The Great Abstraction: Reading Scriptures non-literally

When the stories in scripture are read for ourselves, rather than for history, observable truth is discovered.

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
— Walt Whitman

The space between an experience and the way that experience is shared could fill the Grand Canyon.

Water. As you read that word, you know what it is because you’ve jumped into a lake before. You’ve taken a shower before. You know what it’s like to have your fingers turn into prunes. You know the feeling of a cold drink on a hot day. You read it, your brain fires it’s synapses and boom, we know what we’re talking about. Water.

If you had nearly drowned or if you were an experienced kayaker or if you had spent time working aboard a cruise ship or a tanker or if you grew up near a lake or an ocean then the sound or sight or feel of water would be different to you. There would just be more there. Your brain would fire it’s synapses at the word “Water” differently than for those without your experiences. It’s still two hydrogens and one oxygen, but humans aren’t static machines, they’re emotional and experiential and language, verbal and non-verbal, is the only bridge from our emotion and experience to understanding with others.

For thousands of years, children have huddled around their aging parents to say goodbye, when the time comes. We’re grief stricken and we know it’s a part of life, but struggle to cope anyway. We have phrases like, “last dying wish” and “final words of advice” to describe what our beloveds relay to us with their last few breaths. In a slight whisper and with eyes of desperation and longing, they lean over, grab your arm and say, “Spend more time with your family.” Or “Take one day at a time.” Or “I always loved your mother.” Words. Almost puzzling words. Why would they say something I have heard a million times? Why would they relay what most would consider a cliche?

Language is an abstraction. And the best abstractions are the ones that know they are abstractions, that’s what cliches are. They are these bookmarks for the most profound and painful lessons human life has to offer, but because we are emotional and experiential and words are abstractions, all we hear is, “Don’t sweat the details.” They are trembling and frail and it takes every ounce of energy they have, but it’s all they are allowed to convey. 90 years of wisdom and experience can only be expressed in the boring and dissatisfying language we’ve heard our whole lives.

Religious texts have some of the oldest and most recited abstractions. Like all abstractions, the point is not to just study the words, or the star charts, but to get out under the stars and try and find common experiences that map to the abstractions you’ve read over and over.

Martin Luther King, Jr had an experience that may be similar to many in the Mormon church today:

“I had been brought up in the church and knew about religion, but I wondered whether it could serve as a vehicle to modern thinking, whether religion could be intellectually respectable as well as emotionally satisfying.”

The Institute has wondered the same thing and we believe the answer is yes, but only through great awareness and the study of observable truth separate from the unknowable.

Martin Luther King Jr. experienced a real crisis of faith as he began seeing holes in the literal religion he was raised in. He noted:

“My college training, especially the first two years, brought many doubts into my mind. It was then that the shackles of fundamentalism were removed from my body. More and more I could see a gap between what I had learned in Sunday school and what I was learning in college. … This conflict continued until I studied a course in Bible in which I came to see that behind the legends and myths of the Book were many profound truths which one could not escape.”

They are inescapable because they are observably true. They work. They are genuine principles about the human experience and deliverance from pain.

If you’ve lived the Mormon faith for a portion or even all of your life, you’ll have had as much experience as many of the people featured in scripture. You’ve had experiences in your life, experiences that you might describe completely differently, but align just the same. The Bible and The Book of Mormon are full of stories that map to experiences. You wouldn’t have described them that way, but they can be used to find common ground with you. They are there to help you understand the human experience and find deliverance from pain and suffering in what can be the repetitive and unsatisfying practice of life. These stories from the Bible and The Book of Mormon are abstractions, that, if read literally, are difficult to see ourselves in, but, if read as abstractions, hold “profound truths which one could not escape.”

If, for instance, the story of Adam and Eve is read literally, it makes it difficult to find a model in it. Note, this has nothing to do with the science of the age of our species or the earth. There are valuable models present and discoverable in the story of Adam and Eve, but those models are hidden when the point is to make them real or historical.

The Institute explores the scriptures for models that are observably true, that work without the need for believing in the unknowable (Faith One, for regular readers) and invite you to join us. This requires non-literal readings of the scriptures. They likely were never written to be read literally. They were written because they explain the human experience in a way that helps people find deliverance from pain and suffering. And that’s exactly what many of them can do.

Institute for Awareness & Connection

Models for Mormons looking to find meaning in a faith…

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store