Monday, December 10, 2012

Secrecy, in Temples and Tests

The LSAT had been rather grueling. Four and a half hours (with a short break in the middle) sitting in a chair in a room along with about twenty-five other people, all stolidly focused on the test booklets in front of us, dutifully filling in bubbles with our regulation No. 2/HB pencils. I was, unsurprisingly, relieved when it was over and I found myself wandering with the other test takers out the door to our vehicles.

It was then that something that I had previously regarded as so routine, as so obvious, caused me to pause, quizzical: even though all of us had taken the same test, even though we had toiled shoulder to shoulder all morning through the same questions, we could not say a word about any of it. Before the beginning of the test, in fact, we had to write out a confidentiality agreement wherein we promised that we would not reveal the contents of the test to anyone, anywhere, anytime, for any reason.

Another thought then struck me: the secrecy around standardized tests might be the closest thing in the typical non-Mormon experience to the oaths of nondisclosure that Mormons make during the temple endowment ordinance.

 Mormons have often taken flak for the restriction of access to the interiors and ordinances of their temples, which include baptisms by proxy for the deceased, the endowment (a two hour-long dramatic presentation retelling the Creation, the Fall, and the Atonement with corresponding covenants to be taken on), and sealing (marriage for time and eternity). This exclusivity is exacerbated by covenants in the endowment ritual to not reveal parts of the ceremony and by community norms that prohibit in-depth discussion of the details and wording of the any of the ordinances of the temple. These factors mean that Mormons who have not yet undergone these rituals often know little about them, non-Mormons know even less, and even that non-Mormon family members cannot witness their Mormon relatives’ marriages, a high point of contention to many. While Mormons repeat that the temple ordinances are “sacred, not secret,” to a world steeped in requirements for transparency, this sacred secrecy seems strange, if not sinister.

However, the LSAT and other standardized tests demonstrate that there are circumstances in the non-Mormon world with secrets as closely and zealously guarded as the verbiage of the Mormon temple ordinances – perhaps even more so, for the questions change for each test, whereas temple ordinances seldom change and have been published far and wide on the internet. Maybe some of the reasons for the parallel norms of secrecy are similar: the significance of the LSAT and similar tests lies in the presumption that the candidates are encountering those specific questions for the first time. Though they could be informed of the format of the exam, the types of questions they could find, and strategies for interacting with the questions that they will eventually be required to answer, if they had seen their particular test booklet previously, the resulting experience would be fundamentally altered. It is requisite to encounter the test at the right place, at the right time, and in the right manner, or it loses much of its purpose. For this reason strict secrecy is implemented thereafter: test administrators wish to prevent those who have taken the test from corrupting others’ experience. While us veterans can speak in generalities because we understand the implications of specific words (“Ugh, three logical reasoning sections?” or “What about that question with Iturbe, Hong, and Franco?”), we are enjoined to say nothing more.

Likewise, much of the endowment’s ritual power derives from the location, time, and manner in which the ordinance is encountered. The temple is a consecrated place of sacred privacy and release from the normal flow of time, wherein ordinary people, dressed in white and speaking in whispers, are called to participate in cosmic dramas with a spirit of reverence, contemplation, love, and awe. If any of these elements is missing, the experience is utterly changed. Further, since it is an experience we are admonished to relive regularly[1], those essential characteristics must be preserved. While deployment of certain mutually understood but publicly unrevealing phrases outside the temple can help us convey our thoughts about the endowment, the taboo nature of direct speech helps make certain that the temple retains its ritual sanctity and uniqueness that lends power to its ordinances.

Of course, there are major differences. The LSAT and standardized tests are meant to evaluate one’s reasoning, skill, and knowledge, while the endowment is meant to instruct and, perhaps, test our wills to make sure they align with God’s. Both are rites of passage of a sort, but one inducts the initiate into a community and the other merely provides the possibility of induction through categorization and evaluation of candidates. In one, the concern that motivates secrecy is fairness to avoid cheating and resultant incorrect evaluation; in the other, the driving concern is appropriateness to avoid cheapening the experience through erroneous or improper perceptions. The problem Mormons have is that while fair and standard evaluation is an acceptable justification for secrecy for the American public, sanctity seldom is. And when sacredness is valued, in an exceedingly Protestant fashion it is more often attached to high principles and individual encounters than religious rituals, and rarely justifies complete privacy.

In the end, I believe that realizing that a high degree of secrecy is not only accepted but deemed necessary under certain sensitive circumstances among broad swaths of the population could be an important step in developing to a more proper interfaith understanding of Mormon temple rites.

[1] While we only receive the endowment once for ourselves, we can return to perform it for those deceased by proxy, as with baptisms.


Hillary said...

Super interesting, novel comparison.

But I'm just wondering...Not that I've ever been to the temple (so I might be mistaken), but I would think that another major difference between the two is that while members can talk about their personal temple experiences or the ordinances more generally with other endowed members (or at least their spouses), standardized tests restrict all communication about what everyone just went through. Mormon temples create boundaries, but it is more of an insider/outsider dichotomy that still allows for dialogue among those "in the know." Conversely, standardized tests completely isolate individuals from one another even test takers participated in the same collective ritual and should theoretically be able to talk about the test with everyone else in the room.

I might be totally mistaken, but it's just what came to mind.

Michael Haycock said...

I tried to account for that when I mentioned that, had I wanted to, I could have referred to specific questions - "Ugh, that question about Appleby, Barton, and Chang was hard!" - in order to commiserate with others, but without much discussion of content. On the other hand, if we knew enough terminology to abstract the testing experience (for example, names for specific types of questions), there would be little actual revelation about the test in our discussions. So, if anything, the LSAT and other tests are meant to be *more* secret and shushed than temple ordinances!

mandyjanedesigns said...

This was interesting to read, thanks for writing.

Anonymous said...

Hillary, my understanding of temple norms is that the details of temple matters should not be discussed outside the temple, even if it's a private conversation with another endowed member. After a session, my wife and I often share our thoughts in the celestial room, which we wouldn't even do in the privacy of our own home. I acknowledge that there's a spectrum of Mormon attitudes on the degree of guardedness which is appropriate.