In her talk “The Evolutionary Roots of Religious Adaptation” for the Mormon Transhumanist Association, Chelsea Strayer hit on one of the fundamental sources of tension between devout and academic perspectives on faith: the distinction between process and purpose. She gave the example of evolution, emphasizing that when she teaches evolution it is fundamentally a discussion of process rather than purpose. Despite this, however, she recounts that:
Every time I teach an evolution class… I have one student walk away and say, “Hey, you just told me that God doesn’t exist. You just proved that.” And I’ll have [another] student say, “You just proved that God is the smartest person ever.” I’ll have two students, same lecture, walk away with both of those [impressions].
The whole talk is fascinating—and definitely worth watching in its entirety—but it’s the tension between process and purpose that I want to focus on.
Let me give another example of this. Walter van Beek’s excellent piece A temple, a temple, we already have a temple has been persistently on my mind since he posted it a few weeks ago. The meat of the post is this comparison of the dimensions of the Temple of Solomon and the Second Temple with the Book of Leviticus:
The Second Temple would have the same dimensions. It is this structure that, on close reading, does inform the book of Leviticus. The rules and prescriptions fall into three unequal categories: the chapters 1 – 17 pertain to all the rules of purity and cleansing for the public, the sins and their forgiveness: this is the public section, the Outer Court. Chapters 18-24 handle the duties of the priests, details on the sacrifices, this is the holy place. Finally, the last part, 25-27, handles the law of the Jubilee, when special sacrifices are offered up to the Lord, when slaves are freed and debts cancelled: the Holy of Holies: Leviticus has the structure of the temple plan.
But there is more to that. The 17 chapters constitute a reading tour around the Court of the Sacrifice, from the entrance seven to the right, seven to the left, and three mediating the transition to the Holy Place. Chapters 18-24, another seven, form a virtual tour of that rectangle, while the three last chapters form the apex of the meeting with the Lord. The symbolism of the numbers is clear: 3+7+7, 7 and 3. This may sound farfetched, but in the worldview of post-exilic Jews is not: Leviticus is a temple in words.
This is, to use Strayer’s terminology again, an analysis of process. And, like Strayer, I affirm that “the process is fascinating in and of itself.” But, just like the student who concluded from Strayer’s lecture on evolution believing that God must not exist, there seems to be a potential attack on historicity that lurks beneath all close analysis. Quoting van Beek again:
Exodus gives a wonderfully detailed description of the ark and especially of the tabernacle, richly decorated, with lots of gold and silver, rich tapestry, and intricate construction of the ark and a tent made of dugong or badger skins. The description of the tabernacle takes up almost half of Exodus and does raise a lot of questions. Dugong or badger, the skins of which should cover the temple, the discussions on the meaning of tahash (tabernacle, but that is a Latin term for tent) is still raging, but both animals are equally unbelievable inside the Sinai desert, especially in the numbers of skins needed for such a tent cover. But the whole description of Exodus 24 – 40 is highly questionable: the idea that all these metals, rare fibers, special woods, and exotic dyes could be found in the desert is, to say it in correct academese, ‘extremely improbable’. The tent was probably much simpler and smaller, and a description of the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 33:7-10) would fit in with that notion, but there we are in an E part of Exodus, the older source. The exuberant description is a P text, Priestly, much later, in effect post-exilic; as I said earlier the description of the temple in Exodus should not be read as a blueprint for building, but as a reminiscence of a lost temple; in exilic times this would evidently be the Temple of Salomon, as remembered in Babylon, projected into the pre-history of Israel in the desert. A temple in words is what they created.
We now have the phrase “a temple in words” being used—or at least being capable of being understood—in two distinct ways. In the first passage I quoted, it conveys a sense of surplus: there is a temple in words in addition to the physical edifice. But in the second passage it can be read in a way that is supplanting rather than adding: a temple in words instead of the physical edifice. The Tabernacle was, to at least some degree, fictional. Solomon’s temple was, to at least some degree, fictional. What we really have is just a text, and the text is enough. Does it really matter, then, if the Tabernacle or Solomon’s temple were entirely fictional? I don’t know that this critique was intended. It seems innate.
This represents the greatest threat and greatest promise of intellectual Mormonism. You can see profound beauty when you dig deeper, but there’s always a risk that—rightly or wrongly—you will come to believe that you have unmasked the magician for the mechanic that he really is. Can we recognize the beauty and power and mystery of words and ideas without giving up on the dream of God made real? Of God imposing—not symbolically, but literally—His presence into our world? Of Jesus as a literal man who literally walked among us, who healed real, physical infirmities and in some meaningful sense enacted an Atonement that is a profound, powerful symbol but also something more?
Here are some thoughts, but no final conclusions.
First, there seem to be lots of people for whom wholesale substitution of symbols for historical or literal truths isn’t a problem. I am not one of those people. It’s like the cliché in movies where someone dies and the survivor is told that it’s OK because the person isn’t really dead. As long as you remember them, they will live on in you. This is true and beautiful as far as it goes: our actions will continue to ripple out after our deaths. But my reaction is still: That’s not good enough. Ripples fade to nothing and in the end the result is the same: eternal silence. We were promised something more.
Second, Mormonism seems designed in a way that is fundamentally hostile to symbolic reductionism. As often as people may say that the Book of Mormon is just as spiritually profound even if it’s totally ahistorical, the position seems discordant. Joseph Smith peered into his hat to translate, so why go to the trouble of having gold plates at all? Why the insistence on a physical artifact, found in a stone box next to other physical artifacts, buried in the dirt? Why the witnesses to testify to the physical reality of the plates: their dimensions and heft? As Terryl Givens observed in By the Hand of Mormon, the narrative of the Book of Mormon translation process seems calculated to frustrate symbolic reduction. It’s almost as though ahistorical symbolism had been anticipated and preemptively rebutted.
Mormons have carried this stubbornly simplistic view into all aspects of our theology. Why else the insistence on literal baptism by immersion by proxy for those who have passed on? Every other denomination seems content to deny the total necessity of baptism, deny the physicality of baptism, or write off a large proportion of the human population as unsaved. Only the Mormons viewed physicality as so axiomatic that the entire problem became essentially logistical rather than theological.
Third, the peril of intellectualism may function as a reminder that though the glory of God may be intelligence, being lucky enough to be born with high IQ and access to education do not constitute shortcuts to righteousness. Scripture study for the gifted may present greater possible benefit, but it has a great accompanying risk. We are all trapped, no matter how smart or educated we happen to be, between the rock of simple-minded, nonsensical literalism and the hard place of over-intellectualized, meaningless symbolism.
Fourth, it’s possible that this problem may be an aberration of contemporary culture. We live in a highly materialist culture. Not materialist as in “consumerist” (although that may also be true), but materialist as in a belief that material reality is fundamental. Thus: scientism and physics envy. Some of these problems more or less evaporate in an idealist paradigm. And that’s a real possibility, as examples like this one illustrate: Is Information Fundamental?
What if the fundamental “stuff” of the universe isn’t matter or energy, but information? That’s the idea some theorists are pursuing as they search for ever-more elegant and concise descriptions of the laws that govern our universe. Could our universe, in all its richness and diversity, really be just a bunch of bits?
The ontological status of symbolism changes radically in a world where it is information and not matter/energy that are truly fundamental. In such a world we would no longer be talking about a physical temple or a temple of words because those would be just two different medium for the same information, like writing the same text as a series of 1’s and 0’s on a hard disk drive or as a series of hand-written alphabetic characters on a piece of notebook paper.
I don’t know if the problem of process crowding out purpose is an elemental aspect of the human condition, an equalizing handicap of intellectualism, a byproduct of materialist ascendency, or if it is something altogether different. I do believe, however, that the text of the scriptures and the narrative of the Restoration enact an aversion to symbolic reduction. It is impossible to know exactly what is literal and what is allegorical or symbolic or poetic or exaggerated in scripture, but that there is a kernel of literal, historical truth seems non-negotiable. Symbolism alone, at least in our current paradigm, is really not good enough.