Today I ran across an assertion I’ve seen numerous times: the claim that adopting so-called critical approaches to scripture (approaches that – for the purpose of using the scriptures religiously – require the devotee to read the scriptures in a metaphorical or allegorical fashion) leads to “greater heights of spiritual growth”. I’ve come across this assertion on a number of occasions, all expressing the idea that if we take the scriptures in a more symbolic fashion, usually in connection with the idea that we should not believe events in the Book of Mormon or Bible actually happened, then one does not lose out ‘spiritually’ but instead apparent expands in spirituality.
Yet in all this, no one stops to explain what they mean by ‘spiritual’. It’s left as a rather woolly term. And in all fairness, it tends to be used in a fairly woolly way on lots of other occasions. What do we mean when we talk about wanting to be ‘fed spiritually’ at some meeting? What are we referring to when we talk about having some ‘spiritual’ experience or impression? When we talk of our ‘spiritual’ needs, or wanting to become strong ‘spiritually’, what on earth are we talking about? When we talk of our reading of the scriptures building our personal ‘spirituality’, what exactly are we trying to accomplish?
First things first: Spiritual does not mean allegorical
Perhaps the first place to begin is with what it is not, but where there seems to be at least some confusion. Some of this confusion can be seen in treatments of 1 Nephi 22, where Nephi (having quoted Isaiah 48-49), proceeds to answer some of his brothers’ question and provide an interpretation. Nephi’s brothers begin by asking:
What meaneth these things which ye have read? Behold, are they to be understood according to things which are spiritual, which shall come to pass according to the spirit and not the flesh?
(1 Nephi 22:1)
Now a number of commentators – critics and LDS scholars alike – have seen this as addressing the age-old debate between literal and allegorical meanings in scripture. However, while these can overlap, reading Nephi’s response reveals that the distinction here is not the same. Nephi begins by saying:
Behold they were manifest unto the prophet by the voice of the Spirit; for by the Spirit are all things made known unto the prophets, which shall come upon the children of men according to the flesh.
(1 Nephi 22:2)
Thus Nephi begins by first asserting that the contents of such prophecies – whatever their application, spiritually or temporally – was made known “by the spirit”, meaning here supernatural communication by means of the Holy Ghost. Thus Nephi’s response is to first undermine the distinction his brothers’ have set up by, by linking spiritual to the means by which scripture was given, even when its contents concern ‘the flesh’.
Nephi then states “the things which I have read are things pertaining to things both temporal and spiritual”. Nephi thus embraces both sides of this apparent divide, as he had done earlier (in 1 Nephi 15:31–32) when discussing the interpretation of his father’s revelations. But again, this is not the literal versus the allegorical, as further reading makes clear. Nephi goes on to cite the words of Isaiah 49:22, that Israel’s “children have been carried in their arms, and their daughters have been carried upon their shoulders” as something “temporal” (1 Nephi 22:6), but the interpretation offered in verse 8 is not literal: the shoulders are metaphorical for the ‘marvelous work’ the Lord is to perform amongst the Gentiles which will bless the house of Israel. Temporal does not mean literal, and spiritual does not mean allegorical.
If spiritual then only has an occasional overlap with the allegorical, what are we really referring to. This is really a question of what we mean by ‘spirit’. We may not have a full understanding of what that is, but one thing we learn from modern revelation is that man is spirit:
For man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy;
(Doctrine and Covenants 93:33)
We are thus composed, at the present time, of both spirit and element. Spirit is distinct from element, so that while it is not immaterial it is more “fine or pure” (D&C 131:7-8). The bit of us composed of spirit is the bit of us that preceded our mortal incarnation (Abraham 3:23), and it is the placing of this in our mortal bodies that makes us, spirit and body, “a living soul” (Abraham 5:7). These two will be separated at death, and our spirits will continue to exist after death, and then at the resurrection our spirit and element will be reunited in an immortal, incorruptible state (2 Nephi 9:13), to be judged. Thus ‘spiritual’ can often bear the meaning of eternal, compared to that which is merely mortal and temporary, as in 1 Nephi 15:31-32 and Alma 11:45. Those who are resurrected in glory are likewise referred to as having a “spiritual body”, even though it will be eternally united with element (1 Corinthians 15:44, D&C 88:27).
But we are also not the only things that are spirit. Other living things were likewise created spiritually before they were created physically (Moses 3:4-7). And there are other things which, like us in our premortal state, are spirit but do not have a body of element: those not yet resurrected are spirit (D&C 129:3); as are those who rebelled, the devil and his angels who have lost the opportunity for bodies (D&C 50:1-3). Then there is the Holy Ghost, who is a “personage of spirit” so he might “dwell in us” (D&C 130:22).
Thus there are many things which are spirit, which are very real but which we generally cannot perceive – indeed, even though the Father and the Son have glorified bodies they too can only be perceived by “spiritual eyes”, it being necessary that we and our “natural eyes” be “transfigured” (Moses 1:11). ‘Spiritual’ can refer to matters that concern our eternal fate (as we are spirit), but can also refer to our interactions with these unseen realities. And these unseen realities affect us to a greater degree than we in the modern age are likely to think. ‘Spiritually’, there is not just us, acting in complete and self-assured autonomy. Rather our ability to choose is partly dependent upon the fact that we are being “enticed by the one or the other” (2 Nephi 2:16); not just by our own internal tendencies, but by God through the Holy Spirit on one hand, and the devil and his angels on the other.
Thus ‘spiritual’ phenomena is often referring not to something going on in our own heads, but actual contact with an unseen but very real world. It’s perhaps important to know that other spiritual phenomena exist (in the same way that the first principle of the Gospel is not faith, but faith in the Lord Jesus Christ), but the ‘spiritual’ interaction that the scriptures (and presumably us) refer to most and which is certainly the most desirable is interaction with Divine power and knowledge, principally by the means of the Holy Spirit. When Moroni gives his promise as to how we can know the truth of the Book of Mormon and all things, it is because he is promising that God will reveal it to us by means of an actual entity, the Holy Ghost (Moroni 10:4-5). This is what Alma is referring to when he states that he knows not of himself, “not of the temporal, but of the spiritual, not of the carnal mind, but of God” (Alma 36:4), for he had contact with Angels and had eternal truths “made known unto me by the Holy Spirit of God” (Alma 5:46). Being strong in the spirit refers not to any innate state, but rather the communication of real power and knowledge from a Divine being:
And the priests were not to depend upon the people for their support; but for their labor they were to receive the grace of God, that they might wax strong in the Spirit, having the knowledge of God, that they might teach with power and authority from God.
Ammon said unto him: I am a man; and man in the beginning was created after the image of God, and I am called by his Holy Spirit to teach these things unto this people, that they may be brought to a knowledge of that which is just and true;
And a portion of that Spirit dwelleth in me, which giveth me knowledge, and also power according to my faith and desires which are in God.
Thus when we talk of having ‘spiritual experiences’ or being ‘fed spiritually’, we are not talking about something that is solely an internal process. Rather what we are seeking is actual communication and contact with an external source: God through the Holy Ghost. When we talk of being “spiritually begotten”, we’re not talking about some change or resolve we’ve managed to do all by ourselves, but that “the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent” has intervened and “wrought a might change in us” (Mosiah 5:2,7). When we speak of being ‘strong spiritually’, or building our own personal ‘spirituality’, we are not talking of just some innate characteristics, but being in close communion with an external source of power and righteousness, even the omnipotent and omniscient creator of Heaven and Earth.
‘Spiritual’ is not an euphemism. We are not more ‘spiritual’ because we feel our feelings are more elevated, or because we feel more ethical, or our emotions feel calm. It is not something we can produce from within the confines of our own psyche. It is not something we can generate with our intellect or with a particular mental paradigm, but only as we are brought into contact with a real and external spiritual force. If we speak of being able to ‘grow spiritually’ but do not mean real spiritual matters, we are talking of something of our own imagination. If we read the scriptural accounts of revelation and miracles metaphorically, we have robbed them of their paradigmatic power that we too can experience the same revelations and miracles. If we talk of ‘growing spiritually’ but deny the existence of actual supernatural miracles (and I have yet to come across any who insist on reading the scriptures metaphorically and symbolically who hold onto the reality of miracles), then our ‘spirituality’ “is vain” (Moroni 7:37), and we are in danger of having “a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof” (2 Timothy 3:5, Joseph Smith-History 1:19, compare 2 Nephi 28:5,26, Jacob 6:8, 3 Nephi 19:6, Mormon 8:28, Moroni 10:7,33), one of the major warnings aimed at our times. This is a loss: what is an imaginary meal compared to a real steak?
I have had the real steak. I’ve been privileged to experience and witness many miraculous and wonderful things, far more than I possibly deserve (and I don’t deserve a lot). And I’m sure I’m not the only one. Spiritual things are objectively real, these unseen realities are real, and this detached and imaginary ‘spirituality’ cannot compare to the actual revelations and miracles of a very real God. And we can’t fabricate spiritual growth in our own minds; rather we are ‘spiritual’ inasmuch as we have faith, humble ourselves and repent, and so open ourselves to the spirit of the Lord. We are ‘fed spiritually’ insofar as we really see real spiritual things, as we experience real miracles, as we hear the Holy Spirit and as we experience actual power from the spirit to do things we could not do by ourselves. And we are spiritually blessed as we receive actual revelations not from our psyche, but from our actual Father in Heaven and God through the means of his Holy Spirit, even about things no man knows.