Notes From the Sacred Space Symposium at BYU: Panel Discussion featuring Richard Bushman

By June 3, 2009

The Sacred Space Symposium at BYU concluded with a panel discussion guided by Richard Bushman and included each of today’s presenters. Dr. Bushman had opening remarks and launched discussion with a few questions of the panel before turning it over for questions from the audience.  I did not take down the questions from the audience, sorry. We hope that providing these notes has been fruitful for many of you. Those of us who attended really enjoyed it and felt that the presenters were well prepared and engaging in their presentations.  Jim Faulconer deserves hearty praise for his work putting it together and we hope to see many more conferences like this one that bring the work of national scholars from within and without the Mormon tradition to bear on issues of Mormon studies.

Richard Bushman

Before the Manhattan temple dedication a group of us was shown through the building. We were told to wear Sunday best and walk silently through the rooms.  One walked with her arms folded like a primary child.  I asked myself about the spiritual constructions that surround an LDS temple. We think that ritual begins when you enter the first room and instruction begins, but the rituals of preparation are as vital as what happens when the endowment begins.

Every LDS understands that you have to prepare yourself as if you are entering the presence of something holy, as it is in other temples, some forms of cleansing and rededication is involved.  My wife was a temple worker and they had all kinds of instruction, your nail polish had to be clear when officiating, couldn’t war a necklace, but your wedding ring was all right. Everything has to be done just right. Then there is a key movement at the threshold of the temple where a man asks for your recommend. HYe stands there in a white suit, usually a kindly grandfather type, but a guard, and you cannot pass if you fail to satisfy the requirement.  You are passing the boundary into another kind of world. Then to the locker room where you change, as if transforming your social identity. Clothes say a lot about your cultural and social status. You are prepared to be instructed. Then there you are instructed to speak in hushed tones, no loud laughter, whatever you’re personality, inside you must conduct yourself with modesty and restraint to honor the sacred presence there. In the temple you learn the rules of restricted discussion. Mormons do not discuss the temple outside the temple. It can all be found on the web but Mormons themselves don’t discuss them. Some disapprove of the secret nature, but I think that secret is vital to the creation of our sacred space. I think that the temples are sacred because they are secret not the other way around.  Finally, the question of care. One mark of sacred space is that people take care of it. They pay attention to its beauty, the materials used, workmanship, cleanliness. I was assigned once to clean the chairs and moldings, all the wooden surfaces. I wiped every surface, not a sign of dust on the cloth. The supervisor said, Good, it shows we’re doing our job.  Quite a marvel that this regard should develop among the Mormons in a society that seems to want to eradicate sacred space and time.

Protestantism broke down sacred space, finding remnants of Catholicism. Mormons went against the grain, somehow temples arose among the Mormons.  What did the Mormons accomplish and was it worthwhile?  I raise that question to those who commented on the diffusion of sacred space. Richard Cohen talked about the diffusion of sacred space and said that the true aim of Judaism was to disperse the sacred. They were packed with an ethical message, the sacred would emerge in a just and rigorous society more than at a holy site in Jerusalem, etc. My question then is, is there a need to create and protect sacred spaces?  Should we focus instead on instilling the holy everywhere? To diffuse the sacred rather than to concentrate it?

Richard Cohen

People have mistaken the prophets’ criticism of the temple cult as a desire to dismiss the temple, but they were wanting to remind the people of the true purpose of the temple. For me it’s reaching to the highest level of holiness and finding the space and time to renew ourselves, to enter the real world. So you say dispersion, I would say realization, for some people the temple is an escape for the world, but it should be a renewal of our commitment to God’s creation.

Michael Fishbane

Speaking as a Jew, the master metaphor would be paradigmatic, what takes place for a  Jew that crosses from one sphere to the synagogue, the realization that space can be sanctified, time is sanctified, and each of these moments, for all their theological weight are places of collection and inward rebuilding, prayer has its work, but its also the purification so speech as it is directed to God and in a non self-centered way. The gestures a Jew performs in sacred space become the gestures of generations, whereas, by contrast, we might say that the gestures of the body outside sacred space are herky jerky, the speech becomes something different. In the synagogue you don’t talk about outside things, speech is filled with silence.  There is a deep reflection, one is studying of the possibility that sacred letters will come inside, be interiorized, and one will be transformed by the sacred text.  So, at some level, everything a Jew does outside those spaces is derivative of what is taking place in those spaces.  In a Mormon context I would emphasize that Judaism is so deeply welded in tradition, one speaks the language of the ancestors, moves ones body with the gestures of the ancestors, sit with generations together.  Calling to mind presence. I’ve been deeply move by what I’ve seen and all the people here, the clear desire by you and this conference to make this so conscious as a form of instruction. As you were speaking, you were doing instruction in the endowment, and that seems to be something that is happening all the time.  Here, keeping things in mind seems to be of great value, I’ve learned that deeply.

Steve Olsen

Before we can address the nature of sacred space, we might have to answer the question of sacred before ascribing sacredness to something, it seems that other qualities include setting apart outside the mundane, highly symbolic, ritualistic. Layered with all kinds of meanings, but it’s clear there is something sacred and something not, powerful, even to the extent of being dangerous. Those who have been to Mormon temple ceremonies can reflect on moments of clear and present danger for not conforming to the laws agreed upon. If a tradition has a notion of the sacred that has those qualities it will find its own place. We couldn’t stay confined to the sacred space, but time, relationships, sacred personhood, sacred everything.  There is a synergistic quality in traditions that find their own place and role and really infect many aspects of society simultaneously.

Hamid Mavani

Not value in devaluing sacred space. A problem arises in compartmentalization. I can atone for all infractions and redeem myself and go back to the person I was. In the Muslim tradition, a person who does the pilgrimage and returns is like a newborn child and has no sins, so when will you do this?  Those from 15 (boy) can do it. Why not accumulate my sins and do it at the end?  This arises when a ritual is seen as a means.  People perform multiple pilgrimages and have the worst business ethics, they would have no qualms with being dishonest, at the same time they can perform pilgrimages. This is the hazard, if it is viewed as something distinct rather than continuous with regular life. That can become a serious infraction on human rights.

Jeanne Kilde

It strikes me in context of the earlier part of your talk, as I look at Mormon space, and your description of dusting, one of the things that occurs in Mormon space is that through these practices Mormons have a way of participating in the sanctification of sacred space every time they set foot into it, the process of changing clothes, everyone is participating in the sanctification every time. It’s not sacred because there is a substantive element of God in it, it’s sacred because they sanctify it with themselves. Think of someone who got past the recommend desk and walked into the temple in street clothes and sat down and smoked a cigarette. They would be desecrating the space. One person can defile it.  One individual can also sanctify it also.  For protestants generally, in the 1840s, they didn’t have a way to participate in this sanctification process, it wasn’t important to them, but by the 1840s, even low church protestant groups shedding some of their Calvinist ideas, are embracing the gothic revival of all things, building churches with tall steeples, stained glass, and adopting an aesthetic the allows them to think about God in a new way. The participation in Mormonism is a continual cycle.

Terryl Givens

There are two historical ways to answer the question of what are the costs of segregating sacred space. One is witnessed every Sunday when you don’t know if you’ve entered a basketball court or a chapel.  There is a cost here. But historically I’m struck by the irony in which the Book of Mormon foreshadows a lesson that Mormonism is several generations in learning. The BoM starts near the temple. The family flees from the temple, into the wilderness, the irony is striking. JS is translating before he built the temple in Kirtland.  The Nephites have to flee after building their first temple and then flee again and the Nephites find that Zion is portable and that Zion is where you make and keep covenants. The Mormons find this and it’s not until 1900 that they start to think of Zion as other than place.

Richard Bushman

Mrs. Low Church has nothing to say [laughter]?

Laurie Maffly-Kipp

I’m puzzling, in religious studies we’re taught not to ask this type of question. It’s not something I often think about. When I think about sacred space in Mormonism, I think of various ways they work, the mechanisms by which certain understandings of sacred space work and how believers hold communion.  Relativist, there are a lot of ways to have meaning. I don’t know an easy answer.  I do think within the Mormon tradition there are challenges I see. That I see working as the Church grows because the church has a Utah centrism, it’s bumping against cultures and different ideas about what is sacred and how the church responds to that and reinvents itself (or not) is really important.  What is eternal and unchanging in the tradition, what transcends cultural difference? We think of the temple as a place of unchanging truth. What does that mean? Do you have to have the stars, the same decorations or does the universality encompass it?

Richard Bushman

There is a member of this faculty, Robert Bennion who went on a Navajo mission.  He said that we could do Mormonism very well there, because we could teach it backwards, instead of the fundamentals, we start with the temple, because that’s what they understand. In that spirit, this convergence has been indicative of an important development of Mormon intellectual life, we’ve seen ourselves as having a strange theology, and when we find people that we talk with about these things, we find similarities, things that transcend American culture.

Richard Cohen

Mormon stuff IS weird [laughter].  But things that are true will resonate.  I wanted to share a personal experience. Last Thursday, returned from a conference on religion and culture in Lithuania. In Judaism, the temple been gone for 2000 yrs, people are still mourning.  I went to Vilnius, was the holiest Jewish city, was the holiest city in Judaism and its gone. If you stake your spirituality on a place it’s gone, but Judaism will live on.

Richard Bushman

Mormons, as you said Terryl, had sacred space wiped out a number of times early on.

Steve Olsen

You can give up Nauvoo, Jerusalem Vilnius, but sacred space lives on.  There is a tendency to recognize the value of space even if you can’t stand on it or hold it in your hands.

Richard Bushman

Still, it’s valuable that Richard was emotional speaking of the loss of that space is a profoundly moving matter. So we can’t be so ready to run from trouble that we don’t get our roots down in sacred space.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Thanks again for doing this, Jared. I’ll offer my two cents that this was hands down the best Mormon conference I’ve attended. Someone who also attended the Library of Congress symposium on JS a few years back commented to me that today’s proceedings reminded him of that.

    Comment by Christopher — June 3, 2009 @ 10:38 pm

  2. I can’t believe how emotionally touched I was with the whole event. I felt like cheering and crying many times during the questions and responses.

    Comment by Kent (MC) — June 3, 2009 @ 11:50 pm

  3. Someone who also attended the Library of Congress symposium on JS a few years back commented to me that today?s proceedings reminded him of that.

    That was me. More on this tomorrow, I hope.

    Comment by matt b — June 4, 2009 @ 2:01 am

  4. Just a thank-you for all the great notes?I had to leave after the morning session, and I appreciate being able to “fill in” a bit what happened afterwards. All in all, a great conference with lots to think about!

    Comment by JennyW — June 5, 2009 @ 12:51 pm


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