
    Covenant / Ritual (from my riff on Russell’s comment)

    Put that way, these all look like iterations on the original intrinsic / extrinsic dichotomy, though with a few important tweaks. Maybe this is going to be harder than I thought.

  12. Christian Y. Cardall on November 2, 2005 at 5:15 pm

    Tatiana: There’s a sense in which stories like the Garden of Eden story can be so very metaphorically true that they are literally true. I call that spiritual truth. It rises above the level of literal truth, in the same way that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony rises above the level of the notes that make it up.

    I’m reminded of a line from my secular holy book, Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet—something along the lines of ‘We can start taking the stories seriously once we stop taking them literally.’

  13. Rosalynde on November 2, 2005 at 5:27 pm

    Tatiana, thank you so much for sharing your very interesting (and in my experience) unique conversion story and your continuing journey into faith. I was struck as I read your account by how much of your spiritual experience is textual—or, more broadly, verbal: prayer, scripture reading, Ensign reading, online communication, even tithing and contributions are, in practice, a mostly textual affair of filling out forms, etc. It’s the, what, interpersonal, maybe, that hasn’t yet worked very well for you (although online interactions are, of course, “interpersonal” too, although mediated by text.)

    And you raise the very interesting possibility of another dichotomy, virtual v. actual, making its way into religious experience, too.

    I’m glad that you have faith that eventually you’ll work your way into a flesh-and-blood community of Saints; you needn’t rush your journey, but I know that I’ve been greatly nourished by my interpersonal ways of being Mormon, and I wish that same nourishment for you, too, when it’s ripe.

  14. Christian Y. Cardall on November 2, 2005 at 5:28 pm

    Rosalynde, yes, my shift from your concern for experiential unification back to the standard epistemological one was one facet of my lovely threadjack. Still, Joseph’s verse I cited referred to the unification of all “keys, powers, and glories,” a sequence almost progressing from external to internal, with “powers” being a transitional element that has both external and internal aspects.

    I also think it’s notable that for all the alleged influence on Joseph of charismatic camp meetings etc. and family bias against established religion, the Book of Mormon seems to have strong themes of authority in addition to its charismatic elements. (On the other hand maybe his father’s side was contra established religion/pro charisma, and his mother’s side the opposite, and in the Book of Mormon we see are welcome resolution for Joseph.)

  15. Rosalynde on November 2, 2005 at 5:38 pm

    Ana, thank you. You should write for the Ensign as well as the Friend! It’s reassuring for me, too, when I find that I really *can* testify to my children and to the sisters in RS (my current calling is RS teacher) with assurance, and that they respond in kind. I think the Mormon idea of “calling”—very different from Protestant ideas of the same word—uniquely combines both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: the calling engages us in the community, but the stewardship redirects that engagement to God. A calling is administered by the priesthood, but requries the ministrations of the Spirit in its magnification.

  16. Russell Arben Fox on November 2, 2005 at 6:29 pm

    Rosalynde,

    “I wonder if there’s something particular in the nature of Mormon ritual that makes it more than merely extrinsic gesture, something different from Catholic ritual and (what there is of) Protestant ritual. I’ll show my ignorance here: is our explicit linking of covenant with ordinance unique to Mormonism?”

    I don’t think it’s unique, at least not insofar such categories of thought and action are concerned. In pietist coventicles and Puritan congregations alike, partaking in a ritual that turned on higly individualized actions (reading the Bible, responding to a jeremiad, etc.) was also, concomitantly, the ground for instantiating a mutual covenant. One’s “willing,” one might say, was made communal; without reducing the sense that one undertook the ritual in order to personally feel or be confirmed in God’s grace, it was assumed that such intentions locked one into obligations as well. This is the great failure of American Protestant Christianity (and, I suppose, arguably a structural failure of Protestantism as a whole): being “saved” through ritualized confession/ordinance/what-have-you lost its association with covenant and mutual obligation–what MLK called the “beloved community.” Now that I think about it, I suppose that does point towards a unique quality in Mormonism: the fact that we have a lay priesthood which nonetheless manages to keep a sense of authority operative in the church, thus preventing us from letting our willing sink back within ourselves, so that we could forget about obligation and become merely intrinsic.

  17. Ana on November 2, 2005 at 6:39 pm

    Heh, thanks! The Ensign hasn’t accepted anything yet, and my pace of submission has slowed significantly since I had to get a full-time, paying job. Darn it!

    Your words about calling might find their way into the spiritual thought portion of the next YW board meeting in my ward … bannergate or not.

  18. Laura on November 3, 2005 at 1:05 am

    I find Allport’s ideas of the Protestant intrinsic/extrinsic dichotomy to be dated- I’m not sure the social benefits that define extrinsic religiousity are still available in today’s society where it is generally acceptable to stay in bed with the Sunday paper.

    As a former Presbyterian (aka “God’s frozen chosen”), I can attest to the fact that internal spiritual experiences are considered private affairs. However, I found that the intrinsic religious experience drove participation in the larger spiritual community, and that participation in the larger spiritual community was an important part of expressing your internal spirituality.

    Similarly, it’s the internal knowlege that the Church is true that motivates me to participate in LDS rituals. What’s different about being Mormon for me is that attending church and other group functions is more than just expressing an intrinsic spirituality. Participating in various Mormon rituals actually deepens my internal spirituality, much as others have already described, whereas participating in Presbyterian rituals only supported my existing spirituality and were not a part of furthering it.

  19. Tatiana on November 3, 2005 at 3:10 am

    Rosalynde, it’s totally true that I’m a text oriented person. I’ve been an avid reader of books all my life. I prefer to wait and read the talks from General Conferences rather than watch them in video, which is an unpleasant medium for me. I don’t ever watch TV. To get news, I prefer to listen to audio media, or better yet, read the news websites. I do, of course, have plenty of real-life (interpersonal, as you say, applies to text too) connections in my family and secular life. But two of the true friends I made in the church recently were two missionary sisters who both had read Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. I think we bonded over books first of all, and that led to the rest. (laughs) Both have been transferred away from my ward now, but they were one of the “flashes” I spoke about.

    I would love to get to the point that the extrinsic part of being LDS added to the spiritual account instead of subtracting. I find it great to hear you and others talk about how it works for you. It gives me real hope and a point to aim for.

    Adam, you’re so right that it’s not just about the internal spiritual life! One of the real “coming home” feelings I got from LDS doctrine is that we are building Zion, transforming the world, making it much better. And I’ve received glimpses of just how much better it can be. I’m totally excited about that prospect, and wanting to do my part. I hope I can serve a humanitarian mission someday, perhaps with the clean water initiative. I think that’s an awesome program, along with the PEF, and the ordinary Relief Society work that goes on across the whole world. I have lots of ideas and plans for other types of programs as well, and hope I can see some of them come into being. There’s definitely more to it than what goes on inside one’s own heart.

    Christian, you’ve convinced me that I need to read “The Ground Beneath Her Feet”. I love secular holy books.

  20. Wilfried on November 3, 2005 at 10:06 am

    Well, I’m late to join, but I want to say this thread has been a sweet, calming, beneficial exchange of thoughts and wonderful considerations. Thank you all.

    I am not sure how I would define the core of Mormon religious experience, except that it is fostered from Reality, either internal or external. We have not be given artificial rituals, dark corners, candles or incense to trigger certain feelings. We have not been given a mysterious monastic community as our social environment. Our experience is to be found elsewhere and the comments above show it convincingly.

  21. Rosalynde Welch on November 3, 2005 at 10:58 am

    Laura, thanks so much for your inside perspective on living Protestantism! I completely agree that there’s something very 1950s middle-America WASPish about the extrinsic classification, all the town fathers (and their wives) eyeing each other from their respective pews. I doubt that particular social dynamic is very prevalent anywhere anymore, although certainly other extrinsic benefits have probably taken its place.

    I love the way you describe the difference between living Presbyterianism and living Mormonism—both, of course, taking one some distance toward Christ (not wanting to imply any Protestant-bashing here!).

    Last night talking to my husband, we wondered whether the LDS singles ward is one locus int he Church where the extrinsic/intrinsic dichotomy is active: going to church, I understand, really is a social event with highly sought-after social benefits (of course, marriage is an eternal good, but I’m not sure that perspective si always relfected in singles wards?), right in line with the “extrinisic” model. I’ve heard a number of people complain about the quality of their worship in singles wards—I wonder if this is a reason why?

    Okay, time to get ready for parent-teacher conferences at pre-school—-conferences for a 2-yo and a 4-yo?! imagine!—but I’ll finish responding this afternoon.

  22. Bill on November 3, 2005 at 10:43 pm

    Here’s an interesting article discussing the intrinsic/extrinsic formulation with regard to Islam:

    http://www.opinionjournal.com/editorial/feature.html?id=110007491

  23. Mark IV on November 4, 2005 at 10:30 am

    It is also hard for me to make my religious experience fit this model. I usually don’t feel a sense of connectedness to God at most church meetings, but I always do when I hand the bishop my donation envelope, or raise my hand to sustain someone. And my experience with family worship is similar to Christian’s. We’ve found that reading together is valuable, not so much for the principles we learn, but because we like what it does to our family.

    I feel closest to God, and also very “mormon”, when I am making hometeaching visits (don’t laugh!), or participating in ward work projects. You are right to note that “calling” means something different to us. In our religion we are given assignments to visit and care for each other. We are literally “called to serve”. I’ve always liked this verse from the hymn:

    Make us thy true undershepherds;
    Give us a love that is deep,
    Send us out into the desert
    Seeking thy wandering sheep.

    Does this put me more on the extrinsic side?

  24. Rosalynde Welch on November 4, 2005 at 5:51 pm

    Bill, thanks for that relevant link; a fascinating article. It’s interesting how, in the old Protestant context, “intrinsic” has generally been seen as good—that is, healthy, authentic, and so forth—and “extrinsic” and bad, but in this new Muslim the valence is reversed: “instrinsic” Islam is radicalized and dangerous (or has the capacity to become so), “extrinsic” is traditional and stable.

    Mark IV: Thanks for your great comments. Yeah, it seems like your orientation toward community-centered activities and rewards (over internal spiritual states and dynamics) would put you, like me, more toward the extrinsic. But like we’ve all been saying, that still doesn’t quite do the experience justice, does it.