IMAGE: PHOTO OF ANGELS PAINTING
The teenage Joseph Smith had an epiphany as he wrestled with scripture and the competing religious factions around him: answers to his questions were not to be found in an appeal to argumentation or to religious text; they were to be found in direct encounter with God. Thus began a prophetic career that attempted to facilitate and democratize communion with God.
He later reported that in his first encounter with God, he was told that the creeds of the competing sects were "an abomination in [God's] sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: 'they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.'" (Joseph Smith - History 19)
Much has been made of this statement to the effect that the teachings of the various 19th-century Christian denominations were wrong, or that the formal creeds developed over the centuries were doctrinally incorrect. Others have suggested that perhaps the problem was not so much with the content of the creeds as with the narrowness of creedal approaches: that they confined people's thoughts with regard to God to a set of approved beliefs. I want to suggest an alternative reading: the creeds are an abomination to God not because of their narrowness nor their content, but because they substitute ideas about God for encounters with God.
Jesus expressed a similar idea during his mortal ministry: "Nor does [God's] word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one [God] sent. You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life." (John 5:38-40 NIV) His contemporaries were so focused on their (scripturally based) ideas about God that they did not recognize him when he came among them.
In 1843, Joseph Smith taught: "Could we read and comprehend all that has been written from the days of Adam, on the relation of man to God and angels in a future state, we should know very little about it. Reading the experience of others, or the revelation given to them, can never give us a comprehensive view of our condition and true relation to God. Knowledge of these things can only be obtained by experience through the ordinances of God set forth for that purpose. Could you gaze into heaven five minutes, you would know more than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject." (History of the Church 6:50-52)
Notice that he describes "ordinances of God set forth" for the purpose of gazing into heaven, of experiencing God directly. This was prefigured in 1832 in Doctrine & Covenants 84:19-20: "And this greater priesthood administereth the gospel and holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God. Therefore, in the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest."
The ordinances of the temple are intended to instruct participants in how to recognize and participate in divine communication and ultimately to both symbolize and enact union with God. Unlike the creeds condemned by God in Joseph's first vision that had "a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof", in the temple ordinances Joseph established "the power of godliness is manifest". It is through holy conduct, observance of covenants, and ritual that we enter God's presence: "Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the [children] of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not. Beloved, now are we the [children] of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when [Christ] shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is." (1 John 3:1-2)
The character of this knowledge is not merely a knowledge of facts or propositions or a collection of beliefs, it is a knowledge of acquaintance. "And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent." (John 17:3) Salvation is not in belief in some set of propositions, but in entering into a relationship with God of mutual knowledge by becoming holy through our encounters with God.
The scriptural origin of the misery of humanity centers in humankind's expulsion from God's presence as recounted in the story of Eden. Eternal life consists in reversing that expulsion; hence, Enoch and Noah "walked with God", Jacob wrestled with God and obtained a blessing, and we are also transformed by our own wrestling with God -- we may be called to sacrifice the idols of our ideas about God to the God we encounter in persons we interact with every day: "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." (Matthew 25:40)