Question: How should a faithful Latter-Day Saint view the conflict between literal and figurative readings and interpretations of scriptures? How far can one carry â€˜figurativeâ€™ views of scripture before it becomes difficult to maintain a testimony of the gospel?
There was an interesting survey back in 2004 on the subject of Bible literalism. People were surveyed as to whether they believed the Biblical stories of the Creation, the parting of the Red Sea, and Noahâ€™s Ark could be taken literally or not. Whatâ€™s interesting about the results is not the exact percentages of those who answered literal vs. figurative, but the fact that the literal/figurative split was virtually the same for all three stories. This constant ratio of answers seems to suggest that most everyone who participated in the survey had the same answer to all three questions. Basically, if you believed one story in the Bible to be literally true, you believed them ALL to be literally true, and vice versa. There seemed to be very few people, indeed, who believed that some stories in the Bible might be more or less figurative than others–it was either all or nothing.
Questions of literal or figurative interpretations for specific stories has created many a debate among religious scholars (and religious bloggers)â€”including at M* as recently as last week with Clarkâ€™s thread on Job. How much leeway does a believing Latter-Day Saint have in departing from strict, literal interpretations of religious stories? In many ways, it depends on which story we’re talking about…
When identifying the most likely stories from the Bible or the Book of Mormon to be viewed through the â€˜figurativeâ€™ lens, most people point to Job or Jonah, followed by perhaps Noah and the world-wide flood. Certainly, the â€˜betâ€™ between God and Satan in regards to Job does seem to be something out of a George Burns movie, and not a doctrinally accurate portrait of how God influences our lives. It seems reasonable that perhaps the (true) story of a righteous man called Job who suffered through many trials patiently, told through later generations, may have had a few â€˜additionsâ€™ grafted on to give it more of a doctrinal context, without regard to any actual prophetic teachings. (As a commenter in the earlier thread notes, the Book of Job has been found in the â€˜writingsâ€™ section of the Hebrew Bible, not the â€˜prophetsâ€™ section…)
It is interesting that (and the poll results seem to bear this out) as far as miraculous Bible stories go, the parting of the Red Sea seems to be more ‘acceptable’ to believers as compared to, say, Jonah. Many Church members are quick to assign Jonah to â€˜figurativeâ€™ status–Jonah didnâ€™t ACTUALLY live in a whale for three days because thatâ€™s, you know, impossible–whereas the reality of the parting of the Red Sea before the Israelites remains relatively unmolested…despite (according to my understanding of physics) being just as ‘impossible’ an occurance. Thus, the question: which â€˜impossibleâ€™ stories can we disregard as (probably) figurative and which ones do we have to accept at face value as literal happenings?
In a discussion last year, I argued that it is reasonable to believe Noahâ€™s flood was local to his area only (and the Book of Mormon has some indirect evidence for this interpretation). Not that it couldnâ€™t have been a world wide flood, but it didn’t have to have been for the foundation of our religion to remain intact. Likewise, the extent of the literal truthfulness of Job and Jonah are not fundamental to the foundation of the gospel, either. I think you can (or should be able to) be a faithful, active Latter-Day Saint and share a sense of skepticism towards certain stories in scripture.
What about stories you can’t? Say, for example, Jesus Christâ€™s death and subsequent resurrection on the third day…
If the resurrection (and the Atonement) are â€˜figurativeâ€™ in the same sense that Jonah wasnâ€™t REALLY in the whale for three days, then where are we? Because thatâ€™s a very fundamental part of the gospel. Without the literal reality of the resurrection, our church (and Christianity in general) basically has nothing to stand on. In this case, you can legitimately question whether a Latter-Day Saint (or any Christian) can say “I don’t believe in a literal resurrection three days after being crucified (and stabbed in the side with a spear) because that’s, you know, impossible” and still be ‘faithful’ and ‘believing’, because that’s fundamentally a part of everything that being ‘faithful’ and ‘believing’ means. We seem more or less forced to accept the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as literal, even if other stories from the scriptures give us more leeway in applying a figurative filter without irreparably compromising doctrine.
Philosophically, however, this creates a problem… After all, itâ€™s not as if a man walking around talking to people three days after being crucified is any less â€˜scientifically impossibleâ€™ than living in a whale for three days, or water parting on command. Thereâ€™s no rational reason to place more faith on the resurrection being ‘truer’ than on any other wild and unbelievable Bible story, except for the thorny issue of without it, everything else around us collapses. What does that say if our criteria for skepticism towards literal interpretations is based not on believability, but on expediency: we doubt some things because they are ‘safer’, and maintain as literal other things simply because we need them to be literally true.
Thus, the question: where’s the line between ‘safe’ skepticism and ‘dangerous’ skepticism? Can one cast an eye of doubt on scripture story X without eventually casting the same eye on stories Y and Z which are just as miraculous and “impossible”? If we accept through faith that Y and Z could be true even though they’re not ‘reasonable’, couldn’t X also be true by the same token?
Compare this to a spiritual game of Jenga, where the skeptic removes one by one the ‘safe’ blocks from the sides that don’t cause the structure (the testimony of the gospel) to fall. Eventually, though, an important block will be removed through disbelief and everything else collapses. Since all the blocks look exactly the same, how to tell which ones are safe to doubt and which ones will cause a genuine collapse of gospel belief?
This is not an argument that Job, Jonah, Noah, or any scripture story must be taken literally in every respect, only that using ‘reason’ in deciding which stories to accept and which to reject has limited utility. Belief in a ‘God of miracles’ requires that many things that are true will lie outside of reason…