Strangers in Paradox
by Margaret & Paul Toscano
[p.14] No literate person can escape interpretation. This is especially true when it comes to sacred texts manifest in the form of religious symbols, rituals, writings, or oral communications. Even people who believe in divine revelation still find the need for interpretation. Every act of listening or reading involves an interpretive process.
In this book we employ what we have called the mythic interpretive approach. Its purpose is to explore theological possibilities, to make symbolic connections, and to examine the import of religious ideas in the present. But our reliance on subjectivity does not mean that we disparage objectivity. Anyone serious about understanding a particular religious tradition must carefully examine its primary texts for provenance and historical context. But such texts also call for personal response. People with religious feeling cannot and should not repress such a response. For this reason we attempt to see texts both objectively and subjectively. Objectivity can serve to correct our false notions about the original purpose, context, and content of the text, while subjectivity can help us see what the text may mean for us and our world.
Paul Ricoeur, the French philosopher and phenomenologist, says that interpretation involves a process of “appropriation” or making “one’s own what was initially ‘alien.’” For Ricoeur, “the aim of all hermeneutics is to struggle against cultural distance and historical alienation. Interpretation brings together, equalizes, renders contemporary and similar. This goal is attained only insofar as interpretation actualizes the meaning of the text for the present reader” (185). However, Ricoeur also warns against what he calls the “illusion of the subject” or, in terms borrowed from Freud, the “narcissism of the reader.” Interpretation as appropriation should not simply be the “projection of the prejudices of [p.15] the readers.” Thus a text should not be a prisoner of the meaning ascribed to it by its original author or its original audience, nor should it become the exclusive property of its present critics. If it is to continue to be vital, it must have a life of its own.
Both extreme subjectivity and extreme objectivity can be avoided if we can both reinterpret a text for the present and also be drawn into the world of the text (what Ricoeur calls “letting go”). By thus “appropriating” a text while simultaneously “relinquishing” our own biases, we can be changed by the text and receive through it, not simply a reaffirmation of our old prejudices, but a new capacity for self-knowledge. The end product of this process is a new interpretation that becomes an extension of the text, a new version of the myth. In this way some interpreters can also become myth-makers; and through each new version of a myth, there can be created both a departure from and a continuity with tradition.
In this book, for example, we have made a genuine effort to understand the life and thought of Joseph Smith objectively, as it fits in its historical context, and subjectively, as it relates to our present condition. The problem with the objective approach is the illusory nature of all knowledge. How can we ever reconstruct the past? Though we have tried to enter the world of Joseph Smith in order to understand his ideas, can we ever really retrieve and be certain of the original intent of his theological statements? In contrast the problem with the subjective approach is the relative nature of opinion. Why should our view be any more valid than any other? The task of understanding the past or the present seems impossible, but we have found that in making the attempt, illumination does come. In spite of this conviction, we bear a burden of doubt about our conclusions. And we reserve the right to change our minds, even on fundamentals.
Having said this we wish to present several keystones for the interpretive method we employ throughout this book. We do this to make our approach clear and to demonstrate how the richness of a given text, myth, or symbol may be developed and reevaluated.
Principle 1: Because we cannot approach a sacred text with complete neutrality and objectivity, we must recognize and acknowledge the religious, cultural, and intellectual biases we bring to the text, and we must accord to the belief-structures of others the same dignity and respect we reserve for our own.
We are all predisposed in various ways by our different educations, upbringings, and experiences. The more deeply our predilections run, the more likely we are to be oblivious to them. We cannot and [p.16] should not rid ourselves of all of these. But we must at least admit them and compensate for them as we engage in the interpretive process.
In our own case, for example, we must face the fact that our interpretations of sacred texts (whether Mormon or otherwise) will be heavily influenced by our belief that Jesus Christ is God, that “God is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34; Gal. 3:28), that our divine parents are good and would not give their daughters or sons stones when they need bread (Luke 11:11), and that the godhead can and does intervene in human affairs. This decidedly religious outlook could be attacked or dismissed as disabling or invalid. But we are convinced it is no more so than an “unbelieving” point of view. We are none of us neutral observers, and it is no use pretending we are. Our divergent world views cause us to draw various meanings out of a given text.
Of course we understand that the interpretive process can be genuinely limited or even frustrated by closed-mindedness. But this can manifest itself both religiously, as rigid literalism or fundamentalism, or non-religiously, as an uncompromising attachment to naturalism or positivism. In our view, however, God speaks to all people through human experience, in dreams, through myths, symbols, and rituals, not just in the words of holy writ. God speaks in the ironies of life and of history. We are by no means presented with a consistent picture. God has not spoken the final word or given the whole of divine truth to any person or people or institution (cf. 2 Ne. 29:6-14). Further, God’s mind and will are not easy to discern. Genuine revelation is usually paradoxical and ambiguous and, therefore, susceptible to multiple interpretations. Finally, we do not believe God speaks in only one voice. Divine communication comes to people “after the manner of their language,” and these people receive and record their revelations according to their understanding and “weakness” (D&C 124:24; 1 Ne. 19:6; 2 Ne. 31:3; 33:4, 11).
That our renditions of texts tend to favor our convictions does not automatically invalidate our conclusions. If our convictions are not narcissistic and unbending, they may allow us to better understand the convictions of others. Thus, to fully appreciate the richness and complexity of the meanings associated with a given text, we must be willing to bestow equal dignity and weight upon the belief structures of others and, thus, transcend the limits of our own cultural prejudices.
[p.17] Though God speaks to women and men in their own language in terms of their own cultural, ideological, and historical perceptions, it is nevertheless legitimate to look for the divine voice among the human voices in a sacred text. We have found that the ironies of a text, which can appear as contradictions, competing view points, changing frames of reference, or anomalies, are often manifestations of the different timbres of the divine voice. A reference to the development of the Mormon temple endowment may illustrate this point.
We know that in many ways the endowment was a product of Joseph Smith and the nineteenth century. Joseph Smith and his associates were well aware of what many have been eager to point out in recent years, namely parallels between Mormon and Masonic rites. However, even more important may be the many differences between the two rites. One of the most significant of these is that women were forbidden to participate in Masonry, while Joseph Smith accorded them equal access to the temple endowment. Because of our concern with the elements of gender inequality we detect in the temple, we can fail to see how radical it was for Joseph Smith to include women in the temple ritual at all. This fact alone suggests that Joseph Smith was not simply reflecting a nineteenth-century world view of women in the temple revelation. If the endowment ceremony were either in part or in total a product of divine revelation, then its meaning would probably go beyond the intentions of Joseph Smith. In other words the temple ceremony would not only echo nineteenth-century voices but the voice of God as well. This is not to say, however, that whatever we find in the revelations of Joseph Smith attributable to nineteenth-century American culture is only the voice of Joseph Smith; nor does it mean that whatever can be shown to have been alien to the nineteenth century is automatically to be understood to be the voice of God, or that originality was not one of Joseph Smith’s characteristics.
Our point is that when God speaks to prophets in a way comprehensible to them and to their culture, God still may put something more into the revelation than can be understood by the person or culture receiving it. This is not only possible but likely because of the highly symbolic nature of revelatory language. Anyone who has ever consciously used symbols in the creative process knows that it is common to communicate unconsciously with these symbols various levels of meaning which nevertheless fit into the overall theme of the work. This idea finds support in the framework of the Book of Mormon, which tells us that while speaking to one age, God may be speaking [p.18] simultaneously to another, since the past, the present, and the future are all present at once in the divine vision of reality (D&C 130:7; Morm. 8:35). Often in communicating with us, God draws upon symbols of common experience such as water, oil, fire, minerals, plants, animals — symbols which are accessible and can communicate to vast numbers of human beings regardless of the age or culture in which they may have lived.
The divine voice can be found in sacred texts, often by way of these universal symbols which serve to hide and to reveal simultaneously. This is why Jesus is said to have spoken in parables (Matt. 13:9-14). The greatest divine truths are not set forth as factual propositions or explanations but are conveyed in the more timeless language of symbols and myths. Because of their flexibility and adaptability, such symbols and myths are more suitable for the transmittal of ideas which are complex, subtle, and paradoxical.
The ongoing reinterpretation of God’s words is not only unavoidable, it is legitimate and appropriate.1 Each age (and each person) must work through the texts for itself, revisiting the symbols and extracting from them the riches hidden there. In fact this is an important part of the prophetic calling—one that Joseph Smith saw himself fulfilling as evidenced by his revision of the Bible. Unfortunately the priestly class often sees itself as guardian of the status quo and refuses to allow for even modest manifestations of reinterpretation of sacred texts. Rosemary Radford Ruether comments on this situation: “Received symbols, formulas, and law are either authenticated or not through their ability to illuminate and interpret experience. Systems of authority try to reverse this relation and make received symbols dictate what can be experienced as well as the interpretation of that which is experienced. In reality, the relation is the opposite. If a symbol does not speak authentically to experience, it becomes dead or must be altered to provide a new meaning” (1983, 12-13). Reinterpretation is not a sign of [p.19] disbelief. It is a sign that a religion is still vital to its adherents. Only dead languages, dead religions, and dead symbols no longer change.
Religious texts by their very nature require corrections, expansions, and readjustments in the interpretation of the past. In this way the generation receiving the revelation cannot claim an inalienable title to it2 As possession of the text passes down through the ages, the divine voice can continue to speak a living and ever-fresh message to each rising generation, whose own experience with God and the world will prepare them to hear in the old stories something new, something tailor-made for them. As we mentioned, this is not to dismiss the need to examine a sacred text from the point of view of the historical period which produced it. In fact such work is crucial if we are to understand and expand our view of God’s dealings with human beings. Since the tyranny of the present is as real a threat as the tyranny of the past, it is essential to dig into history lest we become prisoners of our present world view and of the destructive and arrogant assumption that nothing in the past can be as important as anything in the present. Moreover, examining the historical context of a sacred text can demonstrate how received traditions usually differ as well as grow out of the text’s original meaning, thereby suggesting both the inevitability of changing views as well as some possibilities for reinterpretation. Retrieving lost meanings from the past can revitalize the present. The believing community must ask itself how both the text and the received tradition throw light on God’s present relationship to them. In other words we must have latitude to explore how God is speaking to us through the old texts about our present situation.3
This is perhaps the most controversial principle of the seven. For example, in interpreting the face veil worn by women in the Mormon temple, we may not only draw upon that symbol’s uses and associations within the context of nineteenth and twentieth century Mormonism, but we may also range across cultural and temporal boundaries in [p.20] search of interpretations of the same and similar symbols in order to construct a complete catalogue of possible meanings.
This principle assumes that in spite of the differences among the cultures and societies which have existed all over the world throughout the long and complex history of humankind, there exist certain common elements, which allow the symbols, rituals, myths, and dreams of one group to illuminate our understanding of those of another. This relation among symbols is often expressed by the Jungian term “archetype,” which refers to “any of a number of prototypic phenomena (e.g., the wise old man, the great mother) which form the content of the collective unconscious and which are assumed to reflect universal human thoughts found in all cultures” (Bullock 1988, 48). It is argued that archetypes exist in part because of the similarities in the bodies, minds, needs, longings, fears, and common life experiences of all people.
Of course it is also argued that the dissimilarities in our experiences, assumptions, perceptions, aspirations, and spiritual world views require our interpretations to be limited strictly to those meanings attributable to the time, place, and culture in which the given symbol was employed. Otherwise the process of interpretation will tend to disintegrate into a muddle of free associations in which the symbol can mean anything and everything the interpreter wants it to mean. But in our view, religious symbols have meanings that transcend their cultural usages and manifestations. Such symbols can and do recur through history in one culture after another, and they can and do appear simultaneously in one or more unconnected cultures. Further the symbols themselves are outward projections, which represent different spiritual and psychological states common to most people. So it is legitimate, we think, to look for the meaning of a symbol or text beyond its historical context.
We can do this and still avoid the problem of free association by tying our interpretation to the literary framework or mythological structure in which a given symbol or idea appears. For example, in Genesis we encounter the symbol of the serpent in the garden of Eden. Later in the biblical text, we encounter the same symbol; but this time we see it placed by Moses on a pole and held up before all the people of Israel. To determine what the serpent symbol means in these two instances, we can range across cultures and epochs in order to catalogue as many meanings of this symbol as we can. This search will reveal that the serpent can symbolize death or life, good or evil, God or the devil. One of the peculiarities of religious symbols is that most of them carry [p.21] simultaneously both “negative” as well as “positive” meanings. To determine which meanings apply in a particular story, we must see how the symbol is used in a specific context. In the Garden of Eden, the serpent symbol is set in opposition to God, linking the serpent with death and evil. However, when the same symbol is set by Moses on a pole as a means to heal the sick, the mythic structure links the symbol to life and health.
But what should we make of the story of the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh’s priests? The priests turn their rods into snakes; but so does Moses. Then Moses’ serpent devours the serpents of the priests. Here the same symbol is used in a single context to represent both good and evil. But why? Why not use opposing symbols, such as the serpent and the dove? One possible reason is that this story through its symbols is meant to suggest a complex set of ideas which defy a clear, lucid, and linear explanation: good and evil are somehow ever in flux; the face of evil and the face of good are similar; God and the devil and good and evil are more interlinked than we might suppose—an idea also implied in the story of Job.
Our point here, however, is not to discuss these interesting texts but to observe that because human beings and human cultures not only disagree profoundly but agree in many religious matters, it is sometimes legitimate to go beyond the world view of the culture producing a text to search for possible meanings. If our interpretation is tied to the literary and mythic framework in which the symbol appears, we can come to a fuller understanding of the text’s transcendent religious meaning. But we cannot by this method learn its historical significance. Whether we tie our interpretation to a text’s historical setting or to its literary constraints will depend on whether our goal is primarily to acquire historical accuracy or religious insight.
In interpreting any sacred communication, we must understand that it will remain largely meaningless to us unless we can put aside for a time our secular outlook and enter into the world of the sacred. The concept of the sacred informed the experiences of many ancient societies, but it is quite foreign to modern culture. Though most of us have a feel for the distinction between these two world views, it may be helpful to detail some of the ways in which they differ.
The sacral world is interested in the transcendent, the supernatural, and the symbolic meaning of events; the secular world is interested [p.22] in the here and now, the physical, and the natural causes and effects of events. The sacral society sees nothing as happening by chance or accident; the secular society believes in the random occurrence of events. The sacral world is holistic, and all aspects of life are viewed as connected on a spiritual continuum; the secular world is compartmentalized, and life is seen in terms of the subject-object dichotomy. The sacral world sees history as recurring cyclical patterns; the secular world sees history as linear and often in terms of social progress. The sacral world is organic; the secular is mechanistic. The sacral society assumes there is meaning inherent in things; the secular society says that meaning is what we ascribe to a thing. The sacral society believes in becoming one with God and nature through ritual; the secular society believes in the control of nature through technology. Mircea Eliade, the historian of religions, makes a similar comparison between what he calls religious and nonreligious man. Eliade says that the religious man
always believes that there is an absolute reality, the sacred, which transcends this world but manifests itself in the world, thereby sanctifying it and making it real. He further believes that life has a sacred origin and that human existence realizes all of its potentialities in proportion as it is religious—that is, participates in reality. The gods created man and the world, the culture heroes completed the Creation, and the history of all these divine and semidivine works is preserved in the myths. By reactualizing sacred history, by imitating the divine behavior, man puts and keeps himself close to the gods—that is, in the real and the significant ….
Modern nonreligious man assumes a new existential situation; he regards himself solely as the subject and agent of history, and he refuses all appeal to transcendence. In other words, he accepts no model for humanity outside the human condition as it can be seen in the various historical situations. Man makes himself, and he only makes himself completely in proportion as he desacralizes himself and the world (1959, 202-203).
This is not to say that the sacral world view is superior to the secular or that we should simply replace one with the other. Each has its positive and negative characteristics. For example, secular societies tend to emphasize the importance of human achievement, humanitarianism, individualism, and freedom, whereas sacral societies tend toward dogmatism, authoritarianism, and denigration of naturalistic experience. But sacred cultures are more conducive to spirituality, meaning, and community, while secular cultures are susceptible to materialism, superficiality, and alienation. In our view a healthy society has the best [p.23] elements of both the secular and the sacred acting as counterweights to each other. However, since our present society is predominantly secular, our argument here is that we need an infusion of the sacred in order for us to experience the reality of the spiritual world through myth and ritual.
Though Mormonism shares with the sacral world view the belief in the supernatural and the sacred origin of humanity, still it views religion mostly from a secular perspective, as evidenced by its pragmatic approach to salvation, its literal interpretation of scripture, and its general aversion to symbols and ritual.
If we are to understand a religious text, we must not only receive it as such, we must also treat it the way a sacral society would. In a secular society we use symbols as metaphors. We connect an object, event, or person with something to which it is not literally or logically related to suggest a comparison and thus create a vivid description. A sacral society uses symbols as types or shadows of the spiritual realm and of future divine acts. Symbols are not chosen arbitrarily but rather grow out of the nature of the symbols themselves and the nature of whatever it is they point to, so that the symbols have inherent meaning apart from what they symbolize and yet are in a sense part of what they symbolize too. This idea can be illustrated with a symbol familiar to Mormons. The priesthood undergarment has a meaning growing out of its function. It physically “covers our nakedness”; but it also draws meaning from what it points to. It symbolizes the death of Christ. The garment, we are told, was originally made out of the skin of a sacrificial animal representing Christ. By wearing the garment we take upon ourselves Christ’s death, his sacrifice, his righteousness, his love. In other words, we take upon ourselves his image and are covered or washed in his blood. The sacral society uses symbols in this way to point our minds to the spiritual realm, to help us see in everyday processes and objects the patterns of eternity.
The secular society, on the other hand, uses symbols to point us toward the earthly realm, to compare some everyday processes and objects with others. Where the religious society uses symbols to sacralize experience, the secular society uses symbols in a profane way because [p.24] it fails to see in the world the image and pattern of the divine. Thus the secularized version of the garment is that it symbolizes or reminds us only of the need to be modest.
Positioned between the sacral and the secular approach to symbols is the magic world view. From this perspective the priesthood garment is seen as a literal protection against bodily injury. It is a magic suit of sorts. The magical world view is similar to the sacral because both see symbol and ritual as conduits for spiritual power. However, the sacral approach is broader because it also sees ritual as a means of revealing heavenly patterns and for experiencing inner spiritual transformation. In the sacral culture those who participate in imitating the divine through reenacting the stories of the gods, particularly the creation stories, are re-created in the image of the divine. Magic practices may include an emphasis on symbolism and inner transformation, but not necessarily (Quinn 1987, ix-xxii).
Joseph Smith is an example of one who embraced the sacral world view, though his early emphasis may have been on magic. In Doctrine and Covenants 128, for example, he discusses the ordinance of baptism for the dead and explains that it should be performed in such a way as to reveal the pattern “of the resurrection of the dead in coming forth out of their graves” (v. 12). Joseph Smith goes on to explain that for this reason “the baptismal font was instituted as a similitude of the grave, and was commanded to be in a place underneath… to show forth the living and the dead, and that all things may have their likeness, and that they may accord one with another— that which is earthly conforming to that which is heavenly” (v. 13). A similar idea is expressed through Joseph Smith in Moses 6:63: “And behold, all things have their likeness, and all things are created and made to bear record of me [i.e., the Lord], both things which are temporal, and things which are spiritual; things which are in the heavens above, and things which are on the earth, and things which are in the earth, and things which are under the earth, both above and beneath: all things bear record of me.” These ideas imply that, in the creation of the world, God planted in it natural objects and processes which can be drawn upon and used as microcosms, representations, or reflections of eternal objects and processes. Though this idea is both foreign and obscure to the secular world, it is intrinsic to the sacral point of view and, perhaps, necessary for understanding sacred texts and rituals.
[p.25] In interpreting any religious symbol, it is well to avoid the literal-figurative dichotomy. The figurative mode of interpretation is analogous to the spiritual dimension of human nature. Symbols like the spirit serve to unify and provide coherence. They enable us to see relationships and make connections. They allow a given experience to serve as a universal paradigm. Symbols give us access to inner as well as outward reality. They help us see the meaning of things. If we look at reality and only see what is visible, we are not seeing the full picture. Things are not only what they appear, they also represent other things. Anything can be a symbol or a pattern of anything else. Thus the visible world is a window into the invisible.
However, there is a drawback in always viewing things symbolically. If our symbols are not anchored to something real, if they only refer to a totally other that lies beyond all that can ever be known, then our sacred texts mean nothing. And all religious communication is just babble. As Joseph Smith said, “That which is without body or parts is nothing” (WJS, 60). The literal mode of interpretation is analogous to the elemental or bodily dimension of life. Just as Joseph Smith argued that our physical bodies give our spirits greater scope and power, it may also be argued that a literal interpretation of scripture adds substance, relevance, and focus to our understanding. We see this most clearly when the words of a sacred text are anchored to a historical context. Jesus as a symbol may have value, but Jesus as an historical being, as God made man, makes the concept of redemption real and speaks to us at various levels of our experience. Not all scriptural passages can be taken literally of course. But by the same token, to interpret all passages only as symbols is to deprive the texts of poignancy and power and to reduce them to ethical fiction or fraud.
Of course a strictly literal approach also has its drawbacks. If applied narrowly and blindly, literalism can imprison us in a single, rigid, and often elitist world view. It keeps us from perceiving how all our descriptions of reality are never the same as the thing itself but are always constructions of language, as modern theorists tell us. Everything we experience begins to reinforce our viewpoint. Nothing challenges us to look beyond our own interpretations. We become trapped because we cannot see how reality may serve as a representation or pattern of what is not immediately available to us. A narrow literalism can prevent us from seeing beyond our own culture or personal experience. Strict literalism closes the window to the unknown and can lead to the false assumption that our pictures, images, or models of God are [p.26] complete and final. This view is extremely damaging because it forecloses inquiry and with that further knowledge.
Our own approach is to accept whenever possible both a literal and figurative interpretation. Thus for us the Garden of Eden may be a place—an undoubtedly inaccessible place—as well as a type. The cross was not only a real wooden structure that featured prominently in the penal system of Rome but is also a symbol of the intersection of the human and the divine in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Obviously some symbols defy a literal interpretation, while some realities may serve as relatively trivial symbols. Nevertheless we believe it is insurance against prejudice to avoid any tendency toward a systematic rejection of one approach in favor of the other.
These interpretive principles and the assumptions set forth in the previous chapter have guided us in the discussions that comprise the balance of this book.
1. Jacob Katz in an article about tradition and change in Jewish communities argues that there is “no society that does not change.” The difference between a traditional society and a modern society is not change, since that is inevitable; rather traditional societies do not “aspire” to change and like to think of themselves as static, whereas modern societies do aspire to change and see themselves as progressive (36-39).