Mormon theology and practice centers ultimately on the temple, and yet the temple is a subject on which Mormons are especially secretive and reticent. Therein lies one of the central ironies and challenges facing any Mormon trying to really explain how Mormonism works to an outsider. We are both proud of the temples as the most visible aspect of Mormonism, and yet they also create difficulties in explaining the gospel to others. In a recent address at BYU, Douglas Davies, a non-LDS scholar of religious studies, said that he thought one of the biggest issues facing the explanation of Mormonism is the temple. â€œYou need some sort of explanation of what goes on in there,â€ he said, â€œand I am not talking about â€˜I go and I have a good feeling.â€™â€ Noah Feldmanâ€™s article touches on many of the same themes.
The secrecy surrounding temple worship creates a problem because it is seen as inherently suspicious and creates a vacuum that is often filled by the ill-informed or the hostile. In part, the interest of non-Mormons â€“ especially in the media â€“ in the temple is pure voyeurism. Everyone wants to know about the secret ceremonies. But there is more at work here that simply the hope of religious titillation. In public the temple appears as the silent core of Mormonism. We insist that it is central, and then say almost nothing about it.
It seems to me that Mormon discussions are limited by three things:
First, the explicit covenants of secrecy contained in the endowment. I would point out that these are actually quite limited.
Second, the sense that preserving the sacredness of the temple requires a reticence about discussing its ordinances with the uninitiated. This creates a somewhat ill-defined zone of secrecy that extends beyond the explicit covenants of secrecy.
Third, the sense that temple worship is so different and â€œstrangeâ€ that it cannot be adequately explained to outsiders and therefore ought to be glossed over in the hope that their interest turns elsewhere.
I think that the first two of these reasons are valid. I think that the third reason is not. Indeed, this sense of subliminal Mormon embarrassment about the temple is picked up on by non-Mormons, making them even more suspicious of our faith. Hence, I think that coming up with some simple and appropriate ways of providing more information about the temple would do much to dispel at least some anxieties about Mormonism.
A while ago my father was interviewed by the BBC about the Salt Lake Tabernacle. (He was the curator on the Church Museumâ€™s exhibit on the Tabernacle and has become the Churchâ€™s resident expert on its history.) The British reporters, however, wanted to talk about what went on in the temple. In talking with my father afterward, I thought about how I would have framed my answers to their questions. My goal would be to provide as much information as possible in a context that made the temple meaningful rather than simply titillating, while at the same time respecting both covenants and the legitimate demands of esoteric sacredness. Here are some ideas:
What do Mormons do in temples?
â€œTemples are used exclusively for sacred rituals, rather that ordinary worship services. Mormons who enter the temple generally do so in order to perform these rituals. There are essentially four sets of temple rituals.
â€œThe first two are known as initiatory ordinances and the endowment. Taken together, these ordinances constitute a ritual assent into the presence of God, an enactment of the plan of salvation using the archetypal stories of Adam and Eve. Those who â€œreceiveâ€ their initiatories and endowments are given instruction and make sacred covenants of obedience to God, chastity, consecration, etc.
â€œThe crowning ordinance of the temple is the sealing ceremony, or marriage for time and all eternity. We also perform baptisms for the dead in temples.â€
Note: in contrast to initiatories and endowments, I believe that we are fairly open about discussion the meaning of sealings and baptism for the dead and less effort is required in these areas.
What are garments?
â€œContrary to some reports, Mormons do not regard their ‘garments’ as â€˜magic underwear.â€™ The Bible teaches that when Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden of Eden, God provided them with clothing. These garments symbolized Godâ€™s promise not to leave them forsaken, to watch over them, and ultimately to redeem them. As part of the initiatory ordinances, Mormons receive garments worn next to the skin that represents the clothes given by God to Adam and Eve. Mormons wear these garments as a reminder of their temple covenants and of Godâ€™s promised blessings and protection.â€
There are two other important issues that I think are more difficult to explain. The first of these is the secrecy itself of the temple. (And to be honest we do make covenants of secrecy in the temple; it is not simply a matter of sacredness.) The second is the exclusion of non-members, particularly from weddings.
On the issue of secrecy, I thingk that we should frankly acknowledge that the temple involves the idea of esoteric as well as exoteric knowledge. After all, there is a long esoteric tradition among the Abrahamic faiths to which temple worship might be likened. For example, The Guide to the Perplexed, the magnum opus of the great medieval Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides, is essentially a prolonged commentary on certain passages of the Torah that were assumed by the rabbis to have a secret meaning available only to the initiates. Interestingly, one of the stories upon which The Guide focuses is the experience of Moses receiving the law on Mount Sinai. I say â€œinterestinglyâ€ because in his recorded Nauvoo discourses, Joseph Smith associated the temple endowment with this Moses story, suggesting that what were revealed on Mount Sinai were, among other things, the secrets of the endowment.
One idea for explaining the exclusion of non-members is to emphasize the centrality of rituals for the temple. I think that many do no understand that temples are not churches or places where Mormons go to simply contemplate. We go to temples to work and perform ordinances. Furthermore, these ordinances donâ€™t generally have spectators, even Mormon ones. Hence, there is a sense in which Mormons are excluded from temples on the same basis as non-members. One can only enter the temple to perform temple ordinances. One could then link this exclusion to the idea of sacredness, noting that part of what sanctifies the temple is its sole devotion to the ritual.
The problem with this explanation is that it doesnâ€™t work in the most poignant and visible aspect of exclusion, namely from sealing ceremonies. This, of course, is one of the few temple rituals where we do allow in mere spectators, but not non-temple-recommend-holding spectators. This stings. I think that a better explanation of the exclusion could help ameliorate this sting, although I suspect that it will always be there.