The Struggles of Approaching Symbolic Learning

Dec 3, 2013
8 min read


I’d like to give an internet high-five to the Church for this great page they put up for the youth called “Symbolism and Temple Preparation“.

We do a great job of teaching “that the teaching in the temples is done in symbolic fashion” (Boyd K. Packer), but I think we do a sub-par job of teaching how to learn from teaching that is done in a symbolic fashion.

Consider President David O. McKay’s words about his first temple experience:

“Do you remember when you first went through the House of the Lord? I do. And I went out disappointed. Just a young man, out of college, anticipating great things when I went to the Temple. I was disappointed and grieved, and I have met hundreds of young men and young women since who had that experience. I have now found out why. There are two things in every Temple: mechanics, to set forth certain ideals, and symbolism, what those mechanics symbolize. I saw only the mechanics when I first went through the Temple. I did not see the spiritual. I did not see the symbolism of spirituality… I was blind to the great lesson of purity behind the mechanics. I did not hear the message of the of the Lord…. How many of us young men saw that? We thought we were big enough and with intelligence sufficient to criticize the mechanics of it and we were blind to the symbolism, the message of the spirit. And then that great ordinance, the endowment. The whole thing is simple in the mechanical part of it, but sublime and eternal in its significance.” (From Gregory Prince and Wm. Robert Wright. David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2005): 277)

So why, after a century and a half, are we not better at preparing people for these ordinances? Is there a deficit in our teaching or is this almost ‘sink or swim’ type challenge the way it is intended to be? I have seen the difference between well-prepared and ill-prepared individuals and the difference is night and day. Since it is possible to be well-prepared to receive the temple ordinances and symbolic teaching, how can we do a better job?

Temple preparation is a subject very dear to my heart. My own experience parallels President McKay’s and as I have come to understand the temple experience, my desire is to help others.

First, let’s identify the problem

As was discovered by President McKay, the first step is to learn to see things differently. President McKay noted that he was blind to the meaning behind the mechanics and I believe that David Littlefield, in his book Mormon Mysticism, explains why:

The average modern Mormon, like most men, Is a product of his environment and the determination, and abilities of his soul. The modern day American Mormon exists, or has come to be what he is depending upon how he responds to the physical, intellectual, emotional, cultural, societal, economic, family, church, and the spiritual influences he is presented with. […]

Americans think in a mostly one dimensional, logical, and linear way.  We don’t process hieroglyphics well.

We do process algebra well because we can move through a problem in a logical way.  We have verities, or things that don’t change. We can hang our hat on them. Then we have variables. They change, but the change is a calculation of hard facts.

Those new to the gospel can choke on the smallest of parables. […]

The insincere wish to consume gospel principles upon their lust. They demand immediate, and precise answers that require no thought or meditation. They are impatient and demanding, constantly attempting to bend eternity to their narrow views. The sincere seeker of eternal truth accepts all the truth that Eternity is willing to give at this moment, and prepares himself for further insight. Seeking to expand his spirit, free his mind, and conform his spirit to God. […]

We need to understand symbols, types, arch types, metaphors, motifs, and specifics.

Freeing our minds from the traditions of our fathers is critical. As true Latter-day Saints we are not required to believe anything that is not true. We must learn not to defend our small image or explanation of things against the volumes of truth that are trying to pour themselves into us.  We understand things through filters of prejudice and pride. To the degree that we are able to set aside our pride, and see through our prejudices, we are able to receive truth. [source]

I believe that David has nailed the reason that many struggle with symbolism, temple worship and scripture study in general.

It’s hard to not project our own cultural idiosyncrasies, paradigms, and prejudices on to the ancient writers of scripture. To make matters more difficult, we’re not even reading their words in their language. Worse still, the King James Bible is an archaic and difficult to understand version of English that proves challenging for modern readers. Joseph Smith once expressed this same frustration:

“Oh Lord God deliver us in thy due time from the little narrow prison almost as it were [total] darkness of paper pen and ink and a crooked broken scattered and imperfect language.” JS, Kirtland, OH, to William W. Phelps, [Independence, MO], 27 Nov. 1832, in JS Letterbook 1, p. 4.

I’m as American as they come. I lived practically my whole life in the state of Texas before leaving on a mission to Idaho. I’ve never had any special training in religious studies and am not very well travelled. As for a formal education I am a high school graduate and possess an associate’s degree in business.

But if I can understand how to learn from symbolic teaching, then I am absolutely convinced that anyone can. I found what I found because I thirsted for it and did a ton of reading, pondering, praying, meditating, thinking, searching, asking, knocking and quietly listening. To be honest, I’m almost positive I did it the long way so perhaps you’ll have better success! I’m only trying to point out some issues hoping that seeing them will assist others in finding their own solutions.

How do we teach it?

So how do we teach people how to learn from teaching that is done in a symbolic fashion, especially the unique immersive nature of the temple experience?

To be honest I don’t have all the answers, I just feel that the job we do in preparing people is inadequate. I’ve thought about this for years and while I have some ideas, I don’t have anything that is completely fleshed out.

I think that the page put out by the Church was a good start.

I produced a primer for people preparing to enter the temple called Through the Veil which attempts to portray the temple experience from scripture only.

I also produced a video presentation available on YouTube called Reading Temples which attempts to convey an approach to understanding symbolism.

A friend and fellow blogger Tevya Washburn wrote a book for his little brother who was preparing to enter the temple called, Dear, Jeff and it’s actually pretty fantastic. To be honest, I’d love to see something like this made available to all the youth when they turn 12.

I started teaching my children about symbolism a few years ago beginning when my oldest daughter was around 5 or so. Those teachings evolved into some symbol flash cards I made and then the site

It’s one thing to teach about what symbols mean, because that can be tricky. You don’t want to force your own understanding upon another person, although, there are potential meanings that are used consistently enough to where you can have confidence in those meanings.

The numerical properties of shapes and symbols come from the underlying numbers used to construct them. Understanding the math behind the shape and number is a very safe route to go as well. For that, I couldn’t recommend A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe higher for every Latter-day Saint.

Looking to Nephi

It’s also critical to remember that as much as we study the meaning behind symbols and the approach to learning from this kind of teaching that the Spirit is the ultimate teacher. Perhaps all we need to do is recount Nephi’s experience with his father.

His father had a deeply symbolic dream which he described to his family, but he didn’t tell them anything about what the dream meant. It is quite possible that Lehi himself wasn’t entirely sure about what it meant. He seemed to be focused so much on the fact that the tree brought joy and that his sons Laman and Lemuel were not joining the family that he wasn’t interested in what it all meant.

Nephi, on the other hand, was different. He wrestled with this vision of his father and an intense desire on his part turned him to the Lord. He was then carried away in a vision and shown the tree. The Spirit questioned him by asking “What desirest thou?” (1 Nephi 11:10) and Nephi responded, “To know the interpretation thereof—” (1 Nephi 11:11)

See, the Spirit provides interpretation. Nephi is the example to study deeply and follow and not Laman and Lemuel who remained ignorant and proclaimed “we cannot understand” (1 Nephi 15:7) and when asked “Have ye inquired of the Lord?” (vs. 8) they responded, “We have not; for the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us.” (vs. 9)

May we not sit in ignorance waiting for someone to explain things to us but turn to the Lord as our ultimate source of knowledge; Joseph Smith once said:

“The best way to obtain truth and wisdom is not to ask from books, but to go to God in prayer, and obtain divine teaching.” (History of the Church, 4:425)

Nephi was merciful to he brothers and took time to explain the meaning of things, which I think is appropriate to help move people along, but we must come to have that relationship with God for ourselves.

What do you think?

  • What were some big turning points in helping you understand the temple experience?
  • Do you know of any other good examples from the scriptures that can help us know how to understand symbolic learning better?
  • What resources have helped you or others become better acquainted with symbolic learning?

1 Comment

  1. Richard J. Nobbe III

    I know this may sound cliche, but It just occurred to me today that if, perhaps, some are struggling with gospel symbolism, one of the greatest ways to increase in learning is by becoming more familiar with the Savior Himself. I would argue that no other figure, doctrine, principle, or action is symbolized more often and with a greater variety than the Savior. No person is referred to by more names in any book of scripture. And virtually every other gospel principle, teaching, parable, allegory or metaphor points to or directly references the Savior.

    Just look at the 1st Chapter of the Gospel according to St. John. Just by skimming over the text, I found the following words, titles, and metaphors describing a different attribute of the Savior:

    The Word
    Beginning and the End
    The Creation
    “Name” on which to believe
    Made flesh
    Only Begotten of the Father
    The Lamb
    Son of God
    King of Israel
    Son of man

    Of course there are hundreds of examples throughout the scriptures. I’m sure you could look at the 1st Chapter of John and find additional references. I know, for instance, that there are over 100 “Titles” for Jesus Christ in the Book of Mormon alone. As we come to know the Savior, we come to know more and more about His attributes, His divine mission, His patterns, His teachings, His doings – His Gospel. And as we become better acquainted with the Savior, we will become better acquainted with the names and symbols that describe Him. We will also become more fully aware that all gospel symbols point towards Him and His atoning sacrifice.

    Knowing this might help someone out there who is struggling to understand even the very basics of gospel symbolism. To such a person I would say, “Take Faith! You know more than you think you do! The Lord is willing to help you in all things.”

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