Sacred Space Symposium Notes: Terryl Givens, “Contexts for an LDS Temple Theology”

By June 3, 2009

What follows is my sporadic, poor attempt of reformulation, added by notes, of Givens’s presentation–take them as such.

Terryl Givens, “Contexts for an LDS Temple”

Givens introduced his presentation by explaining that he would address the temple in four different contexts. First, within the context of JS’s ideas of apostasy and restoration. Second, through the lens of the temple as human anthropology, or the eternal potential of pre- and post-mortal possibilities. Third, as a response to the Romantic notion of natural supernaturalism. And fourth, addressing the possibility of a “weeping God.”

One of the first suggestion Joseph Smith may have had that a restoration of an actual Church was necessary was the revelation we have as D&C 4 in 1829, where it spoke of a restored church. Yet, when he revised the revelation several years later, Joseph changed the wording to describe the Church as something “coming forth out of the wilderness.” A later revelation would say the same, drawing upon the wording from John’s Book of Revelation in the Bible. To Givens, the restoration of the gospel meant two different things when it came to truth and priesthood ordinances. For truth, Givens argued, Joseph felt that remnants of the gospel could be found throughout the world, and that it was the Saints’ job to collect them. Drawing on contemporary writers, masonic rituals, and ideological assumptions, Joseph “gathered” these various “remnants” of truth to form the gospel—besides the revelations, of course.[1] But for Joseph, the real “restoration” dealt with priesthood ordinances, the epitome of which was the temple. Through the temple, necessary ordinances are administered that would only be found in God’s Church.

Second, the temple is the climax of the Saints’ belief in the pre-mortal existence and post-mortal potential. It is an affirmation of our belief in a human existence in a previous sphere, as well as exaltation to God-likeness. These two “heresies” have been constant throughout western thought, popping up in almost every century yet often dismissed with no reason beyond the idea that it makes man to “godly.” It is present in some of the earliest Mesopatamia texts all the way to the poems of Robert Frost. Joseph Smith begins offering hints of it in his revelations in the early 1830s, Parley Pratt progresses it further in the late 30s, and then Joseph radicalizes it in Nauvoo. These ideas find their fullest expression in the temple. Givens finds it a shame that most of the attention given to Mormonism is the Book of Mormon (which he feels does not teach anything distinctive) and polygamy (which was only practiced for the first century), instead of our greatest doctrines: pre-existence and theosis.[2]

Third, it is important to remember that Joseph was building his temple at the same time that France was destroying theirs.  The Romantics fought for transcendence through the dismissal of supernaturalism–that in the fragments of truth transcendence is found. JS takes a different path: he sacralizes the profane. He makes the natural world around us integral and sacred for human existence. The temple is not so much built as a consolation of Man’s distance from God, but as a source to bestow powers and seal relationships that could not be done in any pre- or post-mortal experience; it acknowledges the power of man, and amplifies it. This makes earthly existence, as well as embodiment, crucial for the eternal spectrum of man. The passage through the temple represents the passage from the pre-mortal existence into an earthly sphere, the reception of a body, and the catipultation to an exalted sphere.

In Joseph Smith’s revelations, as well as in the Bible, God asks his followers to “build him a temple”—a puzzling statement when tradition holds that a temple is built for us mortals. However, Givens believes that the passible God of Mormonism enables the belief that the temple serves as much as a refuge for God as it does for us. With our belief in a human-like God, divine nature is more about infinite vulnerability as it is about infinite power. The temple is not so much a refuge for us from the blood of our generation, but also a refuge for God from the pains of some aspects of his creation. The temple is represented by the mountain not only because the mountain is the closest to heaven, but because it is the furthest away from the fallen world. When JS dedicated the Kirtland temple, he pronounced that the Son of Man finally hath a place to lay down his head. What goes on in the Temple, to Givens, is not just a place where we merely go to be sanctified by an omnipotent God, but is conditioned by the risk-taking of those involved—both God and man. Both human and divine prepare to go to the temple, and that is what makes the temple sacred.

[this post does not do justice to his great presentation–forgive me]


[1] I have heard Givens present this idea elsewhere, and there is much more to it than what I can put here. I am still considering it, but it is growing on me.

[2] Givens, of course, is becoming the expert on these two ideas in western thought. His When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Existence in Western Thought is due out from Oxford Press later this year. After he finishes his biography of Parley Pratt, he will start a book he is working on contract negotiations for: tentatively titled something like Stalking the Gods: Prophets, Reformers, and the Quest for Perfection in Western Thought.

Article filed under Announcements and Events Theology


  1. Awesome, thanks Ben. As is always the case, Givens takes ideas that many take for granted and shows how no one understands them.

    Comment by David G. — June 3, 2009 @ 11:58 am

  2. Thanks for the notes.I am anxiously awaiting his new book.

    Comment by Chris H. — June 3, 2009 @ 12:20 pm

  3. Here is a link to Givens’s forthcoming volume.

    Thanks for the write-up.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 3, 2009 @ 12:47 pm

  4. Thank you for taking such great notes and sharing them with those of us who, although coveting your spot, were unable to attend. Sounds like an incredible discourse.

    Comment by InTheDoghouse — June 3, 2009 @ 2:28 pm

  5. That’s very interesting. I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced of his last point, but I would very much like to be. Thanks for the notes Ben.

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 3, 2009 @ 4:53 pm

  6. sct, I agree that the theology gets quite messy. Something like this may well be required by the divine anthropology, though. Interesting that both Terryl and Richard have felt drawn to this awesomely heretical ramification of Smith’s thought. If we are to embrace this sort of theology, it seems to me that we will want to consider the meaning of what scholars of ancient near eastern religion sometimes call the “meta-divine realm.” Is it, as your summary of Terryl’s talk suggests, a troubling realm of human choice that God cannot eliminate, or is it, as some other interpreters of the divine anthropology have suggested, a realm of other independent Gods and impersonal forces/laws?
    I wish I had been able to carve out time to actually attend the conference. Kudos to Jim for arranging this and to JI for documenting it.

    Comment by smb — June 4, 2009 @ 10:58 am

  7. The meta-divine question has been the elephant in the room for some time. I find the weeping god motif extremely attractive, but I think that the notion of a vulnerable deity is still quasi-taboo among LDS. Whether we like it or not, we are still heavily influenced by Calvinist notions of the sovereignty of God, despite scriptural and prophetic evidence against that position. None of this is helped by the fact that, in my opinion, Smith died in the early stages of his Nauvoo-era theological project with no opportunity to fully explicate and contextualize the ideas he introduced.

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 4, 2009 @ 12:15 pm

  8. None of this is helped by the fact that, in my opinion, Smith died in the early stages of his Nauvoo-era theological project with no opportunity to fully explicate and contextualize the ideas he introduced.

    Sigh, I often find myself weeping over this very fact.

    Comment by Ben — June 4, 2009 @ 12:22 pm


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