When I was in my last year of graduate school at Berkeley, I was given the opportunity to teach a class I had designed on the various meanings of genealogy in American literature. I was intent on showing how important genealogy was to the formation of identity in American experience and yet how antithetical and even oppositional American experience can be to the task of preserving genealogical memory. As part of the class assignment, I required the students to write a family history that recounted, at least as far back as their grandparents, what they could learn of their own family story. This kind of exercise is not unusual for most Mormons, but it was surprising to me how unusual it was for many of the students. On the whole, their genealogical memory had indeed been pretty shallow, but it was also clear that the experience itself was a valuable exercise in self-discovery. I can’t begin to describe the many stories I read of the many strands of American experience: Middle Eastern, Asian, Indigenous, African American, Irish American, and so on.
Mormon temples are the reason why Mormons care about genealogy. And this is because the temple represents the site where generations of families, even the entirety of the human family, are joined together into eternity by the sealing power of the priesthood. The reason why the temple is a cornerstone of why I am a Mormon is simple. If a religion that believes in its own universality and in the idea of its own saving power but cannot provide adequate means of providing those teachings and saving ordinances to the whole human family, it strikes me that religion becomes just a method for condemning the majority of the human family. I am not sure I could accept the premises of Christianity without the temple. Why believe in a religion that condemns so many just for lacking adequate opportunities for understanding and accepting truth, especially when such circumstances can hardly be claimed to be their fault? Some lack opportunities because of extreme poverty, or because of other accidents of birth and geography, or because of mental or physical incapacity. Some die entirely too young. Some are blinded by addictions or incapacitated by abuse. As I understand the atonement, Christ suffers these consequences as much as he suffers the consequences of our sins, but we must still ask, why the commands to be baptized, to accept Christ, when so many have never had the chance?
As I see it, all religions are minorities. We haven’t thought through very well how universal ideas fit within the matrix of a complex and diverse human history, and that has unfortunately led some to conclude that we might as well throw out hope in universal truth. All religions must make some sense of their truths in light of the fact that the world is so diverse. If the only answer is that we must seek to convert as many as possible, as quickly as possible, then it seems to be we end up with the problems of zealous intolerance that have plagued Christianity throughout its history. Baptism becomes so desperately important that the ends sometimes end up justifying the means and Christians bypass the need for conversion or, worse, they resort to violence. A missionary impulse is understandable and even vital, as I have already suggested. Religion cannot obtain its greatest force in the world if it is motivated by nothing more than a live and let live philosophy. Religion is a call for changing the world, and so it must lead to some kind of urgency about effectuating that change or, as was wisely said by Mahatma Ghandi, by at least becoming the change we wish to see in the world. That seems to be the energy behind personal repentance and the integrity to then share the grounds for one’s own peace and happiness with others.
But the fact is, the world is obstinately resistant to any monopoly on it to which any particular religion might wish to lay claim. And so religiously motivated urgency must be tempered by religiously motivated patience. But where might that patience come from? For me, it comes from temples. In Mormonism, temples are founded on the idea that this life, though a vital testing ground for our decisions and vital to our opportunities in the next life, is not the only opportunity for growth and change. Temples exist because in Mormon belief learning, growing, serving, and repenting continue after this life is over. And the call, then, of the living is to serve and assist the dead by providing them with the opportunity to receive the saving ordinances of the gospel of Jesus Christ and to have the fullest opportunity to flourish in the next life. And the call of the dead is to assist the living. They are among us, not leaving us alone in the tasks of life but active in seeking our welfare.
In the Mormon understanding, the ordinances performed in the temple on behalf of the dead still respects free will. A living person performs an ordinance, such as baptism, on behalf of someone, often an ancestor, who has passed away, and that ancestor has the free will to choose or reject the ordinance, just as we enjoy those same freedoms in this life. There is nothing binding about such an exercise, but it is an expression of love and appreciation for one’s heritage and a profound expression of hope in the universality of the redeeming powers of the atonement of Jesus Christ. And it is based in the hope that such ordinances will unlock the full potential of any individual soul to continue to write their story after this life. What happens inside of the temple is as edifying and instructive for the dead as it is for the living. This is not the result of some strange occult practice but rather the result of the opportunity to revisit the very purposes of the world’s creation, which is to bless the entirety of the human family and to revisit our role in life before we came here, in life here on earth, and in life forever after. From the temple, one gains greater commitment to live closer to God’s commandments, greater respect for God’s creations, and a deeper appreciation for one’s inheritance. Temples were one of the most important fruits of Joseph Smith’s extraordinary vision of how the gospel of Jesus Christ might benefit every living soul equally. His was a vision of being able to bring every child of God within proximity of His face by inviting a deeper sanctification of one’s life in the temple.
It is customary in the church for people to go through the temple to receive what are called their endowments shortly before a mission or marriage. In my case, I was months away from leaving on my mission to Venezuela, and I attended the temple for the first time. I felt cautiously excited about what I was experiencing. It was new and it was somewhat unfamiliar to me. I hadn’t been raised with a lot of teaching about the temple, so it took some time to adjust. And just as I was preparing to go, I realized that my brother, who had died of a suicide just a little over a year earlier, had not been able to receive the Melchizedek Priesthood and that I could therefore go through the temple for him, on his behalf. I had been given what is known as my Patriarchal Blessing, and in it I was told that there were still things I could do to be of service to my brother. I hadn’t understood what that could be until then. But what a great blessing it was to feel that his story was not over, that he had not written the final chapter of his life, and that I might play some role in helping that process to continue. I knew he was at peace. I knew that his suffering had been relieved, but I suppose that I realized that relief of suffering is not an end in and of itself but it is an opportunity for growth and learning. My brother had always been fascinated by great minds, by great ideas, by beautiful music and scientific discoveries, and those who knew and loved him knew that a great mind had been cut short of its opportunity to contribute to the world. I was eager to give him the chance to expand his knowledge and understanding.
I went through the temple for him just weeks before departing on my mission, and not long afterwards I received a very personal and very clear revelation in the form of a dream that my brother was progressing and growing beyond my ability to fully understand and that he was grateful for what I had done. As I indicated in my earlier posts, personal revelations of this kind provide the bedrock of my faith. I have often felt his presence near me and my family.
The temple is the great promise of eternal progress, of second and third and fourth chances, however many it takes. It provides the circumstances and the means by which life’s many injustices might be able to find more balance and mercy. It provides the means to hold families together even when in this life, for reasons we don’t always understand, people take different paths. I believe that the promises of the temple extend to the entirety of the human family, and this brings me great patience in the face of opposition and struggle and wide and sometimes dizzying diversity across the world. It tells me that no one person’s story is finished at the end of life and that we all belong, sealed and adopted into the great promises first given to Abraham. It tells me that this life is just a brief, albeit important, moment in our overall development. Isaiah uses a phrase that has always fascinated me. He tells us to rejoice, “for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife. Enlarge the place of thy tent” (Isaiah 54:1). Indeed, genealogy teaches us how dependent our unique individuality is on a myriad of people across time and space and therefore how much broader and inclusive our sense of belonging needs to be if we are going to be agents in bringing the human family together. No family line is perfectly straight or singular, no family story is without disruption, disappointment and heartache, or without brokenness and loss, and no family line is independent of all others. All family lines extend not only back in time but across cultures and geographies, teaching us our relations to and dependency on everyone else and helping us to understand that to find ourselves reunited with each other and with God requires the rule of adoption and not birthrights, patience and not intolerance, forbearance and not swift judgment.