Today we have a new guest post by Buddhist Bishop.
What exactly are faithful LDS required to believe to be in good standing? Must we believe, for example, in a literal Garden of Eden and in a literal Adam and Eve? Is it required that we believe that the whole earth was flooded and that Noah and his family rode out the flood in an ark with reproducing pairs of every kind of living creature? And what of the Book of Mormon—the keystone of our religion? Is the only valid testimony one that accepts the literal historicity of the Book of Mormon?
Modern sensitivities make it difficult to take many of these stories literally. There is absolutely no evidence of a world-wide flood. There is little or no evidence anywhere in the ancient Americas for most of the kinds of things described in the Book of Mormon, from horses to metal swords to coined money.
Does that mean that these narratives are not true? From a literal, factual point of view, probably for the most part not true. Unfortunately, many younger members often have a faith crisis when they realize there is much less factuality in these stories than they were taught growing up. And if factuality is all there is that can hold water, who could blame them?
Oh say, then, just what is truth?
A quick visit to the Oxford English Dictionary reveals that truth defined as a true statement or account does not occur before the mid-14th Century, and truth as an established fact not until the 16th Century. Loyalty and faithfulness are the much older meanings of truth. We still use both of these meanings today, of course.
Joseph Campbell, the preeminent interpreter of myths, posited a denotational truth as well as a connotational truth. The denotation of an event or story is its actual factual “reality”. Something happened or it didn’t. Everyone in the world perished in the flood except Noah and his family – or not.
The connotation of a story or an event has much deeper meaning. We might call it the metaphorical aspect of a story or event. Regardless of the factuality of the great flood, the story of Noah and his family can profitably be interpreted mythologically, and as such the connotation may have many layers. The Ark is a wonderful metaphor of carrying over critical knowledge and materials to a new beginning. I often use the Ark metaphor when teaching about preserving critical wilderness areas. These preserves are storehouses of ecological processes and relationships that we understand very little of. We need these preserves or arks to help us restore prairies and forests to their full functionality in the future when we will perhaps have more opportunity to restore our damaged earth.
The Ark then is a powerful metaphor regardless of what we regard as the factuality of the great flood. And we could draw out any number of other metaphors from the rest of the story. Hanging together as a family, a willingness to be in the minority and to suffer the abuses of being unpopular.
We might ask the question as to which of these orientations is more fruitful in terms of inspiration and the spiritual life. To simply believe in scriptural or other events might actually be somewhat sterile. Of course, many of our brothers and sisters view a testimony of the veracity of stories such as the great flood as an indispensable first step in the Gospel.
But one can certainly adopt a metaphorical approach without getting crossways with our more literally minded fellow members of the church. Most members in fact would find little to object to in a discussion of the connotation of the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve, for example.
Virtually all of our scriptures in fact have an abundance of connotational truth, truth that can inspire and motivate. One does not have to reveal, in church, exactly how one feels about the factual truthfulness of various scriptural stories. Such a revelation would more often than not be counterproductive.
On the edge, but still very much inside
The edge of inside is a great metaphor. Still in the group, but not quite the truest of believers, perhaps. I am myself quite near that metaphorical edge. Even so, I have served several times as bishop or branch president. I have never felt uncomfortable in terms of doctrinal orthodoxy. And no one has ever complained about what I teach. [I have indeed gotten crossways on other issues, but that’s another story!]. I focus on the connotation of the scriptures. The denotation in most cases turns out to be almost completely irrelevant.
Let’s take for example a very powerful story from the scriptures. In Mark 5:25 we read the story of the woman with an issue of blood who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment, and was then made whole. The usual interpretation we hear most often is that this story testifies to us of the infinite sensitivity of the Master and his willingness to heal. Not a bad interpretation, but a bit limited.
We can turn this story into a metaphor of our own attentiveness. The episode in Mark happened in a very busy market of the kind we might find in Mexico or Guatemala today –almost total pandemonium and much jostling and shouting. And Jesus says “who touched me?” Easy to imagine the look on the faces of his disciples when he says that! Let’s metaphorically turn this to ourselves, in our busy lives, where people are demanding attention from all sides –professionally, at home, at church etc. But in the midst of all this someone is tugging on the hem of our garment. Is it one of our children begging for attention, or might it be someone shy at church or at work, and we can’t seem to hear or recognize them, with so many other demands? The power of this interpretation does not rely on belief in the factuality of the story. But weaving something like this into a lesson or talk at church will not bring down the authorities on your head. Most people in fact will feel the power of this “mythic view”, because we all know this situation applies to us, and that we may indeed not be heeding the most important tugs in our lives. Metaphor allows to see many new layers to these stories.
Meaning and metaphor
Jesus himself taught via metaphor. The word “metaphor’ is itself a great metaphor: meta -over or across, and phor, to carry (etymonline.com).—just like the Ark I described above. So a metaphor carries meaning –over and across to people, or even across cultures and epochs. And metaphors can always be interpreted in many different ways.
When we think of metaphors, the word myth comes quickly to mind. Much of our popular literature thinks of myths as much less than truth, sometimes even as a lie. But myths almost always reflect great truths that can serve as powerful signposts in our lives. I have written elsewhere of what I consider to be the central myth of the Book of Mormon: the Tree of Life and the Iron Rod. Even if the Book of Mormon were a total fabrication, which I am definitely not suggesting is the case, the mythic truth of the path and the tree is as powerful a metaphor as any in scripture, or literature for that matter.
What has been your experience with literal interpretations of problematic scriptures (problematic in the sense of being highly unlikely)? Are you sometimes at odds with fellow members? Could a mythic outlook aid those uncomfortable with rigidity?