Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Language of Symbolism Continued

Continued from: The Language of Symbolism

Another misconception about symbolism that I commonly see goes something like: “Your religion / churches / buildings / temples use symbols that were also used by pagans, so you are worshiping the devil.” I have already pointed out the most significant problem with this logic, namely that symbols have no inherent meaning outside their power to communicate ideas. As such, a symbol only means what the hearer thinks it means, and so, if its user doesn’t think it represents a Pagan idea, then for that user, it doesn’t. However, there is another important issue at work here, and that is that it is apparently standard operating procedure for God to use the images of the culture around His covenant people in order to teach them His eternal truths. One way to express this idea would be to say that God speaks to us “according to our own language and understanding” (see 2 Ne. 31:3; D&C 1:24).

Let me give several illustrative examples. When the Israelites came out of Egypt, God commanded Moses to construct an "ark." The Ark of the Covenant was basically a portable representation of the throne of God carried by the priests on poles (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Israelite "Ark of the Covenant"
The Egyptians of the time built very similar "portable shrines" and placed them in the holy of holies of their temples. These Egyptian shrines were carried on poles by priests like the ark; they were covered by cloths when carried, like the ark; and like the ark, they had a representation of the God's throne. Unlike the Israelite version, the Egyptian arks actually contained a statue of the deity (see Figure 2). The Egyptian versions were fashioned like boats, because the Egyptians believed that the sky was blue because it was made out of water. The idea was to represent the concept that the throne of the deity moves through the heavens, and that their god was a king of the heavens.
Figure 2: Egytpian parallels to the Ark of the Covenant

Both the similarities and the differences are important for understanding the symbols of the Ark of the Covenant. Since symbolism is a language, the right approach is to ask, "what would the Israelites, who just came out from Egypt understand by the symbolism of the Ark." Clearly, they would have recognized it as a portalbe throne for a king similar to those used in Egypt and Mesopotamia:
Figure 3: A Kings throne guarded by Cherubim from Messopotamia
Further, the Israelites would have understood the idea that God is a heavenly king. Since the throne was the seat of judgement for earthly kings, they would have understood the ark as a representation of the place of God's merciful judgment, and so it was called the "mercy seat."

There are many more instances where God used Pagan symbolism to teach His eternal truths to the Israelites. For example, the Temple of Solomon looks like many of the Pagan temples that surrounded it.

This drawing of the temple at Tainat could be accidentally confused with Solomon's if you don't look closely.

And there are many other examples, for example, this Pagan temple from Arabia:
And this one from Syria, which is perhaps the closest Solomonic Parallel [1]:

This "similarity" was not restricted to the architecture of the Israelite temples, but extended to their rituals as well. The Day of Atonement ritual has many similarities to Babylonian year rituals, complete with the goat killed and cast out (although the Babylonians only used a single goat, which they both killed and cast out) [2].

So what are we to make of these similarities? If we were to take the approach taken by many critics of LDS temples, we would have to conclude that the Israelites were worshiping the devil. Clearly they are using pagan imagery, even "occult" imagery in their worship of God!

However, there could be many other explanations for the similarities between pagan traditions and the Israelite temples. A more balanced approach might see fragments of truth left over in the Pagan practices and worship, or one might see Satan imitating truth in the pagan traditions, or one might see God teaching the Israelites eternal truths using the symbolic language that they understood given their cultural contact with the pagans around them.

Symbolism is a language. As such, the definitions of its "words" depend on how the people being spoken too would view the image or symbol. The Israelites contact with the pagans which surrounded them would have given the symbolic "words" meaning, but the message, the way those words were combined to teach eternal truths was still inspired despite the pagan (and even "occult" whatever that might mean) nature of some of the individual elements.

Clearly the same sort of balanced approach should be applied when analyzing similarities between LDS temples and the religious and symbolic systems that surrounded Joseph Smith when the Endowment was revealed to him, or which surrounded Brigham Young when the design for the Salt Lake Temple was revealed to him.


[1] "The New 'Ain Dara Temple: Closest Solomonic Parallel," by John Monson, in Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 26, No. 3 [May/June 2000]. The article says that the 'Ain Dara temple "has far more in common with the Jerusalem Temple described in the Book of Kings than any other known building" (p. 20). Its archaeology dates it to the period just preceding (Phase 1) Solomon's Temple, contemporary with Solomon's Temple (Phase 2) and just after (Phase 3). It is far better preserved than Tainat, and "is the most significant parallel to Solomon's Temple ever discovered (p. 22).
[2] James L. Carroll "An Expanded View of the Israelite Scapegoat" in Temples and Ritual in Antiquity, presented by the BYU Religious Studies Center and SANE's Studia Antiqua, 2008.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Language of Symbolsm

I am always amused when people take the position: "you are actually worshipping the Devil, you don't know it, but you are doing it on accident, if you only knew what your own symbols meant, then you would understand that you are worshipping the Devil. I know YOU don't think that the symbols are about the Devil, but they are, and by using them you are actually accidentally worshipping the Devil." For one example of this ridiculous approach applied to the Mormons see:
The same page takes a similar approach with a lot of images/symbols for the monuments of many groups. Mormons typically respond to this sort of garbabe by pointing out instances where symbols like the pentagram have anciently been used to represent good things, not to represent evil, and that its modern use as a symbol of evil is relatively new (see here and here). For example the following is a great example of the pentagram (even with the point downward) used as a symbol of Christ. It is an icon of the transfiguration by Andrei Rublev in 1405, and now located in the Moscow Annunciation Cathedral (in Moscow Kremlin):
However, such evidence makes no difference to people who see the Devil everywhere, because they just see any early Christian use of the pentagram as due to those early Christians having been deceived (much in the same way that they see Mormons as having been deceived). Thus any early Christians who might have used the pentagram were worshipping the Devil too. Thus Mormons and their critics tend to talk past each other on this issue.

The problem is that people don't understand that symbolism is a language, and the real question should not be "what does a symbol mean" but should be, "what does a symbol mean to those who used it when they used it." For example, a black cat symbolized witchcraft if you happen to have lived in Salem Mass..., on the other hand, if you lived in ancient Egypt, the black cat symbolized divinity.... This sort of confusion happens because symbolism is a language, with different vocabularies and different interpretations for different people at different times. You wouldn't expect all words to have the same meaning in Spanish that they do in English, so why should they in symbolism? So to accuse an English speaker of worshipping the Devil because of a confusion between the meaning of a word between English and Spanish would be silly. But when you begin to believe that Satan is behind it all, and that it is all some big conspiracy, then you believe that black cats mean witchcraft in Ancient Egypt too, and the Egyptians who saw black cats as symbols of divinity were just worshipping the devil, and didn't know it. After all, such people often think that all Pagans were worshipping the Devil (even when they didn't believe in him), so why not the Egyptians?

But my understanding (and C.S.Lewis's understanding too) is that you can't worship the Devil on accident. Any good intentioned worship of the Devil IS worship of Christ, and any bad intentioned worship of Christ IS worship of the Devil (see CS Lewis' conclusion to the Narnia series, "The Last Battle" for his take on this idea). On this point I must agree with Lewis. Thus, Mormons are only worshipping the Devil with their pentagrams IF that is what THEY think the pentagram means... because they can't be "accidentally" worshipping the devil, it doesn't work that way. All that is good comes from Christ, and all that is evil comes from the Devil (see Moroni 7:5-19).


1. symbolism is flexible,

2. symbolism's meaning is only defined in the context of what someone, sometime thought it meant,


3. worship of God or the Devil must be intentional, some hidden meaning behind symbols can't cause you to somehow accidentally worship the Devil.

To be continued.....