Religious secrecy is nothing new; ancient mystery religions enjoyed a long history and vital following, and even some early Christian groups apparently did not reveal key doctrines to catechumens until after baptism. A number of instantiations of institutional secrecy in the Church can be identified, among them the veil over the handbook of instructions and the lack of public information on how tithing dollars are spent. But what interests me here is the significance to community dynamics of the conducting of secret ceremonies.
The first hurdle in examining the implications of the practice is acknowledging that there is in fact any secrecy involved. Naturally such ceremonies are sacred, and the prohibition against discussing them in profane environments is one important way of shielding their sacred character. Just as they are delimited physically by buildings deliberately setting them apart from the rest of the world (and even from other church activities), so are they delimited conceptually by the admonition that they not be discussed in profane environments: thus both physical and conceptual barriers paralleling each other serve to patrol this relationship between sacred and profane. But in effect this functions as a form of secrecy. (Furthermore, the discussion of other religious knowledge deemed “sacred” is not formally restricted to any particular physical environment–even information which such rituals treat (i.e., Adam and Eve can be discussed in one’s living room during a family home evening lesson). So secrecy/restricted access is not a necessary precondition to the LDS concept of sacrality.)
Secrecy may protect the sacred nature of certain church activities, but in addition it inevitably influences community dynamics, effectively creating a distinction between insiders and outsiders. Church culture, familiarity with doctrine and practice, and idiosyncratic Mormon parlance no doubt similarly reinforce the distinction between Church members and others. But restricted access to the Church’s holiest circles of ritual activity and knowledge arguably functions more to sift full members from “partial” members within the Church itself than erect a barrier between members and non-members, since at this point the information is primarily being kept secret from people in the community. (Nonmembers who are aware that Mormons engage in secret rituals and are interested have likely investigated them, since they’re readily available online; it’s uninitiated believers who have reason to respect the boundary that shuts them out, just as it’s these same believers who are invested and involved enough to be excluded.)
This boundary between initiated and uninitiated is reinforced in a number of ways, both explicit and implicit: by hints and allusions, by deliberately coming up short in explicating a gospel principle, by invoking temple covenants or recounting who was in attendance at a particular service–undoubtedly with no malicious or exclusionary intentions but in such a way that those outside the circle are continually reminded of its existence.
Social scientists recognize that, far from being wholly irrational, religious behavior (which not infrequently involves self-abnegation) confers certain tangible rewards. Denying oneself pleasurable experiences involving promiscuos sex, alcohol, greed, and dishonesty no doubt bestows the satisfaction of participating in a moral lifestyle and brings one closer to the Spirit, effects which are not to be discounted. But in addition, it makes possible one’s integration into the community of adherents, with all the social benefits that fully belonging to a community entails. It’s interesting that the Church has explicitly paired its list of minimum requirements for acceptable standing with access to secret activities; effectively, participation in those activities serves as a reward for meeting the requirements. Certainly there are religious rewards for meeting these stipulations: one may be closer to God, may be specifically blessed by him, and enjoys the peace of mind of being prepared to enter heaven. But here I’m interested in examining potential social rewards: those who meet the requirements accrue a certain amount of religious capital, and one of the ways in which that capital makes itself manifest in the community is through one’s access to secret knowledge.
To summarize: secrecy is a form of exclusion, exclusion creates status for those included, and status serves as a potential reward. There are social benefits to adhering to the Church’s standards of behavior, one of which is a certain status in the community that is reinforced by one’s access to and familiarity with the secret knowledge and activities that mark one as a full member of the community. Ironically, the temple is frequently touted as the primary mechanism whereby social hierarchies are eroded, and yet (in addition to the fact that intergender hierarchies are reinforced) it can also be used to create and reinforce distinctions in social echelons in church interactions.
- 12 October 2007