Nobody really picked up on my brief discussion of Christian and Mormon symbols in yesterday's post, so I'll prod y'all a little with this week's online essay, "Symbolism." There are actually two articles at that link, one an essay by Todd Compton from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism and one an entry from Mormon Doctrine by Bruce R. McConkie.
I'm pleased to find that Compton's treatment of the subject doesn't make me look foolish. He writes that "many Christian symbols are absent from LDS religious practices." And: "More connected to Hebrew traditions than most Christian churches and at the same time eschewing many traditional Christian symbols, LDS symbolism is unique among modern religions." It's always nice when someone who knows what they're talking about agrees with one of my speculative guesses.
In my earlier post, I noted the following as candidates for being LDS symbols: the First Vision, the miraculous translation of the Book of Mormon, the angelic restoration of priesthood authority, Zion, and the sealing power exercised in LDS temples. Compton adds a number of LDS symbols that didn't make my short list: the iron rod; the great and spacious building; the tree; the handcart; the seagull; the beehive. Compton concludes: "Because it has some unique scriptures and theology and because it has both correspondence with, and independence from, its Judeo-Christian roots, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will continue to have its own unique symbolic system."
Typical LDS faith claims, presented as statements, raise the question of truth: statements can be true or false. Symbols can't really be true or false in the same way that statements can. Instead, they take on meaning, and there's nothing to stop different people or different groups of people from ascribing different, even radically different, meanings to a given symbol. A particularly stark example is the cross, which for Romans symbolized execution and the power of the state, but for Christians came to symbolize Christ's death and, by extension, the atonement and even the resurrection. But Mormons have not adopted the cross as a preferred symbol. It's not clear what fills the gap left by the absence of the cross in the set of Mormon symbols: Gethsemane? The Christus statue in the Temple Square Visitors' Center? The First Vision as a revelation of God and His Son?