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.
Saint Ideals and Institutions," Improvement Era, August
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.
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 . . .
. . . One Thing," A Heritage of Faith: Talks Selected from
the BYU Women's Conferences
(Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1988),
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.
Taking an Eternal View," Every Good Thing: Talks from the
1997 BYU Women’s Conference
(Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1998), 284-85