The Metaphysics of Sealing

2013-10-21 SLC TempleAs Mormons, we practice a faith full of ritual ordinances. We are taught in scripture that some of these ordinances, like baptism, are necessary for salvation. We are also given very specific instructions for performing these ordinances, and failure to execute them properly seems to nullify their efficacy. Taken together, the precise instructions for carrying out ordinances and their eternal significance seem dischordant. When we are immersed during baptism, does the water actually do something? If not, why is it so strictly required? I know of three three conventional attitudes to this problem.

The most straight-forward is to believe that our actions in conducting ordinances actually work to bring about the effect of the ordinance. So, when the sacrament is blessed, the words themselves (in the presence of the proper priesthood as a catalyst) bring about the effect of sanctifying the bread and water. They are changed in some metaphysical sense. This, in all seriousness and gravity, is the magical view of ordinances. They work exactly like spells in Harry Potter. You have to have the power (wizarding blood in Harry Potter or the priesthood in real life) and then you have to say the right words and if both conditions are met: something happens.

There are clearly problems with this view, however. It requires some very speculative metaphysics to explain, for example, what role water has in the baptism that allows sins to be washed away. It’s also strange to believe that the exact wording of the sacrament prayers has some kind of causal impact when we remember that those prayers can be offered with equal effect in dozens and dozens of totally different languages. My impression is that this perspective is the default in Mormonism, but that we simply don’t try to create the metaphysical framework that would be required to complete it and leave it as a mystery. (The prevalence of this view probably has to do with Mormonism’s historical relationship to scriptural literalism.)

The second is an extension of the first, and it holds that there’s no direct relationship between the outward acts of ordinances (the water in baptism or the words in the sacrament prayer) and the ensuing result, but rather that it is our obedience to the rules (whatever those rules may be) that causes the effect. Either obedience itself is the necessary ingredient or God simply exercises His power when He is satisfied that the proper forms have been followed. Neither of these approaches seems satisfying. We’re either stuck with even more metaphysical speculation (to work in obedience as a fundamental principle) or we’ve reduced the efficacy of ordinances to divine fiat, which is incompatible with the way we talk about priesthood power. This is a fallback position when the problems in the first position become too intimidating.

2013-10-21 Baptism

Each of these approaches—ordinances working directly or indirectly because of our actions—involves heavy-duty metaphysics. The third alternative eschews metaphysics completely and holds that ordinances are only symbolic. Of course there’s no doubt that ordinances are symbolic and that, as such, they teach valuable principles and also help to create a cultural matrix that gives meaning and beauty to life. But if ordinances are only symbolic, then we seem to have form of the ordinances but deny the power thereof. We’re left with nothing but a giant Santa Claus myth. The idea that ordinances have a real effect is a benevolent falsehood to encourage good behavior or spread a (false) sense of peace.

I would like to propose an alternative that, for lack of a better word, I call soft metaphysics. It consists of two claims. First, I think that reality is greater than the sum of its physical description. Second, I believe that performative acts in ordinances can influence that reality in truly causal ways.

This may sound abstract and technical. Rather than try to explain what I mean directly, I’d rather just give one example. I’ll use the Mormon concept of “sealing”.

The lesson in my ward for today was The Hearts of the Children Shall Turn to the Fathers. It contained this quote from Elder Holland:

No family ties would exist in the eternities, and indeed the family of man would have been left in eternity with ‘neither root [ancestors] nor branch [descendants].’ Inasmuch as … a sealed, united, celestially saved family of God is the ultimate purpose of mortality, any failure here would have been a curse indeed, rendering the entire plan of salvation ‘utterly wasted’.

This is a very odd claim. In what sense can a family tie be said to be destroyed? Obviously we’re not supposed to envision from Celestial secret police breaking down doors and physically removing individuals from family units who lack the proper authorization. So, presuming for a moment that we’re talking about a family unit that has made it to the Celestial Kingdom, why is sealing necessary to continue the family relationship? Could not a couple who were husband and wife on Earth simply say “Hey, let’s stay together” and then stay with each other and live as a married couple? Would that not be enough? I hardly imagine that I would think of my own parents as somehow no longer my parents just because the record of our sealings were lost, or it turned out the individual performing the ordinance was an impostor. So let’s just set aside the implied metaphysics (that there’s some kind of undetectable but objectively real substance that defines family bonds) and just think about what a family unit really entails.

There are basically two requirements. First, everyone involved has to want to be part of the family. Second, everyone has to know that everyone else involves wants to be a part of the family. That second element seems subtle, but it is actually of vital importance. Imagine a man and a woman who love each other as husband and wife (fulfilling the first requirement), but who haven’t communicated that to the other. Until mutual bonds of affection and loyalty become common knowledge, those bonds are not enough to make a family. (I realize that this definition varies substantially from the Earthly one, where siblings are stuck in a family regardess of their feeling, but we’re talking about the voluntary preservation of those bonds in the next life.)

So, if you wanted to create a situation where a family continued, you would naturally want to create a simple method for everyone in question to publicly and unequivocally convey their desire to be part of the family. It would be necessary to have just one and only one method to avoid confusion, and it would have to be sufficiently removed from every day experience that people wouldn’t just stumble into it on accident. In addition, you would want it to be costly. If it costs nothing to say “Yeah, sign me up” then can you really trust that people are fully committed? If, on the other hand, it requires the sacrifice of all things then you can know that the people who make and uphold that covenant do so with real intent.

2013-10-21 Sealing Room

In other words, even if we completely ignore any kind of metaphysics, we end up with something that looks a lot like ordinances anyway. Despite the lack of metaphysics in the traditional sense, however, this description goes beyond mere symbolism. As I said: reality (in the sense of ‘the things that really matter’) isn’t just about a description of physical objects. It also depends on the minds of people. You can’t measure family bonds with any scientific instrument, but they exist in the emergent reality of a society of human minds. When the members of a family all know that that they love each other and want to be united as a family, then that knowledge actually changes the fabric of reality. We are not just labeling a group of people a family, we are literally creating family. That’s why, for lack of a better term, I call it soft metaphysics. (I may have better terminology when I finally heed my father’s counsel and finish J. L. Austin’s How to do Things with Words.)

I do not believe that this perspective is enough to explain everything about ordinances. The metaphysics of family relationships are great, but what about the real physics of getting a resurrected body? I’ve got nothing for that. But this perspective does helps me understand how it is that our participation in ordinances can have a real impact on the result without getting into strange questions about the relationship between H2O and sin. It also helps make a lot of sense of some historical questions that I know have been troubling for many. It doesn’t matter very much what the ordinances are, just that there are ordinances. So, for example, if Joseph Smith pretty much copied a bunch of rituals from the Freemasons, who cares? You could presume that they actually maintained intact the authentic rituals from the original Temple of Solomon, but it seems more direct and pragmatic to just assert that Joseph Smith borrowed what he needed to get the job done.

And that is enough.

74 comments for “The Metaphysics of Sealing

  1. October 21, 2013 at 7:50 am

    Nathaniel, I like where you end up in this post. I’m not very convinced, however, that your distinction between your position and the “only symbolic” view is tenable. In both cases, there seems to be a kind of social constructionism at work (Searle’s The Construction of Social Reality may prove more useful to you than Austin’s great book).

    Granted, there are versions of reductionist materialism that would deny that mere symbolism has the real significance and effects that you are talking about. But this is the part of your argument I’d like to hear you develop more — specifically what views of “mere symbolism” are you objecting to, and are these views more than just straw men?

    Also, you may be interested in Adam Miller’s recent book that makes what I think is ultimately a pretty similar argument. Adam draws heavily on Bruno Latour in presenting a metaphysical view in which all objects (incl. socially constructed ones) have real causal power — but that causal power depends on garnering “democratic support” from other objects (esp. humans, in the case of social responsibilities).

  2. Kaphor
    October 21, 2013 at 8:17 am

    I disagree with your underlying premise of what a family is – – or shall we say an attempt at redefinition.

    You say it’s basically people who want to be together, and say later on a mother and father satisfy this requirement (actually I suppose you said husband and wife, future potentially even further obfuscates what a family is what the eternal destiny of a family can be), but you’re definition intentionally leaves the door open for “other” families.

    It entirely misses the point of the plan of salvation and sealing ordinances in the first place. This whole plan has been done before. If we want to end up like our Father and Mother we need to be like them, if not we can be something else, but the progression of eternal lives would end there (for whoever would choose such).
    I do think some of the metaphysical thought experiments you have going on are interesting, but ultimately were far too limited in our light on this issue. For me, I simply take direction from the fact that what we are doing in principle, and perhaps now and in our eternal future often in detail are the same way an eternal Father and Mother came to their knowledge and glory.
    Where I struggle on these types of thought issues is we are so poor to discern truth from error when we depart from the basic principles that we end up building on an intellectual foundation of sand that leaves our well-thought and compelling theories on unproven ground. Such as your incorrect foundational definition of a family.

  3. Howard
    October 21, 2013 at 8:20 am

    Ordanaces are just symbolic but they can be catalysts, triggers or portals for spiritual experiences. We, not God limit our spiritual interactions due to our unbelief, our fear and our distraction with the material world. Obedience and worthiness have nothing directly to do with spiritual experiences but they are required for ordiances and the reaching involved with becomming a better (more spiritual?) person is intent and intent facilates spiritual experiences.

  4. October 21, 2013 at 8:23 am

    Robert C-

    Thank for the suggestion. I’ll take a look at that book, and it’s probably best that I do so before I try and dig much deeper into what I have in mind when I talk about “mere symbolism”.


    I think you’re jumping the gun. My definition of family in this post is very vague and incomplete because it’s really not the focal point. I understand why you would assume from that that I’m redefining family in a generic way, but that’s not the case. I just didn’t feel the need to get into lots of detail for this particular post.

  5. Hedgehog
    October 21, 2013 at 10:18 am

    In conversation with a temple sealer, I got the distinct impression that is the record of the ordinance that is of primary importance. If recorded on earth, then recorded in heaven. He was speaking of a concern raised bysomeone he’d been talking to who was afraid her sealing was invalid because she’d got yes and no muddled, and it hadn’t been picked up at the time. The answer was if the ordinance is in the records, it’s valid.
    So I see them as symbolic for our benefit, but the record signifies the intent, mistakes and errors not withstanding.

  6. Shawn
    October 21, 2013 at 11:31 am

    Why the need to try and define any ordinance in the dubious eyes of Metaphysics anyway? Is it not enough that God says – do thus, and I will recognize it as effectual for your Eternal well being?

    This seems too much like the prophet who refused to wash himself in the waters, for healing, because he couldn’t make sense of it in terms of his understanding of science, and common sense of his day.

    There are those who today will tout that because the sacrament prayer “sanctifies” the bread and water. that partaking it means it will be devoid of anything that can cause one harm. They assume a “metaphysical” change has occured. Clearly not as big a change as what catholic doctrine mandates through their perception of Transubstanation (sp?) but either way, its a mistaken concept that is not supported by LDS Doctrine.

    If you partake of the sacrament, from the same vessel as others, you still risk getting a communicable disease.(Hence partly why sacrament changed from a few vessels, to individual cups – and now are disposable) If the water is unclean/unfiltered, carrying any host of parasitical creatures, you still risk illness as a host. Nothing in the prayer makes that water change to a sterile, purified instrument. Partaking it is beneficial to my soul, but may in fact still deliver illness, pollutants, and might even cause death! (how’s that for an extreme example – but real) If it were the case, those people with allergies would be able to partake of the bread without harmful effect.

    If we were to assume that Baptism waters caused some metaphysical action that withdrew our sins from our soul, how would that work? Is the whole body of water made into a sin attractant or is it just the minute amounts of water that touches our skin? How would the water know to do so, then return to being just regular water?

    I think before we go any further down this road, that this theory be supported by revealed word, and prophetic utterance, so quotes please.

    Otherwise I will leave it lying on the sketchy ground it is currently established.

  7. Ben S.
    October 21, 2013 at 11:48 am

    I don’t think the first option is as magical or unreasonable as it seems.

    Linguistic theory has a whole category for this kind of thing, called speech acts. When the priest says, “I now pronounce you man and wife” there’s nothing magical that happens, but something real has nevertheless been effected. There is a difference in status of the couple before that statement vs after because that statement has been said. Nothing magical in the words themselves, of course, but that a certain authority has said certain things in a certain setting, other things have changed.

  8. October 21, 2013 at 12:45 pm

    #7: I think this works well within Nathaniel’s view. In fact, I think it broadens it to include some of the points he discarded.

    Mircea Eliade wrote, “Every religious festival, any liturgical time represents the reactualization of a sacred event that took place in a mythical past, “in the beginning.” Religious participation in a festival implies emerging from a temporal duration and reintegration of the mythical time reactualized by the festival itself. Hence sacred time is indefinitely recoverable, indefinitely repeatable.” (The Sacred and the Profane, 68-69.) In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes,

    “Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin” (Romans 6:3-7).

    Here the act of baptism is explicitly connected to Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Relying on Eliade’s understanding of liturgy and its “reactualization of a sacred event,” it seems to me that baptism in some sense draws on the past, looks forward to the future, and brings the two into the present. The birth of the new creation (to borrow a prominent theme in the works of N.T. Wright) began with the resurrection of Jesus: the prototype of the new creation; “the last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45). The new creation will be finalized and the entire creation transformed with the Second Coming and the resurrection of the dead. By being “baptized into [Jesus’] death” and “raised up from the dead” to “newness of life,” we participate in and become a part of this new creation: “Therefore, if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Cor. 5:17). We reactualize the sacred event of Christ’s resurrection and, in some sense, actualize the eventual resurrection of all (including our own). We bring the past and future into the baptismal font and there become a part of the new creation ourselves. It is our exodus from the old and deliverance into the new. Just as the deliverance of and covenant with Israel invoked creation imagery, likewise with our deliverance and covenant.

    Now, do I think you were literally changed into a “new creature”; from a human being into a some wholly other “saint”? Not necessarily. But the status has changed. A real change–even a socially constructed one–has taken place.

    Though, I do like Harry Potter…

  9. Clark
    October 21, 2013 at 2:07 pm

    I’m really skeptical the first view is the default, unless one qualifies it carefully. One might think there are things associated with the words and/or acts for some ordinances without falling prey to magical thinking. To make an analogy think of a shell prompt on a computer. With a shell command it’s really not magic (of the “Matrix”) nor is it obedience but rather explicit rules that form an essential relationship. You could argue that since it’s still rules it’s obedience but I think there’s a big difference between rules of that form and more normative rules judged by a person in your second analysis.

    To give an analogy for what I’m arguing for think of mnemonic devices that trigger a psychological state. Or even think of a key word in hypnotism. (I’m not saying ordinances are like either of those, just that they are examples) The mnemonic device analysis actually makes a lot of sense given the prominence of the temple as a theoretical scaffolding for how we understand so many ordinances. Yet the temple has a clear connection to masonry which has a clear connection to The Art of Memory which was all about mental rites as a mnemonic process both in the memory art of late antiquity and the renaissance.

    We should also not that not all ordinances need be seen as the same. Clearly some ordinances change. The temple in particular has shifted a fair bit. Yet one might see key essential aspects to the temple that perhaps aren’t there in the forms for dedicating a grave or giving a blessing. So we should be careful not to necessitate a theology of ordinances that is too univocal. In particularly I’m pretty sympathetic to some theories about the evolution of the Nephite sacrament prayer that evolved out of Benjamin’s speech and strongly suspect the forms given in the Didiche accurately reflect 1st century Palestinian prayers.

  10. Clark
    October 21, 2013 at 2:20 pm

    Kaphor (2) I think you end up needing something like Nathaniel’s view of family to deal with vicarious ordinances as well as the problem of people who choose not to accept Celestial life. Clearly we do ordinances for lots of people in the temple who might choose not to be married to each other in the resurrection. That free choice element requires that at some time (presumably the Millennium) that there will be a lot of shifting of sealings.

    Howard (3) I think there’s a presumption by many that symbols somehow aren’t real. I’m not sure that’s fair. Talking about them as catalysts, as you do, gets us part way there. But I think things like computers show us that the symbolic can enter into real relations and have a function. So called memes that persist and are passed around with real functions also heads in that direction. I know why some what to keep the symbol from its interpretation clear and separate with action always coming after an interpreting mind acts. However I think that becomes blurry in many cases (once again computer languages or software being a great example). At a certain point I think it simpler to say symbols with a certain context do things rather than just saying people do things (which is what Nathaniel’s second theology basically adopts)

    Hedgehog (4) I’m skeptical of the theology of recording. Although I’m far more sympathetic to a theology of witnesses. (Which are also part of the temple) The problem of screwups is largely resolved through witnesses. I suspect even with witnesses somethings need to be fixed though.

    Ben S (7) I think performatives in speech act theory are a great example. Although I think that Mormon ordinances go deeper than that. An interesting issue in speech act theory is of course acting in a derived way. So a priest being able to make a performance doesn’t make the same performance if the same priest is in a play saying the same words and “acting” as a priest in the play. There are all sorts of oddities that come out of that issue of representation. And of course this issue of acting as someone else has a significant place in LDS ritual. Not just the temple but also even baptism.

    WalkerW (8) I think Eliade (who was deeply influenced by Heidegger) really is dealing with a more narrow application of how a symbol stays live and real. Effectively it’s tied to that point I raised about acting. How to you make a symbol real and alive rather than a vain repetition. This is a real issue in Heidegger and gets at his distinction between the authentic and inauthentic phenomenological encounters. Effectively Eliade is just applying that recognition to religion broadly conceived.

    It’s interesting since one might argue that as we return to the temple we never return as ourselves but are acting as someone else but simultaneously want that acting to be a return to a live symbol. In other words, in terms of speech act, to recapture the original performative power despite being a representation of a sort. (We’re not the people we are going through for, we’ve done it many times, but we want to recapture that original religious experience)

  11. October 21, 2013 at 3:04 pm

    (Nathaniel, if you haven’t read Jim Faulconer’s “Scripture as Incarnation,” esp. the version published in Jim’s Faith, Philosophy, Scripture book — I strongly recommend it. Note esp. the discussion of transubstantiation and footnote 26. Also, let me just reiterate the I really like your line of thinking here, and I think your thinking fits nicely with speech act theory in Austin and Searle….)

  12. Hedgehog
    October 21, 2013 at 3:04 pm

    Clark, I certainly regard witnesses as an important element. A record shouldn’t be established without their say so. I also wonder whether it is the need for a record on earth as well as in heaven that makes vicarious ordinances necessary. The specifics of the ordinances themselves have been subject to change over time, and I believe it was necessary for the early saints to repeat ordinances that had not been recorded.

  13. October 21, 2013 at 3:54 pm

    Ben S-

    The idea of “speech acts” is distinct from the first three models that I present. In fact, the fourth model that I focus on (“soft metaphysics”) is an extension / exploration of “speech acts”. (Thus my reference to How to Do Things With Words.)

    The marriage ceremony you use as an example is common enough that I think it must be the canonical example that everyone uses to introduce the concept, but it’s neither directly applicable to all ordinances nor, itself, very robust.

    After all, why does the preacher’s statement “I pronounce you man and wife” (or whatever) effect some real change in status? Is it like fiat currency, where it works simply by majority assent? If so, that doesn’t really explain how sins are washed away by baptism, or why water is a requirement. Or is there some deeper mechanism, as I outlined with the sealing example, where it’s not merely recognition of an arbitrarily imposed authority but an actual change in the situation of who knows what about whom?

    I know I’ve got some additional reading to do to catch up on “speech acts” (although I think it should be generalized to “performative actions” to include the aspects of ordinances that aren’t speech), but I thought the particular take on sealing was interesting enough for a post today. :-)

  14. October 21, 2013 at 3:58 pm


    Why the need to try and define any ordinance in the dubious eyes of Metaphysics anyway?

    There isn’t really any “need” at all, in the same sense in which there is no “need” to do any theology at all. Your position is, I think, the default conservative position: it implies a strong metaphysics but refuses to speculate about it. For example: baptism washes away sins in a real sense (there’s the strong metaphysics, like it or not) but how does that work? We don’t know. It just does.

    If that is where curiosity ends, then I think that’s probably valid. But for me, as someone who believes in theology as a form of worship, asking “How?” in no way presumes that I deserve an answer, that I will necessarily get an answer, or that I will reject doctrine until I’m satisfied with an answer. It’s merely one method of remaining authentically engaged with my faith, similar to how others might write poetry or sing hymns. I don’t think it’s hard to keep separate the aspects of my faith that are essential to me (e.g. “the Atonement works”) and the aspects that secondary or tertiary (e.g. “and this might be one mechanism by which the Atonement works…”)

    In short: I don’t think you need to have a sense of defensiveness on this topic merely because it doesn’t interest you, personally.

  15. October 21, 2013 at 4:08 pm


    Thanks for jumping in. I think the boundary between what I view as “mere symbol” and the kind of soft metaphysics that I have in mind is fuzzy. Partially I’m just motivated by culture: re-interpreting a text as symbolic has historically been a way of deliteralizing and, in a sense, destroying a text. One of the things that matters to me very much is preserving the actuality of historical faith claims such as the literal resurrection of Christ or the journey of Lehi’s family to the Americas. There’s a danger in running away with symbols to the point where we erase the original referent. Some of my desire to differentiate my approach from symbolism is a reflection of that particular goal of mine.

    The reason I brought this up is that, as I was reading your excerpt, it just occurred to me that another difference between symbols I view them and “mere symbols” is the social aspect. If symbols are independently operative (i.e. if they are true for every person who holds them, or not, purely based on that persons belief) than it’s hard to view them as having real power. They are basically like Dumbo’s feather. One person believing in Dumbo’s feather or a group believing the same thing is, to me, quite similar. But some social beliefs require more than mere propositional coincidence. It’s not just that multiple people have more or less the same idea in their heads, but rather that the ideas they have interact with each other. It seems to me that in this interaction, a kind of emergent reality is possible that is more than just a crowd of solipsists.

    I think that a sealing ordinance, as I imagine it, is like the second case. It’s not merely that everyone assents to the idea “we are a family”, but rather that the common knowledge that everyone has about everyone’s else beliefs creates something that is greater than just the sum of everyone’s identical belief.

    Clearly I need to work on articulating that a little bit better, but the fundamental important of relationships is another big part of my motivation.

  16. October 21, 2013 at 4:10 pm

    Robert C-

    Everyone always likes to give me a reading list, don’t they? ;-) Ah, I’d have lived a different life if my patriarchal blessing hadn’t persuaded me (correctly or not) to stay out of academia. In any case, I will try to sideline my usual suspicion of professional philosophers and add this to my list!

  17. October 21, 2013 at 5:08 pm

    Your post made me think of when I graduated from the University of Utah a few years ago and my decision to attend the graduation ceremonies. After some persuasion by wife, I shelled out the $70 dollars for a cap and gown and spent an entire day walking where I was told to, sitting where I was told to, and listening.

    I am happy I “walked.” The festivities made me feel like I was graduating and not just ending my class attendance. Pomp and circumstance brought my effort to a head. I would be okay with ordinances not having any metaphysical effect if only to act as milestones to make my effort, the combination of my faith and works, seem retrospectively real. It would seem a bit of a let down to remain chaste your entire pre-marriage life to then open that gate with just a couple signatures. Maybe that is a conditioned response.

    Who knows, maybe ordinances are used much the same way here as they are in Heaven, check marks by our name to show progress. That said, Priesthood authority seems to be pretty vital, and the Priesthood is something I still only understand at about a kindergarten level. I think understanding the actual effect of a physical ordinance requires understanding the effect of the Priesthood.

    Thanks for your post.

  18. Howard
    October 21, 2013 at 5:48 pm

    Clark wrote: I think there’s a presumption by many that symbols somehow aren’t real… Well it depends on what you mean by real. I agree that we attach memes to symbols and the church helps us do this sometimes quite specifically other times more generally so the symbol takes on more meaning to an initiated member than it would to a stranger but add this all together and it becomes a religious ritual not a metaphysical experience, spirit to spirit interaction, is required for a metaphysical experience not spirit to ritual. However I believe the ritual can predispose and help point the member toward a spiritual experience which is why I see it as catalysts, triggers or portals. In my view conflation is required to to attribute something metaphysical to the ritual itself.

  19. Howard
    October 21, 2013 at 6:07 pm

    Pronouncing you man and wife causes you to act as if you were and others around you act as if you are! Baptism works the same way. You repent, you are told by an official LDS representative that your sins will be washed away, you believe they will be, you are baptized and then you act as if they were and others around you act as if they were. In the Old Testament they used a scape goat instead:

    And Aaron shall lay both his ahands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness: And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness…For on that day shall the priest make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, that ye may be clean from all your sins before the Lord.

    It’s just symbolic psychotherapy and placebo which is the power of belief!

  20. October 21, 2013 at 6:47 pm

    Some thoughts and history from Eastern Orthodox philosopher David B. Hart on baptism and its practice and meaning in the early centuries:

    “We are far removed from the days when one’s baptism could be said to be the most momentous event—and perhaps the most dramatic, terrifying, and joyous experience—of one’s life. Most Christians today, at least in the developed world, are baptized in infancy; and even those whose traditions delay the rite until adulthood are, for the most part, children of Christian families and have grown up in the faith, and so their baptisms merely seal and affirm the lives they have always lived. This was obviously not the case, however, for most of the Christians of the earliest centuries; for them, baptism was of an altogether more radical nature. It was understood as nothing less than a total transformation of the person who submitted to it; and as a ritual event, it was certainly understood as being far more than a mere dramaturgical allegory of one’s choice of religious association. To become a Christian was to renounce a very great deal of what one had known and been to that point, in order to be joined to a new reality, the demands of which were absolute; it was to depart from one world, with an irrevocable finality, and to enter another.” (Atheist Delusions, pg. 111.)

    Baptism often followed years as a “catechumen, a student of the church’s teachings,” during which the individual was “receiving instruction, submitting to moral scrutiny, learning to discipline one’s will, and gradually becoming accustomed to the practice of the Christian life” (pg. 112). But “the most crucial feature of the rite,” according to Hart, “…occurred before the catechumen’s descent into the font: at the bishop’s direction, he or she would turn to face the west (the land of evening, and so symbolically the realm of all darkness, cosmic and spiritual), submit to a rather forcibly phrased exorcism, and then clearly renounce—indeed, revile and, quite literally, spit at—the devil and the devil’s ministers. Then he or she would turn to face the east (the land of morning and of light) to confess total faith in, and promise complete allegiance to, Christ. This was by no means mere ritual spectacle; it was an actual and, so to speak, legally binding transference of fealty from one master to another. Even the physical posture and attitude of the baptizand was charged with a palpable quality of irreverent boldness: pagan temples were as a rule designed with their entrances to the east and their altars at their western ends, while the arrangement of Christian churches was exactly the reverse. In thus turning one’s back upon, rejecting, and abusing the devil, one was also repudiating the gods to whose service one had hitherto been indentured, and was doing so with a kind of triumphant contempt; in confessing Christ, one was entrusting oneself to the invincible conqueror who had defeated death, despoiled hell of its hostages, subdued the “powers of the air,” and been raised up the Lord of history.” (pg. 113)

    It must be remembered that while “the early Christians did indeed regard the gods of the pagan order as false gods, they did not necessarily understand this to mean simply that these gods were unreal; they understood it to mean that the gods were deceivers. Behind the pieties of the pagan world, Christians believed, lurked forces of great cruelty and guile: demons, malign elemental spirits, occult agencies masquerading as divinities, exploiting the human yearning for God, and working to thwart the designs of God, in order to bind humanity in slavery to darkness, ignorance, and death. And to renounce one’s bonds to these beings was an act of cosmic rebellion, a declaration that one had been emancipated from (in the language of John’s Gospel) “the prince of this world” or (in the somewhat more disturbing language of 2 Corinthians) “the god of this world.” In its fallen state, the cosmos lies under the reign of evil (1 John 5:19), but Christ came to save the world, to lead “captivity captive” (Ephesians 4:8), and to overthrow the empire of those “thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers” (Colossians 1:16, 1 Corinthians 2:8, Ephesians 1:21, 3:10) and “rulers on high” (Ephesians 6:12) that have imprisoned creation in corruption and evil. Again, given the perspective of our age, we can scarcely avoid reading such language as mythological, thus reducing its import from cosmic to more personal or political dimensions. In so doing, however, we fail to grasp the scandal and the exhilaration of early Christianity.” (pg. 113-114)

    These various forces were “not merely earthly princes or empires (though princes and empires served their ends); much less were they vague abstractions; they were, according to Jewish Apocalyptic tradition, the angelic governors of the nations, the celestial “archons,” the often mutinous legions of the air…” With this in mind, we can recognize that “the life of faith was, for the early church, before all else, spiritual warfare, waged between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of this fallen world, and every Christian on the day of his or her baptism had been conscripted into that struggle, on the side of Christ” (pg. 114). And while this view may seem to us “either touchingly quaint or savagely superstitious (depending on the degree to which we deceive ourselves that our vision of reality surpasses all others in sanity), we should recall that, in late antiquity, practically no one doubted that there was a sacral order to the world, or that the social, the political, the cosmic, and the religious realms of human existence were always inextricably involved with one another. Every state was also a cult, or a plurality of cults; society was a religious dispensation; the celestial and political orders belonged to a single continuum; and one’s allegiance to one’s gods was also one’s loyalty to one’s nation, people, masters, and monarchs” (ibid.)

  21. Mike Rasmussen
    October 21, 2013 at 7:29 pm

    I’m not sure this view explains the need for priesthood. For example, if taking the sacrament is a simple, public, and unequivocal declaration of our Christianity (take the name of Jesus, keep his commandments, etc.), then why does it matter if a priest says the words? Wouldn’t the act of taking the sacrament indicate our unequivocal intent to live in that covenant just as well if anyone says the words?

  22. Howard
    October 21, 2013 at 7:49 pm

    The priesthood enhances the power of belief.

  23. October 21, 2013 at 8:13 pm


    I’m not sure this view explains the need for priesthood. For example, if taking the sacrament is a simple, public, and unequivocal declaration of our Christianity (take the name of Jesus, keep his commandments, etc.), then why does it matter if a priest says the words?

    You’re right about that. Trying to explain the priesthood is well outside the scope of what I was considering. Good question for further investigation, though, and it’s the same kind of question. Is the priesthood necessary for some metaphysical reason or is it just a symbol (e.g. a reminder of our dependence on God, for example) or something else?

  24. Steve
    October 21, 2013 at 9:02 pm

    My belief is that ritual religious practices, by and large, find their origins in a magical worldview. Humans throughout history have had a thirst for experiencing the magical and supernatural. I think about all of us do as kids, and then many of us as we grow up are gradually disabused of the notion that magic exists, and that what we believed to be magical and miraculous has a physical explanation. Of course, many highly intellectual people believe in supernatural inexplicable cosmic powers that heal, sanctify, bring about God’s blessings, secure salvation in the afterlife, etc. I myself do to some extent.

    The issue is that at some point in history some individual or group began engaging in ritualistic acts based on the idea that the act itself was tied to cosmic/divine powers somehow. Hebrew-speaking peoples around the southeastern Mediterranean wrote these acts down and evaluated each other based on how well they adhered to the acts. Because they wrote things down, they did not have to rely on oral tradition as much in order to establish what was and what wasn’t a legitimate act; they could point to the text. The text, then, gradually became a representation of a pristine divine order and a guide of rituals. Rituals became a way of establishing spiritual legitimacy in society.

  25. Clark
    October 21, 2013 at 9:12 pm

    Nathaniel (23) I think Mike’s point is a good one. It’s pretty difficult to come up with a metaphysics of ordinances without coming up with a metaphysics of priesthood. Is the priesthood power more akin to the authority of a judge? Or is it something else. The answer to that people give tends to determine the answers to the types of questions you raise. (I’m not saying you need answer that to raise the points you raise of course – just that there is a relationship)

    Howard (22) In what sense does priesthood enhance belief? And why a priesthood such as the Aaronic in Israel prior to the destruction of the temple or in LDS versus say the Protestant notion of a priesthood of all believers?

    Mike (21) I rather like the common Mormon view that the sacrament is a renewing of our baptism. Effectively it a repetition of a certain experience that keeps that original experience alive and novel. That is it can renew that original experience. Certainly one can say there is a performance (in the sense of Searle’s Speech Acts) that is a committing. It’s the performance of promising, which Searle talks about a fair bit. I’m not sure that’s all the sacrament does. It’s definitely a communal experience as well as a personal one. And I suspect, regardless of ones theology of priesthood, that communal sense is tied up with priesthood. (In at least one sense – I think priesthood of young men functions a bit different from say an other priesthood blessing or even the bishop. More akin to how the sons of Aaron were set apart for certain duties. That setting apart is interesting both for ritual as well as for speech acts.

    Walker (20) I think by the time of late antiquity skepticism towards the reality of pagan Gods was more common that Hart suggests. I think religion was seen more as having a special social function rather than “real.” That’s not to say there weren’t many who did see it that way. But in many ways the masses likely were skeptical in a way that I think they weren’t after there was monolithic Christianity in the west (or Islam in the east).

    Howard (18) Certainly a lot depends upon what one means by real. I’ll avoid that debate since it really does bring in a lot of metaphysics that I don’t think is necessarily helpful here. (Even if it must be unpacked for a full answer) Let’s instead say that some people think symbolic function is exhausted by saying people interpret it the way they read a sentence. I think it can be far more complex than that. (Although even interpreting a sentence can be complex) I think reducing ritual to speech acts is one solution to the problem. I’m very, very skeptical it is the full answer. (At least in terms of speech acts as Searle understand them)

    Howard (19) Pronouncing one married can cause people to act as if they are. (Although sadly not enough people I think) I think more importantly it’s a sign to the community to treat you that way. And signifying that to the community is where authority often comes in. I’m not sure that’s all it does. But certainly you’re right that this is a major function. Whether its meaning can be exhausted as “symbolic psychotherapy” is an other matter entirely. After all the psyche of humans is complex and I think by reducing things to “interpretation” we often obscure or avoid a lot of the semiotics that is going on. That is we label it as if we’ve really explained it. Interpretation is a complex thing and not really fully volitional.

  26. Shawn
    October 21, 2013 at 9:22 pm

    My comments were not meant that questions cannot be asked, but simply that when asking the question, had we not be testing it against revealed word, lest we fall into creating our own theology, which may be false?

    Which begs the question of why baptism does not effectualize literal metaphysics for death,burial, and resurrection, but does, as you might suggest for washing away of sins. Perhaps its all symbolic, and the sins are stricken from the records in heaven, and that is sufficient.

    Likewise for temple ordinances, including sealing. Do we need to seek a metaphysical change to explain its effectual nature, or is what God has revealed on the topic sufficient to understand that If we go through the steps he has requested to be sealed, and make the commitment at a pre-approved location (The Temple is not the only location possible as you probably know) that he will honor the same in heaven – providing we maintain/increase our commitment to that covenant and those preceding it.

    Even folks who reject God, faith, and religion have some understanding of Godly nature. Else why, when speaking of Love, they speak in terms of loving another Forever. Is this metaphysical too?

    Don’t get me wrong, I see a place in metaphysical for some events such as changing water to wine, moving mountains, restoring a rotting dead body to life etc (Which may be less metaphysical and more like Skousen described = much to the chagrin of his antagonists!)

    I am also very open to true scientific discovery that can place evidence for events in the scriptures as real possibilities, and not myth as anti-christians and athiests like to banter. Things like evidence of a great deluge, comets that correspond time with scripture, reasons why rainbows were likely not known to mankind prior to Noah and useful as a sign etc.

    Still, if we are to postulate on something that deals with God and his ordinances – is it too much to ask that one provide at least ancillary evidence from apostles and prophets to substantiate the claim, or are we just shooting from the hip, hoping to be on the mark.

    I mean no offense, but as it stands without some empirical evidence, or prophetic statements in support of the concept, its no better than myths we have all heard on our missions or from a High Priest (LOL)

  27. Howard
    October 21, 2013 at 10:12 pm

    If lifestyle can make us ill to the extent we choose that lifestyle we can make ourselves well by reversing it and continuing to a healthier choice unless the disease has progressed too far. So it is rational to believe there is a mind body healing capable connection. In my view placebo is not “just placebo” as in to discount it’s power, rather pharmaceutical companies must demonstrate effictivity beyond placebo to get a new drug approved and several antidepressants just barely make it. The opposite of placebo (the power of belief) is nocebo (the power of disbelief) so the swing from disbelief to belief is roughly equal to two times an antidepressant which in my view is very powerful! How does priesthood enhance belief, it’s official authority standing in front of us in the symbol of two living and presumably believing Elders buttresses our own belief. This is symbolism used as sleight of psychology to trick or enhance our belief for our own good.

  28. Clark
    October 21, 2013 at 11:00 pm

    Shawn (26) I think we end up with metaphysical assumptions even when we try to avoid the metaphysics. What’s useful about metaphysics is seeing that there’s a wide range of possibilities compatible with the texts or experiences we have. By making the metaphysics explicit we can often see where we are making unconscious assumptions. Put an other way I think metaphysical thinking ironically is a way to guard against creating our own theology the way you suggest. I think metaphysics involves weak enough arguments that we should always be suspicious of our metaphysical beliefs.

    Howard (27) There’s no doubt placebo effects and a lot else produce real effects. There’s quite a lot of evidence for instance that empathy can create real pains in our brain the same as physical pain does. I think I’m saying that something stronger than that might be possible. Although the placebo effect suggests that there may well be more going on that mere interpretation. I’m not saying you are making this type of error (indeed your appeal to placebo suggests a much more sophisticated view) However I think a lot of people who say “psychological” mean psychological in terms of a blank slate where thought is opposed to the physical (with the physical being real). Once again though that question of realism and its metaphysics creeps in. And I’m really trying to avoid that.

    The placebo effect works because of the way our brain is physically structured biologically. Ditto with emotional pain. For all we know (and I’m just presenting this as a possibility and not arguing for its truth) our spirit has structures like that as well. It may well be that aspects of ordinances act on those structures – whether in our physical body or spiritual body. Thus some part of an ordinance might trigger a physical/spirit-physical reaction independent of how we think about it consciously.

  29. Clark
    October 21, 2013 at 11:06 pm

    Just to add to that last point. If you read some of the evolutionary psychology treatments of religion (I think Atran’s In Gods We Trust being a great example) then a lot of religious belief and practice can be seen tied to the structures of our brain which arose evolutionarily. While those who attempt to explain away religion evolutionarily might discount the ultimate significance of ritual it seems they do accept that it can have very significant roles in human behavior. And from a very deep structural aspect of the brain.

    Second point to add is that if we had a conscious life as a spirit-body prior to our birth one important role for ritual might be to be a trigger for memories that perhaps weaken the veil somewhat for some part of our prior life. (Maybe not even necessarily in a conscious way) Given that possibility (and I think especially for the endowment it’s a significant possibility) it’s perhaps impossible to arrive at a metaphysics of ordinances without delving into the metaphysics or anthropology of our spirit life, our spirit body and the veil for mortality itself.

  30. SteveF
    October 22, 2013 at 12:29 am

    My understanding is that ordinances are signs placed on individuals, that when done by the proper authority are recognized by heaven.

    Therefore, with this sign, if an individual lives up to the terms or conditions rightfully belonging to that sign (usually covenants), they will receive the associated blessings from heaven (all blessings tending to spiritual knowledge in some capacity or other). It is through these heavenly authorized rituals that individuals have greater access to the blessings of the atonement / the blessings of heaven whereby they might obtain greater spiritual knowledge than they could without them to be enabled to abide by a higher law in the hereafter.

    Inasmuch as an individual understands the covenants and obligations associated with a particular sign, and as obedience to these laws makes way for greater spiritual blessings, so also knowing disobedience will bring a greater condemnation. So by taking upon ourselves these signs we have greater opportunities for progression, but also a heightened responsibility to abide by a greater law.

  31. Abu Casey
    October 22, 2013 at 1:18 am

    I am a tremendous fan of the idea that ordinances (and the choice to keep the commandments) are costly signals. Whatever that means for how the ordinances do their work, I think sending those signals has tremendous value for us and for God.

  32. October 22, 2013 at 8:11 am

    It is not the water (or the mode of Baptism) that makes Baptism efficacious, but God’s Word of promise attached to that water.

    Something actually happens in Baptism (read Romans 6).

    We are put to death. The old sinful self is drowned with Christ Jesus…and then the new person in Christ is raised with Him.

    “So we are to consider ourselves dead to sin (even though we still sin – Romans 7).

    And it is all God’s work, for us, in our Baptism.

    That, my friends, is good news. Really good news.

  33. October 22, 2013 at 8:34 am


    I think Clark is right: “I think we end up with metaphysical assumptions even when we try to avoid the metaphysics.”

    To be more specific, if ordinances cause the results then there is something metaphysical at work. The only way to abandon the metaphysics is to reject the idea that ordinances have intrinsic power.

    Either ordinances just unlock power that is within us, which is the case with “mere symbolism” or they trigger God to exercise his power independently.

    As an example of the first: suppose the Holy Ghost doesn’t exist, but if you believe in a mighty change of heart then you unlock your own potential for self-transformation and get the mighty change of heart anyway. In other words: Dumbo’s feather.

    You provided examples of the second yourself: God chooses to honor ordinances by making family ties eternal, but this has nothing to do with the ordinance itself. That’s plausible, but it doesn’t necessarily avoid metaphysics. So God makes a family eternal: what does that mean? What’s the underlying reality? The metaphysical question is still there.

    More importantly, however, I feel that going from “baptism washes away sins” (metaphysics) to “baptism triggers your record being expunged in Heaven” is actually more of a departure from the scriptures than just wondering how the sins get washed away. I don’t wan to rule it out, but that explains my reticence.

    I don’t believe in scriptural literalism (that makes no sense, given the numerous literary forms employed within the scriptures), but I do believe in trying to let them speak for themselves. This leads me, at present, to favor a metaphysical view over divine fiat because that seems to fit the emphasis the scriptures have on the intrinsic power of ordinances.

  34. SteveF
    October 22, 2013 at 9:06 am

    “God has set many signs on the earth, as well as in the heavens; for instance, the oak of the forest, the fruit of the tree, the herb of the field—all bear a sign that seed hath been planted there; for it is a decree of the Lord that every tree, plant, and herb bearing seed should bring forth of its kind, and cannot come forth after any other law or principle.

    “Upon the same principle do I contend that baptism is a sign ordained of God, for the believer in Christ to take upon himself in order to enter into the kingdom of God, ‘for except ye are born of water and of the Spirit ye cannot enter into the kingdom of God,’ said the Savior. It is a sign and a commandment which God has set for man to enter into His kingdom. Those who seek to enter in any other way will seek in vain; for God will not receive them, neither will the angels acknowledge their works as accepted, for they have not obeyed the ordinances, nor attended to the signs which God ordained for the salvation of man, to prepare him for, and give him a title to, a celestial glory; and God has decreed that all who will not obey His voice shall not escape the damnation of hell. What is the damnation of hell? To go with that society who have not obeyed His commands.

    “Baptism is a sign to God, to angels, and to heaven that we do the will of God, and there is no other way beneath the heavens whereby God hath ordained for man to come to Him to be saved, and enter into the kingdom of God, except faith in Jesus Christ, repentance, and baptism for the remission of sins, and any other course is in vain; then you have the promise of the gift of the Holy Ghost.” (Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 4:554–55)

    “What if we should attempt to get the gift of the Holy Ghost through any other means except the signs or way which God hath appointed—would we obtain it? Certainly not; all other means would fail. The Lord says do so and so, and I will bless you.

    “There are certain key words and signs belonging to the Priesthood which must be observed in order to obtain the blessing. The sign [taught by] Peter was to repent and be baptized for the remission of sins, with the promise of the gift of the Holy Ghost; and in no other way is the gift of the Holy Ghost obtained.

    “There is a difference between the Holy Ghost and the gift of the Holy Ghost. Cornelius received the Holy Ghost before he was baptized, which was the convincing power of God unto him of the truth of the Gospel, but he could not receive the gift of the Holy Ghost until after he was baptized. Had he not taken this sign or ordinance upon him, the Holy Ghost which convinced him of the truth of God, would have left him. Until he obeyed these ordinances and received the gift of the Holy Ghost, by the laying on of hands, according to the order of God, he could not have healed the sick or commanded an evil spirit to come out of a man, and it obey him; for the spirits might say unto him, as they did to the sons of Sceva: ‘Paul we know and Jesus we know, but who are ye?’” (History of the Church, 4:555; from a discourse given by Joseph Smith on Mar. 20, 1842)

  35. Howard
    October 22, 2013 at 9:16 am

    Good comments, I think we are in general agreement. I agree there is evidence for empathy and as time collects I would expect to find additional supportive evidence for mind/body, energy and faith healing. My purpose for bringing up placebo/nocebo was to set a rational floor (not a ceiling) but my personal experience based belief goes well beyond that floor.

    For all we know…our spirit has structures like that as well…Ditto with emotional pain. Many energy/faith healers would generally agree although I don’t know that structure is the right word. With regard to emotional pain Buddha solved that long ago but his solution isn’t at all popular with Mormons because they love and revere their suffering. It’s unfortunate our doctrine is stuck at this elementary level of understanding because non-physical is entirely optional.

    Thus some part of an ordinance might trigger a physical/spirit-physical reaction independent of how we think about it consciously. I see this including your #29 as a possibility but I don’t see it as a spiritual experience since only one spirit, ours is involved I see this more in the realm of psychodrama.

    SteveF wrote: …ordinances…when done by the proper authority are recognized by heaven. Ordinances assuming they can be viewed by spirits are a way of communicating to both sides of the veil.

  36. Howard
    October 22, 2013 at 9:23 am

    SteveF: Quotes that attempt to trade mark the Holy Ghost are simply wrong, there is ample experiential evidence that the Holy Ghost is available to everyone including his constant companionship.

  37. SteveF
    October 22, 2013 at 9:27 am

    Your beef is with Joseph Smith then, not me.

  38. Howard
    October 22, 2013 at 9:49 am

    Apparently Joseph made reference to men living on the moon dressed like Quakers too but it isn’t something I would choose to quote as fact.

  39. SteveF
    October 22, 2013 at 9:57 am

    As the man who restored the authority of the priesthood and the ordinances of salvation in this dispensation, I personally view Joseph Smith as an authority on the matter. If you don’t however, I’m fine with that, that’s your prerogative. You say he’s wrong, and I think he is probably right, so I don’t think there’s much more to say about it.

  40. Howard
    October 22, 2013 at 10:02 am

    K, where do you stand on moonmen dressed like Quakers and the literal location of the Garden of Eden?

  41. SteveF
    October 22, 2013 at 10:13 am

    There are probably Quaker moonmen on the moon, and if we had detailed enough satellite images, we could probably locate the Garden of Eden in the central US.

  42. Howard
    October 22, 2013 at 10:16 am

    Thank you for bearing your testimony, it’s clear you are a faithful member.

  43. SteveF
    October 22, 2013 at 10:18 am

    J/k… I’ve heard something about moonmen, but I’ve never taken it seriously enough to look up the quote. If Joseph Smith’s mission was to explain to the world what the moon was all about, I might be more worried. As for the Garden of Eden, my personal belief is that just like the spirit world is here, that so also a terrestrial sphere exists here where the Garden of Eden can be found, both just alternate dimensions. Of course that is just speculation, but those things are not as pertinent to my salvation.

    Joseph’s mission was to restore the Kingdom of God on earth, with all the authority and ordinances that it entails to enable God’s children to progress and return to His presence. I think we’re getting distracted from what’s important, and what the OP is about. Let’s just talk about the ordinances.

  44. Howard
    October 22, 2013 at 10:28 am

    Okay SteveF, the temple ordinances were changed in 1990 do you think that changed the metaphysics of them and/or our progress in returning to God’s presence or do you think it just make some uneasy members feel better? Some of those penalties really upset me but now that they’re gone I wonder were ever necessary? If not why were they there, if so why are they gone? Or if it doesn’t really matter why go through all that ritual?

  45. SteveF
    October 22, 2013 at 10:28 am

    Sorry… probably should have thrown something in extra with that first response to make it clear I was just joking.

  46. Howard
    October 22, 2013 at 10:30 am

    Me too!

  47. SteveF
    October 22, 2013 at 10:52 am

    Haha, touché.

    My honest opinion about the endowment is that the washing and anointing done under the authority of the Priesthood is that which puts the sign of that ordinance upon us, by which obedience to the eternal conditions associated with that sign brings forth the blessings and power of the endowment.

    And since one of the grand purposes is to aid us in obtaining intelligence or power, I find it both genius and heaven-revealed to in addition give us a presentation that outlines a symbolic pattern of truth that we might draw on to obtain revelation, and furthermore outlines a symbolic pattern of asking and receiving by which we might obtain that revelation in order to overcome all things. That Joseph Smith was able to adapt portions of the masonic rites to really portray these heavenly truths to me is nothing short of miraculous and due to pure revelation from God. And that Brigham Young, and in some minor ways subsequent prophets have been able to more perfectly organize these things is evidence of continued revelation and inspiration from the Lord. If worthy, these things will bless our lives and aid us in fulfilling the purposes and obtaining the blessings of the endowment. That’s my feeling anyhow.

  48. SteveF
    October 22, 2013 at 11:00 am

    *And I might add, without this authorized sign being placed on the individual, the presentation/pattern of truth and pattern of asking and receiving will not be as beneficial or may even be of no benefit to those who have not received this sign. The blessings of power, revelations, asking and receiving, etc. are contingent on receiving the authorized sign or ordinance and righteously abiding by the conditions thereof.

  49. Howard
    October 22, 2013 at 11:50 am

    I find it both genius and heaven-revealed I agree. My quibble would be the how of why it works better for members and not for non-members, I think it’s due to indoctrination* of members aimed at creating certain beliefs and expectations that can be triggered by temple ordinances. Also, I know this is just one route to divine connection, there are others without the LDS logo.

    *Please don’t read anything pejorative or priesthood discounting to this use because none is intended.

  50. Sherry
    October 22, 2013 at 3:05 pm

    I’m going to jump in with an entirely different viewpoint. I read/skimmed the above comments and here’s mine. As an LDS women who was sealed to an LDS man and had nine children BIC, then divorced said Mormon man, who raped and abused me for 29 years, my take on sealing is not what is used to be. After X and I divorced, I married a NOMO , who was as different as night and day with my X. My new husband was never married nor had children. He is respectful, thoughtful, funny and kind. He is a hard worker, is honest, decent and has no vices. And, he is the happiest person I have ever known. Five years into our marriage. X was married/sealed in the temple to a new wife. I wrote the obligatory letters, etc. Then I cancelled my sealing to him. Why? I was not willing to be part of his celestial harem, which is what he believed and what the church teaches (D & C 132). I was not going to wait til the afterlife when “everything will be sorted out, dear sister.” My husband has no desire to join the church, he simply does not believe it, and that’s fine with me. I respect his decision as I am not the TBM I once was. As I contemplate our deaths and reconnections in the afterlife, I CANNOT conceive of Mother and Father saying to my NOMO husband, “Sorry Dale, you never joined the Mormon church or were sealed in a Mormon church, therefore you and Sherry will NOT be together in the eternities.” NOPE – won’t happen. Because our loving Parents won’t punish Dale for being a good man, for treating me 1000 times better than my “righteous” X. As to me still being “sealed” to my children after cancelling my sealing to X, no one would tell me they are still sealed to me. No one. I believe they are. I am their mother and always will be. Three of my children are no longer members, two no longer attend, four are active. Does that change my love for them? No. They are all loving parents, hard workers, decent and upright people. I consider myself sealed to them regardless of their beliefs. I realize what I am writing flies in the face of Mormon teachings. Sometimes we get so caught up with the “rules”, obeying the letter of the law, and doing what we’re told is right that we look beyond the mark. My beliefs, born from deep soul-searching and fervent prayer, resonate within my soul.

  51. Mtnmarty
    October 22, 2013 at 3:16 pm

    NG: “First, I think that reality is greater than the sum of its physical description.

    Second, I believe that performative acts in ordinances can influence that reality in truly causal ways.

    This may sound abstract and technical.”

    What it actually sounds like is words that are non-technical. I say non-technical because you have words like “causal” and “reality” and “physical” which are very hard to distinguish in terms of theological versus “physical” components.

    For the most part, few people want to do astronomy from a theological perspective which is why the LDS are teased with the Kolob stick.

    However, because there is not a very good model of consciousness there is not the same uniformity of opinion about the form of a physics of belief as the physics of astronomy.

    You believe that you are doing theology as worship but you seem to me to be doing theology as psychology. If you are drawing conclusions about things that can be understood psychologically you are no longer just doing theology.

    You should ask yourself, “Could any part of my theory be tested scientifically?” if yes, then you should look to science to answer that question. If the answer is no, then the question should be “How do I know what my words mean?”

    Without answering those 2 questions, I don’t think you can make any theological progress and you would just be worshiping idols.

  52. Mark D.
    October 22, 2013 at 11:34 pm

    or we’ve reduced the efficacy of ordinances to divine fiat, which is incompatible with the way we talk about priesthood power

    In the case of ordinances in particular, it would seem that the self-originating theory of priesthood power often tossed about is somewhere between worthless and inapplicable. For a baptism to have its intended effect, God ultimately has to recognize either the ordinance or the consequences thereof.

    So in what possible sense does a priesthood holder have authority to baptize in and of himself? If you look at the mechanics of the way the church deals with priesthood ordinances, he doesn’t. The priestly power in the scriptures is always the power of an agent acting on behalf of someone else, with authority subject to withdrawal at any time. That is not self power at all, but rather delegated authority.

  53. SteveF
    October 23, 2013 at 9:49 am

    Mark D., well said. When discussing the ordinances of salvation, the only “power” being exercised by the officiator is the power of an agent, like you said. In current language in the church, this is simply authority. This is distinguishable from what today we call the power of the priesthood that is dependent on the righteousness of the priesthood holder that can be used in accordance with the will of God to heal the sick, cause the blind to see, raise the dead, cast out devils, manipulate elements, etc.

  54. Howard
    October 23, 2013 at 9:56 am

    Ordinances themselves are not more than divine fiat but we are allowed maybe even encouraged to believe they are because the power of belief is required to make them work. But there is also a danger of going too far with that and then ordinances become idols. They are not the moon, they are fingers pointing at the moon and we are to figure out what they represent spiritually and work to achieve that to help us return to God’s presence.

    Priesthood ordination is a formal invitation and official permission to engage God’s power within the LDS community. It is authority, it is not power, the power comes from belief and from one’s personal relationship with God. The Elders called to give a “priesthood” blessing play a combined role of a Dr. wearing a lab coat and stethoscope, and a shaman as subconsciously perceived by the patient. The efficacy depends on the spiritual skills and experience of the priesthood holder which unfortunately today are typically far more symbolic than actual and on the belief of the patient which is almost entirely what we depend on today. A healer (priesthood holder) who enjoys a profound personal relationship with God, spiritual gifts and manifestations is able to invite the Spirit into the blessing creating the magic we want to believe is inherent in the ordinance itself.

    The biggest problem the church faces today is while it retains authority it has lost much of God’s power enjoyed by the early restored church. Gifts and manifestations of the Spirit are reduced to barely discernible by most members while they tell each other this is normal and correct but it isn’t and today many outside the church enjoy far more of God’s power than the typical Melchizedek priesthood. As the actual power of God as experienced within the church diminishes the power we tend to attach to the symbols of God’s power tends to increase and we find ourselves worshiping ordinances and the brethren in place of experiencing and exercising God’s power.

  55. Steve
    October 23, 2013 at 10:10 am

    Nathaniel, I’ve been reading through your post some more and thinking about it. In your attempt to validate the existence of an ordinance through which families could formally express their desire to be recognized as family throughout the eternities you write, “It would be necessary to have just one and only one method to avoid confusion.” Suppose others rose to fore claiming to perform a similar ordinance that they believed was more valid and legitimate before God’s eyes than that done in the LDS church. How would you know which one was the correct one?

    Then you write, “It doesn’t matter very much what the ordinances are, just that there are ordinances. So, for example, if Joseph Smith pretty much copied a bunch of rituals from the Freemasons, who cares?” This seems to contradict what you said earlier, that having just one ordinance matters. Are you saying that it doesn’t matter what the ordinances are, just as long as we can verify that Joseph Smith originated it/claimed it to be a revelation from God? OK, well then, that begs the question of how do you that Joseph Smith’s ordinance was God’s ordinance. What if a guy name John Smith came around and claimed to receive divine revelation about the true way to perform the eternal marriage ordinance and pronounced that Joseph Smith’s way was wrong, citing its proximity to the masonry as evidence that he just made it up? How would I know whether he was correct?

    Another issue is why does the LDS church tell its ordinance workers to stress about minutiae, such as what side of your waste the sash is worn on, when there have been all kinds of changes made to the temple ordinance since Joseph Smith (i.e. no more points of fellowship)? How do I know that the post-Joseph Smith LDS church hasn’t compromised Joseph Smith’s original ordinance thereby nullifying its supposed power?

  56. Howard
    October 23, 2013 at 10:58 am

    …why does the LDS church tell its ordinance workers to stress about minutiae… For uniformity to avoid the ordinance drifting into something else over time or distance.

  57. October 23, 2013 at 1:16 pm


    There isn’t a contradiction because it doesn’t matter what the particular method is as long as it’s the only method. Just as it doesn’t matter whether everyone drives on the right side of the road or the left side of the road, it just matters that everyone follows the same rule.

    This is also why it doesn’t matter that much if the ordinances change over time (as they do) as long as it’s done under the same, unified authority and as long as its coordinated. You can switch driving from the left side of the road to the right, for example, and that’s OK as long as everyone knows when to do it ahead of time. (The transition can still be tricky, though!) So it makes sense for the temple workers to stress about the details. The details don’t matter in and of themselves, but the clarity and unity that comes when everyone follows the same details together does matter.

    As for competing ordinances: I think that gets back to “Behold, mine house is a house of order, saith the Lord God, and not a house of confusion.” When they are competing claims, we have to figure out which one is from God. Ordinances are just one example of that problem, so there’s nothing new here.

  58. Steve
    October 23, 2013 at 1:31 pm

    Howard, to reiterate what I’m asking Nathaniel, why is the specific ordinance brought forth by Joseph Smith (with/in spite of all of its modifications) so important? Can’t you “create a situation where a family continued” in other sorts of secret/private society-enforced, oath-taking ceremonies which made sure you paid your due costs (time and money) to ensure your true desire to be a family forever?

    Those questions are very nicely answered if you just say that Joseph Smith had authority given him by God and he just said that that’s the way we need to do things to achieve the highest glory in the celestial kingdom, and that JS’s successors were similarly called by God and were given authorization by God to modify the ordinance ceremony. But the OP is trying to create some sort of rationale for the ordinance. I just don’t see that there actually is a rationale or explanation other than ‘God said so via so-and-so.’

  59. Steve
    October 23, 2013 at 1:58 pm

    Nathaniel, thanks for the clarification. That makes some more sense. But for some reason it seems like you want to say, “it doesn’t matter what the particular method is as long as it’s condoned/mandated by the LDS church authorities,” but you still stop short of saying that. I don’t know, would agree with that statement, and its implication that another religion’s ordinances, even if they had a similar impact on society to those of the LDS church, cannot possibly be valid?

    “When they are competing claims, we have to figure out which one is from God.”

    OK, how exactly? Perhaps you wouldn’t mind addressing this question in a future post.

  60. Howard
    October 23, 2013 at 3:28 pm

    I tend to agree with Nathaniel’s driving on the right side vs left side of the road example although I doubt the road’s destination is as exclusive, trade marked and proprietary as Nathaniel apparently believes. Some people like to drive Chevys others Volvos etc. the LDS vehicle appeals more to people who like to work for their salvation. Joseph was a teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves kind of guy and I doubt God would have allowed that to stand if God were pharisaical in his exactness about stuff like mortal temple ceremonies. On the other hand just writing your family’s name on a slip of paper and handing it in doesn’t hold much meaning for you or them so it needs to have some substance and meaning.

  61. Mtnmarty
    October 24, 2013 at 1:50 am


    You seem to believe that minds are transcendent but you talk about those minds in ways that seem thoroughly contingent on bodily instantiation.

    Take this sentence “When the members of a family all know that that they love each other and want to be united as a family, then that knowledge actually changes the fabric of reality.”

    You have the words “know”, “love”, and “want”. What makes you believe that you know anything about those words in a way that transcends our current bodies and brains? Knowing, loving and wanting are transient states in this life and I don’t see how you can map onto a future existence in a way that transcends a particular time and space in this life. What “develops” in a mind that isn’t subject to the ravages of times on our brains? What “you” survives into the next life?

    Its one thing to believe in reality beyond the physical description but you also believe you can think about it with the mind that you have now which is contingent on your brain now. Why do you believe that you have a mind that operates beyond your body?

  62. ji
    October 24, 2013 at 5:35 am

    The criteria for whether an ordinance is valid in heaven is found in D&C 128:9. To me, there is no physics, no metaphysics, no magic, no inherent power in the form of the ordinance — just authority and good intentions. This is also seen in D&C 84:19-21 — the power of godliness is manifest on the earth only through the ordinances of the priesthood.

    It is not essential that the sacrament words be spoken perfectly for the ordinance to have validity. If the bishop says it’s okay, then it’s okay. If the bishop says do it over, then we do it over. But if there is an error in the words, and the bishop doesn’t catch it/correct it, does the ordinance fail for the contrite sinner in the pews. No. Even so, it is good to teach young men to slow down and read it correctly.

  63. October 24, 2013 at 9:06 am


    “When they are competing claims, we have to figure out which one is from God.”

    OK, how exactly? Perhaps you wouldn’t mind addressing this question in a future post.

    That boils down into the question “How do we know which Church (if any) is true?” And yeah, I don’t think I’ll try to address it in this comment section. It does sound like a fun topic for a future post, however.

  64. Steve
    October 24, 2013 at 9:11 am

    Howard (and Nathaniel), the driving analogy doesn’t really work. For I can easily explain the significance and importance of automobiles, roads, and orderly road rules. But I am hard pressed to find a rationale for having a specific eternal marriage ordinance, let alone having “just one and only one method to avoid confusion.” The driving analogy also doesn’t work because there is nothing inherently inferior or superior to driving on the left side of the road vs. driving on the right side of the road, as long as everyone knows that that is the rule, and follows the rule in a given location. So then would it be OK to have an eternal marriage ordinance that is different from that done by the LDS church in a specific location, say India, as long as it was done in orderly fashion in order to avoid confusion? That doesn’t really make sense.

    As I wrote before, there is no rational explanation for the existence of an eternal marriage ordinance. All that can really be said to justify it in the specific manner that the LDS church does it is “God said so.” Nathaniel sort of seems to concede that position. He writes that when there is confusion over an issue, “we have to figure out which one is from God.” It is sort of a nebulous response, however, because it begs the huge question of how we know whether some ordinance is from God or not. I think he really needs to tackle this issue, because his OP just leaves so much hanging.

  65. Steve
    October 24, 2013 at 9:12 am

    Sorry, Nathaniel, didn’t see your post before I posted mine.

  66. October 24, 2013 at 9:19 am


    You have the words “know”, “love”, and “want”. What makes you believe that you know anything about those words in a way that transcends our current bodies and brains?

    If we can’t say that pre-mortal Nathaniel, mortal Nathaniel, and post-mortal Nathaniel all have basically a consistent experiential reality (including basic terms like “know”, “love”, and “want”) then we can’t say that pre-mortal Nathaniel, mortal Nathaniel, and post-mortal Nathaniel are the same person.

    If that is true, then when mortal Nathaniel dies he is annhilated completely without any trace and the post-mortal Nathaniel that springs into existence has literally no commonality whatsoever with mortal Nathaniel (since they share 0 experiential reference).

    I think it’s easy to see that this is equivalent to declaring that life-after-death exists in name only.

    In short: if you believe in the pre-mortal existence and in life-after-death you have to believe that there is continuity of experience across those phases. Certainly there may be some change, just as there is change within mortal life. There’s plenty of change between what I experienced as 6-yr old and what I experienced as a 30-yr old. Basic verbs like “want”, “know”, and “love” applied, more or less, in both realms. So I believe they apply, more or less, to pre- and post-mortal existence.

  67. October 24, 2013 at 9:35 am


    So then would it be OK to have an eternal marriage ordinance that is different from that done by the LDS church in a specific location, say India, as long as it was done in orderly fashion in order to avoid confusion? That doesn’t really make sense.

    No, that’s the wrong conclusion. To keep the driving analogy going, I’m saying “It doesn’t matter what side we drive on, as long as we all agree” and your’e saying “Oh, so we can drive on different sides?”

    No. We all have to pick the same side. The metaphor is a little stretched because drivers in the UK don’t have to coordinate with drives in the US thanks to the Atlantic Ocean. But when UK drivers come here (or vice versa) we have to adapt. So, within a territory everyone has to drive on the same side. And it doesn’t matter which.

    Since the ultimate aim of sealing is not just to perpetuate individual families, but to link together all people, we have to have just one and only one global method. Just like if every country in the world were connected to the same road system, you’d have to have one and only one side to drive on everywhere. And it still wouldn’t matter. It could be right or left but–if everyone is in the same system–everyone has to agree on the same one.

    So let’s say we’re building this global highway. Obviously we need to pick which side we will all drive in. We could pick right. That would be fine, everything would work. We could pick left. That would be fine, everything would work. Similarly Joseph Smith, when he initiated sealings, could have done things differently than he had. It would have worked.

    What’s more, once you have a central authority to which everyone can look for “which side is the right side to drive on?” that authority can change the rules. We could have everyone drive on the right side for 100 years, and then the Global Highway Authority would say “Alright, on Jan 1 2113 we’re all going to switch to drive on the left.” And guess what: that would be fine. (Again: the metaphor is a little bit stretched because we’d have cars with the steering wheel on the wrong side or whatever, but you get the picture.)

    So, if we have an acknowledged authority on sealing and that authority changes the rules, that’s also perfectly fine. So changes in the ordinances by the LDS church over time are not intrinsically worrying because coordination is maintained.

    Obviously this raises the question: do we have a valid authority for setting the rules on sealings? And that’s the same as “Is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Saints true?” I’m not going to tackle that in this post because I have to draw the topical line somewhere.

    So, to recap:

    In order to have a family you have to have (at a minimum):
    1. Mutual acceptance as family members
    2. Common knowledge of that acceptance

    The best way to accomplish this is to have a process by which people can signal their mutual acceptance of each other. That process should be coordinated, and costly. Coordination requires a formal process regulated by a central authority, but it doesn’t care exactly what that formal process is. (Drive on the left or the right. Who cares? Just pick one.)

    In other words: You end up with something like LDS sealing ordinances.

  68. Mtnmarty
    October 24, 2013 at 11:16 am


    Thanks for the response. The reason that I’m bringing these issues up is that I believe your analysis would be more comprehensive if you considered more of a complete life cycle perspective in your thinking.

    Your life experience is mainly one of increasing growth, maturity and knowledge, but later in life one often also experiences a decline in mental functioning. Putting capabilities aside, there is considerable difference in what one experiences over time.

    Even if we say that at all earthly ages “Nathaniel” knows, wants and I believe there is considerable difference in what one wants at various ages.

    Consider this simple question, “What earthly age of Nathaniel most closely correlates with the wants, knowledge and love of the pre-mortal and also post-mortal Nathaniel?

    I’m willing to accept that believing in pre and post mortal existence would entail some consistency in those aspects over time but my hope is that you will consider how “bodily contingent” and time contingent all of our thinking is.

    Although the theology entails continuity of identity, the idea of mortality means that there are also unique aspects of earthly life, correct? You seem to assume that there is a clear distinction of mind and body where you have a mind that is similar pre, earthly and post mortal with the body being different. I would like to get you to consider how bodily contingent our mind is and thus how little we know about what minds (or intelligences or spirits or souls or your name of choice) are like in their post mortal state.

    A simple example, hormonal changes in puberty change our brain in ways that change our minds. Lust has a mind component that is influenced in ways that are biologically predictable. Six year old Nathaniel’s mind does not experience lust the way 30 year old Nathaniel mind does. So how does lust work for pre-mortal or post-mortal Nathaniel. Either it works like Nathaniel at a particular age or it doesn’t have lust at all, in which case that type of mind would not have the same type of concepts as “love” and “want”.

    Again, my opinion is that our minds(and hence all of our theological, moral and logical concepts) are much, much more bodily and historically contingent than our religious and philosophical traditions have recognized.

    More particularly it is my belief that the growth in scientific knowledge are obviously revelations from God and not temptations of Satan and that this knowledge has been revealed so that our experience will be able to change dramatically in a way that will show us how historically and culturally contingent our thinking has been.

    Shorter version: belief in minds unaffected by physical properties is the greatest Santa Claus myth of all time.

  69. Mtnmarty
    October 24, 2013 at 12:02 pm


    My ideas on family as you conceive it are relatively undeveloped but your idea of family as voluntary association seems to be different from much of my idea of family which is both involuntary and based on relatedness.

    Why use the word “family” for the voluntary association that you talk about?

  70. October 24, 2013 at 12:06 pm


    I think you’re just assuming a lot more specificity in my comments than is really there. I don’t assume anywhere near the kind of close correlation between mortal mind and consciousness pre- or post-mortality. Look at he terms you picked: “know”, “love”, and “want”. Not only are these very, very general terms, but they also must be consistent across phases of existence. Charity, for example, is something experience by God and also, to a lesser degree, by us, as an example. Do I think we experience the exact same thing? Certainly not, but clearly there must be close correlation.

    So, as I said, I’m just not assuming as much as you seem to think I am.

  71. October 24, 2013 at 12:15 pm


    My ideas on family as you conceive it are relatively undeveloped but your idea of family as voluntary association seems to be different from much of my idea of family which is both involuntary and based on relatedness.

    1. Sealing ordinances are voluntary.
    2. Sealing ordinances are necessary for eternal families.
    C. Therefore, eternal family relationships are voluntary.

    That’s a pretty open-and-shut syllogism.

    The confusion comes from the fact that moral families aren’t voluntary. But there’s a simple explanation for that: the non-voluntary and arbitrary nature of mortal family relationship is specifically designed to teach the principle of unconditional love. Love for family is unconditional because you don’t pick them.

    That lesson need not apply with celestial beings who have learned to love unconditionally (from the lessons of mortality). Incidentally: the same principle is behind the geographic definition of our congregations.

  72. October 24, 2013 at 12:16 pm

    Oh, and I should also note that the foundational relationship for a family (marriage) is voluntary even in this life.

  73. Mtnmarty
    October 24, 2013 at 12:53 pm


    How does the sealing of parents to children work in eternal families? Can a person voluntarily choose who are parents, children and siblings in a voluntary way, and is this choice a package choice or one by one?

    What role does family status play from this life?

    I understand that you are most concerned with 21st century LDS thinking, but (like most of us) you pick and choose what you are literal about (like your sealing syllogism), you assume that sealing ordinances are literal and logical, but willing to reinterpret or take figuratively other ideas.

    I am much more want to universalize both over time and space. So for the many cultures that haven’t had voluntary marriage, how would we go about knowing who those people want to be sealed to? What are the consequences of childbirth to people born in slavery or under compulsion? Are these people likely to want to be families eternally?

    I’m ambivalent about much of LDS theology that is covenant-centric because it seems like involuntary servitude in that under conditions of duress (and as you have pointed out in real life everyone is under duress) we are expected to make choices with eternal consequences?

    Doesn’t seem like a given to me, the way it does to most LDS people that eternal covenants are a good thing.

  74. Mephibosheth
    October 25, 2013 at 12:39 am

    Solid post. I think you’re on to something. It was something Ronan wrote a while back that first turned me on to this idea. Make sure to catch his comments in that thread too (like this one, especially) and the fireside he gave where expounds a little bit more about it.

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