I’m not a scriptural literalist. Or rather I’m agnostic on the subject. I’m open to the scriptures being literally true, but if they weren’t, that wouldn’t effect my testimony. Richard Bushman once discussed a hypothetical question with a group of Evangelicals: If someone dug up the bones of Jesus and was able to prove definitively they were the bones of Jesus, would you still be a Christian? The Evangelicals were unequivocal: absolutely not! If Jesus was not resurrected, that means He is not the Lord and would not be worthy of our worship.
Brother Bushman was taken aback by the forcefulness of their response. For Brother Bushman and I, the hypothetical bones of Jesus are not necessarily connected to His spiritual reality in our individual lives. Bones are bones. The Spirit is what matters. Yet most Mormons would probably agree with the Evangelicals. In the church, truth is firmly grounded in material factuality. Most Mormons believe the Book of Mormon is true in the sense that there were Nephites and Lamanites in the ancient Americas, and if they didn’t exist, the Book of Mormon would not be true, and the church would therefore be false.
It can be difficult for non-literalists to stay in a literalist church. This is not because literalists are unkind or unwelcoming. Rather it is because literalists can seem naive and ignorant with their proof-texting and ponderizing and it is all too easy to feel superior. This sense of superiority is a dangerous attitude that could quickly lead one out of the church. Subconsciously, some of us avoid the feeling of superiority by looking for evidence that literalist Mormons are close-minded and oppressive. It’s easier to feel like a victim than a prideful aggressor. But if non-literalists are going to find a healthy place in the church, we need to find a place of respect for those with more straight forward, literal beliefs. We need to embrace the virtues of literalism and accept it as the rightful cultural paradigm of the church, even if our own beliefs are more complicated.
The Nobility of Literalism
I recently received some relief from my chronic sense of superiority while reading a letter written by Hugh Nibley, a staunch literalist and genius-level intellectual. He was writing to his friend and philosophical sparring partner, the agnostic LDS professor Sterling McMurrin. In the letter, Nibley explains why he believes literalism is important:
My present religious mood is an all-out literalism. If the history of Christianity has been one long undignified retreat, one continual process of accommodation to the science of the hour, the time has come to reverse the process… today I read the Scriptures AS IF everything in them was meant to be taken in the most literal sense, as if no such thing as a symbol, allegory, or type even existed. And in so doing that I find that there begins to build up within my personal computer a mass of data that has a totally different power and thrust from anything I have known before. Granted that the new deposit in its naive literalism will in time need radical correction, still I am convinced that the correction will not have to be nearly so radical as that required by the opposite view–that of the doctors of the church, who insisted on reading the scriptures as if nothing in them was to be taken literally, and instructed their students never to give literal interpretation to a passage if any other interpretation was possible.
Nibley is probably right that literal perspectives have more spiritual power than non-literalist ones. Literalism motivates greater faith, action, and more committed obedience to the commandments. For these reasons alone, literalism should be considered a noble philosophy upon which to build one’s spiritual life. Nibley humbly admits that literalism can be naive, that it will undoubtedly need future correction. But he still holds that non-literalism will need even greater future correction.
This is a philosophy I respect, even envy. I quibble with Nibley about a few things. I disagree that non-literalism will need “radical correction.” Non-literalism needs no correction at all. Any non-literal model of belief is valid because it is by definition subjective, dependent only upon the beliefs and opinions of the individual, not upon historical facts. And a philosophy devoid of “symbol, allegory, or type” misses out on a lot. But I agree with Nibley that non-literal interpretations are a bit of a cop-out. It is a noble thing to commit oneself to a literal interpretation in the face of doubt. It is a harder road, and the rewards are perhaps greater for those who take it. When Jesus said “blessed are they who have not seen and yet have believed” he was talking about those who literally believed in His resurrection, not those who simply saw it as an allegory for some other kind of spiritual truth.
Literal Belief is a Gift
In another admission, Nibley explains that his testimony of the gospel is a gift from God, not an expression of his own superior knowledge or the fruit of any righteous endeavour.
A testimony is a gift and a talent (I Cor 12:7ff); man muss ein Organ dafür haben. [A person must have a sense organ for it.] It functions like any of the senses, e.g., like hearing, it is an “absolute” thing. You either have it or you don’t; but like hearing, it may be strong at one time and weak at another; it is never in ailing mortals in perfect operating condition (Heraclitus), and may vanish altogether at times, be nonoperative at times, and at times return with astonishing force and vigor. But it does NOT produce the things it hears. It would be hard to explain to one devoid of those senses that seeing and hearing are not functions of the imagination and are only in part self-induced–that there would be no seeing and hearing at all if some sort of stimulus did not come from the outside (Kantish). All this is commonplace enough, but I am trying to say that when I “bear my testimony” I am really talking about something, whether you get it or not.
“A testimony is a gift and a talent.” I think this is an important admission, and one that helps to relieve the tension between those who have different types and strengths of testimony. As Jesus said “you have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.” By highlighting the arbitrary nature of testimony, Nibley offers an olive branch to those who may not experience spirituality in the same way. They simply haven’t the same gift or talent through no fault of their own.
Being a Literalist, but Still Admitting the Subjectivity of Belief
Nibley also admits that his testimony is subjective, that it is “in part self-induced.” But only in part. “It does NOT produce the thing it hears.” There really is something real out there, “whether you get it or not.” I respect Nibley’s humility here. In spite of being a strict literalist, he never becomes a fundamentalist. He is open to the idea that his spiritual experiences may be partially subjective but still insists that they come from a real outside source.
Some might say this is disingenuous. How can one be a strict literalist and yet admit the partial subjectivity of one’s testimony? If we know our testimony is partially subjective, shouldn’t we only partially accept its literalism? This is the reason I have posited such theories as a “semi-historical Book of Mormon.” Nibley doesn’t subject his testimony to this kind of quibbling. For him spirituality demands an all-or-nothing approach. In spite of his formidable intellect, he does not subject his testimony to the vagaries of intellectual analysis, but compartmentalises the intellectual and the spiritual in two separate mental boxes.
I include acceptance of the Gospel among the basic bodily functions like sleeping, eating, and breathing. They are not rational but spontaneous; without them we would die, but that is not why we engage in them. We eat, breathe, and sleep long before we are in danger of dying of hunger, suffocation, or exhaustion; if we had to have rational explanation for doing those things before we were willing to invest any effort in them we would not be long for this world.
Nibley closes his letter with a beautiful meditation on the wonder of existence. This mediation reminds us that literalist beliefs need not negate the mysticism of spirituality. Rather literalism can be a profound expression of it:
The eye it cannot choose but see, l’ame pense toujours, [the soul thinks always], and as far as I can see, faith is inseparable from the awareness of existence. Existence, the Egyptians said, is a marvel compared with which all other marvels pale into insignificance: it is something not to be explained but accepted; and to accept it is to feel a surge of gratitude–to what, for what? We cannot shake off the wonder and delight of being, the indefinite prolongation of which is but a minor problem once we have got over the original obstacle, namely, the enormous odds against existing at all. Our reaction to being here must be a religious one.
- Are you a literalist, a non-literalist, or agnostic the question of literalism? If they found the bones of Jesus, would you still be a Christian?
- What do you make of Nibley’s argument that literal belief is more spiritually powerful than non-literal belief?
- Can one admit that a testimony is partially subjective, yet still infer strict literalism from that testimony?
- What does your literalism add to your spirituality? What does your non-literalism add to your spirituality?
I like this post. That being said, I think that you’re conflating some things that can and should probably be teased out. First is the stated discussion of literalism vs non-literalism. But then, there are additional discussions of objectivity vs subjectivity, and perhaps even materialism vs mentalism (or physicalism vs idealism, maybe).
The reason I think these can and should be parsed out is because I think that by conflating them, you miss critical distinctions. For example, it seems you put literal, objective, and material (or physical) on one end…and put non-literal, subjective, and mental or ideal on the other end.
But it’s possible for one to assert objective truths that are not material or physical. These objective truths may be non-literal, but that doesn’t mean they are subjective.
Let’s take an example from the post:
Right here, you are conflating literal, materialist, physicalist, and objective criteria for verifying Christianity (e.g., the bones), and then comparing it with literal, non-materialist, non-physicalist, yet still *objective* criteria for verifying Christianity (e.g., the spiritual reality.) If the spiritual realm truly exists as is described, it can still be literal and objective without being material or physical. (That being said, I understand that Mormonism takes a particular materialist stance on things…in Mormonism, spirit is still matter, just “matter more fine.” But we need not be constrained to materialism when we are talking about what objectively may exist.)
So, when you say:
I think there is still room to challenge. A non-literal model of belief may not *necessarily* be valid — because subjectivity can still be critiqued. Indeed, we don’t have to only critique subjectivity on “literal” grounds, but we can still critique whether it matches or does not match a claimed spiritual reality…and we can try to critique to objective foundation upon the subjective experience. (If we want to argue a *subjectivist* model of belief, on the other hand, then we have to make that the case…not about non-literalism.)
This is what Nibley is getting at with his quote (and I think that’s a really good one):
This quotation does not require literalism to be true. Rather, all it requires is that there is some objective, external stimulus that triggers the seeing, hearing, or testimony.
In your idea (“Any non-literal model of belief is valid because it is by definition subjective, dependent only upon the beliefs and opinions of the individual, not upon historical facts”), you have no way to distinguish between, say, imagination, hallucination, illusion, and correspondence to reality. But if there are spiritual truths to the Fall from Grace story — then those spiritual truths can inhere in that story (objective) even if the story is not historical (e.g., literalist). That’s the basic power of analogies, parables, etc. in the first place — that the spiritual truth is not just “subjective”, but at the same time, its objectivity doesn’t hinge on historicity.
I think that objectivity vs subjectivity is really more at play here. What’s the driving focus of Nibley’s quote here is objectivity — that there is something external to the mind that is a stimulus for subjective response (hearing, seeing, believing). This need not be literal, but it should be mind-independent.
The subjectivist need not challenge literalism, but objectivity.
Keep in mind that being a literalist, but recognizing the subjectivity of belief says nothing about literalism, but about the individual. For example, we can say that the Book of Mormon either happened or it didn’t. But whether I believe in the Book of Mormon (my subjective belief) depends on me…am I persuaded? Am I convinced? When Paul talks about “seeing through a glass darkly,” this does not mean that what is on the other side of the glass doesn’t literally exists…it speaks that an individual’s ability to perceive is limited. This also comes through in Nibley’s quotation.
Our testimony being subjective doesn’t say anything about literalism any more than hearing being subjectivity says anything about the literal existence of sound waves. It says everything about us as individuals.
This comment is already getting long, but I think one other thing that could be discussed is the way that “belief” and “faith” have changed definitions over time. In the past, “belief” and “faith” were tied with ideas about trust and loyalty. What you believe in is what is your beloved. Faith is tied to faith*fulness*.
This trust and this loyalty and this faithfulness may have reasons associated with it, but ultimately it comes before reason. Nibley gets at this in the paragraph you have about not needing rational explanation for eating, sleeping, etc., The difference is that a lot of those things (especially breathing) is automatic, whereas faith is a little less automatic.
Anyway, I’ll take a shot at your questions:
I am not a believer in any sense, but I think the consensus is that the Bible is a work with multiple genres…every word isn’t meant to be taken literally.
I think there’s an extent to which yes, having a literal/conventional belief is very powerful and motivating. even in discussions of Fowler’s stages of faith for people who are pushing past stage 4 into stage 5, I think a lot of people still recognize there is something of a loss from their stage 3 self.
But I think that you probably can afford to expand your definition of literal with respect to the other things I’ve mentioned before. for example, having spiritual experiences that strike you as “more real than the real” can still be a big deal, and these experiences may make the question of historicity irrelevant.
I think subjectivity and literalism have nothing to do with each other, so not only do I think this is possible, but I think that this is required. *Every* testimony is subjective because it relates to a subject…and yet the content of those testimonies may still be strict literalism.
As a nonbeliever, my literalism probably prevents me from engaging in faith. I think this is something for a lot of nonbelievers — in a framework of literalism, it seems that if the evidence is against historicity or literalism, then one might as well throw out the entire religion.
But again, I think that literalism should be expanded, as I’ve discussed.
First, Christ said he was the “resurrection and the life.” So he is either a liar or there are no bones of Jesus. I am like Hugh Nibley on being a literalist. But I realize that there is a lot of missing and/ or wrong information, or interpretations with things like Book of Mormon history, geography etc. Sometimes I think the Lord planned it this way so that we would have to live by faith. Other wise He could have just given us a lot more records and the means to translate them and the majority of people would still not believe them or follow their teachings.
The New Testament makes a pretty big deal out of Jesus’ physical body going missing. It is not hard to see why a Biblical literalist would flip if Jesus’ bones were found.
Even a literalist Mormon, though, could work their way around that predicament. There’s been some pretty funky speculation about physical resurrection in our history. I have no doubt Mormon literalists would be able to work with the bones thing without losing a testimony or a literalist view.
I’ll comment on the rest after I have a bit more time to mull it over.
Does a resurrected body have to come from the same materials? What if you were cremated and your ashes became part of a tree? Will the tree have its materials destroyed just to resurrect you? Nonsense. Carbon is carbon. Nothing special about carbon. Resurrect me out of new material, please.
Andrew thanks for your comment. Certainly you are right that the differences between subjectivism and non-literalism need to be fleshed out and you’ve done a good job of articulating their differences.
As you noted, Joseph Smith said “all spirit is matter, just more fine.” I somewhat disagree with Joseph Smith on this idea. Or rather, I think that the concept of “spirit” is more inclusive than Joseph Smith believed. For me, Spirit is as much a phenomenon as a fact. It is a manifestation of our own individual spirit resonating with a universal spirit. Therefore, what it illuminates is as much about us as it is about the universe. When we feel the spirit, we feel the god stirring within ourselves, and this god within us is inseparable from the God outside of us. It is “goodness” or “Truth” from within us, being drawn unto the goodness and Truth outside of ourselves. This is why God’s manifestations to mankind have been so varied and contradictory from an objective perspective. They are like our dreams. They speak to us using the language of our experience and world.
When we speak of objectivity and literalism, we speak of facts that stand outside this interplay between the divine within and the divine Without. You might argue that objectivity and literalism seek to understand the Divine Without, separated from our own subjective influence. But I think this is impossible. We can only understand the world through our minds and souls, and thus everything we experience will ultimately be a projection of our own mind and soul.
I do believe there are some objective eternal truths, like the Law of the Harvest, Love, Grace, Fate, etc. But these are different than facts. Facts are not truths, and have little eternal value, other than as crutches upon which to understand truths: metaphors and parables.
But this philosophy is obviously not very Mormon, and wouldn’t be very useful to most members. I find it extremely useful and beautiful, but I recognise that it stands at the fringe of LDS cultural understandings, which is why in this post, I try to appreciate the value of strict literalism.
Nibley would no doubt agree with you about conflating subjectivism and literalism. He can separate the two in his mind precisely because he doesn’t see them as equal.
Mary Ann and Jacob H., I was stunned at just how quickly you were able to find a literalist solution to the bones of Jesus problem. At the end of the day, religious claims are non-falsifiable, so no doubt we will never have to deal with such a predicament.
Sparks, thanks for pointing out the fact that being a strict literalist does not mean that one accepts the Bible or Book of Mormon as 100% correct in the way it is interpreted or understood. I remember hearing an anecdote about Nibley and President Benson. Apparently, he tried to convince some apostles that the flood was local, not global. They took this idea to President Benson, who thought about it, and said, no, it must have been global.
An apologist like Nibley who defines the flood as local is as much a literalist as a fundamentalist like Pres. Benson who believes the flood was global. A non-literalist like myself wouldn’t care about a historical flood at all, whether local or global, instead looking at the story as a metaphor for spiritual truths.
I choose to be a literalist — it works better for me. I agree with Nibley that in the end, the literalists may require some adjustment but the non-literalists will require far more adjustment. When that day comes, the literalists will see their new learning as a wondrous gift, while the purposeful non-literalists will have to swallow their pride a little.
You can put me with Mary Ann and Jacob. I wouldn’t be phased by bones, even assuming it could be proven. I can’t see how ownership of the bones could be proved definitively anyway, so I find it difficult to entertain the possibility. It was quite sufficiently involved with Richard III, and that required tracking down some distant Canadian descendant of a cousin or some such…
Nate, your consideration of literalism and subjectivity in religion brought to mind similar matters concerning rigor in physics and mathematics. An essay by Richard Hamming lays out the territory much better than I could with a short, quick blog comment: “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics”. You may find it interesting how these issues of scientific thinking parallel issues of religious thinking.
“This seems to round out the real number system for us (as long as we confine ourselves to the process of taking limits of sequences of numbers and do not admit still further operations) -not that we have to this day a firm, logical, simple, foundation for them; but they say that familiarity breeds contempt, and we are all more or less familiar with the real number system. Very few of us in our saner moments believe that the particular postulates that some logicians have dreamed up create the numbers — no, most of us believe that the real numbers are simply there and that it has been an interesting, amusing, and important game to try to find a nice set of postulates to account for them. But let us not confuse ourselves–Zeno’s paradoxes are still, even after 2,000 years, too fresh in our minds to delude ourselves that we understand all that we wish we did about the relationship between the discrete number system and the continuous line we want to model.
More from Hamming:
“From the above we see that one of the main strands of mathematics is the extension, the generalization, the abstraction – they are all more or less the same thing-of well-known concepts to new situations. But note that in the very process the definitions themselves are subtly altered. Therefore, what is not so widely recognized, old proofs of theorems may become false proofs. The old proofs no longer cover the newly defined things. The miracle is that almost always the theorems are still true; it is merely a matter of fixing up the proofs. The classic example of this fixing up is Euclid’s The Elements . We have found it necessary to add quite a few new postulates (or axioms, if you wish, since we no longer care to distinguish between them) in order to meet current standards of proof. Yet how does it happen that no theorem in all the thirteen books is now false? Not one theorem has been found to be false, though often the proofs given by Euclid seem now to be false. And this phenomenon is not confined to the past. It is claimed that an ex-editor of Mathematical Reviews once said that over half of the new theorems published these days are essentially true though the published proofs are false. How can this be if mathematics is the rigorous deduction of theorems from assumed postulates and earlier results? Well, it is obvious to anyone who is not blinded by authority that mathematics is not what the elementary teachers said it was. It is clearly something else.
“What is this ‘else’? Once you start to look you find that if you were confined to the axioms and postulates then you could deduce very little. The first major step is to introduce new concepts derived from the assumptions, concepts such as triangles. The search for proper concepts and definitions is one of the main features of doing great mathematics.”
Interesting post. I probably lean closer to the literalist side of the camp with some non-literalist tendencies. I tend to view most of scripture as people writing down stories that they believed were real. So any stories I read in any of the scriptures, I try to read as coming from that person’s perspective and world view. I believe that they believed what they were writing really happened. I believe that even if it didn’t really happen there can still be a powerful truth behind the story. I guess that makes me agnostic since it isn’t that important to my beliefs whether or not the majority of the stories are literally true or not.
As far as the bones of Christ, I agree with Hedgehog that it is hard for me to think about this seriously considering I just can’t see it as ever being possible to verify 100% that the bones are Christ’s. I don’t think that something like this would destroy my faith, but I do think I would have to do some serious re evaluating.
I think there are benefits to both literalism and non-literalism. Literalism gives us a sense of miracles and wonder which can really be motivating and powerful. Non-literalism, however, can be stronger in the sense that it holds up to scientific scrutiny.
When I say that non-literalism is stronger, I mean that it is more easily adapted to any new information that may become available.
Theoretically, the scriptures tell us how God dealt with people in the past, from which we can deduce how God will deal with us today.
But if the scriptures are only figurative… well, our lives are literal. So how does it apply? What can we expect from God? The scriptures do not seem to contain a Rosetta Stone for converting the figurative to the literal.
And if we are uncertain of what we can expect from God, how can we have Faith, or Confidence in His Promises, or Hope In Christ? (Who may or may not exist, or have ever existed.)
It seems to me that without a pretty substantial level of literalism, the scriptures quickly become charming moral fairy-tales.
And what of the prophecies in modern scripture regarding the destiny of the Church? If they are figurative only, how do we prepare? What course should we take? Do we prepare for a Zion society and the Millenial Reign of Christ without the expectation that those things will ever literally come to pass?