We understand some things only from within. Subjectively. Indeed, it is within this domain that the scriptures open to us new and more profound realities. Science, history and other objective leaning disciplines aim at revealing the details, facts and laws of universe in which we find ourselves. These have been highly successful elucidating the objective world in which we are embedded and is our best method for establishing correspondence between our understanding and this world. However, there are certain truths that are revealed only in subjectivity. There is the richness of experience, the feel individual existence that simply cannot be captured in science. It is entangled in such depth that the methods of science do not lend themselves to discovering the depth of this experience, nor does it claim to. However, we know that our physicality is tied to the history of the universe. We are part of a long process in which our chemical body has emerged in a long slow physical-historical process, rooted in natural unfoldings.
Through this process, structures have evolved that allow for a sensual connection to the physical world and give place to the necessary structures that allow us to grasp the world. We are physical creatures, that have the ability to reason, see, understand temporal and spatial relationships, and in general interact with a world outside and also with other selves so situated. This occurs in the mind. However, this is not the whole story. We know from other sources—like the scriptures or prophetic oracles—that these spiritual realities exist. But more important, we know from our own experience that these realities exist. We have experienced them in prayer, meditation or in other moments when we connect to these deeper realities.
We do not get these truths by weighing independent evidence, we have not been persuaded by a statistical analysis, nor have we come to these insights only because have been convinced by logical argument. Significant p-values did not offer quantitative support for these realities. No. It is through direct experience.
There are truths in the subjectivity of experience that cannot be captured in any other way.
Many of these experiences that have revealed subjective truths have come to me while using the scriptures. The scriptures have provided a pathway that connects me to the spirit and reveals to my mind experiential truths that have provided much more than additional facts about the world. It has added meaning, depth and richness to my world. What interests me is how completely integrated my spiritual experiences are with the physical aspects of my mind. They are not separate from the normal workings of my brain. My rationality, my senses, my memory are not turned off or suppressed. In fact, my conscious experience is completely integrated with these spiritual experiences. It seems to engage mind, body and spirit. The text of the scriptures pull me into new realities.
I offer these prefatory remarks because I want to talk about literalism. As we continue this year’s study of the Old Testament in Sunday School. I notice many giving into the temptation of literalism. Literalism I think robs the scriptures of their intent. I think it does violence to the depth that the scriptures actually offer. I don’t think the scriptures are there to give us information about the factual nature of the universe or to offer reports of strictly a historical nature. While there are elements of these, to provide some context for the scripture’s emergence into the world, the purpose of the scriptures is to tie and connect us to deeper more important realities. It may be that I have a more mystical bent, but to me I’ve never looked at the scriptures as a history book or a manual of scientific practice. The scriptures connect us to more profound aspects of the universe. They attune us to deeper realities and allow us to experience the influence of the spirit. And open grander more prescient truths about the meaning of existence and our place in it. These truths have little to do with the mechanical workings of the universe—they relate only to the spiritual realities that open to us a relationship with God and his children in ways that run at new levels then those of the surface realities obtained by objective science.
This is why reading the scriptures a scientific text does such violence to their purpose. They are designed to connect us subjectively, consciously and spiritually to richer truths and meaning. To use the scriptures to pull out objective facts about the physical world and its history is to tear them way from what they are there to ground. Literalism is like giving a child a calculus book as a stepping stool to reach a washbasin. In so doing, much is lost that lies with the proper use of the book. Certainly children need footstools, but such use misses the true potential the book has to offer.
Moreover, using the scriptures for this purpose does harm to science because it misrepresents how truths about the world are best discovered and clarified. Elder Oaks says it nicely in an recent address at the Harvard Law School:
We seek after knowledge, but we do so in a special way because we believe there are two dimensions of knowledge, material and spiritual. We seek knowledge in the material dimension by scientific inquiry and in the spiritual dimension by revelation. In the interest of time I will say no more of the material dimension except to affirm the obvious truth that thousands of Latter-day Saints perform brilliantly in the material world without denying—and, indeed, by using—the parallel truths and methods of the spiritual world.*
He is very clear that knowledge of the material world is best discovered by science. Other truths come from revelation. I believe that the scriptures provide one of our most important sources of revelation.
The scriptures are sacred. They allow us to touch the deepest truths available. To use them to read the surface of physical things (for which they are not intended and for which they don’t lend themselves) is a mistake that leads us away from where science is strong and should be used (as Elder Oaks points out) and, worse, wrenches the scriptures away from the beauty and truth they have to offer.
*Fundamental Premises of Our Faith – Talk Given by Elder Dallin H. Oaks at Harvard Law School 26 Feb. 20101