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Temple worship has ancient roots, FAIR speaker says

SANDY — While temple worship is a prominent and unique characteristic of Mormonism, there are numerous similarities to it in ancient religious texts and traditions throughout the world, said the closing speaker at the two-day FAIR Mormon apologetics conference Friday.

Daniel C. Peterson, professor of Islamic Studies and Arabic at BYU, is an outspoken defender of Mormonism and a perennial speaker at the annual conference sponsored by the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, an independent group that seeks to refute challenges leveled at the doctrines, practices and leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Peterson's topic was "The Temple as a Place of Ascent to God." He said ascent is a motif that finds expression throughout the ancient world.

"You find it in the New Testament," he said. "For example, 2 Corinthians 12, where Paul tells in modest language what is probably his own experience." The passage speaks of a man "caught up into the third heaven" who "heard unspeakable words which it is not lawful for a man to utter."

A concept in Hebrew cosmology involving three heavens underlies Paul's experience, Peterson said. "It also, I think, is clearly related to some other things we know about: the idea of a celestial, terrestrial and telestial kingdom," he added, speaking of the Mormon concept of exaltation in the afterlife for those who are worthy of it.

"The idea of going up literally into the presence of God is common throughout the New Testament and the Bible itself," he said. "It's also common to the Book of Mormon." He cited the account in 3 Nephi 28:10, 12-17 of three Nephite disciples of Jesus who had an experience similar to the one described by Paul.

Peterson referred to Old Testament passages, Isaiah 2:1-4 and Micah 4:1-5, that speak of ascending to the "mountain of the Lord," what Mormons believe is an allusion to the temple and its ordinances.

"The 'mountain of the Lord's house' was sometimes really a mountain," he said. "If you didn't have a 'Lord's house,' you had a mountain." He said that in ancient times it was common for mountains to be associated with the presence of God and for artificial mountains to be built by people trying to attain that presence.

The tower of Babel, told of in Genesis 11, was a kind of satanic counterfeit of such an artificial mountain, he said. "It was a fake temple with fake temple rites."

Throughout his presentation, Peterson showed projected images of ascension motifs in disparate religious cultures.

"This kind of common ascension ideology exists all around the ancient world everywhere: China, ancient Greece, the Islamic world, Egypt, Babylonia, the Americas, India, Ethiopia," he said. "It's astonishing how common it is, which, to my mind, suggests that it goes back to either real experiences or real rituals — or both, as the most plausible suggestion of the commonalities that exist."

Such commonalities are plausible support for the authenticity of the LDS doctrine of exaltation in the presence of God, according to Peterson.

"It's remarkable that Joseph Smith restored these ancient models from the ancient world, living in 19th century America," he said. "We as Latter-day Saints who aspire to defend and sustain the Kingdom (of God) should be aware of the riches we've been given. It's not only a matter of defending it; we should live it and observe it ourselves and treasure what's been given to us."

One of the questions at the end of the presentation dealt with the recent depiction of an LDS temple ceremony in the HBO television series "Big Love."

"Can the church honestly claim it was taken out of context if the church itself fails to explain and/or define what the context actually is?" the questioner asked.

Peterson responded: "The temple will not make sense to a person who is not properly prepared spiritually and doctrinally for it."

He added: "Showing it on HBO is, to put it mildly, not the proper context for the endowment ceremony. This is something we regard as genuinely sacred, esoteric if you will, but something where the truths of it are to be communicated spiritually and probably will not be communicated via 'Big Love.'"

e-mail: rscott@desnews.com