Hingson argues that the connection between temples and physical bodies is more than just metaphor, with bodies able to be literally classified as temples according to various scholarly criteria.
In this article LaReina Hingson explores five scholarly considerations for classifying archaeological sites as temples—criteria such as the site’s imagery, activities, and purpose—and maintaining that our physical bodies can qualify as temples in a literal as well as a metaphorical sense. Metaphors are generally signaled by a contradiction between the items being compared (e.g., Christ cannot be the literal author of our non-tangible faith), but for Hingson there need be no contradiction between the structure and purpose of temples and the bodies inhabited by our spirits. Based on James L. Carroll’s discussion of temple-related features, Hingson takes into account the following:
Imagery and Design. Temples are generally constructed according to an intentional pattern, and are demarcated from the space surrounding it. So too are our bodies patterned after God’s image in a process suggesting considerable effort, and set apart as sacred by the boundary of our flesh, even prior to our birth, and can be adorned and cared for accordingly.
Activities. Aligning with a temple’s outward appearance, temple activities involve sacred acts such as sacrifice, offerings, and revelation. These acts are often dramatized re-enactments of divine events. In turn, our bodies can engage in sacred acts of sacrifice and votive offering (e.g., via dietary restrictions and fasting respectively), helping to create a context in which revelation can be received.
Purpose. The divine purpose of temple sites is often to allow symbolic ascension to the divine realm as a means of overcoming death. Hingson argues that the purpose of the body is to allow progression toward godhood via putting off the natural man.
Attendee Focus. Temples often focus participants toward specific theological content, particularly in terms of creation with imagery such as the waters of life and the tree of life. Physical bodies fulfill this creative imagery through the process of procreation and the extended family tree that this process creates. Comparing with the holy of holies, Hingson identifies a similar need for restrictions with the procreative power.
Centrality Within the Cosmos. Temples function to anchor our world to the divine, helping to give shape to existence and our relationship to it and to God. This makes the temple the conceptual navel of the cosmos—the place where Gods meet. Hingson finds parallel between this and our own bodily navels, as well as our capacity to commune with God spiritually within our bodily context.
Having met these criteria, Hingson concludes that our bodies are indeed temples of the Almighty, in which our spirits reside. She then goes a step further to suggest that the body may be the structure after which temples have themselves been modeled. As she says in her concluding words:
“Perhaps, then…the temple building is in fact simply a representation of the body and its function as the house of the Lord. The temple building is the symbolically carved-out image of the body in eternity, not the other way around. As we seek out and attend temple services to sanctify us, then, let us not forget that the most important temple is the physical body in which we constantly reside.”
I’m reminded of the anecdote (which I may be remembering incorrectly) of the pastor who was invited to attend a temple open house. The pastor reported, to the delight of those interviewing him, that he felt the spirit in the Celestial Room—just as he felt it sitting in his garden, or in his bedroom, or in his car. Though I’ve always felt that the interviewers didn’t quite grasp the back-handed nature of that compliment, if Hingson’s point is well made the pastor wasn’t wrong. He could feel the spirit just as well in those places because he was still within the bounds of another temple—the temple of his own body.
In fact, that temple had a distinct advantage over the temple he’d just left—it could move around. That fact alone could help restore the contradiction between temple and body, and thus restore the metaphor. Bodies traverse. Temples generally don’t. The better classification in that case might instead be a tabernacle (which Hingson herself hints at), which would be fitting given the body’s description within the Book of Mormon as a tabernacle of clay.
If bodies are themselves temples, what then is the purpose of the temples we build? One answer might mirror one of the many reasons we have a Savior in the first place: to set a (metaphorical!) example of how our bodies and our lives should be organized—to remind us of the potential our bodies have to house the divine. Hingson’s given me that, and a great deal more, to think about the next time I go to the temple.