Saturday, November 17, 2007

Creating Sacredness

A few months ago I read this Pew Foundation forum discussion with Richard L. Bushman, who is one of the foremost scholars on Mormonism. It was a broad ranging discussion that focused on whether Mormonism is compatible with democratic principles. During the discussion, Bushman made some comments about sacredness that I felt were quite profound.

Responding to a question about “secret doctrines,” and matters pertaining to LDS temples, Bushman says:

“This goes along with this "secret life" of Mormons. Sally [Quinn], you were referring to that earlier. What do they do when it comes down to it? Do they shun people and beat them up and so on? That has always been part of the story of Mormonism – you know, the "hidden horrors" of Mormonism – these advanced doctrines, and then the temple, because Mormons insist on saying it's sacred, not secret – but it is secret. Mormons do not talk about what goes on in the temple outside the temple, even to each other. Inside the temple they will talk about it, but not outside. There will be glancing allusions, but never a full-fledged description.

“The way I put it comes out of a conference we held when the Manhattan Temple was dedicated in 2004. We wanted to have a scholarly conference to mark that occasion, so we got Jonathan Z. Smith, a very distinguished scholar of ancient religion, and others to come, and we talked about it. Smith talked about how we call this a sacred space. How do you define a sacred space?

“That's a very interesting question: How do you create a sacred space? The theme of the conference was, how do you do it in the modern city, where there are all sorts of groups? Just like time is set aside on the Sabbath devoted to God, can you have space set aside that's devoted to God? Mormons have become very good at that. Before you can go to the temple, you can't simply be a member of the church. You have to see your bishop. Every two years you have to talk with your bishop who will ask you a set of questions. Are you committing adultery? Are you honest in your dealings with people? Do you believe in God and Christ? And so on down the list. It's a worthiness interview, and you have to have a recommend to get past the front door of the temple. Once you get past that door, you immediately go to a changing room where you shed your outer clothes and put on special white clothing. In the temple you speak in whispers. You don't speak aloud. And then outside the temple you don't talk about it at all. Some people think of this as secretive in the sense of hiding things. But for Mormons, it's all part of the process of creating a sacred space. When you walk in there, life is different. You just feel things are on a different plane.

“When you come out, it's not usually an overwhelming vision you have experienced, but you feel elevated. It becomes very important for Mormons to go into that space, just like practicing the Sabbath, keeping it holy, has an exalting effect on human life. So that's the way I look at the temple ceremonies.

“Mormons know you can go online, get every last word of the temple ceremony. It's all there. So it's not like it's hidden from the world. Anybody can get it. But among us, we don't talk about it that way. It means something to us. It means a lot.”

In modern life we are continually surrounded by and barraged by the profane. There is an earnest push to remove any hint of sacredness from public life — and from private life. Surely individuals and society could benefit from moments of sacredness. Elder D. Todd Christofferson taught (here) that gaining an appreciation of holy things helps fight cynicism and despair. Studies have shown this to be true.

How do we go about gaining a sense of the sacred and creating sacred spaces and experiences? I think Bushman has some good advice. For those that believe in the Bible, “practicing the Sabbath [and] keeping it holy” can have “an exalting effect on [your] life.” How often do we really “practice” the Sabbath in a way that makes it holy — in a way that exalts us? What Sabbath practices are beneficial in helping us make the day sacred?

Many in our world treat sacred matters profanely, and that’s not going to change. But I find great substance in the final words of Bushman’s quote above. It resonates strongly with me when he says, “It means something to us. It means a lot.” When something is deeply meaningful, we treat that matter in a manner that denotes how meaningful it is. We treat it with profound respect. Is that how we approach our worship? Is that how we approach the Sabbath? For Christians, is that how we approach the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper?

Some will claim that treating matters as highly sacred is nothing more than a way to avoid critically examining them. It certainly can work that way, but it does not have to. Erudite religious people feel that they are including factors from a higher plane in their critical analysis — factors that are not readily or properly handled outside of a sacred setting. The feelings Bushman talks about are very real, but they are difficult to explain to others. They must be experienced.

LDS Church leaders often teach that the home should be one of the most sacred spaces on the face of the earth. For example, Elder Boyd K. Packer said (here), “Temple. One other word is equal in importance to a Latter-day Saint. Home.” What do we do to make our homes sacred spaces?

New Testament doctrine also suggests that we should make our bodies sacred spaces (1 Corinthians 3:16, 1 Corinthians 6:19). How do we go about doing that? How should this impact our attitudes about our physical bodies and about how we regard others’ physical bodies?

Elder Christofferson offers a number of additional questions and observations at the link referenced above. He offers suggestions as to why he believes that some matters considered by some to be insignificant are vitally important to our spiritual welfare.

I think that questions related to how we achieve sacredness in our lives are important, and that we should regularly pose them to ourselves. I think that answering them earnestly and then working to follow where those answers lead can yield tremendous benefits.


Bradley said...

I especially liked it when you wrote, "How often do we really “practice” the Sabbath in a way that makes it holy — in a way that exalts us? What Sabbath practices are beneficial in helping us make the day sacred?"

What a wonderful reminder on a Sunday morning.

I, like Bushman, don't mind explaining that the temple ceremonies are secret in addition to being sacred. I really like how eloquently he ties the two together and help us understand how the secret preserves the sacred.

Frank Staheli said...

"Many in our world treat sacred matters profanely"

I think another way of saying this is that people want to demean sacred things as "secret" because it's easier than expending the effort to make themselves qualified to experience the sacredness of it.