30 July 2007

Temples, Sacraments, Mysteries

"That is one of the reasons that I believe in Christianity. It is not a religion you could have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe that we have always expected, I should expect that we were making it up. But in fact it is not the sort of thing that anyone could have made up. It just has that queer twist about it that real things have."
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

In my current Hugh Nibley research, I've been reading (all right, skimming) books like A. D. Nock's Early Gentile Christianity and Its Hellenistic Background and Kirsopp Lake's The Religion of Yesterday and Tomorrow. This morning, in these and other sources, I ran across an interesting bit of religious wordplay. Apparently, the Latin-based word sacrament in ecclesiastical Greek becomes mysterion from which we get our "mysteries" (Lake 23). And from Nock:
A mysterion is a secret rite, in which the individual participates of his own free choice, and by which he is put into a closer relation with the deity honoured; normally he must undergo ceremonies of initiation (not usually capable of repetition) conferring a new and indelible spiritual condition and commonly giving an assurance of happiness hereafter. Those being initiated, says Aristotle, need not to learn something, but to receive an experience, and to be put into a frame of mind. The experience of the initiate may consist of acts done to him or by him, or again of the watching of a sacred drama. (Nock 5)
Reading that quote in context of the temple catches my intellectual breath in a way that hasn't happened since I found out covenant and testament are rendered from the same word. I confess that since my early Sunday school days, I've longed to find out what is meant when the scriptures refer to the mysteries of God. As a child, I was an avid learner, and this sounded like the best knowledge of all: "And if thou wilt inquire, thou shalt know mysteries which are great and marvelous; therefore thou shalt exercise thy gift, that thou mayest find out mysteries, that thou mayest bring many to the knowledge of the truth, yea, convince them of the error of their ways" (D&C 6:11). It seemed as though that knowledge was the apex of life, which of course, it is.

But as I prepare to go through the temple, I'm conceiving of the mysteries of God in another way: as sacraments, as ordinances, not necessarily something that we learn so much as something that we do. In the past, the importance of physical action in ordinances seemed to me out of step with religion which I saw as primarily intellectual and spiritual. Yes, I could see the symbolism in the action of baptism by immersion--the going down and coming up out of the water representing death and resurrection, the water acting as the physical sign of the cleansing of the soul--but in spite of all its beauty, my brain couldn't grasp why it was necessary to salvation: why should being covered in water at a certain point in your life actually affect the state of your eternal soul?

And I'm still not sure I can answer that question in an intellectually satisfying way. But what I have discovered is that religion isn't all about intellect. So much of it is about things you can't understand, predict, or explain, things that simply are as they are: "as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be". If you limit religion to intellect, you make it what it should not be. One of the essential qualities of religion, says Lake, is mysticism. It is not logic. "It is not an emotion: it is a different form of consciousness" (Lake 178-9). It's the ordinances that we recognize as correct and satisfying without knowing why.

As I listening to a temple preparation lesson yesterday, I realized that the plan of salvation reminds me of nothing so much as the hero cycle, both in its steps and in its ubiquitousness. The hero's journey appears everywhere. There's no particular logical reason why it needs the steps Campbell assigns to it, yet they feel right. The plan of salvation just feels right, though I suppose you can't logically explain why it ought not to be some other way. This feeling of rightness is one of the things which can't adequately be explained by science: string theory, for instance, can explain the laws and constants of the universe, but can't explain why the universe would choose this particular set of constants from among all the other predicted possibilities. To science, to reason, they all seem equally likely. It is something beyond logic that says, "This one."

4 comments:

bawb said...

I think it's rather disingenuous that when religious doctrine seems straightforward, C. S. Lewis calls it plain, intuitive, and eternal, and when it seems strange, he calls it mysterious and beyond human invention. (On the whole, however, I think the man's amazing.)

Congrats on going through the temple (and getting married, I assume).

JKC said...

"If you limit religion to intellect, you make it what it should not be. One of the essential qualities of religion, says Lake, is mysticism. It is not logic."

I agree. And this is why I have limited patience with FAIR and FARMS. (Not to bag on your Nibley research.)

As far as why the physical necessity of baptism? For me, the best answer is the uniting of the physical and the abstract that abounds in Mormonism. For Joseph Smith, a religion that dealt in abstractions and lived only in the mind was not enough. In this church, God infuses every aspect of your being and the rituals that make grace effective in our lives are bodily as well as spiritual experiences. Hence baptism, hence the temple ordinances, hence the physical resurrection, etc.

And congrats and good luck on upcoming events.

Liz Muir said...

JKC: My question isn't necessarily on why something physical is required, but why this particular physical action. I don't see any (logical) reason that we should be baptised with water instead of, say, walking across a bridge or miming death outside of the water or some such.

Paradox said...

Don't worry Liz. We're all recovering intellectuals here!