In Tents #38 The Physical First, Then the Spiritual

On Sunday, October 15, 1843, Joseph Smith preached “at the stand east of the Temple.” He began by talking about the Government’s (capital letter his) failure to uphold the civil rights of the saints, then turned to the failure of religion to uphold people’s rights of inquiry, rights of access to God:

I cannot believe in any of the creeds of the different denominations, because they all have some things in them I cannot subscribe to though all of them have some truth. I want to come up into the presence of God and learn all things; but the creeds set up stakes, and say, “Hitherto shalt thou come, and no further;” which I cannot subscribe to.

I believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers. Ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors. (DHC, vol. 6, p. 57.)

We often see one or the other paragraph quoted separately, but not as often together, yet together they redefine our relationship to scripture. The first paragraph separates creed from scripture, the second invites us to think about the rhetorical purposes of scripture and of the people who transmit scripture from one generation to another.

And the two paragraphs are scandalous. “Do you really think Jehovah God Almighty would allow his holy scriptures to have errors in them?” a woman asked a young missionary, who thought (at least in retrospect), ‘Of course I believe that. God didn’t protect the Book of Lehi, didn’t protect the Word made flesh, so why protect the word on the page?’

But the first is also scandalous. One of the interesting things I found in reviewing Fuller Theological Seminary president Richard Mouw’s account of  his friendship with Mormon scholars, Talking to Mormons, last summer is his defense of creeds as not incompatible with sola scriptura. The book is Mouw’s answer to other Evangelicals who worry he’s endangering himself spiritually by talking with Robert Millet, Richard Bushman, Stephen Robinson and others.

He affirms his belief in sola scriptura while acknowledging that the creed he subscribed to at his ordination is extra-scriptural. He takes great pains to explain why an extra-scriptural creed is different from an extra-biblical book that claims to be scripture, why he considers the creed acceptable, but not the extra-biblical scripture.

It’s an odd and contradictory moment, to affirm his lifelong commitment to a document that is not in the Bible while affirming his belief that the Bible is the highest authority. In writing this it occurs to me that that section may be Mouw’s gentle way of reminding other Evangelicals that when they criticize Mormons for claiming that the Bible does not have all of God’s word they might stop and ponder on why they require seminary graduates to subscribe to an extra-biblical document as part of their ordination.

Put another way Mouw’s defense of creeds can be read as an invitation to their subscribers to think about the rhetorical purposes of scripture, and the purposes of the people who transmit scripture from one generation to another—whether through copying and publishing or preaching,  teaching and ordaining.

Yet the idea that scriptural writers may have had rhetorical purposes can be profoundly disquieting, calling into question our beliefs about scripture as an accurate expression of God’s will. If someone can mess with the text to put their own ideas across, how can scripture be a valid and valuable guide for our lives?

Joseph Smith was unconcerned with those questions. Or at least he had a sure answer in his understanding of a God who could reveal again everything that had been revealed and lost, and even reveal things that had not been known before.

I’m not sure how well we share Joseph’s confidence in revelation. Often we want certainty. We want to see our scriptures as grounded in history, as reliable accounts of encounters with divine beings whose bodily shape and moral intelligence we share.

We might even prefer certainty over the difficult business of working things out in our minds and then praying to know if our understanding is correct–or allowing others the same privilege.

But the desire to see the scriptures as purely figurative, not as historical (though perhaps not historically accurate in all details), is also a quest for certainty.

I want certainty as much as anyone, but I wonder about the rhetorical aims of such a want. Why is it so difficult to think of scripture stories as both highly figurative, and as historical accounts of real people’s experiences with a palpable God (to use Reynolds Price’s phrase)?

Why do we think of literal and figurative as mutually exclusive? In puzzling over this question it occurred to me that the we who exclude the figurative in favor of the literal and the we who exclude the literal in favor of the figurative share an assumption about truth as abstract and unchanging.

I remember Jim Faulconer saying in class one day that the definition of truth in D&C 93:24 stands Francis Bacon’s dictum “knowledge is power” on its head, indeed stands much of the way we define truth on its head.

And truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come;

This definition also frees us from having to see truth as static, as something beyond our experience, since we have no experience of a static world—living as we do amid constant change.

At the end of Gospel Doctrine class yesterday I introduced Abraham’s bargaining session with God by noting that a Seventy had recently quoted Albert Camus in Conference (pronouncing it to rhyme with Kamas, which is north of Heber, which is north of Midway, where my younger sister lives).

I hadn’t been able to find the citation, I told them, but it might be the quote about finding an inextinguishable spring in the midst of winter. Camus needed the hope of spring because he believed life had no intrinsic meaning so our task was to create meaning by the way we lived, but that was very difficult because life itself had no meaning. This means we can never understand reality, can’t understand the basis of truth.

(Fortunately, people with Alzheimer’s or other kinds of dementia are forgiving of my flights into abstraction and philosophy, and the others have learned to trust me.)

I then said I had realized just within the last year or so that the traditional Christian / Greek idea of God as someone wholly other than us was simply another variation of the idea that we have no access to Truth and the source of meaning.

The branch president’s counselor understood what I was getting at: That may be the world of the philosophers, but it’s not the world of Abraham.

Abraham may say, “Now don’t smite me, as I bargain down the number and try to stop you from destroying Sodom,” but he’s approaching God as an equal, as one who has the right to bargain and negotiate and call to account.

And what makes him think he has the right to hold God to account for the righteous who would perish along with the wicked? His covenant. Because he has made a covenant with God he is a friend of God, and can approach God as an equal (See D&C 84:77).

Abraham’s encounters with God are not abstract, but concrete and personal. I was thinking about other concrete stories last month, in preparing #37, and it occurred to me to ask a question. When Jesus says “The kingdom of God is like . . .” what does that mean?

In Jesus, What He Really Said and Did Stephen Mitchell praises Jesus for understanding the true Buddha nature in  saying  that “the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21), in the same way Richard L. Evans (Man’s Search for Happiness) praised Wordsworth for recognizing that we come into this life trailing clouds of glory from our pre-existence with God.

Within is not the only way to translate that preposition. The NRSV reading of Luke 17:21 in The Jewish Annotated New Testament renders it among, noting within as a variant. Changing the preposition also suggests that the pronoun is plural, not singular.

So, what if the kingdom of God is among us rather than within me? What if the kingdom is a place where we enjoy the same sociality that we enjoy here on earth?

In Sunday School and Priesthood lessons and church talks the definition we’re likely to hear of a parable is a concrete illustration that someone will remember when they’re out in the field sowing their seeds. They may not understand the nature of God’s kingdom, but when they start sowing the seed they’ll remember the story and be able to focus their attention on the spiritual meaning of sowing and harvesting.

But what if the parables are meant to illustrate something else? What if planting and harvesting a garden is itself part of the kingdom? What if cleaning your house, and washing your guest’s feet and helping your son understand that he should rejoice in his brother’s return, and tearing the roof off someone’s house (and presumably putting a new roof on) is part of the kingdom, so don’t go out looking for the kingdom. It’s here. It’s among you already.

And what if the kingdom of God is also a kingdom of serendipity? This morning I was reading NRSV John 12:24

Very truly I tell you, unless a gain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

Adele Reinhartz’s annotation says, “On the grain imagery see I Corinthians 15:36.” I knew the passage was about a seed needing to be sown in death to multiply, so I didn’t need to look it up, but I did.

But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual.

Oh wait, that’s verse 46. That would make a nice title for a blog post arguing that our spiritual understanding should be based on physical experience.

What do you think? Is it possible to honor both the literal and figurative in scripture? Both the studying it out and the serendipitous mistake? What value do you see in that? Any drawbacks?

Your turn.

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3 Responses to In Tents #38 The Physical First, Then the Spiritual

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    I like this — particularly the insight that seeking to see scripture as purely figurative and seeking to see scripture as purely literal share a common assumption about truth. I’m less sure I understand how the D&C definition of truth stands “knowledge is power” on its head, but would like to know more…

    I remember being startled on first encountering the D&C 93 definition of truth, because of the way it seems to make truth contingent on the subject (though I didn’t put it to myself like that), i.e., on someone to know about things. Truth isn’t just how things are; it’s *knowledge* of how things are (and were, and will be). Which, if it’s not just a trick of Joseph Smith’s language (a possibility implicit in the recognition of human rhetorical purpose as a component of scripture), suggests that truth may change depending on who perceives it. Your truth may not be the same as my truth if your knowledge is different from my knowledge. Truth gets shoved to the human/contingent side of things, while the universe — things as they are — stays on the other side.

    Which is disturbing to people, for the very reasons you mention. People want their access to God to be as inviolable as God himself, even if in order to do so they have to “read in” guarantees that God never made.

    Ongoing revelation: the only viable alternative, as you point out, to a sanctified (i.e., spiritually immaculate) canon. The irony being that the methods of literary criticism, originally developed to decode scripture, are themselves prime evidence that their creators did *not* see scripture as self-sufficient. Creation of a creed represents only another step along that road.

  2. Harlow Clark says:

    Thanks, Jonathan. Most interesting. If I remember correctly what Jim said, Joseph Smith’s definition of truth stands Francis Bacon’s definition of knowledge on its head because while Bacon is saying knowledge is the power to act upon the world, Joseph is saying knowledge is truth. We usually make a distinction between truth and knowledge, which means we can use knowledge for whatever purposes we want without regard for the demands of truth. Linking knowledge and truth creates certain moral demands on how we use knowledge, especially considering that one connotation of use is manipulate.

    Stephen Miller works from a similar premise in Captain Justo from the Planet Is. He told me the novel would revolutionize science fiction. The writing is not strong enough to do that, but he does have a revolutionary concept in how he accounts for travel at the speed of light. In sci-fi generally, as in westerns, the technology is neutral. The white hat and the black hat both have guns, and neither one’s ability to use the gun is based on their righteousness. But Captain Justo’s ability to travel quickly is, because he travels in the stream of pure being, and if your being is not purified, trying to enter that stream can destroy you emotionally and psychologically.

  3. Scott Parkin says:

    A couple of thoughts—

    On the direct question of whether one can honor both the literal and figurative in scripture (and derive truth from either reading—or both readings)…I sure hope so. It seems to me that the attention required for evaluation and deconstruction on both bases is precisely the definition of studying it out in your heart (figurative) and in your mind (literal).

    [And yes, we can argue whether interpretation of the figurative is an emotional or an intellectual pursuit, but that wasn't my intent---I'm looking more at the distinction between clarifying/identifying and interpreting when I make that distiction.]

    = = =

    On the idea of truth as context-specific…I tend to see the triptych from the other side.

    Knowledge is the observation of things as they are at the moment of consideration. “Man is fallen.” A simple statement of fact that is complete and accurate—but in context of a specific space of time specifically isolated from a fuller understanding.

    Man is fallen, but only (relatively) recently, and not necessarily forever. To claim the fallen nature of mankind as truth is not quite right—understanding past, present, and future potential paints an entirely different picture about nature, though it is factually accurate to declare that Man is fallen as accurate observation in time. Still, this suffering is but a moment—knowledge contextualized within a more comprehensive truth.

    It’s a challenge for scientists, especially working at the quantum level—Heisenberg and all that. We can know either position or velocity (direction and speed), but not both. Our immediate knowledge is necessarily incomplete, yet we can still know something of the truth of quantum mechanics by taking past, present, and future potentials into account. It requires working with both fact and potential—and moving fluidly between both ways of considering (literal vs. figurative? factual vs. truthful?)—to have any hope of understanding the true nature of the thing.

    Which essentially backs up Harlow’s concept that knowledge is not power, truth is. Which may be why the glory of God is intelligence (light and truth) rather than knowledge.

    = = =

    Science fiction writers like to poke at questions like these because we can set up exotic contexts for consideration with our readers’ blessings. Sf author and editor Kristine Kathryn Rusch approached just such of a consideration of fact vs. truth in a story posted (temporarily—one week only) on her Web site yesterday, The Injustice Collector.

    Not quite a perfect parallel to this discussion, but an interesting way of approaching questions of truth vs. knowledge in story, where understanding of both the isolated facts and the broader contexts are useful in extracting meaning from the text. A fun exercise that begs some of the larger questions.

    = = =

    On a completely unrelated note, the idea of embedded Mormonishness in a story that could never be accused of being in any way overtly Mormon, is nicely illustrated in LDS author Brad R. Torgersen’s The Nechromomator over at Galaxy’s Edge.

    In what amounts to a time-travel horror story, Brad manages to slip in a concept of the afterlife that far more closely resembles the Mormon view of spirit prison/paradise than the traditional Catholic limbo. A real and interesting way that fiction can express deep Mormonness; specifically Mormon without being about Mormon things, though it pokes at a particularly Mormon question of what fairly constitutes agency (self-determination) and the ability to change our deepest spiritual selves any time prior to the moment of judgment. Who was the more righteous of the two?

    A nice blend of a perfectly entertaining story at one level combined with an extra-crunchy nut of secondary consideration for those of us that choose to decode it that way. A chance to enjoy at both the literal and figurative levels, and be entertained (and challenged) in entirely different ways as a result.

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