Community of Christ does not follow its LDS cousins in having secret temple rituals. So I read last week’s post by Bored in Vernal, on the “Sacred Embrace As Five Points of Fellowship” with the curiosity of one who has never even been inside an LDS Temple.
Much of the terminology was unfamiliar to me — so I can testify that the secrecy of the rites remains intact — and I was fascinated by the twists the conversation took as comments addressed the literal and/or symbolic aspects of the ceremonies.
I was really hooked when a comment offered a literal plasma cosmology as explanation of the symbolism of the “veil”. Nevertheless, I’ll save my anecdote about Nobel Laureate Hannes Alfven theory on how the critical ionization velocity phenomenon in plasma physics drove solar system formation for a more appropriate post.
The Community of Christ tradition also contains the notion of the “veil”, but it is a physical thing whose origin in much more mundane, and it doesn’t symbolize much of anything for us. It isn’t the veil (the noun) that’s important to us, but rather recognizing (the verb) that the veil need not really be there.
Mormon Heretic transcribed an interview of two experts on the Kirtland Temple (the Saints’ first) by John Larsen (JL) of Mormon Expression. In the transcription, BW is Barbara Waldon, who has been Director of the Kirtland Temple Historical Site for the CofChrist, and JH is John Hamer, who is a past president of the John Whitmer Historical Association. One portion of the transcript described what they veils actually were and how they originally functioned:
BW: “Well if you can imagine sitting in a sanctuary that has boxed in pews where during some of these Sunday worship services you could have anywhere from 500-1000 people meeting in the lower court and the early Latter-day Saint community encouraged people to participate in the worship services. They believed in services being led by the spirit. If you had 500 people all in one room wanting to share a prayer or a testimony, you can imagine how long some of these services would be.
They installed veils, or what we would consider curtains, that hung from the lower court ceiling and the plan was to have those same curtains or veils hanging from the upper court ceiling as well. These heavy canvas curtains–one visitor described them as the sails of a ship that were painted heavenly white on both sides…they could lower those curtains to divide the room into quarters: a set of curtains going right through the center of the room, and then another set of curtains dissecting that in half. During Wednesday Prayer and Testimony meetings, which Joseph Smith Senior, the Patriarch of the Church would preside over these services, he would send a priesthood member to every corner of the lower court to lead, more or less, their own prayer and testimony meeting. And that would allow more people to participate in worship.”You also had the same heavy, canvas curtain hanging above the pulpit on both sides of the room. And these curtains could be lowered through cranks that were located at each level of the pulpit. So priesthood members could raise and lower the curtains as they wished, just like members out in the pew boxes could. But these curtains would come down and divide off each level of the pulpit to give privacy to each level of the priesthood. There are a number of accounts of private meetings taking place in the pulpits, of people kneeling down for prayer.”
JH: “In fact, you would almost think of it as the origin–a sort of utilitarian–you could divide it off for different meetings. The thing that has survived in a meetinghouse, dividing the gym off from the chapel–whatever those walls that accordion out like that.”
JL: “I think this is another one of those points of confusion, like the word ‘endowment’. They talk about the veil in the Kirtland Temple, but it was more of a room divider than it served as the veil in, say, the Salt Lake Temple.”
BW: “I think one of the most well-known, or famous, accounts comes right after the dedication when Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith kneel down for a time of private prayer. As they begin to rise from prayer, they see the Lord standing upon the breastwork of the pulpit before them–a remarkable account that was recorded in Joseph Smith Jr’s journal. For many of our visitors, it is the sole reason they come to the Kirtland Temple–to see the pulpits where that event took place.
JL: “Yeah, in the Salt Lake Doctrine and Covenants, that’s Section 110 I believe, where they saw Moses, Elias, and Elijah right there on the pulpit.”
Thus, this experience, at least, involved changing a perception about what was on their side of the curtain — the physical veil — and not passing through that curtain to somewhere else.
So, with that in mind, look again at the picture of the deer at the top of the post. How many deer do you see? I see two.
The first, I’ll presume is obvious: it stands in the lower left of the picture next to the evergreen tree.
The second deer is three times the size of the first. It faces left with its antlers extending nearly to the top of the picture. Its legs are formed from what appear to be tree trunks in the other perspective. The evergreen tree is revealed to be merely an evergreen bush as the deer moves through low, and not very thick brush; the little deer merely a garden gnome.
Which perspective is real? One is more familiar, but which is real? They are both equally real, I would argue, because they are equally composed of shaded pixels of information on a flat two-dimensional surface. The recognition of meaning in the pattern that gives us the experience and connects it to other experiences is not a property of the pixels. It happens in the human brain — exactly as the shaded pixels of this text have no intrinsic meaning until and unless something happens that recognizes meaning in the pixels “brain” and links a ream of other experiences to those pixels.
Now, certainly I can imagine (another thing that happens in a brain, and is not intrinsic to the pixels) rotating my camera perspective (or my written language) so that I would not register any awareness of the large deer, while I might still be able to link the more familiar small deer to other mental images. But it would be best to say my perception had changed, not that the large deer had vanished. The “external” pattern of information would still remain and be recoverable by reversing the rotation.
I would suggest that we perceive “familiar” things or, perhaps more accurately, perceive things “familiarly” because it is useful to our survival that we perceive them. As a species, we have only recently become able to perceive radio waves, but radio waves have always been there. Similarly, not perceiving the small deer in the picture might mean your ancestors didn’t eat, and therefore didn’t have any brilliant children like you. Failing to perceive the large deer in the picture had no more evolutionary consequences than failing to perceive radio waves. It still doesn’t; but the pattern of information is still there, just as real as the pattern of information in this text. Evolution is a divine principle and how God works.
A spiritual experience, I would suggest, invokes real perception changes about things that always were there within the capacity of the brain to perceive. It is not the only way to invoke such perception changes. The consequences of such changes may be for good or they may be for ill. (See the article “Visions for All” from Science News.) Spiritual experiences may produce changes that are primarily intellectual or primarily emotional. They may be tied to visual, auditory, or touch perception systems. And they carry much less stigma in some cultures than they do in the modern West. The veil that matters is in our minds, not in a piece of cloth or canvas.
We simply don’t know where the early, unreliable potential to have such experiences may lead humanity. Any more than the organisms that first developed photo-receptor cells that might tell the presence of a predator or prey knew where “eyes” might lead. But the human brain is capable of experiencing far more about “external” reality than we imagine. Ultimate Reality perceives more about us, perhaps, than we perceive about Ultimate Reality, and there are many ways for Ultimate Reality to be perceived.
When I first showed the deer picture above to my wife and daughter, they both saw three deer — not counting the little furry doe by the evergreen. I’m still looking.