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?