A defense of Mormon culture: Maintaining sacred space

Today, I was thinking about a vague topic, and perhaps one that has come under a lot of scrutiny recently. I mean the topic of Mormon culture. Oftentimes, someone will blame a seeming injustice within the Church on the culture rather than something explicitly stated in doctrine. I suppose Mormon culture is a catch-all for many aspects of life as a Mormon. Some of these may seem a little quirky. Wearing a white shirt to Church on Sunday. Green jello and funeral potatoes at the weekly potluck. The paucity of coke products at BYU (or not anymore haha). But others that have received negative attention recently are dress standards and the concept of modesty, the taboo around all things sexual in nature, and the tendency to ignore, treat lightly, or outright mock LGBT issues.

Yes, I agree that Mormon culture isn’t doctrine. I also agree that Mormon culture can be harmful, and that we can do much as a people to improve it. But I also believe that Mormon culture has value. Not is merely a nostalgic sense or merely out of affection. It is important as a social integrator, a way of defining ourselves as a people, and a way of asserting our uniqueness. We do claim to be a peculiar people, after all. But I also believe this is our attempt to create sacred space, an attempt to foster an attitude of the holy as a people. These cultural markers are a way of setting aside time and space for us to feel close to God. In a quote from Abraham Heschel’s God in Search of Man,

No other deficiency makes the soul more barren than the lack of a sense for the unique… True insight is a moment of perceiving a situation before it freezes into similarity with something else.

That white shirt and tie? That isn’t to be burdensome, or even to look nice. The purpose is to help you and those around you recognize that the Sabbath day is a day to worship the Lord. You dedicate yourself for those few hours to turn your thoughts and actions towards God.

Mormon culture is an attempt as a people to create sacred space where we can come together in worship. It is less about actions and more about your state of mind. You are attempting to forget yourself, to become teachable, to sacrifice your own wants and desires, to set aside the busy affairs of life to commune with the Lord. But setting aside sacred space can also be done on a personal level. We should be striving to build habits that help us feel God’s presence. Perhaps you have a way that helps you pray more earnestly. Perhaps you have a time or place that you like to meditate. A way of reading the scriptures. It could be any number of things. These things aren’t commandments. They aren’t doctrine. But they help us draw closer to the Lord.

The sacred and the profane

I remembered a great quote today from Your Endowment by Mark A. Shields. In it, he explains the concept of profanity, or the original meaning of the word. It also has to do with sacred space:

The word “profane” actually means “before” or “outside the temple” in Latin (pro [before] + fanum [temple]). The word actually pertains far more to sacred boundaries than it does to the language we use. When we speak of the temple or enter the temple, we are under a sacred obligation to do so with the greatest of respect and sanctity. Failing to treat the temple with its due reverence is a very real form of profanity. We should not allow something sacred to be dragged out of its proper and revered place. To do so is to cast pearls before swine.

This idea rang true for me, because it connects many gospel principles. It is why we refrain from speaking of certain aspects of the temple outside of its walls. It is why we do not have extramarital relationships. It is why we do not use the Lord’s name in vain. These are commandments, but each of these has also perhaps developed layers of “good ideas” (Dieter F. Uchdorf explained “One person’s good idea– something that may work for him or her– takes root and becomes an expectation. And gradually, eternal principles can get lost within the labyrinth of “good ideas”“), an attempt to create a hedge about the law to make sure that no commandments are indeed violated. For instance, some consider even mentioning any aspect of the temple endowment to be breaking a sacred covenant. This has created an unneeded aura of mystery surrounding the temple, when we should be willing to explain to non-members and to those who are preparing to receive their endowment why it is so important, and what kind of covenants they are making. How foolish it would be to bind yourself to covenants that you don’t even know beforehand you would be asked to make! When it comes to marriage, both spouses should not let friendships die in an attempt to prove more faithful to each other. It is important that spouses maintain an active social life with friends that aren’t mutual. This is healthy, and helps them maintain their independence. There still is room for “good ideas”, and we should be seeking ways to personally create holy space. But we shouldn’t impose these on others.

I would add that this concept of the holy is very vital. Without it, there can be no true faith in God. The Lord takes it very seriously. For instance, in 1 Samuel, Eli, the chief priest, has two sons who offer sacrifices in the temple. They do not show proper respect to the Lord, and seek to serve their own ends:

If the person said to him, “Let the fat be burned first, and then take whatever you want,” the servant would answer, “No, hand it over now; if you don’t, I’ll take it by force.”

The sin of the young men was very great in the Lord’s sight, for they were treating the Lord’s offering with contempt. (1 Samuel 2:16-17)

Phineas.jpg

 

Eli and both his sons lost their lives because they put their own interests above the Lord’s.

This concept of holiness perhaps seems almost foreign in today’s culture. At best, it is weird, and at worst, potentially cult-ish. But that is because holiness isn’t a worldly trait, or even a civic trait. If holiness means to set aside and dedicate to God, then it can seem counter-intuitive and arbitrary. But it is only by doing so that we can come to know God. We would do well to rediscover holiness in our lives, as we seek to be saints.

 

Notes

I wasn’t able to fit this in, but I love Screwtape’s use of flippancy and how it is the opposite of holiness:

But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy; it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practise it.

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