Spiritual capital

When Pres. Bush was re-elected in 2004, he talked about having gained “political capital.� He chose to “spend� it on Social Security reform, which didn’t work out so well for him. I want to offer a few thoughts about us gaining and using “spiritual capital.�

First, what do I mean by spiritual capital? Capital is “accumulated goods devoted to the production of other goods.� So spiritual capital is “accumulated spiritual goods devoted to the production of other spiritual goods.� In some sense what I’m talking about here is karma – “the [spiritual] force generated by a person’s actions…� (thanks m-w.com). While we usually think about this in eternal judgment terms – i.e. the good things I do now will produce good results later – here I want to talk about spiritual capital in terms of our membership in wards.

Moving into a new ward is always a strange thing. On the one hand, there’s the much-ballyhooed experience of “having family� wherever one goes in the Church. As clichéd as this can be, I find that it is true; I generally have a stronger connection with Mormons, wherever they are, than I do with my neighbors or other people of similar racial, class, gender, and even professional backgrounds (hence I like the Mormons-as-ethnic argument, but that’s for another time). But we all know that not all family members are entirely equal, at least in terms of their functionality (i.e. my crazy Aunt Bev). So when you move into a ward, you’re checking it out for how comfortable you’ll be, and everyone is checking you out as to whether you’ll fit in and, perhaps more importantly, contribute.

Based on my personal experience and various conversations, the type of people who are suffering through this post might be the type of people who have some angst about fitting in in most LDS wards. This is not because the people who are reading this (i.e. “you�) are bad people, or even as weird as my Aunt Bev, but generally because you have a somewhat different intellectual makeup than the majority of Mormons (and the majority of people, period). You think about slightly different things, and you think and talk about things in a slightly different way. Perhaps neither better nor worse, but different. You probably think of yourself as an intellectual—or informed, or thoughtful, or whatever-adjective-having-to-do-with-higher-brain-function-you-choose—and other people generally see you the same way.

You know that many Mormons are a bit suspicious of “intellectuals,” not because Mormons are dumb, but because “intellectuals” sometimes talk in ways that are unfamiliar or challenging or seemingly heterodox—in short, different. And to be labeled as “differentâ€? when you move into a ward creates some problems for you, both for your social life and in terms of what callings you receive, etc. This is not ideal, we would probably agree, but I think it is generally true. You know you have interesting things to say, and interesting ways of looking at things, and you want to contribute your perspective and experience to your new ward. But you’re also afraid of being labeled “differentâ€? if the first words out of your mouth are “different.â€? What to do? Here’s where spiritual capital comes in.

I think that if you’ve built up enough spiritual capital in a ward, then you can spend that spiritual capital in contributing your unique perspective. Spiritual capital is built by participating in all the “ordinary� aspects of church life, which people generally recognize as virtuous within the church: you serve in callings, you home teach and visit teach, you volunteer to help people move or to take meals, you show up pretty much every week, you act friendly, etc. You don’t have to pretend you’re someone you’re not (so here I’m talking to someone who values the behaviors I just listed). Before too long, you’ve built up enough spiritual capital that you can start to spend it.

Let me talk in more personal, concrete terms. I’ve been in my ward for seven years, serving in all kinds of callings, and generally trying to be a contributing member of the ward. Over that time, I’ve built up a fair amount of spiritual capital that I can choose to spend as I want—in other words, I’m able to say some pretty “high-cost� things in classes because I know my comment won’t be seen as having “insufficient funds� behind it. For instance, a few months ago, my wife & I were having dinner with an established family in the ward (he’s in the bishopric, she was stake YW pres, their sons all serve missions, etc.). I don’t know how it came up, but we started talking about Joseph Smith & the Book of Mormon, and before you knew it, I was blabbing about seerstones and folk magic. This was the first they had ever heard of such shocking details, and they had plenty of questions. I put these details into a faithful perspective, and shortly thereafter, I was asked to give a ward fireside about the translation of the Book of Mormon, with a specific request to talk about seerstones. Then, in a Primary activity a couple months ago, this same member of the bishopric taught the kids about how Joseph translated the Book of Mormon by staring into a hat.

For me, this was spiritual capital well-spent, as I think there is real spiritual and pedagogical value to telling our story correctly, and in wrestling with the truth rather than a sanitized or fabricated version of it. You may spend your spiritual capital in other ways, whether it is talking about women’s issues or whatever. But I am convinced that if I did not have sufficient spiritual capital, my “different� notions of BofM translation would have been marginalized or seen as destructive, rather than seen as a means of nurturing faith, even in the young.

I should add that I think our capital is only well-spent, and will only “produce additional goods,� when it is done with pure intent, in the service of the Kingdom, not in the service of our own intellect or ego.

41 comments for “Spiritual capital

  1. I largely agree with this post. I have often argued this same point, albeit less eloquently. It’s easy to become irritated with this reality though, since in an ideal world, one’s comments would be evaluated on their substantive merits, rather than in a context where one’s other public commitments, service, etc. (or lack thereof) are brought to bear on the evaluation.

    This is why I had to tell Steve Evans last Sunday — now that he’s moved into my ward — that he should save his rhetorical bombshells in Gospel Doctrine for at least a couple months, lest his new wardmembers assume he’s some crazy who just started coming to Church to stir things up. :)

    Aaron B

    Aaron B

  2. Well said.

    We have a man in our ward who is strange. He is in his 60’s, never been married, listens to NPR :), has some conspiracy theories etc. I have often noticed that many of his comments in GD class cause many people to roll their eyes. But often If I look beyond the deliberately shocking way that he expresses his ideas, I often find he has a good point in there somewhere. I told him this once in private, and he seemed genuinly touched.

    I’m grateful for those who help make the gospel interesting. But I am even more grateful for those who put more effort into ‘pure religion’.

  3. I should add that I think our capital is only well-spent, and will only “produce additional goods,� when it is done with pure intent, in the service of the Kingdom, not in the service of our own intellect or ego.

    Seems almost as if there out to be a blogger’s version of D&C 121 …

  4. In other words … When you move into a new ward, shut yer yap until you’ve gained some street cred.

  5. Or at least follow the Bambi rule (“if you can’t say anything nice…”)

    It’s always nice when a nine-paragraph post can be neatly summarized in one line. And you wonder why my students yawn in class.

  6. Lest {Steve Evans’s) new wardmembers assume he’s some crazy who just started coming to Church to stir things up (#1): You mean that isn’t why Steve goes to church? Even after a year in the same ward, I assumed that was his raison d’etre! (My apologies for missing accent marks; I’m not html-savvy enough to provide them.)

  7. Patrick: This isn’t only good advice for those moving into a new ward, though it is certainly good advice for them. It is also good advice for those moving into any new social situation where those who in the group are already established. For example, it is great advice for someone taking a new academic position.

  8. Eric Nielson (#2) It seems to me that recognizing the man you speak of as a contributor was an act of pure religion. There are lots of reasons that someone finds themselves on the margins of our wards. Bringing them in from those margins in some way is “pure religion and undefiled.”

  9. A year ago, I probably would have agreed with the idea of “spiritual capital”, but since I’ve moved into this new ward, I’d have to say I don’t think it works quite that way. YOU may feel more comfortable saying “shocking” stuff after you’ve been in a ward a while. But there are always new people moving in and out of a ward, so there will always be people who don’t know you well enough to know that you’re really a faithful member. Moreover there will always be people who don’t appreciate your intellectual style (one of those, upon further interaction, became one of my best friends in my old ward, but it took more than just church-sponsored interaction). If there really is “real spiritual and pedagogical value to telling our story correctly, and in wrestling with the truth rather than a sanitized or fabricated version of it,” shouldn’t that value exist regardless of who’s doing the talking and what other people think of it? What kind of “street cred” can you gain by keeping your mouth shut and letting everyone assume whatever they want about you?

    That being said, waiting for the right moment to spill your guts is definitely key, but thinking you can find that moment on your own without the aid of the Holy Spirit is presumptuous at best.

  10. Astute sociological observation with practical applications; and indeed if one group’s crank is another’s visionary, it’s the former who lacks and the latter who’s got spiritual capital to spend with them. (Um — and, so: Where on this spiritual capital continuum would be found Bushman? Vogel? Or — is such candid analysis taboo? With instead the same thing’s being codedly communicated through tone?)

  11. Interesting post, and you are completely right, except I would call it “social capital”, not spiritual. The stuff you’re talking about isn’t spiritual in nature, i.e. pertaining to your relationship to God, but rather, it’s social, pertaining to your relationship with your fellow saints. I would say the way to build up spiritual capital is to read, ponder, pray, study it out in your mind, obey the commandments, and do your heartfelt best to really take it to the next level, to seriously repent of the many things that need improving, and work hard to do better at them, laying your heart at Christ’s feet. This also has a huge payoff, when you build up capital like that. I like your idea of building the other sort of capital in the ward as well, though.

  12. I think you’re absolutely right, Patrick. At least, that is how it works for me. In my experience, it takes about six months of active involvement in the life and fabric of the ward for people to get comfortable with you, and to understand that you don’t mean the church any harm, but to the contrary you love the church and want the best for it and its people. And once people understand that about you, you have tremendous leeway to contribute in more adventurous ways.

    In my last ward many years ago, I was the GD teacher. When the salamander letter came out, I devoted an entire lesson to it, with the SP in attendance. I had no problems whatsoever, and the lesson was very well received and appreciated. Try doing that without having built up the necessary street cred and see what happens.

    Eugene England understood this and often advocated it.

  13. If you want to say something nice about the church to a bitterly anti-Mormon crowd, should you try to develop some apostate credentials first? :)

  14. Tatiana (#11),

    How can you be so sure that social capital and spritiual capital are unrelated phenomena? Or rather that our relationships with others are not spiritual in nature?

    As Jesus said:

    Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.

    And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.
    (John 17:20-23)

  15. Not apostate credentials, nor theological credentials, but true spiritual credentials – treating them with reasonable respect and kindness for example.

  16. I appreciate Tatiana’s critique (#11), but like Mark (#14) I see a lot of overlap between spiritual and social capital. I do agree it largely has to do with becoming socialized into a ward, and socially accepted. But I also think it has a real spiritual component. People have to know your heart and your intentions (at least insofar as we can in our weekly interactions) before they can trust you. I like what Kevin said (#12) about them needing to know that you don’t mean the church harm, but that whatever you do or say is in the spirit of building the church — at that point they may disagree with the specifics, but at least they respect the intent.

  17. Who gives a damn? Not about this topic, but being “accepted”? Am I going to keep my mouth shut so that I get a plum calling? No! If I’m supposed to get the calling and the person in charge doesn’t respond to the prompting, then it’s between that person and the Lord – not a problem for me.

    Any I really do think what you are talking about it social capital. I build up “spiritual capital” with the Lord. If people think I’m far out – that is their problem.

  18. Thanks, S!: Wow. Finally something mentioned on Times & Season’s I CAN take some kind of perverse pride in. To wit: I CAN SAY NICE THINGS ABOUT THE CHURCH TO ANTI’S ‘CAUS I HAS GOTS APOSTATE STREET CRED!

  19. Ed: It isn’t about being accepted. It is about being part of a the community, being able to serve. If people think you are far out, you cannot contribute. Sometimes there’s nothing a person can do to prevent people from thinking he is far out, but if he can be true to his beliefs AND be heard by those around him, then he is more likely to be an effective servant.

  20. You’re right that there is overlap. Particularly because you really can’t serve people who don’t respect and love you on some level. Your attempts to serve are unwanted, and so they are worthless, to those you would serve. If only there were some work I was good at that the church wanted from me. They onlh really want me, however, to do the very things I suck at most: making small talk and chit chat with women, cooking, and like that. So naturally they decide this lame sister is a charity case, and write me off.

    I’m excellent at child care. That’s one girly thing I’m good at. But they didn’t like the things the girls and I did together when I had the 10-11 year old Girls Achievement Day. I think we achieved too much. They wanted us to sit in neat rows and memorize scriptures, I think, when we were doing robotics, running, swimming, knitting, cooking. astronomy, carpentry, and so on.

    I’m great at building things, and at directing others to accomplish construction type jobs efficiently and well. I’m good at most anything technical. I can set to and knock out just about any physical type job in short order, and do it well. I really wanted to go to the Gulf Coast last year and help with the hurricane cleanup. But I’m a girl and am not asked nor tolerated on such errands. It’s frustrating. So everyone sees me as lame at church. At work I make lots of real friends, because I’m good at what I do, and people appreciate that. Among my social group I make real friends, because I find friends who are bookworms like me, and interested in science and math and other geeky stuff, and who enjoy the same jokes and games as I do, and music and movies, and great fiction. I have no trouble making friends in every sphere of my life except church, where I feel like a total lamer.

    What I want to do for my mission is a humanitarian mission with the clean water initiative. I have extensive engineering experience in water and waste-water treatment, power systems, and other infrastructure. Why aren’t they interested in me going? Instead, they want to send single sisters to something I would totally suck at, and then they want to look down on me for the fact that I’m not good at the things they think I should be good at. Why does the church have to be four or five decades behind the world when it comes to valueing the contributions of all members, whatever may be their talents?

    Wow, this turned into quite a rant. =) This is my church too, dad gum it! God invited me personally. If you don’t feel comfortable with my skill set here then take it up with him! =)

  21. The worldwide church desperately needs people who can do development type work. I can do it, and I’m willing to do it, and I love other cultures and peoples. I’m a xenophile. I would be perfect for this work, but they don’t want me because I’m female. It really sucks.

  22. We have so many talents that lie fallow, because of the way we only want or reward narrow gender-defined work and abilities. The world does so much better than us at this, at not squelching girls’ talents. It starts with cub scouts, who meet once a week while 10-11 year old girls achievement meets only every other week. We want you to achieve, girls, but only at girly things, and only half as much as the boys. Also, don’t have projects that are so fun and interesting that the boys get jealous and want to join in too. Conformity above all! It’s more important to fit in than to excel! Don’t ruffle feathers! Don’t rock the boat! Why does God want me in this church? Did he pick the wrong church for me? Obviously not. Obviously I’m a Mormon. I can tell it’s true every time I read the Bloggernacle, Ensign, Scriptures, Teachings of the Presidents, Preach My Gospel, or any other other LDS literature. The doctrine is true. I know it without a doubt.

    I see the charter that Brigham Young gave Relief Society as a mandate to transform the world. The RS should be leading the way to establishing clean water for children to drink worldwide, working with projects like those of International Development Corp. to help people introduce and afforably sell simple technologies which can increase the income of the poorest families so that they have adequate nutrition to feed their children, and then to work with mothers to improve literacy, medical and nutritional knowledge, and everything else they could learn that would make a huge difference in the health and success of their families. In the RS, our spheres are the home and children. Excellent! The earth is our home, let’s transform it. Children are hungry, let’s fix that. Even LATTER DAY SAINT children are hungry, How can we allow that to continue? It’s intolerable! Young women, single sisters of all ages, and retired couples are the people to do this. We are the ones who can connect one on one with the mothers of the whole world.

  23. I get the feeling that the priesthood just hasn’t come to terms yet, is profoundly uncomfortable still, with the idea of capable, intelligent, energized, women who are high achievers, who conceive and bring about projects that change the world in substantial ways. That is the sort of woman that every LDS girl can aim to become. Our task should be to educate and empower them every bit as much as the boys. I look around and I don’t see Zion. We have a huge work to do! We need every ounce of strength, ability, and joy we can muster to carry it out! It begins inside our own homes, with the work we do as wives and mothers, but it by no means ends there. The Relief Society as an organization is charged with extending that to our neighborhoods, all over the world. What is our neighborhood nowadays? It is planet earth.

  24. How do we build up the social or spiritual capital enough to get these ideas floated out there and judged for thier merits?

  25. From their website:

    In Nepal, women are integral, active producers in rural farming systems. They comprise approximately 45 percent of the project beneficiaries and have observed positive changes in their quality of life since project participation. Household vegetable consumption and market sales have risen, thus improving the nutrition of family members while also boosting disposable income. Some women have noted additional family income now available for improved schooling of their children and investment in household assets including livestock. Most importantly, some women have noted an increased sense of self-confidence and social status due to their increasing economic independence from marketing high value crops.

  26. Great post. I love the story about the seer stones! I can just imagine how that would go if it wasn’t coming from someone with cred like you! It’s interesting too because I think I am still in denial about how many Mormons don’t know stuff like that.

    Let me say, even as a guy who moved into my ward with a beard and long hair, this worked for me. Reminder: it’s not just keeping your mouth shut and waiting.

  27. Well, perhaps one might start within the Relief Society. If the women feel that way (anti extended service activity), then there is a much bigger problem, than if the men do. I have a hard time imagining the average priesthood leader trying to prevent the Relief Society from serving in such a way.

  28. Are there any direct lines of leadership within the Relief Society from the top levels all the way to the local ward levels?

  29. Tatiana —

    Although the official Church is limited in its involvement with humanitarian and LDC development efforts, many Latter-day Saints have set up admirable private efforts to help our less economically fortunate brothers and sisters. Warner Woodworth at BYU serves as an informal clearinghouse for information about these efforts. Check out http://marriottschool.byu.edu/emp/WPW/ngo.cfm (including the links on the left of that page) for some good lists of such groups, some of which might be a good fit for the kind of talents and efforts which you would like to contribute.

  30. Yow! Tatiana, I love how you move from precisely articulating the spiritual importance of the trust of the members of your congregation, to your rant about your talents’ not being appreciated! It takes an expansive mind to hold both of those insights. That’s what I love about this blog.

    And it is a spiritual poverty that we in the church don’t take fuller advantage of some of our members’ unusual skill sets. Of course, spiritually what matters most of all is that we love each other, which requires care for each others’ trust and patience with each others’ flaws.

  31. Thanks, Tatiana, for your thoughts–I’m sorry that others have not appreciated your unique gifts. You can come and be in my ward if you’d like (I bet they’d love you)–I have a great ward.

    Also, I appreciated the sentiments of Patrick’s original post, and I really like this idea of accumulating “spiritual” or “social capital.” However, I do feel obliged to point out that as a Mormon intellectual *woman* (and a liberal feminist academic to boot), I feel a good deal of constraint that I doubt building “spiritual capital” will ever lift (though, maybe I’m being pessimistic). I’m not quite in the same position as Tatiana because I feel like my talents are valued (I am a teacher, and there are many, many opportunities to teach in the church). But I do feel like saying shocking things in church is not okay, and this has been the case during times where I feel like I have “spiritual capital” to spend (which, admittedly, does not include right now). Lots of people just don’t know what to do with Mormon intellectual women.

  32. Thanks VERY much to Tatiana and S for their comments. As much as I try to be sensitive to women’s issues, I’m always jarred again when I hear honest “rants” or feelings that they are not valued in the same ways that men are — and jarred in a (hopefully) good way, as in “things need to change.” Hopefully I can use some of my spiritual capital to make the church, or at least my corner of it, a more open and expansive and welcoming place for accomplished and talented and intellectual women.

    And as committed as I am to peacebuilding (although admittedly, I’m more on the intellectual/scholarly side than the practitioner side), I love your sentiments about international development, Tatiana, and hope you find a way to put your talents to good use. Heaven knows we need more people with passion and skills like you do, and I’m fully convinced (see my “Structural Apostasy” post) that you would be doing God’s work just as much as if you were knocking doors.

    I had a companion on my mission who wasn’t a very good proselytizing missionary — he didn’t like it, made his feelings known, and made us both a bit miserable when we were out doing the work. (At the time I probably equated his lack of missionary fervor with the quality of his soul, of which I am repentant). I remember one day we were tracting, his least favorite activity, and he said, “I wish I could spend two years digging ditches or doing some other kind of manual labor, rather than this.” Again, at the time I thought such a thing was a) ridiculous, b) lame, and c) heretical. Now I think it’s a great idea — he would have been a much better service or humanitarian missionary, and could have done a lot of good in two years. Maybe God wanted him on a proselytizing mission for a purpose, but I don’t think it would be a bad idea to open up more options for the kinds of missionary service that all of us — young single men and women, as well as married couples (where there is already significant flexibility) — could do.

  33. Thanks, Patrick. Things can change (and they already are changing), and the more corners there are like yours, the more they will change. :)

  34. “they already are changing”–what do you have in mind, s?
    Does the change in rhetoric about young women missionaries count?

  35. Tatiana, for what it’s worth, you’re exactly the kind of youth leader I wish I’d had when I was ten (at that time the church had nothing for girls, I was horribly jealous of my brother in Scouts, and my mother put me in Girl Scouts as a compensatory measure). You’re exactly the kind of leader I wish I’d had in YW. There are a lot of us out here who desperately _need_ your skill set! (Speaking as one completely befuddled by anything mechanical, if you were in my ward, I’d be dying to get to know you.)

    A couple of units ago, I saw a woman who was a CPA become a stake auditor. Such small moves to recognize and really use ALL the talents of women–not just the traditionally “feminine” ones–give me hope. But progress can be so frustratingly slow.

    I’d never heard of a church policy prohibiting single women from development work–does anyone out there know more about this?

  36. Ben H., you’re right to call me down for being impatient with my fellow saints. I think this thread is great, because I can see how I need to build some sort of capital with my ward members before I can be of any real use. Thanks, all, for the ideas and support. I know things are getting better, and will continue that way. I know there will come an opportunity for me to serve in some capacity, in a way I can be useful.

  37. Ben H., I was thinking more specifically about Mormon women intellectuals. While I don’t feel comfortable saying shocking things at church, I’ve met quite a few people at church over the last number of years who have not only been accepting of my academic path, but also really positive and encouraging about it. While I have no definitive proof to offer, my guess is that I find more acceptance and encouragement than women getting advanced degrees say 15-20 years ago.

  38. I dropped a bomb in EQ yesterday. It could have been very divisive I suppose but I have it seems lots of social capital in the ward which has been built up over 5 years

    We were talking about how to become better people thru applying the atonement, listening to constructive critism etc.

    My dad is a bishop right now and he told me last week that the majority of people do not accept/implement Bishops counsel in his experience Its the default position apparently. His SP has had several meetings recently with his stakes bishops were they have discussed this fact. They have been trying to come up with a way to get more people who come for advice to actually accept the advice.

    So I mentioned this to the EQ and everybody agreed that Pride often prevents people from accepting well intentioned advice from PH leaders. I could have gotten a lot of negative feedback but because the EQ people know me they were generally supportive of this idea. In fact 2 who were there stopped me afterwards and said that I was right and that they had recently ignored PH advice to their own detriment.

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