Zelophehad’s Daughters

God’s Bifocals: Symbols and Allegories

Posted by Kiskilili

On a recent thread on Feminist Mormon Housewives the perennially relevant topic of symbols has been raised yet again. In some traditional discussions of the ancient world and its use of symbols, Greece has been painted as a distinctive break with the Near East for its rational, linear attempts to understand reality, in contrast to the symbolic, circular thought of ancient Near Easterners. Often the claim is made in Church contexts that in order to make sense of our liturgy and sacred texts, we must set aside our heritage of Greek rationalism and recover this ancient symbolic lens.

I, however, am skeptical of both our portrayal of Greece and of the symbolic thoughtworld of ancient cultures further to the east. Although Greece undeniably differed from its eastern precedents, particularly in the crystallization of some forms of meta-analysis, deductive reasoning, and self-conscious investigation, Western identification with and exaltation of Greece has led us to overstate those differences. There was a time not so long ago when histories of the world waxed grandiloquent about the brilliant light Greece dawned on a dark “Oriental” horizon dominated by despotic potentates governing a decadent populace.

More recent scholarship has modified this view considerably. Although the precise relationship between Greek culture and its Near Eastern forebears, both in the Bronze Age and in the Classical period, is still under discussion, it’s become sufficiently clear that Greece was profoundly influenced by the older civilizations to its east that some scholars now provocatively refer to Greece as part of the Near East. (The Hellespont, it could be argued, is as much a mental as a physical barrier.) In spite of the very significant philosophical advancements that were made in Greece, these developments were neither a thoroughgoing eradication of other forms of discourse, nor wholly unprecedented. It was very clever of Pythagoras to formulate the theorem which bears his name, but then the Babylonians had already been using it for more than a millennium. And Aristotle was undeniably both brilliant and influential, yet a significant portion of what he said was just outright wrong. This is the man who claimed women have fewer teeth than men (did it occur to him to open a woman’s mouth and count?), and who advanced ridiculously illogical arguments justifying morally repugnant institutions such as slavery. And certainly the pantheon of quirky, multitudinous Olympian gods would not have been terribly foreign to the Near Easterners (Herodotus himself claimed their worship originated in Egypt, and there’s abundant evidence for cults being imported into Greece from various other locations, such as Apollo from Anatolia).

Of course, all this is academic as long as we believe that our own culture, whether modeled on Greece or not, is so saturated by rational expression that we fundamentally fail to understand the symbolic discourse conveyed by our sacred texts. In the view of some, the ancients grasped symbolic representation in a way that is now lost to us and must be recovered.

In my humble opinion, this is sheer nonsense. I see no reason to believe there were more symbols in the ancient world than we have in our own culture, predisposing the ancients to appreciate symbolic discourse where we founder. Certainly we state truth propositions and investigate them in a way that would be somewhat foreign to these cultures, but symbolic expression, it strikes me, is still alive and well today. Aside from the obvious point that language is itself a symbolic system, no one blinks at phrases such as “give the green light” or fails to grasp how a skull and crossbones could serve as a warning. What’s been lost are the specific referents (which should be a clear sign to us that a symbol’s meaning is not inherent to it).

The fundamental character of a symbol is its dual nature: one thing stands in for another without ceding its own characteristics. It is understood to be that which it is not. Some would say that the only way to perceive God’s intent is to view the world through his bifocals, so to speak, acknowledging two perspectives simultaneously and observing how they relate to each other.

But exactly how are God’s bifocals manufactured–or what are the criteria by which symbols are identified and explicated? Where do the interpretations of symbols come from, and who authorizes them? Are all symbolic interpretations equally valid? And does a symbolic reading neutralize the literal reading?

The questions are anything but new. To take just one example, early Christian communities approached the Old Testament in a number of ways. On the one extreme, Marcion and many Gnostics rejected it entirely, alleging that its God was a bad or lesser deity unworthy of worship (and frequently foisting the problem of evil off on him). On the other extreme, Ebionites maintained their allegiance to Judaism. Between these positions others attempted to steer a middle course, accepting the authority of the Old Testament but qualifying its relationship to Christianity, and one convenient way to fit the text into an explicitly Christian theological system was to read it allegorically.

Some commentators went hogwild with this approach. Pseudo-Barnabas, for example, claimed that the commandment not to eat pork was never meant to be taken literally the way the Jews adhered to it. What God actually meant when he said “don’t eat pig” was “don’t act like pigs.” In similar fashion, every single instance in which wood was mentioned could be pounced on as “clear” reference to the cross, and thus symbolic of Jesus. A set of texts (the Old Testament) which might otherwise pose problems for assimilation into the Christian worldview was thus rendered acceptable. On the one hand, Christians could claim ancient precedent for their beliefs; on the other, they neatly avoided many problems posed by the text they inherited.

(In a more modern context, Reform Jews have long asserted that the Messiah is best understood not as a literal individual figure, but merely as the hope for a utopian age.)

How do we know when and where to read symbolically? Do we have free rein with symbolic interpretations? Would it be acceptable to assert that the command to build temples is in fact meant to be understood symbolically, that God has no desire for physical buildings in which to worship him? Would it be possible to claim that the Second Coming and Millennium are empty promises, merely symbolic of our hopes for developing a utopian environment? If the Word of Wisdom were read as a symbolic commandment (representing our commitment to Christ, for example), would we then no longer be required to keep it literally?

As much as I admire the ingenuity of those allegorizing our sacred texts, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that symbolism isn’t sometimes invoked as a convenient way of weaseling out of addressing literal statements with which we’re no longer comfortable, and which pose problems to the ascendant theological position of the moment, in the ancient world as in the modern. The appealing characteristic of symbols– dual nature and the somewhat arbitrary relationship between the two aspects is their very manipulability. Canonized texts can be perceived to maintain their integrity and continuity through time even as novel readings are assigned to narratives and commandments.

How, methodologically, are appropriate symbolic readings constructed? And by what criteria are the acceptable symbolic readings sifted from the unacceptable?

8 Responses to “God’s Bifocals: Symbols and Allegories”

  1. 1.

    Kiskilili, great post, and thanks for the Greek material — which I’d love to know more about!

    I agree that invoking symbolism and symbolic treatments of sacred texts are useful tools for those who insist on relating past revelation with changing understandings of God and divine will. Other useful techniques for this kind of harmonization project include assigning a tone of hyperbole or sarcasm to a text, and developing a theory in which the text contains a certain amount of essentially random error.

    In Mormon thought, the symbolic approaches you discuss have traditionally been used in ways that are (a) as literalistic as possible and (b) responsive to institutional authority. Thus, Joseph Smith read the New Testament parable in which three measures of leaven leaven the whole dough as a prophecy of how the testimony given to the Mormon Three Witnesses would leaven the whole church. The central, and very literalistic, linkage here is the number “three,” although this reading of the parable is clearly responsive to Smith’s need to find a precedent for his activities in the New Testament.

    The hyperbole approach has been profoundly useful for Mormons in the 20th and 21st centuries. For example, the varied teachings of Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and others on blood atonement, for example, are sometimes finessed as being a hyperbolic way of explaining how serious sin is: nobody is going to kill anybody, but fornication is so bad that it’s like killing yourself. Once again, Mormon uses of this approach are generally responsive to the needs of institutional authority. In this case, it’s the need of the modern LDS church to present itself as law-abiding and, well, not scary.

    These modes of deviating from the literal meaning of a received text can be made, in the Mormon tradition, to enjoy all the benefits of flexibility that you outline without raising the dilemma of acceptable interpretations with which you conclude. The method is simple: control of symbols rests with the current leadership. Leaders can shift the meaning of symbols when necessary to match what they perceive as God’s current plan, but they can reject efforts at revising symbolic meaning that would deviate from that perceived plan. Hence, “the gathering of Israel” becomes a symbol for baptism, but the Word of Wisdom remains a specific dietary code — because the leadership says so. Centralized authority of this kind prevents symbolic anarchy while retaining flexibility over time, although it certainly has dilemmas of its own.

  2. 2.

    [i just refreshed, and it looks like RT and I cross-commented. I hope this isn't too tangential.]

    Kiskilili, I agree with you that the malleability of interpretation that symbolism offers is a double-edged sword. It has the practical effect of encouraging social cohesion, such as the use of “God” in American civil religion or how Christians as diverse as Pat Robertson and John Shelby Spong can all claim to be Jesus’ followers. Even in Mormonism I see caution on the part of leaders to nail down the Book of Mormon as a literal, historical document, thus preserving a range of approaches towards it. But this begs the question–is such unity a convenient deception?

    I’m not sure how best to respond to your question of criteria. I can speak from personal experience. For a long time, I equated a literal interpretation with integrity, and found that I didn’t have the power to defend such a structure.

    Eventually I slid towards an increasingly allegorical approach to Mormonism and then to Christianity, in an effort to preserve some relevance of God, Christ and the atonement to my life.

    I think this is why I’ve been drawn to theologians like Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr and Manuel Guttierez, all whom strove to adapt Christianity to the concerns and critiques of the *modern world. If there’s any hope for me as a Christian, it will be due to their ideas (I’ve given up any hope for me as a Mormon, since we seem to have much less theological wiggle room).

    How far is too far? I agree with you that we can symbolize to the point of absurdity. Many Christians say that the liberal theologians have done exactly that–that they’ve allegorized themselves out of Christianity entirely.

  3. 3.

    I agree with you that we can symbolize to the point of absurdity.

    This jumped out at me because the opposite came to mind while I was reading Kiskilili’s post. Anyone else sit through humorously absurd seminary lessons in which they tried to describe Revelations in a literal sense?
    I sometimes struggle because I think that things are taken too literally too often. When I was teaching seminary a while back, the lesson manual had a Bruce R. McKonkie quote about how natural disasters were sent to destroy the wicked. A literal reading of Isaiah would lead one to assume that, I suppose. The lesson plan instructed me to tell the students to think of recent disasters and then read that unfortunate quote. I was most certainly not going to tell these students that Hurricane Katrina was deserved punishment for wicked people.

    So what criteria can we use to sift through this? I have no idea. I’m left with the idea from Nephi that each must work out their own salvation with fear and trembling, and give it our best shot.

  4. 4.

    What a tough question! In thinking through these kinds of hermeneutical questions before, it often comes down to whom you’re willing to trust. Every major system of interpretation seems to rely on some sort of magisterium, whether the pope, the GA, the majority of learned interpreters, or some notion of inward light.

    The principle of analogy works occasionally. It’s obvious we’re dealing with symbols when John is told that the stars are angels and the lampstands are churches (Rev 1:20), but perhaps that’s just introducing another layer of symbolism! The same thing happens in Daniel when the angel “clarifies” his visions. When Jesus explains the Parable of the Sower bit-by-bit, it’s fairly straightforward, but is that a license to interpret every parable similarly? I don’t think so. I think it was Calvin that spoke of the need to interpret Scripture by Scripture–the “difficult” passages with reference to the “easy” ones. But who decides which are the “easy” ones? There’s the magisterium again! Perhaps we’re stuck in an epistemological quagmire without divine intervention.

  5. 5.

    Thanks for the very thoughtful and interesting responses!

    The approach RT outlines makes perfect sense, and the examples from Mormon history are very interesting. I do wonder what role “charistmatic” authority plays, though (or perhaps not entirely charismatic, but often, authority derived to at least some degree from education or employment by the Church?). For example, the discussion which spawned this post involved the interpretation of the Adam-and-Eve story (in the temple), and the rather ingenious approach of reading Eve as representative of the Church submitting to Adam, representative of God. Obviously this metaphor had currency in ancient Israelite thought, but in other instances, such as Hosea or Ezekiel, the metaphoric usage is made clear. Such is not the case in any account of Adam and Eve; marriage was undoubtedly a social institution in Israel, (otherwise the metaphor would not have been a metaphor!), so it doesn’t make good hermeneutical sense to believe every reference to marriage bypasses the literal implications in favor of these symbolic overtones. But what’s especially interesting for this conversation is that, as far as I know, this reading is nowhere endorsed by the institution itself. Maybe since we believe symbols’ interpretations are self-evident to begin with, we’re less attuned to how their readings are authorized?

    (I also think of Hugh Nibley’s gloss on the ceremony, which has practically crystallized as doctrine, in spite of the fact that, technically, the man had no institutional authority.)

    My own biases are no doubt very evident: I’m liberal in the traditional sense in that I have difficulty accepting religious authority alone. The interpretation has to make sense to me on other grounds. Not too long ago President Hinckley referred to information he’d learned by reading an unspecified book on the Bible; consider the irony in this situation: he’s presumably accepting the authority of scholars, but because of his position, a piece of scholarship can easily be caught up into the realm of doctrine. I guess I think, I’ll read the scholars myself and decide for myself. :) (Or, to put it another way, he loses his authority when he defers to the authority of those who claim their authority rests on the soundness of their ideas.)

    Another tangential thought about the relationship between charismatic authority and text: some scholars have speculated that as a nucleus of canonized texts began to develop, prophets were supplanted by scribes, people reading the text and interpreting it. The text sort of tethers that kind of inspiration, or at least provides it with a vocabulary to which it’s accountable.

    Another point I wanted to add to the discussion is that we sometimes assume that “literal” and “figurative” are mutually exclusive; therefore, to avoid literal implications, we simply allegorize. But I seriously doubt such a view prevailed at the time most of the Bible was composed. The story of Adam and Eve, the prototypical humans, no doubt had resonance we would label metaphoric or mythological, and yet they are incorporated into a text we conventionally call history. Symbolization was not an alternative to the literal and the real.

    As Septentrionalist mentions, apocalyptic literature such as Revelation and Daniel presents its own interesting complications to the issue, although even these visions read as though they literally occurred–the metaphoric overtones involve the fact that they portend something which the faithful can decode. (Not entirely unlike omen interpretation in Mesopotamia.) Since some (but not all) scholars believe apocalypticism arises exclusively among oppressed peoples who, in order to avoid charges of sedition, encode their hopes for the come-uppance of their oppressors and eschatological utopianism in veiled allegories, deliberate, conscious use of symbolic language is a possibility for this period. In earlier texts, though, “symbolic” actions (such as using iron horns to demonstrate how Israel will allegedly push back the Aramaeans in 1 Kings 11:22) are offered with straightforward interpretations. Although I certainly see the mythic overtones in Adam and Eve, I’m suspicious of efforts to graft a symbolic reading onto such an account which is neither (a) presented as a coded vision, nor (b) given such a reading by the text itself.

    I agree with both John and Amy, that Christianity has sometimes exploited the wiggle room symbols offer to a degree that’s hermeneutically absurd, and that, on the other hand, in most situations in the Church we read things rigidly literally (with some notable exceptions such as the particular reading of the temple ceremony mentioned above, or the more general Christian interpretation of OT sacrifice as a symbol of Jesus). I’ll have to think more about why this is, though I’m inclined to say we also read things simultaneously literally and symbolically. (I’ve sat through lessons in which Joseph was said to prefigure Jesus without any explanation for how that affects our historiographical attitude toward the Joseph story.)

    I’ll have to think more about all of this. It gets very confusing to me very quickly.

  6. 6.

    Interesting posts Kiskilili. I’ve been teaching a medieval literature class on allegory and symbol this semester. After reading stacks of books that tried to explain what a symbol or allegory is, I appreciate your very lucid discussion of symbols and the history of symbolic interpretation.

    I think Goethe captures the beauty and utility of symbolism in this quotation from Maximen und Reflexionen, 749-50: “Symbolism turns the phenomenon into an idea, the idea into an image, in such a way that the idea is endlessly at work in the image and remains ungraspable and inexpressible, even though expressed in all languages.” Of course this is a very Romantic view of symbolism, yet I think Goethe is right to point out the function of the image. Cognitive scientists have shown that humans think anagogically. We make assumptions about the unknown based on our previous experience. For example, most beginning physics and chemistry classes introduce concepts about forces and atomic behavior not visable to the natural eye by analogy to common physical situations like waves on a beach or ripples in a pond.

    Worshipping the divine in a mortal body requires similar pedegogy. On earth we are separated from Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ and cannot fully comprehend such a state of glory, yet we are taught that we must develop a relationship with Them. Using symbols–that is images, actions, and relationships that we encounter in mortality (father, king, shepherd, and mother hen, among many)–the scriptures illuminate different aspects of Their nature for us. I think the same process of symbolic mediation takes place in the scriptures (and in the temple) for concepts like the Atonement, charity, faith, and Priesthood.

    Of course symbols lend themselves to multiple interpretations which is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing when we ask for the Spirit to help guide us to a correct interpretation. The beauty of symbols is that there are a range of correct interpretations that can be tailored by the Spirit for different individuals in diverse time periods and cultural contexts. We see this happen when Nephi receives an interpretation of his father’s vision, and when Christ interprets his parables in the New Testament. The danger is that those who seek interpretations without spiritually enlightened eyes or faithfully prepared hearts have a tendency to magnify confusion and fragmentation of doctrine.

    Augustine wrote that it is each person’s responsibility to learn to interpret symbols with the Spirit. One way that I think that we can prepare ourselves to understand what God is trying to communicate to us through symbolism in the scriptures and the temple ceremony is reading the Old Testament carefully. I do not think it is an accident that so many images in the Old Testament reappear in the New Testament, Book of Mormon, and other modern revelations.

  7. 7.

    Thanks for the interesting comment, Fideline. I’m also attracted to the idea that symbols frame experiences that are difficult to convey in a more straightforward manner.

    I’m not sure what role exactly the Old Testament should play in the explication of our symbols, though. The question of who authorizes the readings of our symbols is just deflected to who authorizes our readings of the OT. (When I was interviewed to go to the temple for the first time, my stake president told me nothing about the ceremony would surprise me since I had a master’s degree in the OT. Huh????) For example, I’m fairly persuaded by the argument that subscription to polytheistic beliefs is implicit in the idea of forming covenants with the deity. As is well known, the Hebrew word “covenant” actually means “treaty” and can refer to contracts drawn up between nations, and the structure of several OT passages formulating covenants parallels that known from certain Hittite and Neo-Assyrian treaty texts. The idea is that entering a treaty with a particular overlord and swearing allegiance to one political entity suggests there are multiple possibilities from which to choose, so the symbol of a “treaty,” when applied to our relationship with God, reflects a polytheistic attitude. (If other gods are assumed to exist, this explains why God is jealous. The description of God’s relationship with Israel as a marriage also makes considerably more sense in a polytheistic framework, in my opinion.)

    I’m pretty convinced we’ve fundamentally redefined “covenant” for our own purposes and our own religious climate, which is pretty foreign to the religious landscape of ancient Israel, as far as we can discern it, and so attempting to recover the historical circumstances in which the term was originally applied is not necessarily appropriate or illuminating, just as we’ve redefined what “temple” means for our own purposes.

  8. 8.

    I am not familiar with blogging protocol, and I may have waited too long to comment on this discussion. My apologies.

    I agree with Kiskilili that the Old Testament, or modern interpretations/scholarly contextualization of the OT, shouldn’t be the ultimate authority on the interpretation of symbols in contemporary Mormonism. However, I do think that there seem to be patterns and repetitions of symbols throughout our canonized scripture and temple ceremony. The first step to recognizing these patterns is to read and identify them in all the standard works, including the OT, which is probably the least frequently read. Only then can we seek other resources to gain insight about the symbols in context of ancient Israel, Roman Empire, frontier America, and, finally, our own lives. If the same symbols have had meaning, however adapted, through the dispensations, then shouldn’t we assume that God is trying to communicate something to us through them. Kiskilili asks great questions about “how” to do this in her first comment. The resulting posts show that it is easier to recognize the problems and challenges of such an interpretative undertaking than to see solutions. The only thought that I might offer is that perhaps this quest for symbolic interpretation should be a personal one rather than an institutional one. I am glad that I can’t walk into Barnes and Noble and pick up a copy of “Mormon Symbolism for Dummies.” Instead, I can look forward to a lifetime of scripture study, temple attendance, prayer, and meditation as part of God’s tutoring me individually to understand the truths that His symbols gesture towards.
    Perhaps by sharing our individual insights regarding symbols, we may be able to enrich each others’ lives. When I attend the temple, I hear echoes from narratives about the creation and Fall written by Latin poets in Late Antiquity, anonymous Anglo-Saxon monks, Anglo-Norman clergy, and a blind poet from Cromwell’s republic. The complexity of their narratives and their cultural contexts coupled with my own participation in the temple ceremony encourage me to situate my own life and experiences in relation to this fundamental epic in surprising ways.

    I appreciate Kiskilili’s insight regarding “covenant” in an ancient Hebrew context. I wonder if the polytheistic implications inherent in covenants still may be relevant today. Although religious polytheism is not prevalent in the United States, there are many competing world views that promise (a form of) salvation independent of God. Any number of ‘isms (liberalism, nihilism, humanism, etc.) reject divine authority. Is subscribing to any of these philosophies any less spiritually and socially destructive than pagan idol worship was in the ancient Near East?

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