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Why "Liberal"?
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Why "Spirituality"?
Symbols and Icons
A Spirit of Discernment
Faith, Not Doubt
Does Historicity Matter?
Only One True Church?
A Place for Liberals?
Staying in the Church
Living outside the Church

Symbols and Icons

A spiritual tradition arises out of a community's efforts to "feel after" God (Acts 17:27). As Latter-day Saints have responded to what they understand to be God's call to them, they have accumulated nearly two centuries' worth of scriptures, sermons, visionary experiences, historical memories, stories, doctrines, rituals, norms, and customs. All together, these make up the Mormon spiritual tradition. They provide a distinctive vocabulary—a language—through which Latter-day Saints articulate their understanding of God's will and the purpose of life. In addition, Mormon teachings, stories, and rituals provide a language through which the Spirit communicates with those who look to this particular tradition for guidance.

Like any language, a spiritual tradition communicates through symbols. Adherents who approach Mormon tradition as symbolic do not ask, "Is this literally true?" Instead they ask, "What is the Spirit trying to convey to me through this tradition about how I should live?" The stories recounted in the scriptures, LDS teachings about the plan of salvation, the whole range of ordinances from baptism, to health blessings, to the endowment: these can all serve as icons—in other words, as images or parables—for visualizing our relationship to God and the work God asks us to undertake. Even if the believers who first promoted these teachings understood them to be literally true, and even if that understanding was incorrect, liberal adherents can testify that the Spirit enlightens and inspires them today through Mormon traditions, approached as symbols or icons.

Orson F. Whitney: God teaches with symbols; it is his favorite method of teaching. The Savior often used them.

"Latter-day Saint Ideals and Institutions," Improvement Era, August 1927, 861

John A. Widtsoe: We know nothing, except by symbols. We make a few marks on a sheet of paper, and we say that they form a word which stands for love, or hate, or charity, or God or eternity. The marks may not be very beautiful to the eye. No one finds fault with the symbols on the pages of a book because they are not as mighty in their own beauty as the things which they represent. . . . There are men who object to Santa Claus, because he does not exist! Such men need spectacles to see that Santa Claus is a symbol; a symbol of the love and joy of Christmas and the Christmas spirit. . . . [They have not] seen, beyond the symbol, the mighty realities for which the symbols stand.

"Temple Worship," Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine, April 1921, 62

Patricia T. Holland: He has given us patterns in the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price; and He has given us patterns in the temple ceremony. . . . We know He uses metaphors and symbols and parables and allegories to teach us of His eternal ways. . . . We need to search, and we need always to look for deeper meaning. We should look for parallels and symbols. We should look for themes and motifs just as we would in a Bach or a Mozart composition, and we should look for patterns—repeated patterns—in the gospel. . . . These all seem to me to be symbols of higher principles and truths, symbols carefully chosen to show us the way . . .

"Many Things . . . One Thing," A Heritage of Faith: Talks Selected from the BYU Women's Conferences
(Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1988), 24-25

S. Michael Wilcox: In our culture and in our world, we are not particularly symbol-oriented people. We like prose, well-measured sentences laid out so that we can't misunderstand them, sentences with only one very logical and easy-to-assimilate meaning. We are not particularly enthusiastic about poetry. . . . Why does [the Lord] choose to teach us this way? The primary reason may be that symbols can mean different things to different people at different stages of their life.

"The Temple: Taking an Eternal View," Every Good Thing: Talks from the 1997 BYU Women’s Conference
(Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1998), 284-85

This website is an independent effort to discern the Spirit's voice in LDS teaching. The site is not sponsored by the LDS Church. Quotations from the teachings of any individual should not be taken to imply that the individual does or would endorse this website or other statements made here.