“The Gospel Gets Me What I Want”: Re-thinking Means-End Religion

In the richness of Mormon thought, you find an intricate array of different ideas and convictions.  Perhaps due to this wealth or “cornucopia” (N. Maxwell) of insights – we Latter-day Saints seem especially prone to certain kinds of language: “by applying what we read in our scriptures, multiple blessings can come”;  “if we really want to grow in happiness and knowledge, we need to make sure to pray”; “if you attend the temple, you will receive many blessings.”

For certain, there is truth in each of these statements.  They also, however, reflect an interesting pattern of how we talk about certain actions and our motivations for doing them.

In 1980, the famous psychotherapist Albert Ellis argued at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association that all devout religious beliefs and practices were harmful to mental health (The Case Against Religiosity).   One psychology researcher from Brigham Young University, Allen Bergin, stood up and challenged his claim. That debate sparked a serious of research studies throughout the next decade – culminating in this conclusion to the debate about whether devout religiosity helps or hurts mental health:  Well, it depends!

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, studies confirmed that the answer depends on what kind of religiosity we’re talking about.  As it turns out, those individuals who are internally or “intrinsically” motivated in their religious observance are more mentally healthy, on average, than other Americans. By contrast, those who are externally or “extrinsically” motivated – e.g., driven for the pursuit of some kind of reward – are less mentally healthy than other Americans, on average [see good summary here; simply put, “extrinsically motivated (persons) use (their) religion, whereas the intrinsically motivated live (their) religion” (Allport & Ross, 1967, p. 434)].

What is it about a ‘means-end’ mentality that seems to subvert religion’s potential and power?  Maybe it has something to do with a subtle focus on personal reward as a motivation for action. Maybe it has something to do with how easy it is to give up when these rewards aren’t present.  Or maybe it’s due to neglected internal dynamics that go hand-in-hand with absorption in what-we’re-going-to-get (e.g., happiness? more peace? rewards in heaven).

I’m certainly not knocking anyone for wondering how to find more peace, happiness or treasure in heaven. (There are plenty of things with more dangerous distraction than treasure in heaven!) But the question remains – why do inadvertent consequences seem to arise when these external blessings become our singular focus?

Is it possible that God is getting shoved out of the equation again?  Think about it: “by applying what we read in our scriptures, multiple blessings can come”;  “if we really want to grow in happiness and knowledge, we need to make sure to pray”; “if you attend the temple, you will receive many blessings.”

Where exactly is God in these statements?

In terms of sheer word-count? Nowhere.

Now, of course, technically we know that God is the one who brings us the blessings, right?…He’s also the owner of the temple, the maker of scripture and our dialogue partner in prayer.

So then why not mention that explicitly in our language? This is more than a question of semantics, since the foregoing research suggests that there are concrete consequences for different ways of approaching, experiencing (and languaging) religion.  Like the Mulekites who forgot God without scriptures, we may also forget God when we talk about His scriptures, His temples, and His prophets as parts of a large ‘blessing generator’ plan:  learn the algorithms, apply the lessons, and get the blessings!

All right – enough already…would you stop murmuring, Laman?  Do you have a better phraseology? And I thought this blog was about mindfulness, anyway?

Well, funny you should ask…because mindfulness does raise some profoundly intriguing possibilities. Most broadly, the eastern framework of contemplative traditions provides a striking alternative to the instrumental, techno-centric, means-end norms of Western culture. What happens when we start talking about prayer, scriptures, temples, prophets and the gospel in another framework and language?

I’d like to find out.  In future blog posts, I look forward to exploring a mindful approach to scriptures, to prayer and to the temple.  Is there a way to experience these in a more profoundly personal way – motivated by relationship, communion and love?  I think so.  But enough for now – I think I’ve murmured enough. (:

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