Zelophehad’s Daughters

What are Symbols for?

Posted by Kiskilili

Perhaps because I’m not well versed in semiotics, I find the subject of symbols endlessly confusing. And, as this post will amply attest, the more I think about it, the more confused I become. Here’s how I (mis)read the situation:

For those who put their faith in the realm of the ineffable, inaccessible, and immaterial, symbols and other approximations or constructs present an understandable route to approaching the divine. But since we Mormons are notoriously materialistic philisophically, maintaining that humans are not ontologically distinct from deity, what purpose specifically do symbols serve in our tradition?

The relationship between a symbol and its assigned significance is somewhat arbitrary and often less than straightforward. In theory, then, God could teach us in a much less obfuscatory manner–more directly–with less potential for misunderstanding.

Symbols are also typically culture specific. I understand that a person wearing headgear made of precious metal and constructed in a shape imitating the crenelation that can be seen on battlements is understood to wield power over other individuals, and I think I understand some of the historical reasons that gave rise to the association between the shape of the object we call a “crown,” the materials of its construction, and sovereignty. But this association is neither universal nor direct.

And while this example may nevertheless be so widespread today as to be readily transparent, my impression is that symbols that are appealed to in a Church context typically smack of a certain esotericism. We sometimes speak as though the value of symbols is predicated at least partly on their relative opacity.

Of course, language itself is a system of symbols; I’m not suggesting we discard symbols entirely (as if such a thing were possible). But the opacity specifically interests me. Why would God speak in a manner which is, by definition, cryptic, ambiguous, and prone to misunderstanding?

The reason I personally find most attractive points to canonization as the culprit behind the obfuscation. Canonization attempts to set in stone, as eternally binding, text which is necessarily rooted in particular times, places, practices, and associations. As culture changes, the referents behind previously transparent associations are lost, and require continual explication and reinterpretion. In this view it is less a matter of God speaking cryptically as of God speaking relatively clearly in someone else’s idiom.

Another possibility is that God uses symbols to tap into a Jungian collective unconscious. Some might argue that the resemblance between baptism and burial and rebirth has repercussions on a subconscious level. (I’m not particularly persuaded, but I list it here because I find it intriguing.)

The cynic could point to the deliberate (?) ambiguity behind the composition of Delphic oracles. Regardless of what happens, one can find an interpretation that will prove the oracle true. As long as God mumbles (so to speak), his word can never be proven false.

Or perhaps God uses a code of sorts to speak to his elect, as a method of separating wheat from chaff for communication purposes. The people who have received the spiritual memorandum containing the decoder ring are able to make sense of divine truths, while others stumble in confusion.

(This only raises the question why God would keep truth a secret, given the Church’s injunction to do missionary work and “spread the gospel light.” I can certainly understand, if not endorse, the role secrecy plays in creating and maintaining social hierarchies, even within the Church, and more starkly delimiting the border separating Church from world. The point of codes, after all, is exclusion. But given God’s resources, why resort to a method of secrecy as crude as symbols?)

Finally, the very ambiguity built into symbols and the sundry possibilities for interpretation bequeath them a richness lacking in more direct speech. Another attractive rationale is that symbols point to the importance of experience itself perhaps above, or as a particular form of, knowledge. No story worth its salt can fairly be reduced to a bare moral; the experience of the story itself is important. Similarly, one might argue, the value of symbols lies not in teasing out one-to-one correspondences like code-crackers, but in the experience of the symbols themselves in all their richness and grandeur.

Here’s where things get even trickier:

In our tradition symbols are frequently associated specifically with ritual, or symbolic actions, certain of which are said to be necessary for salvation.

But what exactly does this mean? If an action is symbolic, how could it possibly also be salvific?

Evidently one’s salvation is not contingent on “deciphering the correct meanings” behind the symbolic actions of the ritual. First, if information is the goal, it could be obtained easily in other ways, and should be accessible to deceased spirits. Furthermore, ritual is shifty and its interpretation culture-specific rather than universal; once we say something is symbolic, can we claim a single universal “meaning” to be extracted? The experiential component of ritual, whose potential value I think is fairly apparent, must then be subordinate to the physical action itself, which forms the necessary core of the ritual. If I’m baptized, have faith in Jesus, and live a worthy life, I will be saved whether or not I understand baptism to represent rebirth.

However, quite frequently we claim that rituals convey invaluable information about God’s eternal purposes clothed in symbolic garb. Theologically, what exactly are we talking about? Are symbols nothing more than a skeletal framework, with no particular meaning, but which God can imbue with sacred information or experience as he sees fit?

For example, could God have equally asked us to clap our hands once to give every soul who has ever lived the opportunity for salvation? We could then assign symbolic significance to the act in various ways, but the point would be the opportunities and light God would reward us with for obeying to his command. In the same way that a space with no particular inherent significance can be dedicated and become holy, can a physical action also be dedicated, as a sort of vessel which God may fill or not?

Or does God have an “intended” meaning behind the symbolic actions in mind, a meaning he reveals at his pleasure? If so, what is the relationship between the symbolic association (which the patron may or may not correctly decipher) and the physical action itself, which is what is said to be necessary?

9 Responses to “What are Symbols for?”

  1. 1.

    Symbols are important primarily a signature of a covenant. I think evidence that the form is not the primary thing exists in the fact that the endowment and initiatory ceremony has changed. Keeping the symbolism is not necessarily entirely culturally dependant as the symbolism can be explained and taught to keep it culturally alive. People in much of the world still have the issues with literacy rates. I don’t think the lesson within the ritual should be held too lightly. The relationship is that this is the “legal” requirement of signature. It is God’s authorized form for us.

    Yet you bring up an excellent point as to why they are so necessary here on Earth. Why can’t we enter into the same covenants in the next life? I don’t really know the answer, but I have pondered it a lot. I get the feeling some of it involves us, here, now. We need to learn to think of those who went before us, are with us now, and who are yet to come. The more we are tied to others, the more we become one human family united in a desire to become one with the father. In a way, the requirement acts symbolically of a greater lesson, layed out more explicitly in Malachi.

  2. 2.

    In looking at Mormon history, I tend toward the point of view that, as you say, our religious symbolism is a matter of “speaking relatively clearly in someone else’s idiom.” Thinking of the temple, for example, it seems that anyone who was reasonably familiar with the symbolic universes of 19th-century Masonry, evangelical religion, and Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo sermons would have had little trouble discerning the intended meaning of the symbols that now strike us as a bit opaque. In my view, the symbols were used — in place of open language — at least partly because they were more efficient conversation than a more explicit verbal text for a community composed of not terribly literary men and women.

    On the broader questions, relating to, for example, baptism — well, I have no idea. The notion of those rituals as eternal laws that God has no control over is a theme in Mormon thought. I can’t really make sense of that. Who, then, instituted the rituals; why are they practiced in such culturally-embedded ways? On the other hand, if God created the rituals, surely — as you note — God could create others or replace them when their symbolism grows tired or overloaded with human constructs. Yet surely we’ve reached that point, so why haven’t they been replaced? A real swamp; I see few resolutions.

    Yet you’ve articulated the quagmire well.

  3. 3.

    I tend to think about symbols as rich, ambiguous signs that can be interpreted in a variety of ways, but that do have “correct meanings” under certain circumstances.

    For me, being spiritually in tune is the “decoder ring.” There have been moments in my life when I have been “in tune with God,” and the murkiness surrounding a specific symbol has dropped away, and a particular meaning has crystallized before me. Of course, what is so brilliant about the whole thing is that I have had this same experience with the same symbol on different occasions, and I have ended up with different crystallizations (i.e. different “correct meanings”).

    Thinking about symbols this way means that the “decoder ring” is accessible for all people (i.e. there is no special elect who have access to a decoder ring that no one else has access to). And it means that symbols can but don’t have to mean one thing–you get the best of both worlds. And it means that they can be grounded and understood in context and our lived experiences.

  4. 4.

    Ahh the irony of me defending symbolism since I have already raged against it on Blogger of Jared : Consider this though:

    James Russell Lowell once said:

    “The question of common sense is always ‘What is it good for?’ – a question which would abolish the rose and be answered triumphantly by the cabbage.”

    What is the rose (symbolism) good for? You mentioned stories worth their salt needing to extend beyond the plain and simple message. I think this is key. Symbolism is a portion of the human experience. It lets us learn at our own pace and unfolds into a rich experience instead of a lesson.

    Baptism for example:

    We start by being reverenced by the grandeur of the ceremony. I can clap my hands anytime I want. It’s rare that I put on a white outfit gather a group of believers, go into the water, offer a prayer, etc…
    Later we consider the implications of being washed clean
    Later we consider the implications of being born again and taking the name of Christ.
    And so on…

    (Ever notice the connection between the placement of our hands/arms in the baptismal ceremony and certain aspects of the temple?)

  5. 5.

    Nice comment as always, RT. Thanks for your thoughts.

    Doc, your comparison to signatures is very interesting; I suspect one fruitful line of investigation would be to research the role rituals play in legal environments and compare it to religious environments (perhaps especially since, as is well known, the Hebrew word “covenant” equally means “treaty” and can refer to an agreement between political entities, and in the prophetic material of the OT we see God not infrequently suing Israel for breach of contract).

    Obviously, the act of writing one’s name in cursive is only given significance by widespread social convention (in this country) and a hefty centralized government that considers it legally binding and enforces consequences. The act itself does not tap into any natural laws of the cosmos, but only societal (and therefore mutable) laws. Since part of the purpose of writing a signature is to create a semi-permanent record of the agreement one is entering into, a closer parallel to the way our rituals actually function (the issue of record-keeping aside) might be the ancient Babylonian custom of “passing the pestle” (whatever that means) as a way of ratifying legal agreements. Again, although symbolic import may have been attributed to the behavior and may or may not have related to the origins of the behavior, the act itself has significance only within a community that has collectively agreed on its significance. (I, a 21st century American, could step over pestles all day long and it wouldn’t mean anything to anyone else, let alone entail legally binding consequences.) The question is, does this parallel our view of ritual? Is it fundamentally a social behavior whose power derives from the community, and whose symbolic associations are basically assigned rather than “natural”? This makes sense to me, but it doesn’t fit at all smoothly into Mormon theology on the matter.

    Similar to you, it makes much more sense to me to assume ordinances are essentially for us and not for the dead (although again, this is not what the Church teaches). This topic is likely worth a post in itself, but I can’t help but wonder why pseudo-relationships with dead people–and not all dead people, but specifically people who share a significant amount of our genetic material–is important. (I say “pseudo-”relationships because I consider it necessary for both parties to interact with each other to at least some degree for an association to earn the label “relationship.”) That is, I can read my documents by and about dead Babylonians all day long, but in Mormon thought, it’s not a religious act unless I can demonstrate that I’m a genetic descendant. I can understand how researching one’s forebears could be interesting; I’m only saying that, theologically, I can’t make sense of what’s going on.

    Thanks for your comments, Seraphine and Ryan. I, too, love symbols and metaphors; several years ago in GD we examined passages in Revelation purportedly describing the war in heaven and compared them to descriptions in the D&C, and voted on which was preferable. I was the only person who preferred Revelation.

    However, I still consider it fun to ask why. If I understand you correctly, you’re arguing that symbols are essentially half empty vessels which God (or humans) can imbue with various symbolic associations as the need strikes us. If so, is there any reason our particular rituals could not be dramatically different? Hand-clapping would certainly be economic if God is serious about saving every human soul by proxy. But it’s true it’s rather common place. However, a symbol by defintion never does more than resemble the behavior which it is said to parallel, which means the comparison is never watertight. Could God, for example, stipulate at some point that instead of baptism converts undergo an elaborate mock funeral and burial followed by a ritual imitating the phoenix’s rise from the ashes?

    If so, and this is a law that God is above and free to manipulate, then how can we say, strictly speaking, that it’s necessary?

  6. 6.


    Excellent questions. I think the idea suggested by Seraphine and Ryan has merit. We can think of baptism in a number of ways. Many eight year olds think of the ordinance in terms of becoming clean, like taking a bath. When I was little, I thought that is why we insisted of full immersion, and considered that fact yet further proof that our way was much superior to other forms of baptism. An adult will make the connection to death and rebirth. Neither approach is wrong. We can think of the sacrament in similar terms. To some, the bread and water represent the body and blood of Jesus. Others focus on the sustenance of the bread of life and the living water.

    And sometimes the symbols do change, over time. The bread and water perform the same function for me that the blood of a lamb did for the Israelites. And we also need to take into the account the recent changes in the initiatory ordinances.

    p.s. Kiskilili, you might want to check your keyboard, I think it might be defective. I’m pretty sure yours has a question mark in the place where mine has a period.

    p.p.s. Many thanks to whichever one of the ZDs is responsible for the Random Quote feature on the right sidebar. Not only is every one of the quotes memorable, but there is such a good mix of serious/funny. It’s worth coming here just to see what quote comes up.

  7. 7.

    Mark, I’m glad you enjoy our random quotes. They’re actually a collaborative effort; we have a database to which any member of the blog can add. (I sometimes find it entertaining to try to guess which person contributed which quote.)

  8. 8.

    I definitely agree with what’s been said about the experiential value of symbols. However, I have no idea what to make of the idea that they serve some kind of salvific function. And I think it gets even more confusing, as has been mentioned, when you bring symbolic work done for dead ancestors into the picture. Given the ties between symbols and the cultures in which they are embedded, what do our symbolic rituals mean to people in the next life, who not only may have lived in a very different culture from ours, but who are now (presumably) in a quite different cultural situation from anything on earth?

    Here’s a kind of bizarre, but perhaps relevant, question. When the temple ceremony was changed in the early 1990s, this could be understood in the context of the needs and situation of people living in the late 20th century. However, one might argue that this change additionally affected all the deceased who had their temple work done from that point on. Does it matter to a person in the next life which version of the ritual they get?

    I have to admit that like Doc, I don’t feel very clear as to why the dead need us to do symbolic work on their behalf, or how exactly this work benefits them. I like the idea that this is a way of connecting us to each other, though.

  9. 9.

    Personally, I don’t think there’s any reason our rituals couldn’t be different. (This is me basically saying “I don’t know what to make of the issues you’ve raised.” As RT said, “it’s a quagmire”).

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