The “Literal vs. Symbolic Mormon Testimony” Project

John Dehlin Mormon Stories

I’ve been thinking a ton lately about literal vs. symbolic Mormon testimonies. I felt strongly that I should create a table which differentiates how I’m feeling today, from what I was taught growing up. I intend this to be an ongoing project…where the comments made below this post get fed back into the post itself. I would love your feedback on many fronts. Specifically, please let me know what I’ve missed, and which of the items in the “symbolic” column you deem as “unacceptable” within the framework of faithful (temple recommend worthy) Mormonism. If you’d like me to reword any of the boxes, please feel free to amend.

Testimony Component Literal Interpretation Symbolic Interpretation Athiest/Agnostic Interpretation
God God as a literal, anthropomorphic, resurrected man. 10 fingers. 10 toes. Former man. White hair. Beard. An organizing force within the universe. The creative power from which all living things flow. That power which seems to provide order, and meaning, and "coincidence" or "providence" to my life. May be anthropomorphic, but not important.  
Jesus as son of God Literal son of God, created via God having intercourse with Mary. Good, wise man who was probably historical. Was a child of God as we all are.  
Jesus as savior Suffered for every sin, illness, and emotional pain for everyone who has ever lived on the face of the earth–and not just on this earth, but on other worlds as well. Taught principles of happiness. "Saved" people from sin (bad decisions) if they choose to follow his teachings.  
Jesus as resurrected being, and afterlife Jesus died, resurrected after 3 days, and all of us will be resurrected again, and live forever with exalted bodies There may or may not be an afterlife, but if we live righteously, our legacies and impact will persist with "eternal" implications through future generations of humanity.  
Holy Ghost Holy Ghost is a literal, distinct person and personality. The Holy Ghost literally/physically jumps around from person to person around the world to inspire and direct decisions. Man has an inner instinct or intuition, along with a brain that provides insight into right and wrong. The degree that we are in touch with these influences, and make decisions in accordance with them, the happier we are.  
Joseph Smith as Prophet Literally saw God and Jesus with his own physical eyes. Received direct, explicit revelation and communication from/with God. Felt the inspiration of God/the divine throughout his life (as defined above). Taught truths that previously weren’t prominent. Made some predictions that came true (others didn’t). Got it right a lot, and sometimes got it really wrong (i.e. made some big mistakes). Strong net-positive contribution to humanity.  
LDS Church is "true" The COJCOLDS is God’s one true restored church on the face of the earth. All other churches are corrupt and abominations unto God. No other ordinances of any other churches (including baptisms) are valid to God. Everyone who has ever lived, or will live, will need to become "Mormon" at some point–either now, or in the afterlife. The LDS Church is inspired of God, and a valid (and maybe even preferable for many) path towards goodness and even Godliness–but there are "many paths up Mt. Fuji". The restoration was good, to the extent that it moved us closer to righteousness as a people, and in the world.  
Baptism The ritual of a physical Mormon-approved baptism is a literal requirement for "salvation". Without it, no one will enter "heaven". Baptism is a symbolic ritual which is very helpful in helping one focus on  
Priesthood Priesthood is God’s power on earth, and only ordained LDS males have it. Priesthood power moves mountains, raises the dead, heals disease, entitles one to extra inspiration, etc. Priesthood is God’s power throughout earth, and people with faith can access it. This includes members of the LDS church (ordained or not), and everyone else on the planet.  
Book of Mormon Literal translation from reformed Egyptian to English, character for character. Historical book (Nephi, Alma, Mormon really existed). Native Americans are descendants of Lamanites. Book of Mormon is likely not historical. Not a translation. Instead, it is more of an inspired work from Joseph Smith–primarily as a vehicle for the teachings of Christ.  
Book of Abraham See above See above  
Prophets Prophets literally speak with God–probably with their own, audible voice. God gives them clear, specific direction to lead the church. Prophets receive inspiration much like any of us do. They combine their intellect, with their experience, and with their instinct–and run the church as best as they can. Sometimes they hit home runs. Sometimes they strike out. More often than not they point us in the right direction, and improve upon past generations.  
Garments Garments are not only a spiritual protection, they are a physical protection too. If you fall in a vat of steel, get shot w/ a gun, or stabbed with a knife (stories I heard growing up), they have the power to protect you. Garments, by the mere facts that you wear them 24 hours a day and they have symbols on them, help remind you of the covenants you made in the temple, thus protecting you from bad decisions.