Imagination and the Temple

Temple worship involves symbolism that inspires our moral imagination.

By Thomas B. Griffith

MY FIRST EXPERIENCE in the temple was bewildering. Only two days from the start of my mission, the endowment ceremony, which I knew to be a deeply spiritual experience for many, was so foreign to my expectations that it triggered something of a crisis of faith.1 I could not fit the temple into my other experiences with the Restoration, which had been uniformly and profoundly good. Reeling—not too strong a word—I prayed for insight. A thought came to me that proved helpful. So many people I admired loved the temple, but I did not. In that difference, I sensed that the problem was not with the temple, but with my understanding of the temple. As it turns out, my study of the humanities became a helpful tool.

Four days later, I was seated in the solemn assembly room of the Salt Lake Temple with a cohort of newly set- apart missionaries awaiting the arrival of our speaker, Church President Harold B. Lee. I was desperately hoping and fervently praying that he would say something—anything—that would help me better understand the temple ceremony. It was a dramatic moment when the silver-haired President Lee dressed in his white temple suit took his place on the stand. I was seated about ten rows from the front, a little to his left as he stepped to the podium. “Sisters and Elders,” he began, “before I take your questions about the temple, I feel impressed to share with you an idea.” I moved to the edge of my chair. Would he speak to my confusion? “None of the things you see portrayed in the ceremony actually took place that way. They are all symbols: symbols of your life’s spiritual journey.” With those words, President Lee gave me a way to try and understand. Before hearing those words, I thought that I was being asked to believe that the ceremony was a historically accurate portrayal of the Creation, the Fall, and the beginnings of humankind. Not so, said President Lee. Everything in the temple is symbolic.

Well, I could do symbolism. Although I was no expert, looking for symbols was an important part of the study of literature, art, music, and architecture that had been the lion’s share of my education until then and would be thereafter. Since that day, President Lee’s insight has been an important tool in my ongoing (but far from completed) effort to understand the meaning of temple ordinances. Where in those ordinances, President Lee challenged us to ask, are directions and insights for our spiritual journey?

The journey motif has been used throughout history to teach us how to confront challenges and grow through adversity. The storyline typically follows a hero on a physical quest. The real story, of course, is that the hero’s trail is a painful journey into self-discovery. The hero is a different and better person at the end of the journey than he was at its start. Many of us were first introduced to the journey motif when we read in high school about the transformation of Huck Finn as he traveled with Jim on the Mississippi River farther away from an American society divided by race. Later, we learned of Odysseus, Aeneas, Dante, Don Quixote, and Frodo. And then it dawned on us that Luke Skywalker was making that same journey! (Fortunately, in popular culture the heroic “he’s” are being joined by “she’s.” We are learning now from the journeys of Rey, Luke’s protégé; Mulan; Moana; and Diana Prince, a.k.a. Wonder Woman.) And with each journey, we learn the truth of Solzhenitsyn’s observation that the boundary between good and evil runs through every human heart.2 We are fallen beings who at our best moments strive to be true to the divine spark within.

From the temple, we know that our journey is not to be undertaken alone, but in the company of others. We learn hard lessons along the way, together. We experience joy along the way, together. Because, in what may be the most fundamental insight of the Restoration, we cannot reach our destination alone, but only if we are at one with others, bound to them in love: to our Heavenly Parents, Christ, our family, and eventually all humankind that is willing. As Fiona and Terryl Givens point out, “Heaven isn’t a place we enjoy with other people; heaven is eternal companionship with other people.” 3 Most important, unlike our mythic heroes of literature and film, the progress in our life’s spiritual journey is not measured by the monsters we slay but by the covenants we make with Christ, each of which is fashioned so that we might come (-venant) together with (co-) him. Bound to Christ, he will take us to places where we can serve others now and through eternity.

The temple calls upon us to recreate our moral imagination. The Greek word the King James Bible translators rendered “repent” means to change the way we act because we have changed the way we think about things. The symbolism of the temple rips us out of modernity as we participate in an ancient ritual designed to change the way we view God, others, and ourselves and thus helps make us heroes for Christ. The truth to which the temple’s symbols point—that the Atonement of Christ is the primary force for good in our universe—provides a source of ongoing insight and strength along the way, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.4


Thomas B . Griffith, a BYU humanities graduate, is a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. He has served as BYU general counsel and as legal counsel to the US Senate.

1. David O. McKay reported a similar response. See Gregory Prince and William Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (2005), 277. At least I was in good company!

2. Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (1974), 168.

3. The Christ Who Heals ( 2 017 ), 10 6 – 0 7.

4. Matthew 13:16