January 22, 2014

Regarding Mormon temples

LDS temple in Nauvoo, Illinois, taken on a family vacation
It has been almost nine years since my first experience with the perhaps most controversial ceremony in the Mormon temple: the endowment. I had so many questions; I felt so dizzy. I wanted to understand everything at once. As I returned again and again, I let the pendulum swing to the opposite extreme; I shut down my brain and simply focused on how I was feeling. While undoubtedly more peaceful than that first visit, my temple experiences lacked intellectual depth. At times, I would even fall asleep. Some questions still emerged from time to time, along with the anxiety that comes with not knowing everything. Answers also came from time to time, but there was an underlying question that troubled me until-- I'm a bit embarrassed to say-- quite recently. Was the Mormon temple endowment truly good?

One of the most common accusations against the Church and its membership is that we are walking around smilingly brainwashed, shackled in a cult. This accusation perhaps most challenges the faith of those who are born members like me. Having never lived “outside” the Church, we may lack experiences which would give us a more objective viewpoint to compare. In some ways, we are forced to trust more.

To be honest, there are aspects of the temple which differ from anything else I have experienced in the Mormon Church. It is intensely packed with symbolism and ritual; two communication tools which may seem weird at first, but really aren’t.  

Regardless of where you’re from, you’ve been surrounded by symbolism and ritual. You may be so used to them, that you don’t even realize how strange they may appear to someone of a different culture. For example, when most Americans get married, some kind of ring is exchanged. If you really think about it, that is a bit weird. Is that what marriage is about— having a little piece of metal wrapped around your finger? Of course not, but some people choose rings to be tokens of beautiful things: reciprocated love, enduring commitment, etc.

Similarly, just as where you’re from may change how you react to something, when you’re from can affect you. The symbolism and rituals in the temple are old, and may feel foreign as a result. But again, foreign doesn't mean bad, even if our initial impulse says so. Think about how weird it would be if you took a smartphone to the dark ages. You’d probably get hung for possessing such an obviously evil instrument.

No tool is inherently good or bad. For example, an ax may be used to cut down a tree or to break into a house. How tools are used obviously matters, but maybe not as much as the purpose behind their use. Maybe that tree you’re cutting down has been dropping your neighbors’ crab apples onto your lawn for years, and it’s time they learned a lesson. Maybe that home you’re breaking into is on fire, and you’re on the way to save someone stuck inside. In short, tools can be instruments of love or hate or anything else. It is no different for tools like symbols and rituals.

One last thought on symbols before moving on, here's a great quote from LDS.org by the late Dr. John A. Widtsoe, a Mormon apostle (1921-1952): “We live in a world of symbols. We know nothing, except by symbols. We make a few marks on a sheet of paper, and we say that they form a word, which stands for love, or hate, or charity, or God or eternity. The marks may not be very beautiful to the eye. No one finds fault with the symbols on the pages of a book because they are not as mighty in their own beauty as the things which they represent. We do not quarrel with the symbol G-o-d because it is not very beautiful, yet represents the majesty of God.”

So, moving past the initial weirdness inherent to any foreign symbols, and admitting the presence of new or old symbols and rituals alone can’t say whether something is good, what is the overarching message and purpose behind the Mormon temple endowment ceremony? Is it truly good?

I have probably thought way too hard about this question. My wife Heather would just say, “Of course!” I greatly admire her firm faith, her love for Jesus, her love for what she believes to be His church, and her love for most everything about that church. 

I am a little more of a *skeptic. I ask a ton of questions about almost anything, but especially my Mormon faith. I can say I have received very satisfactory answers to most of my questions, and all of the ones critically important to me at this point. Some ah-has took years in the coming, and some are still pending. I try to be patient, but it isn’t always easy.

*(After seeing my first draft of this, Heather wanted to make sure I remembered that she thinks plenty too. While she may not be as vocal or have as much of a tendency to over-analyze, don't get the idea she blindly goes with the flow. Love that girl!)

But that’s enough about me. Back to the question. Is the Mormon temple endowment good?

I believe so. Here’s why…

The symbols and rituals encourage us to think deeply about the meaning of life, the importance of families, and the absolute necessity of Jesus Christ. Perhaps more importantly, the promises we make to God during the endowment help us live good, honest lives. It is no secret that one of the promises we Mormons make is to consecrate or dedicate our lives to our church. Perhaps this is our most controversial promise.

The late Bruce R. McConkie, a Mormon apostle (1972-1985), explained the principle in a talk available on LDS.org, “[W]e consecrate our time, our talents, and our money and property to the cause of the Church…”

At first gawk, that may seem extreme, especially with today's cultural obsession with personal autonomy. Many people are hesitant to pledge anything to any organization, let alone everything. Is it really healthy to promise such unfettered commitment to a Church?

Before trying to answer that specific question, let’s think about some other examples where people, regardless of religion, try devoting everything to an organization.

Starting small, the family
Successful husbands and wives strive to do all they possibly can to help each other. That doesn’t mean they agree about everything, do everything the other asks, or think their spouse it perfect. But they must be honest with each other, love each other, give each other the benefit of the doubt, forgive each other, be grateful for each other, and be patient with each other if the relationship is going to work out. In short, they must be truly committed to each other. The semi-committal usually have a tough time making marriages work, or giving their children the time and attention they deserve.

Thinking bigger, the country
While far from infallible, this country has done tremendous good. God bless those who live their lives trying to improve our nation.  God bless those serving in the military who give everything, including their lives, for the freedom and safety of others, even those who disagree with them.

Organizations are not machines
Really, any organization is nothing more than a group of people who have chosen to work together.

I think of the Mormon Church as one big, loving, but imperfect family. I do love it, warts and all. By promising to give everything for its cause, I’m really promising to help build and strengthen a big family (a family the whole world is welcome to join, but no one is forced to).

But there is more than that. If I believe The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints really is Jesus Christ’s church, then pledging myself to it means I’m pledging myself to not just any family, but to Christ’s family. Under that belief, asking someone to offer everything to the Church is another way of asking her or him to keep the two greatest commandments described in Matthew 22:36-40:

"Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."

You may say, "But hey, didn't Jesus say everyone is your neighbor with his parable of the Good Samaritan? Shouldn't Mormons pledge themselves to the welfare of all and not just other Mormons?" 

I would say, "Absolutely. But we can only be neighbors to the extent others want us to be neighbors."

Imagine you're the injured person in that parable and you tell the Samaritan.
"No, thank you." 
Or, "Leave me alone." 
Or, "Oh no, not a Samaritan!" 

Would a truly good Samaritan force his friendship on you beyond the limits of your consent? 

He may be heartbroken.
He may ask, "Are you sure?"
He may even come back later to see if you'd changed your mind.
But he would not force you to come with him, even if he believed he could save your life.

So, yes. Mormons do promise something special to each other; something they can't promise to everyone else. Some promises simply can't be made without permission. We promise to both give all and to receive all.

To me, any encouragement to love Christ, and love others to the extent they desire, can't possibly be bad.

But maybe you don’t think it’s Christ’s church. Maybe you don’t even believe in Christ. You have every right to believe what you will. But even if you don’t think it’s Christ’s church, I don’t think you should be bothered by Mormons pledging their all to it. You may disagree with us, but it is unquestionable that we add value to the conversation. And the Church is improving. After all, we Mormons have committed ourselves to do all we can to improve it.

5 comments:

  1. Man, I really enjoyed reading this! Thanks for taking the time to write and share.

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  2. Thanks Katie. I appreciate you taking the time to read it!

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  3. Well as a mormon, it did freak me out :(

    Questions that sprang to mind often, Why the differences for women?
    Why have there been changes to the ceremony. If JS received it directly from the Lord why would it need so many changes? Was the Lord wrong or was JS wrong?

    Why is there no time a legit deep discussion of what actually happens in there? A once a month gospel doctrine type lesson in the temple with endowed members to go over it. When I struggled openly I was frequently told I was misinterpreting the ceremony.

    Some others said I was taking it too literally while another would say I was taking it too symbolically... Its confusing, its like a rorsharch ink blot test, you see in it what you want to see in it. That is not how a loving heavenly father should communicate. Its not how I would communicate with my children.

    Then in 2011 my divorced mother in law joined the church, She was DEVASTATED to find out that after a year of tithes she could not in fact be sealed to anyone. Not her son, not her grandkids. Now a man can be sealed to 10 women postmortem but she could not be sealed to her son. My confusion over the how can a man be sealed again after his wife dies was met with "it will get worked out" well then let it just "get worked" for her. Going through the temple with her that day was one of the most painful experiences in the church for me. I had to look at the ceremony hard right in its face and admit that it was not in fact offering the comfort I thought it was.
    I only went once more after that.

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  4. Janie,

    Thanks so much for sharing such personal thoughts and feelings.

    Things which appear irreconcilable at first are gentle reminders that I have much to learn. There are times when I have misunderstood doctrine, or mistaken opinion for doctrine, or mistaken policy for doctrine. I am by no means a gospel scholar, nor am I an authority on drawing the line between all those. But when I get dizzy, I like to go back to the core and work my way out.

    One principle at the core is agency. One of my absolute favorite scriptures revealed to Joseph Smith shows how we are to lead and how our Heavenly parents lead us: “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile— ... Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith... then shall... the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven. The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever.”

    God is no tyrant. And no husband, wife, father, or mother should be either. You are absolutely right that God has given men and women different roles and thus the way their responsibilities are articulated is nuanced. But both absolutely have their agency. The power of God has both the power to bind and unbind. God will force no one to marry or stay married against their will.

    My understanding is that in your mother’s situation, she absolutely can and will have the opportunity to be sealed to her kids and grandkids, but whether in this life or the next, she’ll need to also be sealed to a father for them. Man and woman are two puzzle pieces not meant to be alone. I know so much in this world falls so short from the ideal, but please trust that things really will work out in the end (it sounds like you hate it when people say that, but I couldn’t help it :)). We definitely do not know all the details about the hereafter (sometimes we don't even have a clear handle on the here and now either) and that’s as it should be; we are here in part to exercise patience and faith. However, God is really willing to teach us, line upon line, when we are ready. I hope you will pray fervently for answers to those questions which plague you the most and patiently trust that in the His own time and in His own way, He will answer.

    As far as specific temple questions, symbolism and literal-ism, I would strongly recommend talking with a member of the temple presidency the next time you go. When I was 18, I went to the temple in Boston with a youth leader and I expressed some questions/concerns to him that he could not answer/had not thought about. Thankfully, he took me right in to the temple presidency and it was a tremendous blessing.

    As far as changes to the ceremony, it’s much like any other policy or procedure that’s evolved as the church has grown, matured, or adapted to the times. The core message of the temple has been untouched. The manner and means of communicating that message has changed, but really, even those changes are quite slight. I am personally grateful for those changes because they reflect efforts to improve the experience to more effectively connect with people in our day.

    I am sorry if this is coming out jumbled. I also apologize if I have made any false assumptions about you or your questions. I am trying to get some thoughts down quickly in between classes.

    More than anything, I am deeply sorry that your experiences have been so stressful and wish you and yours the absolute best in everything.

    PS- I checked out your blog and it looks like you have a beautiful family.

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  5. Apparently there is a character limit for comments, so I had to cut down on things a bit, including the scripture I quoted, D&C 121:41-46. Here's the complete quote: “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile— Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy; That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death. Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven. The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever.”

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