Monday, June 20, 2011

Temples and the Tree of Life

A few weeks ago, while I was in Boston for a conference, Daddy Monk--who's a sealer in the Boston Temple--asked me whether I knew of any connection between the temple and the tree of life. He was interested, at least in part, because the Boston Temple is decorated on the interior with a tree of life motif; all of the woodwork represents that theme. I didn't have my sources with me on my trip, but since I'm home and since today is Father's Day, now seems like an appropriate time to answer his question. I love you Daddy Monk!

Temples and the Tree of Life

The first point that needs to be made is that temples have always been thought of as a representation of the garden of Eden. As Lawrence Stager explains, "the Temple of Solomon--indeed, the Temple Mount and all Jerusalem--was a symbol as well as a reality, a mythopoeic realization of heaven on earth, Paradise, the Garden of Eden" (BAR 26:03). The apocryphal Book of Jubilees also bears testament to the truth "that the Garden of Eden is the holy of holies" (8:19), a place similarly sacred to the temple. In order to make the link between temple and Eden clear Solomon decorated his temple--like the Boston temple--with a garden motif. In Solomon's Temple David Seely and William Hamblin note that "Solomon's Temple was profusely decorated with floral motifs" (12): "And the cedar of the house within was carved with knops and open flowers: all was cedar; there was no stone seen" (1 Kings 6:18; see also 29-35). The entire interior of Solomon's Temple, in other words, was carved and decorated to resemble a garden. 

Other verbal parallels link these two spaces where God dwelt with man. Seely and Hamblin write that "The same Hebrew word, hithallek, used to describe God 'walking to and fro' in the Garden, also describes his divine presence in the Tabernacle (Lev. 26:12; Deut. 23:14). The same word God used when he commanded Adam and Eve to 'work' in the Garden--avodah--is used to describe the 'service' of the Tabernacle performed by the priesthood. The precious onyx stones mentioned in Eden decorated the Tabernacle and were worn on the shoulders of the high priest (Exodus 25:7; 28:9, 20)" (13-14). The temple is, for all intents and purposes, meant to be a second Eden.

Just as the garden of Eden contained a tree of life, so too did the temples designed by Jehovah contain a symbolic tree; Seely and Hamblin write that "the lampstand (menorah) is described as a tree--which in time became associated with the Tree of Life" (12). Moses describes this lampstand in Exodus, when he records Jehovah's instructions regarding the temple: "And thou shalt make a candlestick of pure gold . . . and six branches shall come out of the sides of it; three branches of the candlestick out of the one side, and three branches of the candlestick out of the other side: three bowls made lke unto almonds, with a knop and a flower in one branch; and three bowls made like almonds in the other branch, with a knop and a flower: so in the six branches that come out of the candlestick" (Exodus 25:31-33). This candlestick or lampstand was designed in the shape of an almond tree, and that symbolic almond tree which lit up the Tabernacle and then the temple came to represent the tree of life. 

That an almond tree came to represent the tree of life is highly significant; the almond tree, in the Old Testament, is a symbol of the priesthood. When Moses and Aaron face a potential rebellion among the twelve tribes the Lord instructs Moses to "speak unto the children of Israel, and take of every one of them a rod according to the house of their fathers, of all their princes according to the house of the their fathers twelve rods: write thou every man's name upon his rod" (Num. 17:2). So Moses gathers twelve rods, one from each of the tribes, writes the name of each tribe on the rods, and "laid up the rods before the LORD in the tabernacle of witness. And it came to pass, that on the morrow Moses went into the tabernacle of witness; and, behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi was budded, and brought forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and yielded almonds" (Num. 17:7-8). Aaron's rod, the rod of Levi, the rod representing the only tribe that holds the priesthood--bloomed with almonds. The link between almonds and priesthood is reconfirmed in Jeremiah--when, after the Lord announces that "before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee" (Jer. 1:5), he helps Jeremiah recognize his priesthood stewardship by showing him "a rod of an almond tree" (Jer. 1:11). 

Recognizing the almond tree's priesthood significance is crucial because it suggests that the tree of life--both in the temple and in Eden--is a representation of the priesthood. The priesthood is the source of life (and, as the menorah attests, light). A lampstand in the temple that represents both light and (the tree of) life would have been the symbolic, Old Testament equivalent of these verses in the Doctrine and Covenants describing the priesthood: "And the light which shineth, which giveth you light, is through him who enlighteneth your eyes, which is the same light that quickeneth your understandings; which light proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space--the light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God" (88:11-13). 

Today we no longer light temples with menorah (although many chandeliers in various temples have seven bulbs; check it out!)--and most temples, Boston notwithstanding, no longer employ obvious portrayals of the tree of life. But the idea that the menorah and the tree of life represent--the priesthood that is the light and life of the world--IS still present in temples of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and for that we should be grateful. 

I'm off for an almond snack before bed; good night!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Unique Religious Experience? Why?

A week or so ago I had occasion to teach my students about an amazing conversion experience. We read the account of a relatively young person who was quite anxious about the state of his soul. In the midst of this anxiety, he began praying, but was overcome by darkness and pain during an attack by Satan. Eventually, however, the skies seemed to open, revealing her Savior behind the dark clouds that had obscured him.

Wait, what’s that you say? You think I’m talking about Joseph Smith?



Oh, right—you were probably remembering this account in Smith’s History:

“. . . amidst all my anxieties I had never as yet made the attempt to pray vocally. . . . I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God. I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction. But, exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy which had seized upon me, and at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction—not to an imaginary ruin, but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world, who had such marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being—just at this moment of great alarm, I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the Sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!

Of course, I can—in retrospect—see how you might have thought that I was describing the first vision of Joseph Smith (especially since I used masculine pronouns to describe my unknown convert). But I was actually talking about a woman named Harriet Ruggles Gold Boudinot (whose letters you can read in this fascinating collection by Theresa Strouth Gaul).


She was most famous for her interracial marriage to the Cherokee Elias Boudinot, but her deathbed conversion experience should, I think, be of interest to every member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

“In the evening her greatest distress commenced. I thought the last struggle had come, and, added to her bodily suffering, there seemed to pass over her mind a desponding cloud. In the agony of her distress she was heard to exclaim, ‘Lord have mercy upon me—my friends, pray for me! Oh, it is terrible to have even one doubt or one cloud!’ She would occasionally say, ‘Patience! patience!’ A friend told her to look to the Saviour, he would not leave her nor forsake her. ‘You feel that you can trust him, and believe that he will do all things right?’ ‘Yes, [188] yes.’ She afterwards, the next day, told Mr. N. that at these times of extreme bodily pain and suffering, Satan, the great adversary of her soul, was trying to take advantage of her weakness, by suggesting doubts and fears, but she had been enabled to look to the Saviour, and that all the clouds which oppressed her were removed—that there was then a clear sky between her and her Saviour. This was but a few hours before she died, and but a short time before she became unable to speak.
            “Early in the morning of the last day, 14th, after the most distressing night she had had, she requested a number of her friends to come to her bed. Upon my inquiring how she did, she said, ‘I am in great distress, (meaning bodily distress,) I hope this is the last night I shall spend in the world—then, how sweet will be the conqueror’s song!’ I inquired whether her darkness was removed. ‘Yes.’” (187-88)

It should be clear that the conversion narratives of Joseph Smith and Harriet Boudinot have a lot in common. Why does it matter that we recognize their commonalities? Too often in Latter-day Saint culture, we promote a culture of exceptionalism even though we have a lot in common with other Protestant religious movements of the nineteenth-century. Recognizing what we have in common—restoring the religious context in which Joseph Smith experienced and wrote about his first vision—can help us to see what it is about the Latter-day Saint tradition that is truly unique.

Joseph thought of his vision as a conversion experience, which is why it resembles Harriet’s so much; but you’ll notice a few important differences—A) Joseph actually saw two beings, God the Father and Jesus Christ. B) Those figures were embodied. Those two facts are the key, distinguishing characteristics of Joseph’s vision—the things that differentiated it from many of the competing religious claims of the time. 

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Mormon Position on Immigration Reform

Stop what you're doing. Go read THIS really important statement just released by the Church.

Now that you're back, let me note that the position advocated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is, I would argue, substantially the same position that I articulated a few months ago with one important difference: while the Church supports policies that would allow illegal immigrants to remain within the country permanently, it is not necessarily committed to providing a path to citizenship (which is how I had interpreted its earlier, more vague statement regarding the Utah Compact--and, I should note, this still seems the prevailing sentiment, even if the Church is willing to compromise on it).

The bottom line--and I'm talking to you, Publius Sakharov--is that "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is concerned that any state legislation that only contains enforcement provisions is likely to fall short of the high moral standard of treating each other as children of God" because the "bedrock moral issue for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is how we treat each other as children of God." To quote myself, "we ought to see immigration reform and legislation as an opportunity to reach out to and bless those of our neighbors who are suffering, and Church members should be able to respond articulately when others raise objections to comprehensive immigration reform; it's part of being a good neighbor."