Approaching Scripture

My timing is impeccable. Last week I was asked to speak in sacrament meeting on the topic “Scripture”. It’s a fairly broad topic, but one that I felt comfortable with.

While in a masters program in 1999 I first encountered biblical criticism (hey, I’m late to the party, but I’m here). I found that my study of the scriptures deepened, and over the course of the last 8 years I have become firmly entrenched in the non-literalist approach to scripture.

So, on Sunday, I shared that approach. I titled my talk “Approaching Scripture“. It went fairly well. It reached a few people, which was my intended goal. In any congregation there are those who, like me, approach things a bit differently. I wanted to stress to the more literal-minded people that there was another way, and I wanted to help those non-literal people feel a little less alone.

So, back to my impeccable timing. This morning, reading a post by Square Peg at The Cultural Hall blog, I was pointed to the press release from the Church called “Approaching Mormon History” (hey, they can sure pick a catchy title!). It’s interesting that this release stresses a literal stance, specifically as it relates to our recent history but also mentioning scripture.

I’m willing to acknowledge that my non-literal stance could be unsustainable for an organization – I simply don’t know. Perhaps there is tension between my approach and the contents of the press release. But I stand by my talk.

So, I share it here. Many of the concepts arise out of my study of the Biblical Movement, and I borrow liberally from concepts I learned from reading Marcus Borg – specifically much of the second half of my talk is borrowed from his book Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. I like his concept of scriptures as a sacrament to the sacred. I find power and inspiration when I approach the scriptures in this way. What follows isn’t a scholarly work, it’s a sacrament talk, so read it charitably.


In the 31st chapter of Second Nephi, we read:

17 Wherefore, do the things which I have told you I have seen that your Lord and your Redeemer should do; for, for this cause have they been shown unto me, that ye might know the gate by which ye should enter. For the gate by which ye should enter is repentance and baptism by water; and then cometh a remission of your sins by fire and by the Holy Ghost.
18 And then are ye in this strait and narrow path which leads to eternal life; yea, ye have entered in by the gate; ye have done according to the commandments of the Father and the Son; and ye have received the Holy Ghost, which witnesses of the Father and the Son, unto the fulfilling of the promise which he hath made, that if ye entered in by the way ye should receive.
19 And now, my beloved brethren, after ye have gotten into this strait and narrow path, I would ask if all is done? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for ye have not come thus far save it were by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him, relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save.
20 Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.
21 And now, behold, my beloved brethren, this is the way; and there is none other way nor name given under heaven whereby man can be saved in the kingdom of God. And now, behold, this is the doctrine of Christ, and the only and true doctrine of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, which is one God, without end. Amen.

When we were baptized, when we joined this body of Saints, we passed through the gate to this strait and narrow path. We demonstrated faith in Christ, we took upon ourselves His name, covenanting to be His people, to do His work. It’s a marvelous gift, and a wonderful opportunity to be a part of a community of followers and disciples of Christ.

But as Nephi states in this passage, once we are on this path all is not done. We must press forward, with a perfect brightness of hope and a love of God and of all men. And then Nephi says this: Feasting upon the word of Christ.

I’m going to talk about the word today – the scriptures. I’m going to talk about some of the problems we encounter as we approach scripture from a modern perspective, and I am going to share with you an approach that can bring new life to our study of the scriptures.

Scriptures Under Attack
Scripture is under attack. With modernity equating facts with truth, with scientific and empirical evidence reigning supreme in our world, where does scripture fit? What happens when scripture comes up against modernity? How do we reconcile its primitive authors attempting to explain the world, the incredible claims, the miracles?

One option is to retreat into a literalist interpretation of the scriptures. To reject modern knowledge when that knowledge butts up against our beliefs. To be sure, we never reject all modern knowledge. To the extent that modernity has provided us with wonderful benefits like medical science or transportation or communications, we embrace them. It’s only the advances that threaten our faith that we tend to reject. It’s the buffet approach to modern knowledge – we take a little here, reject a little there.

But there is danger in this approach, especially for the faith of coming generations.

A good example is our approach to the creation story in Genesis. How do we view that passage of scripture? Do we see Genesis as a literal description and account of the creation? Do we feel threatened by advances in evolutionary biology or geology or astronomy that tell us that the earth is much older and life more complex than the account in Genesis describes?

Many of us do. I’ve sat in this very chapel and listened to a condemnation of modern science, dismissing it outright. But that view, that literalist reading of scripture in opposition to science, is a dangerous stance.

What happens to our children’s faith when they have been taught that a literal reading of scripture is the only proper reading? What happens when they reach high school, or to a greater extent college, and they learn of the vast weight of evidence and the consistency of that evidence as it points toward an old earth and natural selection? Must we force them to choose between their faith and their intellect? This is but one example, and it is a losing proposition. The loss is in the very children we seek to teach and nurture and help to return to God. It’s a high price to pay, and one that is completely unnecessary.

So how might we approach scripture in a way that is true to the sacred nature of the writings, and yet expansive enough to allow us to believe the truth that God writes in creation? We have the writings in the books, and we also have the writings in the stone.

Fortunately, this struggle for us is in many respects a cultural one – we, as Mormons in a larger Christian nation, are subject to the cultural influences around us. The radically fundamental Christian denominations are very vocal today, and we sometimes may feel trapped into interpreting the scriptures in a literalistic manner, just as they do. It’s an unfortunate cultural mark of faith, a test to prove that we are true followers by our willingness to suspend rational thought

But our history is bigger than that. From the earliest moments of this dispensation our prophets have taught us to nurture a personal relationship with God, to seek His truth, wherever it may be. As Brigham Young stated,

Mormonism embraces every principle pertaining to life and salvation, for time and eternity. No matter who has it. If the infidel has got truth it belongs to Mormonism. The truth and sound doctrine possessed by the sectarian world, and they have a great deal, all belong to this Church. As for their morality, many of them are, morally, just as good as we are. All that is good, lovely, and praiseworthy belongs to this Church and Kingdom. Mormonism includes all truth. There is no truth but what belongs to the Gospel.1

Our own scriptures tell us to”Seek out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 109:7)

So if we are bigger than a literalist reading, how might we approach scripture?

We can approach it by reading it as the response of these ancient communities to their experience of God. Viewed in this way, scripture contains their stories of God, their perceptions of God’s character and will, their prayers to and praise of God, their perceptions of the human condition and the paths of deliverance, their religious and ethical practices, and their understanding of what it means to be faithful to God.

Have you ever had a spiritual experience that is difficult to put into words? Why? Because they are experiences of the holy, the sacred, the numinous, and their sheer magnitude and power shatter our ability to convey them in words. How, then, does an ancient – or even modern – writer communicate such an experience? Humans, attempting to explain and relate their experiences with the holy, wrote the books of scripture. We can forgive them their weaknesses in communicating, and we can read the text in a charitable, expansive manner.

Does this diminish scripture? Not at all – it removes the difficulty of the literalist reading and expands the ability of the scriptures to work in us, to influence us, to connect us with God. What happens when we approach scripture with a willingness to let it work in us? Without preconceptions and without the need to force a meaning consistent with our own worldview? Ask the young Joseph Smith, reading James and allowing the words to work in him. Those few words, delivered in the fertile heart of a young boy searching for God, launched this dispensation.

So to get beyond a literalist reading we must approach scripture in a way that allows it to work in us. I’d like to share a concept from religious scholar Marcus Borg – the concept of viewing scripture as a sacrament to the sacred.

Scriptures as a Sacrament
The scriptures are sacred. They are not sacred in a divine, words of God sense, but rather a relational sense, given power as we relate to them and as we esteem them as the most important writings that we know. They are the primary writings that define who we are in relation to God and who we are as a community. These are the books that have shaped us and will continue to shape us.

In a very real sense our scriptures are our constitution – not as a collection of laws, but as our foundation.

But what does it mean to view the scriptures as a Sacrament to the Sacred? We just partook of the Sacrament, but in a larger use Sacrament is defined as a mediator of the sacred, a vehicle by which God becomes present, a means through which the Spirit is experienced.

Think about the Sacrament in these terms – as we sing our sacramental hymn, as the Priests break and bless the bread, as we serve one another the emblems and remember Christ, as we invite the spirit to be here, with us, to work within us, to sanctify us. In this sense, the ritual of our Sacrament is a mediator of the Spirit, a vehicle of God’s grace.

Our tradition has other sacramental elements, most notably the temple, where our rituals and the endowment bring us into a liminal state, one where we can connect in a deep and meaningful way with the Spirit.

Moving beyond the literalist stance, the scriptures can also become a sacrament to the sacred, a vehicle whereby we can be brought into the presence of God. But to do this we must jettison our preconceptions. We cannot approach scripture with an attitude that we can read the text and make discerning judgments, for if we do that we tend to always make judgments that support our preconceptions. Instead, we must approach scripture in a way that allows the text to shape and judge us, to allow it to speak to us, to listen actively, to seek to hear what the text is saying to us and what the spirit is communicating to us.
It is the difference between absorbing the words of scripture into what we already believe, and approaching scripture with a humble, open heart, allowing it to change us. To sanctify us. To open a conduit to heaven and allow God to be present, to touch us, to mold us, and to inspire us to be more like Him.

This is not an attempt to reduce the scriptures to an academic exercise. It is an attempt to expand the scriptures beyond the bounds that we artificially place around them – whether they are bounds of modernity and a skeptical eye, or bounds of radical fundamental literalism. They are literature, and they contain all the great elements of literature – historical accounts, poetry, didactic fiction, parable and myth. When we break the shackles off of the scriptures, when we free them to do their work in us, it is then that we can see God; it is then that we will feel His presence.

I pray that we may revisit the scriptures, that we may allow them to be a Sacrament to the Sacred, that we may be humble enough to allow them to work in us, and that by so doing we may open ourselves to the inspiration and spirit of God.


1 – Young, Brigham. Discourses of Brigham Young. Selected by John A. Widtsoe. 1941.


  1. Square Peg says:


    If I had been in the sacrament meeting where you presented this talk, I’m pretty sure I would have stood and cheered after you were finished. Seriously.

  2. Dan says:

    Rory had alerted me ahead of time to his speaking assignment, so I attended this sacrament meeting. There really was a very different feel in the room when Rory spoke: people were paying attention! From the opening scripture, which really brought a great spirit and fit perfectly the message, to the end, folks recognized that here was an honest, thoughtful, well-prepared reflection that didn’t trivialize scripture in the least but still directly addressed reasons to be hesitant about being carelessly literalistic about it. And who could argue with the Borg concept about its being a sacrament of the sacred?

    I stood nearby as quite a few folks grabbed him afterward, and I was glad that one of them said to him, “I like the way you think.” There was a counselor in the stake presidency on the stand whose face I tried to read during the talk but couldn’t. But as Rory was speaking, the thought crossed my mind that if I were in that role, I’d figure out a way to send Rory on the road with this, taking it to all the wards in the stake.


  3. Rory,

    After reading the first two comments by Square Peg and Dan, I decided to read your talk after all, despite my initial prejudice that this was just another of so many such numbing talks in my dim memory of attending the Mormon Church. I am proud of you! This is surely an excellent example of what Ken Wilber calls “skillful means” in communicating new understanding and awareness. You have become another of my teachers.

    Namaste, Eugene

  4. Dave says:

    Rory, quite a talk. I’m surprised you didn’t reference D&C 77 in there somewhere, always a nice point of departure for the idea that not all scripture is intended to be taken literally.

    It’s possible to think that much of scripture is better served by a figurative interpretation, yet support a literalist rhetoric in church. The problem for a church as an institution rejecting the literal approach is evident from the failure of liberal religion over the last generation or two: they just lose their center, their focus. And there’s always the problem of elitism that lurks just below the surface of most rejections of literal approaches to scriptural interpretation.

  5. Rory says:

    Thanks for the supportive comments, everyone, and though Dan was there, I think his praise is a bit generous. 🙂 A few with rapt attention, some impassive, some quizzical looks, and at least one guy on the back corner whose neck was going to pay dearly for the position he was sleeping in.

    Dave, I’m interested in your comment about a figurative interpretation and a literalist rhetoric. Would you care to expand on that a bit?

  6. Saint Holiday says:

    There is nothing modern in this approach to scripture. It was prevalent among the 4th century academics. Furthermore, it is meaningless until related to specific propositions of scripture. Do you classify all accounts of miracles in the standard works as unhistorical and figurative? If not, which of the many supernatural events described in the texts would you accept as literal and factual? What formula would you employ to make that determination? Most importantly, what of the miracles allegedly performed by Christ? Did He heal others? Did He walk on water? Did He multiply the loaves and fishes? Was He physically resurrected? Where does your thesis lead us when we apply it to particular events?

  7. Chris says:

    That was great. I wish that more talks like this were given in my ward. Unless these things are personal, I think there is no point in talking about them.

  8. Square Peg says:


    I agree that a literalist approach–and literalist rhetoric–are probably in the best interests of the institutional church. But do you think it’s possible to soften or adjust that top-down rhetoric in a way that would help the minority of church members with a non-literal perspective feel more accepted and valued? Is there room for church leaders to be less dismissive of the non-literal perspective–and somehow encourage acceptance of the few members who prefer that approach–without abandoning its own literalist traditions? I really hope so. Because my Utah County ward is definitely not a comfortable place for us non-literal folk. And IMO, the kind of language in the Approaching Church History news release certainly doesn’t help.

  9. Dan says:

    Saint Holiday,

    Surely you’re not saying Rory needed to address these questions in a sacrament meeting talk? If you’re hoping to push the discussion forward here, I think these are great questions for conversation.

    Borg agrees with you that this isn’t a new approach to scripture but an re-emerging paradigm in churches today after a long phase where enlightenment thinking in many ways transformed scripture into statements of factual propositions and a litmus test for right beliefs about God rather than writings that call us into relationship with the sacred, that lead us to trust in God..


  10. Chris says:

    Good point Dan.

    I have moved past the concrete interpretation of scripture but try to look at things from a variety of perspectives. What really changed things for me was a talk one of my professors gave about Dante’s Divine Comedy and the essons it could teach Latter-day Saints. He gave a rudimentary definition of scriptural exegesis and the four ways of interpreting scripture that go along with it. Since then, the scriptures have increased in their value to me, and have helped come closer to God then the literal readings I gave them in the past.

    I wish that we could move beyond whether or not the Book of Mormon, or any book we hold as scripture, is authentic and seriously ask what does it offer, and will it help us approach God as Joseph Smith said it would. Until we do, we will be missing what the scriptures really offer us. A chance to come, as Rory so aptly put it, into the presence of God.

  11. Dave says:

    Rory, I guess if the standard is literal interpretation, then everyone is on the same page. Even those who prefer a figurative or allegorical reading of this or that text at least know what the accepted view is that they are are disagreeing with for a given text. But if a symbolic or figurative view becomes the rule, there is too much diversity — Where do you draw the line? Everything can’t be figurative. And how do you rank or evaluate different symbolic interpretations? Can a symbolic or figurative interpretation ever be wrong? Which isn’t to say that can’t be a fruitful approach to personal study or interpretation, it just points up the difficulty of adopting that approach as an institutional standard.

  12. Mike says:

    Is God literal or figurative? How can one possibly arrive at the literal existence of God from a figurative text written by those who are supposed witnesses of Him? God is not figurative. His interactions with mankind are not figurative. The Spirit witnesses this to me as I read. Does the Spirit testify of non-literal events? Is the atonement itself figurative? What we should be doing is taking literal, and sometimes very sybolic accounts found in scripture, and by way of the Spirit, figuratively apply them to the circumstances of our own lives. This will hopefully lead us to greater faith, repentance, and recommitment.

    Spiritual literalism and modern thought are perfectly able to go hand in hand – as long as both are truth. Modern thought echoes ancient thought regarding the impossibility of the resurrection. The scientists’ evidence continues to pile up in our cemeteries. I still testify that Christ is resurrected. Your remarks, though intellectually stimulating, makes God figurative, thereby making our salvation figurative.

  13. Nick Literski says:

    If I had a dollar for every time Ive heard LDS members (often tearfully) claim to have “felt the spirit testify to them” of something patently false (such as mythologized church history events, ala Wreck of the Glory, told as if they were objective truth), I’d have been able to retire a long time ago.

    I am reminded of the time a friend of mine, who was serving as stake relief society, asked me about a story she was going to tell in her talk to the women of the stake. Most of you have heard it—it was a dramatic story about artist Del Parsons, claiming that he ran around the church giving firesides about his painting of Jesus in a red robe, and that in one fireside, he unveiled the painting, leading a troubled young woman to stand up, proclaiming that the painting illustrated the personage who held her after her parents were tragically killed in an automobile accident, etc. I explained to my friend that the story was entirely fictional–that Del Parsons had, himself, openly denied that he ever gave firesides about his painting, let alone had such a dramatic reaction occur. My friend was briefly depsondent, but then recovered, saying “Well, I’m going to tell it anyway!” She didn’t care that she was telling a complete falsehood. She cared that it made her “feel the spirit.”

  14. Chris says:

    That is just plain wrong. Those kinds of stories only help in the short term if they help at all. Those that I know who are struggling with their faith, or have abandoned it altogether, had those kinds of stories as the core of their testimony. Your friend may not care, but there many others who will, and when they find out they have been lied to it will not be pretty.

  15. Rory says:

    Good questions being asked.

    Saint Holiday:
    As to there being nothing modern in this approach, I did say I was late to the party. That said, I don?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t classify everything as figurative, note that I did say that scripture contains all elements of literature, including historical accounts.

    Further, while I can personally settle on historical/mythical conclusions for specific events, it would be folly for me to suggest others accept my conclusions. I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢m not advocating a fully-adopted figurative stance, nor am I advocating the Church try to determine what is literal and what is figurative. (That would be folly, too). What I am advocating is that we allow room for individuals to explore scripture in this way.

    That?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s all warm and fuzzy and bunnies, I know.

    Dave, thanks for your additional thoughts. I agree that a symbolic or figurative approach cannot become the rule. Just to reiterate here, so I am communicating clearly, I don?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t think the non-literal approach is the only approach nor the only right one, but one that we might explore as individuals and one that I have found valuable and beneficial.

    Mike ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú I agree that spiritual literalism and modern thought are compatible, in your words here: as long as both are true. So, I turn the question back to you ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú when they conflict, what do you do?

    The point I want to stress is that there is weakness and folly when we hold to either approach exclusively. Set aside the institutional approach, I will grant the need for a strong literal rhetoric there, I am talking about us, as individuals.

    My natural inclination is to be skeptical. But if I apply that skepticism exclusively as I read the scriptures, I am contending with the scriptural accounts. I am judging them. I am forcing them into my preconceptions and I am closed to any chance for them to work in me.

    On the flip side, if someone approaches scripture in an exclusively literal sense, they are reading the accounts in a narrow way as well. They are forcing them into their preconceptions, and they are not allowing room for the text to work in them.

    Perhaps my limitations in communicating this are far too evident, but my concluding paragraphs are sincere. A radical stance on either side limits the power of the scriptures.

  16. Saint Holiday says:

    You’ve clarified your meaning for me, and I thank you. I think I would have understood your sermon better if you had presented examples. I believe the scriptures are full of similitudes, many of which were intentionally vested in the text, and it is entirely proper and profitable to look for them and to teach them. The instances given of the life of Joseph, for example, present a wonderful prophecy of Christ, of His character traits and of events in His life. During my 30 years of teaching Gospel Doctrine classes in Sunday School, I have often pointed to the types and shadows and similitudes in the scriptures, and no one in authority has ever admonished me or reproved me for the practice. I have never heard anyone in the Church say that we should present only a strictly literal interpretation of scripture. In fact, I have been taught otherwise. The Holy Ghost manifests the full meaning of scripture to our minds. I would not want to frustrate the Spirit by closing my mind to the vast treasure of figures and similitudes in our canon.

  17. Parker says:


    Thanks for posting this. It provides some additional fodder for my Sunstone presentation where I am going to discuss the earlier paradigm (literal) and the emerging paradigm (less literal) in Christianity, and how they show up in Mormonism (both paradigms can be found among your respondents).


  18. Gordon Hill says:

    This is very interesting. When I was a literalist, I felt that I had to defend the idea of god because somehow my arguements might make a difference. I sense one person in this blog may believe similarly. Now, I understand that arguments for and against god don’t effect gods existence or none existence. God either exists or he doesn’t and the arguments can’t change the reality of that.
    This was very freeing for me because I felt that I could think any thought or idea without feeling guilty that I was disappointing god.
    I realize this is very elementary but I live in a Mormon community and I often met people who believe that there words and thoughts can uphold gods existence or the churches viability, so they are always on guard against saying and thinking inappropriate thoughts. What a heavy burden this is!
    So I say, speak freely and think freely, god will not be diminished by our silly ideas.


  19. This scripture business is interesting. My wife and I often have disagreements over the significance of the Bible, for instance. From her perspective as an evangelical Christian, the Bible is the only legitimate scripture. Mormon scriptures have little value in her view. Because of my Mormon upbringing I have never been locked into viewing the Bible like that. It was while I lived in Provo for a few months in 1979 that I audited a BYU course called “The Bible as Literature” as taught by Arthur King that my horizons were stretched and my prejudices penetrated. I had never seen nor valued the beauty of those classic words before, especially the KJV. My attitude changed.

    The Book of Mormon has always seemed rather two-dimensional to me, except when it quotes Isaiah verbatim as if from the KJV. It wasn’t until January 1965 that the BoM spoke to me in a way I’d never expected. It came alive as if it were an imbedded personal letter. It didn’t matter what those same words meant to anyone else, let alone the official Mormon Church interpretation. The first verse that caught my attention was 3Ne22:6–identical to KJV Isaiah 54:6–and it moved me like no scripture had ever moved me before. I had no idea why this was happening at the time. It didn’t make rational sense, but I couldn’t disregard the emotional impact. Something was speaking to me from within and I felt the need to honor its right to do so. It wasn’t until weeks later that I made a connection between that verse and a puzzling dream I’d had on Joseph Smith’s birthday weeks earlier. It began to make rational sense. I won’t bore you with details, but over the years since, that chapter, 3 Nephi 22, has become my favorite of all scripture. Since the impact of that initial verse, most of the others have opened up in time to continue giving new perspectives on current life events. It is uncanny, but deeply meaningful. I cannot read those words even today (and only in the KJV translation!) without having a rush of meaning.

    I wonder who else has such a gut reaction to those classic words. I wonder what other words have a sense of imbedded meaning to any of the rest of you. Rory, is this even close to what you meant by: “So to get beyond a literalist reading we must approach scripture in a way that allows it to work in us”?

  20. Paracelsus says:

    The content of this blog is interesting, however the word “modern” is used poorly and anachronistically throughout. Modernity is a whole field of study and should used with more thought. For a blog in which one is criticing interpretation of writing and language, one must be aware of ones own language.

  21. Rory says:


    Fair enough. I’m always open to correction, if you wish to elaborate. In any case, stick around – one day I may just try to use epistemological.

  22. DKL says:

    Nick Literski: …it was a dramatic story about artist Del Parsons, claiming that he ran around the church giving firesides about his painting of Jesus in a red robe, and that in one fireside, he unveiled the painting, leading a troubled young woman to stand up, proclaiming that the painting illustrated the personage who held her after her parents were tragically killed in an automobile accident, etc…. the story was entirely fictional?¢‚Ǩ‚Äúthat Del Parsons had, himself, openly denied that he ever gave firesides about his painting, let alone had such a dramatic reaction occur.

    Nick, I don’t care what Del Parsons says about those firesides and that dramatic reaction. His painting illustrates the personage who pulled up next to me in the parking lot of a bank and tried to sell me speakers out of the back of his van. And if I ever see him again, I’m going to kick his ass.

  23. fontor says:

    I believed in the literality of scriptures all my life, until I realised that they described events they couldn’t possibly have happened. Sounds like this is what you’re describing.

    So then what do you do? Dump your belief in scripture, or go non-literal? As for me, I somewhat reluctantly became (I suppose what you’d call) a New Atheist because I didn’t see the point in taking the scriptures figuratively.

    It sounds a bit like you are taking refuge in non-literalism so that you can salvage your dearly-held beliefs. It’s a normal human thing to do, but I question how honest that is. I also echo the question posed by Saint Holiday and others: if you decide to take some of it figuratively, why not all of it? And isn’t this just another way of saying it’s not really true? And if that is what you’re saying, why believe in it at all? Unless you, you know, like it, which isn’t a good reason to believe things.

    As a Latter-day Saint, I would have loved this talk. Now it just sounds like someone clinging. Or picking and choosing. Neither is very noble.

  24. Rick Jepson says:

    Any grapple is more noble than just walking away. And to say that one can’t find deep, overwhelming meaning in non-literal scripture is just plain silly. It’s actually quite easy to find literal and figurative distinctions in the scripture, and when people pose the “doesn’t that make all of it false” question, I have to wonder how much scripture they’ve read. Just like modern Mormons write, read, and enjoy the Work and the Glory without ever thinking it’s a true story, ancients wrote pseudopigrapha all the time and spotting it isn’t too tough.

    What on earth could be wrong with picking and choosing? How is it not noble? I’m baffled by that. It uses your own inspiration, reason, logic, education………sounds great to me.

    Maybe you’re the one clinging to a decision you haven’t come to terms with.

  25. Rick Jepson says:

    I don’t want to beat this to death, but I sure can’t understand anyone who’s “sure” about their stand on things like this. When someone tells me that things “couldn’t possibly have happened” I’m just as underimpressed as i am by the literalist in Sunday School who “knows” that such and such happened in such and such a way.

    Surety lacks vigor. It just seems lazy to me. I’d much rather continue down a frustrating, complicted, convoluted, life-long struggle to ferret out truth than be comfortable in either group of people who are “sure” or who “know” about anything. It makes me hard to be married to and no one wants to sit by me in elder’s quorum….but I’d sure rather have than than dogmatically claim that I “know” one way or another.

  26. DKL says:

    Rick Jespson, you seem awfully sure about that. Some people would say that there is nothing noble about clinging to historically repudiated stories recorded by primitive tribes and modern impostors.

  27. Rick Jepson says:

    1. LOL.

    2. “clinging to…” I may not have been very clear on what I meant.

    I don’t cling to any obviously inaccurate accounts. But I remain undecided on many records–ancient and modern. I’m suspect of anyone who is “sure” that they are true or that they are false. And in my experience that surety comes from mental laziness and insecurity. I’ve not commonly found someone who’s dogmatic stand comes from being more informed than others. And sorry….nothing noble about that.

    (As an aside, I also wonder about your sarcastic humor in a discussion like this….where does that come from? Aren’t you at peace with where you’re at?)

    3. Back to the issue of seemingly inaccurate accounts having powerful meaning. I think that they certainly can so long as they are taken seriously and simultaneously accepted as symbolic. The temple is a clear example: a reconstruction of a classic human story that doesn’t (in my opinion) claim to be accurate history but that attempts to answer the same questions that rituatl retelling of those kinds of stories have always addressed. Where do we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going?

    The other big one for me is obviously the story of Jacob wrestling the angel (or wrestling God). I don’t dogmatically accept that its factual history and seriously have to doubt that it could be. But the story remains exceptionally powerful to me and has been a real foundation for my spiritual life. And….here’s the kicker….it can function like that without my accpeting it as a piece of 100% accurate history.

    The other obvious example to me is the Book of Abraham. You could hardly ask for a more dubious document. The history of its acquisition and “translation” make my stomach turn. But I don’t think you can find a better example (maybe with King Follet) of Joseph Smith’s theological development or striking philosophical contributions. So I love and hate the document (just as I love and hate the church…and just as I both fight and make love when I wrestle……..see, there’s that pesky Jacob again).

    I can’t say for sure that any of these three examples is strictly factual or not. But I do know that they all represent a real truth….a truth that someone was trying to communicate. They still move me and continue to fascinate me despite all the misgivings.

    You can say that’s not noble, but I have to wonder about your grounds. I’m certainly much more impressed with those who grapple through that—depsite the headaches and grief—than those who sit idly in those two painfully similar groups of people who simply “know” that its all true or who “know” that it’s all false.

  28. Rick Jepson says:

    P.S. I always manage to come off as an A-hole in these posts, even when I’m trying not to. Sorry if I did here. Re-reading my post its hard to tell. Anyway, no offense meant.

    P.P.S. Where are you in Boston? My mission was out there: Worcester, Malrboro, Dorchester, Salem, etc. Loved it. Haven’t been back and would really love to take my wife there someday.

  29. Rick Jepson says:

    Fontor, same thing…hope I’m not sounding too aggressive. I checked out your Web site and got a kick out of it.

    Let me ask, why call yourself an “atheist” instead of an “agnostic”? How is the certainty of atheism different to you than the certainty of belief that you had as a missioanary?

    You’re obviously not an intellectually lazy person……but to me your certainty on this particularly point just seems like it doesn’t require much work. I don’t like any dead-end philosophies, anything that stifles exploration. If you’re trully claiming outright atheism (which even Dawkins and Shermer don’t do), it seems that you’re comfortable with your opinion and don’t want to be bothered further.

    So, in prinicple, what makes that different than the guy sitting next to me in sunday school who already “knows” how everything is true and needn’t be bothered with my questions?

  30. DKL says:

    Rick Jepson, I intended my first comment (about you seeming awfully sure about that) as a joke. But the rest of it I’m serious about. Many people have written off what other people consider scripture, because they’ve just got different priorities. If the Bible is just a myth, then why not read Greek tragedy instead? It contains just as much symbolic truth.

    But the reason I’m so prone to sarcastic humor is because I’m exceptionally comfortable with where I’m at. You can read my story for where I’m at in the church right here. It also touches on a few of the aspects of atheism that you bring up with Fontor.

    I live in Milton, specifically.

  31. fontor says:

    Hi, Rick Jepson and everyone.

    First off, I’d like to clarify the definition of atheist. I used to think atheists claimed to know that there is no god, and from reading your comments, it sounds like that’s the definition you’re using. Imagine my surprise to find that no atheist actually claims this (that I’m aware of), and certainly no one can make such a claim on any solid basis. And in fact you’re correct that Dawkins et al do not make such a claim. But to say they’re not atheists is rather absurd, because who else would be? What atheists tend to say is: given the evidence that we have, it is extremely unlikely that any god exists, to such an extent that we can (provisionally) work off the assumption that there isn’t one. Moreover, many atheists, including myself, would also allow that scientific evidence for a god is in theory possible, and if it comes out we’ll change our minds, but we’re not holding our breath. Such evidence has not been forthcoming, and looks less and less likely to as more and more aspects of the world and universe have been explained without any kind of ‘god hypothesis’. So I don’t see it as realistic to hold out hope for it to be true, though I actually would love to be wrong because I don’t like the thought of dying and not existing, and all that.

    With that in mind, I suppose I did open myself up for your comment when I said that things in scripture ‘couldn’t possibly have happened’. That does sound like someone who’s certain, and certainty is not really on offer around here. I do agree with you that smug certainty isn’t really helpful, and I regret giving that impression. If I had phrased it more carefully, I’d have said that the events in scripture are not supported by findings from biology, archaeology, linguistics, physics, and on and on. If they had happened, we should expect to see certain things that we don’t. (Unless a trickster god is going around hiding evidence just to make things difficult.) And so we can be reasonably confident that it is extremely unlikely for those things to have occurred. Or if I’d been feeling less verbose, I’d have said that these things ‘couldn’t possibly have happened, given the evidence that we have‘. I think that’s fair, and forms one of the assumptions behind the original post.

    So where does that leave us? Still on the question: if scripture isn’t true, might it not be nonetheless useful to us? My answer is this: the LDS church makes no such claim. It takes the strong view — that these writings are literally true (with some exceptions, e.g. Job). Therefore I am disinclined to regard such a claim with much seriousness. If I did, I’d say much the same as DKL: why then are scriptures held in higher regard than other good books? Fairy tales have good moral lessons in them, but I don’t think I’m likely to see missionaries carrying them in leather cases anytime soon. You know as well as I that Latter-day Saints in the main regard the Book of Mormon as ‘the most correct book’, and the Bible as the word of god when translated correctly. And the Book of Abraham to have been translated from papyri with the aid of heaven. Is that so, or is it no?

    No, it’s not enough for it to be useful or good moral instruction. It has to be true. If it’s not true, then how moral is it to misrepresent a human book as divine?

  32. Rick Jepson says:

    DKL: I meant my “LOL” as a recognition that you were joking. I’ll read your link later tonight and get back. I was never in Milton, can’t even think of where it is….I’ll look that up to.

    fontor: thanks for the thoughtful response, and I agree with what you’ve said and appreciate what you’ve clarified. I’m not in a place where I can write a whole lot right now…so I’ll be back.

  33. DKL says:

    Rick, I mistakenly implied that you didn’t recognize my first comment as a joke. I meant to say, “I intended only my first comment as a joke.” Sorry about the misunderstanding.

  34. Rick Jepson says:

    It’s crazy to me how hard it is to understand each other’s subtleties in an online forum. sorry for the misunderstanding.

    Look forward to continuing this. Although with the symposium coming up this week, I may be absent for the next few days. you know….finally starting to prepare a tiny bit. : \

  35. Kerry Shirts says:

    I think, quite frankly, that Rory did an excellent job in his talk. I have found that over the last decade or so my changing approach to scriptures have been very bolstered, and helped by my study of the Kabbalah, which teaches the PADRES system of understanding scripture, that is in four different levels of meaning. The more I study the Zohar, Sefer Yetzirah, and Bahir, the greater my appreciation is for the scriptures, and interestingly enough, the more fun it is to see where and what parts of the scriptures are taken literally, both by the LDS, as well as the Jewish folk.

  36. Kerry Shirts says:

    No, it?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s not enough for it to be useful or good moral instruction. It has to be true. If it?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s not true, then how moral is it to misrepresent a human book as divine?

    Kerry notes:
    I can accept this, but with this exception. The parables of Jesus are not literally *true* as such, i.e., there may not have been literally a prodigal son, but that does not mean the *truth* is not contained in the parable. The same with other parables. Truth does not reside only in history or historical fact in order to be true. I get this from Borg and Crossan’s new book The Last Week of Jesus, quite a good read actualy.

  37. fontor says:

    Hi, Kerry.

    I can see how parables might teach us something interesting about life or the human condition. I don’t really see the value of applying this to scripture in general. Would you say that the story of Jesus’ resurrection contains *truth* in some way even if it didn’t really happen? What truth might that be?

  38. Kerry Shirts says:

    No, I was accepting the parables only at this point. I think Lou Midgley of FARMS (Neal A. Maxwell Institute) said it best in his essay “To Remember and Keep”: On the Book of Mormon as an Ancient Book,” in the Richard Lloyd Anderson Festschrift, where he noted the serious importance for Jews to understand their meaning as a people as actual history, i.e., what happened to them and how they reacted, and he notes the same importance for taking the Book of Mormon seriously as history. I am over simplifying, but this is one of Midgley’s very best essays, in my opinion. I shall read it again and probably make a podcast of it for my Backyard Professor podcast series.

  39. Rick Jepson says:


    I wanted to pick this back up–if its interesting to anyone–in light of the new revelation that M. Theresa was plagued by doubt for nearly her entire minstry.

    You’ve stated earlier in this thread that “clinging” isn’t noble. But after reading Theresa’s shockingly candid letters–those that she wrote to Christ, I have to disagree with you. She continued to cling to her faith while feeling totally abandoned by Christ. She still woke up at 4 am to minster to the poorest of the poor. She still prayed. She still promoted faith.

    I have to tell you that she’s become my patron saint—the patron saint of faithful skeptics, I suppose. She stuck it out and wrestled with her faith rather than discarding it. Even when she felt totally abandoned by the God she worshipped. I can’t say that my own spiritual journay has been as bleak as her “dark night”. Mine is more like crossing a desert but encountering refreshing oases every few hundred miles.

    Theresa’s conclusion was that even Christ felt totally abandoned on the cross and therefore that her own anguish brought her closer to him.

    Given that, I have to ask: wasn’t M. Theresa noble?

  40. Rick Jepson says:

    Let me add to that my own definition of faith–the one i apply to my life. It isn’t a certailnty of anything, not that the B.o.M. is true or that the first vision happened or that there is an afterlife.

    To me faith just means that I don’t pretend to have read enough or thought enough or seen enough to judge any of those important questions. I continue to scrutinize–to wrestle–with every bit of it and in the meantime I allow some of my instinctive hope to guide me. I do hope that there is an afterlife and I do hope that I’ll always be with my family. I do hope that the God Joseph Smith hinted at (one who exists within the universe rather than without; one who persuades rather than commands, etc) exists and not the scary God of other traditions. I do hope a lot of things. And I’ll continue scrutinizing and tearing down those hopes throughout my life.

    All good science, like it or not, begins with a hunch–with a flash of insight–that we call a hypothesis. The true scientist immediately tries to prove the hunch wrong rather than trying to prove it true. And in this sense, I consider my spiritual journey to be one of true, real science. I have my hunches. Instead of leaning on them or being confident about them, I now must spend my life attacking them and seeing what they will stand up against and what will make them crumble.

    I also have zero tolerance for those who give up before me. If you’re certain that its all true or certain that its all false, you sure as hell better have spent a lot more time reading, discussing, and thinking than I have before you got there.

    You’ve made the statement that “events in scripture are not supported by findings from biology, archaeology, linguistics, physics, and on and on.” Which is about as run-of-the-mill as this kind of statement gets. And I have to tell you that I wonder about it. I know that you are proficient in linguistics, but to what extent have you studied this particular matter? Which “events” specifically have you dedicated years to? It seems like any one would take years–maybe a lifetime–to completely investigate. And what degrees in biology, archeology, and physics do you hold that make you so confident?

    Again….I pose the same criticism to the guy sitting next to me in Elder’s Quorum, so please don’t misunderstand my scrutiny. All I mean is that I will continue to attack my beliefs in Mormonism throughout my life because that is how I personally define faith. And I will be surprised if I ever have the certainty that you both express. Meanwhile, you both get to look down at me as some kind of fool. Him because my testimony is “weak” and you because I’m foolishly “clinging.”

    BTW. Just re-read and again can’t tell if I feel hostile. Passionate certainly, but no hostility intended.

  41. Rick Jepson says:

    P.S. Damn I’m long winded.

    I just checked out your site and found the predictable response to M. Theresa: if only she had realized that her whole struggle was unnecessary since her faith was obviously groundless and “other good explanations are so easy to come by?”

    Again, I just don’t see the easy road that you’re referring to.

    What I do see is that you constantly paint a picture of a theology thats simplistic and nothing even remotely close to what I accept as an (agnostic) Mormon. Nothing close. And then when you easily topple that straw man you seem to pat yourself on the back for it.

    And I suppose that is an easy road.

  42. Rick.

    Nice to know you are still out there in #40, 41 & 42! You’ve put out some good challenges, along with: “I continue to scrutinize?¢‚Ǩ‚Äúto wrestle?¢‚Ǩ‚Äúwith every bit of it and in the meantime I allow some of my instinctive hope to guide me. “ I sent you a lot of stuff months ago, which I know you haven’t forgotten. Is this a good place to contine our wrestling match? We agreed to do it here, rather than by email, yes? I have a hunch that there’s a new name awaiting for you! Call it a “hunch”.

    I have something specific to add in response to your #41 statement: “All good science, like it or not, begins with a hunch?¢‚Ǩ‚Äúwith a flash of insight?¢‚Ǩ‚Äúthat we call a hypothesis. The true scientist immediately tries to prove the hunch wrong rather than trying to prove it true.”

    But I’ll wait until you respond to this much.



  43. Rick Jepson says:

    Hello Brother. I’d love to pick it back up. I’ll be back in town in a couple of days and will get right to it.

    I don’t know what to make of everything on this thread. I end up taking more of a stand than I mean to on online forums for some reason and I end up overstating my position. I think that’s happened a bit here.

    I think especially as i sort things out in my own little brain.

    Well….good night. Let’s talk soon.

  44. I’ll look forward to your most rigorous challenge, my friend. For openers, here is something to chew on when you get back.

    You say: “The true scientist immediately tries to prove the hunch wrong rather than trying to prove it true.”

    I’m not sure I’d qualify as a “true scientist” in your book, but I want to tell you the story of when I fell in love with scientific research. I did not try to disprove my hunch. Rather, I wanted to verify it. And I had to do it in a language other scientists would understand.

    It was fall quarter 1960. I had come to the U of Utah from Berkeley on a three-year NDEA Title IV Fellowship, which had a drop dead termination date. Since I was married with growing family of three little ones, there was no time to lose. Graduate studies had to be completed within that period or I risked never finishing. So, as a strategy to accelerate my program, I decided to eliminate the time students typically took in deciding on a thesis subject, which I understood was a year or two. I had learned that my research director, Ivan B. Cutler, was famous for conceiving practical dissertation subjects, so I asked him to consider the three projects in priority order that were closest to his heart, but which he could not get funded by corporate or other means. (The NDEA fellowship included a generous stipend for research without strings. Thus, I could choose whatever I wanted to do.) Without revealing what I was up to, I had decided to run with the director’s first priority suggestion, whatever it was, which also allowed me to test my own flexibility. His favorite topic back then turned out to be a question for determining the conceptual boundary between the disciplines of physics and chemistry. A most elegant idea!

    I fell madly in love with research trying to duplicate and then extend a previous grad student’s research during those beginning fall weeks. In the process had an intuitive flash about the molecular mechanism of the suggested chemical reaction and its physical structure. I simply knew early on what it was. I won?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t bore you with details [you can look them up in the U of Utah library under my name] but it took all of those three years to learn the mathematics, build new equipment and take precise data to verify my intuitive flash. The final critical data were taken in the last two weeks of the fellowship term and the equipment broke down after the last runs. I had run out of time, money and energy and didn’t yet know how my experimental data compared to the theoretical model. There was no time left to do anything more, even if more data were required. But what a wonderful surprise it was to watch how the data fit the theory. They fit so precisely and with a reproducibility that was within 1%, which was unprecedented precision for chemical kinetics where 10% reproducibility was considered good. No one could now argue with my conclusion, whereas before that plot, I had not been able to defend it at all. It had been white knuckle excitement all the way!

  45. Rick Jepson says:

    I agree that when observations fit the hunch its probably one of the most thrilling experiences in life. But the fact that you collected data and demanded reproducibility tells me that you were scrutinizing your hunch and being skeptical of it.

    To me that still seems like you were testing yourself and testing your insights….not really just spending three years telling yourself how right you were. Would you disagree?

    I think that what we call “faith” can often be related to this. We allow ourselves to pursue those flashes of insight and find out if they can weather our storm (or, if you like, if they are reproducible).

    Mormonism seems to say this to me, it seems to be the most reproducible of religions. Joseph Smith says, “I saw Christ and so can you.” It wont be easy, it will take time, you have to follow the manual, but if you reproduce the same steps, you’ll get the same results.

    But what’s disheartening to me is that I don’t hear Mormons talk much about all that great stuff. It seems pretty much that we’ve crouched into a corner of conformity with other, more stale traditions.
    It makes a conversation like I’ve tried to muster on this thread particularly difficult because frequently the mormonism that someone confidently “debunks” has nothing whatsoever to do with the mormonism that I know.

    Anyway, I used to shy away from my instincts, my flashes of insight, because they seemed irrational or unscientific. Now I’m learning to honor them–and to some extent to trust them, but only in the same way you trusted your instinct for those three years. If you ended up proving yourself wrong, I’m certain that you wouldn’t have falsified your data…right? Of course not. You would have said that your insight was wrong.

    In very much the same way, I’m continuing to collect my data and decide if my hunches are worthwhile or not. And in the meantime, I don’t mind giving them their due. But the goal is to someday know one way or another. I suppose that doesn’t mean that I only tear them down or only scrutinize them…I also support them, as you did. But ultimately they have to fit the data or I have to toss them (or I have to sacrifice my integrity and accept them anyway).

    What puzzles me is that I encounter so many who are sure about their conclusions a lot faster than I am. Maybe the’ve really worked that much harder. But usually I find that they haven’t. What if, during your three years of intense work, some collegue or professor casually told you that you were wrong (or even that you were right) and that you were a fool to keep clinging to all that pesky work–that there was no honor in clinging to it.

    That would be as unacceptable to me in scientific inquiry as it is in my spiritual inquiry.

    I hope thats something at least fractionally closer to what I tried to express above.


  46. Rick Jepson says:

    Hey, PS. this may be worth another thread. But I’m positively amazed at how accurate those hunches–those flashes of insight–can be. And how, when you’re really working on a project, sometimes pieces seem just to fall from the sky. Realy bizarre.

    I”ve found time and again that when i’m in the depths of an inquiry, I happen upon all kinds of important data. Amazing stuff. Is it because I have an increased awareness? Is it a personal God sprinkling me with gifts for all my labor? Or is there some kind of universal law or force that creates some kind of positive feedback loop for information….when you seek it you find it.

    I don’t know. But I’ve had a few experiences in the library or at the bedside that were stunning and really spiritually moving–although, of course, they had nothing to do with the traditional notion of ‘spirituality”

    I’d like to start a science thread. Let’s do that in the next day or so. I’d be interested to compare LDS prophets with their scientific contemporaries. Who have I been most inspired by and most affected by: Joseph Smith or Charles Darwin? Whom do I feel closer to? Whom do I most see myself in?

    How about you?


  47. OK, Rick, we’ve highjacked this poor thread enough, yes?

    A “scientists versus prophets” thread? I’d start with Edwin Hubble, not Darwin. And then quickly move to Wilber. I’m not so sure there’s much value in focusing on LDS prophets, however. Joseph Smith, yes. Maybe Brigham, too, including Orson Pratt. I’m not terribly impressed by all the rest, unless you want to include the RLDS guys. I’m really impressed by McMurray, the one who recently resigned from his post as president (I don’t think he resigned as prophet, did he?) and who spoke at the symposium banquet. He set an unprecidented example of courage that his LDS contemporaries might emulate!. I’m also inspired by COC’s (RLDS) Susan Skoor, their newest apostle.

    The problem for me, in so far as contemporary scientists and LDS prophets are concerned, is that they are too often BORING! But if you want to open the discussion to include those who have been the most inspiring to you, be they scientists or prophets, then that might be more meaningful. In my view, however, real prophets are more likely to be artists: composers, poets, painters, etc..NOT somepme with a better rational argument.

    BTW, did you manage to crawl through all that stuff I sent to you months ago?

  48. Rick Jepson says:

    Not all of it…but working on it again.

    I think this would be a fun thread. I’m going to try to start it up in the next day or two.

  49. Good! Let me know what you think of the JS/EB attachment discoveries, as well as the spook stuff. I don’t remember what else I sent, but those two subjects are no joke!

    I’m looking forward to your next thread! We will make it friendly contest rather than combat, yes? Wouldn’t you say that was the attitude attending ancient Jacob’s legendary night-time wrestling match?

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