Does Religious Faith Have to be Literal?

Christianity at its core is a religion of historical narratives. It’s sacred text is a history of the world starting at its creation up through and past Christ’s life, ministry, death and resurrection. To be sure, there’s plenty of theology and doctrine in these stories, and not just stories, the book contains plenty from ancient prophets, their epistles, poetry, warnings and prophecies. This book and the people who produced it are at the root of three major religions – so there’s a power in these stories and in the history and traditions. But fundamentally Christian scripture is a historical narrative of God’s interaction with ancient people and prophets.

After the last Biblical narrator died, it was up to later believers to collect, interpret and translate the sacred text. It has made its way from its original form through the many translations and editions to its present form, not as a single book, but as a variety of alternative translations. The text is complicated, vague, multi-layered, and contradictory, opening itself up to different interpretations and variety of religious offshoots and doctrine that all claim authority from this book of scripture. The confusion and disagreements begin I believe, almost from the beginning, which is no surprise. We’re all stumbling through, we all “see through a glass, darkly”. A few hundred years after Christ, the council of Nicea was organized to bring together diverging thoughts into a single, unifying Christian belief.  The Nicean Creed drives much of Christianity’s core doctrine today. But even still, we have numerous Biblical interpretations, creeds and churches all claiming authority back to Christ.

So, Christianity is fundamentally rooted in ancient history. Modern day churches are tied very closely to ancient ideas. And as a believer this makes sense because God is the same yesterday, today and forever. The same religious beliefs and principles that applied then should apply the same today. God loved and guided His people then, He should do the same today.

And Mormons up the historical ante. Joseph Smith born in the early nineteenth century in upstate New York, translates a book of ancient American scripture about a people who originated in ancient Jerusalem, but migrated by ship to the Americas bringing a belief in Christianity and a portion of Old Testament scripture with them. As with the Bible, this book is historical, filled with stories of wars, preaching and migrations. The major portion of the book spans 1000 years, straddling in time the visit of the resurrected Christ to the ancient Americas, where Christ shared some of the same teachings that was recorded in the New Testament gospels.

But Joseph Smith did not stop with the Book of Mormon. He re-translated portions of the Bible, making inspired corrections, adding additional books including stories about Moses.  He also produced a new book of Abraham, produced from an inspired translation from found ancient Egyptian papyrus. He formed a church, gained converts, taught the sacred nature and destination of the American land, pronounced Missouri the historical destination of the garden of eden and predicted a New Jerusalem will be eventually be established there. I could go on, but fundamentally, Mormonism is at its core, Christian, but Christianity with an American twist, rooting Christianity not just in Jerusalem but in America as well.

But something happened on the way to modernity.  While God is the same then as now, humans evolved and advanced. We know much more now and we continue to learn. Scientific and secular thought has helped us understand the world as it is and as it once was and where it might be tomorrow. But as we evolve and learn and gather. As we understand more and more, we find a growing tension between religious truths and scientific discoveries. More often than not, religion, not science has had to make room to accommodate these new discoveries.

We all know the story of Galileo’s run in with Catholic church over the earth’s rotation around the sun. We also know the still on-going debate between evolution and an old earth and those who believe biblical creation story literally and those who believe the earth to be 6000 years old. More controversially is the debate among scholars, both believers and unbelievers, of the historical evidence surrounding Christ’s life. Mormons have to come to terms with the DNA evidence in indigenous American population that shows an ancestry from east Asia, contradicting the story of an ancient migration from Jerusalem, or the evidence that the papyri scrolls were nothing more than “standard funerary texts” with no evidence of Abraham’s actual writings.

So, a religious faith rooted in historical narratives and traditions passed down into modernity from ancient times can be vulnerable if literal belief is held too tightly. Faith that stands on literal interpretations is vulnerable to scientific or historical advancements that challenge those interpretations and then is a faith on shaky ground.

In Letter’s to a Young Mormon, Adam Miller has what I think is one key here in his letter on science:

I believe in a literal reading of this text. I believe the Hebrews literally thought the world was like that, and I believe that God literally ran with it and revealed his grace at work in their lives through it. More, I believe that God is just as literally showing himself to us in and through that continually rolling revelation that is science as we know it. The world given to us is not the same world given to them. We have two worlds here. But though our worlds diverge, it is the same God peeping through. Believing that the God of their world is just as surely the God of ours doesn’t commit us to believing in their version of the world. Rather, it commits us to believing in a God whose grace is full enough to fill them both.

Miller decides in this short passage to remove the tension between science and religion and instead unify them into a single revelationary stream. God talked to us through prophets 2000 years ago and does so still today. But the revelations look different today than they did back then. Back then, He came in burning bushes or expansive visions, today we are taught to be kind over an internet stream from Salt Lake City. But God is also talking to us in all sorts of ways, through each discovery in our laboratories or universities. Our scientists and historians are also prophets in their own way. But not just them, each of us as we receive bits of God’s grace in the simplest of ways as we muddle through the challenges of our every day lives.

But more than that, throughout my faith journey, I have never been asked to root my faith in scientific evidence or literal historical belief. I was baptized when I was eight and was asked then and since if I have and will continue to renew my baptismal covenant to “mourn with those who mourn”. I’ve been asked if I have a testimony of the Book of Mormon, of Christ, of God, of His prophets, in the restoration. I was never shown the evidence. I was simply asked to read and pray and to do my best to commit myself to discipleship.

Miller in Rube Goldberg Machine says this of testimony:

It is in this context – in the context of the Atonement’s power to meaningfully impact the world by restoring to it the possibilities that our sins had foreclosed – that Ballard notes how a testimony depends on the humble, sincere clarity of an ‘I know’. A testimony must be purified of every sign precisely because a testimony expresses a kind of unconditional certainty that is foreign to every objective sign that belongs to our thoroughly conditioned world. A testimony can express this kind of certainty because it depends on a direct experience of the Atonement in which the world, in its strictly conditioned chains of cause and effect, is contradicted by the gracious restoration of lost or impossible possibilities

In other words, to try to place scripture in a role better suited for historical or scientific text is to try to force conditional signs onto a faith meant to transcend them.

My sins and mistakes may disqualify me in all kinds of ways, Christ’s grace restores the rich possibilities of infinity so abundantly felt as a child. As I walk in faith, I become as a little child, full of grace and hope. Testimony transforms the soul.

Importantly, we live in a different world today than Joseph Smith, Peter, Moses, Noah or Adam. We have biblical text and a rich religious tradition passed down to us from our ancestors as a “speech [that] whisper[s] [to us] out of the dust.” We can believe their offerings literally in that we can believe believe Joseph Smith literally believed he was writing the words of Lehi, Nephi, Abraham and Moses. We can believe ancient Hebrews literally believed the world was created in a week and that Adam and Eve literally walked out of the Garden of Eden.

We can read and pray over these historical texts and come to love these stories. Whether or not they are literal renditions of actual people and events is beside the point. The point is whether or not we experience grace through them. The point is whether or not our lives are transformed by knowing them.

If we can give up the need for these stories to be literal, something else can happen to us. We can make room for this world as well. Our hearts and minds can be open to all the revelations that are now pouring down on us as if as a flood. More on this point from “Letters to a Young Mormon”:

God has been rushing to show us more of this strange world. You name it: fossils, black holes, x-rays, DNA, set theory, one-dimensional strings, Neanderthals, dark matter, brain imaging, big data, evolution, retroviruses, interplanetary travel, the Higgs boson, non-euclidean geometries, Mars rovers, etc. God used to send us an occasional rain. Now the revelations come as a flood. We live in a postdiluvian world, and the rain falls harder every day.

What I’ve been trying to say is this: a faith rooted in the atonement, rather than literal stories, is a faith big enough to make room for both our ancient world, it’s traditions and truths, as well as this world, it’s secularism, academics and scientific discoveries. And that is the kind of faith I aspire to.