Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A Central Genius of Joseph Smith that Many Don't Understand

Have you ever considered that perhaps a central genius of Joseph Smith was that he was able to transplant the great figurative mythology of history into the literalness of his own time and location - to see the symbolism of an ancient world and turn it into a moving literalism in his own day?  Have you ever considered that some of the things he preached might have been more a case of geographic transplantation of mythology than of literal, historical truth? 

Seriously, what more grand endeavor is there than the idea of entering the presence of God on a regular basis - of taking Heaven (a symbolic location, I believe - "Home can be a heaven on earth." and "The kingdom of heaven is within you.") and locate it at the end of a symbolic journey here on earth that can be traveled over and over again in our own literal time and space? 

We have temples that do that, at least symbolically.

What more grand vision is there than the idea that Zion is where we build it - and the accompanying effort to take the City of Enoch (a symbolic story, I believe) and locate it literally in our own land(s)?

We have stakes that do that, at least in theory.

What more grand concept is there than the idea that paradise is in our own backyard - and the accompanying relocation of the Garden of Eden (a symbolic story, I believe) and locate it literally where you want your people to live?

We have Independence and the surrounding area that does that, at least in theory.

What more grand hope is there than the idea that Christ will return to where his saints gather - to take Adam-Ondi-Ahman and the New Jerusalem (symbolic stories, I believe) and locate them literally at the "beginning" and "desired end" of your own community?

We have a valley and a designated location that do that, at least in theory.

Joseph was a "restorer" in his own mind - and, if you look at that role as comprehensively as possible, the "Restoration" becomes much more than just a theology or a group of ideas. It becomes the re-establishment of an entire symbolic world, moving backward AND forward in time until we literally are walking and talking with God.

"One eternal round" is a powerful concept - if it can be seen figuratively and not literally. Seen literally, it has power enough for most people; taken figuratively, it has immense power for me. I don't begrudge those who take it literally, if it works for them. It is when the literal loses significance that it has to transition to figurative or lose its power completely.

After all, the endowment ceremony itself said for a long time that the creation of Adam and Eve, as depicted, was figurative. I think that line was removed in order to benefit those who had a hard time accepting and understanding it - but that removal doesn't make it any less of a fact that Mormon leaders have spoken symbolically and figuratively a lot throughout our history, including to this very day. They just speak literally more often than figuratively, since a FAR higher percentage of people are literalists than figurativists, so to speak. Literalism is general and works fine for a community of settlers; figurativism is individualized and must be pursued and constructed outside of communal constraints by those who are explorers. Leaders can speak figuratively, but they can't lead figuratively - and that's an incredibly important distinction, imo.

The issue for subsequent leaders (those who followed and follow Joseph) is taking the "transfigured symbolic become literal" and not forgetting that it really is symbolic at its root - and that is not an easy recognition, at all, especially for those who naturally see things literally. There's no failure in continuing the literal iteration, but the real power is in recognizing the symbolic and figurative foundation for what it is - sheer visionary brilliance, imo.

I don't know if that makes any sense at all to you who will read this, since some of you surely will be literalists more naturally than I, but it's absolutely mind-blowing to me.


James said...

Thanks. I really enjoyed this and there is a lot to think about.

"After all, the endowment ceremony itself said for a long time that the creation of Adam and Eve, as depicted, was figurative."

Any chance you have a reference for this or is it just from your own experience of the endowment pre-changes?

Papa D said...

James, I'm not comfortable providing links to the endowment ceremony online, but I heard it worded that way for a number of years when I first started attending the temple - and it's been said by various church leaders over the years, particularly in reference to Eve being created from Adam's rib.

Eric said...

Thanks for this article! The statement, "It is when the literal loses significance that it has to transition to figurative or lose its power completely" explains nicely why I identify more as a figurativist. As I've learned more, and accepted more science on things like the Garden or the Flood (or scripture for that matter), these things need to become figurative for me in order to retain value.

Justin said...

I think it's THE central genius of Joseph Smith.

I'm with you all the way on this, even though I recognize that the transition from literalist to figurative thinking is very difficult for most and seems, from the outside, to not be worth it. But probably much of this observed pain in transition stems from the original literalist teaching in the first place.

StaceyP said...

Thanks for expanding my philosophical realm. I really enjoy reading your posts, Ray.

Grant said...


Ben said...

Very interesting. I love it.

Do you think Brigham Young was a literalist? It seems to me that many subsequent presidents of the church were literalists.

Papa D said...

I'm not sure if I would say Brigham was fully a literalist, but I think I would say that his visionary tendencies were different than Joseph's.

If I can be granted a little liberty with some phrasing, I think Joseph's focus was more on "the establishment of Zion", while Brigham's focus was more on "building up the kingdom of God on earth". I think there is an important difference between the two foci, and I think we tend to equate the two (as if the temple covenant only describes one activity) - and I also think most people tend toward the building activity more naturally than the establishing activity, especially men (who make up the large majority of decision-makers in the organization). Thus, the disproportionate (in my opinion) focus, for example, on classic missionary work over pure service historically. That balance has been changing under the influence of our current First Presidency (actually starting to resemble a real balance for the first time in my life), but I think it's a function of the natural numerical disparity between those who see things literally and those who see things figuratively - especially when women largely as removed from the decision-making and agenda-setting.