Jana Riess: For adult Latter-day Saints, there’s more to spirituality than ‘endure to the end’

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Jean B. Bingham, Relief Society general president, studies Gospel Literacy program materials with a group of women in Sierra Leone, June 2019.

In 10 years as an opinion columnist, I’ve received a decent amount of reader feedback, which tends to fall into predictable categories. There’s the usual angry rejoinder that I’m endangering the faith and undermining the prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, yada yada. On the flip side are angry missives from people who have left the church themselves and can’t understand why I am still happy to be a member.

Other messages are simply sad. Some are written by people who have left the church or have one foot out the door, and are mourning painful losses of faith and community. Still others come from members who are actively involved in the church, have no intention of leaving it, but feel ... largely depleted. Underfed. Uninspired.

It’s for that last group I’m writing today. A well-known spiritual leader once told a friend of mine that Latter-day Saints do better than any other religion he’d ever seen at handling the first quarter of life. There are recognizable goals to achieve, from Eagle Scout courts of honor and Personal Progress medallions for our teens to missions and temple marriages for our young adults.

Then, he said, we fall off a cliff.

I don’t think he knew that the expression Latter-day Saints use to describe those long years of adulthood is “endure to the end.” But “endure” is a telling word for how we disregard the need for adult spiritual development.

We don’t have spiritual formation groups for adults, and in fact actively discouraged such groups until a couple of years ago. And the curriculum that is supposed to guide us in our reading of the scriptures is carefully crafted to head off the very questions that can lead to new areas of growth. The “Come Follow Me” curriculum is well-intentioned, but primarily preoccupied with emphasizing obedience to leaders and congratulating ourselves that we belong to the one true church.

When the main messages are to routinely do what other people tell you and remember that you already have all the truth you’ll need, it’s not exactly a recipe for growth.

And yet we inhabit an expansive, life-changing religion that offers so much more. I’m not the only one craving that more engaging, deeper journey. During this pandemic, when most U.S. Latter-day Saints haven’t been meeting in person, there’s been a proliferation of online alternatives for people who want to dig deeper. I’ve attended several of the Dialogue Sunday School series and the John A. Widtsoe conversations on the Book of Mormon. Both are fabulous and help feed my spirit and mind.

Now there’s another offering, focused on experiencing a transformative, life-changing LDS faith. Thomas McConkie, founder of Lower Lights School of Wisdom in Salt Lake City, has created an in-depth online course through the Faith Matters Foundation that is specifically for Latter-day Saints who are interested in something more. There are almost almost 13 hours of teaching material.

McConkie says he experienced “spiritual aridity” early in life, “and just felt the pain of that thirst.” So the course draws upon some of the best things he has learned through his study of what he calls “transformative practice,” including Buddhism, Contemplative Christianity, Mormonism, developmental psychology, as well as Integral Theory.

“This is my attempt to contribute to the culture and the conversation about what it means to be spiritually alive,” he said in an interview.

Several of the course’s themes are uniquely LDS, like the way it treats embodiment as an expression of our divinity, or how the faith’s emphasis on apotheosis (becoming like God) leads us toward more and more light. Rather than just assert that our task in life is to become like God, McConkie says the course takes a practical approach, drawing from research and experience about best practices to deepen our spiritual life. “It’s how to get from Point A to B. It’s grounded in both theory and practice.”

He also taps into LDS theology and history in teaching participants how to draw strength from their relationships with the dead as well as the living. “There’s significant content in the course about how to create stronger bonds with our loved ones on both sides of the veil, and how to heal intergenerational pain,” he said.

McConkie encourages participants to trust their own direct experience and reject whatever parts of the course don’t work for them right now. “Don’t think that because I’m saying something that it is absolutely and forever true,” he declares in the introductory session. For Latter-day Saints who are accustomed to a culture that emphasizes deference to authority as a default, such statements may be either frightening or liberating, or both.

He sees it as restoring a balance. Latter-day Saints believe there must be an opposition in all things (2 Nephi 2:11). If one side of that equation is the belief that we can only trust our personal experience, the other, which the church has largely privileged, is that we should primarily trust the external authority of church leaders. McConkie sees the value of holding those two values in equal tension. “Our elders tend to be wise and experienced and have our best interest at heart, but it felt important to restore some balance to the other side of that polarity, which sometimes gets buried in LDS culture.”

The seven-module course officially opens Sept. 30 at which point you can register for an introductory price of $98, a savings of $50 off the $148 price tag. If the $98 sale price is too high, however, there is financial aid available.

“The intent,” McConkie said, “is to support our organization while also not turning a single person away.”

Editor’s noteThe views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.