Leonard J. Arrington on the Metaphorical

In Stephen C. Taysom’s Sunstone article (Jun 2011) titled “Approaching the First Vision Saga,” discusses the role of the metaphorical in religion, and in Mormonism in particular:

. . . (Leonard J. Arrington) writes that he “was never preoccupied with the question of the historicity of the First Vision–though the evidence is overwelming that it did occur. . . .  I am prepared to accept [it] as historical or metaphorical, as symbolical or as precisely what happened.  That [it conveys] religious truth is the essential issue, and of this I have never had a doubt.”

Arrington’s statement is representative of a subset of Mormons who value the First Vision stories primarily for their mythical components–for the moral meaning and ideology encoded within the narratives.  For people in this category, the existence of different accounts of the vision is unimportant and perhaps completely irrelevant. . . .

The mythical view differs substantially form the postivist critique of the First Vision . . . in that it does not grant the last word to scientific rationality.  It protects mythological truth claims rendering them un-falsifiable.  Hence, though Arrington mentions “overhelming rational evidence for the First Vision, he immediately suggest that such evidence is irrelevant.  Utah State University professor of philosophy Richard Sherlock similarly suggests that those engaging in positivistic apologetics should ask themselves, “Is there any conceivable fact or set of facts that might be discovered about Joseph Smith that would cause one to lose faith in the church?  If the answer to that question is yes, then I submit you have placed your faith in hock to the historian, that you are willing to believe the church is true to the extent that you have not found any human evidence to contradict it.” 

The problem with Sherlock’s statement is that when we expand our investigation of Joseph Smith and Mormonism past the First Vision we are not only talking about historians, we are also talking about geneticists, archeologists, paleontologists, anthropologists, sociologists, etc.  At what point do we say there has to be some verifiable truth?  Everything can’t be metaphorical, or can it?

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2 Responses to Leonard J. Arrington on the Metaphorical

  1. Carl Youngblood says:

    Good points Roger. My comment is not meant to answer your question head-on, but I think that Paul Tillich’s concept of the broken myth might be helpful here. There is a great lecture by theologian Richard Holloway that discusses Tillich’s concepts of religious mythology. Unfortunately the site it was hosted on just went down, but you can still read it in the wayback machine:

    http://web.archive.org/web/20080512000406/http://homepages.which.net/~radical.faith/holloway/myths%201a.htm

    Be sure and click the arrow pointing to the right at the bottom of the article to reach the concluding page. That is where most of the money quotes are.

  2. Carl Youngblood says:

    I would add that cultural narratives are the province of anthropologists, and that area of research might yield rich insights into the ongoing value of mythology. So I’m not so sure that all the scholarly fields you listed here would be against Sherlock’s claims.

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