My post three weeks ago on religious ritual and LDS ritual prompted a lot of comments on LDS temples, so I’m going to follow up with a post discussing a recent book of essays, The Ancient Order of Things: Essays on the Mormon Temple (Signature Books, 2019), edited by Christian Larsen. The book republishes a variety of essays that have been previously published, but they remain relevant and informative reading. I’ll focus on the three articles I found most interesting.
The Mormon Temple Rite as Oral Canon
The first essay is “‘Not to Be Riten'”: The Mormon Temple as Oral Canon,” by Kathleen Flake. This was first published in an academic journal in 1995. The article focuses on what you might call the institutional protocols that surround the LDS temple endowment: the only access temple-going members have to the text of the ritual is by hearing and seeing it inside the temple; there is no authorized written text that average members (as opposed to temple workers) can review or study; and members are sternly directed not to discuss the details of the temple rites outside the temple.
Two comments. First, this is quite intentional and serves to set the temple presentation distinctly apart from other authoritative sources of divine guidance in the Church, such as scriptural texts or General Conference talks, which members are encouraged to read and study. Here is Flake’s commentary, along with a quotation from a scholarly commentator (ellipsis in original quotation):
By scrupulously maintaining the ritual as an oral tradition — not making its text available or otherwise discussing it publicly for others to record authoritatively its specific contents — the church enables the temple ceremony to “function … as a series of interlocking face-to-face conversations in which the very conditions of transmission operate to favour consistency between past and present, and to make criticism — the articulation of inconsistency — less likely to occur; and if it does, the inconsistency makes a less permanent impact, and is more easily adjusted or forgotten.”Ancient Order, p. 33
Second, the approach has actually been very successful in these aims. Mainstream members only rarely ask questions about the history or origins of the temple presentation, or any changes that have occurred, because they only rarely talk about the temple presentation. They go, they participate, then they go out to dinner and go home, hopefully uplifted and strengthened by the experience. But it’s not typically something they mull over or reflect on. Flake lays out the challenge faced by such a ritual (that, as noted, the protocols do a good job meeting) as follows:
On the one hand, [the LDS temple presentation] must be accepted by the faithful as fixed, a timeless standard by which they order their lives. On the other hand, it must shift to accommodate life as experienced by successive generations, if it is to have any relevancy and, hence, power to order their lives.Ancient Order, p. 28
This essay was written in 1995. Some things have changed since then. For one thing, the Internet has opened up some public discussion of LDS temples that previously did not occur, although most members are, I think, fairly reticent to explore and read about that topic online. In addition, Flake notes in the essay that when leadership makes changes to the LDS temple presentation, there is no public announcement of the substance of the changes, or even that any changes were made. Members are just supposed to pick it up by attending. That has changed since 1995. Leadership has publicly announced recent changes to the LDS temple presentation. That might be because of the Internet. Or it might be because too many members no longer attend the temple and wouldn’t know about the changes otherwise. It might be a “please come back” announcement. That’s hard to evaluate given the absence of temple attendance statistics.
The Salt Lake Temple Dedication, 1893
Another interesting essay is “‘Come, Let Us Go Up to the Mountain of the Lord’: The Salt Lake Temple Dedication, 1893,” by Brian H. Stuy. This essay first appeared in Dialogue in 1998. What’s interesting about the essay is how much folklore surrounded the whole temple project and its completion. Apparently the belief among the early Utah Saints was that no temple would be built and dedicated until the temple in Jackson County, Missouri was first built and dedicated. Here is what Stuy writes about Brigham Young’s view, as recorded by Wilford Woodruff recorded in his journal:
While inspecting the [Salt Lake] temple foundation, Young said, “I expect this Temple will stand through the Millennium ….” Young them declared, “I do not want to quite finish this Temple for there will not be any Temple finished until the one is finished in Jackson County, Missouri pointed out by Joseph Smith. Keep this a secret to yourselves lest some may be discouraged.”Ancient Order, p. 150
Obviously, that view shifted over time. The St. George Temple was dedicated in 1877, with some then believing that it was just the Salt Lake Temple that wouldn’t be dedicated and used until the one in Missouri was done. When the Salt Lake Temple was in fact completed and dedicated, the strong belief at the time was that this was a sign heralding big events to come shortly. Remember, the 1890s were a tumultuous decade, with the (apparent) abandonment of plural marriage in 1890, the completion and dedication of the Salt Lake Temple in 1893, then the achievement of Utah statehood in 1896.
According to Stuy, “many believed [the Salt Lake Temple’s] dedication signaled the imminent commencement of the millennial era, when the church would go back to Jackson County, Missouri, and the Savior would return” (p. 149). That didn’t happen. Now, in 2020, there are hundreds of LDS temples. Our view of the Salt Lake Temple carries none of the super significance it was accorded at the time. The possibility of buying up land, possibly the original proposed site, for the Jackson County Temple remains, but that seems more like just another project for the property and temple arm of the LDS management structure to implement, not so much a sign of the Second Coming. I’m sure they would incorporate an upscale subdivision along with the temple project, with a stake center and a really big parking lot adjacent to the temple.
The last essay I’ll touch on is “‘To Cover Your Nakedness’: The Body, Sacred Secrecy, and Institutional Power in the Initiatory,” by John-Charles Duffy. This essay was first published in an academic journal in 2007.
One thing that is interesting in this essay is the eight-page discussion at the front of the essay considering the ethics of discussing an otherwise “secret” religious ritual. It’s a balanced and insightful discussion. Historians rather freely discuss and speculate about secret rituals in the Greek and Roman world. There are lots of books about Masonic rituals, and the Masons themselves are, in the 21st century, rather more open about discussing their rituals than in prior centuries. It turns out that the LDS position is fairly vague about what can or can’t be talked about, so members (and leaders) respond by avoiding the whole subject. The whole discussion, a prologue to the substance of the article, was as interesting as the rest of the discussion.
As for the substance, I’ll just recite the section headings in the article and let you go read it for yourselves: the decline of nudity in the initiatory; reactions to nudity in the initiatory; sacred secrecy and the body; and privacy and power. Let’s just say the temple was quite an experience in the 19th century. A big conflict seemed to emerge in the late 20th century, as young Mormons raised with increased LDS emphasis on modesty in dress and thought encountered LDS temple rituals. Starting in 1990, a lot of changes have been introduced to reduce that conflict and keep the next generation interested in attending the temple more than once in their life.
LDS temples are such a unique feature of Mormon Christianity, as opposed to Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox versions thereof. This book of essays will almost certainly add to your understanding of the history, meaning, and importance of temples in the LDS tradition. I invite your comments and discussion, but I do ask that you save detailed discussion or criticism of LDS temple rites for another forum. Thanks!
I happen to think that we (LDS) place way too much emphasis on “the temple”. We come close to worshiping the temple buildings as some kind of monumental achievement each time we dedicate a new one. At each General Conference that’s the one takeaway some members are focused on. Maybe I’m the only one but I actually liked the temples we built in the 80s that were smaller and more modest. To me those kinds of buildings are more functional and make more sense. I actually feel a little embarrassed when I drive by such spectacular buildings as the ones you see off the Beltway in Washington, DC or I-5 in San Diego. It’s as if we are trying to make a statement to the world that we are legitimate via our wonderful temples. And we communicate that internally as well to members. At the risk of raining on anyone’s parade who views the construction of more and more spectacular temples as some kind of sign of greatness, I would simply add that I’d be thrilled to see more modest temples and less modest community outreach.
Dave B., Sounds like a useful and thought-provoking collection of essays. Thanks for the post.
You wrote that the temple presentation is “not typically something [the members] mull over or reflect on.” This seems likely to me, but in the absence of discussion, how would we know? Is there some survey or other support for that proposition?
Also, “It turns out that the LDS position is fairly vague about what can or can’t be talked about…” I’m curious about the “fairly vague” characterization. In my experience, the covenants not to disclose are explicit, specific, and limited. But the explicitly all-inclusive obligation referred to in the pre-1990 lecture at the veil was echoed by President Hinckley in April 1990 General Conference: “I remind you of the absolute obligation to not discuss outside the temple that which occurs within the temple.”
This year the July 20 First Presidency announcement of changes to the temple endowment ceremony not only included a summary discussion of the nature of the temple endowment ceremony, but made a request, rather than reciting an obligation: “Given the sacredness of the temple ceremonies, we ask our members and friends not to engage in speculation or public discussions about these changes.” Is it that change in approach from the First Presidency that leads to the “fairly vague” characterization?
In his April 2019 Conference talk, Elder Bednar explicitly moved an important part of the temple ceremony out of the realm of “oral tradition”–specifically, the five key laws that we covenant to obey there.
When my then-fiancee (now wife) met with our bishop before receiving her endowments, he ran through those laws so she would know what she was getting into. But he admitted that he didn’t know if he was really allowed to do that–he just did it anyway. Most bishops (including mine) didn’t and probably still don’t. Even when this talk of Bednar’s was discussed in Priesthood meeting and I pointed out that, based on the above quote, we were allowed to openly name those temple covenants, I got some pushback.
But we need to take Elder Bednar seriously. We should talk about those covenants, not just among endowed members, but with our children and other unendowed members. They have the right to know, we have permission to tell them, and they will have a better experience if we do. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that there is other stuff we are explicitly not allowed to discuss, but that the only thing binding about them is that we can’t talk about them. If people understand those five laws and that they are at the core of the endowment, then we can tell them that they can process the rest of the stuff at their own pace and draw their own conclusions. But without that kind of preparation, finding a context for the weird stuff is much more difficult. I look forward to a written tradition of those five laws and how they relate to one another.
On that note, allow me to point out that the ordering of the five laws reinforces the idea that “obedience is the first law of heaven.” But it also clarifies that “first” and “highest” are not the same thing.
Josh H, I respectfully disagree. I love the large, spectacular temples as public showpieces of our faith, and I find the more recent smaller temples disappointing. I grew up around some of the larger temples on the west coast (endowed in Oakland, sealed in San Diego, made dozens of temple trips in Los Angeles when I lived there). In their respective cities, they are well-known landmarks among Mormons and non-Mormons alike. When I lived in San Diego, I had many positive conversations with friends and co-workers when they asked me about “that beautiful white castle in La Jolla”. These temples were fully integrated in each city’s distinctive visual and cultural skyline. The grandeur and splendor always impressed me as a young man, and were formative to my testimony of the grandness of God’s kingdom. Even when I grew weary of the repetitive nature of the ordinances, I could still enjoy being in the space and soaking up the atmosphere.
Now I live in a mid-sized city with a Hinckley-era McTemple. On the outside, it is dwarfed by the stake center next door, almost completely hidden from the street; you could drive right past and not even know it’s there. It is indistinguishable from a dozen other temples that were built from the same plans; because it is not unique or visually striking, there is really no point in displaying photos of it in your home (who knows what temple is actually in the photo). The temple property is in a suburban fringe neighborhood, where it abuts an industrial corridor, rather than being in a prominent or central location. Inside, it is cramped and often too crowded and poorly ventilated. Every time I go, I inevitably run into someone I know there, which kind of ruins it for me (privacy and anonymity are important to my personal temple worship, and there was never a problem finding it in the larger urban temples). The Celestial Room feels like an upscale dentist’s waiting room but without the magazines. Maybe I’ve just been spoiled, but it doesn’t feel like a real temple to me.
Even though the Church has returned to building temples that are somewhat unique, they are not what they used to be, and I miss that. All of the ordinances and processes are standardized, so the only way to keep the experience from becoming dull is with architecture and design. A completely functional/utility approach to design does not accomplish this.
IMO based on the wording I think that (a) some very specific things that we covenant not to disclose shouldn’t be discussed, and (b) everything else can and should be discussed as appropriate (i.e., in a reverent and respectful and semi-private way to people before they are going for the first time, etc.) But we tend to take the non-disclosure covenant and apply it to everything, plus the overall “sacred so don’t discuss” admonition but that’s a little vague.
In my experience, many temple prep classes *do* at least tell people what the covenants are and what to expect generally, many people discuss the clothing ahead of time (since you have the clothing ahead of time …), and many people discuss generally their thoughts and questions in small private groups although they are definitely cautious and self-police in what they say and how specific they get.
I think the issue of not announcing / addressing changes really backfired on the church during the second-most-recent round of changes (I haven’t seen the most recent). Maybe the church expected people to be happy about changes that arguably made the temple less sexist, but I know a lot of women who found it very hurtful that the changes were made with no explanation or acknowledgement of the harm they’d caused over many years. (And many thought – wow, if the church had this wrong, and I’ve spent years and years wrestling with it and trying to justify it for them, what else does it have wrong that I maybe no longer need to try to justify?)
@Josh H I’m with you on the over-emphasis. Even when I was a TBM and serving in Young Women’s, I thought it was weird that we focused way more on the temple than we did on Jesus. Probably a lot of reasons for this. I believe many LDS people genuinely believe the temple is the pinnacle of our membership / relationship with God. It’s also a way to keep youth (and adults) to standards. I am getting a little more cynical lately though about the social control & tithing components (but I don’t think those are motivations at the local level where I think people genuinely mean well … just more senior levels).
I was also somewhat perplexed in the most recent GC when they emphasized doing family history during the pandemic since we can’t attend the temple. I understand that for people who can’t leave their homes. But aren’t there a ton of needs out there in the real world? I don’t get the focus on work for the dead when there are living people in our communities who are suffering. I know that temple work isn’t mutually exclusive with that, but it does seem at times it gets a lot more airtime.
When I was an ordinance worker, pre-2010, I gave a Sacrament meeting talk where I described each of the covenants and named them specifically. I had my temple matron read the talk beforehand and she approved. After giving the talk I was asked to present the same talk in two other wards, as well as the Singles Ward in my Stake. I don’t understand why Bishops are hesitant to tell people what they will be covenanting to in the temple.
My first temple experience was as part of my one week missionary “training” in SLC. There was no temple prep classes back then and nobody warned me what was coming. Not even in the mission home. I was shocked and unprepared. After the session, I went AWOL and went up and sat on the Utah State Capitol grounds, and went through some serious introspection. That evening, I walked back to the mission home; and the front door was locked. The MP’s wife smuggled back into the home. There was a long line of missionaries waiting to talk to the MP, and it wasn’t about doubts.
To me, the temple ceremony was like an overwrought initiation, like what might happen at a fraternity or a fraternal organization. The session has changed some since then: the anti-Catholic rhetoric is gone and the husband/wife oaths have moved somewhat closer to contemporary norms. But it’s still difficult for a member taught to scoff at Catholic and Orthodox ritual to come to grips with.
But for me, there is still a bigger issue. Josh has already mentioned the show-case temples. Is this money being wisely spent? I’m more interested in the living than the dead. The Church is dedicating an inordinate amount of money and resources into work for the dead. Yet half of the members live in developing countries, living below the poverty line. This priority system is flawed to me. But I don’t expect a call from RMN.
Another issue is the announcement of new temples in GC. It’s become a legacy item for Presidents of the Church. We need to make help for the poor a legacy item. But it is easier to count temples than successful interventions.
While I understand the stated purpose of temples, in reality they ‘ve become symbols of institutional excess to many both inside and outside of the church. The opulence of the Rome temple in particularly was distasteful to me, as was the arrogance of the associated dedicatory activities which included RMN symbolically taking the priesthood keys from a statue of Peter while he was a guest in the heart of Catholicism. I couldn’t agree more with rogerdhansen that our Presidents ought to make helping the poor their legacy and forget about the number of temples that were built on their watch.
It continues to be constantly drummed into us the importance of temples and covenants and we teach our kids that this is the the ultimate goal for all of us and our dead. I’ve been on a roll lately with family history – lots of time at home taking precautions against covid. As much as I love connecting and tidying family groups – seems to appeal to my need for order right now – I see what a mess FamilySearch is and how many mistakes I constantly come across. And I’m not by any means an expert. To be honest – I enjoy doing it but the more I do the more I question the necessity of it. I just don’t see a God requiring these quirky rituals. But it’s been a clever way to tie it into tithing because we’ve been conditioned that we need to return and return. I wonder during the pandemic if tithing payments have dropped off because many of us aren’t going back to church right now either? Will it all feel less relevant when this is over? I believe our leaders are good people and dedicate so much of their time and efforts to the church but it doesn’t seem terribly inspired to me at the moment or that they’re really leading out on making a big difference. It’s like they’re running this huge corporation but a lot of the efforts are misdirected.
@DKF I was also unsettled by all the Rome activities – I didn’t pay much attention to the press (because I can’t stand leader worship / church news / focus on exclusivity and “one and only” true-ness at the expense of our Catholic brothers and sisters) so didn’t know about the Peter / keys thing. Yuck. Reminds me of the missionary who got in big trouble in Thailand for sitting on a Buddha. Except the missionary was 20.
@Did I agree that family history is a great thing. I think it’s wonderful to learn about ancestors, remember them, and develop a sense of gratitude for them. And certainly taking an ancestors name to the temple can be a way to remember them and literally speak their name. But I tend to agree that I’m not sure about the need to jump through a bunch of hoops to get them into heaven.
lastlemming et al
Pres McKay long ago gave a talk discussing each of the five laws. I study it often, discuss it with others, and was preparing to have it as part of my son’s temple preparation before he left the church.
Click to access DavidOMcKay%27sTempleSermon.pdf
Thank you for posting the McKay talk. I had never seen it or even heard rumors of its existence. I have not read every word–just enough to verify that it contains the information you claim. But now I am left to wonder why they did not turn this into a temple prep brochure. It would have been a huge improvement even over the manual that was released in the 90s (out of which I taught a few classes and which itself was a huge improvement over its predecessor).
Dave B: If the Church manages to someday acquire the Temple lot site in Independence MO. a large structure can’t be built on only 2.5 acres. The Visitors Ctr. adjacent could be adapted to be part of the complex.
I would love to see the Temple for Far West completed and that area re-developed. I know several facilities are currently planned.
Temple ordinances are a means of wielding power over the members of the church. It gives the illusion that members have to have temples and leaders in order to get to God. People can have a direct relationship to God, and do not need temples, ordinances, leaders, or approvals from other people.
Thanks, bobwhid, for the DOM talk. While it’s rather insulting to those who do not immediately see the “spiritual” “symbolic” meaning he speaks of, the insult is somewhat ameliorated by the fact that he elsewhere put himself in that same critical group he insulted in this talk. Interesting that in 1941 he was well aware of the preparation problem and 25 years later when I first went to the temple the Church was still doing exactly nothing about temple preparation.
Incidentally, those 5 covenants will be recognized in Elder Hales April 2012 general conference talk: “… as endowed temple recommend holders, we establish patterns of Christlike living. These include obedience, making sacrifices to keep the commandments, loving one another, being chaste in thought and action, and giving of ourselves to build the kingdom of God. Through the Savior’s Atonement and by following these basic patterns of faithfulness, we receive ‘power from on high’ to face the challenges of life. We need this divine power today more than ever. It is power we receive only through temple ordinances….” Hales reduced the “law of the gospel” to “loving one another” — not a bad summary. It seems he incoherently asserted both that “power from on high” comes through the Atonement by following these patterns of faithfulness (none of which requires making temple covenants to do so) and that that same power comes “only through temple ordinances.” Well, which is it? Mayginnes seems to have given us her answer.
Both DOM and Hales completely omit the to-some troublesome language of the then obedience covenants and the consecration covenant. They wholly omit the “special charge” covenant. None of those omissions is a matter of the “mechanics” DOM does not choose to focus on. In the context of DOM’s talk it might seem to some that the covenant omissions and the mechanics are things to be ignored except only to the extent they teach or support the covenants and blessings he did speak of. (It would also seem that DOM may have recognized that the obligation of secrecy language of the then lecture at the veil ignorable, at least in the context of his talk.). Some others have a more difficult time ignoring what is pushed at them as part of a sacred, revealed and required ritual.
The DOM talk can be a good start for temple preparation. But it’s not enough.
@Wondering, I agree with this: “It seems he incoherently asserted both that “power from on high” comes through the Atonement by following these patterns of faithfulness (none of which requires making temple covenants to do so) and that that same power comes “only through temple ordinances.””
Other than a loyalty oath to the church, I struggle to understand what the temple really adds to baptismal covenants. (I’ve attended, a lot, and spent a lot of time trying, so this isn’t for lack of faith or effort on my part.).
In my more cynical moments I wonder if the reason we’re asked not to discuss the temple is because if we did, we’d all realize that there’s just not that much to it. As it is it’s so shrouded in mystery and secrecy that we assume there must be something amazing going on we just haven’t figured out yet because we aren’t faithful enough or smart enough. In reality it’s more of an emperor’s new clothes situation.
I get some people love it. That’s great for them. I just don’t think it’s the end all, be all for everyone.
In response to Elisa, the way I see it, baptism is part of the Law of the Gospel. It does not encompass consecration.
Thanks for the comments, everyone. Nice discussion.
josh h said: “We come close to worshiping the temple buildings as some kind of monumental achievement each time we dedicate a new one. … It’s as if we are trying to make a statement to the world that we are legitimate via our wonderful temples.” Yes, there is a lot of reverence and awe directed to temples, and they are definitely statements to the world of the presence and significance of the Church. The Washington D.C. temple, the Nauvoo temple, the Rome temple … these were almost political statements as much as buildings for worship and ordinances.
rogerdhansen, thanks for sharing. Your experience (shared by thousands, it seems) is why we need better temple prep material. I’m sure the leadership is worried that if too much is disclosed, some may decline to attend. Well … do what is right, let the consequence follow. Another consequence would be that those who do go through have a much better experience.
Elisa said, ” I tend to agree that I’m not sure about the need to jump through a bunch of hoops to get them into heaven.” Funny how going through a temple presentation is *formally* structured as doing it for the benefit of a deceased person, possibly an ancestor, but *informally* regular attendance is encouraged (and encouraged and encouraged) for the benefit of the attendee.
bobwhid, thanks for posting the link to the David O. McKay talk. It sounds like that was delivered to a group of missionaries just before they went through a temple presentation for the first time. In the old days, missionaries reported to the Mission Home in Salt Lake City like on Monday and stayed less than a week before being sent off to the mission field. Attending the Salt Lake temple was part of that short stay. No movies back then, it was a live presentation, which is evident in some places in Pres. McKay’s remarks. The whole literal versus symbolic explanation deserves its own post.
@lastlemming, I agree. I was referring to consecration when I mentioned the loyalty oath to the church (since it specifically refers to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) as being different from baptism. Still, if we are interpreting broadly, if we covenant to obey the commandments, and that’s considered a commandment (I think “commandment” is broader than the ten commandments), I think it still overlaps. Ditto bearing burdens, mourning, etc.
I would highly recommend reading “Illustrations of Free Masonry”, by Captain William Morgan 1826. The foundation of the entire (original) Temple ceremony can clearly be seen; with some names and labels being changed by JS. Warning: after reading this you may never want to return to an LDS Temple again. I’ve not been back in over five years – and am sickened to even think about going back. It’s pretty clear where all of this mumbo/jumbo came from.
Somewhere in cyberspace is a blog post encouraging open temples. What if we radically reframed our concept of what a temple is? Recognizing that birth, death, healing, and providing relief for those who suffer are profound parts of the human experience, could we see hospitals as temples? Medical clinics that serve vulnerable populations? Could we see schools as temples? Universities that serve those who would otherwise never be able to engage in advanced study and that engage in unrestrained research that seeks to advance human well-being? Scientific laboratories? Shelters and apartments for the unhoused? Soup kitchens? The church has financial and human resources that could be used for unimaginable good.
“And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
‘Literal v symbolic’ Oh yes please, that’s a conversation I’ve been waiting forty years for. Amen and amen.
Thomas B Griffith wrote “I was seated in the solemn assembly room of the Salt Lake Temple with a cohort of newly set- apart missionaries awaiting the arrival of our speaker, Church President Harold B. Lee. I was desperately hoping and fervently praying that he would say something—anything—that would help me better understand the temple ceremony. It was a dramatic moment when the silver-haired President Lee dressed in his white temple suit took his place on the stand. I was seated about ten rows from the front, a little to his left as he stepped to the podium. “Sisters and Elders,” he began, “before I take your questions about the temple, I feel impressed to share with you an idea.” I moved to the edge of my chair. Would he speak to my confusion? “None of the things you see portrayed in the ceremony actually took place that way. They are all symbols: symbols of your life’s spiritual journey.” …Everything in the temple is symbolic.” https://humanities.byu.edu/imagination-and-the-temple/
Griffith’s last quoted sentence is an overstatement (like “Everything in the temple points us to Jesus Christ.” https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/temples/nearer-christ-through-temples?lang=eng ), but as to the presentation of the ceremonies of initiation and endowment, President Lee’s comment is quite valuable.
@Wondering: in my experience, symbols are only effective if you understand what they are meant to refer to/mean. If the endowment is meant symbolically, then we need to be informed what those symbols are- and telling us to just figure it out ourselves doesn’t work. As a global church, what sometime in Nigeria (for example) gets from a given symbol may not be the same as what sometime in Utah gets from it because of differing cultures and such. I haven’t done endowments in more than 10 years and am very opposed to every going back, for many reasons but the dearth of explanation is high up on the list.
easyasbreathing2, It’s not much, but President Lee did point in a direction to understanding: ” symbols of your life’s spiritual journey.”
Sometimes symbols mean more than one thing. So what if at various times the symbols of the temple don’t mean exactly the same thing to everyone? Maybe not everyone’s spiritual journey is the same. Maybe one of the lessons is to learn to deal with ambiguity. Maybe there’s a poetic quality to it. Poetry often loses a lot when it is “translated” into propositional prose. Maybe some of it meant something different to 19th century Mormons than it does to me. Maybe participating in a ritual with some, thankfully incomplete, consistency over time is part of making oneself part of a multi-generational community of Christian seekers. I suspect President Lee was referring mostly to the presentation of a creation story and an Adam & Eve story. But he’s not around to ask.
Some of us take the symbolic notion much further than that rejection of historicity. See, e.g, some of the comments to Dave B’s earlier post. Some buy into BY’s partial explanation quoted in those comments and don’t want to be told that such ritual is a teaching tool and not a literal guide to how to pass the sentinels barring one’s way to God.. Some do not buy BY’s explanation and prefer ambiguity or such symbolic meaning as we can find to being told that we must. Clarity of universally prescribed meaning just may not be what is needed by the community of temple-goers as a whole.
You note that unexplained symbols are ineffective in your experience. For me the next question would be: ineffective for what? There can be purposes to rituals and found-meaning in rituals other than clarity of definitive communication.
Just rambling here. For myself, I’d prefer to see much more thorough discussion and temple preparation, including exploring a number of possible symbolic meanings — whether they were the same meanings ascribed by JS or BY or not One’s experience of a poem can be enhanced by exploring its symbolism; it can be ruined by demanding that the poem means exactly and only one thing.
Of course, that open-ended kind of approach doesn’t mesh too well with the common cultural assumption of a precise and systematic cosmology/theology being or having been revealed through the prophets. I’m no longer able to share that assumption, but can find value in participation.