“Unto what shall I liken?” - Breaking the Fourth Wall of Revelations
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We share an evolutionary history of language and semiotics as evident in this survey of common symbols found on stone age artifacts which follow patterns of human migration.
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Religion too has evolved over time influenced by culture, language, music, interaction with the divine, and other forms of semiological expression.
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One of my favorite quotes, that I think gets at the crux of this, is by William James when he said:
“Religious language clothes itself in such poor symbols as our life affords”
I think there is great insight in that perspective. That religion is limited to the semiological domain of those it finds expression in. And as our knowledge, aesthetics, culture, etc. change, our religious expression will change too as we find new ways to express those religious longings.
In Mormonism, our scriptures (much like Christianity) make reference to “likening”, “comparing”, and “typifying”. Models, maxims, parables, allegories, metaphors, etc. are all semiological expressions in our scriptures and teachings.
One of my favorite scriptures that illustrates this is in Doctrine and Covenants 88:46.
Unto what shall I liken these kingdoms, that ye may understand?
The reason I absolutely love this instance where the word “liken” is used, is because it breaks the fourth wall and reveals the author’s hand and intention in the process of revelation.
Breaking the fourth wall is a literary device that evokes a conversation between the author, messenger, and audience. It ties all parties together and invites them to consider each other’s realities. It brings a sense of self-awareness and agency that otherwise can be missed. And it’s this self-awareness that is so important for faith today.
Looking at each word in this phrase from a semiological perspective can illustrate how this self-awareness can occur.
First is the word “unto”: a functional word indicating reference or directionality.
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A common Buddhist teaching highlights the difference between a subject and the object that points to it.
Joseph Fielding Smith, Jr. highlights how the “scriptures are replete with allegorical stories, faith-building parables, and artistic speech."
(Doctrines of Salvation, Bookcraft, 1956, vol. 3, pg. 188)
All of this points to some fundamentals of semiotics which I think are important to cover briefly (and at only a surface level) to provide some context.
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At the base of semiotics is the idea of communication: particularly communication between two, self-aware individuals. The difficulty is how do you communicate something from an unfathomably complex mind to a different, independent, and likewise unfathomably complex mind.
The person communicating has, in her mind, an object to communicate. This object is what is being “signified”. It can be a picture, concept, sound, truth, smell, taste, aesthetic, experience, fiction, model, etc.; anything that can be communicated via the chosen medium of communication.
In order to communicate this, she must encode this into abstract symbols or “signifiers". In this case she chooses the concepts of “mountains”, “colors”, “and ruins”. She then must select symbols within the medium of communication. Here she is using the spoken, english words “mountains”, “colors”, and “ruins”. This process is called “semiological encoding”.
The other party must then understand those communicated symbols, construct abstract symbols, then form an object to try to understand the original idea that the other had. And I think we’ve all had experiences where this process didn’t work as well as we might have hoped.
This process breaks down when there is no longer a shared communication medium or shared set of communicable symbols to use. And even when communication is possible, the process of decoding can break down on issues of comprehension, relevancy, engagement, value judgements, and non-neutrality of the communication medium itself.
Furthermore, even before communicating, the task of encoding can break down on ideas of accurate sign selection, biases, lack of trust with audience, compensating for audience, and the non-neutrality of the communication medium as well.
This, I think, is what Paul was referring to when he talked about “knowing or prophesying in part” or “seeing through the glass, darkly” with the hope and faith of a time of greater clarity (1 Cor. 13:9-12).
This all comes back to the topic of religion. We see visions of greatness as we commune with the divine. Then we seek to find ways to express that greatness using the crude symbols our lives can afford.
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The word “what” references the thing or things in question.
James E. Talmage observed that god is often treated as merely a projection of our own traits.
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The Greek and Roman mythologies were very much projections of human nature: the embodiments of our different natures. As a tool for exploring who we are, there are benefits here.
But as New Testament scholar NT Wright points out in an Veritas he spoke at titled "What Gods Do We Believe In Now?", there are problems when our own human nature becomes an object of worship.
In regards to modern society’s obsession with eroticism, he noted:
In the wake of the global financial crisis and scandals he points out that:
And critiquing our modern machines of war he said:
This kind of idolatry has a long history with religion.
I love the opening chapter of Isaiah in this regard. Isaiah brings an iconoclastic perspective. Here, Isaiah critiques the uselessness of the religious symbols at the time.
I think it's important that we "liken" this scripture to our own day. Perhaps casting this in the mold of Mormonism we might get something like this:
Of course, my selection of LDS symbols here is somewhat arbitrary. Regardless however, these are intentionally provocative questions. But I think that is the point being made in Isaiah here. And we can know when idolatry has taken root precisely when these questions are seen as offensive or unnecessary.
Our religious symbols, when detached from how they relate to the larger picture of what they signify in God, become ineffectual and worthless. They become idols and we become idol worshipers, mistaking pointing hands for the moon they point to.
Isaiah isn’t merely an iconoclast though -- and neither am I. Isaiah sought to restore the purpose and meaning of those symbols by re-attaching them to their intended use: To become clean. To put away evil doings. To learn to do well. To seek discernment. To relieve the oppressed. To plead for the widow.
Returning to the scripture, next up is the word “shall”. This denotes choice or freedom of the author.
I challenged my son last year to take notes during a General Conference talk, but to try to use symbols as he did so. This is what he came up with.
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There's a hint in who the author of the talk was in the symbols my son drew. Can you guess it? Here's a hint: airplane.
As you might have guessed, this is from a talk given by Deiter Uchtdorf titled "The Gift of Grace" from the April 2015 General Conference.
Freeman Dyson makes a point that’s relevant here. In his book “Infinite in All Directions” he reflects back on science at the beginning of the 20th century when there were the great mountain peaks which dominated scientific visions and attitudes:
(parenthetical comments my own)
I had the opportunity to ask him about whether this analogy could also work for religion. That we see the same types of worldview: one with creedal mountain peaks and simplified, reductive explanations; the other which finds home in the flourishing of diversity of expression and the exploration of that rich flora and fauna. The former seeing itself as complete with only a few unimportant trivialities to tie up. And the latter seeing itself as incomplete with an endless diversity to explore.
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He agreed and mentioned that this is especially true in the context of the Mormon religion.
So what are some of the transformative results this kind of semiological approach can provide? How can we meaningfully explore this jungle?
- Instead of divining God’s one will, we can see that God’s will is infinite in diversity but within a domain.
- Doctrine and policies can be treated less as edicts and instead can be approached as milestones.
- Fixed religious symbols are instead used as aesthetic tools to find meaning.
- Devotional or reductive interpretations are expanded by literary analysis.
- Singular, idealized interpretations instead follow the pattern of manna and are re-integrated and re-applied anew.
- Instead of there only being one possible right way or outcome we see many (even infinite) possible outcomes within the domain of God’s will that we may choose from.
- Rites and rituals, rather than being treated as final, are instead seen as expressions of evolving faith.
- And passive acceptance is abandoned for the self-awareness that comes from active choosing as we take responsibility for our own beliefs rather than abdicate them to another.
The word “I” in this scripture brings the author directly into the picture. And the concept of prophetic authorship and authority is a hotly debated topic in Mormonism. There is a fascinating, and sometimes tragic, history behind why these debates are framed the way they are today which is beyond the scope in this essay. But I want to see if I can provide a way forward which is informed by this kind of semiological approach I’ve been underscoring here.
The debate hinges on this question: When is a prophet acting as a man or acting as a prophet? This question has some problems.
First. Why isn’t anyone asking when a prophetess is speaking as a woman or speaking as a prophetess? Technical authoritarian definitions aside, we have functional prophetesses today even if unordained. I watched this most recent April 2016 general woman’s broadcast and their leadership and efforts to focus our faith more on refugee outreach is nothing short of prophetic.
Second, it proposes a false dichotomy. It forces us to pull apart the agency and person from the divine calling. It de-humanizes religion. This is a mistake and often leads to implied or explicit infallibility of leaders or the total rejection of them. Fundamentally, the man or woman is always present in the limitations of their knowledge to decode what they feel from God and then, in turn, encode that in a way which others can then decode.
To borrow the William James’ quote above:
A land mine in the ground on this debate in Mormonism is the treatment of Wilford Woodruff's words when he said (regarding the first Official Declaration), "The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray... If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place." While I don't disagree with that statement, the interpretations of it and the immediate arguments that follow are almost always escapist in nature and invoke bolts of lightning, sudden diseases inflicted on prophets, etc. But all abdicate responsibility to discern away from individuals and remove it from the work of discipleship. The logical result is that we must, even if temporarily, deify prophets into realms of infallibility - thus removing their agency in those moments.
So how can we move forward? The way this debate is formed, it seeks to develop rules that put all the discernment on the mantle of authority. It results in very escapist arguments, hyper-devotional interpretations, authoritarianism, and circular reasoning. I believe such arguments are not only unnecessary but pull us away from Christ.
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A powerful way forward is to keep Christ at the center of the discussion. We already have hermeneutic guides to apply here from the scriptures themselves. Here are four of them.
First Christ asks us to “hang all the law and the prophets” on the two great commandments: love God and love thy neighbor (Matt 22:37-40):
Second, Paul warned than prophecy will fail when it is detached from charity (1 Cor. 13:8):
Third, Moroni taught in his parting wisdom that anything that provokes us to do good and believe in Christ comes from Christ (Moroni 7:14-16):
Notice that this wisdom is "given unto [us]" -- all of us.
And fourth, Joseph Smith gives a pattern whereby we can judge the efficacy of the exercise of priesthood authority (Doctrine and Covenants 121:36-37, 41-42).
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So we have filters which every individual can apply with the authority that comes with earnest discipleship in Christ to answer the question: “Is what is being said by a prophet or prophetess the word or will of God, or not?” The personal application of these filters is important as history (both ancient and modern) clearly shows that prophets/prophetesses make mistakes not just in their personal lives but in the exercising of their calling — just as we all do in the exercising of ours.
This kind of hermeneutic approach has a provocative but, I think, much more robust way to interpret Woodruff's words:
If/when prophecy advocates something that fails these tests, that prophecy will fail not because God magically comes down with a bolt of lightning to remove our agency and solve the problem for us; it will fail precisely because disciples of Christ will simply say, "No."
But conversely, and this is important to balance this interpretation, when prophecy advocates something that passes these tests and which might go against commonly held opinions or practices, disciples of Christ will repent and turn to Christ.
This gives prophecy its rightful power to call to repentance as that repentance leads towards Christ. But it also gives power to disciples of Christ to be a balancing force against imperfections of the process and partnership of prophecy as we work towards Christ together.
There's an important lesson from Ezekiel 14:9-11:
The people of God cannot use prophets to excuse their belief or actions. It seems that we're all in this together (both prophets and those that follow them). Prophets need us and we need prophets as we work together towards Christ and God's Kingdom. We all reap what we sow together -- whether good or bad. Perhaps this kind of discernment can orient us towards the fulfillment of the desire expressed by Moses that all of the Lord's people were prophets together (Numbers 11:29):
Finally, the word “liken”.
By this point I’ve belabored the point about semiologically likening, so I’ll just make a final concluding remark that I think brings a level of authenticity much needed.
Richard Bushman in his book “Rough Stone Rolling” points out how the Book of Mormon “multiplies the peoples keeping sacred records”. That the Nephites, Jews, tribes of Israel, and indeed “all nations” are spoken to by God and that they each write (or I’ll add “decode” and “encode”) what they hear. And he points out how the Book of Mormon teaches that God chooses what “he seeth fit that [the nations] should have" (Alma 29:8) — invoking agency of the Author — and Bushman highlights how "all peoples have their epic stories and their sacred books". And we can see this variety of encoding/decoding going on across cultures, languages, geographies, and times.
Semiological understanding expands the notion of scripture away from creedal ownership to instead whatever hermeneutically passes the tests of what is the word of God. Canon, however, can be selective. Whereas scripture spans creeds and religions, canon becomes whatsoever a group feels inspired to use to maintain identity or hold themselves accountable to.
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NT Wright makes a similar connection when he sums up the 3 biblical coordinates of wisdom Christians have to orient themselves as they navigate their discipleship (again, from his talk at the Veritas forum mentioned above).
- We are called to reflect the Creator’s wisdom and care into the world.
- We contextualize our wisdom as being part of a much larger world full of interlocking connections and mutual relationships.
- That our knowledge is never in isolation. That while we can be bold and humble in stating what we have seen and know, but will always covet other angles of vision.
This is why I love this phrase “Unto what shall I liken?”. This breaking of the fourth wall of revelation evokes a much needed conversation between the author, messenger, and audience. It ties all parties together and invites them to consider each other’s realities. This is a gift of grace from God. And I believe as we do so with self-awareness and agency that otherwise is sometimes absent, our religious discussions will be elevated and a sense of authenticity and Christ-centered faith can better grow.