NOTE: This post contains explicit discussion of Mormon temple ceremonies before their recent change on January 2, 2019. If discussion of the temple, including a description of its rituals, troubles you, I suggest skipping this one.
I wrote this as part of a lengthy exploration of Christology I undertook for an independent study course in Fall 2018. When news of the changes to the ordinances began to leak out today, I felt compelled to share it. It’s about a 30-minute read.
All names, except mine, have been changed.
Logan, Utah, November 2002
“Jehovah, Michael, see: yonder is matter unorganized. Go ye down and organize it into a world like unto the other worlds we have heretofore formed. Call your labors the first day and bring me word.”
“We will go down, Elohim. Come, Michael, let us go down.”
“We will go down, Jehovah.”
The voices reverberated with the authority of God in the small, dark room that somehow managed to be both understated and ornate. Thick cream-colored carpet cushioned my feet while a screen up front glowed with soft light, playing a movie that featured Elohim, Jehovah, Adam and Eve, and Lucifer. I sat in the front row near the altar in plush theatre seats with my mother beside me, a pink slip of paper labeled ESCORT pinned to her dress. I had one too, except that mine said ENDOWMENT. Every now and then I glanced at my dad seated with the men on the other side of the room, but he never returned my gaze. My stomach knotted and I felt myself perspiring inside the layers of white clothing that clung to me like plastic wrap: long-sleeved dress, full slip, tights, slippers, bra, and beneath all that, my garments–the underwear I’d received in a ceremony just minutes prior, with bottoms that fell two inches above the knees and a camisole top with capped sleeves.
I soothed myself by taking deep breaths and silently chanting the advice Mom had given me as we’d walked through the doors that afternoon. Be a sponge. Don’t think too hard. Just soak it up.
I’d known the temple would be different, liturgical in a way that regular Mormon church services weren’t. During a Family Home Evening when I was a child, Mom and Dad had shown us their ceremonial temple clothes, white silk satchels filled with veils and hats and robes and sashes and the lone pop of color, aprons of deep forest green. But I hadn’t expected this–a movie, the voice of God, and solemn promises to never reveal what I was learning.
The endowment lasted only an hour and a half, but it felt to me as if it contained lifetimes. I choked back panic every time I made a new covenant: obedience, sacrifice, chastity, consecration. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to live up to the promises I made to God; it was that the penalties for mistakes, after receiving the endowment, were heightened. Instead of a slap on the wrist, you could be excommunicated. You could lose your exaltation. My fallibility pressed onto my chest with the weight of a thousand worlds–worlds I was destined to create but that would remain unrealized if I failed. I battled memories of past sins, off-color jokes and passionate kisses, and wondered if I was worthy to be there. Was I living a lie?
At the end of the ceremony, I stood before the veil of the temple, satin smooth and feather light. A man representing Elohim, our Heavenly Father, put his arms through the openings in the veil and held my hand and shoulder in a Masonic grip. I received the promise of eternal posterity, and the veil parted. Elohim pulled me through, now fully initiated. There was no turning back.
In the Celestial Room, I gazed at the exquisite chandelier I’d seen only in pictures. It sparkled like the expanse of God’s promises to Abraham. My parents passed through the veil and came to greet me. I had no words for what I’d just experienced, so we sat together on an opulent chaise in silence. Around me, more and more people slipped through the veil, and soon thirty or forty of them in robes, sashes, and aprons mingled and spoke in hushed tones. I watched them, wondering, Is this what God is? Is this heaven?
When we got home, I collapsed on the sofa and couldn’t speak. Mom sat next to me and smoothed my hair. “How are you doing?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “It’s very serious. What if I’m not–”
But my voice trailed off, leaving the thought unexpressed. She didn’t say anything, either, just kept smoothing my hair; and for the first time I saw myself as she must have seen me, as her posterity and promise of eternal lives. I couldn’t bring myself to speak it aloud, but what if I failed her? What if I failed everyone, my ancestors, my future children, my Heavenly Parents? What if I already had? My thoughts turned to God and I prayed a prayer I’d learned in the temple, seeking reassurance, “O God, hear the words of my mouth.” I waited, but no words came. When I tried to speak even to God, I found I had nothing to say.
Monotheism evolved almost by accident in a small, tribal kingdom in the ancient Near East called Israel. Embedded in polytheistic cultures, the Israelites likely emerged as a loose confederation of tribes in the hills of central Palestine toward the end of the Bronze Age with a cultic identity forged around the worship of Yahweh, a local god. It is likely that, at least at first, Yahweh was worshipped alongside other gods. But as monarchy developed in Israel around 1000 BCE, this began to change. While some Old Testament passages acknowledge the existence of other gods, biblical writers increasingly asserted Yahweh’s superiority (see, for example, Psalm 86:8: “There is none like you among the gods, O Lord”). Eventually, the Israelites likely became henotheists. Yahweh was the supreme God, creator of the cosmos, and ruler over all, but that did not preclude the existence of other gods. Even the language of the decalogue reflects this: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3, emphasis added).
The strict monotheism characterized by the Shema, one of the most important prayers in Jewish tradition (“Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one” [Deut 6:4]), came later, birthed in the furnace of affliction. In 586 BCE, the Kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonians, who sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. Babylonia saw itself as the center of the world and sought to “colonize the minds” of those they conquered; one strategy for accomplishing this was forcing elites out of their homeland and into labor that benefited the empire alongside other conquered peoples. Accordingly, Israel’s elites were removed from Jerusalem and sent into exile.
Yet some of the Israelite exiles refused to be assimilated. They remained faithful to Yahweh, a move of profound resistance to the enculturation of the empire. In the process an urgent theological question arose: how to worship Yahweh when the Jerusalem temple, once understood as the location of God’s presence in the world, had been destroyed? A new notion of God emerged, one that made space for a national and theological identity that could be maintained amidst oppression and dispersal–God is universal and does not need a temple to be present and worshipped.
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of this event. Much of the Old Testament as we know it was either written or finalized during the exile and post-exilic periods. It allowed Israel to survive in diaspora. Without the expanded theological imagination of this period, which proclaimed that Yahweh alone was Lord and the gods of Babylonia were false idols, Israel would have been just another small kingdom swallowed up in the perpetual violence of imperial conquest. Indeed, that is precisely what happened to the Northern Kingdom of Israel, conquered by the Assyrians in 722 BCE, and known colloquially as the “lost ten tribes”–lost because their distinctiveness melted into the surrounding cultures. Those in exile avoided the same fate through the revolutionary new theology that began to take shape, one that had dramatic implications for the way God and the cosmos were understood, and by extension humanity’s (and, indeed, all creation’s) relationship to God and one another.
Chief among these developments is the notion of transcendence. The polytheistic cultures of the Ancient Near East connected the various gods to natural phenomena, which made them deeply immanent but, ultimately, lacking universal power. There were sun gods, storm gods, fertility gods, and so on. The gods were thought to be part of the same “stuff” as the rest of the natural order–arguably the natural order itself–and frequently in competition with one another. This gave humanity some ability to sway the gods to look upon them with favor. Indeed, the cultic rituals of ancient polytheistic traditions were “attempts at ‘subservience, negotiation, and even…control’” of the gods. Monotheism reflects a significant departure from this perspective. While in polytheism, “diverse deities…have specific numina or attributes accredited to them,…in radical monotheism all the attributes have to be given to one deity, until finally that deity transcends them all.” The result is a conception of God as wholly Other, sovereign and distinct from nature. That is not to say that monotheism requires God to be absent from the natural world–in the Hebrew scriptures nature itself is the result of God’s creative work and is animated by God’s lifeforce, often called ruach (spirit, breath, or wind)–but God exists beyond nature. Thus, the God of monotheism can be both immanent and transcendent, something that polytheism does not allow.
This has social and moral implications as well. While it would not be correct to say that ancient polytheistic cultures lacked morality, different deities had different ethical requirements. More importantly, morality was not absolute: because the nature of the gods was imagined as a clash of divine wills, polytheists could “never be sure that a particular ethical mandate [would] survive in the long-term conflict of the divine realm.” It is no surprise, then, that Israel developed a robust moral and ethical standard more pronounced than her polytheistic contemporaries, with justice central to the law of God revealed in the Torah. In secular modern culture, we often forget that our conceptions of freedom and justice flow directly from this line of ethical reasoning; even the notion of transcendent justice for which the New Atheists argue would not be possible without the influence of biblical monotheism.
The result is a moral framework summed up in the two great commandments Jesus identified: to love God with all we have and are, and to love our neighbor as ourselves (see, for example, Luke 10:25-28). It is notable that the first great commandment is expressed as part of the Shema, the confession of radical monotheism I referenced earlier. The first part of the prayer, “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one,” is followed immediately by “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). It is as if the commandments contain “therefore” clauses. God is one, therefore we are to love God. We love God, therefore we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. The concepts are inseparable from one another.
One more important shift emerged from these developments: ultimately, the small tribal kingdom of Israel became Judaism. This is more remarkable than it sounds. In the Ancient Near East, national and cultic identity were inseparably intertwined; the gods were local. Monotheism teased these notions ever so slightly apart. Now, Jewish identity was no longer contingent upon Israel maintaining an independent state. To be clear, this does not mean that hope for independence became irrelevant in Judaism. On the contrary, expectations for the future redemption of God’s people revolved quite explicitly around this aim. But the universality of God provided a pathway to maintaining the particularities of identity regardless of circumstance. Just as this new conception of God opened space for both transcendence and immanence, so it made room for both universality and particularity. The mystery of the one God is encountered in the tension between these poles: God is simultaneously in, with, and through all creation yet wholly Other; sovereign over all things yet aware when a sparrow falls.
In 539 BCE, nearly 50 years after the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem, Cyrus II of Persia entered Babylon and conquered it. The Persian strategy for imperial domination differed from Babylonia’s in the sense that they practiced some degree of religious and cultural tolerance for the peoples they colonized. Conquered nations were allowed to worship their own gods and even appoint their own rulers, so long as they paid tribute to Persia. This was not done out of magnanimity but political calculation to maintain social order and reduce the risk of revolt. While the Persians allowed local religious practices to continue, they appropriated such practices through propaganda that claimed that the empire had been appointed to power by the local gods. It was a subtler and arguably more insidious imperial strategy, but one result is that the exiles in Babylon were allowed to return home.
Around 520 BCE, the Jews rebuilt the Jerusalem temple. This ushered in a new era of Jewish history, the Second Temple period, that lasted until the Romans destroyed the temple once and for all in 70 CE. While theological developments during the exile had opened up an understanding that God’s presence could follow them even in diaspora, the temple never lost its significance as the central cultural, political, and religious symbol for the Jewish people. Indeed, the temple was to be the dwelling place where the fullness of God’s glory could rest. Its reconstruction sparked a renewal of cultic practices and extensive social and religious reform that focused on purifying the people of foreign influences, re-emphasizing Torah, and deepening the commitment to monotheism over against the surrounding polytheistic cultures.
It is important to note that during Second Temple period, with only brief exceptions, Palestine was perpetually occupied–first by the Persians, then by the Hellenists, then by the Romans. Various groups with competing perspectives emerged to navigate the uneasy relationships between the Jews and their imperial oppressors, including priests who managed the temple complex (generally with the support of the empire); scribes, educated elites who worked within the administration as teachers and record-keepers; and prophets who tended to come from the margins to critique elite participation with the empire and to warn against the twin sins of idolatry and injustice.
Still, even the Jews who aligned themselves with the empire for political reasons did not forget that they were under foreign rule. Jewish theology in the Second Temple period anticipated independence from imperial oppression and a rebirth of the Davidic kingdom. Along the way, this anticipation of a new king–literally the messiah–took on cosmic implications. Past promises of the endurance of David’s throne were imbued with eschatological meaning and were particularly related with the temple, as the temple “provide[d] the matrix of symbols that cause[d] the king to be not only a political operator but a guarantor of a viable cosmic order.” Indeed, the messianic age would do more than result in the political restoration of Israel; it would usher in a new age in which God’s Spirit would be poured out upon all flesh (Joel 2:28-29), all nations would flow to the temple, and there would be lasting peace (Isaiah 2:2-4).
By the time Jesus was born, the atmosphere was charged with expectation. Several would-be messiahs had come and failed. The Roman Empire’s grip on the people was as vice-like as ever. The Jews found themselves divided into factions: Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes had elite status and control over the temple, which required at least some cooperation with the empire; Zealots advocated for revolt and the overthrow of Rome; and some factions, such as those at Qumran, formed their own secluded communities to separate themselves from what they perceived as total corruption in Jewish religiopolitical structures. Into this hotbed of conflict came an uneducated peasant from the countryside declaring that the Kingdom of God was at hand. In some ways, his message resembled past messianic movements that had already come and gone; in other ways, it looked like nothing the world had seen before.
Nauvoo, Illinois, August 2005
My open-heel shoes clacked on the hardwood floors as Luke and I made our way toward an elegant spiral staircase. On the floor above was access to the baptistery where we planned to perform baptisms for the dead using family names his grandfather had sent us. Luke and I, now five days married, held hands gently, then parted as we slipped into our respective dressing rooms.
This was where it had all begun: the endowments, the sealings, the secrecy. There was so much I didn’t yet know about the history of this place, but I could feel it anyway. Nauvoo practically pulsated with religious energy. Competing historical sites, maintained by both the LDS Church and Community of Christ, a progressive branch of the Joseph Smith movement, were just blocks from one another. Each offered a different perspective on the history that had unfolded here; each made sense of an incomprehensible heritage in deeply divergent ways. In the center of town a Christian bookstore posed a provocative question with a sign in the window: Jesus or Joseph?
Now inside the Nauvoo temple, I resisted memories of a tour we’d taken of the Red Brick Store the day prior. We’d seen the upper room where the endowment was first introduced to Joseph Smith’s inner circle. We’d purchased sarsaparilla from the gift shop below. A middle-aged man in cargo shorts and a button-down shirt open to his chest had asked us why we were there. “It’s our honeymoon,” we’d replied, and instantly blushed–it was clear as soon as we’d said it that this was hardly a destination for lovers. Graciously, he’d allowed a moment of silence before speaking again. “You’re lucky, you know. My family left me.”
“Left you?” I’d asked, startled. “Why?”
“Because I’ve seen things I can’t unsee. The Church–I asked questions…” He’d paused, pain clouding his eyes. “A friend warned me, Don’t go down this road, there’s no going back. He was right.”
Inside the changing stall, I removed my street clothes and stepped into the standard issue baptismal jumpsuit made of thick white polyester. Those words, there’s no going back, haunted me. What had he seen that he couldn’t unsee? What questions had he asked? I was desperate to know and more desperate never to learn.
It didn’t occur to me how strange it was that what concerned me most was the content of what he’d discovered–not that he’d been abandoned by his family because of it. That, it seemed, was only natural. It’s what happened to apostates: they had broken the covenants that bind families to one another, so they were expelled from their eternity together. And if they were expelled from their eternity together, it made sense that some families would choose to enact on earth what would happen eventually anyway. I never asked if it was right or wrong, I merely accepted it. It was what it was, like the sunrise, like gravity. My role wasn’t to question, but to make sure it never happened to me.
The baptismal font rested on the backs of twelve porcelain oxen in a spacious room that smelled of chlorine. Luke went into the water first, then reached out his hand for me. As I stepped into the font, I was enveloped in soothing warmth up to my waist. “Katherine Lynn Langston,” he said, raising his right arm to the square, “having been commissioned of Jesus Christ, I baptize you for and in behalf of Jane Anderson, who is dead, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, amen.” I held onto his arm and he submerged me in water.
I came back up, dripping and exhaling. This is right, I told myself. I didn’t know Jane Anderson, she’d died over a hundred years ago, but it didn’t matter. This was about completing the chain. I was sealed to Luke, and Jane was his ancestor, and so now she belonged to me, too. We all belonged to each other, that was the promise of Mormonism. We were connected to each other in a long line of relationships that went back to Heavenly Father, and the God that came before him, and the God that came before him. Forever into the past and forever into the future, worlds and gods without beginning or end. If someone didn’t want any part of it, that was on them.
The temple workers, retired men in white suits, peered down at us from their stools behind the font’s glass enclosure and nodded, signaling that the ordinance had been performed properly. We changed back into our street clothes and entered a small room where they laid hands on me for and in behalf of Jane Anderson and confirmed her a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Did she know she was a Mormon now? Would she accept her baptism on the other side? I couldn’t know, but I offered a quick prayer that she would.
When we left the temple that day, I felt both satisfied and uneasy, a combination that confused me. I tried to reflect on why, but I didn’t have the words or even the mental model to articulate it. If I had, I’m certain what I would have asked is this: If God wants us together, why does he separate us so readily? If God is divine, why does he seem as scared as I am?
Jesus of Nazareth should have disappeared into the abyss of history, never to be recovered. We should know as much about him as any other first-century Palestinian peasant–which is to say, absolutely nothing. Here was an itinerant preacher, quite possibly illiterate, with a band of followers comprised of the lower echelons of Jewish society. Here was a man who was born in scandal to an unwed mother and who died in scandal upon an implement of imperial torture. He should have been a blip on the screen whose influence faded as soon as he breathed his last. We should never have known his name. We should certainly never have called him lord.
Jesus’ prominence in the global imagination is one of history’s greatest surprises. For the most part, history is handed down by the victors, not the victims. So how is it that we know anything about him, let alone his teachings and actions? The answer is not that his life was regarded as extraordinary at the time he lived; beyond his disciples and friends, it wasn’t. The answer is not that his death was remarkable; on the contrary, it was disgraceful and should have been forgotten. We don’t know the identities almost any other of the many thousands executed on Roman crosses before and after Jesus, for example. Instead, the answer lies in an unusual occurrence that happened shortly after his death. And that is, Jesus’ disciples began to insist that Jesus had been raised from the dead.
While the historicity of the resurrection isn’t something that can be established empirically, there is no doubt that his followers claimed as much about him. What’s more, the nature of the narrative surrounding the resurrection–particularly Jesus’ death on a cross, which would have been seen as catastrophically shameful–make it equally unlikely that his followers invented the story out of whole cloth. Even skeptical secular scholars such as Bart Ehrman are clear on this point: a made-up messiah would have been far more successful; therefore, there can be little doubt that a man named Jesus of Nazareth who claimed to be the Jewish messiah lived, died on a cross, and that, at the very least, his followers believed he’d been raised from the dead. Whether or not he was actually raised from the dead is a matter of faith, but everything we know about him–including that we know about him–is a direct outgrowth of his first followers’ sincere belief that he was.
Why does this matter? In an era defined by epistemic frames that demand empirical evidence, it is important to keep two things in mind: first, empirical evidence overwhelmingly suggests that Jesus existed and that his disciples claimed he’d been resurrected; and second, everything we know about him is refracted through the lens of this claim. Since the 1970’s, there have been secular attempts to recover “the historical Jesus” by “peeling back” the layers of theological reflection in the gospels and making a distinction between the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith.” But the truth is that no such distinction can be made. Everything we know about Jesus comes from the perspective of faith, including the earliest Christian writings. Without faith in Jesus’ resurrection, there would be no early Christian writings, for there would have been no Christians to write them! As usual, reality is much more textured and mysterious than we might imagine. In this case, it is both particular and universal–deeply rooted in the particular context of Jesus’ life and death, and as expansive as the movement that grew out of this most singular event in human history.
Jesus was the messiah. At least, that’s what he claimed about himself. What’s more, Jesus was the Jewish messiah. Further, Jesus was the Jewish messiah who lived in a particular place (Palestine) at a particular time (the Second Temple period). N.T. Wright argues that for all the ways we think of Jesus, for all the debates and beliefs we have about him, to understand the meaning of Jesus, we must start here.
That’s because Jesus’ Jewishness is central to his mission, self-understanding, and the way his followers interpreted their experience of his resurrection. As we explored previously, Jewish identity in the Second Temple period revolved around three central beliefs: first, that Yahweh was the one God of the cosmos; second, that eventually God’s people would be liberated from oppression by the coming of a future messiah who would restore the Davidic throne; and third, that the messiah would usher in a new age, defeating evil once and for all and restoring the fullness of God’s presence to the temple.
It is no accident, then, that the core component of Jesus’ message was the coming of the kingdom of God. This deeply Jewish message carried an abundance of meaning that his hearers would have readily recognized. In modern times, we tend to see this in ethereal terms, as if it the kingdom of God is a heavenly place somewhere far in the distance, detached from embodied reality. But Jesus meant it literally. His proclamation was that the kingdom of God–or the reality of God’s reign–was already breaking in. And it was breaking in through the life and mission of Jesus himself.
Jesus’ ministry and miracles were a testimony to this new reality. He healed the sick, forgave sins, and exorcised demons to enact, in the flesh, what God’s kingdom looks like. He taught a rigorous moral order, deeply rooted in the Mosaic law, that did not render the law obsolete but fulfilled its ultimate purpose: to love God with all our heart, might, and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. He broke bread with those regarded as unclean and outcast– sinners and tax collectors and lepers and prostitutes–to image a kingdom with porous borders. Jesus demonstrated that the reign of God brings with it a new kind of world, not a symbolic idealism, but in the actual created order of water, soil, blood, and bodies. Indeed, Jesus’ message had the kind of urgency you would expect from someone who believed that the moment was now, not in some future heaven: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news” (Mark 1:14).
Perhaps most radically, Jesus saw himself as the God-ordained replacement for the temple itself. Drawing on the messianic expectations of the arrival of God’s presence to the temple, Jesus enacted a “parable of judgment” by casting the money changers out and overthrowing their tables. It was a scathing indictment of the Jewish elites’ political corruption and oppression of the poor, and it predicted the temple’s ultimate destruction. But more than that, his action in the temple–alongside the body of work that comprised his entire ministry and mission–carried eschatological implications. He was, in essence, declaring that “the establishment of a messianic community, focused on Jesus himself…,would replace the temple once and for all,” and that he “offered all that the temple stood for.” It was a stunning claim–that he, an impoverished peasant, could in any way replace the central symbol of the Jewish people. Yet echoes of this claim are everywhere in the gospels, from Jesus’ allusion to his own body in John (“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” [2:19]), to the rending of the temple veil at Jesus’ crucifixion in Matthew (27:51).
It’s no wonder Jesus’ claim to messiahship was met with resistance. It was shockingly subversive, rooted not in the promise of some future heaven, but a radical restructuring of the way this world is ordered, a kingdom without borders where the reign of God is realized. In the kingdom that Jesus announced, captives are liberated, sicknesses are healed, demons are defeated, sinners are restored, the dead are raised to life. The fullness of God’s glory rests at last in the temple, fulfilling long-anticipated promises–not a structure of bricks and stones, but the very Body of the Risen Messiah.
Salt Lake City, Utah, April 2013
Originally, the Mormon endowment ceremony moved you through several rooms as you followed Adam and Eve on their journey to greater light and knowledge. You started in the Creation Room, then moved to the Garden Room, the World Room, and the Terrestrial Room until at last you arrived in the Celestial Room, symbolizing the fullness of glory. When they introduced the film version decades ago, they also changed the format. Now the entire ceremony is completed in one place until you pass into the Celestial Room through the veil. The more efficient use of space allowed them to build smaller temples and to schedule overlapping sessions, but some of the meaning was lost along the way.
Salt Lake is one of only two temples in the world that offer a live endowment anymore. There, you still go from room to room as actors–typically quite elderly–perform the drama in front of you. The delivery is stilted, and it’s strange to see Adam and Eve fully clothed with shocks of white hair, but once you get past it there’s a certain charm about it that I always enjoyed. The live endowments take longer, but I preferred them to the film.
I wasn’t planning to go to the temple that night, but my friend Rachel, whom I’d known since college, had invited me. The truth was, I hadn’t been to the temple in over two years. I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to go again. I’d started drinking coffee regularly, which technically made me unworthy to enter, but I figured that since Joseph Smith and Brigham Young drank coffee I could keep a current recommend anyway. Rachel knew about my struggles with my faith, even shared some of them, so her invitation carried a persuasiveness that almost anyone else’s wouldn’t have. “It could be good,” she’d said.
“All right,” I’d replied. “Let’s give it a try.”
The Garden Room in the Salt Lake temple features a 360-degree mural depicting Eden across all four of its walls. There are shrubs and hills, lush greenery and tall grasses, and up front, near the altar, a tree whose fruit is desirable to make one wise. That night, the old man playing Adam was more animated than most. When Elohim and Jehovah entered the Garden and demanded to know why Adam was hiding, he delivered his response with comical earnestness: “I heard thy voice and hid myself, because I was naked.”
I chuckled appreciatively, but in an instant realized my mistake. The others in the room shot me daggers of indignant horror. Rachel punched my arm. I shrank in my seat. In my time away, I’d forgotten that the temple is not a place where one laughs.
Most of my Mormon feminist friends objected to the temple for two reasons, but I’d found ways to make them bearable. First, women are placed under covenant to hearken to the counsel of their husbands (even if they don’t have them), while men are placed under covenant to hearken to the counsel of Heavenly Father. Admittedly, it’s a strange part of the ceremony. After Adam and Eve partake of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and are about to be cast out of the Garden of Eden, Elohim instructs everyone to stand, bring their right arms to the square, and bow their heads in a solemn promise to hearken as commanded. You’re supposed to whisper “yes” to signify your compliance, but in silent protest I’d simply begun refusing to utter the word. No one around me could tell I hadn’t spoken it, but it made me feel better.
The second part was trickier. Toward the end of the endowment, right before you pass into the Celestial Room, the women are instructed to veil their faces while the group participates in a ritual known as the True Order of Prayer. A small number of volunteer couples, staggered by sex, surround the altar. They repeat the petitions of an ordinance worker who kneels in the center of the circle. Unlike before, when I could quietly refuse to whisper a word, it was impossible not to veil my face without attracting attention. So, submissively, I’d toss the veil over my head and tell myself it was a remnant of an antiquated approach to scriptural interpretation. Then, to manage the dissonance, I’d imagine I was elsewhere. I’d pretend I was in the woods, at the ocean, anywhere but in this room with my face covered while I fought back a surge of objections. This will pass, I’d remind myself. This will pass.
That night, though, something was different. My old tricks weren’t working. It started in the Garden Room, shortly after my outburst of inappropriate laughter. After Adam and Eve covenant to hearken, they receive the Law of Sacrifice. Like most of the temple laws, this is given alongside Masonic tokens and vows of secrecy. But what I saw that night, what I’d never noticed before, is that Adam receives the law and tokens from God, while Eve receives them from Adam. And it wasn’t just in the Garden Room. As we progressed through each degree of the temple, to the World Room and onto the Terrestrial Room, it happened over and over again: Adam received a blessing directly from the source, and Eve received it through Adam. By the time we stood at the veil of the temple and engaged in the True Order of Prayer, I understood why I was required to throw this fabric over my face. It wasn’t a relic of old-fashioned hyperliteralism, but living and breathing theology: we veiled because the True Order of Prayer brought us close to the presence of God, but in Mormonism, a woman cannot get to God without her husband there to mediate the encounter–because, in Mormonism, a woman’s husband is her god.
In an instant, years of indoctrination snapped into focus. You are in training to become gods, they’d told us in mission conferences, in institute classes. Heavenly Father was like us and we were like him. To be sealed as eternal couples was to open the gates to the highest degrees of glory where we would populate worlds just as all the Gods had done from the beginning. Except that there was no God like that for me. Or, at least, I had no access to him. I could get to him only through–who? Luke? Luke was supposed to be my mediator, my access to divinity, divinity itself? The thought was absurd. I loved Luke, but I wouldn’t worship him. He wasn’t worthy of worship. He would never be. He was a man, as flawed as I was. And if Heavenly Father was simply Luke, or my father, or any of the men I knew for that matter, just at a later stage of progression–well, that was no God at all. My breath caught at the awful clarity of it. Oh my God, I thought, I might not know what you are, but this isn’t it.
It’s a strange feeling when your worldview crumbles around you, when the last vestiges of whatever you’ve been clinging to vanish from your fingertips. There’s an exhilarating freedom, a wildness about it, like every boundary has been shattered and you are standing naked in paradise. But what you might not expect is the grief that comes with it–not regret exactly, though there’s some of that, too–but genuine heartache at losing the thing you’ve known and loved, even if it brought you torment.
That night, I folded up my temple clothes for the last time and tucked them in the back of my closet. I’ve never revisited them since. I think I’ve made peace with it now, but it’s hard to say for sure. It’s not possible to simply pack your past away, as if it never formed you as deeply as it did, as if your roots have no bearing on your branches. Perhaps one day I’ll pull them down from the shelf and blow off the dust, just to remember. I’ll lay them out on the bed and take stock, the dress and the robe and the sash and the apron and the veil, and my heart will break all over again–for my anguish, for my eternal family. I’ll whisper, O God, hear the words of my mouth, and maybe this time they’ll come: O God, if you rent the veil of the temple at Jesus’ death, why did they feel the need to put it back up again?