We use symbology a lot in the LDS church. It’s very natural topic for us. We have no problem when in the temple, they say for us to treat something as a symbol.
Many scholars believe the book of Job is written as a rhetorical device and there was no actual person named Job. This is not super problematic for most LDS. No big deal. We’re fine with saying the creation story is symbolic, and that it didn’t happen in six days. But most people are not fine with Adam and Eve being symbols also. But why? If at some point in the history of human kind, an inspired person started telling the Genesis story as an explanation of the creation, in a way to teach the important parts of the actual creation and the nature of God and how he relates to his children, and if God sent his spirit to fill the people that received that metaphorical account, is that so different?
What are the important parts of the Genesis creation story? God lives. God created us. There’s a purpose to this life. God will help his children get through this life and come back to him.
What are the important parts of the Good Samaritan story? Does it matter if it happened actually or is the power in the concepts that it teaches?
When we take the sacrament, we understand the bread is a symbol of the body of Christ. We don’t believe the bread is actually the body of Christ. Is it such a drastic step to think that the actual body of Christ that lived in the meridian of time is yet another symbol. A symbol of how God would appear if he chose to visit the Earth?
Let’s look at a list of historical/scriptural aspects related to Mormonism that could be accepted literally or metaphorically and separate five groups according to what they believe is literal or symbolic.
- God created the earth in six days.
- Noah’s flood covered the entire earth and drowned all creatures not on the ark.
- Tower of Babel was where humans were dispersed and new languages created.
- Adam was a real, historical person who was the first human with no human ancestors.
- Joseph Smith was warned by angel with sword to enter polygamy.
- Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament.
- Angel Moroni hand delivered actual gold plates to Joseph
- The Book of Abraham was translated from actual Egyptian which Joseph Smith had in possession
- Stories and references to Jesus Christ in the New Testament are all literally true. None were embellished or manipulated after the fact to bolster the new Christian religion.
- Only through ordinances of the LDS church can mankind be exalted.
- Joseph Smith saw God the Father and Jesus Christ, exactly as it is recorded in the account in the PoGP.
- Jesus Christ was resurrected, literally atoned for all human family’s sins and is the Savior and Son of God.
Group A: believes all of the above are literal.
Group B: believes 1-3 are symbolic but 4-12 literal.
Group C: believes 1-6 are symbolic but 7-12 literal
Group D: 1-9 symbolic, 10-12 literal
Group E: all on the list are symbolic.
Imagine a hypothetical conversation between two good LDS, one in group A one in group B.
Group A person: “I read some troubling information. Apparently nearly 100% of scientists reject the possibility of a global flood within the last six thousand years. I don’t know how to process this, given my belief of Noah and the Bible as part of my testimony of the gospel.”
Group B person: “Well it’s not that big of a deal to me. I believe the LDS gospel with all my heart, and I understand that scientific fact and have no issues with it.”
Group A person: “Then do you think the Bible is false? Do you think it’s lying?”
Group B person: “Of course not. I think the Bible story is fine.”
Group A person: “But you don’t think it really happened?”
Group B person: “No, I don’t think the Genesis account of Noah’s flood is historically factual, if that’s what you mean.”
Group A person: “Then it’s a lie, right?”
Group B person: “No, I believe it’s metaphor. It’s symbolic.”
Group A person: “What’s the point? It means nothing if it didn’t happen.”
Group B person: “I disagree completely. What’s important to you about the Noah’s flood story? What do you learn from it?”
Group A person: “Well, a lot of things. I learn a prophet sometimes preaches and no one listens, and how important it is to listen to a prophet, or you could be destroyed. I learned Noah was obedient to God, even when it looked silly to others. I’m moved by God’s love to put a rainbow in the sky to show his covenant with his children that he will protect us and keep us safe.”
Group B person: “I love all those things about that story. I believe all of those with all my heart. I’m equally moved by Noah’s obedience and God’s love.”
Group A person: “How could you be equally moved by something you don’t even think is real.”
Group B person: “Are you moved by the father’s love in the Parable of the Prodigal Son?”
Group A person: “Yes, of course. But that’s different.”
Group B person: “It’s exactly the same to me.”
Group A person: “So what do you think actually happened with Noah?”
Group B person: “It doesn’t matter. Perhaps it was a local flood. Perhaps it’s completely fictional, inspired by God to a man who was seeking to understand more about him. It doesn’t matter. In any event, the meaning and power to me would be the same.”
So, that kind of conversation doesn’t seem too far-fetched at all. One could even see a general authority taking the Group B person role. Now let’s take it to the next level.
Group C person is persuading a Group B person why it’s fine not to believe Moses is the author of the Pentateuch. B: “But that challenges my belief that prophets write scripture.” C: “But it’s the actual scripture that’s inspiring, not the reassurance knowing a prophet has written it, right?” B: “Well then where do you draw the line, can anything be scripture?” C: “Well we as a church with a living prophet, have chosen to define the canon as the Bible, BOM, D&C, and PoGP.” So with some thought and rearranging existing paradigms, we can see Group B accepting this without too much trouble.
Then the next level. Group D talking to Group C. C: “Come on that’s going too far. There were no actual gold plates? The Book of Mormon is not from Ancient America?” D: “The power is in the words. In the Spirit that comes when we read.” C: “But isn’t that the Holy Ghost confirming that Moroni is real?” D: “For me, it’s the Holy Ghost confirming that the words are true, not the factual story of how they came to be.” C: “But what about Nephi? The gold plates? The seerstone” D: “Symbolic. Symbolic. Symbolic.” C: “Then that makes Joseph a liar?” D: “It’s complicated. But in the worst case, no more a liar than the original author of Noah’s ark story.”
The next level is the hardest to swallow, I understand. D: “I can stretch this a long ways, but don’t take away my Jesus. I love Jesus.” E: “I do too. He’s the Son of God and representation of God in human form.” D: “But you don’t think he’s real.” E: “The stories we read in the New Testament may be symbolic of God, but the power of Jesus Christ to change us is real. As real as anything we can know in this life.”
The point here is to see that all of us accept symbols at some level. A testimony of spiritual things brings so much more than the value of it’s historical and scientific understanding. If you feel like that aspect is failing, then reevaluate the spiritual power and value it has, and consider whether a change in paradigm can bring you peace again.