Why Use Religious Symbols in a Modern World?

Mormonism Has Tons of Symbols

It goes without saying that religion is immersed in symbolism. Some Gospel symbols are subtle, some are ham-fisted, but mostly they are numerous.

The first 10 that come to mind::
The Sacrament
Kneeling to pray
Calling one another “sister and brother”
Raising the right hand
Baptism
Anointing with oil
Garments
Church steeples
Saying “amen”
Laying on of Hands

So, there are plenty of symbols used in the gospel, we acknowledge that. Often the necessity of the symbols and their use is seen as silly or unnecessary in the modern world. With advances in science and society aren’t religious symbols a little childish?

Why the Modern World Does not Need Symbols

When you’re driving you don’t use symbols to get from one place to another. Just facts stated in a manner that are clear and unambiguous. For example when you stop at an intersection there is a sign there that says “Wait here until a different message tells you to go”. And then after a minute or so the sign changes to say “Okay, it is now your turn to go.” and you proceed forward.….I have just been informed that the above is not true. Supposedly at intersections there are things called “stop lights” that turn green when it’s time to go and red when it’s time to stop. I don’t know why they would do this, it seems so much better just to have an LED sign giving instructions. But fine, in this other isolated case a symbol is used to convey information in the modern world.

A Scientific Approach

Okay, ah, I’ve got it. Hard science. There is no ambiguity as to what the human circulatory system looks like.

Inside our bodies There are a great many labeled text boxes and they have blue stuff flowing in and red stuff flowing out.

Finally a clear cut example of a representation of reality that takes no short-cuts but shows the world as it truly is. Let me see if I can find a photograph of a right ventricle, I’ll just google really quick….Okay, don’t do that, our bodies are not filled with text boxes. I repeat, our bodies are not filled with text boxes!

I have to admit: I am having trouble finding an example of any type of information that is not presented through symbolism. Maybe the closest thing I can find are legal documents. But even then the medium of communication is written language which is just ink or pixels arranged in a way that our brain can interpret to have a meaning and the concepts being received may not be exactly what the writer intended.

Can Communication Exist without Symbols?

That begs an interesting question. Can anything be conveyed without symbolism? That is not rhetoric, I truly don’t know.

Let’s say that there was a language or a medium that was so unambiguous that concepts could be conveyed or displayed with no loss in fidelity. Still, this medium would be interpreted through our senses which ultimately are a series of sensors that transform input into electrical impulses that are sent to our brain where our brain makes a symbolic representation of what they mean.

One may be tempted to interpret this as meaning that I don’t trust science or stop lights. The opposite is true. I believe that our brains are much better equipped to understand symbols than they are to crunch numbers and for that reason symbolism is such a powerful teaching tool in science. We couldn’t ever get a grasp on science, society, and the world in general without the useful symbols around us.

Why Might God use Symbols?

But back to the Gospel. If religion has truth to convey, why do so through symbols? Well hopefully as has been illustrated above, learning, understanding, and instruction all come through symbols in all disciplines. It is completely unavoidable.

Moreover, beyond being unavoidable, I believe that God knows there is power in symbolism. God knows how we learn and what will have the greatest influence on our minds. He knows that most of us don’t read the full text of General Conference.  But, He does know that we will, at least, do our best to kneel with our families and pray, a symbol of togetherness and humility towards God. He knows that we don’t repent of every sin we commit, but that we will, at least, take the sacrament in a symbolic show of ongoing commitment to Christ and necessity for His atonement.

The value of those symbols and the teachings behind them will always be up for more nuanced debate. But the use of symbols in religion is natural, unavoidable, and one way that God knows he can reach us.

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