Prophets and Ritual
A visitor to the earth from another planet would discover in his wanderings that our whole inhabited globe is sprinkled with buildings more beautiful and costly for the most part than any other buildings and totally different from them in purpose and design. What would seem most surprising to the visitor upon investigation is the fact that these imposing structures seem to serve no practical purpose whatever. While they plainly represent a tremendous output of talent and energy, from the point of view of common sense these mighty works are really quite unnecessary. One really does not need a golden dome or a Gothic spire to keep out the rain or the heat of the sun. Further research would lead the investigator to the discovery that these weirdly impractical buildings were but one of the products of an intense and ceaseless activity, all of which from the point of view of survival and comfort seems perfectly pointless. The church, in a word, is not a practical institution. Its charitable activities, by the very fact that they do have a practical purpose, are not peculiarly religious in nature and are by no means reserved to churches or to religiously inclined people. What sets off religious activity as such from all other expenditure of effort is the very fact that it does not need to be done in the normal course of existence.
Take the present-day activities of Latter-day Saints, for example. Genealogical research is not essential or even helpful to making a living. One can get along in the world without attending innumerable meetings, partaking of the sacrament, going to the temple, paying tithes, keeping the Word of Wisdom, and all that. In all these things we put ourselves out unnecessarily. Even sexual morality is not a prerequisite to survival and success in this world—a surprising number of people dispense with it. Why do we do all these things that don't need to be done?
The usual explanation of religionists is that man has a natural urge to do such things as are required by religion. But if the urge were natural, as Lord Raglan points out, everyone would have it, which is far from the case. It is a cultivated thing and as such is much stronger at some times and places than at others. Great civilizations in the past have made religious activity the principal concern of all their people, whereas today men are taught that they are fulfilling the measure of their existence if they are diligent in producing and consuming goods, with the accumulation of wealth as a work of supererogation to add character and status to mere survival. But among many objections to the natural theory of religion, perhaps the most instructive is the fact that the impractical things men do in the name of religion through the ages of time and in every corner of the earth do not present an endless and bewildering variety of nonsense as they would if men simply created their ritual activities spontaneously everywhere. While there is no limit to the number of impractical and senseless activities and rituals one might devise in response to the simple urge to do solemn and mysterious acts, the number of ritual acts in which human beings actually do engage from Oceania to Iceland is surprisingly limited, and they can all be embraced in a few well-marked but peculiar ritual patterns. This suggests that the religious rituals of men have not been invented locally but have been inherited from a few main sources, perhaps to be traced ultimately to a single one.
When the folklorists and comparative religionists in the last century first noticed amazing parallels among the rituals and legends of people as widely scattered as Central Europe and Celebes, they naturally assumed that this strange uniformity was produced by a natural urge common to all men to express their deepest desires and experiences in a few basic ritual patterns. The patterns, however, were altogether too elaborate, too peculiar, and too far removed from the dictates of any practical necessity to be explained in terms of a spontaneous and untutored invention, and when subsequent studies began to tie up what had looked like isolated (in many cases even primitive) instances to larger cultural traditions, it became increasingly apparent that the almost monotonous repetition of the same basic ritual patterns in Europe, Asia, Africa, and America was actually to be attributed to a common origin. For all that the religious rituals of the vast bulk of mankind might have been spontaneous and local in origin, the established fact is that they have not been. With this discovery most of the armchair speculation about the primitive origins of religion has gone by the board, but we cannot discuss this now; here it suffices to point out that the common theory that man engages in impractical and difficult religious activities simply because he has an urge to do so has been seriously challenged, for wherever men are found engaging in those activities there is an historical tradition at hand to compel them, and if asked why they do these odd things, they will invariably reply that it is because their fathers did so before them.1
Divinely instituted rites and ordinances have to do in the first instance with things which men do for no other reason than that God has commanded them. They are, first of all, acts of faith and are meritorious as such. They must be hard enough and demanding enough not to become mere acts of dull, automatic repetition, and their immediate practical value may not be so obviously apparent that there is no room left in their performance for a real test of faith. When one goes to train with a master, not merely with the object of serving time for a certificate as in our modern "character factories," but in order to learn all the master has to teach and to become as far as possible perfect in an art, a science, or a craft, the first and all-important step is to establish a condition of complete trust between the master and the disciple. The candidate must by sure tests show his implicit faith and unhesitating obedience to every command in every situation. Soon enough he will understand why he must take a seemingly absurd position or perform some apparently meaningless operation; but unless and until he does the thing and does it entirely on faith and does it with a will, he will never come to that understanding, worlds without end.
There are many things that can only be explained after they are done, and then the explanation of what seemed so arbitrary and mysterious usually turns out to be extremely obvious and natural. We are required, for example, to use oil in some of the ordinances of the Church, and water in others. If you ask me why, I will answer, "I know not, save that the Lord hath commanded" (Moses 5:6). That is reason enough. It does not follow that these things have no real purpose aside from the symbolic and disciplinary: A small child uses soap on faith—a mere act of obedience, we might say, with the soap as a symbol of cleanliness, but actually it goes much further than that; the soap performs a real function which the child does not understand. I doubt not that when we know the reason for some of the things we do now on faith, the practical value of the actions will be so plain that we will wonder how we could have missed it, and then we shall be heartily glad that we did what we were told to do. Meantime the Lord advises us in these things, and it is up to us to trust his judgment. If the primary purpose of our being on earth is to be tested, and the first thing to be tested is our faith and obedience, it is foolish to ask for a full explanation before we will move a muscle. There are many operations in mathematics and the arts that can only be understood after they have been carried out.
The human race lives as it were a double life; it pursues a double economy: a practical one and a religious one. The conflict between these two, the treasures of earth and the treasures in heaven, is frequently mentioned in the New Testament. Of these two lives, the religious one is obviously the real one; otherwise it would have been given up long ago. In every serious crisis, in every life-and-death situation when men are brought face to face with reality, the so-called practical life is pushed completely out of the picture, and religion springs to the fore as the only reality after all. We have seen this happen time and again. As the philosophers have always told us, the everyday things we see about us, far from representing the real world represent the very opposite—a shadow existence, a toy world, the most trivial and transitory aspects of our existence. As to the things we are told to do in our religious observances, they should seem strange to us by the very fact that they are not of this world of things. Here we are concerned first and last with the preservation of our physical plant: we are essentially animals; Adam was condemned to an economy of sweat and dirt. All things necessary for that economy—the building of bridges, the processing of food, the selling of insurance, etc.—are temporary in nature. They are but a means to an end, they are not—as we are being constantly told and as we are constantly forgetting—an end in themselves. They are as temporary as our temporary life here below; they belong strictly to the corruptible order of things, and they will all pass away, nay, they are passing away at this moment. It is to them that we as individuals and as a society are wholly conditioned, adapted, reconciled, and abandoned. They represent for our age the whole life of man. Would you expect the eternal ordinances of the gospel to fit naturally and practically into such a setting? Are you surprised that they seem strange and out of place to us?
In nothing does the uniqueness of the Latter-day Saints stand out more clearly than in matters of rites and ordinances. In the first place the restored Church of Jesus Christ presents the astonishing spectacle of the entire religious community engaged in the performance of rites and duties of a sacred nature. Much of the world believes that the primary purpose of all ritual and liturgy is to glorify God by more or less theatrical demonstrations and that it makes no difference, accordingly, how many engage in the performance as long as the thing takes place. Everywhere throughout the world men have delegated their own religious duties to fulltime professionals, so that they could be free to go about their everyday tasks unhampered by annoying religious obligations. If they participate at all in religious rituals, it is as spectators at a show, and one can easily demonstrate the steps by which rites originally established, we are told, for the express benefit and direct participation of all the covenant people—not just the priests—have become more and more a show put on by way of pleasing and mollifying God. Thus with the passing of time, the ordinances given to the fathers have lost their effectiveness and their meaning.
One of the most remarkable features of Latter-day Saint ordinances is that they are, or claim to be, pristine. They are the same ordinances that were given in the beginning. That is the way God wants it, and that is the way it must be. The whole validity of such ordinances depends on their having been revealed directly from heaven. No effort is made to give practical or rational explanation of these ordinances; they are not interpreted symbolically, nor are they justified by their aesthetic appeal, which is extremely limited. We do these things on faith for no other reason save that the Lord has commanded us to do them. The importance of a living prophet in such a ritual scheme of things will be at once apparent. Granted that the real business of life is to do what God wants us to, the whole problem is then to determine what that is. Only a prophet can tell us.
Now the religious rituals of men wherever we find them are very obviously the product of a thorough working-over by men aimed at adapting them to the economy of this earth. To document this point as briefly and authoritatively as possible, I shall confine myself to a few quotations from the latest official work on the Liturgy of the Roman Rite, Lechner and Eisenhofer's book published in 1953 in Freiburg. The Roman Catholic liturgy, we are told, has a twofold foundation, (1) in human nature, and (2) in history. While on the one hand the spiritual, physical, and social nature of man find expression in this ritual, its historical foundations consist of pre-Christian and non-Christian elements, three in particular. First, there is the Jewish element, of which our authorities write: "The Christian cult took from the Jewish . . . not only a rich treasure of prayers, readings and forms, but also the entire external structure of the Eucharistic [communal] service, the basic structure of the Church year and many hints for the development of the same." Second, the Hellenistic-Roman pagan world "through which the Church had to pass," as our authors significantly put it, contributed to her ritual heritage "along with a high evaluation of cultpractice as such, special elements of cult and cult-forms that were significant for future developments." Third, the Germanic world, from which "the Church enriched her liturgy through manifold inspirations for festivals and devotions, through the building up of established rites by the German delight in symbolism, and even through the creation of new forms which it became necessary to develop as a result of the ties between the Church and the German culture (Germanentum)," e.g., the Imperial coronation rite. But that is not all. "It is by no means out of the question," write Eisenhofer and Lechner, "that in the future other cultural and ethnological areas may not introduce new elements into our Liturgy, that older forms shall disappear, so that the cult practices of the Church may some day be adapted to other nations and concepts as they once were to those of the Western world."2
Note that the rites of the church are to be adapted to the established practices and concepts of men; the tastes and the institutions of this world, in a word, are to be the determining factor in the formation of rites in the future as they have been in the past. This is not the heavenly order, this pursuit of the practical, the popular, the aesthetically appealing. At the very least we have here an admitted compromise with these things which the ancient saints were taught to avoid, "for all these things do the nations of the world seek after." On the other hand, the great Reformers, having rejected these things, found themselves greatly embarrassed in matters of ritual. They had to do something, but what would it be? Both Catholics and Protestants have of recent years made diligent and determined attempts to discover a real foundation for their liturgical activities in a zealous study of Christian archaeology.3 The quest is a pathetic one; the sight of men digging in the dust and mud of decomposition to discover what God wants them to do now is a strong reminder that where the rites and ordinances of the church are concerned neither scripture nor tradition will suffice, but only the direct word of God.
The rites and ordinances of the Latter-day Saints fall into a totally different category from those of any other people. Their sacredness does not reside in their age, their appeal does not reside in their beauty, their effectiveness does not reside in their symbolism. They are revealed ordinances, and their faithful observance often leads to revelation and always to great blessings.
1. For a good summary of the question, see Sigmund Mowinckel, Religion und Kultus (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1953), and Fitz Roy Raglan, The Origins of Religion (London: Watts & Co., 1949).
2. Ludwig Eisenhofer and Joseph Lechner, Liturgik des römischen Ritus (Freiburg: Herder, 1953), 5—6 [see also the English translation by A.J. and E. F. Peeler, The Liturgy of the Roman Rite (Freiburg i/B: Herder, 1961), 4—6]. The present translation is the author's, taken from the German edition.
3. Kurt Goldammer, "Christliche Archäologie," in Heinrich Bornkamm, Grundriss zum Studium der Kirchengeschichte (Gütersloh: Bertelsmann, 1949), 101ff.