It’s time for a confession. I’ve been a member of the church my whole life. I go to church regularly, and I could probably qualify for a temple recommend if I wanted one.
But I don’t. And I have never been through the temple.
For a long time, I was really defensive about this. Getting endowed is one of the things that marks you as an adult member of the church; like being single, being unendowed will place you, in the eyes of many, in the category of the spiritually less mature. If you got endowed at a young age, you may be oblivious to the social dynamics surrounding this. But if you were older, or an adult convert, you may have some idea of what I am talking about. There is a hierarchy, and there are insiders and outsiders. If you haven’t been through the temple, there is no shortage of reminders that you aren’t a full member of the church.
This caused me a lot of angst when I was in my twenties. I wanted to smack people, especially recently returned missionaries, who wore condescending smiles and explained that when I went to the temple, I would finally understand x—whether x was the meaning of Isaiah, or the doctrine of Heavenly Mother. That once I went through the temple, I too could be as spiritually enlightened as the person instructing me about it. I felt like there was a category of God’s special children, the ones who’d been through the temple—and then there were the rest of us plebians.
The sting of this issue faded, though, as I got older. Because if you are a single woman over 30 who still goes to church but didn’t serve a mission, it’s pretty much assumed that you gave up, so to speak, and just went ahead and went through the temple even without a marriage prospect. People drew that conclusion, and I rarely bothered to correct them, figuring that it wasn’t any of their business— but also, if I’m honest, not wanting to deal with the social repercussions. I’ve thought about writing this post before, but I’ve always been hesitant.
But I’m 40 years old now, and I perhaps care less what other people think. So here is my story about the role of the temple in my life.
I only have vague memories of what I thought about temples as a kid. I thought they were pretty; I had a temple coloring book, and in those days there were few enough temples that they could all be included in a coloring book. We sang songs about them in Primary, but they seemed rather vague and far away. As I got older, I clued into the fact that there was something secret going on, and I wasn’t entirely comfortable with that. My Merrie Miss teacher told us that you got a new name in the temple, and I thought that was really weird. But I don’t know that I thought a whole lot about it.
When I was 12, I went to do baptisms for the dead for the first time. I didn’t actually want to go, because it was unfamiliar and that made me nervous, but I got pressured into it. But it was fine. Nothing amazing, but the temple was peaceful. I didn’t have a lot of strong feelings about it either way.
It was in my ninth grade seminary class that I really became uneasy about temples. My teacher told us there were things we needed to know to get into the Celestial Kingdom, things that weren’t in the scriptures. Only by attending the temple could we get this secret information. I was, quite frankly, horrified. What I heard was: God, whom I’d always thought was no respecter of persons, actually had a secret, exclusive club. He wasn’t willing to make vital information widely available.
That aspect of the temple, the exclusivity, haunted me. It was an exclusivity that became more real as I got older and my friends and peers started going through the temple, and I started to realize what it meant to be on the outside of that. But that wasn’t the only thing that perplexed me. I simply didn’t understand why ordinances were necessary. It made no sense to me that God required that you go through some particular ritual before he would let you into heaven. It felt arbitrary, and harsh.
I knew, of course, what the church answer would be to my concerns about there being a special club: that actually God wanted everyone to join the club, extended the invitation to everyone, even the dead. But I couldn’t shake that very visceral sense of wrongness. I disliked the secrecy. I disliked that despite the universalist theology on paper, in practice, the temple was highly exclusive. When I was a teenager, I heard someone propose at Sunstone that everyone be welcome there, like they are at church, and while that sounded radical, it was also a refreshing way of thinking.
Even if the ordinances themselves had been perfectly neutral, then, I think I would have struggled with them, or at least the context in which they were given. But of course things were more complicated than that. I first encountered the model of marriage in which a wife follows her husband who follows Christ in a Jack Weyland novel. I rolled my eyes. But I then heard from other sources that this is what was taught in the temple. I’d been questioning the church on feminist grounds since I was in Primary and wanting to know why women didn’t hold the priesthood, and I was enraged by this. But I didn’t have the language to articulate what was wrong with it, and I didn’t know how to answer those who explained to me why nothing was wrong with it, since after all everyone was ultimately following Christ.
I was in and out of the church during my 20s. I made it through BYU, and felt like I’d overdosed on Mormonism. I was deeply frustrated with gender issues, with anti-intellectualism and authoritarianism. I went inactive as soon as I graduated. But after a year and a half of that, I decided to come back. I was going to be a faithful member this time, I promised myself. I’d just moved to the Midwest for grad school, and was enjoying very much living in a place where Mormons were a minority. I liked my branch. It seemed like it could work.
And my branch president started pushing me to go to the temple. I resisted, because I still had all the hangups about secrecy and exclusivity, and a growing unease about what might be in there about gender. But I was starting to hit the age where it was odd for me not to go. The topic seemed to be in the air everywhere I went. I knew the ceremony was available online, but I wanted to be respectful, so I didn’t read it.
And then, one evening in a computer lab on campus, I decided oh well, and looked it up. I read and read. And I felt utterly sick. I decided then and there that there was no way in hell I was ever going to go.
What was so off-putting? My sense of wrongness only got worse. My reservations about secret ritual were compounded once I realized just how bizarre the ritual was. Was this for real, I wondered. And then there was the gender stuff. Wow. So it turned out that God wasn’t all that interested in women, that all those teachings about women being children of God were iffy. The whole thing struck me as incredibly unpalatable.
In all the years since, I’ve never regretted my decision to read the ceremony. On the contrary; as I’ve watched so many people I care about be broken by the temple, I’ve felt like I dodged a bullet. I have some survivor’s guilt around that. Why was I lucky enough to escape such spiritual devastation? It was because I did exactly what the church said not to do. What sense do I make of that?
Not having actually gone, though, does mean that there are things I don’t get, not in an experiential way. There’s a difference, after all, between reading a liturgical text, and participating in it. And while I was horrified by what I read, it was still just on the level of reading. I didn’t internalize the negative messages in the way I think I would have if I’d actually gone. I hate what the temple has done to so many of my sisters in the church. The problems seem glaring to me; I’m always genuinely surprised when people can’t see them. But I feel less fear, I think, that the underlying theology is accurate. On an intellectual level, yes, absolutely I have those concerns. But not on an emotional level. Not in the same way.
Believing that God is good, having a positive relationship with him, has not been easy for me. I’ve worked hard to develop that. But it’s still tentative and often fragile, and I fear that the temple could shatter it, possibly beyond repair. I won’t risk that. My last bishop, who really understood my situation, told me quite emphatically that I shouldn’t go, that it would quite likely wreck me.
A couple of months ago, I was sitting through a Relief Society lesson on the temple. Sister after sister raved about what an amazing place it was, how it had brought them peace and comfort and guidance, how there was nowhere else like it. And I found myself crying. I finally raised my hand and said that it might be wonderful for many, but the temple wasn’t actually available to everyone. It’s not a refuge for everyone. To give my ward credit, they didn’t shy away from me afterward, but expressed appreciation for my sharing my perspective.
I don’t feel particularly defensive about my situation anymore; at least, not in the way I used to. But I do feel sad. While I think my decision not to go is the right one, I can’t deny that there are times when I feel like I’m missing out on something that could be spiritually powerful. I wonder what it would be like to be in a religious tradition where I could wholeheartedly participate in its highest rituals without fear that I would have to compromise my integrity. The secret ritual bit actually bothers me less than when I was younger; I think I could make my peace with that. I’m still not sold on the necessity of ordinances, but I could work with that.
But it’s too important for me to believe that I matter to God, as much as any of his sons. So I choose not to go. I have too much to lose.