The other day I was reviewing a slide deck for work.  I came across a slide that had this text: “If all the animals living near the equator were happy, Thanksgiving and New Years would fall on the same day.”

I spent several minutes trying to figure out what this meant.  Was it an aphorism or wisdom saying I wasn’t familiar with?  Was there context I was missing?  Was there a typo or omission that, if corrected, would clarify the meaning for me?  I was stumped, but also reluctant to ask for clarification–what if it made me look stupid?  

Finally, it occurred to me that this may just be auto-generated text to fill space.  Usually auto-generated text is something like “Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua,” but I reached out to check and, sure enough, it was placeholder text left in inadvertently.

I laughed at the amount of time I spent trying to find some meaning in what was actually nonsense.  It reminded me that, as humans, we are meaning-makers.  It’s part of what makes us human.  It can bring us happiness and satisfaction (some argue that finding “meaning” in life is more important than “happiness”).  But it can also cause us to, well, just make stuff up or see stuff that isn’t really there.  Maybe not as extreme as in A Beautiful Mind, but I mean, I am kind of shocked to think about all of the things that I used to think were “real” that probably aren’t.    

For example, a couple of weeks ago someone over at By Common Consent posted about the possible etymology of the term “telestial.”  Now, I mean no disrespect to the author, and if people find that interesting to debate about–that’s fine!  You do you.  But I couldn’t help but think, “well, how about the answer is, Joseph Smith was completely making stuff up and it sounded good to him???”  I didn’t make that comment because I didn’t think it would be productive or respectful.  It did, however, remind me of so many debates we might see in the Bloggernacle or the now-defunct High Priest group about what Joseph Smith or scriptures or other leaders “meant” by certain things, as if those statements reflect an actual version of reality somewhere.  

Another example I thought of were all my years spent trying to understand various components of the endowment.  I spent years contemplating these things.  I heard some pretty good theories too.  Then a couple of things happened.  First, some of the things that I had spent years trying to understand disappeared from the ceremony – poof!  Guess they were not all that significant?  Second, and only quite recently, I learned that some of the things I’d wondered about actually originated in the pre-1990 penalties (which pre-dated my temple experience by about 12 years).  Divorced from that original context, I was making up all sorts of possibilities for what God was trying to teach me through those symbols.  Now I believe that I was pretty much dead wrong.  

That’s not to say that people can’t find meaning–even multiple meanings–in symbols.  That’s part of what is cool about symbolism–it can express many levels of meaning to different people in different contexts.  That’s fine.  I mean, I hope that’s fine–I was an English minor.  If it’s not fine, that was pretty much a big waste of my education.  So if people continue to find meaning in those symbols in the temple, or want to talk about the etymology of the word “telestial,” again, you do you.  

But I still struggle to the extent that religion claims that a symbol points to some ultimate reality that, in fact, isn’t there.  So perhaps it’s not that I have a problem with symbolism but I do have a problem when the historical context of something is misrepresented or obscured.  When that happens, we may find ourselves too busy trying to figure out what animals on the equator have to do with Thanksgiving and New Year (“they don’t even celebrate Thanksgiving on the equator!!!” was an actual thought I had) to have time to get through the rest of the slides, which actually contained the content that was valuable.  

What do you think?

  • Have you seen the human tendency to create meaning go too far?  Do you think religious folks are particularly susceptible to this?  What are the pros of meaning-making?  What are the downsides?   
  • Are there particular issues you see in Church where people bend over backward to create meaning where there may not be any? Or where their meaning-making is based on incorrect factual assumptions? Is this harmless, beneficial, or problematic?