At some point in our lives, we all bump into the problems inherent in literalism. In most cases, our educational journeys will offer well-tried reframes for us to think out of, frames that open space for an ever-widening understanding of the world. And often we also will find in our teachers and others around good models for us to emulate as we join them in understanding things this more expansive way.
As we know, though, not everyone exposed to literalism’s failure will see them as requiring them to make the jumps from “what we already know for sure” and “it’s all explained” to a place that allows them to remain calm and collected should they decide to genuinely entertain greater views. And that’s okay. In fact, an interesting bonus can arise from those who don’t move into this wider field of meaning, because they view things literally, is that they are motivated to mine stories and key events for insights that others will not generally the spend the time and effort required to search those out.
Reframing isn’t nearly as easy to do when it comes to religious literalism, however. First of all, religious ideas often carry the baggage of come fear and worry about a person’s “salvation” should they move beyond the tried-and-true ideas that they have been presented. Religion is the biggest context there is. We better be right—or yikes!
Furthermore, religious authority figures often carry the sense that “they have been called by God.” Scripture carries a similar burden because literalism tells us it was “written by God through prophets.” Who would want to mess with the Divine figure(s) who says, “Pay attention to my words” and adds stuff about “whether by mine own voice or the voice of my servants, it is the same”? We are far more willing to cling to religious literalism when we are at the same time entertaining the heavy trip of “GOD says this; exactly this.”
As Latter-day Faith is primarily focused on spiritual development and learning to relate to religion and institutions in new ways as adults rather than children, I want to focus here on a stumbling block that arises from the problematic literal when it comes to God/Mystery stuff. Literalism will not allow us to develop spiritually beyond a certain point. Literalism primarily plays in our heads, and we try to make things fit with our rational minds and also other stories and ideas that we take literally. Spirituality, however, operates, and spiritual empowerment comes, from a different place, a different energy field, a wider one than what academic and mind-y stuff can touch. To enjoy all that is at play in this deeper field, we must move beyond our “Is this literally true or not?” interests and move into the “How does this move/enlighten/energize me?” realm.
Rather than literalism, this realm only yields when allow ourselves free play with things that “suggest” a direction for inner exploration, things that carry a sense of the multivalent: “Holy smokes, this thing has layers!” In other words, we can only enter through the gates via symbols. Without trying to sound too New-Agey, symbols create/or carry with them an energy field that, when we follow its flow will take us beyond the literal into a realm in which “what I think” can come into dialogue with what “really might be going on.” Symbols are gateways to knowledge and power not approachable through the mind and language alone.
Symbols can be viewed in many ways. We can find a ton of books that explain to the degree they can the meaning of particular symbols as they are employed in different cultural contexts. I love learning about such things.
Jungians add many more layers, exploring symbols we encounter in dreams and other sub-conscious realms. I’m a big fan.
What I love most about symbols, however, is there gateway powers. For one thing, they don’t “make sense” in any kind of concrete way to our rational minds. I love that symbols are means by which we move into a different universe that touches both the known and the unknown. Symbols are entry points into “liminal” spaces (Latin root means “threshold” or “doorway”) where the day-to-day and the more predictable is suspended in favor of the possible.
Symbolism is the sine qua non of rituals, which pair symbols and mythic stories with actions and even new language forms which aid our journey into this space. Theorists speak of “liminality” as a state that is “betwixt and between” worlds. I also love the idea suggested by studies of certain Greek concepts of liminal times as “pregnant” times in which the creation of new life is possible.
On a Mormon Matters podcast episode, Stephen Carter delineated between questions that are “launching pad” ones, and those that are designed to be “landing strips.” Symbols can be “launching pads” into the imaginal, the possible. When we allow symbols free flow, they will take us toward things our souls know will be good for us to learn. And in this new realm, we will also find new strength, new power that we can take back with us “into our daily lives” (as Latter-day Saints often say).
Eventually, we do need to return to the landing strip, however. What I hope to encourage is the idea that the realm of the unknown and unexplainable is rich, and that when we spend time there, we will come to see it as ever safer to visit. When we venture past the “known” and “explained,” we can return “trailing clouds of glory” from our trip and we will arrive back down to earth with a richer sense of what things are and mean.
And then we get to go and do that launching and landing again and again, each time empowered because we “know” in new ways how God/the Universe operates and all that comes when we allow ourselves to float with its currents! This is the way of spiritual growth.
If you’d like to discuss this more on Sunday, March 19th, 2023, please CLICK HERE