Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Gospel Principles #40 - Temple Work and Family History (NOM Version)

See my previous blog entry to read how I taught this lesson in Relief Society.

I know many active, inactive, and ex-Mormons have had negative experiences in the temple. While I feel that those experiences are definitely valid, that's just not how it was for me personally when I was a TBM. My first time going through the temple was deeply spiritual and made me feel happy and empowered. (I went through after the 1990 changes and before the 2005 initiatory changes, in case you're wondering.) I enjoyed going through the endowment session and trying to decode the meaning of all the symbols. I liked being in the celestial room. Oddly enough, I even found great comfort as a feminist in some of the temple rituals.

At its best, I think that the temple functions in the same way the Christmas season does. With its special holiday decorations, music and traditions, the Christmas season can cause a mental shift in which you begin to see the world differently. That's kind of how the temple used to function for me back in the days when I was a TBM. When your environment becomes unique and special, it makes you feel unique and special. But the same way that Christmas becomes less magical after you stop believing in Santa Claus, the temple lost its magic for me when I lost my faith in the church. Now attending the temple feels boring at best and creepy or offensive at worst.

Joseph Smith and the Influence of Masonry
The temple ceremony---especially as it was originally introduced by Joseph Smith---is undeniably plagiarized from Masonic rituals. This is very well-documented and apologists for the church make no attempt to refute it. Here's a laundry list of some of the similarities:
  • In the current version of the temple, the signs and tokens are completely identical to Masonic signs and tokens.
  • Although the markings and purpose of the aprons are different, both Masonic and Mormon ceremonies use aprons.
  • In past versions of the temple, the penalties for revealing the signs and tokens were identical to Masonic penalties word for word and action for action. (NOTE: Contemporary Mason ceremonies no longer include the penalty rituals. They removed them from their ceremonies a few years before Mormonism removed it from theirs in 1990.)
  • The five points of fellowship in past versions of the temple ceremony were also taken directly from Masonry.
  • The garments contain Masonic symbols such as the compass and the square.
  • The idea of being given new names that are to be kept secret is very Masonic.
  • The catechism at the veil of the temple has an identical structure to Masonic rituals.
  • Older Mormon temples (such as Salt Lake) are unabashedly adorned with Masonic symbols such as sunstones, moonstones, and starstones. Even the very symbol of Deseret, the Beehive, was originally a Masonic symbol.
  • Although Masonic and Mormon rituals have different purposes and meanings, they both share a similar approach of using rituals to tell Biblical stories.
Joseph Smith introduced his version of the endowment ceremony about two months after becoming a full Mason himself. (This was during the Nauvoo period in church history.) It is clear that Masonry played an important role in the last years of Joseph Smith's life and had a strong influence on his theological musings. But scholar George Miller has found pretty solid evidence that Masonry exerted a strong influence in Joseph Smith's life from a very young age. (For his long, but fascinating explanation of Joseph Smith's life-long relationship with Masonry: see Mormonism and Masonry Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, and Part Six.)

To summarize Miller's argument, at the point in time in which Joseph Smith lived, Masonry was extremely popular in America. (Nearly all of the Founding Fathers were Masons, in fact.) One of the very popular beliefs in this time period was that Masonry had ancient historical origins dating back to the time that Solomon's Temple was first built. Joseph Smith's contemporaries believed that the masons working on Solomon's Temple had been shown special secrets about the temple that had been ceremoniously passed down from generation to generation up to the present day. Another notion that was particularly popular among American Masons was the existence of "spurious" Masonry. This is the idea that Masonry gradually became corrupted over time through the traditions of men. Like most of his fellow Americans at this point in time, Joseph Smith probably accepted these beliefs as historical fact.

All of this clearly plays into the larger Mormon theological themes of Apostasy (the idea that the pure truths of Christianity had become corrupted over time) and Restoration (that the pure truths had to be restored by God through revelation). Joseph Smith probably sincerely believed that a pure form of Masonry was practiced by Adam and all the prophets down through the time of Christ until it became corrupted through apostasy. And when he developed the temple endowment, he probably sincerely believed that he was receiving revelation that was restoring Masonry to its pure, original form. (For example, Heber C. Kimball is quoted as saying that he practiced "celestial Masonry," a concept which he probably got from Joseph Smith.)

Unfortunately, the history of Masonry shows otherwise. There is absolutely no historical proof that Masonry has ancient origins. The historical record shows that Masonry first began in the Middle Ages when masons were members of guilds. Because there was no government certification process to guarantee that you had the level of craftmanship you claimed to have, masons began to develop secret handshakes and signs to distinguish between those of a lower skill level from higher ones. Handshakes and signs were revealed in secret ceremonies to those who had achieved higher skill levels. These signs and tokens had a very pragmatic purpose when they were first introduced. When a new worker showed up at a construction site claiming to have a certain level of skill as a mason, the foreman would test his knowledge by asking him for the signs and tokens that only a mason of his skill level would know. It helped to ensure certain standards of quality and the safety of those working on those complex Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages. If I'm not mistaken, somewhere between the 17th and 18th centuries, Masonic guilds began accepting honorary members---members of the elite ruling class who wanted to participate in the fraternities. That's when Masonry became a popular fad in Europe (which is why people like Mozart were all members). That's also when myths about the ancient origins of Masonry first began to be developed (as well as some of the aspects of Masonic rituals that Smith plagiarized). Unfortunately, Joseph Smith's fundamental assumptions about Masonry's connection to Adam and Solomon's Temple were wholly inaccurate.

Despite Mormonism's strong connection to Masonry during the Nauvoo period, Mormons began to lose their connection to Masonry shortly after Smith's death. Brigham Young believed that Joseph Smith's assassination had been part of a Masonic murder conspiracy, causing him to openly distrust Masons. Other events eventually caused the Masonic Lodge in Nauvoo to be dishonorably disbanded. Furthermore, the Utah Masonic Grand Lodge systematically barred Mormons from becoming Masons until the 1980s. For these reasons, fewer and fewer Mormons became Masons and Mormons gradually began to lose any cultural identification they once had with Masonry. This has created today's cultural climate in which most modern Mormons have no idea of the many connections between the temple ceremony and Masonic rituals---and often feel threatened by the very mention of it.

It's also one of the reasons why most Mormons find the temple so inscrutable. Without knowledge of the accompanying Masonic rituals, it's somewhat difficult to make sense of their meaning. Most Mormons probably think that they are personally unable to understand aspects of the temple ritual because they are somehow spiritually inferior. I know I did. I enjoyed puzzling out the meaning of the temple ritual and believed that if I studied harder or if I lived more righteously, I would eventually receive revelation to help me figure out what it all means. Unfortunately, the reality is that it's a fraternal ritual that has been removed from its original medieval context and culture so that it no longer has any connection to the original meaning it was meant to convey.

Sacred or Secret?
Despite Boyd K. Packer's insistence that the temple is sacred, not secret, I no longer make that distinction in my mind. Modern dictionaries define secret as something that is "confidential" and "kept from the knowledge of any but the initiated." That's exactly what the temple ceremony is. Although church members only make a covenant not to reveal a few specific things in the temple (the tokens, signs, and names), most members try to stay as far away from crossing that line as possible by refusing to talk about the temple ceremony at all if they are not inside the temple itself.

This cultural self-censorship has consequences. One consequence is that church members go to the temple with almost no knowledge of what is going to take place or what obligations they will be asked to agree with. This is a bit of a problem in my mind. It kind of feels like the ethical equivalent of requiring someone to sign a serious legal contract without allowing them to read it beforehand. Granted, the temple ceremony indicates that people can withdraw of their own volition before the ceremony begins. But when you're in the temple for the first time, you're usually with your friends and family (social pressure), you're experiencing many new things for the first time (disorientation), and then there's the fact that this ceremony has been hyped for so long that you're quite curious about what you're going to experience---which combine to create an extremely low possibility that anyone would ever withdraw from the ceremony. Also, by the time a church member has gotten to the point where they are taking out their endowments, they are so heavily invested in the church that it would feel like it's impossible for them to withdraw. (You've already been a tithe-paying church member for at least one year, you might possibly be getting married next week, you might be going on a mission, etc.)

Another consequence of temple secrecy is that it shuts down democratic dialogue about the temple between church members. Because it's a social taboo to talk openly about the temple, members can't compare notes about their experiences and process its meaning. If such democratic dialogue were allowed to occur, it's possible that some members would be able to commiserate about their negative experiences and help to provide other alternative ways of looking at it more positively. It's also possible that they'd be able to just talk about what the whole thing means with one another, rather than feel spiritually inferior for not being able to understand it.

But I think the most problematic consequence of temple secrecy is that when changes are made to the temple ceremony, the elements of the old ceremonies "disappear down the memory hole," to use an Orwellian phrase for it. It is a matter of fact that the temple has changed dramatically from the time that Joseph Smith first introduced it. I won't rehearse the changes that have been made because other websites have done a better job of documenting them than I have. Let me just assure you that they are both very substantial and the ceremony changes pretty frequently. Simply put, my ancestors' experience attending the temple would have been quite different from my own---and each generation's experience would have been slightly different from the one before.

Members going through the temple today have no idea that any of these changes ever took place because of the code of secrecy surrounding the temple. And I think that is problematic in many ways. On the one hand, I welcome all of these changes. I think nearly all of them were very progressive and badly needed. It's largely because of these changes that I was able to have a positive experience the first time I went through the temple. The fact that the temple ceremony has changed so much actually gives me hope that the church can be reformed. If elements of the church's most sacred ceremonies can be revised because of protests and discomfort from its members, then there is hope that the church can change in other ways that are badly needed.

But on the other hand, the changes to the temple open up a new can of theological worms. Given the fact that we have to say the sacrament prayers exactly in order for them to be valid, given the fact that witnesses must watch the performance of a baptism to ensure that it is done exactly correctly---what does it mean that the temple ceremony has undergone so many extensive revisions? Doesn't that violate the very conditions of the Restoration---the idea that ceremonies became corrupted over time through change? Why couldn't the Lord have revealed it to Joseph Smith perfectly the first time?

The consequence of code of silence surrounding the temple is that it creates the illusion that the temple ceremony has never changed at all. It engenders the false idea that the temple ceremony was revealed perfectly the first time. And it therefore denies members the ability to think freely about the temple, to really wrestle with the theological significance of those changes. I personally can't see how you could view it as anything less than an attempt at maintaining an unfair, unearned hegemony over the church's members by censoring independent thought.

The Temple Recommend Interview as a Mormon Creed
Mormonism has long taken pride in the fact that they do not have an official creed. Joseph Smith once said: "I cannot believe in any of the creeds of the different denominations, because they all have some things in them I cannot subscribe to, though all of them have some truth. I want to come up into the presence of God, and learn all things; but the creeds set up stakes, and say, 'Hitherto shalt thou come, and no further'; which I cannot subscribe to" (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 1938, p. 327). Latter-day Saints have always maintained that creeds limit the process of discovering truth since we believe in continuing revelation.

But I would argue that the temple recommend interview has become a de-facto Mormon Creed. A temple recommend is a symbol of being a member in good standing with the church. You cannot serve in most leadership positions in the church unless you have one. You could possibly be ostracized and seen as a second-class citizen without one. But in order to get a temple recommend, you must subscribe to a fairly orthodox set of beliefs: you have to believe in God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost, the Atonement, the Restoration, that Thomas S. Monson is a prophet, and that all of your local leaders are called by God to lead you. You also have to follow a set of orthodox practices as well: you have to live the law of chastity, you have to be honest, you have to keep the Word of Wisdom, you have to attend church regularly, you have to wear your garments, and, of course, you have to pay a full tithe.

Even after my crisis of faith, I didn't really have that much difficulty with the behavior questions. I never considered it that difficult to keep the Word of Wisdom, to be chaste, to wear my garments or to pay my tithing (although I paid begrudgingly). Rather, I had a problem with the questions about belief. After serious study and contemplation, I really can't say in good conscience that I believe in any of those things listed in the temple recommend interview. I do not find them logically plausible any more. And so, because I could no longer believe in the things listed on the temple recommend, I decided I might as well no longer behave in ways required by the temple recommend. I stopped paying tithing and I stopped wearing garments. (Just FYI, I haven't done much with the Word of Wisdom yet and I haven't cheated on my husband.) And so in some ways, the temple recommend questions have facilitated my gradual estrangement from the church. If I could be a member in good standing without subscribing to a legalistic set of beliefs, I'd probably still be able to maintain my membership in the church. And I've gradually come to resent that I can't merely behave like a good member---I have to believe like one too.

I have a sister who is a lot younger than I am. She hasn't yet taken out her endowments or gotten married. One day she will. And when that day comes, I won't be able to go inside and see her get married. I won't be able to be with my family that day. In some ways it's only fair: she wasn't able to attend my ceremony, after all. But it will be different for me. In that moment, suddenly everyone will know that I don't have a temple recommend and my distant relatives and cousins will all begin to think of me as a second-class citizen. They'll think of me as an evil, despicable person just because I can't have faith in something for which there is strong evidence to the contrary. And there will be nothing I can do to convince them otherwise.

Although the temple claims to unite families together for eternity, the temple will create an undeniable barrier between me and my family on the day my sister gets married. The temple will not be a symbol of family togetherness, but of my personal alienation from my family. Now that hurts.

For Further Consideration
I have only scratched the surface of the problems with the temple in this blog entry. A few topics that could be talked about another day:
  • There are a multitude of feminist problems with the temple ceremony.
  • Performing ordinances for the dead as a sign of disrespect for people's religious identity in life.
  • The sacralization of temple weddings.
  • The temple ceremony as a means of maintaining control over the members.
  • Building multi-million dollar houses of worship when we should be helping the poor. 
  • Etc, etc. etc.

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