And it came to pass that the God of heaven looked upon the residue of the people, and he wept; and Enoch bore record of it, saying: How is it that the heavens weep, and shed forth their tears as the rain upon the mountains? (Moses 7:28)

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Mormons, Ritual Worship, and Other Mysterious Things

One of the most distinguishing characteristics of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, particularly among those of other Christian faiths, is our emphasis on ritual. This certainly contributes to the sense of mistrust felt by some protestants toward Latter-day Saints (a.k.a. Mormons). Of course, the Catholic faith and the various Orthodox churches contain a great deal of ritual. However, the Latter-day Saints are probably unique in the amount of direct participation by ordinary church members in ritual worship.

Before I go further, I'll clarify some terminology, as I have done previously. The name of our church is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The short form of this is the Church of Jesus Christ or, less formally, the LDS Church. Members of our church are called Latter-day Saints, or sometimes “the LDS people.” Terms such as Mormons, Mormonism, or “the Mormon Church,” are incorrect. These are nicknames given to us by others because of our belief in The Book of Mormon. While these names are not offensive, I will only use the correct ones here.

Now continuing with the main topic: there is a natural aversion toward ritual among protestants, due to the fact that the protestant movement occurred in part as a revolt against excessive ritualism. Much of the ritual and imagery in the Catholic and Orthodox churches was viewed by the reformers as idolatry. They opted for a simpler religion, centered around personal faith and reading of the Bible. However, such rituals as the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper and baptism were retained by most protestant congregations, as these were strongly supported by the New Testament.

Ironically, a similar sentiment has led to the Latter-day Saints avoiding outward symbols of their faith, such as crosses. Likewise, our rituals – which we call “Gospel ordinances,” or just “ordinances” - are very simple in nature, and ornate or dramatic presentation are eschewed. So, in a sense, we have taken this Protestant aversion a step further. We are often asked about the fact that we don't wear crosses, or display them on our meeting houses. Another reason for this is to signify that we worship the “living” Christ. While the suffering and death of Jesus are at the very core our faith, we choose to emphasize the fact that “He is not here, for he is risen.”

One of the most noticeable aspects of our faith is the fact that we build temples, largely because the temples themselves are quite noticeable. The architecture of these buildings again reflects the Latter-day Saint sentiment toward ritual: they are beautiful, but not ornate. Much is made of the fact that we don't speak much about what goes on in our temples, even amongst ourselves. In fact, those who have participated in these ordinances only discuss them with each other in a general way, when they are not inside a temple.

Latter-day Saint Temple Near Washington D.C.

This secretiveness, of course, appears very strange to those who don't have any analogous practices in their own religions. Beyond that, in our culture we have an intrinsic mistrust toward any group of people that is secretive or private.

For instance, it's become common practice for secret government agencies to be blamed for just about everything that goes on in the world. Such ideas have certainly been helped along by media sensationalism. At times, elected officials have even exploited this mistrust in order to divert blame, and our intelligence agencies have thus become a popular scape goat.

Throughout history, various groups have been singled out as being the cause of the world's problems. Groups that were secretive, or just private, were the common targets. For centuries the Jews were the favorite pick. Then Hitler extended that a little, declaring that the Jews and the Free Masons were the cause of every evil in the world. The Gypsies were also a popular choice. Every propagandist needs a boogie man, and suspicion is easily raised wherever there's a hint of secrecy.

Of course, in regards to temple worship in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, these are not really secrets in the traditional sense. After all, we don't even discuss them in private with others who already know these “secrets.” As rumor has it, this attitude of discretion has made the LDS people attractive for recruitment by employers who deal with classified information. Whether there's any validity to this rumor, I don't know, but it's wonderful fodder for all sorts of conspiracy theories. Moreover, the fact we don't discuss our temple ordinances publicly has left the door open to others, usually former members of our church, to present a distorted view of what goes on there.

So why on earth would we be afraid to discuss a secret with someone who already knows it? Are we afraid we're being spied on? Or maybe that the room has been wiretapped? Well, it's nothing quite so shadowy. Actually, this is why we typically refer to such things as “sacred” rather than “secret.” The concept of sacredness is an ancient one, but has lost much of it's meaning in contemporary society. The common expression, “Is nothing sacred?” is a reflection of this.

Historically, it's very common for participants in temple worship to be given a “hush order.” Descriptions of this can be found in manuscripts and the like from numerous civilizations. While some biblical scholars have suggested that the Old Testament temple rites were adopted by the Hebrews from their Pagan neighbors, I take profound exception to this notion. The idea that God is simply so short on ideas that he would borrow them from men doesn't sit well with me. Nor would it, I imagine, with most Christians. Rather, I would suggest, that it is in fact the other way around: That God is the originator of temple worship, and it was adopted, and altered, by men. The actual rituals have varied wildly from one culture to another, but there are many common threads. And it's the common threads that likely trace back to the source.

Interestingly, there are ancient texts that suggest that the biblical description of Israelite temple worship is not the whole story. But, before you let your mind run wild, it should be noted that we're not talking about anything very bazaar here. In fact, it would be difficult for an observer to understand why any of it was kept secret. Again, it's sacred, not secret. Or rather, it was kept secret because it was sacred, and it was sacred because God declared it to be so.

Such things can be difficult to grasp the reasons for, and may naturally engender suspicion. It exposes a paradox in our natures: I may have difficulty trusting someone who keeps a secret from me, but I have no difficulty trusting someone who keeps a secret for me. Thus, whether or not we trust someone may have nothing to do with whether they are actually trustworthy.

Understandably, there are aspects of the Church of Jesus Christ that may seem very strange to outsiders, both in our history and in our current practices. However, rather than attempting to explain them all, I would point out that there are many strange things in the Old Testament, and even the New Testament. It might seem very strange to a non-Christian to learn that Christians participate in a ritual where they drink wine and eat bread, signifying that they are drinking the blood and eating the flesh of their deity. This was a common thread of anti-Christian literature in the Roman world. So much depends on presentation and perspective, and very benign concepts can seem quite sinister when deprived of context.

The Old Testament presents us with many troubling passages, that as Christians we often accept either by faith or by ignorance. We may seek an explanation, or we may set them aside for later. But that doesn't mean we set our faith aside until we have answers for every question. Whether we speak of Christianity generally, or our particular sect, we all accept the controversial history of our faith. The only difference is time and space.

As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we sometimes experience attacks on our faith. A common accusation is that we are a cult, and that we are not really Christians. It's funny how people like to throw around inflammatory terms without really knowing what they mean. So then, are we true Christians, or are we a cult? Well, first of all, what is a cult? A quick Google search for “define cult” returns the following: “A system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.” Then the next question is, how do you define “Christianity?” Do you define it as Pastor Jeffress does: As the the collective of Churches that embrace the Nicaean Creed?

If, however, you define Christianity as, “A system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward Jesus Christ, 'the author and finisher of our faith,'” then the answer as to whether Latter-day Saints are Christians or a cult is simply, “Yes.”

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