Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Circle of Meaning and Comprehension

There is a great body of ancient texts that scholars like Hugh Nibley classify as ascension literature. It’s called that because each of the various authors, who are implicitly prophets, ascend to heaven to see a marvelous vision. The best examples in modern revelation are the books of Moses, Abraham and Enoch in the Pearl of Great Price.

The ascensions were very real, and they were marvelously impressive, judging by all the accounts. Most report begin transported to a “high mountain.” Others are compelled to “climb up” a brilliantly illuminated ladder, set of steps or a “strait and narrow” path. Each passes through several levels or spheres as he ascends. Some encounter sentinels at the gates to each level or at the very topmost level, and each of these sentries requires the proper password or response from the visionary in order to pass. Once at the top, they see what they report as heaven, paradise or the celestial kingdom. Some converse with God; others do not.

By design, the temple experience, whether ancient or modern, replicates the actual visionary ascension experience. Thus, the temple was and is a virtual reality, a replica of the real thing. Anciently, initiates were ushered through a series of locations within the temple where they experienced various rites and rituals, each meant to duplicate part of the ascension experience.

While earthly temples, ancient or modern, can never duplicate the magnificence of the actual visions they are meant to imitate, every effort was made to give the temple architecturally impressive, if not overwhelming, splendor and majesty. The very best of everything that a culture could muster went into that sacred edifice, whether it was a Greek temple, an Egyptian pyramid/temple, a Native American kiva, a Babylonian ziggurat, a Celtic henge, an Israelite temple, a Mayan pyramid/temple or the Nauvoo and Salt Lake temples. They were the highest examples of what any culture could muster in terms of luxury and architectural grandeur.

Most temples were festooned with icons that represented some part of the visionary archetype, things we take to be mere decorations: stars, moons, suns, pillars, mythic or real beasts and a most sacred enclosure or holy of holies partitioned by a curtain, veil or doorway.

Most Latter-day Saints who attend the temple are unaware of this intimate and ancient connection to our modern temples, but it is very real and very telling. It puts the modern temple experience in good and venerable company, making it authentic and true to the originals in every way. This, in and of itself, is also a powerful witness to the claims of divine revelation by Joseph Smith.

Because temple rituals are re-enactments of the archetypal ascension vision, which I believe was given to all the prophets (it wouldn’t do to have several versions, would it?), when reading ancient accounts, it’s often hard to tell whether we’re reading about an actual ascension or just an earthly version, administered in a temple — something we would call an endowment.

Where you and I might differ is in our interpretation of what the prophets saw. It would probably be your position, as it is with most Saints, that the prophets were shown things truly celestial in nature, and therefore completely foreign to anything in Earth’s past or present. To that mindset I would respond by asking, why, then, does nearly every ancient culture share the same perspective, imagery and symbolism as we do in modern temple rites? In spite of being thoroughgoing pagans, did they all have prophets to enlighten them? How is it that our temple rituals have nearly everything in common with those of ancient, pagan cultures?

So where did all this common ascension/temple tradition come from? I would contend that all religions share the same pool of archetypes because the ancients, pagan or not, had a shared set of cosmological experiences – not visions or revelations but real life actualities that played out across earthly skies at the dawn of time. They were eyewitnesses to spectacular displays of light and sound that left and indelible impression on their cultural and religious traditions and practices. That’s why all ancient cultures display a multitude of astral symbols in their sacred precincts. It’s the same reason Joseph Smith and Brigham Young put astral symbols all over the outside of modern temples.

I would further contend that what the prophets saw in vision, as recorded in ascension texts, was a rehearsal of those ancient cosmological events presented to them in vision, which they subsequently related in the very symbolic terms preserved by their various cultures. As a result, the more any prophet’s culture preserved of these astral or cosmological archetypes and narratives, the more relevant imagery any one prophet’s ascension account could include.

Since such data has been completely expunged from our cultural record, we Latter-day Saints completely fail to grasp the express meaning of our temple rituals. Because our version of the traditional temple ascension is only a faint echo of the original, it’s hard for modern Saints to make the intended connection. And because our culture teaches us that the original cosmological events, the genesis of sacred imagery, never happened, we completely fail to see the meaning in such accounts and their cosmological origins.

Another vital conclusion we can draw from all this is: What we see illustrated on the exterior architecture of LDS temples is what the rituals within are all about as well. Most church members regard the symbols on the outside of the Salt Lake Temple, the quintessential exemplar of temple tradition in our time, to have nothing at all to do with what happens inside. And yet, nothing could be further from the truth. Both inside and out, it rehearses and recalls the ancient heavens. That bit of perspective comes only from a corrected view of the past.

And that leads us to a startling conclusion that most Saints have never imagined. The formula for what I call the Circle of Meaning and Comprehension looks like this:

Notice the progression in the Circle of Meaning and Comprehension. One can start anywhere in the series and move in either direction. But as the proper connections are made, moving from one concept to the next, one returns to the place where one started. By repeating this circular process, one’s grasp of the Restored Gospel grows and grows.

Additionally, this process provides a new, intellectually invigorating and spiritually augmenting perspective on life and the world we live in, a new point of view on everything around us. It truly and accurately tells us about “things as the are, as they were and as they are to come.”

Our temple rituals, in my opinion, are given to educate us and point the way to enlightenment. Perhaps more importantly, they are a type and a kind, meant to prepare us for the real thing, if we become worthy. We have the opportunity to have the same visions as the prophets. But, as long as we fail to comprehend the meaning and origins of what we see in our temples today, we may never be given that sacred privilege.

© Anthony E. Larson, 2009


Anonymous said...

I think you are in very good company Anthony. I'm sure you are aware of the statements to the same or similar effect made by the Brethren over the years concerning the thesis of your article above. Perhaps we were thinking along the same lines when I posted What is an Endowment? yesterday.

Anonymous said...

Hi Anthony

Thank you for your most rewarding site.

In answer to your questions I think you need to ask yourself why you think all members should know this? The journey is one of asking and seeking, not one of telling. You have been enlightened through your own pursuit. Many people in the church have spritual truths they have gained - should they tell everyone - no - it is not appropriate. So I kindly ask the question to that end are you telling people what you have learned, is it appropriate or are you publishing sacred thoughts? I am happy for you not to publish this blog, I would be happy to speak with you further off line I live in the UK and have been a member for 45 years, a HP for 23 years, and a father of 8. I have no interplantary qualifications but am a keen learner. I love the site you have created and it is well done. I wish you well in your endevours, what does the Lord think you should do with this knowledge? My good friend was a boffin on the Temple. He went to write a book and what he knew was true - the Lord told him otherwise....I can't help but feel you are probably in the same boat.

Anonymous said...


I could't disagree more with the reader who thinks you reveal too much. I am so grateful for all of your teachings. I have learned so much from your books and crave to learn more. Understanding comes to me a little at a time as my mind and Spirit grow I understand more. I don' t believe you teach too much because we only understand what we are spiritually ready to receive. I have read your books over several times since I bought them in the 80's. Thank you so much for helping me to open my mind and the growth! Please keep it up!

Katherine Broyles

Paul said...

After reading what our UK poster had to say, I thought I would make a few comments myself.

The Lord makes all knowledge equally available to all men and women. Although it is not all to be comprehended in this life, sufficient knowledge has been made available to save us in this world and in the world of spirits (where we came from). But we cannot learn it all at once. We must learn line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little. This is how it is done and there is no other way. The reason is that it takes time for us to internalize and comprehend knowledge. Once gathered, this information leads us to higher truths, and this process continues forever. We never stop learning.

And like Joseph Smith, to make my point, Tony's goal is to lift the minds of the Saints to a higher sphere where they can see and grasp greater knowledge as it relates to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in all its magnificient glory. It is my testimony that there is no knowledge that is too sacred to be revealed to those who seek it. If so, we would all be damned and everyone's progression would have an end.

Acquiring correct knowledge is so important that we are told that mankind cannot be saved without it. This is very serious and may cause many to quake in what they currently believe. To illustrate this point, I have included a number of quotes from Joseph Smith and Heber C. Kimball. Their statments are clear enough to be understood by all:

“God hath not revealed anything to Joseph [calling himself by name], but what He will make known unto the Twelve, and even the least Saint may know all things as fast as he is able to bear them.” – Joseph Smith (HC 3:380)

“I will also remark that I am sensible that no man can speak to a congregation of people upon any subject, only according to the intelligence that is in the people. There are quite a number of this congregation who knew Joseph Smith the Prophet, and he use to say in Nauvoo that when he came before the people he felt as though he were enclosed in an iron case, his mind was closed by the influences that were thrown around him; he was curtailed in his wishes and desires to do good; there was no room for him to expand, hence he could not make use of the revelations of God as he would have done; there was no room in the hearts of the people to receive the glorious truths of the Gospel that God revealed to him.” – Heber C. Kimball (JD 10:233-234, June 27, 1863)

“There are a great many wise men and women too in our midst who are too wise to be taught; therefore they must die in their ignorance, and in the resurrection they will find their mistake. Many seal up the door of heaven by saying, So far God may reveal and I will believe.” – Joseph Smith (HC 5:424)

“A man is saved no faster than he gets knowledge, for if he does not get knowledge, he will be brought into captivity by some evil power in the other world, as evil spirits will have more knowledge, and consequently more power than many men who are on the earth. Hence it needs revelation to assist us, and give us knowledge of the things of God.” – Joseph Smith (HC 4:588)

“It is not wisdom that we should have all knowledge at once presented before us; but that we should have a little at a time; then we can comprehend it…
Add to your faith knowledge, &c. The principle of knowledge is the principle of salvation. This principle can be comprehended by the faithful and diligent; and every one that does not obtain knowledge sufficient to be saved will be condemned. The principle of salvation is given us through the knowledge of Jesus Christ.
Salvation is nothing more or less than to triumph over all our enemies and put them under our feet. And when we have power to put all enemies under our feet in this world, and a knowledge to triumph over all evil spirits in the world to come, then we are saved... – Joseph Smith (HC 5:387)

“It is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance.” – Joseph Smith (HC 5:392)

“Knowledge saves a man; and in the world of spirits no man can be exalted but by knowledge.” – Joseph Smith (HC 6:314)

“Knowledge is the power of salvation.” – Joseph Smith (HC 5:403)

Lara said...

I say Amen to the comments relating to sharing this info with all who seek, making the search less difficult for those who are constrained by time, social circles and limited resource. Keep it up! Also, while I am not totally discounting the thoughts on cosmic activity/events, their possible effects on earth locals, both ancient and present time - consider the possibility that the redundancy of symbolism and certain ideals throughout the cultures of the world are more the result of all peoples having the gospel at certain points. Take the time of the ressurrection, specifically. Christ told his disciples that he went to visit his other sheep, not of this fold. He then told the same thing to the Nephites. My belief is that all people at one point had the fulness of the gospel and lost it for the same reasons as the ancient Americans. All we need is to find the records that would have been kept up to the time of apostacy in each culture. I await that point in time with great eagerness.